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Austro-Marxism and the Annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Letter to Karl Kautsky

Dimitrije Tucović

This letter deals with the response of Austro-Marxism to the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in October 1908.1 Dated 2 February 1909, it was written from Belgrade by Dimitrije Tucović,2 leader of the Serbian Social Democratic Party, to Karl Kautsky.3

Dear Comrade Kautsky,

I received your reply some time ago. Although I know you are very busy, nevertheless I must once more convey some thoughts to you.

I never believed that I would be able to write in German. But in the hope that you will nevertheless understand me, I and my party comrades have a powerful internal need to present our views in the journal, Die Neue Zeit.4 Condemned as we are to struggle for our cause in such constricted and unfavourable circumstances, the actions of International Social Democracy have a far greater significance for us than they do for the German, French and other comrades. We live much more from the victories of our parties abroad than from our own victories.

So it is easy for you to imagine how hard it is for us if the attitude of foreign comrades and party papers offends our feelings. Unfortunately, this has happened in the case of the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All the lies and deceptions that Austrian diplomacy constantly spreads, with such transparent intentions, have found their mouthpiece in the paper of the Austrian comrades. Our party press is not the place where we can correct such matters; there we must carry on the struggle against our own class enemies. However, I ask you to believe me when I say that political conditions in "regicide" Serbia are more favourable for socialist activity than in all the other South Slav provinces of Austria-Hungary.5 This is not just because the political class struggle in an independent territory has not abated even when faced with the conduct of a state authority that lies in the hands of foreign rulers, but also because Serbia, in terms of democratic institutions, is more advanced than the South Slav provinces of Austria.6 What we lack is neither a "conscientious" Austrian emperor, nor the wisdom of Austrian statesmen, but conditions for the development of economic forces, which stand in the most intimate relationship with national unity and freedom.

The occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the chief cause of our economic backwardness and the annexation sounds the death knell not only for the national liberation of the Serbian nation, but also for the economic development and political independence of Serbia itself.

In our opinion, the objection that nothing has been changed by the annexation is invalid, regardless of whether it comes from foreign party comrades or from Aehrenthal’s diplomats.7 The annexation of a people against its will by incarcerating its representatives, by treason trials and military violence, cannot, according to our socialist logic, be regarded as just a formality.

I know about the project of making the Balkan nations happy in Austria-Hungary from the articles of Comrades Renner and Bauer.8 Comrade Němec9 spoke in the delegations10 of the economic conquest of the Balkans by the Habsburg Monarchy. This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the attitude of the Austrian comrades to the policy of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans is concerned. Because of this they speak in mocking terms about Serbia, its King Peter11 and the heir to the throne, when they should be fighting on behalf of the natural strivings of the Serbian people for national liberation. Unfortunately, in this respect, there is complete agreement between Arbeiter Zeitung12 and Neue Freie Presse.13

Austria-Hungary cannot be the main culprit for the wretched state of affairs in Serbia – even so, no social democratic paper has the right to justify the policy of conquest and oppression of a great power with such arguments. In our opinion, so far as the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is concerned, it is neither a question of official Serbia nor of King Peter and Crown Prince George,14 but rather one of satisfying capitalist interests by exploiting new regions, and the struggle of a people for liberation. Consequently, far wider political and cultural interests are at stake here. Our Austrian comrades can rest assured that under the rule of the Monarchy the Serbian nation can only be "made happy" by means of force, which will be even more brutal the more a nation strives for its independence. This is fully reflected in the system of rule in Bosnia and Croatia. In this struggle between a small nation and a great power that weighs down upon it like a nightmare, precious popular forces are being destroyed. All the more so, if Serbia, in the clutches of Austria-Hungary, ostensibly independent, with a sense of great rights, but small means, plundered from all sides, must continue to perish slowly but surely. It is superfluous to emphasise how much this above all affects the cause of socialism in Serbia.

It is with much haste that we are consoled with the idea of a Balkan confederation. A nice idea, but nothing more.15 Our party has propagated this idea, which is known to you from the articles of the late Comrade M. Popović.16 Similarly, we are even advised that an alliance should be formed with the "new" Turkey.17 Nonsense! Is the fate of the Serbs in Turkey better than in Austria-Hungary? Is it worth the effort to perpetuate the Asiatic enslavement of our co-nationals in Turkey through friendship pacts between Serbia and Turkey, simply in order to escape Austrian rule? The most natural federation in the Balkans would be that between Serbia and Bulgaria, but all attempts until now have failed because of Bulgarian feelings of superiority and foreign diplomatic influences. In my opinion, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when two thirds of the Serbian people finally fell under the rule of Austnia-Hungary, buries the idea of a confederation of the Balkan nations for Serbia and the Serbian people.

To the extent required by the interests of the great powers, diplomacy can be as enthusiastic as it wishes about this idea. Today it is in favour, tomorrow against; but, in spite of all its power, it cannot breathe life into such contrived schemes at will. The foreign social democratic press has not always been able to separate the real relations and forces that affect the Balkans from the ambitions and contrived schemes of European diplomacy. They fail to see behind the Russian spectre, Austria-Hungary’s policy of conquest; they do not see behind the appetites of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, the wretched situation in Macedonia; behind the "new" Turkey, which has become the special favourite of Comrade Jaurès,18 the vital interests of the Balkan peoples. I would summarise all this in the following way: our foreign comrades should have less understanding for the contrived schemes of diplomacy and greater determination in the struggle against the capitalist policy of conquest of their countries.

I beg you, Comrade Kautsky, to excuse me for having again taken up your precious time with these matters. I wanted to show you once more our very difficult position. As far as my article is concerned, you can return it to me if that is the practice of the editorial board.

Thank you for your readiness to help us, which you expressed in your letter. You have always helped us through your writings.

With party greetings

D. Tucović


1. The annexation of the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary was the first step in ambitious imperialist project to assert Habsburg hegemony over the Balkans. In its path lay the independent kingdom of Serbia, whose very existence challenged its hold over subject South Slav populations and thus its raison d’être. The annexation thus heralded the future destruction of independent Serbia. The failure of the Austrian socialists to defend the right to self-determination of the annexed populations and their adaptation to the Austrian (imperial) idea (in the name of a future democratic federation of Austria-Hungary) led to a series of bitter conflicts with the Serbian socialists who directly felt the closing vice of Austrian imperialism. See commentary and texts by both Austrian and Serbian socialists in Revolutionary History, Vol.8, No.3, pp.123-150.

2. Arguably the most important Marxist to have ever come out of Serbia. One of the founders of the Serbian Social Democratic Party in 1903. Became de facto party leader in 1908. Organised the First Balkan Social Democratic Conference in Belgrade in 1910. Famously attacked Austrian Social Democrats at the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International of 1910 for their opportunist stance on Habsburg annexation of Bosnia. Opposed the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and the First World War in which he was tragically killed. His major work was Serbia and Albania (1914); excerpts from this are translated in Revolutionary History, op. cit., pp.218-225.

3. See ‘D. Tucović an Karl Kautsky’, item 100 in Georges Haupt, Janos Jemnitz, Leo van Rossum ed., Karl Kautsky und die Sozialdemokratie Südosteuropas. Korrespondenz 1883-1938, Quellen und Studien zur Sozialgeschichte, Bd. 5 (Frankfürt/M., New York, 1986). Translated by Mike Jones, Dragan Plavšić and Andreja Živković.

4. Tucović had recently sent Kautsky an article on the annexation crisis for publication in Die Neue Zeit. See letters, items 98 and 99, in ibid. This was not published, presumably since Kautsky, like the Austro-Marxists, accepted the annexation of Bosnia as a fait accompli and felt no need to condemn it as an act of national enslavement. In his own commentary on the annexation, Kautsky studiously evaded the question of the right to self-determination of the peoples of Bosnia, focusing instead on the need for socialists to prevent the annexation crisis leading to the outbreak of a world war. See ‘Osterreich und Serbien’ (Austria and Serbia), Die Neue Zeit, XXVII, 1908/1909, pp.860-863.

5.On the night of 29 May 1903 the pro-Austrian King of Serbia, Alexander Obrenović (1876-1903) and his Queen were shot and sabred by army officers and their naked bodies were dumped from a balcony onto the palace grounds. The regicide provoked much condemnation of the "primitive" Serbs across Europe at the time – including from the Hungarian and Austrian socialist press! However its result was to inaugurate constitutional government in Serbia and free it from more than twenty years of semi-colonial subservience to Austria.

6. Tucović means that the class struggle is more advanced in Serbia than in the South Slav provinces of Austria-Hungary not only because the latter lack self-government and all demands in this direction are fiercely repressed, but also because Serbia is more democratic; i.e. the labour movement has more opportunities to pursue the class struggle. He is rebutting the Austrian socialist view that the annexation, by bringing Bosnia within the juridical framework of the empire, will promote the development of an indigenous labour movement. See also note 9 below.

7. This defence of the annexation rested on the fact that, under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, the Great Powers agreed to the military occupation of the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina (plus the Sandjak of Novi Pazar) by Austria-Hungary to counterbalance the establishment of an autonomous Bulgaria under Russian control. While legally still Ottoman possessions, these provinces became de facto Austrian colonies.

8. Both Bauer and Renner advocated the transformation of the Habsburg Empire into a democratic federation of nationalities organised on the basis of national cultural autonomy. They believed that this solution to the "South Slav question" would represent a magnetic force of attraction for the independent Balkan nations, drawing them into the empire. The only other alternative path to South Slav unification, they reasoned, was both improbable and hazardous since it implied the break-up of Austria-Hungary, which meant world war (and was in any case unthinkable for Bauer and Renner). In this way they blithely convinced themselves that the South Slavs would ignore the reality of Austrian oppression and imperialism and fall over each other to benefit from Austrian "citizenship". Thus from being supporters of Austrian integrity they became supporters of the Greater Austrian idea; i.e. democratic imperialists. See for example Bauer’s ‘Austria’s Foreign Policy and Social Democracy’, in Revolutionary History, op. cit., pp.129-134.

9. Antonin Němec (1858-1926), a leader of Czech Social Democracy in Austria, who played a shameful role in the bitter dispute with the Serbian socialists over the annexation of Bosnia. In August 1908 the Serbs sent a Memorandum on the Political Situation of the Workers’ Movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina to the International Socialist Bureau, the headquarters of the Second International, to protest against the repression of the workers’ movement there, but primarily, in the words of Tucović, so that the Austrian socialist press "would not have to get its information from the bought-off Viennese press, and could clearly see Austria-Hungary’s desire to colonise the Balkans". The task of responding to these allegations fell to Němec and in his insolent and disingenuous response he claimed that there was a well organised workers’ movement in Bosnia, which had more freedom for development and was making better progress than the movement in Serbia. The annexation did not change anything as far as Serbia was concerned. Moreover the Serbs of Serbia had no more right to Bosnia than the Serbs of Austria-Hungary, who were in fact more numerous than the former.

10. The common institutions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, War and Finance) were responsible to two separate bodies, the so-called Austrian and Hungarian Delegations, consisting of sixty members each, chosen from the parliaments of Vienna and Budapest.

11. King Peter Karadjordjević (1842-1921) of Serbia, who came to the throne following the overthrow and murder of King Alexander Obrenović. See note 5.

12. Workers News, organ of the German Social Democratic Workers Party in Austria, 1889-1934.

13. New Free Press (1864-1937), Viennese daily well known internationally for its liberal-bourgeois and German nationalist-imperialist positions.

14. Prince George of Serbia (1887-1972), who was mentally and emotionally unstable, was forced to renounce his right to the throne in 1909.

15. Some commentators have seen in this an admission that the idea of the Balkan federation was not taken seriously by the Serbian socialists, but was merely a tactical demand for anti-Austrian alliance as a counter to the desperate position of Serbia after the annexation of Bosnia. However it is clear from this and the following paragraph that Tucović is in fact rejecting the idea of a Balkan confederation, whether it comes from European diplomacy or the Austrian socialists, as a kind of compensation for the annexation of Bosnia. Such a loose alliance of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece would not solve the problems of national unification of the Balkan nations languishing under Austrian or Turkish oppression or the problem of Great Power domination over the region. Tucović is rejecting any policy that starts from the oppressive and reactionary Balkan status quo of decrepit empires and petty, fragmented statelets in the Balkans in favour of its revolutionary overthrow.

16. Milorad Popović (1875-1905), one of the founders of the workers’ movement in Serbia. From a position similar to Russian Economism he held that the political struggle of the working class could only develop out of a strong trade union movement. Published articles on the national question in the Balkans in Die Neue Zeit between 1902-1905.

17. Tucović is referring to Turkey after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. The Young Turks sought to modernise the Ottoman Empire in order to prevent its external dismemberment and thereby to perpetuate Turkish domination over the subject nations of the empire.

18. Jean Jaurès (1859-1914), the French socialist leader, after defending the right of the Ottoman Armenians and Greeks to self-determination in the 1890s, later became an defender of the integrity of the oppressive Ottoman Empire, especially after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Jaurès was haunted by the threat of a world war that would destroy European civilisation and wipe out the international socialist movement. Since the Balkans were a perpetual flashpoint of great power conflict, Jaurès looked to a reformed Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Great Power interference in the region. Thus the celebrated peace policy of Jaurès (and arguably the Second International) amounted to little more than the defence of the reactionary territorial-political status quo in the Balkans as a prophylactic against world war!