Saturday, October 1, 2022


Only a few books have been written about how the independent kingdom of Montenegro was united to Yugoslavia after WW1 against the wish of many Montenegrins (who made the famous "Christmass Uprising" in 1919). One very well written is the one by Alberto Becherelli with the title "Montenegro Betrayed: The Yugoslav Unification and the Controversial Inter-Allied Occupation".

It is noteworthy to pinpoint that the Italian government (initially also with France) tried to stop this unification, but with no results: France at the Peace Coneference of Paris accepted the unification in 1919, while Italy choose to get an agreement with the Treaty of Rapallo in november 1920 (when Yugoslavia accepted the borders in Venezia Giulia and Dalmatia in exchange of Italy's no more intervention against the Montenegro unification)

Later in the twentieth century, the "Christmas Uprising" was subject to ideological emphasis in Montenegrin nationalism. In World War II, one of the earliest leaders of the Greens, Sekula Drljević, invited the Italian occupation of Montenegro and collaborated with Italy in order to break away from Yugoslavia with the "Italian Governorate of Montenegro"(1941-1943). With him there was also Krsto Popović, the leader of the "Christmas uprising", who organized his collaboration militia called the "Lovćen Brigade". This militia was under the control or influence of the fascist Italian occupation force (if interested, please read:

The following are some excerpts from this very interesting book:

Montenegro Betrayed: The Yugoslav Unification

A Tradition of Independence

During WWI, the Kingdom of Montenegro experienced its last troubled period of independence at the end of a process that in the 19 th century had brought the country almost continuously in a stateof war against the Ottomans with important political and military successes, despite the fact that Sultan Selim III, already in 1799, had formally recognized that Montenegrins “had never been subjects of the High Porte.”

Under the Ottoman domination, the mountains of Montenegro preserved a de facto autonomy from the authority of the sultan due to a peculiar tribal structure and on the basis of the payment of a tribute, which frequently had been unpaid. A particulartheocracy headed by the prince bishop of Cetinje – vladika elected by a local assembly– had existed from the beginning of the 16th cen-tury until 1851, when Montenegro, after the death of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (author of a literary work that became a symbol of the Montenegrin and more generally of the South Slavic nation-building process: Gorski Vijenac [The Mountain Wreath]) also became a secular principality with a definitive separation between temporal and spiritual power.

Over the centuries, the Ottoman army repeatedly attempted to subjugate without success the Montenegrin tribes from the mountains, while the Montenegrin cities on the coast remained for a long time linked to the "Serenissima" Venazia: if Bar (Antivari) and Ulcinj were conquered by the Ottomans in 1571, Kotor and the territory of oka (since 1420), and Budva (since 1442) remained Venetian until 1797 (and after the Napoleonic period under Austria until 1918).

From this historical legacy, the widespread belief among the 18th century Montenegrin vladikas was that Montenegro, whose independence was recognized at the Congress of Berlin of 1878, had never been fully conquered by the Turks.

Still at the beginning of the 20th century Montenegro, also due to the constantly increasing influence of Russia on the country in the previous two centuries, was at the forefront in the fight against “the oppressors of the Slavic peoples,” and the first among the Balkan allies to proclaim war on Turkey in October 1912. If in 1911, before the Balkan Wars, the territory of the kingdom had less than 10,000km with a population of 284,000 inhabitants, in 1914 the country’s surface reached 15,000 km and the population rose to 470,000 inhabitants.

Since 1860, King Nikola was the seventh sovereign from the Petrović-Njegoš dynasty (founded in 1697 by Vladika Danilo IPetrović) and during his fiftieth year (1910) of reign –with half a century of territorial expansion, modernization and socio-economic progress– the principality of Montenegro was elevated to a kingdom andBar declared a free port. Moreover, since December 1905 King Nikola had introduced in the country a constitution based on the Serbian one from 1869.Relations between Montenegrins and Serbs, in the years beforeand during WWI, were controversial.

On the one hand, the Yugo-slav idea had gradually unified the two peoples and, after the parti-tion of the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, proposals for a political, customsand military union of the two countries were advanced – despite the persistent divergences between the Petrović-Njegoš and Karađor-đević dynasties, both eager to make their own kingdoms the central pillar of the Yugoslav unification. On the other hand, the tradition ofindependence of Montenegro was still strong and solidified by therecent wars, which had contributed to strengthen the brotherhood between the Yugoslav peoples, but had not helped in improving therelations between the governments of Cetinje and Belgrade.

In this sense, the Montenegrins continued to reproach the Serbian attitudetowards their aspirations over Shkodër: both the Serbian abandon-ment of the siege during the Balkan Wars and the Serbian attemptduring the retreat at the end of 1915 to assume the control of the cityeven though it had been previously occupied by the Montenegrins.

The Shkodër area was one of the main territorial objectives for the expansion of Montenegro, together with Herzegovina, the south-eastern part of Bosnia, and the Adriatic coast from the spring of the Neretva River to the Bay of Kotor (former Cattaro), including Dubrovnik (former Ragusa).
In addition to this, during WWI, the Montenegrin Army was subject to the Serbian Army General Staff; for this reason the Montenegrins accused the Serbian officers in command for being responsible for the defeat. In October 1915, indeed, the resistance of the Montenegrin army against the offensive of the Austro-Hungarians was ineffective. As aconsequence, in January 1916, the latter had conquered Mount Lovćen and then had invaded the entire country. King Nikola fled to France and Montenegro fell under the Austro-Hungarian domination until the defeat and collapse of the Dual Monarchy in 1918.

Photo of Krsto Popovic, the leader of the Christmas Uprising:
The Controversial Union with Serbia

Far from becoming an independent state again, Montenegro at the end of the war was occupied by the Serbian troops. With the Corfu Declaration of July 20, 1917, the head of the Serbian government Nikola Pašić and the leader of the Yugoslav Committee Ante Trumbić had already laid the basis of the Yugoslav union. The unification of the South Slavic territories with the Kingdom of Serbia was agreed by Pašić, some members of the Skupština, the representatives of the National Council of Zagreb and those of the Yugoslav Committee with the Geneva Convention of November 9, 1918.

With the occupation of Montenegro by the Allied troops –French, British, American and Italian– in the autumn of 1918 most of the country went under the control of the Serbian troops of Colonel Dragutin Milutinović, that presented themselves as the redeemers of the “oppressed brothers” and were actively engaged in propagating the union between Montenegro and Serbia. The unification was supported by relevant Montenegrin personalities such as Andrija Radović, head of the government in exile until January 1917. The split between Radović and King Nikola had lasted since August 1916, when the prime minister of Montenegro started supporting the union of Serbia and Montenegro through the unification of the Petrović-Njegoš and Karađorđević dynasties, firstly with the abdication of the former in favor of Alexander of Serbia, and then with a following rotation tothe throne between the two families.

Since February 1917, Radović was leading the Montenegrin Committee for the National Unifica-tion, founded in Geneva and in close contact with the Serbian governmental circles that worked to de-legitimize the sovereignty of King Nikola over Montenegro.At this point, the Montenegrin sovereign, mainly due to the marriage of his daughter Elena with the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III, hoped that the Italian occupation of Kotor and Bar could counterbalance the Serbian one and in some way be useful for the preservation of his dynasty on the throne of Montenegro. The Italian ambitions on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, a mix of political, strategic and economic aspirations, at least were the best guarantee for the maintenance of Montenegrin independence. At a political level, however, the Serbian Prime Minister Pašić worked to legalize the Serbian hegemony over the territory of Montenegro, preventing the return of King Nikola to the country, dissuaded also by the Italian and French governments.

At the same time, the committee led byRadović began the campaign for the election of the deputies to theGreat National Assembly in Podgorica, which would decide on the future status of Montenegro. On November 19, 1918, the Montenegrin elections held under the military pressure of the Serbian troops were done by acclamation rather than secret vote. Cetinje was the center of political propaganda: here the supporters of the unconditioned union with Serbia presented a list of candidates on a white colored paper, while their opponents, more cautious and with the aim to preserve the political integrity of Montenegro, presented a green colored list.

The two colors became the terms used to identify the two factions: the “whites”(bjelaši) were favorable to the union with Serbia, and the “greens”(zelenaši) were the supporters of independence. If the latter were pri-marily an expression of the rural society, the former had among theirranks more urban exponents: merchants, artisans, and intellectuals.

The Inter-Allied Occupation and the "Christmas Uprising"

According to the Italian military authorities in Montenegro, from the end of December 1918 there were rumors that in order to provide for the shortage of armament the Italian garrisons of Virpazar and Bar could be attacked both by pro-Serbian armed movements and Montenegrin independence supporters. This was the premise of the anti-Serb uprising that began in the surroundings of Cetinje on January 3, 1919. Jovan Simonov Plamenac and the other “green” leaders sent emissaries to the Inter-Allied command of Cattaro, led by the French General Venel, to demand the occupation of Cetinje and Montenegro by the Inter-Allied troops with the exclusion of the Serbian-Yugoslav ones.

Even in Bar the goal of the insurgents was to throwout the pro-Serbian local authorities. For Venel, however, any kind of Inter-Allied intervention against the Serbian-Yugoslav troops wasout of discussion. As in the previous days, the French general in charge did not even consult the commanders of the other Alliedcontingents. The French seemed deliberately favoring the Serbian occupation, openly supporting Radović and the “white” faction inthe area between Virpazar and Shkodër and facilitating the arrival rom Dubrovnik of a pro-Serbian Montenegrin legion trained and supported by the French.

The Italian military command in Montenegro openly denounced the pro-Serbian attitude of the French, an accusation that was considered reliable also by the American Ambassador in Rome Nelson Page, who on January 9 reported to the Commission to Negotiate Peace in Paris the text of a telegram from Kotor which stated:

........"January 6: French General is making a French-Serbian penetration into Montenegro admitting no other than Serbian authority. The intervention of his troops has a counterrevolutionary character. There are about 3,000 of which 500 were landed at Ragusa, 400 of the latter having already arrived at Cattaro [Kotor] have gone into Montenegro in French uniforms and with Serbo-French officers. Immediate help and energetic diplomatic steps indispensable since the enemy is energetically stirring up sedition.".......

Even the Montenegrin government in exile condemned how the French authorities facilitated the arrival in Montenegro of the followers of Radović, at the same time hindering the arrival of King Nikola’s supporters to whom had been denied the permission to enter the country with trivial excuses.

The Italians suspected that even the health precautions taken by the French in Kotor against typhoid cases in late December –communication between the city and the rest of Montenegro was limited with a release of a safe-conduct forleaving the country– were a pretext in order to allow to the Serbian commands to isolate the Montenegrin population. Pero Šoć denounced this attempt by the Serbian authorities to the American chargè d’affaires in France Bliss. According to Šoć only Serbian conspirators and agents had open access to Montenegro, while Montenegrin statesmen and politicians had to appeal to the Allies in order to have the permission to leave the country and reach Rome or Paris.

For this reason, the Italian general accused the French command of complicity in the subjugation of the Montenegrin population perpetrated by the Serbian authorities. Even without the support of the Inter-Allied authorities, Montenegrin insurgents under the command of Krsto Popovic (around 15,000-20,000 persons in the whole country) marched on Cetinje and other cities (Nikšić, Virpazar, Podgorica) facing Serbian-Yugoslav troops (January 6), which had a smaller number of men but were better equipped. Lacking food and ammunition, military preparation, skills and resolute leaders, around 3,500 “greens,” of which only a third were armed, were soon forced to desist from taking Cetinje, the only city where for a few days the insurgents could engage into a real battle against the Serbian-Yugoslav soldiers (400 men) and the “white” militias (300 men) under the command of the Serbian general Martinović.

Although they had the support of the population who were opposed to the violence of the “whites” and to the unconditional union of Montenegro with Serbia carried out in terms of a simple annexation, the “greens” did not prove to be as organized and cohesive as their opponents and the Serbian-Yugoslav soldiers were. The goal of the “green” armed insurrection was mainly to provoke an Allied intervention, and in particular an Italian one also if they had never explicitly affirmed it; it was not a real movement of resistance. The neutral position of the Italian troops, from which the insurgents expected a more or less direct support, diminished the hope of the “greens” for a success.

After the failed rebellion, despite the assurances given by Venel, the Serbs launched retaliation. Only in Podgorica they arrested 164 persons, including three cousins of King Nikola, eighty officers and numerous dignitaries of the court, confiscating properties.

The conflict between the “greens” and “whites,” however, did not end with the uprising of January 1919 and continued in the following years. The Italian military authorities, in the areas under their occupation, recorded incidents and violence between the “whites” and the Serbian-Yugoslav troops on the one side and Montenegrin nationalist gangs on the other. In early June, for example, the Italian High Command and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs received reports about clashes in the mountainous region of the Shkodër frontier (Skadarska Krajina, Krajë for the Albanians) between the Serbian-Yugoslav troops and the Montenegrin "Komiti" headed by the well-known Savo Raspopović, on whose head the Serbian authorities placed a bounty of 20,000 dinars. Only in the evening of May 27, the assault of the bands of Raspopović caused to the Serbian-Yugoslavs several causalities. During the month, Raspopović continued his attacks in the area around Bar, a fact that brought the Serbian-Yugo-slav troops to accuse the Italians of having reached an agreement with the Montenegrin leader.

At the same time, Italian soldiers had to face frequent clashes with the Serbian-Yugoslav units and militias, which often ended in gun-fight for not entirely clear reasons.

The head of the Italian Army General Staff also insinuated that the French command in Albania and Montenegro could be responsible for many of the increasingly frequent anti-Italian demonstrations in the country. The Italian Foreign Minister Tommaso Tittoni promised to bring to the attention ofthe Allied governments the attitude of the Serbian-Yugoslavs, who claimed at all costs that Italian troops should abandon Montenegro.

The garrisons in the country, including the Italian detachments, were abandoned by the Allied troops at the end of April 1919. The Allied occupation was reduced to the coastal area (Bar, Kotor, Ulcinj and Virpazar) withthe aim of securing the supplies for Shkodër, while the inner part of the country was garrisoned exclusively by the Serbian-Yugoslav troops. The English also left Virpazar and Bar between April 27 and 30. The Italians remained in Bar (at the railways and the port), Ko\tor and Virpazar and were categorically ordered not to be meddle inthe clashes between Serbian and Montenegrin “dissident” bands.

From the summer of 1919 indeed the “greens” again took up the arms, this time with the Italian support. In April, in fact, the government in Rome with the Montenegrin government in exile signed a military convention for the formation of a Montenegrin legion in Italy. The Italian ships landed in Montenegro with new forces ready to incite the population against the Serbian authorities without reaching the desired results. The regions of Bar and Virpazar became theaters of new conflicts between Serbian-Yugoslavs, Montenegrin rebels and Italian troops.

The Yugoslav delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, indeed, once again explicitly asked for the evacuation of the Italian troops from Montenegro to definitely complete the unification of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1919, Radović (July 26-29) and then Pašić (August 14, 29 and 31) sent notes to the french Clemenceau calling for the withdrawal of the Italian troops that were accused of intentionally encouraging “the elements of disorder” in Montenegro.

Flags of the Green montenegrins while in exile in Gaeta (Italy):

At the end of 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, the Yugoslav delegation –as during the summer the Italian counterpart had already done– officially denounced a series of violence that the Italian command in Montenegro committed against the Yugoslav soldiers and civilians and for which a special committee was appointed by the government of Belgrade for investigation. On the other hand, the Allies communicated to the Montenegrin government in exile that they no longer would anticipate the monthly credit hitherto paid to King Nikola (the subsidies ceased at the end of October).

In this way, King Nikola was forced to leave Paris and to reach Prince anilo, while the Montenegrin government in exile had to reduce its personnel, leaving in Neuilly sur Seine only Plamenac and other few persons. In this situation, despite the hostility of the Montenegrin population to the Serbian annexation, which, as it had already been said, did not mean an opposition to a real Yugoslav federalist union, or the Montenegrin establishment in exile it was impossible to continue to support the historical rights of Montenegro for independence.

Among other things, Plamenac tried a series of desperate and unsuccessful initiatives, such as the agreement concluded on May 12, 1920, with Gabriele D’Annunzio, who was still in Fiume with his legionaries, hoping to keep some kind of Italian support for the Montenegrin issue. At that time, in fact, the Italian government for the resolution of the Adriatic question had already abandoned the previous political radicalism and was now ready to reach an agreement with the government of Belgrade. The agreement of Plamenac and D’Annunzio, with the latter that was keeping contacts with the representatives of the Yugoslav nationalities that opposed Belgrade centralism in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, provided for the restoration of the independence of the Montenegrin kingdom as a first step towards the liberation of the Yugoslav populations from the Serbian rule.

The Supreme Council of the Allies briefly examined only a Mon-tenegrin note sent on November 26, 1919, with which Plamenac threatened that if the Montenegrin delegate was not immediately invited to the Peace Conference for the signing of the peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Bulgaria, the Montenegrin government in exile would conclude a separate peace with these countries.

On December 1, 1919, the Supreme Council decided not to give any response to the threats of Plamenac, simply ignoring his letter. The Italian delegate De Martino agreed with the decision, but also asked if the Supreme Council before or later would take into consideration the Montenegrin issue, which still needed a solution. For Clemenceau the Montenegrin issue did not exist, the problem –he replied to De Martino– was more over different: For how long did the Italian government still have the intention to pursue this matter? Clemenceau, without explicitly stating it, was reaffirming that for the Allies the Montenegrin issue had been resolved long time ago with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

he Montenegrin issue, from the diplomatic point of view, was officially over at the end of 1920, when also the appeals of the Montenegrin government in exile to the League of Nations did not find an answer (November 1920).

Italy, which had been the main supporter of the Montenegrin cause in order to defend its interests on the other coast of the Adriatic Sea against the Yugoslav aspirations, finally interrupted the political and military support to the Montenegrin refugees preferring an agreement with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia for the definition of the border dispute and other controversial issues. The signing of the Treaty of Rapallo, in November 1920, meant the definitive end of the Montenegrin issue and the legitimacy of the Yugoslav state for the country that had opposed the most its recognition in the international context.

After the apparent settlement of the Adriatic issue and of the Italian-Yugoslav relations, also France took the moment to resolve itsrelations with the Montenegrin king (on December 20, 1920).

Even for Great Britain, which still during the summer of 1920 had refused to recognize the annexation of Montenegro as a fait accompli – Vesnić, head of the government in Belgrade, was insisting on this argument for the formal recognition of the union of Montenegro with the Kingdom SHS– the opportunity for the Montenegrin people to send “freely elected representatives to the Yugoslav Constituent Assembly” represented the best recognition of the legitimacy of the unification.

All this facts were followed by the interruption of diplomatic relations between the Montenegrin government in exile –that in the meantime was moved to Rome– and the United States and Great Britain respectively on January 21 and March 17, 1921: it was substantially the conclusion of the vain struggle for the independence of Montenegro against the unconditional union with Serbia and the final acceptance of its incorporation into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Further readings

1-Montenegro italiano (1941-1943):
2-Occupazione italiana dell'Adriatico dalmato nel 1918: