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Kingdom of Yugoslavia

The idea of an independent South Slav state advanced during World War I, especially after Bolshevik Russia disclosed the secret 1915 Treaty of London, in which the Entente had promised to award Istria and much of Dalmatia and the Slovenian lands to Italy. Because they feared Italian domination, Ante Trumbic and other Dalmatian leaders formed the London-based Yugoslav Committee to promote creation of a South Slav state. In July 1917, Nikola Pasic of Serbia and Trumbic signed the Declaration of Corfu, which called for a union of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in one nation with a single democratic, constitutional, parliamentary system, under the Karadjordjevic Dynasty. On 01 December 1918, Prince Regent Aleksandar Karadjordjevic and delegates from the National Council, Vojvodina, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Montenegro announced the founding of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, to be ruled by Aleksandar. The Paris Peace Conference recognized the kingdom in May 1919.

Ethnic hatred, religious rivalry, language barriers, and cultural conflicts plagued the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) from its inception. The question of centralization versus federalism bitterly divided the Serbs and Croats; democratic solutions were blocked and dictatorship was made inevitable because political leaders had little vision, no experience in parliamentary government, and no tradition of compromise. Hostile neighboring states resorted to regicide to disrupt the kingdom, and only when European war threatened in 1939 did the Serbs and Croats attempt a settlement. But that solution came too late to matter.

The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes encompassed most of the Austrian Slovenian lands, Croatia, Slavonia, most of Dalmatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina, Kosovo, the Serbiancontrolled parts of Macedonia, and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Territorial disputes disrupted relations with Italy, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Albania. Italy posed the most serious threat to Yugoslavia. Although it received Zadar, Istria, Trieste, and several Adriatic islands in the postwar treaties and took Rijeka by force, Italy resented not receiving all the territory promised under the 1915 Treaty of London. Rome subsequently supported Croatian, Macedonian, and Albanian extremists, hoping to stir unrest and hasten the end of Yugoslavia. Revisionist Hungary and Bulgaria also backed anti-Yugoslav groups.

The creation of Yugoslavia fulfilled the dreams of many South Slavic intellectuals who disregarded fundamental differences among twelve million people of the new country. The Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes had conflicting political and cultural traditions, and the South Slav kingdom also faced sizable nonSlav minorities, including Germans, Albanians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Turks, with scatterings of Italians, Greeks, Czechoslovaks, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Russians, Poles, Bulgars, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, and Gypsies. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Islamic, Uniate, Jewish, and Protestant faiths all were well established and cut across ethnic and territorial lines. Besides the divisiveness of a large number of minority languages, linguistic differences also split the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Macedonian Slavs. Many people regarded the new government and its laws as alien, exploitative, and secondary to kinship loyalties and traditions.

Yugoslavia's foreign policy in the 1920s sought to counter threats from Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and to secure regional peace through a series of Balkan alliances. The young kingdom was a charter member of the League of Nations. In 1921 and 1922 Yugoslavia, Romania, and Czechoslovakia signed mutual defense and political treaties aimed at blocking a Habsburg restoration and blocking the ambitions of revisionist Hungary. This alignment, later known as the Little Entente, won support from France, which hoped to block Soviet expansion and contain Germany. In 1927 Yugoslavia and France signed a treaty of friendship. Though it was the focus of Yugoslav foreign policy for the next decade, this treaty included no military provisions and failed to relieve the fear of fascist Italy.

After assuming dictatorial power, Aleksandar canceled civil liberties, abolished local self-government, and decreed strict laws against sedition, terrorism, and propagation of communism. The king named a Serb, General Petar Zivkovic, as premier, officially changed the name of the country to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, unified the six regional legal systems, and restructured the ministries. The king attempted to ease separatist pressures by replacing traditional provinces with a new territorial unit, the banovina. The dictatorship at first gained wide support because it seemed to make government more efficient and less corrupt.

The popularity of the dictatorship was short-lived, however. Aleksandar's attempt to impose unity on the ethnic groups backfired, blocking the understanding of common national interests and unleashing more divisive forces. The royal dictatorship unified Croatian opposition to Serbian hegemony but fractured the once-unified Serbian parties. The police violently suppressed expressions of communism and ethnic dissidence. The state imprisoned Slovenian and Muslim politicians and tried Vlatko Macek, successor to Radic, for terrorist activity. Serbs also were also oppressed, and the leader of the Serbian Democrats left the country in protest. Ultranationalist Croats also fled, and Italy granted asylum to Ante Pavelic, leader of the terrorist Ustase.

In 1931 Aleksandar formally ended his personal rule by promulgating a constitution that provided for limited democracy. He legalized political parties but banned religious, ethnic, and regional groups and all organizations that threatened the integrity and order of the state. Hopelessly divided Serbian and Croatian opposition leaders could not even agree to issue a common statement on the new constitution. Only the candidates of ivkovi appeared on the ballot. Serbs protested the limitations on democratic liberties; the government imprisoned Macek, causing unrest in Croatia; and the ranks of the Ustase grew. Despite the discontent, Aleksandar retained some popularity even in nonSerbian regions.

In 1931 the world economic crisis hit Yugoslavia hard. Foreign trade slumped, and the trade deficit rose. Collapsing world grain prices, the end of German reparations payments, and exhaustion of credit sources brought unemployment. Mines closed, bankruptcies increased, and severe weather conditions brought rural starvation. The economic crisis also brought charges that the Serbs were exploiting Croatia and Slovenia. Finally, French refusal of a badly needed loan shook the confidence of the Yugoslav government in its French allies.

Fearing Italy but doubtful of France, Aleksandar made unsuccessful offers to Mussolini in the early 1930s and attempted to build a Balkan alliance. In 1934 Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece, and Turkey signed a limited mutual defense agreement, later known as the Balkan Pact. Bulgaria refused to abandon its claims to Macedonia and did not join the pact, but tensions eased between Belgrade and Sofia. Fearing a vengeful, stronger Germany, France sought rapprochement with Italy in 1934, pressuring Yugoslavia to do likewise. But Yugoslavia began to turn to Germany instead to offset the threat from Italy.

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Page last modified: 20-09-2013 19:03:30 ZULU