Five days after the illegal annexation of the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Hercegovina by Austria-Hungary in October of 1908, a group of Serbs met in Belgrade, Serbia to plan a legal response to this illegal act committed by the Dual Monarchy. Because those two provinces were most heavily populated by Christian Orthodox Serbs who had been forced to live under Moslem Ottoman then Austro-Hungarian rule, the Serbs of Serbia felt compelled to respond. Participating in the meeting was the well-known Serbian writer, Branislav Nusich. He suggested that an organization be formed that would stand up for the survival of Serbdom and defend the interests of Serbs everywhere. The others at the meeting accepted the idea and proceeded with formally establishing the Serbian National Defense organization on October 21, 1908. None of the Serbs at this meeting could have predicted that this newly formed organization would still be active, if no longer in the homeland, then in the Diaspora, one hundred years later.
Its agenda was simple: Unification of all Serbs under one national government, liberation of all Serbs forced to live under the dominance of foreign powers, and the preservation of Serbian culture and Serbia’s democratic and Christian ideals. These were essentially the same goals as those held by other national and ethnic groups in history who had striven to preserve their national and cultural identity while under the domination of the ruling Great Powers of the day.
General Bozidar Jankovich
The first elected president of the Serbian National Defense organization in Serbia was General Bozidar Jankovich, who four years later, during the First Balkan War in 1912, would command the Serbian Third Army which would successfully liberate Serbia’s sacred Kosovo from 500 years of Ottoman rule. The first secretary of the organization was Major Milorad Vasich. General Jankovich would later be succeeded by Field Marshal Stepa Stepanovich, who, as commander of the Serbian Second Army during the First World War, prevailed at the Battle of Cer in August of 1914, thus securing the first Allied victory of World War I, and later led the breakthrough on the Salonika Front in September of 1918, effectively shortening the war and thus saving the lives of potentially millions of people.
The Chetniks, who were the Serbian nationalist guerrilla forces that had banded together to free their people from the oppression of the Moslem Turks, joined Serbian National Defense as the “fighting arm” of the organization. The other was the ideological-political arm. The dedication of this new organization to their ideals would be tested soon enough.
After the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Serbs in America became increasingly interested in the work of the Serbian National Defense organization. After Serbia and Montenegro’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, the Serbs, a little known national entity in America up to that time, became a symbol of the fight for freedom. The dream of the Serbs in the homeland to unite all of their people into one country, under one flag, inspired the Serbs in the Diaspora, especially in America, to share in the pursuit of that dream. At this time, there was no consideration of a union with the Croats and Slovenes for they were aligned with Germany and Austria-Hungary, who would become known as the “Central Powers” as Europe was dividing into its separate alignments in preparation for the future war that all were anticipating.
The prevailing problem for the Serbian government in Serbia was how to bring the Serbs living west of the Drina River under the flag and protection of Serbia. Many of the Serbs that had emigrated to the United States had come from those parts of the Balkans that were west of the Drina River, and thus still under the domination of either the Austro-Hungarian or the Ottoman Empires.
Just before the Great War began, the Serbs of America, motivated by their love for their homeland and the spirit of liberty and unity, formed the Serbian National Defense Council of America (SND) in July of 1914, in New York City. Many of the émigrés in America were young intellectuals, averaging in age between 25 and 30. There were older émigrés as well, among them the renowned Serbian scientist especially known for the advances he made in long distance telephone communication, Michael Pupin, who had come to the United States in 1874. He became the founder and the first president of this new Serbian-American organization dedicated to the preservation of Serbdom. Though based in New York, 83 local lodges soon formed in city centers throughout the United States. With the onset of World War I immediately upon its inception, the SND Council of America would find itself contributing to the Allied war effort overseas in the most meaningful of ways.
The first contribution was humanitarian. Some 180 other patriotic organizations would come to cooperate with Serbian National Defense to collect money and clothing for the soldiers and the families of the soldiers in the homeland. Serbia and Montenegro, allied with the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia, were up against the combined forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, the Central Powers. From the beginning of the war in 1914 until September of 1917, SND collected over a half million dollars, huge money at the time, and hundreds of trunks full of clothing that were shipped overseas.
Because America was not yet participating in the war and would not be until April of 1917, the second contribution of SND in America to the Allied cause was trickier. The Serbian National Defense Council of America would embark upon recruiting Serbian volunteers among the émigré community in America to go fight the war in Europe on behalf of the Allies. Though this activity was not legal at the time because America was not yet at war, the organization would be amazingly successful in its efforts. The spirit of patriotism and solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the homeland was very much alive in the Serbian community in America and this spirit would end up serving the Allied cause well. Enthusiastic and motivated patriotic volunteers were sent to the front via Detroit and on through Canada, who was at war by virtue of being part of the British Commonwealth. As America’s sympathies lay with the Allies of the Triple Entente, she was willing to look the other way as the Serbian volunteers were recruited and sent overseas to the Salonika Front in the Balkans. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, the recruitment and sending of Serbian volunteers to the front became legal and proceeded with vigor. All in all, over 17,000 Serbs in America were, through the efforts of SND, recruited and sent to the Salonika Front, all of them willing to leave the comforts of America and all the blessings they had found there to fight on the front for the Allied cause. They did so knowing that they might never return to enjoy a future full of promise in America. It was that unselfish and patriotic spirit that Serbian National Defense nurtured.
We do not know if the Salonika Front breakthrough and the victory in the Balkans in September 1918 that led to the first armistice of World War One would have occurred without the influx of Serb volunteers from the United States. What we do know is that the breakthrough and Allied victory against the Central Powers in Salonika did occur, that the combined Serbian army comprised of both homeland forces and volunteers from America participated in a vital way, that the Serbs had pushed for this action, and that the First World War was consequently shortened by at least a year or more, thereby saving millions of lives that would have been lost had the war continued into 1919 as planned. We also know that Germany’s Kaiser William II, in a telegram sent on September 30, 1918 to the Bulgarian Supreme Command, lamented that the Serbs had essentially broken the back of the Central Powers.
“Sixty two thousand Serbian fighters,” he wrote, “have determined the outcome of this war. For shame!” wrote the German emperor, foreseeing that the end was near and that it would not finish in Germany’s favor.
Serbia should be proud indeed of her volunteers from the United States and the Allies grateful. The Serbian National Defense Council of America, who initiated and followed through with the recruitment effort, has, with this contribution alone, much to be proud of. There would be more challenges ahead, some of them overwhelming, but SND would survive and prevail, despite the political setbacks that would come to the homeland and spread abroad.
After the post World War creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on December 1 1918, later to be renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929, the new government limited the activity of the SND organization to avoid ‘insulting’ the sensibilities of the other national groups that were now part of the new Kingdom, namely the Croatians and Slovenes. Serbdom was once again to be sacrificed in deference to a multi-national entity. With that, the patriotic and democratic national spirit that had inspired Serbian society, in great part through the efforts of SND, was compromised.
When Hitler attacked the country on April 6, 1941 there was no spirited and unified force to resist him and Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis in eleven days. The spirit that led the Serbs through the Balkan Wars and the First World War failed them in April of 1941 however, it would be resurrected in the successful uprising of General Draza Mihailovich and his Chetniks that May. In 1942, SND was reactivated in the United States, through efforts led by the well-known Serbian writer, Jovan Duchich. The organization now focused its attention on facilitating assistance in the United States to help General Mihailovich and his Chetniks in waging their anti-Axis and anti-communist battles that raged for four years of war. Through the years, Serbian National Defense would continue to remember and celebrate the spirit of this Serbian Uprising and its successful resistance against the Nazis and its fight against the communist enemy and has kept the legacy of General Mihailovich alive to this day. This spirit would prevail among those Serb patriots who remained believers in a democratic and free Serbian nation. The dedication of SND to maintaining the ideals of liberty and democracy served as an antidote to what would evolve into communist Yugoslavia upon the end of the Second World War.
After World War Two ended, SND continued issuing its warning to the world that even though one evil force, Nazism, was dead, there was another evil force, Communism, threatening the freedom of people everywhere.
Serbian National Defense has remained a living sentry for 100 years and a dedicated promoter of the democratic ideals of liberty and freedom. SND has never stopped warning the Serbs, and others all over the world, that the threat of dictatorship and terrorism is always present and that we must stay ever vigilant.
The efforts and contributions of Serbian National Defense cannot be underestimated. It is an organization whose principles are shared by freedom-loving people everywhere. The principles which are at its core – the support of democratic reform in the homeland, the return to the noble ideals of the forefathers and the moral and spiritual values symbolized by Christianity, the obligation to always fight for freedom and liberty and the survival of national identity and the preservation of ones country – are principles that are shared by patriotic Americans and Serbs alike.
This spirit has motivated and inspired the Serbs through the years and has enabled them to survive the most trying of times in the face of the most overwhelming challenges. Serbian heroes have embodied this living spirit, a spirit that will be reflected and honored in the upcoming book “Heroes of Serbia”. For 100 years, Serbian National Defense has motivated Serbs to reach the heights of their potential, a potential that has proven to be noble more often than not and a source of inspiration for all who believe in the core principles of liberty and freedom from oppression. Congratulations to SND and may you continue your good work for the next 100 years as new challenges arise that must be met.
Chicago, IL U.S.A.
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