100 Years of Serbian National Defense

by Aleksandra Rebic

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.

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 fi rst 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 fi ght 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.

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