Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 16: The legacies of 1917 and 1919

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 16: The legacies of 1917 and 1919


Balkan nationalism and Balkan politics were neither created nor defined by World War I. As argued previously in Lectures 13 and 14, the events of 1914-1918 expressed a continuation of trends, some of long standing, others as recent as the Balkan Wars. Nevertheless, the war and the postwar settlements had enormous impact for the Balkan peoples.

In social and economic terms, wartime losses and the radical redrawing of national borders at the end of the war created dislocations that remain troublesome even today after generations of adjustment. In political terms, the Balkan Wars and World War I also completed the process that replaced the old multi-national, dynastic empires with smaller states. Greek, Serb, Romanian or Bulgarian leaders could no longer follow simple national policies based on territorial expansion at the expense of the Ottomans or Habsburgs.

Combined with the stunning cost of the war, this new political landscape made the region ripe for new views of national life and new solutions to lingering problems. Into this fertile situation came two new ideas.  

The first was Soviet Communism. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 replaced Eastern Europe’s most reactionary regime with a new radical state. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s interpretation of Marx and Communism addressed the area’s most pressing social, economic and political problems from novel perspectives.

The second concept was national self-determination, as articulated and championed by President Woodrow Wilson when the United States entered World War I. Wilson’s reinterpretation of nationalism had a special appeal, coming as it did when old Ottoman and Habsburg foes no longer defined longterm political strategies.

In the nineteenth century, the Great Powers consistently regarded the young Balkan states, with their commitment to nationalism and change, with suspicious conservatism. Lenin and Wilson, on the other hand, could accept revolutionary nationalist ideology because they spoke as world leaders whose own countries had been defined by revolutionary change. Both men also accepted the importance of popular political expression even if they held markedly different views about what constituted “democratic” forces.

Lenin’s ideas

For several reasons, it makes sense to deal with Lenin first. Russia was a belligerent before the United States. Lenin’s pronouncements were influential before Wilson’s, mostly affecting events during the war. Wilson’s greatest influence came during the drafting of the peace treaties.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 were the most important achievements of Europe’s long-suffering revolutionary socialist movement. First, the March revolution brought down the last of Europe’s absolutist regimes and replaced it with a parliamentary system. In November (October by the unreformed Russian calendar), the Bolshevik revolution put St. Petersburg and the Russian heartland into the hands of radical socialists. The radical Bolshevik wing of Russia’s Social Democratic Party applied new theories to the Russian state. Instead of fearing “the people,” the Bolsheviks invoked them as the source of valid political power so that national populations, not kings and aristocrats, would make decisions (albeit through the Party). The assumptions behind such a position contradicted everything expressed by an event like the 1878 Congress of Berlin, for example, with its high-handed treatment of local wishes and needs.

If Bolshevism meant an attack on traditional elites, it also meant a critique of nationalism as the traditional leading political philosophy invoked for attacking those elites. While “the people” were not to be subject to kings or capitalists, neither was nationalism to be the first principle of politics. Instead, class differences were paramount. The working class (through the supreme power of revolutionary socialist parties), not ethnic nationalist revolutionaries, laid claim to political power on behalf of the population at large.

This concept had profound implications for Balkan affairs because it both embraced and side-stepped the tradition of nationalist revolution. Communism could support the expulsion of foreign rulers like the Ottomans and Habsburgs. It could also propose an end to inter-ethnic quarrels like the one in Macedonia, because under Communism, ethnic rivalries were irrelevant to the pursuit of class objectives and a better life for people of all nationalities.

Lenin’s ideas gained appeal from his charisma and because they followed paths already established by socialists and other thinkers (Wilson was encountering similar ideas in his own development). Lenin’s call for an end to secret treaties and high-handed diplomacy owed much to the British Union of Democratic Control. This joint committee of anti-war Liberals and Labour Party supporters called for a “New Diplomacy” as early as November 1914. Their ideas included consent of the governed before any territory was transferred from one state to another, an end to secret agreements concluded without the approval of parliaments, an international mutual security system to replace the old “balance of power” system, and post-war disarmament as a way to prevent future wars. Socialists pursued ideas like self-determination and the need for a “league of nations” well before Lenin or Wilson made them better known.

Lenin’s interpretation of a “new diplomacy” was widely publicized in 1917 when Bolsheviks and the Petrograd Soviet competed with Kerensky’s Provisional Government for support in Russia. Lenin proposed to publish and disavow the secret tsarist treaties with their territorial claims, called for an armistice, and proposed “the liberation of all colonies, … dependent, oppressed and non-sovereign peoples.” This forced the Kerensky cabinet to declare its own support of “self-determination of peoples” and a peace settlement without territorial claims. The Petrograd Soviet appealed to socialists in the Allied nations to demand peace platforms “without annexations or indemnities, on the basis of self-determination of peoples” and called on German socialists to sabotage the German war effort.

When the Bolsheviks ousted Kerensky in November 1917, one of their first acts was a Peace Decree repeating these formulas: an immediate armistice and peace talks, ratification of any peace terms by national assemblies, annulment of secret treaties and self-determination “even to the point of separating and forming independent states.”

The Peace Decree had two audiences. The first was war-weary Russia. The Soviets promptly began peace talks (something the Provisional Government had never done), signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and ended the war on the Eastern Front. The second audience was international. Trotsky addressed formal notes based on the Peace Decree to all the belligerent states, and backed these up by publishing all of Russia’s secret treaties. The se Soviet actions were an embarassment for the Allied powers.

At the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk the Soviets repeated their peace platform: no annexation, plebiscites to determine whether dependent minorities wanted independence, no war indemnities, no coercive blockades. These ideas were important as abstractions, but could not be enforced as pragmatic policies. In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918, the victorious Germans took the opposite tack on every point. Russian territory was annexed, there were no plebiscites, and Russia was forced to contribute goods to the German war effort. Nevertheless, these Soviet declarations helped prepare a favorable climate for Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about ending the war and creating a stable peace.

Wilson’s ideas

Wilson was no socialist but he was a progressive. He differed from figures like Theodore Roosevelt and other advocates of the “Old ” Diplomacy, imperialism and the use of force in the national self-interest. In his 1916 re-election campaign, Wilson talked about a role for America as a mediator in Europe, and about basic principles for peace. His so-called “creed” included the right of “every people … to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live,” territorial integrity for both large and small states, and a “universal association of nations” to deter aggression.

Because they hoped to bring the United States into the war, the Allies paid attention to Wilson’s ideas. At an Allied conference of January 1917, the British made the Entente Powers restate their war aims in terms corresponding to Wilson’s creed. Plans for annexation became calls for the liberation of oppressed minorities, including the French in German-ruled Alsace-Lorraine and the Poles, Italians, Czechoslovaks, South Slavs and Romanians under Habsburg rule. The post-conference communique was silent about plans to divide up German colonies, the Turkish heartland and the Arab world.

Such a restatement appears cosmetic but had serious consequences.  For the first time, the Allies formally agreed to independence demands by Czech leaders. That step, in turn, implied the destruction of Austria-Hungary and with it the liberation of Italian, South Slav and Romanian minorities, reducing a post-war Dual Monarchy to the German-speaking part of Austria and the central parts of Hungary. Thus even vague calls for national self-determination made the future map of the Balkans dependent on the outcome of the war. If the Central Powers won, Austria-Hungary would survive and grow at the expense of Serbia and Romania. If the Allies won, the Dual Monarchy would be replaced by small national states. Wilson could speak all he wished about “Peace without Victory,” as he did in his state of the union address in January 1917, but in fact his ideas were already shaping a potential redistribution of Balkan territories in which there were clear winners and losers.

When the United Stated declared war on Germany in April 1917, Wilson targetted the militaristic German government but absolved the German people of responsibility, calling for joint peace efforts and the liberation of all nations from tyrants. The United States did not declare war on Austria-Hungary or Bulgaria. However, Wilson’s talk of liberation and national self-determination once again had Balkan and East European implications that went far beyond his ambiguous rhetoric. Peace on Wilson’s terms was inconsistent with the preservation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

If Wilson himself apparently was blind to the implications of his statements, the U. S. State Department was not. An internal memorandum of June 1917 supports an independent Poland, an independent Serbo-Croatian state and an independent Czech state in Bohemia. It was nearly a year before Wilson came to these conclusions, but those around him were already seeing the future.

So were Europeans. When Nikola Pasic appealed to the State Department in September 1917 for an independent Yugoslavia, he specifically cited Wilson’s views on self-determination. The Romanian government made a similar pitch in August, worried because Wilson had never mentioned the Romanian irredenta in Tranyslvania in any of his addresses. In fact, Wilson and the State Department knew little about Transylvania: one visit by the Romanians was followed by hasty American efforts to find some facts.

By the end of 1917, Wilson no longer distinguished between Prussian militarists and the actual united forces of the Central Powers as the enemy. In December 1917 Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Austria-Hungary. His intentions remained ambiguous: there was still no declaration of war against Bulgaria or Turkey. Wilson also explicitly stated that he had no wish to interfere in Austro-Hungarian internal affairs. In other words, he cautioned against revolutions inside the Monarchy, despite his own talk of national self-determination.

The Fourteen Points

Wilson also responded to the Soviet Peace Decree and similar Russian proclamations. Wilson wanted to offer a competing moral program to justify his actions and those of the Allies, and to rally the people of Europe behind the Allied cause. The result was the Fourteen Points speech of January 1918. The speech mixes high principles for the reform of international relations, with practical suggestions for territorial changes that Wilson believed necessary for a stable, fair peace. The high principles influenced future diplomatic practice. The practical suggestions suffered from Wilson’s usual ambiguity, inconsistency and ignorance about Eastern Europe.

Wilson’s prescription for international relations replaced the Old Diplomacy with “open covenants … openly arrived at,” freedom of the seas, fair trade, disarmament measures, and a League of Nations to guarantee the peace. He also called for certain territorial arrangements in regions outside the Balkans: Belgium, Poland, Alsace-Lorraine and colonial claims.

The inconsistencies in dealing with Balkan measures concern us here, and can be found in four of the Fourteen Points.

Point IX called for changes in Italy’s borders “along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” Wilson failed to say whether this meant only Italy’s border with German Austria, or also the Dalmatian coast, which was claimed by Serbia too and had no “clearly recognizable” ethnic borders.

Point X called for “the freest opportunity of autonomous development” for the peoples of Austria-Hungary. But the same point called for Austria-Hungary to retain its “place among the nations.” Wilson failed to say how he hoped to fulfill the first part of the point without giving up on the second.

Point XI called for evacuation of conquered Montenegrin, Serbian and Romanian lands and a future in which Balkan relations were ordered “along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality.” Such a statement merely opened the door for the repetition of old regional claims before a new international audience.

Finally, Point XII proposed neutralization and internationalization of the Turkish Straits and the “absolutely unmolested opportunity for autonomous development” in all former Ottoman lands. There was no indication how competing development among different autonomous states might be reconciled.

Italy was unhappy with the speech because it undercut Italian territorial claims in Trentino, South Tyrol, Trieste, Fiume and Dalmatia, which were areas of mixed ethnicity. Serbia was also disappointed. Point X contradicted Serbian plans to unite with Croatia and Slovenia. The Serbian government also had strategic and economic claims on the Dalmatian coast, not merely ethnic ones. An appeal by Pasic persuaded the President to reserve judgement on the future of Bosnia, Croatia and the other Habsburg South Slav lands.

Romania gained no reassurance about her claims on Habsburg Transylvania. Hard-pressed and having heard no promises, Romania left the war in March 1918. When the Romanian regime took up arms again in the fall, it felt no obligation to Wilson.

Bulgaria read Wilson’s prose and hoped for revision of her recent losses in the Balkan Wars. Only at the end of the war did Bulgarians find that the claims of America’s Greek and Serbian allies would overrule the Fourteen Points when it came to Macedonia.

In Spring 1918 it became clear that Austria-Hungary would never break with Germany and sign a separate peace. Wilson now endorsed the Czechoslovak, Polish and Yugoslav separatist movements: concerns for stability and the preservation of the Dual Monarchy were sacrificed to total victory. Military matters took center stage until the collapse of the Central Powers in November. The fate of the Balkans then moved to the conference table.

November 1918

Inside the Habsburg Empire, local national independence movements proceeded on their own, without obligation to Wilson or the Allies. Czech, Polish and Croatian National Councils organized new state structures. New regimes had to be built from scratch in Czechoslovakia and Poland, but in the Balkans the existing Romanian and Serbian governments soon stepped in. After Romania reentered the war and occupied Transylvania, local leaders there arranged union with Romania. Something similar happened in Bessarabia.

A National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs met in Zagreb and called for the unification of all the South Slavs in the Habsburg lands. The Croatian Sabor merged with this National Council. Fearful of Italy, the National Council then pledged allegiance to Serbia. In this manner a unified Yugoslav state came into existence before the formal peace talks began.

The peace conference itself became an arena for competing forces: Leninism, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the old-style diplomatic demands of the European allies, and the new national regimes that had been created on the ground.

The Paris Peace Conference

The Paris Peace Conference began in January 1919 and dragged on for more than a year. Each of the defeated states was dealt with in a separate treaty: Versailles for Germany, Trianon for Hungary, Saint-Germain for Austria, Neuilly for Bulgaria, and Sevres for Turkey (altered in 1923 by the Lausanne Treaty). The defeated states were not allowed to negotiate. The minor Allied states, including Greece, Serbia and Romania took part in some sessions; Russia was absent. The major decisions were made by the Big Four (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) under the personal leadership of their heads of state, including Wilson, who encountered substantial challenges from his own allies.

First among the complicating factors were the pre-existing secret treaties. Britain, France, Italy and the other signatories considered them binding (Russia forfeited its treaty rights). The United States on the other hand was not a signatory and Wilson abhorred the treaties. As a result, Wilson sometimes was able to overturn prior commitments. For example, Dalmatia was awarded to Yugoslavia, not Italy, thanks to his notion of national self-determination and despite the Treaty of London. However, absolute principles had to compromise with political horse-trading: in this case, the city of Fiume was internationalized and ultimately fell into Italian hands despite Yugoslav claims.

A second factor was public opinion. The Old Diplomacy allowed negotiators to act without public pressure: the results were not always moral, but neither were they the results of negotiations accompanied by popular demonstrations and newspaper editorials. Wilson mistakenly expected that popular opinion would be progressive. For example, Wilson appealed to the Italian people for moderation during the Fiume dispute, only to encounter unyielding Italian nationalism.

A third factor was the Bolshevik menace. If the losses forced on the defeated states became excessive, radical political forces there would capitalize on popular resentment. In the Balkans, the clearest example of this was Hungary (about which more later).

Fourth, accomplished fact sometimes anticipated, ignored or contradicted the plans of the Great Powers. Where national councils had already come to power, the Balkan states were loathe to give up new territories unless forced to do so.

Fifth and finally, there were sometimes valid reasons to violate the Wilsonian principles of national self-determination and autonomy. The larger goal of international stability required that the new successor states be economically viable and militarily defensible. The trick was in deciding when valid strategic concerns deserved to override ethnic principles. For example, Romania demanded control of certain cities in northern and western Transylvania in order to possess key railroad lines. The result was better military and economic communication within Romanian territory, but subjugation of additional Magyars to Romanian rule. Might stability have been better served by reducing Hungarian losses and the attractions of rejectionism in Budapest? Similar questions arose along the Serb-Bulgarian border. The Serbs insisted on drawing the border along a defensible mountain crest, but doing so separated 100,000 ethnic Bulgarians from their country.

Communist Hungary

No situation better illustrates the contrasting appeal of Wilson’s and Lenin’s ideas than the history of Hungary at the end of the war. When the Trianon Treaty was presented to Hungarians in March 1919, past Magyar mistreatment of their minorities came home with a vengeance. Each ethnic group carved off a piece of historic Hungary. The Croatians took Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. The Serbs took Voyvodina and Banat for Yugoslavia. Romanian troops seized Transylvania. 71 percent of Hungary’s land and 63 percent of its population were lost, including 3 million out of 11 million ethnic Magyars.

When the war was ending, a liberal government under Count Mihaly Karolyi came to power. Karolyi hoped to use Wilson’s principles to reform Hungary. When the Trianon Treaty showed that national self-determination would be applied in Hungary only for the benefit of the victors, not the vanquished, he resigned rather than sign the treaty. By analogy with Russia, Karolyi was Hungary’s Kerensky. His new republic promised ethnic autonomy, universal suffrage, civil liberties, the 8-hour day and land reform. But Karolyi was unable to revive the economy or save Hungary at the peace conference after military defeat.

No traditional party would take power because doing so meant either accepting or resisting the treaty. Instead the Hungarian Communist Party came to power: when Wilson’s ideas failed, those of Lenin remained.

The party’s leader was Bela Kun, a minor official and journalist in the pre-war socialist party. After the Russian Revolution, he worked in Moscow as head of the “Federation of Foreign Groups” for the Bolsheviks.

In November 1918 Kun returned to Hungary to create a Bolshevik movement. His new Communist Party attracted radical prisoners-of-war returning from Soviet Russia, left-wing Social Democrats, dissatisfied intellectuals, landless peasants and unemployed workers, and also soldiers and patriots who hoped to resist the terms of the Trianon Treaty. In March 1919 Kun declared Hungary to be a Soviet Republic. Kun’s program combined Communism and nationalism. He organized idle factory workers into a Red Army that expelled Slovak forces from northern Hungary. A rubber-stamp assembly of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils (on the Soviet model) replaced the Diet. Banks, companies with more than twenty employees, large estates and even personal residences became the property of the state. Education and marriage were removed from the control of the Catholic Church and secularized. Revolutionary tribunals replaced the old court system.

Most Hungarians put up with these radical measures as long as Kun’s armed forces held off the Slovaks and Romanians. When the outnumbered Red Army retreated in June 1919, the opponents of Bolshevism returned to power. Royalist army officers in exile made deals with the Romanian army to set up a rival cabinet, while the traditional trade unions confronted the workers’ councils. Kun fled the country ahead of Romanian forces that occupied Budapest and ended the Soviet Republic after 133 days. A reactionary “White” government supported by the Allies took over. 5,000 people were killed during the ensuing “White Terror.” Another 70,000 suspected Communists, activist workers and Jews were arrested (a high proportion of the Communist leadership was Jewish, fueling popular prejudice). This episode set the stage for military rule in various forms during Hungary’s interwar period.

After 1919, no government based on Leninist principles operated in the Balkans until the end of World War II. However, the application of Wilsonian and Western European ideas proved difficult to carry out, often impossible. The next lecture looks at some of the issues involved.


This lecture is a portion of a larger sert of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created on 25 February 1997; last modified 17 January 2023.

Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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