Paris Peace Conf. 180.03401/45

CF–45

Notes of a Meeting Held at President Wilson’s House in the Place des Etats-Unis, Paris, on Wednesday, June 4, 1919, at 4 p.m.

  • Present
    • United States of America
      • President Wilson.
    • Great Britain
      • Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd George, M. P.
    • France
      • M. Clemenceau.
    • Italy
      • M. Orlando.
Sir Maurice Hankey, K. C. B. } Secretaries.
Count Aldrovandi.
Professor P. J. Mantoux.—Interpreter.

M. Vesnitch was introduced.

1. President Wilson said that the Council were anxious to hear the views of M. Vesnitch as representing the Serbo-Croat-Slovene Delegation on the subject of Klagenfurt. Austrian Boundaries: Klagenfurt

M. Vesnitch said that in the first place he wished to express his gratitude to the Council for having listened to the request of his Delegation for a further examination of the question of Klagenfurt. This question seemed to have been insufficiently considered from every point of view. He insisted on the importance of the problem which went far beyond the mere delimitation of frontiers between the Serbo-Croat-Slovene State and the Republic of Austria. In order to understand the importance of the question, it was necessary to recall the circumstances in which the war had begun. The war had been made by Germany for the purpose of giving effect to a long prepared policy. The German programme had been to descend towards the South-East of Europe to the Aegean on the one side and the Adriatic on the other. He was not saying this merely to find an argument for the present case for it was a well recognised fact. As an instance of this he referred to one of the Professors of the University of Prague, M. Niederland (?) who had foreseen in 1911 what could happen and had had the courage to develop the facts. In the struggle of Germanism to achieve those objects, the Slovene element had been put in special danger. In the past, the Slovenes had been gradually forced by the Germans to retire step by step from Salzburg towards the South-East. To prove this, it was necessary only to open a map and see how the names showed the former presence [Page 174]of the Slovenes. For example, Graz, the capital of Styria, had formerly been called Gradetz. The German push to the South-East had been especially strong since the creation of the German Empire when under Bismarck the Pan-German policy first took definite shape. This mixture of races which now prevailed was the result of a systematic endeavour on the part of Germany to strengthen the German elements in the population. Priests had been sent down from Württemberg and from Bavaria with a definite Mission from the powerful German Schulverein and they had worked with the greatest energy and their policy had been highly Chauvinistic. The influence of the Church had not been considered sufficient and the German propaganda had been developed by means of schools and economic influences always used against the Slovene population. They had applied here the same system as in Poland. The political system had taken its direction from Berlin rather than from Vienna. Those Slovene populations being under German-Austrian domination and unsuspecting of the great movement towards nationality that was to come with the help of France, Great Britain and the United States of America, had been obliged to fall back and yield. Consequently, he had heard to-day that there were Slovenes who wished to remain connected with Austria. He hoped that this fact would not impress the Council too much. The same thing had often happened before and in support of this he appealed to the witness of the Italian writer, Antonio Fogazzaro, who, in a work entitled “Piccolo Mundo Antico” recalled that even in Lombardy after prolonged Austrian occupation, there had been Italians who were more or less partisan of Austria and favoured remaining under Austrian rule. This was due to the pressure of Government, Police, administration etc., and it was not every man who had the courage to be a great citizen. What had happened in Italy had happened elsewhere and this consideration should not influence the judgment of the Council beyond a certain point.

He did not wish to conceal that the Serbo-Croat-Slovene State had the ambition to embrace within its territory the larger part of the Slovene territory. But after close study and especially after discussions with the members of the Peace Conference, they had realised the difficulties and had moderated their programme only asking to have included on the one hand what was incontestably Slovene and on the other what was indispensable to their people.

He wished to insist on two classes of motives which actuated them, one the Jugo-Slav motive, and the other a general motive.

In regard to the Jugo-Slav reason, the Slovenes were a race that had suffered most under the hard Germanic domination, but nevertheless the people had suffered together and had been left with the [Page 175]hope of eventual freedom. By the force of circumstances this small people, who had suffered so much, was to be divided into four groups by the present Treaty. One party would remain in the Serbo-Croat-Slovene Kingdom. Another party would remain with Austria. The third would remain Magyar, and a large group of some 300,000 to 450,000 came under Italy. He quite understood that the Council may have been obliged to separate the race and to put some of them under Allied countries. This he could understand, but what his delegation could not understand was the strictness of the conference in dealing with the disposition of the Slovene populations to enemy countries. His delegation had asked for a plebiscite in regard to the populations to go under Roumanian and Italian rule. The proposal had not been accepted. Now when it was a question of a Slovene population going under enemy rule, the proposal for a plebiscite was imposed, He feared that this would create an impression among his people contrary to what the Council would desire; a painful and not at all beneficial impression.

In regard to the reasons of general policy, which, in his own opinion were the more important, he asked that no illusions should be entertained. It was his duty, if the Council would allow him to say so, to call attention to the danger which was being run. The Powers were under the impression that they were creating in Austria a small State, and that it was to their interest to deal mildly with it. The Austrian State was German, and never would be anything else. In the future, Austria would have a much greater tendency than in the past to unite with Germany. In spite of the smooth words spoken by Dr. Renner, at St. Germain, he had insisted that his people must also be allowed the right of self-determination.

What was even more important was that in the German reply to the draft Treaty of Peace Count Brockdorff-Rantzau had insisted that Austria should have the right to self-determination. That is to say Count Brockdorff-Rantzau regarded it as a German question. The situation today enabled the Powers to compel Germany to accept what the needs of the moment required. But the nature of the peoples of Europe was much stronger than seemed to be thought. At the same time it had been decided that the peoples were to have the right to declare for themselves. Consequently, the time would come when Austria would declare her union with Germany and in doing so would consider that it was doing its duty. He did not believe that it would be possible to make war to prevent this from happening. Governments were not masters of public opinion and it was impossible to judge now whether public opinion would permit a war for this reason. Austria then would, in time, unite with Germany, and the German policy of pushing towards the sea would again recommence with the [Page 176]benefit of the bitter experience of the past. He did not know why that policy should be helped on directly by substituting German Rule for Jugo-Slav Rule in the area under consideration, and indirectly, by giving the Jugo-Slav people a lesson in pessimism and cynicism, a sense of failure in the past and of futility in the future. He therefore implored the Council to think these matters over seriously and to draw from the facts he had presented the right conclusion. He would add that it was not for him, as the representative of a small country, to offer advice to the representatives of such much greater nations, but he would wish to draw attention to one undoubted fact. That was that Austria would inevitably become the spoilt child of the German race, which would embrace it with the greatest tenderness. Germany would give to Austria all the assistance necessary for her to play in the future the same role as in the past. Austria, though small, would, with German support again become the instrument of German policy in South-East Europe, and would carry out its mission with greater energy than ever. He begged therefore that Austria should not be reinforced with elements which she was not entitled to demand, but rather that those elements should be utilised to form part of the barrier against the German push to the South-East.

Finally, the last line for which his delegation had pressed in the Klagenfurt area included from a statistical point of view a proportion of 60,000 Slovenes to 24,000 Germans. These figures were based on the official statistics of the Austrian Government, which were not favourable to non-German peoples. In the part which his country had agreed to abandon, there were 21,000 more Slovenes who would be included in Austria. Consequently, Jugo-Slavia would, under this proposal, take in 24,000 Germans, and abandon 21,000 Slovenes, showing a balance of only 3,000 in favour of Jugo-Slavia. This calculation was based on Government statistics, but if Ecclesiastical statistics were taken, the result was very different. According to these there would be 80,441 Slovenes and 4,854 Germans showing a very much more favourable and overwhelming majority to the Jugo-Slavs. An ethnographical map, published in Vienna by German cartographers, attributed the territory which his delegation demanded to the Slovenes. Handler, a German propagandist authority also attributed this region to Slovenes. His delegation could not understand why their friends and Allies, whose cause was the same as their own, refused what their enemies recognised. He would add that he understood that in certain regions economic factors had to be taken into consideration, and his delegation was quite prepared to examine carefully what commercial arrangements should be made to allow adjacent regions on different sides of the border to continue their common economic life. He prayed, therefore, in the name of his delegation [Page 177]that the Council would accord the line they asked for, and in demanding it he could declare with his whole conscience that nothing was being done against any one of the great principles proclaimed, or against any aim of the Allies during the whole war. His conclusion, therefore, was that his delegation prayed that the reduced line should be granted without the formality of the plebiscite, because, generally speaking, they desired the peaceful life of the country to begin as soon as possible. The new procedure would only maintain the present effervescence and cause delay in the consolidation of the new State. Practically it would give no other result than now asked for.

Mr. Lloyd George asked exactly what M. Vesnitch wished.

M. Vesnitch explained that the line they proposed followed the line of the lakes. These made a very good frontier, and he thought their demand was reinforced by the fact that the technical commission had agreed on this line.

President Wilson said that at one time or another they had agreed on a good many things.

M. Vesnitch did not contest this.

Mr. Lloyd George asked if the population south of the lakes was Slovene in character.

M. Vesnitch said it was overwhelmingly so.

President Wilson said that according to his information geographically the Klagenfurt basin was united. The life in it was not highly developed. It was not an industrial district, nor was it very highly developed agriculturally. He understood that it imported its wheat. In the town of Klagenfurt he was told that there was no wholesale shop and only retail merchants and markets.

M. Vesnitch said the population was probably from 18 to 20 thousand.

President Wilson said it was only lately that he had comprehended that a plebiscite for the whole basin would probably not result in a decision for Jugo-Slavia.

M. Vesnitch said he was not of that opinion although he understood there were some Germanophiles. The plebiscite depended a good deal on the form, date, etc.

President Wilson then turned to a map of the Klagenfurt basin showing two districts, one marked “A”, in the Southern part of it, which was claimed by Jugo-Slavia, and another marked “B”, which Jugo-Slavia was willing to abandon. He made the suggestion that at some early date, say six months after the signature of peace, the inhabitants of “A” should vote by plebiscite as to whether they would be united to Jugo-Slavia or Austria. If they voted for Austria, the whole district, including “A” and “B” would be settled. If, however, they voted for Jugo-Slavia, he proposed that subsequently [Page 178]the zone marked “B” should also vote as to whether it would go to Jugo-Slavia or to Austria, in the latter case dividing the Klagenfurt basin in two. The testimony as to the desire of the people to hold together was conflicting. It seemed fair to the Serbo-Croat State that the people in zone “A” who were Slovene by race should be offered to vote first, and that if they voted for the Serbo-Croats, then the people of zone “B” should have the chance of remaining with the rest of the Klagenfurt basin.

M. Vesnitch said that he was perplexed by this proposal. He thought he had given all the reasons which ought to be taken into consideration for uniting this territory to the Serbo-Croat-Slovene Kingdom, and that the council would not have any real necessity to expose them to these new votes. He would like the Council to attribute this compact Slovene population without the necessity of consulting the people. He did not contest that the population in this area was mixed, but even the enemies of this people conceded that the Slovene race was in the majority. The Council would not believe his delegation, nor even their enemies.

President Wilson admitted that there was a large majority of Slovenes. The same problem, however, had presented itself in Upper Silesia and there, in order to give, so to speak, ceremonial cleanliness to the Treaty with Germany, they were asking that the district should be submitted to a plebiscite.

Mr. Lloyd George asked where the injustice of a plebiscite would lie.

M. Vesnitch said it would be unjust and impracticable. These places had formed the battlefields of the strongest racial antagonism. 70 millions of Germans had weighed on 1,400,000 Slovenes. In German politics Poland was quite a secondary consideration, and German policy always pressed towards Asia Minor and the Adriatic. Consequently, in this region, there had been an endless struggle.

Mr. Lloyd George said he did not see the point of this. He understood that in the Northern (B) area a good many people were against the plebiscite. But he could not see why the population of Slovene origin should not be asked whether it would prefer to remain German or to be united with people of its own race.

M. Vesnitch said that for the last fifty years German propaganda had worked on the population in such a way that these peoples were always under the impressions created by it. They were like birds which were too tame to fly. For fifty years it had been preached to them that the Serbians and the Croats were the worst people on our planet, that under them there could be no security and no rule. It had been just the same in Lombardy fifty years ago. [Page 179]He did not say that the plebiscite would go the wrong way, but in these circumstances there was the risk.

President Wilson said his information was that in all probability the Southern area (A) would vote in favour of uniting with the Serbo-Croat-Slovene Kingdom, but M. Vesnitch seemed to have doubts.

M. Vesnitch said he had not doubts [sic] because he, personally, did not know the district. But the inimical action of the Germans was so strong that it was continued even at the present time. If it should be decided to take the plebiscite by communes perhaps it would be more acceptable to his Delegation.

President Wilson pointed out the difficulty that plebiscite by communes might give disconnected results.

M. Vesnitch said the consequences of this would have to be risked.

Mr. Lloyd George pointed out that the difficulty of plebiscite by communes was that the population of the towns so often differed from the country.

M. Vesnitch said that the Germans always worked by establishing strongholds and these were usually in the towns. If the Slovenes could only be freed from German influence or, for the matter of that, Slovene influence too, for a couple of years he was quite certain how they would vote. Once they could come under fresh influence there would be no doubt.

President Wilson recalled that the experts had first advised that the plebiscite should be held three years after the signature of peace. They had then been told that M. Vesnitch and his associates feared the German propaganda during this period; consequently, the plebiscite had been put earlier to escape this danger. By shortening the period an attempt had been made to produce a situation in which the vote would be taken before the danger of propaganda manifested itself. If the Serbian Delegation preferred it perhaps a Commission could be set up to govern the district for three years and then take the plebiscite. All sorts of recommendations had been made and the last one had been for the immediate plebiscite in regard to the Southern area marked A on the map and for a later plebiscite in the area marked B, which would only take place if area A had declared for the Serbo-Croat-Slovene State. He asked M. Vesnitch to consider whether he would prefer the plebiscite to take place within six months or in some longer period which might be one, two or three years.

Mr. Lloyd George said that in the meanwhile, the administration would be by a local government under the League of Nations.

M. Vesnitch said he would like to consult his Delegation before giving an answer. He had hoped that the proposal of his Delegation, [Page 180]which left an important part of the area to Austria, was of such a nature that it would not be considered necessary to adopt any system of plebiscite. In his humble opinion it was hardly realised how many of these matters the Powers would have on their shoulders.

M. Clemenceau said it was not their fault. It was due to the enormous scope of the operation of settling the peace of the world.

President Wilson explained how important it was not to adopt one course in one plan and another course in another plan. These difficulties of mixed populations arose wherever an ancient sovereignty had been extended over an alien people. The only way to close the mouths of the critics was to say “Let the people themselves judge”.

The Council agreed:—

That

(1)
The group of experts who had been considering the Klagenfurt problem should formulate a detailed plan on the following basis: that the population of the Southern part of area marked A on President Wilson’s map should declare by plebiscite whether they wished to be attached to Jugo-Slavia or to Austria. In the interval between the signature of peace and the date of the plebiscite, the region to be administered by a local government under the League of Nations. The date of the plebiscite to be fixed after hearing the views of the Serbo-Croat-Slovene Delegation.
(2)
That M. Vesnitch should consult his Delegation as to whether it would prefer the plebiscite to be held within six months after the signature of peace or after some longer period.

Mr. Leeper, who was in attendance, was called into the room and personal instructions were given to him to get into touch with the other experts on the subject.