Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 13: Serbian nationalism from the "Nacertanije" to the Yugoslav Kingdom

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Lectures 13 and 14 concern two related topics -- Serbian and Greek nationalism -- and approach them in a way that is contrary to the usual division of early twentieth century European history into pre- and post-World War I periods.

For Britain, France, Germany, even Russia and the United States, the World War I years of 1914 to 1918 are powerful dates around which we can organize our thinking. World War I stands as a watershed event that fundamentally changed these nations' historic progress.

Such a view of World War I is less attractive and useful for thinking about Balkan affairs. Halting a discussion of Greek or Serbian nationalism in 1914 or 1918 leaves the story unfinished. It makes more sense to trace Serbian nationalist thought from the 1840s all the way up to 1929, perhaps even to the history of Serbia during World War II and during the 1980s. In the same way, it makes sense to look at Greece from 1821 up to 1923 and beyond: events as recent as the Cyprus crisis of the 1970s are extensions of nineteenth century issues.

In Western Europe, 1914 ended a century of relative peace, but for the Balkan countries, World War I was only the latest war in a string of crises and confrontations. For Serbia, 1914 was an extension of the fighting of 1912 and 1913, and it has been called the "Third Balkan War" by some writers. For Greece, the period 1914-1918 was a middle period in a decade of fighting that began in 1912 and ended in 1923. For these reasons, the next two lectures anticipate some material that is most often presented in the context of post-1918 Europe. Later lectures will bring the story of the other Balkan states up to date.

Garasanin's Program of 1844

When the last two lectures dealt with events in Macedonia and Bosnia, from time to time it was necessary to refer to Serbian territorial ambitions. Because those lectures focused on reform, the contrasting force of Serbian nationalism was taken more or less for granted. This lecture may help to explain some of the consistent, recurring and powerful elements at work.

Recall that the Serb state was revived in the revolts of 1804 and 1816, which led to a period of autonomy. In 1843, Ilija Garasanin became Minister of Internal Affairs in the government of a new Serbian prince. Alexander Karageorgevic (the son of the rebel Karageorge) had just replaced Michael Obrenovic, the son of Milos Obrenovic, Serbia's first ruling prince. Garasanin was the son of a prosperous merchant, and a leader in the Constitutionalist Party, the wealthy notables, traders, and landowners who held power in the Council (or Senate) created by the Constitution of 1838. This faction of oligarchs had been stifled by the authoritarian style of the Obrenovic dynasty. Under Alexander Karageorgevic, this faction or party could pursue its own agenda for the first time.

In 1844 Garasanin sent a secret Memorandum to Prince Alexander, usually refered to by its Serbo-Croatian designation as the "Nacertanije" (or Program). In this document, Garasanin recalled the glories of medieval Serbia and speculated on a revival of Serbia's fortunes. He recognized that Serbian expansion implied not only the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, but also Serbian conflict with the Austrian Empire, which was likely to replace Turkey as the region's dominant power. Garasanin called Austria "the eternal enemy of a Serbian state."

Garasanin went on to list potential territories for future Serbian rule. Of primary interest were Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro and northern Albania, all Turkish possessions with Serbian inhabitants. Albania was also important because it offered an outlet to the sea, a necessity to prevent an Austrian stranglehold over Serbian foreign trade. Garasanin was also interested in Serbs living in Banat, Backa and the Vojvodina (districts in southern Hungary across the Danube from Belgrade). For pragmatic reasons, Garasanin argued against any early effort to unite with these areas, because they belonged to Austria, a state better able than Turkey to resist Serbia. The same caution applied to Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. Garasanin wanted more information about the Croatian lands, although he clearly thought of them as inhabited by related South Slavs who should have some relationship with Serbia. The Slavs of Bulgaria also deserved less immediate attention in his estimate, because the Ottoman grip was stronger there, and Russia was likely to oppose an expansion of Serbia into the eastern Balkans, so close to Istanbul. Garasanin had sympathy for the Slavic Czechs, but recognized that they were not South Slavs; he expressed no interest in a joint Czech-Serb political future.

The Nacertanije is remarkable as the first elaboration of themes that drive Serbian politics even today. Garasanin identified the core areas of Serbian interest, recognized the ambiguous relationship between Serbs and Croats (at a time when South Slavic thinkers in the Illyrian Movement in Croatia assumed unity of purpose), and accepted the inevitable conflict of interest between Austrian state interests and those of Serbia.

In practice, Garasanin and the Constitutionalists had little opportunity to carry out his ideas. Russia was Serbia's patron, and Russian leaders constantly tried to dictate policy to Serbian leaders. Garasanin wished for foreign support from a distant, more disinterested power like France, but in practice he had to make compromises with Austria as a counterweight against Russian interference.

Serbia's only foreign policy achievements in these years were the retention of its autonomy and its escape from foreign occupation. To accomplish this, Prince Alexander had to cooperate with Austria, an unpopular course that cost him the support of most Serbs. For example, Alexander refused to support Orthodox Russia during the Crimean War, a decision that played a part in his forced abdication a few years later in 1858.

When the rival Obrenovic dynasty returned to power in that year, they secured a new Constitution from the sultan that ended the power of the Council and the Constitutionalist Party for a decade. However, in 1868 Michael Obrenovic was assassinated, leaving his 14-year old son Milan on the throne. A Regency took power and in a period of confusion new political forces emerged. The Skupstina (the national assembly) had been revived by the 1858 Constitution, and its powers grew. The Skupstina became the springboard for a new mass party, the Radicals, which took up the work of Serbian nationalist foreign policy for the next generation.

Nikola Pasic and the Radical Party

The Serbian Radicals sought to imitate a new kind of Western European politics. Most of the Radical leaders had been educated abroad; they were professional politicians, not merchants or landowners who had turned to politics to advance traditional economic interests. The Radicals embraced new ideas such as popular political participation and mass parties, and saw the value of a thriving class of industrial workers. Their program mixed nationalist and socialist rhetoric in a way that had been discredited in Western Europe after the events of 1848, but this populist message was new in Serbia and had wide appeal.

The Radical Party's rival was the paternalistic Progressive Party, which favored government by a well-qualified elite so that liberal reforms, better education and planned economic growth would eventually benefit all Serbs. Progresssive Party proposals could not compete with the appeal of the Radical platform: a universal male franchise, full government power for the national assembly, protection against world capitalism for workers and small-traders, and an aggressive patriotism. Elections to the Skupstina soon became direct and secret, and this popular assembly took control of the budget, the cabinet ministries and most legislative action. By satisfying small town merchants pursuing state contracts, prosperous farmers trying to cut their taxes, and urban intellectuals seeking appointments in the civil service, the Radicals held power almost without interruption during all the remaining years of Serbia's existence (that is, until its 1918 transformation into Yugoslavia).

The principal Radical leader was Nicola Pasic, who was a talented speaker and political campaigner. Born in 1846, by 1875 he was writing for a socialist newspaper but also smuggling money across the border into Bosnia to support the anti-Ottoman uprising there. In his own thinking and that of his party, simple nationalism steadily outstripped socialism as a priority.

In 1878 the 32-year old Pasic was elected to the Skupstina. Something of a demagogue, he had to flee the country in 1883 under sentence of death for taking part in a failed coup. By 1889 he was back, after the Radicals used another regency (this time for 13-year old Alexander, Milan Obrenovic's son) to issue amnesties and rewrite the Constitution again. In the 1890s Pasic was Serbian ambassador to Russia, sent there by the king as a way to get him far away from the levers of power in Belgrade. In St. Petersburg, Pasic's Pan-Slav sympathies did him good: the Russians shared his dislike of the close ties between the Obrenovic house and Austria. When the Karageorgevic house again replaced the house of Obrenovic on the throne in 1903, Pasic became Prime Minister in the ruling Radical cabinet.

Teaching nationalism

Popular nationalism was the product of other forces in addition to the Radical Party. Beginning in the 1880s, the Progressive and Radical parties agreed to expand free public education. By the 1890s half of the eligible male students in the country were completing four years of elementary education. The state exercised total control over the schools, including the curriculum and textbooks, and those textbooks conveyed an emphatic Serbian nationalist message.

The basic geography text identified all the lands that made up the later Yugoslav state as Serbian (and not simply South Slavic), except for Slovenia. Supposedly Serbian areas include the Hungarian Vojvodina, Macedonia as far south or farther than the eventual 1912 border with Greece, parts of eastern and northern Albania, and all of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. There was no mention of a separate Croatian ethnicity or language: when Croats were identified, it was as "Catholic Serbs."

History texts contained a similar message. One widely studied history textbook described the Croats as "a Serbian tribe" that had settled in a different region and became Catholic. Serbian history textbooks also laid claim to Macedonia on historical as well as ethnic grounds, because it had been part of medieval Serbia. Bulgaria was identified as an enemy state because of its rival claims on Macedonia. Serbian texts were filled with tales of heroic martyrs who killed or were killed for their country, from folk-poetry about Kosovo to the story of Prince Michael's murder in 1868. Thanks to patriotic books and teachers, such accounts influenced a generation of Serbian students, including some Serbs from Bosnia who came to Serbia for their education.

The end of the Obrenovic dynasty

After the loss of Bosnia to Austria in 1878 popular and political nationalist agitation increased, but the ruling Obrenovic family was out of step with this movement. To resist the Radical party, Prince Milan sought support from the Austro-Hungarians. The price paid was Habsburg control over Serbian trade. Hungary dominated the Serbian economy, thanks to a new railroad connection and low tariffs.

Serbs also felt humiliated by their own ruling family. They knew that western Europeans viewed Serbian dynastic politics as a comic opera. Milan led the country into war with Bulgaria in 1885, only to be defeated. Milan was known to cheat on Queen Nathalie. His son Alexander came to the throne in 1889, and continued to offend Serbian pride while making serious political enemies. No foreign court would receive the royal couple, after Alexander caused a scandal by marrying one of his mother's servants. In 1900 a team of foreign doctors essentially called the queen a liar by refuting her claims to be pregnant with an heir to the throne. In 1903, police shot students who were demonstrating against the king, and terrorized so many voters that the Radicals boycotted the skupstina elections.

The coup of 1903

The king could cow the parliament and the students, but not the army. The Serbian officer corps was a magnet for poor but ambitious young men. They got a free education at the state Military Academy, entered a profession as officers, and were influential in the capital city. By 1900, army officers were fed up. The defeat of 1885 had not been forgotten, and now the state proposed to cut funds for new equipment, even for new uniforms. Officers often went months without a paycheck. Actually, Pasic regarded the army as a dangerous rival and his Radical Party was to blame for arrears in pay, but the officers were not sophisticated enough to see this. Instead, the army despised the king.

In 1901, a group of junior officers began plans to overthrow Alexander. Their leader was a 25-year old infantry lieutenant named Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known to his friends as "the Bull" (Apis) because of his size. Apis was born to a family of Belgrade tinsmiths. His father died when Dragutin was eight, but his sister (a teacher) saw that he got a good education. At age sixteen Apis entered the Military Academy: ten years later old cadet friends joined him in the conspiracy. 120 junior officers joined the plot; not one person warned the royal family.

On a June night in 1903, twenty-eight conspirators assembled at the Belgrade Officers Club, then marched to the palace. Other conspirator unlocked the gates, seized the telephone and telegraph offices, and confined civilian politicians to their homes. The plotters blew the locked doors off the royal bedroom with dynamite, then cornered the king and queen behind some curtains, where the plotters shot them 48 times, hacked them with swords, and threw the bodies off a balcony. Within days the parliament was restored, and Peter Karageorgevic (Alexander's son) became king. The appalling violence of the crime was condemned across Europe, but the coup was popular in Serbia.

The coup of 1903 had a lasting influence on Serbian politics. It made the army a powerful force in domestic politics, and put the army's rivals on notice that their lives might be in physical danger. At the same time, the work of the junior officers demonstrated weakness in the army hierarchy: top officers were not in control of the armed patriots serving under them.

Serbian foreign relations

Nationalist tensions also dominated Serbia's foreign relations. In Macedonia, Serbia competed against Greece and Bulgaria for the loyalty of Christian peasants, first by building schools, later by sending in armed guerilla bands (known as "chetas," and the men in them as "chetniks"). After the civil war in Macedonia helped trigger the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina because a reformed Young Turk regime might have eliminated the excuse for Habsburg administrative control. All of Serbia's enemies seemed to be on the ascendant in 1908: Bulgaria declared full independence from Ottoman rule; Macedonia seemed securely in Turkish hands; and the Serbs of Bosnia had slipped farther away under Austro-Hungarian control. For Serbian nationalists, only aggressive policies offered a way to catch up.

Deferring their rival claims to Macedonian territory, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria agreed to cooperate in defiance of the Great Powers, then made plans to throw the Turks out of Europe. In 1912, all four states declared war on Turkey and rapidly liberated Macedonia and much of Thrace in the First Balkan War. Serbian and Greek troops divided Macedonia between themselves: when Bulgaria demanded a share, Greece, Serbia and Romania fought the Second Balkan War in 1913 in order to keep the spoils. Serbia increased in size by 82 percent, the greatest single step so far toward Garasanin's Great Serbian vision in the Nacertanije. Serbian attention now turned north toward Austrian-ruled Bosnia, Croatia and Vojvodina.

Croatian nationalism

South Slav nationalism was not confined to Serbia. Before 1848, the "Illyrian Movement" in Habsburg-ruled Croatia combined a program of Croatian political rights with the concept of South Slav unity. Influential figures like Ljudevit Gaj believed that Serbs and Croats could work together for their mutual benefit. Later in the nineteenth century, similar concepts were associated with "Yugoslavism" and the goal of unifying Slovenes, Croats and Serbs.

South Slav nationalism in Croatia was based also on the historic constitutional rights of medieval Croatia. Croatians felt no need to defer to Serbs in pursuit of their national rights. For many years, Magyar tactics of "divide and rule" successfully isolated the various ethnic minorities, but in 1905 a coalition of Serb and Croat politicians issued the so-called "Fiume Resolutions." Calling for autonomy and language rights, the program also asserted that Croats and Serbs were a single people. This display of unity alarmed ruling circles (in 1909 the Serbo-Croat leaders were tried and acquitted in a ludicrous treason trial based on clumsy forged papers) but had little practical impact at the time. The Belgrade Serbs paid little attention to Croatian politics, and neither did a new generation of Croatian populist leaders who organized the mass Croatian Peasant Party. Not until the end of World War I did Croatian-style Yugoslavism briefly dictate the direction of South Slav nationalism.

Serbia vs. Austria

Ethnic tensions in Croatia were accompanied by a breakdown in Austro-Serbian relations, driven by a crisis over trade. Since 1881, Austria-Hungary had dominated Serbia's foreign trade, which consisted mostly of pigs driven to slaughterhouses in Hungary. By 1905, 84 percent of Serbian exports were going to Austria-Hungary, and Austria supplied 53 percent of goods entering Serbia. Austria also manufactured Serbia's artillery and ammunition, and held most Serbian state bonds.

Pasic was anxious to escape this kind of monopoly. In 1904, he negotiated a French loan, intended to pay for new guns from French sources, then ignored protests from Vienna. In 1905, the Austro-Serbian tariff treaty expired and Pasic negotiated a customs union with Bulgaria, gaining an alternative market for Serbian products and access to non-Austrian seaports. Austria then closed the border to Serbian livestock, supposedly to keep out diseased Serbian pigs: thus the episode goes by the name of the "Pig War." Pasic resisted this extortion: he arranged to ship cattle and pigs through Salonika, shipped other goods through Romania and Bulgaria, and built food processing plants so that Serbia could export flour and canned meat instead of raw cereal grains and livestock. By 1911, only 30 percent of Serbian exports were going to Austro-Hungarian markets and the stranglehold was broken.

Bosnian plots

Austro-Serbian relations continued to deteriorate over Bosnian issues as well. Anti-Habsburg secret societies were common among Bosnian Serbs, especially students, who organized small groups tied loosely to each other and to nationalist clubs in Serbia. The most important was "Mlada Bosna" (Young Bosnia), organized in 1893 by teeage boys at a boarding school in Mostar. Mlada Bosna agitated for land reforms and became interested in revolutionary socialism after the 1905 Russian Revolution. After the 1908 annexation, some members of Mlada Bosna decided to resist Austrian rule with violence. In 1910, a 23-year old graduate of the Mostar high school, a peasant's son named Bogdan Zerajic, tried but failed to shoot the Habsburg governor of Bosnia, then killed himself.

Serbia's largest nationalist society was "Narodna Odbrana" (National Defence), founded to support guerilla units in Macedonia. By 1909, Narodna Odbrana was confining itself to cultural matters and education, but its local committees still provided a network for subversives.

More dangerous was "Ujedinjenje ili Smrt" (Union or Death) known as the "Black Hand." Apis organized the society in 1911 from among the regicides of 1903: they swore an oath of secrecy and agreed to obey orders on pain of death. Many army officers were still at odds with the Radical Party and mistrusted parliamentary government in general. Black Hand members infiltrated organizations like Narodna Odbrana, and used them for their own plots. The Black Hand published a rabble-rousing newspaper called "Pijemont" (named after the Italian kingdom that was the kernel of Italian unification), paid for with funds embezzled from the army. In 1913 Apis became head of Serbian military intelligence, an ideal position from which to carry out secret plots.

Lecture 15 looks more carefully at Serbian responsibility for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914. For now, it is enough to say that a variety of groups believed they were best suited to promote Serbian national interests. The Pasic regime was the least radical, and in fact feared violence from Apis and the Black Hand. The Black Hand was willing to sponsor all kinds of anti-Habsburg mischief in Bosnia, and supplied the weapons used in the assassination, although Apis may not have known what was intended. The actual assassins (about whom more next time) were high school students, motivated by their own beliefs. As we will see, the outbreak of the World War itself was an unexpected result, in which wider European politics played a major role. Even the most aggressive of the Serbian plotters probably expected only a limited Third Balkan War, this time directed at Austria.

Wartime diplomacy

Once World War I began, Serbia was in a contradictory position. For the first time, little Serbia had major Great Power allies (Britain, Russia, France and later Italy and the U.S.) and a realistic chance to defeat Austria-Hungary. However, in the Balkan theater Serbia was defeated on the battlefield by 1915: the army and the government fled over the mountains of Albania and spent the rest of the war in exile.

Allied victory in the war did not automatically guarantee results that met Serbian interests. Serbian war aims conflicted with those of Italy: both states had plans to take the Dalmatian coast away from Austria, for example. Britain and France, on the other hand, were reluctant to accept the territorial destruction of the Habsburg Monarchy: they feared that a collection of small successor states would soon fall under German or Russian influence (a rather prophetic forecast). It was not until 1917 that Paris and London gave up on hopes for a negotiated peace with Vienna.

The work of Croatian leaders also played a role in war-time politics. When the war broke out, several leaders of the "Yugoslav Movement" fled abroad. They organized a "Yugoslav Committee" to lobby the Allies in favor of political rights for the Habsburg South Slavs. In 1915, the "Yugoslav Committee" learned that the Treaty of London had promised Fiume and part of Dalmatia to Italy in return for Italian help to the Allies. The Committee informed Nikola Pasic and the Serbian government about the treaty, and the two groups protested jointly. The Allies had to accept plans for a South Slav state at the expense of Austria, in order to end the crisis. The episode also established important connections between Serbian and Croatian figures.

The Yugoslav Committee sought further cooperation toward a South Slav state to be organized on the Croatian model of a federation of Serbs and Croats. Because Yugo-Slav ideas contradicted some tenets of Great Serbian nationalism, the exiled Pasic government at first displayed little interest. In 1917, however, developments forced the Serbs to be flexible. When Russia left the war, Serbia lost her most powerful ally against Italian claims and felt the need to find new supporters. The success of Yugo-Slav agitation both in the United States and within the Habsburg Monarchy made the Yugoslav Committee into an attractive ally. In July 1917 Pasic and the Committee issued the so-called Corfu Declaration, which laid plans for a post-war state:

  1. Yugoslavia would be a united Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, under the Karageorgevic dynasty.
  2. There would be common citizenship for Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, equality in religion, and the use of both alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic).
  3. The country would be a parliamentary monarchy with a single unified chamber of representatives elected by direct, secret ballot.

The preamble stated that Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were "the same by blood [and] by language," and for the first time, the Pasic ministry used the term Yugo-Slav. The balance between Serbian centralism and Croatian federalism was left unresolved, pending a constitutional convention.

After the war

Once the war ended and the Italian threat receded, the rivalry between Croats and Serbs revived. Serbian leaders retained a vision of a centralized country united around Serbia, as described in the Nacertanije and painfully pursued in past wars and crises. They had little understanding for Ljudevit Gaj's Illyrianism, Croatian Yugoslavism, or the Croatian experience of Magyar domination, which was driving demands in Zagreb for federalism and autonomy.

Each step in establishing the post-war state showed that Croatian federalists were going to be disappointed. "Yugoslavia" was rejected as the official name of the country in favor of the "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes." A more serious blow fell in 1921, when a national assembly adopted a centralist constitution based on that of pre-war Serbia. The voting followed ethnic lines: although the election was fair and democratic, it set a bad precedent because the voting amounted to a tyranny of the majority. Serbs were the most numerous ethnic group, and Serbs in all provinces voted for nationalist parties, taking 183 out of 419 assembly seats. Prime Minister Pasic secured the votes of forty Slovene and Bosnian Muslim representatives by promising jobs for their co-nationals on the state railways, and the 1921 Constitution passed by a vote of 223 to 35.

The Croatian delegates boycotted the voting session, setting another precedent that increased the impact of Great Serbian nationalism on interwar Yugoslavia. The Austro-Hungarian parliament never exercised real power or responsibilities, and the Croatian Peasant Party (led by Stjepan Radic) hasd never picked up the practical political skills it needed to be a "loyal opposition." Rather than work for compromise or engage in parliamentary struggle, Radic's party preferred the grand gesture and ideological purity.

Unchallenged, it was perhaps inevitable that the Serbs would dominate the new state. In the next 22 years, every Prime Minister was a Serb, and so were most other Cabinet ministers. In 1938, 161 of 165 generals were Serbs. Serbs dominated the foreign service, the state banks and state patronage jobs, and ran the country to suit Serbian interests.

Stjepan Radic and the Croatian Peasant Party bear some responsibility for this state of affairs. Outvoted and frustrated, Radic insulted Pasic and the king, and came close to treason by appealing for Italian intervention. In 1925 he became Minister of Education, but only used the post to criticize his colleagues, not to secure Croatian educational rights. He made unrealistic proposals, such as a plan to use the Arabic script instead of the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets.

On the other hand, the Serbs tended to abuse the power they had achieved. Political deal-making and corruption were widespread. Serbian politicians never seriously considered Croatian proposals for federalism and autonomy. Finally, there was an ugly violent streak in Great Serbian nationalism, which seems all the more unnecessary given the Serbian monopoly on state power. In 1928, a Radical Party delegate (a Serb from Montenegro) pulled a revolver on the floor of the Skupstina during a debate, and fatally wounded three Croatian deputies, including Stjepan Radic. His death not only meant the end of Croatian hopes for autonomy, but the end of a meaningful system of parliamentary government. In 1929, King Alexander dismissed the parliament and imposed a royal dictatorship, in which Serbs still retained power.


Because of an inability to compromise, Great Serbian nationalism created dangerous forces that eventually undid the successes of the nineteenth century, the Balkan Wars and World War I. King Alexander was assassinated in 1934 by a Macedonian terrorist with Croatian connections. When the German army invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, lack of cohesion among Yugoslavia's ethnic groups contributed to rapid defeat in the field. Yugoslavia then was partitioned and its people subjected to brutal mistreatment by the Nazis and by rival factions in a civil war. The post-1945 Communist regime explicitly rejected Serbian nationalism and suppressed it until 1989, when its revival led to ongoing crises and more war. It remains to be seen whether today's Serbian leaders will have to pay too high a price for reviving ideas first laid out by Garasanin 150 years ago.

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This lecture is a portion of a larger Web site, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism); click here to return to the Table of Contents page.
This page created on 6 December 1996; last modified 11 June 2009.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards