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Serbia's Role in the Conflict in Vojvodina, 1848-49

Serbia's Role in the Conflict in Vojvodina, 1848-49 Serbian revolts in the Vojvodina in 1848 were part of the European revolutionary movement of 1848. In April the Serbs of Kikinda in southern Hungary rose against Magyar rule, and soon revolts spread throughout the Serbian Vojvodina. The Serbs there were responding to the "March Days" in the Habsburg Monarchy which paralyzed temporarily its centers of power, Vienna and Budapest. The Vojvodina Serbs, seeking to escape Magyarization, were the first people in the Austrian Empire during 1848 to fight for their national rights and freedoms.

By the end of March 1848 the Austrian government had yielded to the insistent Hungarian demands for autonomy leaving it largely up to Budapest to deal with the restive Vojvodina Serbs. After the Magyar revolutionary leader, Louis Kossuth, rejected Serbian petitions in Pesth, Vojvodina Serbs of all social groups rose against an outdated medieval system that severely restricted peasants, craftsmen, and merchants; they were led and supported by the Orthodox Serbian clergy. During April Novi Sad, the Vojvodina's chief cultural and political center, became the focal point for a national movement. On May 1 a national assembly in Karlovac proclaimed the restoration of an autonomous Serbian Vojvodina; it elected Colonel Josif Supljikac, who had served under General Radetzky in Italy, as military commander (vojvoda), and named a main committee to coordinate its activities. At Karlovac a Serbian patriarchate was restored headed by conservative Josif Rajacic as patriarch. Kossuth's revolutionary Magyar government denounced these actions as treasonous and the Magyar commander, General Hrabovsky, sought to crush the Vojvodina Serbs' rebellion militarily. However the Serbs under youthful General Djordje Stratimirovic, repelled Hrabovsky and quickly mobilized an army of some 15,000 men after the Main Committee summoned them to rise in arms. On May 10 Stratimirovic, head of the Main Committee, appealed to Prince Aleksander Karadjordjevic of Serbia for military and financial assistance. From Zagreb Patriarch Rajacic reinforced these appeals.

Serbia then was an autonomous principality belonging to the Ottoman Empire that had secured a wide measure of self rule. Serbian government leaders viewed the burgeoning revolt in neighboring Vojvodina with mixed feelings. Its ruling prince, Aleksander Karadjordjevic, was weak-willed and indecisive, and the country was racked by factional strife leaving it unstable politically and highly vulnerable. Serbia's chief leader was Interior Minister Ilija Garasanin, who realized that revolution abroad and liberal demands at home for parliamentary rule would threaten the shaky Karadjordjevic monarchy. Popular agitation and demands could readily be exploited by pretenders, Princes Milos and Mihailo from the rival Obrenovic dynasty. Garasanin, a conservative advocate of law and order, warned his subordinates the revolution in the Austrian Empire would foster disorder on Serbia's northern frontiers; he instructed them to urge the Serbian people to remain calm and obey the authorities unconditionally.

The issue of Serbia's aid to the Vojvodina insurgents was closely related to factional political struggles inside Serbia. By 1848 the so-called "Defenders of the Constitution" (Ustavobranitelji) who had achieved power in 1842 by overthrowing young Prince Mihailo Obrenovic, had split irrevocably. Their chief military leader, Toma Vucic-Perisic, opposed Prince Aleksander's regime. Rousing Serbia's peasants with demagogic oratory, Vucic was an ardent advocate of Harrow Serbia (Sumadija) who opposed aiding the Vojvodina Serbs and advocated removing those who held leading posts in Serbia in favor of native-born Serbs. Throughout 1848-1849, therefore, Vucic opposed Garasanin's efforts to mobilize large-scale aid to Vojvodina Serbs. Serbia, he argued, should focus on its own needs and interests. The chief responsibility for maintaining the Karadjordjevic regime and for healing factional rifts fell on Garasanin, accused falsely by his rivals of coveting the Serbian throne. To counter Vucic's intrigues, Garasanin pushed forward his friend, Stevan Knicanin, a military hero and devoted adherent of Prince Aleksander who was Vucic's bitter foe. However, the Petrovdan Assembly of July 1-3, 1848, held in Kragujevac in Serbia's interior, reaffirmed Vucic's powerful hold over the peasant delegates. That development and the Prince's indecisiveness caused Garasanin in disgust to submit his resignation. However, Prince Aleksander refused to accept it, and Garasanin's worried colleagues eventually persuaded him to retain office.

Favoring a broad program of Serbo-Croatian cooperation against the Magyars and major aid to the Vojvodina Serbs, Garasanin strove to overcome Prince Aleksander's reluctance to involve Serbia in the Vojvodina conflict. In May Garasanin had written encouragingly to General Stratimirovic: "We regard the cause of our blood brethren, the Serbs there [Vojvodina] as our own and will make every moral and material sacrifice to help them for the good of the common cause." Later, Garasanin affirmed that aiding the Vojvodina had been his idea and had resulted largely from his efforts. Since both Austria and Russia opposed the Magyar revolt against the Habsburg Monarchy, Garasanin emphasized to Prince Aleksander that he would gratify those powers by aiding the Vojvodina Serbs. Soon the Prince yielded and agreed that Serbia should aid its brethren north of the Danube despite apparent Turkish opposition. Garasanin realized that Serbia's assistance to the Vojvodina Serbs would have to remain unofficial. Any blatant official intervention could provoke opposition from Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, worried lest Serbia become a haven for revolutionary activity. From Kragujevac Garasanin wrote Stojan Simic, chairman of the Serbian Council agreeing to provide aid "since we must admit that we above all pushed them into this dangerous undertaking . . . Thus we feel that we should give them everything we can to satisfy their needs." Simic was to ascertain the Vojvodina Serbs' requirements then offer them whatever Serbia could spare, including volunteer fighters. Not merely natural sympathy attracts Serbia to its Vojvodina brethren, explained Garasanin to his district chiefs. but "the Magyars, if they defeat the Serbs there, afterwards will attack us and our fatherland..., but because of political factors...we must aid them in secret."

Garasanin outlined to his district chiefs how the volunteer movement to the Vojvodina should be handled. Officers would be sent from Serbia to lead groups of volunteers recruited locally. The district chiefs were to act secretly through reliable recruiters to insure that volunteers were militarily competent and politically loyal. The volunteers were to assemble at frontier points such as Smederevo and Pozarevac, then cross the Danube into the Vojvodina. Volunteers were to wear medallions inscribed: "For Serbdom" to identify them at mustering centers. Direct official participation in recruitment had to be avoided so that the movement would look wholly spontaneous.

Fostering the volunteer movement to the Vojvodina, the Belgrade government at first encountered widespread apathy in Serbia whose peasants were reluctant to go off to war. Open opposition by the Vucic faction to involvement reinforced such feelings. Initially, therefore neither appeals by Patriarch Rajacic nor of the Vojvodina Serbs roused much popular enthusiasm. Nonetheless, spurred on by Garasanin, Serbia began sending money, weapons and troops into the Vojvodina. Belgrade's efforts were reinforced by the Illyrians and pro-Habsburg Croats under Governor Josip Jelacic, creating a basis for an unprecedented degree of Serbo-Croat cooperation against the Magyars. Matija Ban of Dubrovnik, Garasanin's envoy, persuaded Patriarch Rajacic to cooperate with the Catholic Croats. Rajacic hoped that Vienna would allow the Vojvodina Serbs a separate territory, church, and army.

From Kragujevac Garasanin coordinated the volunteer movement emphasizing that volunteers must be carefully picked and were to be paid. Even small-scale unofficial aid, he concluded, would stimulate Vojvodina Serbs to fight harder. After the Petrovdan Assembly the Serbian government increased its support for Vojvodina. The Turks and Russia, no longer fearing disorders in Serbia after the internment of Pretender Prince Milos Obrenovic in Zagreb, permitted large-scale unofficial Serbian aid to proceed. The Serbian Assembly's removal of Stevan Knicanin from the Council left him free to rush to the Vojvodina to command Serbia's growing army of volunteers. In the face of Austrian protests against this to Belgrade, Garasanin pretended to discourage volunteers from crossing the Danube, but he confided: "We are so involved against the Magyars that we cannot withdraw." And late in August Austria proclaimed the Magyars rebels and encouraged Governor Jelacic and his Croats to aid the Vojvodina Serbs against them. This caused the Austrian consul in Belgrade to support Serbia's aid campaign as did the Russian consul. Garasanin commented: "We cannot withdraw now no matter what diplomacy does." Garasanin wanted Serbian troops to remain in the Vojvodina throughout the winter, then half of them should return to Serbia; he doubted that more aid could be sent despite pleas from the Vojvodina Serbs. When Patriarch Rajacic in October appealed to Belgrade for further aid, Serbia's leaders split. Some, led by Vucic, advocated the immediate suspension of the volunteer campaign. As Prince Aleksander wavered, Garasanin urged Council chairman Stojan Simic to support continued aid to Serbia's utmost ability.

Meanwhile Garasanin encouraged his friend, Colonel Knicanin, to persist in their struggle against the Magyars which had fought the latter to a standstill. "You are doing a duty for all of us. If you and the others abandon our brethren, they will succumb and all our sacrifices will be in vain." By November Serbia's effort peaked with some 8,000 volunteers fighting under Knicanin's command. On December fifteenth Garasanin wrote Knicanin: "I feel that we have responded well to the needs and the desires of the Vojvodina Serbs and could not have done any more, so you and everyone should be satisfied. We have risked and are risking too much." Some volunteers, he noted, were returning to Serbia complaining of poor treatment by the Vojvodina authorities, lack of pay, and even inadequate food.

At the end of 1848 the Serbian movement in the Vojvodina weakened after Vojvodina Supljikac, its supreme commander, died suddenly. With Serbia's support Patriarch Rajacic assumed coverall authority while active military command passed to an Austrian, General K. Teodorovich, who proved indecisive. Nonetheless, Generals Stratimirovic and Knicanin defeated the Magyars in two battles, virtually liberating the Backa and Banat regions. Those final Serbian victories helped doom the Hungarian Revolution and enhanced Serbian self-confidence. Under increasing Austrian and Turkish pressure, Belgrade in February 1849 recalled Knicanin's remaining volunteers. Before leaving Knicanin proclaimed to the Vojvodina Serbs: " Our strength was insufficient to defeat your enemies and those of the Austrian Emperor. Serbdom will never forget your sacrifices. With the happy news that the Serbian Vojvo dina hasbeen liberated, I am returning home with all Serbian volunteers." However, when the Magyar threat to the region revived, Knicanin in late March again crossed the Danube to lead Serbian forces and many volunteers joined him. He remained there until August when Russian intervention crushed Magyar resistance and restored Habsburg preeminence in Hungary. Emperor Franz Josef then removed Patriarch Rajacic and transferred all authority over Vojvodina to an imperial commander. Lamented Garasan in: "It is the same old policy."

Belgrade's campaign in 1848-1849 to aid Vojvodina produced both gains and losses. On the debit side the Vojvodina reverted wholly to Habsburg control with little imminent prospect of freedom or autonomy. Serbia had expanded resources and energy without apparent benefit to itself or its brethren leading Vucic and his followers to complain that the campaigns had merely reinforced Austrian reaction. However, intangibles more than offset these negatives. In 1848 Serbia had escaped the obscurity of Turkish vassaldom to play a significant role on the European stage. Knicanin's repeated defeats of larger Magyar armies represented a significant Serbian moral triumph. Serbia's prestige was enhanced by its generous sacrifices for its trans-Danubian brethren. Serbs in Austria and the Ottoman Empire regarded Belgrade increasingly as their natural center and defender. Thus Serbia became the eldest brother of a dispersed South Slav family, and strong ties were forged temporarily between Serbs and Croats.

Ilija Garasanin, rather than Prince Aleksander Karadjordjevic, deserves most credit for these achievements. From the start he had campaigned vigorously for Serbia's aid to the Vojvodina, persuading his timid prince and disregarding strong opposition from Vucic and others. His energetic actions galvanized his district chiefs to recruit volunteers and send them across the Danube. Thus the Vojvodina Serbs succumbed not for lack of aid from Serbia but before overwhelming reactionary forces led by Russia and Austria.
David Mackenzie


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Lebl, A. Revolucionarni pokret u Vojvodini 1848-1849 godine. Novi Sad, 1960.

Mackenzie, David. Ilija Garasanin: Balkan Bismarck. Boulder CO, 1985.

Pavlovic, D. Srbija i srpski pokret u Juznoj Ugarskoj 1848 i 1849. Belgrade, 1904.

Perovic, R. Gradja za istoriju srpskog poketra u Vojvodini, 1848-49. Belgrade, 1952.

Petrovich, Michael B. A History of Modern Serbia, 1804-1918 2 vols., New York, 1976.

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