The expulsion of the Ottoman Empire from Europe in 1912 produced an immediate upset among the Great Powers and triggered a chain of events that would lead to global conflict in 1914. The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) triggered hopes among South Slavs in many cities that liberation from the Habsburg rule was imminent.[1] A credible Croat witness recorded: “Dream has become reality: Kosovo was revenged.”[2] Since 1906, intellectuals, artists and poets from all areas inhabited by South Slavs had worked towards “unification of South Slavs in the cultural field.” Just before the war, preparations began for publishing a Yugoslav Encyclopedia.[3] The historian Dennison Rusinow described it as: “Yugoslav idea before Yugoslavia.”[4] The same sentiments were also felt among certain unofficial circles, such as the organization “Unification or Death”, also known as “Black Hand”, in Serbia proper. Meanwhile, the Balkan Wars had a profound impact on the Austro-Hungarian rulers and their mindset.[5] Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este (1863-1914) claimed in June 1914 that the “situation gets worse not only among the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but among Croatian politicians there, as well…All Yugoslavs have become politically unreliable. However, that can be said for Croatia as well as for Bosnia.”[6]

Serbian war aims

Surprised by the events on 28 July 1914, official Serbia quickly turned to adjust not only military efforts with the new Allies, but also its war aims. By the end of August 1914, Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (1845-1926) and his close collaborators outlined Serbia’s war aims. The document had the initial purpose of explaining to the Entente Powers why Serbia declined to yield part of Macedonia to Bulgaria as they had suggested. The Serbian government emphasized that Serbia became the victim of both German Empires since she stood on their “drive towards East.”[7] On 4 September, all Serbian ambassadors received instructions to work diligently towards the creation of a “strong South-West Slav state which was to encompass all Croats, Serbs and Slovenes.” This was confirmed in the Declaration of the Serbian Parliament on 7 December 1914.[8] However, some historians still wrongly maintain that once internationally sponsored, the Serbian program (Garašanin’s memorandum, 1844) “remained the key policy blueprint for Serbia’s rulers” until 1918.[9]

At the core of Serbian understanding of the historical situation was the perception of the necessity for the creation of a larger state in the Balkans. As Pašić put it:

The creation of small states would be detrimental to peace in South-East Europe as foreign officials would insinuate themselves, sowing mistrust, envy and hatred. A strong state is necessary for peace in South-East Europe. War was seen as a possible means of overcoming the past by making it possible for ethnically similar populations to unify on the basis of the Yugoslav idea.[10]

On 5 November 1914, Prime Minister Pašić warned the Allies that Serbia was compelled “to fight not only for it[self], but also for the other Balkan nations.”[11] By the end of 1914, the Yugoslav project had two versions (maps) and several alternatives. Both variants contained broadly the same northern border encompassing Timisoara, Subotica, Baja, Pecs, Maribor, Klagenfurt and Villach and the border ran along the eastern side of the Isonzo valley and met the Adriatic at Aquileia. The first variant provided for a zone “pending agreement with Italy” (Carniola, Tolmin, Gorizia, Trieste, Capo di Istria, Parenzo, Rovigno, and Pola). There was hesitation over the future eastern border line with Romania: the minimum requirement was for a border to run immediately east of Bela Crkva and Timisoara. The maps had roots in the government’s memorandum of 22 September 1914.[12] The maps were almost identical to the proposals of the Croat émigré Frano Supilo (1870-1917) in November 1914.

The Creation of the Yugoslav Committee and the Corfu Declaration

In order to propel their ideas, the Serbian government came up with a plan to engage not only diplomats, but also scientists and prominent scholars, as well as distinguished émigrés from Austria-Hungary. The very idea of the creation of a Yugoslav Committee came up as early as 1914.[13]

On 8 November 1914, they agreed to create a committee that would promote Yugoslav aspirations for an independent unified state. The Croatian émigrés Supilo and Ante Trumbić (1864-1938) agreed to accept Serbian financial backing for a Committee. Trumbić wrote in the Italian newspaper Corierre de la Serra that Croats and Serbs were one and the same nation and had the same ideal, which was “one and indivisible throughout the sacred entity of motherland, blood and tongue.” The Committee was established on 30 April 1915 in Paris.[14]

The Serbian delegation met with the Yugoslav Committee at Corfu in June 1917. The meeting resulted in the “Corfu Declaration” on 20 July.[15] Yugoslavs demonstrated that they were in favor of the creation of a free and independent South Slav state based on the right to self-determination of the people and on modern democratic governance. In order to comply with this basic principle, they claimed that South Slavs were a “unique nation, constituted of three tribes – Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.” They came to terms in respect of fourteen points including the name and symbols of the future state, constitutional monarchy, universal suffrage, and principles of equality for all citizens, religion, language and alphabet.[16] The Corfu Declaration stood in contrast to proposals delivered by the South Slav delegation in the Austrian Parliament in May 1917, which argued for a “third Slav unit” within the Monarchy.[17]

On the eve of the Corfu Conference in 1917, Pašić made public the notion that he was not against future Yugoslavia as a federal state constituted by the three nations. According to his biographer Ante Smith Pavelić, Trumbić rejected the proposal because he was afraid of Great Serbia within Yugoslavia, and consequently supported a simple centralized form of the state. Pašić explained at the time that federalism would encompass the prior right of peoples (nations) to self-determination. The application of “historical rights” and sticking to the concept of “historical lands” would divide Serbian people in several states and would fail to respect what Serbs had done for liberation to date. He repeated the same point of view in the constitutional debates after the war (1920).[18]

In January 1918, the Corfu Declaration was published in two newspapers of the Habsburg Monarchy.[19] Serbia’s war aim had suffered some minor adjustments. Bulgaria’s attack provided grounds for demanding additional compensations (the Struma Valley). In addition, Albania’s fate during the war allowed the possibility of Serbia’s expansion in that direction as well (a claim for Shkodër). Regarding Italy, the former demand for Gradisca, Trieste, and western Istria was abandoned. The latter was left for possible direct negotiations between “Italian and Yugoslav representatives,” after the war.[20] The border projects combined, first and foremost, an ethnic principle, and secondly a strategic principle.

“The program”[21] as historians described it, was explicitly included in “the Entente’s general war aims, with the application of liberal Western ideas, especially those stemming from US President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), but the essence of the provisions was a desire to ensure lasting peace. The fundamental aim was to dismantle Austria-Hungary, since allegedly “its nations did not wish to remain in it”. Its historical sense lay in “serving the drive of German power and culture towards the East.”[22]

The above was clearly explained in the assertion that

Germanism will lose strength; it will lose around 40 million people of non-German nations who now live in Austria-Hungary and serve German policy. Germany will thus be cut off from the east...with Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Yugoslav state, which all together will number 46 million inhabitants who will wish to defend their survival.”[23]

Montenegro at the Crossroad

Due to the economic hardship and therefore dependence on Serbia, Montenegro instigated the talks for unification in 1913. Many issues were left undisputed, including joint general staff, coordination of foreign affairs, and practice of joint diplomatic missions, common currency, common financial policy and customs, traffic and post, and preserving both dynasties. Mistrust and obstacles remained. The question of dynasty was especially crucial. In the Montenegrin Parliament, there were strong forces in favor of unification, which corresponded to the public sentiment at the time.[24] The Serbian heir to the throne, Prince Alexander Karadjordjević (1888-1934), in response to the letter of his Montenegrin counterpart Prince Danilo Petrović-Njegoš (1871-1939), emphasized that unification would be “along the lines of the German system.” He saw unification within the framework of broader Yugoslav unification; Danilo did not respond.[25]

Since both governments had been informed that Double Monarchy could take it as a pretext for a war, they temporarily ceased talks on future unification in the spring 1914.[26] At the outset of war, Nikola I, King of Montenegro (1841-1921) in spite of Austro-Hungarian suggestions to stay neutral,[27] followed the Serbian prince’s proclamation of war, stating that it would be a struggle for the “liberty of Serbs and Yugoslavs.” In his own words, he perceived himself as one of “two old Serbian kings.”[28]

The Montenegrin army was to act according to the joint war plan, and a Serbian general was designated as the Chief of Staff accompanied by other officers. The assistance in armaments, ammunition, provisions and financing were provided by the Serbian government, too. The Serbian officers were expressly forbidden to discuss or campaign for unification.[29]

The Montenegrin dynasty in exile found itself subjected to strong pressure of the compatriots to cease to be an obstacle to the widespread desire of the people for unification. Instead, the Montenegrin court turned to Italy and Russia, demanding preservation of Montenegro after the war, with respect to its territorial demands (northern Albania with the mouth of the river Drin; Sarajevo and surrounding areas; the river Neretva valley to the Adriatic; and the coast from the river Neretva to Medua, including Dubrovnik and the Bay of Cattaro). The Montenegrin king Nikola declared that “Serbdom shall not be unified, that is just an idea for hotheads. It cannot happen without the eradication of one dynasty [i.e. either the Karadjordjević or the Petrović].” His prime minister resigned. On the other side, the Serbian prime minister was resolute: “The unification of Montenegro with Serbia must be carried out, whether there will be Yugoslavia or not.”[30]

On 18 August 1916, the new Montenegrin Prime Minister Andrija Radović (1872-1947) suggested Nikola should immediately pursue unification with Serbia by abdicating in favor of Serbian Prince Alexander, actually his grandson. Since the King declined the proposal, Radović resigned in January 1917.[31] His successor, Milo Matanović (1879-1955), reiterated the urgency to negotiate unification with Serbia. He appealed in vain that “the idea of unification became a religion of the masses” and because of the king’s hesitation, that could lead to “anti-national separatism” in Montenegro.[32] Matanović and his government also resigned shortly thereafter.

The Serbian government helped in organizing and promoting the Montenegrin Committee for National Union in March 1917. This committee publicly endorsed the Corfu Declaration in favor of Yugoslav unification.[33] On the other side, King Nikola I and his supporters waged a propaganda war against the committee. In the final stage of the war, the intention of the Serbian government was to send Montenegrins in the Serbian army into the field ahead of the other troops. The aim was to instigate an uprising and sweep out the Austro-Hungarian occupation regime from Montenegro. They were supposed to be there before the Italians, who as it was perceived, intended to occupy and rule in the name of Nikola I.[34]

Central Powers, Entente and the Balkan States

The Serbs and Yugoslavs, while pursuing their goals, found themselves frequently at odds with the interests and perceptions of their allies as well as their foes. If their foes overcame the Entente, Serbia and Montenegro accepted that they would have been reduced to small, landlocked countries completely dependent on the Habsburg Monarchy. Only Hungarian resistance to the idea of incorporation of the two into the Habsburg Monarchy seemed to preserve their very existence. The Austro-Hungarian war aims had been set in 1906 and encompassed immediate and postponed goals. The Habsburg Monarchy proved itself a great power by the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and by the establishment of Albania amid the Balkan Wars. However, Serbia became an obstacle for far-reaching German and Austro-Hungarian plans to dominate the Balkans and the Near East. In light of the new opportunities, in July 1914, the most radical views within top echelons of the Habsburg Monarchy suggested that Serbia would be divided between Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania. In brief, “Serbia should disappear.”[35] The Austro-Hungarian chief of general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852-1925), hoped for an annexation of western Serbia and Sanjak, displacement of Serbs from eastern Bosnia and settlement of Croats there. He envisaged the Sava valley and the south banks of the Danube would be attached as well.[36] Less radical proposals in Vienna called for a change of the Serbian dynasty, new favorable military convention, strategic correction of the borders, and important gains for Bulgaria, Albania and Romania. In the time of crisis, namely at the end of 1914, Germany even put pressure on its ally to accept some sacrifices in order to keep Italy and Romania on the side of the Triple Alliance. In order to keep Italy neutral, the monarchy finally offered to cede Tyrol in her favor after the war.[37]

Soon after the defeat in the Second Balkan War in 1913, Bulgaria had sought an alliance with Austria-Hungary, which was to include Germany. Thus, in the aftermath, Serbia had to reckon with Bulgaria joining the enemy. The Bulgarian move stemmed from the crisis of 1908/1909 when Austria-Hungary had secretly offered friendship to Bulgaria on the basis of a division of Serbia’s territories. In July 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary pushed for a secret alliance with Bulgaria by offering the latter gains in Macedonia. The Bulgarian terms encompassed parts of Macedonia then in Serbian hands and sectors of Kavalla in Greece and Dobrudja in Romania, if those two became enemies. In the spring of 1915, the Bulgarians further increased their demands. They called for enlarged territorial claims over the Južna (South) Morava valley and parts of eastern Serbia.[38] The opposition parties issued warnings and asked for the recall of parliament, but in vain.[39] After several months, on 6 September 1915, Bulgaria signed a secret agreement and military convention with the Central Powers. In January 1916, Bulgaria proclaimed its war aims, namely the unification of the Bulgarian nation within its historic and ethnic borders (including the access to the Adriatic).

The Entente was not in full combat readiness at the outbreak of the war. In addition, they lacked an accurate estimate of Serbian combat value at the time. Thus, they sought new allies: Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Italy. The Entente offered territorial compensation at the expense of not only Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, but Serbia and Greece as well. Bulgaria in particular was in the focus of both camps because it controlled supply routes for Russia, Serbia and the Ottoman Empire. Russia opened the question of Serbian compensation to Bulgaria as early as 31 July 1914. The Allies hoped to obtain full engagement of Bulgaria at the outbreak of hostilities. In that case, Russia was prepared to guarantee her gains up to the Kriva Palanka-Ohrid line. However, Bulgaria would be immediately granted Kočani and Štip even if she remained neutral. France and Great Britain joined the action at the end of August. Serbia responded with readiness to discuss the issue, but also emphasized difficulties. Serbia expressed readiness to follow advice but under the condition that Greece and Romania made sacrifices. She was under severe pressure from her allies within the following twelve months. The final ultimatum was delivered to Serbia on 3 August 1915. If Serbia was to accept a loss in Macedonia she would be rewarded with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slavonia, Srem, Bačka, part of the Adriatic coast from Cavtat to peninsula Planka (Split and Dubrovnik inclusive) and part of Albania between the rivers Drin and Vojuša. Serbia started to play for time, trying secretly to convince its allies that the plan would fail. Not only Serbs but also French familiar with the situation and Greek Liberals were pessimistic about the real attitude of Bulgaria and Ferdinand I, Tsar of Bulgaria (1861-1948).[40]

Italy was a resolute and steady opponent of the Yugoslav state project. She even opposed the idea of Serbian access to the Adriatic. Finally, in the secret London treaty (April 1915) she was promised most of the east Adriatic littoral and the islands, as well as part of Albania, and of course South Tyrol. The Allies also tried to win over Romania by offering the whole of Banat (Hungary) in exchange. Both offers jeopardized the Yugoslav program of Serbian government.[41]

Romania held a secret alliance with the Central Powers (1913). In spite of Carol I, King of Romania’s (1839-1914) pro-German attitude, Ion Brătianu’s (1864-1927) new 1914 government wanted to avoid the war. They accepted the Italian stand – neutrality. The prime minister agreed with Russia to obtain the gains in Transylvania in exchange for benevolent neutrality.[42] The new king, Carol (since October 1914), was in favor of the Entente. Secretly they started negotiations with it and likewise Serbia and the Yugoslavs, and ran propaganda for the war aims in France, Italy, Great Britain and the USA.[43] The German government suggested that Hungary should make some sacrifices in Transylvania in order to win Romania, but the Hungarians always rejected the suggestions.

Italy and Romania shared the same fears of an emerging South Slav state in the region after the future collapse of Austria-Hungary. Throughout negotiations with the Entente they had in mind strategic borders in the first place. Finally, on 17 August 1916 a treaty guaranteed Romania, the river Tisa (or Tisza) in Hungary as a western border and recognized the right of the Romanian population to self-determination. However, the Central Powers won, and imposed a puppet regime. In 1918, Romania was again engaged on the side of the Entente. Romanians from Transylvania proclaimed unification with Romania, but the question of Banat was still unresolved since the Serbian army already had Timisoara and Arad in its possession.[44]

The newly created Albanian state (1913) soon fell into anarchy. The rival clans were engaged in fighting each other. Prince Wilhelm of Wied (1876-1945) left the country on 4 September 1914. Previously, in spite of money spent bribing Albanian leaders and distributing arms, Austria-Hungary had not succeeded in turning Albanian clans to attack Serbia from the rear and provoke mutinies in southern Serbia and Montenegro. The self-proclaimed new president, Essad Pasha Toptani (1863-1920) found himself in Niš, war capital of Serbia, and signed a treaty of alliance with Serbia on 17 September 1914. The treaty predicted military alliance, the possibility of conducting operations on Albanian soil, and on Essad Pasha’s demand, the creation of bilateral commission for marking the frontiers, and Serbian obligation in a financing Albanian gendarmerie. Serbia also gave Essad Pasha 100,000 French francs as compensation for the military requisitions of the previous year during which Serbia had occupied parts of Albanian territory. The situation in Albania worsened after the Ottoman Empire entered the war in November 1914. The clans in the north (Krujë) jeopardized the position of Essad Pasha and with the assistance of the Bulgarian irregulars had instigated disturbances across the border. The former Prime Minister Ismail Kemal (1844-1919) wanted the reincorporation into the Ottoman Empire and the election of an Ottoman prince. In order to secure its rear and sustain Essad, Serbian troops enrolled in central Albania (June 1915) and remained there until February 1916. The Montenegrins entered Shkodër (Scutari) and took the port of Medua. Serbia signed a new treaty with Essad Pasha in Tirana on 28 June 1915. This treaty fixed the border in favor of Serbia in the region of Pogradec in southeastern Albania.[45] Italy was also involved in Albanian matters. She secured its southern Adriatic supremacy by creating a fortified bridgehead in Valona and its hinterland in late December 1914.[46]

In order not to provoke Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, Britain restrained Greece from joining the Entente. At the beginning of 1915 Britain even demanded that Greece cede some recently acquired territories (Kavalla and Edessa) to Bulgaria in return for compensation in north Epirus (Albania) and Asia Minor (Constantinople excluded). However, the Greek Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos (1864-1936), who had been strongly attached to the Greek Megali idea, did not welcome these offers.[47] He was eager to assist Serbia in 1915 and formerly had invited the French and British to send expeditionary forces to Thessalonica. Constantine I, King of Greece (1868-1923) opposed and forced Venizelos to resign. The new government in Athens, which represented an “Old Greece” was at odds with the Entente. Soon after the Greek pro-Venizelos officers had staged an anti-government coup in Thessalonica, Venizelos formed a new provisional government. The Entente gave him and his army full support. In revenge, they would be able to establish a new Thessalonica front. Greece became politically split in two parts. Under the constant pressure of its allies, the government in Athens actually gave up the last prerogatives of a sovereign state in January 1917. The Entente finally secured their rear in that theater of war.[48]


The outcome of the First World War enabled some war aims or even dreams to become truth. Romania, which reentered the war in November 1918 gained Transylvania, all Bukovina, and eastern Banat (at the expense of the Habsburg Monarchy) and Bessarabia (at the expense of Russia), and regained Dobruja from Bulgaria. The newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia) was the fulfillment of the Serbian war aim formulated as early as late August and presented to the Allies in September 1914 with the compliance of the later established Yugoslav Committee. Italy had a foothold in the Balkans in the north and south Adriatic, as well as in Dalmatia and the Dodecanese islands in the east Aegean. Greece was on the brink of fulfilling the “Great Idea.” Eastern Thrace, and the Smyrna district created a significant bridgehead with almost 1 million Greeks and the islands were granted to her in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). Greece was not satisfied and proceeded with military operations towards Anatolia seeking more territory. However, the war soon turned to be catastrophe for her; Greece lost everything. The disaster was accompanied by the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor. Bulgaria was a loser, too, having placed all hopes on the Central Powers in 1915. Instead of gaining Macedonia, parts of eastern Serbia and the Aegean littoral at the expense of Greece, Bulgaria lost even some of her pre-war territories like Struma Valley, Caribrod and Bosilegrad in favor of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Albania, which suffered several occupations during the war, was established finally within her 1913 borders. No one could imagine the immanent disappearance of Austria-Hungary in 1918. Even the Allies and the USA declared in 1917 that the dismembering of the monarchy was not one of the war objectives. Instead of bolstering her status of a Great Power, diminishing Serbia and becoming the dominant power in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary vanished from the map. The governments and prominent actors of the time, justified their claims on respective territories not only on ethnic grounds, but also on strategic and military grounds, or for of glory and prestige.

Mile Bjelajac, Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije

Section Editors: Milan Ristović; Richard C. Hall; Tamara Scheer