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The kingdom of Serbs, Croats & Slovenes

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With the outbreak of WWI, Croatia’s future was again up for grabs. Sensing that they would once again be pawns to the Great Powers, a Croatian delegation, the ‘Yugoslav Committee’, convinced the Serbian government to agree to the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy that would rule over the two countries. The Yugoslav Committee became the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and they quickly negotiated the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes to be based in Belgrade. Although many Croats were unsure about Serbian intentions, they were very sure about Italian intentions since Italy lost no time in seizing Pula, Rijeka and Zadar in November 1918.

Given, in effect, a choice between throwing in their lot with Italy or Serbia, the Croats chose Serbia.

Problems with the kingdom began almost immediately. Currency reforms benefited Serbs at the expense of the Croats. A treaty between Yugoslavia and Italy gave Istria, Zadar and a number of islands to Italy. The new constitution abolished Croatia’s Sabor and centralised power in Belgrade while new electoral districts under-represented the Croats.

Opposition to the new regime was led by the Croat Stjepan Radić, who remained favourable to the idea of Yugoslavia but wished to transform it into a federal democracy. His alliance with the Serb Svetpzar Pribićevic proved profoundly threatening to the regime and Radić was assassinated in 1928. Exploiting fears of civil war, on 6 January 1929 King Aleksandar in Belgrade proclaimed a royal dictatorship, abolished political parties and suspended parliamentary government, thus ending any hope of democratic change.

WWII & the rise of Ustaše

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One day after the proclamation, a Bosnian Croat, Ante Pavelić, set up the Ustaše Croatian Liberation Movement in Zagreb with the stated aim of establishing an independent state by force if necessary. Fearing arrest, he fled to Sofia in Bulgaria and made contact with anti-Serbian Macedonian revolutionaries before fleeing to Italy. There, he established training camps for his organisation under Mussolini’s benevolent eye. After organising various disturbances, in 1934 he and the Macedonians succeeded in assassinating King Aleksandar in Marseilles while he was on a state visit. Italy responded by closing down the training camps and imprisoning Pavelić and many of his followers. When Germany invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941 the exiled Ustaše were quickly installed by the Germans, with the support of the Italians who hoped to see their own territorial aims in Dalmatia realised.

Within days the Independent State of Croatia (NDH; Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), headed by Pavelić, issued a range of decrees designed to persecute and eliminate the regime’s ‘enemies’ who were mainly Jews, Roma and Serbs. Over 80% of the Jewish population was rounded up and packed off to extermination camps between 1941 and 1945. Serbs fared no better. The Ustaše programme called for ‘one-third of Serbs killed, one-third expelled and one-third converted to Catholicism’, a programme that was carried out with a brutality that appalled even the Nazis. Villages conducted their own personal pogroms against Serbs and extermination camps were set up, most notoriously at Jasenovac (south of Zagreb), which also liquidated Jews, Roma and political prisoners. The exact number of Serb victims is uncertain and controversial, with Croatian historians tending to minimise the figures and Serbian historians tending to maximise them. The number of Serb deaths ranged from 60, 000 to 600, 000, but the most reliable estimates settle somewhere between 80, 000 to 120, 000, including victims of village pogroms. Whatever the number, it’s clear that the NDH and its supporters made a diligent effort to eliminate the entire Serb population.

Tito & the Partisans

Not all Croats supported these policies. The Ustaše regime drew most of its support from the Lika region southwest of Zagreb and western Hercegovina, but Pavelić’s agreement to cede a good part of Dalmatia to Italy was highly unpopular to say the least and the Ustaše had almost no support in that region.

Armed resistance to the regime took the form of Serbian ‘Chetnik’ formations led by General Draza Mihailovic, which began as an antifascist rebellion but soon degenerated into massacres of Croats in eastern Croatia and Bosnia.

The most effective antifascist struggle was conducted by National Liber­ation Partisan units and their leader, Josip Broz, known as Tito. With their roots in the outlawed Yugoslavian Communist Party, the Partisans attracted long-suffering Yugoslav intellectuals, Croats disgusted with Chetnik massacres, Serbs disgusted with Ustaše massacres, and antifascists of all kinds. The Partisans gained wide popular support with their early programme, which, although vague, appeared to envision a postwar Yugoslavia that would be based on a loose federation.

Although the Allies initially backed the Serbian Chetniks, it became apparent that the Partisans were waging a far more focused and determined fight against the Nazis. With the diplomatic and military support of Churchill and other Allied powers, the Partisans controlled much of Croatia by 1943. The Partisans established functioning local governments in the territory they seized, which later eased their transition to power. On 20 October 1944 Tito entered Belgrade with the Red Army and was made prime minister. When Germany surrendered in 1945, Pavelić and the Ustaše fled and the Partisans entered Zagreb.

The remnants of the NDH army, desperate to avoid falling into the hands of the Partisans, attempted to cross into Austria at Bleiburg. A small British contingent met the 50, 000 troops and promised to intern them outside Yugoslavia in exchange for their surrender. It was a trick. The troops were forced into trains that headed back into Yugoslavia where the Partisans awaited them. The ensuing massacre claimed the lives of at least 30, 000 men (although the exact number is in doubt) and left a permanent stain on the Yugoslav government.

Yugoslavia

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Tito’s attempt to retain control of the Italian city of Trieste and parts of southern Austria faltered in the face of Allied opposition, but Dalmatia and most of Istria were made a permanent part of postwar Yugoslavia. The good news was that Tito was determined to create a state in which no ethnic group dominated the political landscape. Croatia became one of six republics – along with Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Slovenia – in a tightly configured federation. The bad news was that Tito effected this delicate balance by creating a one-party state and rigorously stamping out all opposition whether nationalist, royalist or religious. The government’s hostility to organised religion, particularly the Catholic Church, stemmed from its perception that the Church was complicit in the murderous nationalism that surfaced during WWII

During the 1960s, the concentration of power in Belgrade became an increasingly testy issue as it became apparent that money from the more prosperous republics of Slovenia and Croatia was being distributed to the poorer republics of Montenegro and Bosnia and Hercegovina. The problem seemed particularly blatant in Croatia, which saw money from its prosperous tourist business on the Adriatic coast flow into Belgrade. At the same time, Serbs in Croatia were over-represented in the government, armed forces and police, partly because state-service offered an opportunity for a chronically disadvantaged population.

In Croatia the unrest reached a crescendo in the ‘Croatian Spring’ of 1971. Led by reformers within the Communist Party of Croatia, intellectuals and students first called for greater economic autonomy and then constitutional reform to loosen Croatia’s ties to Yugoslavia. Tito’s eventual crackdown was ferocious. Leaders of the movement were ‘purged’ – either jailed or expelled from the party. Careers were abruptly terminated; some dissidents chose exile and emigrated to the USA. Serbs viewed the movement as the Ustaše reborn, and jailed reformers blamed the Serbs for their troubles. The stage was set for the rise of nationalism and the war that followed Tito’s death in 1980, even though his 1974 constitution afforded the republics more autonomy.

Independence

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Tito’s habit of borrowing from abroad to flood the country with cheap consumer goods produced an economic crisis after his death. The country was unable to service the interest on its loans and inflation soared. The authority of the central government sank along with the economy, and long-suppressed mistrust among Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups resurfaced.

In 1989 severe repression of the Albanian majority in Serbia’s Kosovo province sparked renewed fears of Serbian hegemony and heralded the end of the Yugoslav Federation. With political changes sweeping Eastern Eur­ope, many Croats felt the time had come to end more than four decades of Communist rule and attain complete autonomy. In the Croatian elections of April 1990, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ; Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica) secured 40% of the vote, to the 30% won by the Communist Party, which retained the loyalty of the Serbian community as well as voters in Istria and Rijeka. On 22 December 1990, a new Croatian constitution was promulgated, changing the status of Serbs in Croatia from that of a ‘constituent nation’ to a national minority.

The constitution’s failure to guarantee minority rights, and mass dismissals of Serbs from the public service, stimulated the 600, 000-strong ethnic Serb community within Croatia to demand autonomy. In early 1991, Serb extremists within Croatia staged provocations designed to force federal military intervention. A May 1991 referendum (boycotted by the Serbs) produced a 93% vote in favour of independence, but when Croatia declared independence on 25 June 1991, the Serbian enclave of Krajina proclaimed its independence from Croatia.

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