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Yugoslavia and the World Wars

World War I

It is commonly said that World War I began with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. It is obviously much more complicated than that, but there is no doubt that this event triggered the chain events that led to one of history's most brutal wars.

Following the assassination, Austria-Hungary placed an ultimatum on Serbia threatening war unless Serbia promised to reign in terrorist organizations such as the one responsible for the death of Franz Ferdinand. Even though many felt that Serbia had in fact met Austria-Hungary's demands, war was declared and Serbia was invaded. The network of European alliances were triggered like tripwires, first with Russia coming to Serbia's aid against Austria-Hungary, then Germany coming to the aid of Austria-Hungary against Russia, and then France coming to the aid of Russia against Germany. All told, the opposing forces were essentially divided into the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey) and the Triple Entente (France, Great Britain, and Russia). The Croats and Slovenes went to war with Serbia as well.

Serbia enjoyed some initial success against the Austro-Hungarians, and believing Serbia would soon be victorious, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic announced plans to unite Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in a single state. However in 1915 Italy and Bulgaria came to the aid of Austria-Hungary and dealt the Serb armies some crushing blows and the Serb army and leadership was forced to flee to the island of Corfu, leaving Serbia to be occupied by the Austro-Hungarians and Bulgarians. Later, Serb armies helped French and British forces drive out the Austro-Hungarian forces and routed the Bulgarians in September 1918. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1919 and the war was finally over. The war had wiped out a quarter of Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia's pre-war population and half of their prewar resources were used up.

The Interwar Years

In 1917 Dalmatia's Ante Trumbic and Nikola Pasic signed the Declaration of Corfu, which called for a union of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Montenegrins and Macedonians were to be grouped with Serbia) under a single democratic constitution and parliamentary system under the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty. There were to be two official alphabets (Cyrillic and Roman), three national names and flags, and three predominant religions. However there was some debate as to whether the new state should be centralized or federal with Pasic pressing for a centralized state and Trumblic advocating a decentralized state. When the war was over Bosnia, Hercegovina, and Voivodina all favored union with Serbia over the objections of the Croats. On December 1, 1919, Prince Regent Aleksander I Karadjordjevic declared the founding of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and six months later the Kingdom was recognized by the Paris Peace Conference.

The young kingdom was in trouble almost instantly. While a union of south Slavs had long been a dream of intellectuals the reality was quite different. There were already significant differences between the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, but there were also German, Albanian, Hungarian, Romanian, Jewish, and Turkish minorities. Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Uniatism, and Protestantism were all practiced, and many languages were spoken as well. Worst of all, many viewed the new government as illegitimate, artificial and almost always favored their local loyalties and traditions. In addition, almost all of its borders were in dispute, with Italy, Bulgaria, and Hungary all claiming large chunks of the new kingdom for their own. Italy even went so far as to support Croatian, Macedonian, and Albanian extremists in the hopes of undermining and weakening the Kingdom.

Most prevalent was the conflict between Serbs and Croats. This was manifested in the new parliament by the Croatian Peasant Party under Stjepan Radic and the Serbian Radical Party under the leadership of Nikola Pasic. The parliamentary conflicts essentially came down to federalism versus centralization. The CPP was essentially the only Croat political party and advocated an independent agrarian socialist state. Although the CPP won all the Croatian seats in the Constituent Assembly, it adopted an obstructionist strategy and boycotted the Assembly. This left the SRP and the Democratic Party (generally represented by Serbs outside of Serbia) to adopt a centralist constitution that did not provide for many democratic ideals and limited the legal expression of non-Serb groups. The new constitution drew almost immediate outrage from the Communists, who attempted to assassinate King Aleksander I and later assassinated the interior minister.

Parliamentary politics in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was a messy business. Many governments, either CPP or SRP were forced from power on charges of corruption or collusion with the Italian fascists. Ruling coalitions were often weak and could not maintain stability while floor debates were sometimes little more than violent brawls. The low point was reached in 1928 when a Montenegrin deputy shot Radic on the floor of parliament, mortally wounding him. Delegates from Croatia, Bosnia, and Hercegovina left parliament and King Aleksander, fearing anarchy, suspended the constitution, banned all political parties, and declared a temporary royal dictatorship. He also changed the country's name to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Now with his dictatorial power, King Aleksander I canceled civil liberties, abolished local self-government, and imposed harsh penalties for sedition, terrorism, and support of communism. While the new system was initially popular and viewed as a stabilizing force, King Aleksander I's plans eventually backfired as the level of arrests became unpopular. In 1931 he created a new constitution that allowed for some democracy but banned all religious, ethnic, and regional political parties or groups. But this still was not enough to satisfy the different groups as many Serbs protested the new measures while membership in the ultra-nationalist Croatian Ustase grew. Three years later King Aleksander I was assassinated in Marseille by a Bulgarian Ustase agent with support from Italy and Hungary. Replacing him was a three-man regency that ruled for Aleksander's son who was too young to take the throne. A new government was appointed under the leadership of Serb Milan Stojadinovic and while the reduced the level of political oppression he failed to liberalize the government and did not pacify Croatian political groups. With many fearing that Stojadonovic had fascist intentions (his followers adopted the fascist salute and wore green shirts), Prince Pavle, who was part of the regency, forced Stojadinovic's resignation in 1939 and replaced him with Dragisa Cvetkovic. Cvetkovic and Croat leader Vlatko Macek agreed to the Sporazum which allowed for Croatian autonomy with its own assembly while Belgrade would continue to control defense, internal security, foreign policy, trade, and transport. However rather than quell the situation the Sporazum actually destabilized the situation further with Croats demanding full independence, Muslims demanding an autonomous Bosnia, and Slovenes and Montenegrins demanding increased federalism.

With the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, Yugoslavia's foreign policy became confused as it tried to find support from both Nazi Germany and the west. With the onset of World War II and the invasion of France Yugoslavia attempted to maintain neutrality but found itself surrounded by enemies, in desperate need of support, and with increasing pressure from Nazi Germany. Yugoslavia ignored pro-western public opinion and signed on to the Tripartite Pact in return for a guarantee that Germany would not invade or press Yugoslavia for military assistance. Furious at the move, military officers overthrew Cvetkovic and declared 16-year-old Petar II king while anti-Nazi protests swept across Yugoslavia. This was all the motivation that Hitler needed and in 1941 Axis forces invaded Yugoslavia and forced its unconditional surrender. Yugoslavia was now in World War II.

World War II

Nazi Germany instantly began to exploit Yugoslavia's ethnic tensions by declaring the independent fascist puppet-state of Croatia under the brutal leadership of Ustase leader Ante Pavelic. Slovenia was partitioned with Italy, as was Dalmatia, while Voivodina was returned to Hungary, Bosnia was joined with Croatia, Kosovo was joined with the Albanian puppet-state, and Macedonia was returned to Bulgaria. Ustase storm troopers began a brutal campaign of slaughter, killing 2 million Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies that lived in Croatia. The killings were so brutal that they even appalled the Nazis, who regularly told Pavelic to scale back, even though Pavelic refused to do so. Italy even went so far as to occupy Hercegovina to prevent the Ustase campaigns there. The fact that Italy and Germany, two of histories most infamously violent regimes, went to such lengths to stop the Ustase campaigns is a real testament to how brutal the Ustase really was. The Ustase also enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the Croatian Catholic church, namely Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac of Zagreb who publicly supported the Ustase and Pavelic, despite privately condemning the atrocities. In Serbia the Germans established a puppet regime under the leadership of General Milan Nedic. However Nedic never viewed himself as a collaborator and tried to reign in the violence that was taking place.

Meanwhile, several resistance groups developed. One group was known as the Cetniks, who were under the leadership of Colonel Draza Mihajlovic. The Cetniks were Serbian-nationalist, monarchist and strongly anti-communist. The other group was the communist-led Partisans under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who was of mixed Croatian-Slovenian heritage. The Partisans drew support from all over Yugoslavia and cannot really be tied to any single ethnic group. In fact, Tito got much of his support from his pan-Yugoslav appeal and anti-fascist policies. They soon became the largest and most active resistance group and with help from the Cetniks, the Partisans won control of much of the countryside. As the Partisans gained strength the Nazis declared that they would execute 100 Serbs for every Nazi killed. While this led Mihajlovic and the Cetniks to call off their attacks fearing that these reprisals would lead to a Serbian holocaust, Tito decided that the Nazi policy of reprisals would encourage more Serbs to join the ranks of the Partisans, and so he continued to engage the Germans. This policy split led the Cetniks to break with the Partisans and soon Mihajlovic turned against the Partisans, considering them to be the primary threat. However none of this deterred the Partisans, and they increased their support. While the Partisans suffered some initial defeats, and were almost wiped out at some points, they were able to fight off both the Cetniks and later the Ustase in what was some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II. By the end of the war 1.7 million Yugoslavs (11% of the pre-war population) had been killed, second only to Poland. Virtually all of Yugoslavia's cities and production centers were ruined.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:30:29 ZULU