Enikő A. Sajti

The Former 'Southlands' in Serbia: 1918- 1947



The most serious consequence of the Yugoslav succession was the nationalist edge that was given to these momentous changes. Freezing "foreign" (that is, Hungarian) wealth and appointing South Slav commissioners to run Hungarian companies had started before the end of 1918. Hungarian civil servants and rail-waymen were dismissed en masse, the judiciary was replaced, and the Hungarian secondary school system was dismantled, followed by the primary system. The nationalist character of the Yugoslav land reform, which dragged on to the end of the 1930s, weakened the traditional Hungarian gentry class while doing nothing to help the peasantry, who made up the bulk of the population in the Voivodina: landless agricultural labourers of Hungarian ethnicity were not given any land. The reform's greatest weakness was that while it intended to unify the structure of land ownership in the new state, it failed to set in train any process of modern-isation. It significantly increased the number of subsistence small and dwarf-hold-ers, who were mostly incapable of producing any surplus for the market.
This shake-up of agriculture, begun in the wake of the regent Alexander's 1919 manifesto declaring a "just" land reform, extended to almost 2.5 million hectares (approx. 6 million acres); in other words, around 17.8 per cent of all land under cul-tivation changed hands. Half of that (1,286,227 hectares, or 3.18 million acres) was redistributed in Bosnia with the emancipation of the peasantry from medieval bond-age, and nearly half of the remainder was parcelled out in Macedonia and Kosovo. In territories that had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 55,137 hectares (136,243 acres) were reassigned. Ethnic Hungarian landowners who opted for Hungarian citizenship lost 71.2 per cent of their properties; while 38.6 per cent of the properties of those who took Yugoslav citizenship were appropriated for redistribu-tion, a total of 110,684 hectares (273,500 acres). Of all the private land that came to be redistributed, 4.4 per cent had formerly been in Hungarian ownership. Of those estates in the Southlands that had been in the hands of the state or of municipalities, churches, foundations and financial institutions, a total of 364 amounting to 247,565 hectares (611,733 acres), 36 per cent were redistributed.
The land reform in Yugoslavia between the two world wars saw a total of 518,000 South Slav peasant families allocated larger or smaller plots, of whom 43,500 were families resettling to a new area. The avowed goal of such resettle-ments was to populate the territories lying along the northern borders of Yugoslavia with "reliable Slavs" to offset the majority, the "unreliable Magyars", or in "southern Serbia"- Kosovo- to "strengthen" the ethnic Slavs there against the Albanians. In the Backa, the settlers included 6,175 Slav dobrovoljac (volun-teer) families (6,912 according to another source), who were allocated 76,000 acres. In the Banat, there were 8,383 settler families, in Baranya 235 families and in the Mura district, a mere 45, mostly Slovene, families.

The new Yugoslav state cut off the Hungarian minority community from the tra- ditional channels of upward mobility. Most important of those was the civil service, hitherto virtually an exclusive preserve of Hungarians. Its complete Slavisation- or "nationalisation" to use the then-current term- left the Hun- garians of the Voivodina with greatly reduced opportunities for upward mobility. The hopeless socio-economic decline experienced by the Hungarian minority was reinforced by the psychological effects of a phenomenon to which the specialist literature has given inadequate attention: the presence at every turn, on the streets, in police stations, at border posts, in offices and even in schools, of crude expressions of Yugoslav nationalism intended for mass consumption. It was no longer a matter of a Jasa Tomic´, a Serbian minority leader of stature, who spoke to crowds about the South Slav "dream" of a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes that would guarantee minority rights. Instead, the streets of Novi Sad resounded to new-style leaders who formulated for the easily inflamed Serbian masses new national goals: "Wipe out those who do not wish to recognise our young kingdom... Hitherto everyone lived freely in the land of freedom, but that is now at an end; anyone who lives here as an enemy has to be destroyed... Serbian heroism will not permit free land for which blood has been shed to be taken away from us."
In order to survive, the Hungarians of the Voivodina had to pursue a strategy in which they operated as an ethnic minority. Under the circumstances, for them to overtly adopt irredentism or Hungarocentric views would have been tanta- mount to collective suicide. At best it was a line that would have locked them into a dream world of a past seen through rose-tinted glasses.
Because the "disfranchised generation" had been socialised in the pre-war world of historical Hungary, their fundamental experience in the new state was one of dispossession, deprivation of rights, vulnerability to attack on all sides and permanent anxiety over their social status. As a consequence, their strategies as a minority were bound up with airing their grievances as a national group. Between 1918 and 1922, there were serious debates among them over the attitude that was to be taken toward the new state. The heated disputes between the "activists" (advocates of political organisation) and "passivists" (those committed to cultural bridge-building), were finally settled in Budapest, within the circle of Prime Minister István Bethlen. The message went out to Subotica and Novi Sad that those failing to toe the motherland's (i.e. the activists') line in pushing for the establishment of a united political party for the Hungarian minority would have all financial and moral support withdrawn. As a result, in 1922 the Hungarians of Voivodina formed the Hungarian Party which took on the impossible task of establishing itself as the sole frame in which the Hungarian minority's diverse economic, political and cultural ties were to be represented. The party's leaders also attempted with enormous difficulties to keep track of the hectic political rhythm that Serbo-Croat antagonisms imposed on the new multi-ethnic state.

Their main aim was to build up political representation for the Hungarians; up to 1929, this was found in parliament, the provincial assembly and local representative bodies. From the outset, the mutually damaging ambitions of Serbs and Croats shrank the Hungarians' room for political manoeuvre. Two basic national ideologies had evolved among the Serbs and Croats during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: one espoused a South Slav unity between the two peoples, while the other emphasised separate national develop- ment for Serbs and Croats. Yugoslavianism, an amalgam of divergent religious and cultural tendencies founded primarily on linguistic and ethnic kinship, remained at root a cultural programme until the beginning of the twentieth cen- tury. Its political aspect, the creation of a large South Slav state, was initially for- mulated to minister to the Serbian monarchy's foreign-policy interests (the Nacertanije Plan for a Greater Serbia, drawn up by Ilya Garasanin, the Serbian foreign minister) and directed against the Ottoman Empire. It was only at the end of the First World War that those Croats and Slovenes in the Austro-Hungarian Empire accepted the idea of a united single state of South Slav "tribes". Against the centralised monarchist state of the Serbian political élite, they put emphasis on the constitutional equality of "the Triune nation" (that is, of Croats and Slovenes as well as Serbs) and demanded a federal solution. The leadership of the nations that brought the South Slav state into being did not clarify the state's internal structure prior to unification, leaving disputes to a constituent assembly that was to be convoked at a later date. Croatian and Slovene political circles trusted that in a new Skupstina (national assembly), elected on the basis of universal male suffrage (already in place in Serbia), they would be strong enough to push the state towards a federative structure. Those hopes were to be serious-ly dashed. Belying the outcome of the parliamentary elections, the Vidovdan (St Vitus's Day) Constitution that was passed on 28 June 1921, after political horse-trading and in the absence of Croat representatives, sanctioned a centralist structure for the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes- a result that unequivo-cally signified the dominance of the Serbian dynasty and Serbian political forces. From then on, the history of the state can also be described as that of a war for political and economic hegemony waged between Serbian centralists and Croatian federative forces.
As is commonly known, Hungarian governments never gave up hopes of securing a revision of the terms of the Treaty of Trianon, although they were all too aware that the international climate for attaining that was unfavourable. Due to the need for internal and external consolidation, Hungary's opportunities for supporting its minority communities were distinctly limited, especially during the 1920s, and- much as other countries did at the time- they were concentrated primarily on channelling secret subsidies and advice via legal non-governmental organisations. In order to provide support for Hungarian communities outside the country's borders, Bethlen in 1921, established a supposedly secret ministry to exercise political influence on those communities through an openly operating blanket organisation called the Federation of Social Associations (TESZK), through which fairly generous financial support was given to Hungarian political and cultural organisations in Slovakia, Transylvania and the Voivodina. The affairs of the Southlands Hungarians were taken care of within TESZK by the St Gellért Society, whose chairman was the literary lion Ferenc Herczeg, a native of the Voivodina. (The equivalent body supporting the Hungarians of Slovakia was the Rákóczi Association, while that for the Hungarians of Transylvania was the Folk Literary Society.) The general balance of power in Europe aside, the possibility of the mother-land being able to exercise foreign-political pressure in the interests of the Hungarian minority was substantially reduced by Hungary's frigid relations with Belgrade. Diplomatic exchanges were fitful and at times stalled completely. The League of Nations mechanism for the protection of minorities may have offered some safeguards of minority rights (elementary education in the mother tongue, etc.) and, as a creation of the post-1918 European order, Yugoslavia was in no position to reject the basic principles of the international regime for the protec-tion of minorities that the victorious Allies had established.


Hungarians in the Voivodina naturally perceived reannexation as a national liberation while Serbs in the region saw it as the destruction of their nation-state. To begin with, the territory was under military government. Since the army regarded the "national loyalties" of Serb settlers as suspect in principle, they were either expelled into German-occupied Serbia or else incarcerated in internment camps. Some Serbs who had served in the former Royal Yugoslav Army organised as guerrilla fighters- the Chetniks, from cheta or band- to put up armed resistance against Hungarian forces ("Chetnik shoot-ups" as the Hungarians termed them). Many innocent Serbs became victims of the ensuing reprisals. According to Hungarian data, 1,435 civilians were killed as a result of the reannexation of the Voivodina, while figures compiled by the Yugoslavs after the war claimed a total of 3,506.
Even during the brief period of military government (which ended in mid-August 1941), steps were taken to invalidate all provisions of the Yugoslav land reform. The expelled South Slav settlers were replaced by Bukovina Hungarians- Szeklers were resettled when the northern Bukovina region in Romania was annexed by the Soviet Union- and by ethnic Magyars from Bosnia (which had become a province of Croatia). The Yugoslav school system was closed down wholesale, all professional and cultural bodies were banned, and virtually every official in the Yugoslav civil service was dismissed; in turn, there was a restora-tion of a Hungarian administration, school system, cultural organisations, etc.
If one accepts the view of a good number of present-day Hungarian historians that Horthy-era Hungary should be seen as "a limited parliamentary democracy with distinctly authoritarian features", then it has to be said that it was the authoritarian features that dominated in the reannexed Southlands between 1941 and 1944. Marks of this included the immediate introduction of military govern-ment and summary jurisdiction; unlike the case in the reannexed areas of Slovakia and Transylvania, the operation of all political parties except the govern-ment party- even the local Hungarian Party- was forbidden. Parliamentary representatives for the region entered Hungary's Diet not by election, but by appointment (parliamentary elections in the other reannexed territories were deferred until after the war).
The state of affairs in the Southlands seemed to have stabilised by the autumn of 1941.
Through the stiff sentences handed down by summary courts, the Chief of Staff succeeded in eradicating local Communist organisations and putting an end to the acts of sabotage that they had been carrying out. Among the 342 detainees brought before these courts, 116 were found guilty of "conspiring to cause the violent overthrow of the state and the social order": 99 received the death penalty, 71 of these were executed.
From the moment of reannexation onwards, the Hungarian government dis-criminated between the South Slav minorities that had fallen within the state's borders. The Hungarian army that marched into the Voivodina treated Croats as "friends", but the Serbs and those parts of the population deemed to be "Serbian at heart"- Jews, Freemasons, Communists and all other left-wingers - were auto-matically classed as unreliable in regard to their "national loyalties". However, Serbs in what was again southern Hungary- whether they were Chetniks or Com-munists- would have considered regaining their lost independence, rather than accommodating to the apparatus of the Hungarian state, as their main concern. Yet while both were fighting for the restoration of a South Slav state, the Chetniks and Communists fundamentally diverged on its constitutional and social set-up and foreign-political orientation. The Chetniks sought the restoration of a King-dom of Yugoslavia and were strongly pro-British, whereas Tito's Communists were allied to Moscow and advocated Soviet-style state communism.
The Chetniks were unable to bolster their position in the Backa, making just a single attempt to organise themselves there, which was soon dealt with by the Hungarian authorities. Tito's supporters, on the other hand, waged a peculiar "civil war" against the Hungarian state. Between 1941 and 1944, the ethnic Hungarians of the Southlands in the ranks of the Communists, almost 30 per cent of them, fought for their rights as minorities, not with their traditional political and cultural weapons but by fighting with combat squads and through sabotage for the restoration of a united Yugoslavia. They refused to recognise the authori-ty of the Hungarian state, regarding the reannexation as an occupation; their organisations did not attach themselves to the Communist Party of Hungary but to the Yugoslav Party. The bloody civil war between the Chetniks and Com-munists bypassed the Voivodina, given that neither side could call on sufficient forces there, although it is also true that the open terrain- the flat country that is a continuation of the Great Plain- was ill-suited to major acts of armed resist-ance. On 4 January 1942, General Ferenc Szombathelyi, the Chief of the General Staff, "in view of the Chetnik and Communist disturbances that are occurring in the Backa", ordered the military reinforcement of Hungary's southern frontier and the clearing of "Chetniks and partisans" from the area. The detachment of partisans for the whole Sajkas district, just to the east of Novi Sad, numbered no more than 40 members. (The Sajkas district in the southern Backa was once the Serbian frontier, the word Sajkasajka denoting a fighter who manned a sor 'dinghy' in the Austrian interest, fighting the Turks.) A raid on the Sajkas district and Novi Sad conducted under the command of Lt-General Ferenc Fekete-halmy-Czeydner culminated in bloody reprisals against Serbs and Jews. Accord-ing to statistics gathered by the 5th Army Corps in 1944, the round-up resulted in 3,342 fatalities- 2,102 adult men, 792 adult women, 299 elderly and 149 children- of whom 2,550 were Serbs, 743 Jews (most of the Novi Sad victims were Jewish), 13 Russians and 13 Ruthenians, 11 Hungarians, 7 Germans, 2 Croats and 1 Slovak. Through this retribution, far in excess of the partisan force that was involved, certain circles in Hungary sought to demonstrate that they had a great need for the army at home, along the country's southern frontier, and could not comply with German demands to send further troops to the eastern front.
After the massacre, several former Serbian politicians and individuals of the Voivodina tried to take advantage of the gestures made by Miklós Kállay's government (newly formed on 9 March 1942) that were intended to encourage Serb- Hungarian reconciliation. They were willing to engage with the rather restricted existing channels of traditional political discourse (parliamentary representation, educational politics, setting up minority organisations, working for minority newspapers, safeguarding cultural interests, etc.) in order to improve the situation of the region's Serbs. The international importance of all this and the role it played within the local Serbian society, however, were negligible. Indeed, both the Yugoslav government in exile and Tito's partisans condemned co-operation between the Voivodina Serbs and the Hungarian government as treasonable "collaboration with the enemy". The steps taken by a Hungarian gov-ernment that deferred too readily to such dictates of nationalist egotism, as the expulsions of Serbian settlers and subsequent anti-Serb punitive actions carried out by military and gendarme detachments, not to mention the 1942 action described above, had by then tragically aggravated relations between Hungarians and Serbs.


Yugoslavia considered the matter of its ethnic minorities of purely domestic concern with the state being seen as the fount, the starting-point and end-point of any policy. The state would punish the Hungarians, and it would also grant them rights. Not only did it not look for any initiative from, or partnership with, Hungary, it also did not expect any independent action on the part of the "target group", the Hungarian minority. Thus, the Yugoslavs would undoubtedly have made it crystal clear to the Hungarian state that they did not appreciate attempts to have a say in matters that pertained to the Hungarian minority.
Indeed, Yugoslavia took a hard line from the outset in designating the outlines of its eth-nic minorities policy. What it required from the Hungarians of Voivodina was identification with the Communist régime and collective amnesia over the matter of the reprisals.
Between 1918 and 1947, the Hungarian community almost completely lost its old middle class and elite, the social groups that had sustained agriculture, man-ufacturing, culture and other areas of intellectual activity. Under the given inter-nal and external circumstances, those of them who aligned themselves with the new Communist-aligned elite felt that the most fruitful strategy was to integrate and accept the options that were on offer from the state. The likely outcome of this within the one-party system was already clearly evident by 1947: the Hungarians were granted political representation at local and national levels, Hungarian-language schools, newspapers and a permanent theatre. The opera-tion of a (non-political) Hungarian Cultural Association of the Voivodina was also allowed. This offered at least a workable existence as a minority.
With the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc in 1948, Hungary again became a hostile state, since it faithfully took Moscow's side in the dispute between Stalin and Tito. Anti-Yugoslav manoeuvring, in fact, formed a large part of the absurd charges brought against László Rajk, the former Hungarian Minister of the Interior, at his show trial in September 1949. Tito's Yugoslavia was an attempt to offer an alternative to the statism of Soviet socialism: worker self-management in enterprises modified the Soviet model of state socialism on two particular points: rights of ownership and the co-ordinatory channels through which the régime functioned. State ownership was replaced by a distinc-tive and, as yet, still inadequately explained system of social ownership while the party bureaucracy was replaced, at least in principle, by self-governing workers' councils. In Hungary, by contrast, the Stalinist model of state socialism was being implemented ever more harshly. After Hungary and Yugoslavia broke diplomatic ties in 1948, the latter's Hungarian community became trapped within the bor-ders of the Yugoslav state and transformed into a narrow domestic political issue. For a long time thereafter, it was entirely down to the whim of Yugoslavia's power élite whether that community was going to be punished for the sins of Hungary's policies or would be allowed a degree of leeway. There were many examples of both kinds of responses in the ensuing decades.

Translated by

Enikő A. Sajti
is Professor of History at the József Attila University in Szeged. Her most recent publicatons include Hungarians in the Voivodina 1918- 1947, Atlantic Studies on Society in Change, No.110 (2003), and a biography of Josip Broz Tito.