Historians interested in inter-war Yugoslavia and its social and political institutions have been refreshingly well served in the last several years, with recent works offering reassessments of its parliamentary politics, its commemorative cultures, its security services and the narratives of unification and entitlement that Yugoslavs inside all these structures negotiated and recreated. John Paul Newman’s book, based on archival research on Yugoslavia’s war veterans and the associations they formed, frames these inter-war divisions in a context so fundamental for understanding the new state’s social composition that it is surprising a book like this has not been written before: unifying the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after its formation in December 1918 meant integrating a society whose men of military age, as conscripts in the Austro-Hungarian, Serbian and Montenegrin armed forces, had very recently been fighting against each other. Newman argues that the myth of ‘liberation and unification’ on which the Kingdom was built, both in its first incarnation as a constitutional monarchy and then as a royal dictatorship in which King Aleksandar hoped that Serb, Croat and Slovene national identities would be absorbed into a new integral Yugoslavism over time, was in fact catastrophic for the country’s national unity. Taking the Kingdom of Serbia and its war experience as the foundation for the public culture of the new state (with Serbia’s severe death tolls the main ingredient in Yugoslavia’s national myth of sacrifice) left those who had fought on the Habsburg side in a subordinate position, though their own interpretations of the meaning of the war were as fragmented as Austro-Hungarian experiences of the First World War had been. Yugoslavia, like the other states that had to integrate ex-Habsburg and ex-Entente territories into one post-war nation, contained both an official and privileged ‘culture of victory’ and the matter for ‘cultures of defeat’ (pp. 9–13), of the kind that characterised veterans’ calls for radical national regeneration in Germany and Italy. The major question in interpreting inter-war Yugoslavia remains whether obstacles to unification were in fact already too great before 1918, or whether its instabilities were contingent on post-1918 political missteps. Newman does not imply that a South Slav state in 1918 could never have been unified but argues emphatically that the liberation and unification myth it did adopt was fundamentally unsuitable as a way of ‘bind[ing] the South Slavs to each other after the First World War’ (p. 262). Newman’s book succeeds both in detailing the content and emergence of the Kingdom’s cultures of victory and defeat and in tracing the connections between veterans’ associations, other extra-parliamentary organisations, the state and the Crown. The political alliances formed first between the Serbian monarchy and its army before 1918, then between what was now the Yugoslav monarchy and veterans prepared to support the King’s interventions in, and eventually his suspension of, parliamentary democracy, are shown as preconditions for the introduction of the royal dictatorship in 1929. Along the way, Newman is able to contextualise some figures and groups in inter-war Yugoslav politics who only briefly appear in other works. The background offered on the Chetnik associations and ‘the failed nationalization drive’ (p. 83) in the lands conquered by Serbia after the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, for instance, fills in much-needed background on Puniša Račić, the Montenegrin Serb and ‘leading figure in the Chetnik association’ (p. 106), whose shooting of the Croat Peasant Party (HSS) leader Stjepan Radić and four other HSS deputies, on the floor of parliament, in June 1928 triggered the political crisis that led to Aleksandar’s dissolving all political parties. A similar service is done for the Frankist movement (showing how a certain group of Austro-Hungarian officers created a ‘culture of defeat’ which remobilised them into sympathy with the Ustashe but which Newman suggests left them ‘unsuitable material for the army of a fascist state’ [p. 257]), and for the Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists (ORJUNA), the street-fighting group whose members were mostly too young to have served in the war and whose role in 1920s politics might be best summed up by ORJUNA’s first few subheadings in Newman’s index (‘attacks the Retired Officers’ Society’; ‘brawl with communists at Trbovlje’; ‘brawl with communists on All Souls’ Day’ [p. 285]). Both empirically and historiographically, this is a book that sets out to challenge any lingering exceptionalism in the study of the first Yugoslavia. The problems of unifying lands that had been on opposite sides during the First World War and the shaky foundations of democracy in inter-war Europe are well-known commonalities in modern European history (at certain points the book draws particular parallels with Czechoslovakia, Romania, Germany, Italy and France), but Newman also demonstrates Yugoslavia’s integration into networks of ‘veterans’ internationalism’ (p. 67) (the topic of a volume he edited with Julia Eichenberg in 2013) and particularly the meanings of Yugoslav participation in the Federation of Inter-Allied Veterans (FIDAC), the international association of Entente veterans which in 1929 held its annual congress in Belgrade and in 1930 elected a Yugoslav veteran its president. Historiographically, the book connects the well-established scholarship on the politics of the ‘Kosovo myth’ in Serbia and Yugoslavia with Stefan Goebel’s perspective on the ‘medievalization’ (p. 14) of the First World War in Britain and Germany, and it is informed throughout by recent research (an agenda that historians in Dublin have done much to shape) approaching 1917–23 as a transnational time of troubles. For a work so grounded in the histories of veterans’ associations, there might have been scope to make stronger connections between this evidence and the gender history of inter-war Europe (such as the study of early twentieth-century military masculinities, or the connections between gender and citizenship applied to Czechoslovak democracy by Melissa Feinberg); nevertheless, Newman’s new book confidently joins the body of work that places Yugoslavia in the mainstream of European history. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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