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The first half of the 20th century was a very tumultuous period. The nation states of Europe succumbed to not just one, but two horrible world wars. The ensuing fallout of these wars has been discussed at length, but a number of interesting topics remain little known. The development of the Little Entente is an interesting case study in an ultimately futile attempt to form a Balkan bloc. The post-WW1 political situation in Eastern Europe was fraught with multiple territorial claims and grievances, which led to a diplomatic attempt to secure peace through a strong alliance. Ultimately, this alliance served to polarize the region even more, and with the rise of Fascism, it slowly faded away into irrelevance. This is the story of its birth and ultimate death at the hands of a dangerous and shifting political world.
Historical Background For The Little Entente
Before WW1, the nations that would go on to form the Little Entente were either part of Austro-Hungary, or had significant territorial claims on its territory. The treaty of Versailles dismembered the Austro-Hungarian empire, out of which was formed an independent Czechoslovakia, while Romania and Serbia (named the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, to be renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) received significant chunks of territory. Because most of this territory was taken from the Hungarian part of the empire, the Little Entente was signed on August 14th, 1920, with the express aim of preventing Hungary from reclaiming its former lands.
The Little Entente was modeled after the Entente Cordiale, which was the alliance between France and the United Kingdom before World War 1, formed to contain German ambitions on the continent and in Africa. As such, the three nations aimed to work together to contain Hungary, and were supported by the French in an effort to create a new balance of power in Eastern Europe.
The Little Entente
Expansion of the Entente
The first real test of the Little Entente came shortly after its signing. In March, 1921, the last emperor of Austro-Hungary, Charles the I, returned to Hungary in an effort to reclaim his throne. The nations of the Little Entente, who were determined to prevent a restoration of the Habsburg monarchy, reacted swiftly. They mobilized their armies and put pressure on the Hungarian government to deny Charles the right of return. Surrounded on three sides by the Little Entente, and still recovering from WW1, Hungary had no choice but to comply with their wishes. Charles returned to Switzerland and died shortly after.
After this concerted show of force, the Little Entente attracted the support of France, which signed mutual assistance pacts with all three states. While this was an unabashed success for the Little Entente, cleavages within the alliance started to emerge. The primary difference was between Czechoslovakia, which was a democratic, industrialized nation, and Yugoslavia and Romania, both of which slid towards authoritarianism and remained relatively agrarian. As well, while all three nations were united by their fear of Hungary, they each had other territorial disputes. Yugoslavia had issues with Italy and Bulgaria, Romania with Bulgaria, while Czechoslovakia had territorial disputes with Poland and was home to a large German minority, which would prove its undoing before WW2. These problems meant that the Little Entente was united when faced with a common threat in the form of Hungary, but found it hard to form a united front when it came to other disputes.
Despite the difficulties, a legal framework for permanent collaboration between the three states was established in February, 1933. In addition to a mutual defense and cooperation agreement, the three nations formed an economic council with the aim of coordinating economic policy as well.
Politicians From The Little Entente (1932)
Danger On The Horizon
The year 1933 marked a turning point in European history. Battered by reparations, the Great Depression and left-right wing political violence, Germany elected the Nazi party, with Adolf Hitler as its leader. This set of a number of events in slow motion, which ultimately served to undermine and destroy the Little Entente.
The first major blow to the alliance was the assassination of the Yugoslavian king, Alexander the I, in Marseilles. The king had gone to France in 1934 in an attempt to solidify the anti-Fascist bloc, and was looking for support from France, which was the traditional ally of the three nations. He was shot by a fascist hit-man, and his replacement on the throne slowly led Yugoslavia into the German political sphere. The bloc started to fracture as Germany replaced France as their major trading partner, while the Western powers were consumed by their own social and economic problems.
Collapse Of The Little Entente
With the passing of King Alexander, the Little Entente began to drift. The final blow to the alliance came during the Munich Pact of September 1938. Czechoslovakia was home to an estimated 3 million Germans, and an expansionist Germany had an eye on the territory these minorities occupied. Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia cede its border regions, where these Germans lived, and which also had significant fortifications against external invasion. Doing so would leave Czechoslovakia exposed, and would set off a chain of other claims in the region. The Little Entente was horrified and could only look on as the Western nations abandoned Czechoslovakia and forced it to sign the Munich Pact, ceding large amounts of territory and over 3 million people.
The rest of Czechoslovakia was swallowed by Germany in March 1939, effectively bringing an end to the Little Entente. Realistically, the alliance had died the year before, when Czechoslovakia caved to German demands and neither Yugoslavia nor Romania came to its defense. Sadly, it is debatable that even if they had stood up to Germany that it would have made a difference, seeing as how France and the United Kingdom remained unwilling to back the Little Entente in the defense of its territory. The other important aspect to note is that the Little Entente was designed to defend against Hungarian invasion, meaning that the treaty technically didn't oblige either Romania nor Yugoslavia to help their ally.
As the 30's drew to a close, and WW2 approached, the nations that made up the Little Entente could only watch as events unfolded. Although their alliance was a powerful attempt to keep the peace in Eastern Europe, it ultimately failed, as the three states simply weren't economically or militarily powerful enough to sway the balance of power. Romania had to cede substantial amounts of territory to Hungary in August 1940, and Bulgaria in September 1940. Afterwards, it became little more than an Axis satellite, while Yugoslavia was dismembered by the Axis powers in April 1941. All three nations would find themselves in the Communist sphere after WW2, and would have to wait until the 1990's to regain full independence (Although Yugoslavia undergoes a brutal civil war in the early 1990's, and eventually splinters into 6 separate states).