A Conglomerate Country

The National Question in Yugoslavia

by Ivo Banac
Cornell University Press, 452 pp., $35.00

The unification of the part of Southeastern Europe that is known today as Yugoslavia, a country with not many more inhabitants than greater New York, is one of the most controversial events in modern history. Yugoslavia was created in 1918 when, after the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the king of Serbia assumed the leadership of a newly created great South Slav state. The Serbian army proceeded to assert its rule all the way from the Greek and Bulgarian frontier to the borders of Italy and the new Austrian republic. The turmoil that followed made certain that the peoples of Yugoslavia would not enjoy internal peace for several decades. This is the tragedy whose origins and unfolding Ivo Banac, a young professor at Yale University, explains with great mastery.

His is indeed a most welcome book, for it succeeds in disentangling the astonishing complexities of the Yugoslav situation between 1918 and 1921, and points convincingly to the likely causes of the dramatic developments that followed the creation of Europe’s last great multinational state. Yet this work also leaves us with many nagging questions. Was Serbia truly as callous toward the rightful aspirations of other groups and political units in Southeastern Europe as Banac says it was? Was there a genuine alternative to Serbian predominance after 1918, which would have satisfied both the Serbs and the equally expansionist Croats, let alone the many other religious, political, and ethnic groups?

Further, we might ask, if all went wrong between 1918 and 1921, as Banac claims, then what accounts for the long-term survival of Yugoslavia? After all, there can be little question that most Yugoslavs today, despite their conflicts with one another, would be ready to shed their blood in the defense of their state. Unfortunately, having led us through 400-odd pages of well-explained turmoil, the author does not leave us with any kind of conclusion. There is no epilogue, no perspective on the future from the vantage point of 1921, and the reader is left to wonder whether the Yugoslav kingdom collapsed in 1941 under its own weight, or only because of the irresistible force of the German invasion. Was Tito’s federalist and communist solution the only workable alternative to the centralist and monarchical governments that ruled Yugoslavia between the wars? And finally, does Tito’s Yugoslavia today carry the seeds of its own destruction?

Because of the unfortunate historical reputation of the Balkans as a region of trouble and misery, no Balkan country except for Bulgaria—which really has no choice in the matter—is prepared to admit that it belongs to the Balkans (although many towns had a “Balkan Kafé” and a “Balkan Kino” movie house in the years between the wars). The Greeks claim to be Mediterranean and the Albanians to be the only true representatives of the world communist movement. The Romanians and Yugoslavs point to the vast territories they took over in 1918 from the defunct Habsburg monarchy, a very Central European state. Nevertheless, from a Western European point of view, the…

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