Today, Ante Trumbić, a former Croatian mayor and representative in the Reichstrat, the Austro-Hungarian parliament, founds the Yugoslav Committee (pictured above at Corfu in 1917) without fanfare in Florence. Never a separatist, he has always been a reformer who sought to temper and balance the Hapsburg domination of Slavs in the Balkans without tearing the empire asunder. But fearing the reactionary political climate, Trumbić fled to Italy with the outbreak of war. In exile, he now works to unite the oppressed Slavic peoples into a single new state — a Yugoslavia — that is to consist partly of lands to be taken from a defeated Austrian empire.
One of the most adroit diplomats of the Great War, Trumbić begins his organizing work under a low profile so as not to annoy his hosts. Italy is still ostensibly allied with the Central Powers right now, but has stayed out of the conflict; secretly, her government has designs on the Italian-speaking provinces of the Hapsburg dominion, and these ambitions are pulling her towards a new alliance with the Triple Entente. Trumbić has been in the country long enough to understand which way the winds are blowing, and he fears that Italy will also demand Croatia and other Balkan territories as the price of switching sides.
Trumbić has tried to interest France, Britain, and Russia in the independence of Slavic states, but they are more interested in the Serbian proposal for a pan-Slavic kingdom based in Serbia. Between now and next May, when the Yugoslav Committee emerges into the public light with him as chairman, Trumbić will build the consensus among expatriate Slavs and begin formally lobbying the allies to recognize a South Slav political union. For Croatia, it is the better alternative to Italian imperialism.
When Italy enters the war next May, the Treaty of London does indeed oblige their new allies to let her claim Croatian and Balkan territories upon the expected victory against Austria. By then, the Yugoslav Committee is based in London, at the center of the war’s diplomatic corps and safely out of the Italian government’s reach.
As the ancient homeland of the Illyrian civilization, the eastern shore of the Adriatic is where the Roman Republic became an empire. Italians resent their status as a ‘minor power’ and have dreams of restoration; these ambitions have already been partly fulfilled in East Africa, and in Libya with a victory over the decrepit Ottoman Empire in 1911 using modern weapons. A young kingdom, Italy took Rome for a capital in 1871, the same year that France lost its previous war against a Prussian monarch, and now Prime Minister Antonio Salandra’s price for attacking his former allies is his country’s recognition as a great power at least the equal of France.
Salandra is an authoritarian conservative who was not expected to remain in office very long when he took over in March. The country is still suffering from shortages due to the previous war; the Italian Army has trouble resupplying its garrisons in their new Libyan territory, much less supporting a major invasion in the Alps. Worker strikes threatened Salandra’s government this Summer until the July Crisis rallied public opinion, which improved even more with his declaration of neutrality. Indeed, his popularity peaks with the nation’s eventual war declaration.
Having fallen prey to the classic error of planning a short, victorious war without the money or military to sustain it, Italy will fail to conquer its objectives on their own. Instead, Trumbić attends the peace conference at Versailles as the new Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The Yugoslav dream has already become a kind of reality: his committee has met at the Greek Island of Corfu in 1917 to agree on the framework for a Yugoslav state; the House of Karađorđević has won a power struggle with the King of Montenegro to rule it, and Trumbić has won his own contest with Nikola Pašić, the former Serbian Prime Minister, to represent it. His personal efforts are the biggest reason why the peace conference fails to award Italy the provinces that she could not win by herself.
The Italian political right never quite forgives their country’s European allies for the disappointment of their own military and diplomatic failures, and call them a betrayal. This will become a long-lasting chip on the nation’s shoulder, a matter of pride that helps mislead Italians into the madness of a Second World War as allies of Adolf Hitler.
Ante Trumbić never realizes his true dream of Croatian independence, either. Retiring from the Foreign Ministry to resume that goal after the peace is secured, Trumbić comes to regret the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the Serbian government oppresses his Croatian Peasant Party, and dies still pressing for Zagreb to have greater autonomy from Belgrade. In the end, he has merely chosen between competing imperial visions, serving the cause of a Greater Serbia that becomes a dictatorship in 1929. Only when Yugoslavia declines into the chauvinism and genocide of Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s will Trumbić’s nation finally be free to assert a sovereign identity.