WHEN the Vatican recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia on Jan. 13, it also provided the rest of us with the key to what is going on in Yugoslavia and the attitude of others to those events.
Take a look at the map of Europe in about the year 500 AD and you will notice that what are now the provinces of Croatia and Slovenia were part of the Western Roman Empire. The peoples of those countries spoke Latin, or were ruled by people who spoke Latin. They practiced the Roman rites of the Catholic Church. Their trade routes were largely to the North and West.
But at that time what is now Serbia was part of the Eastern branch of the Roman Empire. The people who ruled over Serbia spoke Greek. Constantinople was their headquarters. Their main trade was to the South and East.
The line between Serbia on one side and Croatia and Slovenia on the other is one of the great fault lines of history. The people of Serbia are Serbian Orthodox, an offshoot of Eastern Orthodox faith. To this day the people of Croatia and Slovenia are Roman Catholic Christians.
Add to the above that the Turks conquered and long kept what is now Serbia, while Croatia and Slovenia escaped Turkish rule by turning to Austria for protection. The Turks never consolidated their hold on Croatia and Slovenia.
From Charlemagne to Napoleon, Croatia-Slovenia was part of the Holy Roman Empire. From Napoleon to 1918 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In other words, the effort of 1918 to put Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia into a single country was an attempt to bridge one of the historic dividing lines of Europe. All these provinces had been overrun during the 4th century AD by Slavs. All three spoke the same Serbo-Croatian language. But they were divided by about everything else. Serbia's cultural and economic associations were slanted East and South. Croatia and Slovenia looked North and West.
Strong ties to the North and West are left over from the time when Croats and Slovenes lived in the Austrian Empire. That explains why Germany took the lead, against United States opposition, to recognize the independence of those two provinces.
That the Vatican should join in and recognize a Croatian-Slovenian republic is historical logic. The Pope is adding his blessing to people who belong to his own faith against those who use the Serbian Orthodox rite and decline to recognize the Pope as their spiritual leader.
It is logical that the Germans, Austrians, and Italians would help Croatia-Slovenia make good its escape from the domination of the Serbs. To anyone from Central Europe, it is right and logical that those two provinces of the ancient Holy Roman Empire and of the later Austrian Empire should rejoin their cultural, spiritual, and commercial kinfolk in the West.
The rearrangement of Europe now under way would logically include a revival of an economic community more or less reflecting the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It would bring Croatia and Slovenia back into an association with Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, to the advantage of all of them. Such a combination would also restore the balance between North and South Germany which existed prior to the dismemberment of the Austrian Empire in 1918.
A wave of nationalism similar to that in the former Soviet Union today, not US President Woodrow Wilson's initiatives in Paris, caused the breakup of the Austrian empire at the end of World War I.
The US has been slow to associate with this trend in Europe and is expressing surprise and some concern at seeing the new Germany take the lead in a policy matter of considerable importance. But Germany's action could be expected; it has policies which do not always coincide with Washington's, and Germany will, beginning now, act according to its own interests.
This immediate difference is not going to cause major trouble between Germany and the US. Washington regrets the break-up of Yugoslavia but can accept it.
Yugoslavia was an expedient creation under the post-war conditions of 1918. Those conditions have now disappeared. There is no longer any need to try to bridge the great cultural divide between the mountain people of Serbia with their Eastern Orthodox heritage - and the farmers of the Slavonian plains and the fisher-folk of the Dalmatian Coast with their Latin heritage.
If the Europeans now bring Croatia and Slovenia back into their orbit they will reproduce a map of Europe which will look very much like what it was in about 500 AD.
The US may have showed a lack of memory of European history when it clung to a united Yugoslavia.
Had it understood the history sufficiently it would have stood aside and let the Germans do what they were bound to do - and thus have avoided the appearance of a split with the Germans over a matter of European importance.