The history preceding the conflict: Yugoslavia up till 1991
4. The first Yugoslavia
‘You cannot understand Yugoslavia without having a detailed knowledge of its history even before its official birth in 1918. This is because the reasons for its birth were the same as for its death.’
The first Yugoslavia consisted of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia- Hercegovina, Montenegro and Vojvodina; it came into being on 1 December 1918. The direct reason for the creation of this first Yugoslavia is to be found in the course of the First World War in this area.
During the First World War, the Croats and Slovenes fought in the Habsburg Army (the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) against the Serbs. Amongst these fighters was Josip Broz who was later to become known as Tito. The Croats set up seven concentration camps for Serbs and Bosnians, the most notorious being at Doboj. Ten thousand prisoners were to die here, mostly from illness and neglect.
In the autumn of 1915, with the help of the Bulgarians, the Austrian and German troops managed to drive the Serbian enemy into Albania. The Serbian troops reached Greece through Albania and Montenegro where a Franco-British fleet evacuated the 155,000 men who had survived the appalling journey to Corfu.
In 1915 political exiles from Croatia and Slovenia agreed in London on the formation of a federal Yugoslav state. At first it was impossible to reach conciliation with the supporters of the idea of a centrally-governed Greater Serbia. However, the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 brought both sides closer together: the Serbs no longer had the support of the Russian tsar and feared that the other members of the Entente – France and Great Britain – would recognize an independent Croatia that would still include many Serbs within its borders. On the other hand the Slovenes and Croats, who wanted to separate themselves from the Habsburg Dual Monarchy, now also had their interests in a Greater Serbia. They had read in diplomatic documents exposed by Russian revolutionaries, that two years earlier the allies had promised Italy territory – South Tyrol, Trieste, Istria and parts of the Dalmatian coast – in exchange for it entering the war on their side. These promises of territory would have been at the cost of Slovenia and Croatia who hoped to free themselves of the Double Monarchy.
Due to these foreign threats, in 1917 the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes agreed upon a joint kingdom that would be ruled by the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty. During the final year of war, the Serb forces were based in Albania and managed to reconquer the territory that they had had to give up at the end of 1915. At the same time there was a growing sympathy for a southern Slavic state amongst the starving and war-weary peoples of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia because it would mean an end to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had plunged the Balkans into catastrophe.
Following the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the international climate favoured the implementation of the southern Slavs’ federal plans. This enabled King Petar to proclaim the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on 1 December 1918. Macedonia and Montenegro, who were considered to be a part of Serbia, were excluded from this title as were the Muslims in areas such as Bosnia-Hercegovina. Petar abdicated six months later in favour of his son Aleksandar.
Unlike the nation states of Western Europe, Yugoslavia was not therefore a nation in the sense of a political entity that had been grafted onto an ethnic community. It was the result of the fragmentation process of two multi-ethnic states; it occurred at the end of the suffering of Europe’s ‘sick’ Habsburg Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. And it was also the result of the temporary decline of the great states of Germany and Russia during the First World War: the two political entities that had constantly influenced the Balkans during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Hence, Yugoslavia was created from areas that had extremely diverse political backgrounds. It encompassed the former Kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro (which had managed to escape the Ottoman domination), Croatia (which following two centuries of independence from the beginning of the 12th century had, with the maintenance of a certain level of autonomy, become a part of first Hungary and then the Habsburg Empire), Bosnia and Hercegovina, (which were a part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries but were added to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878) and Slovenia (which had never existed as an independent state, had spent many centuries under German influence but finally became a part of the Habsburg Empire).
Unlike some Western European states, the Yugoslav State had not begun as the dream of a people who had fought together for their freedom. In the 19th century Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Montenegrins had either argued for Pan-Slavism (which went way beyond Yugoslavia) or had fought for a separate Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian or Montenegrin state. Each of these aspirations paled alongside Yugoslavia as a construction.
If there was mention of a southern Slavic state in the nationalist programs of the Slovenes and the Croats, it was mostly for tactical reasons. This was because they would need the Serbs’ support so as to be able to free themselves from the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy or alternatively so as to achieve autonomy as a third state that would be the equal of both Austria and Hungary. And when the Serbs spoke of southern Slavic unification, as based on a common language, it was mainly because they were seeking a solution so as to create a new national home for the Serbs who lived outside of Serbia. The lack of synchronization between the various nationalist aspirations made the ideal of a southern Slavic state virtually impossible until the First World War: Croatia and Slovenia were not independent and Serbia was already an autonomous state which would later achieve independence and would not voluntarily allow itself to be confined within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The national awareness in this area, which entered the world community in 1918 under its initial name of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, had long been the dream of an elite. This elite consisted of a modest-sized intelligentsia that included a clergy that advised its political leaders against a background of romantic nationalism. These elite circles lived in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and Sarajevo, cities that had become greatly modernized during the 19th century. Rural areas remained excluded from innovative trends or they actively opposed them.
These elite circles played a role in the region’s nationalist sentiments in two separate ways. Firstly representatives of these circles traced the borders on Balkan maps and coloured them in in a way that subsequently was to be realized by political and military leaders. The people counted only as foot soldiers and had no voice in these nationalist aspirations. A second way in which the intelligentsia propagated nationalism during the 19th century was to create the ethnic-national myths whose influence was still to be felt at the end of the 20th century. While ignoring the long period of Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish and Venetian domination, the nationalists longed for the eras when the historical empire was at its zenith – either in reality or in the imagination. This meant, for instance, that the historical claims for a Greater Croatia or a Greater Serbia had to overlap. It also meant that the needs of Macedonia, Bosnia and Albania to have their own states were in conflict with each other.
Serb mythology focused on the Battle of Kosovo at the Blackbird Field where King Lazar was given the choice between a place in the Kingdom of Heaven or conquest on Earth: he accepted the first choice. His troops then suffered a defeat that would lead to centuries of Turkish domination. Their Orthodox faith generated the idea amongst the Serbs that they formed a front against Catholicism on the one hand and Islam on the other. This gave them both a sense of pride and a feeling of victimization and xenophobia.
Croatian nationalists regarded their people as being a stronghold of Catholic Rome, the Antemurale Christianitatis, against both the Orthodox Church and Islam. The nationalist movements of the 19th century generally added extra emphasis to the exclusive elements of their own parties although it was impossible to exclude paradox in an area where so many different groups lived together. For instance, Ante Starcevic, who set up the ultra-nationalist Party of Croatian Rights in 1861 and who is regarded by many Croats as being the founder of anti-Serbian, Croatian nationalism, was also the son of a Serbian Orthodox mother and a Catholic Croatian father. Sometimes other population groups were usurped in an attempt to justify claims to particular areas. Hence, Serbs became ‘Orthodox Croats’ and Muslims became ‘Serbs who have converted to Islam’.
These forms of 19th century nationalism finally led to a compromise that was only made possible by the First World War. However, it in no way solved the tensions between the amalgamated ethnic elements of the first Yugoslavia. On the contrary, these tensions dominated the country’s politics for virtually its entire existence. For that matter, the Serbs and Croats had decided on the formation of a southern Slavic state for entirely different reasons. The Serbs saw it as being the only possibility to realize their dream of combining all the Serbs into a single nation. They effectively regarded the presence of other ethnic groups as being a part of the bargain. The Croats needed Serbia’s help to acquire the necessary clout so as to achieve independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Once the new state had become a reality, the vast majority of its inhabitants were Serbs who numbered five million amongst a total population of twelve million. The Serbs tended to dominate the other ethnic groups. The Croats no longer appreciated the Serbs’ dominance now that Austro-Hungarian dominance had been thrown aside and the state had been set up. In fact the Croats, who had enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy under Austro-Hungarian rule, even felt that their position in the new Kingdom had deteriorated. The Serbs, on the other hand, had emerged from the war on the winning side and argued that they had made sacrifices during the war for the freedom of the Slovenes and the Croats whom, as they pointed out, had fought against them for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbian domination was also the plan of the peace negotiators at Versailles, and this was especially true of the French who felt that the southern Slavic state had to be a bulwark against the restoration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the possibility of new German interests in the Balkans.
Further consideration of the politics of the first Yugoslavia
The explanation for the creation of the first Yugoslavia can be sought through causes that existed both within Yugoslavia (endogenous factors) and abroad (exogenous factors).
The supporters of the endogenous explanation for the creation of the first Yugoslavia emphasize the fact that the idea for a southern Slavic state was already present in the programs of the 19th century nationalists in the various areas that were later to become the amalgamated parts of Yugoslavia. They argue that this idea had gained considerable support in the ten years preceding the First World War.
In addition, they refer to the linguistic homogeneity of the southern Slavic area, with the exception that the Serbs generally use the Cyrillic alphabet and the other ethnic groups the Latin version.
The endogenous explanations continue by arguing that, at the end of the First World War, elite circles from Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia regarded a unified southern Slavic area as being the best guarantee against the power of neighbouring countries such as Germany, Hungary, Italy, Rumania and Turkey. Of course, this could also be regarded as an external factor. These authors contend that a condition for southern Slavic unification was the power of the Serbian army.
The supporters of the exogenous explanation consider the significance of the First World War as being all important: ‘Yugoslavia is a product of the First World War.’ The Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires were in decline and had emerged from the war in defeat. Croatia and Slovenia could expect nothing more of these empires after the war. And without the Italian threat at the end of the war, the elite of Ljubljana and Zagreb would have never fled into the arms of their Belgrade counterparts. Finally, at the peace conference in Versailles, the major powers forced the Serbs, their wartime ally, to accept the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia. Hence, they also determined that large Slovenian minorities would remain in Austria while at the same time Italy had been allocated Istria, Zadar and a number of Dalmatian islands. Hungary was forced to surrender Vojvodina and a part of the Banat to the new Kingdom.
The southern Slavic State was founded in 1918 with the international situation playing a vital role. Yet it did not have an easy start. The country was poor. Eighty per cent of the population lived in rural areas where, in both Croatia and Serbia, Habsburg soldiers had requisitioned a great many cattle and goods. Two-thirds of all peasant families lived below subsistence level. Industry was not sufficiently developed to alleviate the widespread hidden unemployment in rural areas in any significant way. Moreover, there was considerable inequality between the various regions. Serbia had suffered terribly in the war. More than a quarter of a Serb population of four-and-a-half million had been killed in the two Balkan Wars and the First World War. As many as 62% of men aged between 15 and 55 had died. By contrast, the cost in human life was less than ten per cent in the regions of Yugoslavia that had been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
What applied to people also applied to industry. The slight industrial lead that Slovenia and Croatia originally had over Serbia was subsequently increased by the war itself and by Serbia’s reconstruction problems after the war. The retreating Austro-Hungarian troops had focused their scorched earth tactics on Serbia. After the war Croatia benefited from investments from Austria and Hungary whereas Serbia failed to attract foreign investment for several years. The new Kingdom still had virtually no integrated national transport system. Train connections, roads and bank systems were still the same as in the days of the great empires. There had been virtually no trade between the various areas of the Kingdom before the First World War, a situation that was slow to change afterwards. The advantages of a large internal market were rarely exploited.
The political system was particularly unstable. Croat and Slovene political leaders resisted the Belgrade-based centralist state government that had been imposed by the Serbs and was included in the Constitution of 1921. This meant that the imbalance between centralism and federalism was inherent to the first Yugoslavia right from the start and was ultimately to destroy the second Yugoslavia. Even the day on which the constitution was proclaimed revealed Serbian domination: 28 June, Saint Vitus’ Day, the day of the battle on the Blackbird Field and also of Gavrilo Princip’s attack.
By virtue of its constitution, Yugoslavia had become a parliamentary democracy with the King fulfilling an exceptionally important role. This constitution was passed with only a small majority of the voting delegates. A large number of representatives, including the Croat Peasant Party and the Communists, had abstained.
Non-Serbian groups discovered that the practice of government was no better than the principle. Almost all the prime ministers of the 24 cabinets between 1921 and 1929 were of Serbian origin; only once, for almost six months in 1928, was there a non-Serbian premier: Bishop Anton Korosec of Slovenia. Almost all the army chiefs were Serbian, an ethnic group which otherwise accounted for 40% of the population. There were virtually no Croats in top positions although they formed a quarter of the population. Let alone the eight per cent who were Slovenes along with the Bosnian Muslims (six per cent), the Macedonians (five per cent), the Germans (four per cent) and roughly 15 other smaller ethnic groups who could not recognize themselves in the new Kingdom’s title.
In addition, the Serbs were grossly overrepresented in the political world: of the 656 ministers who served between 1921 and 1939, 452 were Serbs, 26 were Croats with party affiliations and 111 were Croats without party affiliations. On the eve of the German invasion of Yugoslavia, 161 out of a total of 165 generals were either Serb or Montenegrin; only two were Croats. This situation represented a deterioration for the Croats who, during the Habsburg era, had accounted for 15% of the generals and admirals of the Austro-Hungarian forces. In 1934, out of a total number of 145 top diplomats, 123 were Serbs and 21 were of Croatian origin. In addition, the vast majority of provincial prefects were Serbs in every area except Slovenia.
60% of the Yugoslav army were Serbs who also accounted for more than half of all civil servants. It was only in the justice system that the relation remained in proportion, at least so far as the Serbs and the Croats were concerned. More than half of all judges were Serb and a quarter Croat.
The Slovenes fared the best of all the non-Serb groups in the Kingdom. Their language ensured that they maintained a certain level of government autonomy vis-à-vis Belgrade. And educational opportunities, which had been limited under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, now were greatly increased. But it was a very different story for the inhabitants of Macedonia which was now known as South Serbia and had been subjected to a ‘Serbification’ program that had demolished their own educational system and religious organizations. Even their Macedonian names had been changed into their Serbian equivalents.
The instability of the first Yugoslavia was demonstrated by the high level of political violence. 24 political death sentences were carried out during the Kingdom’s first ten years and approximately 600 political murders were committed. In addition, there were around 30,000 political arrests and 3000 citizens fled the country for political reasons. The victims were primarily Croats, Macedonians and Albanians.
Following an overly heavy-handed attempt by the Serbs to introduce educational materials that were based on a joint Yugoslav nationality, texts remained in use that took each individual ethnicity and region as their point of departure.
The development of political parties, along with general trade union activity, seemed only to occur along ethnic lines. The Social Democratic, the Communist and the tiny Republican Parties were the exception to this rule. At the 1920 council elections, the Communists gained a majority in 36 towns and villages that included Belgrade and Nis. They also won 12% of the votes at elections held for the constitutional assembly; this made them the third biggest party in the country. However, measures taken against the party’s revolutionary nature soon drove it underground.
Despite centralism and their numerical superiority, the Serbs were unable to control the parliament effectively. This was due to the fact that the Serbian parties were rarely able to work together in unity. Consequently virtually no legislation was passed and the various judicial systems of the Kingdom’s amalgamated areas continued to exist alongside each other.
The Kingdom’s most popular opposition party was the Croatian Peasant Party that was led by Stjepan Radic, a populist lawyer from Zagreb. He ensured that nationalism, which up till then had been an elitist issue, was to reach every Croatian hamlet. Radic resisted the domination of the Orthodox Serbs and Montenegrins right from the start. He fought for an independent republican Croatia that at most would be a part of a Yugoslav confederation, a political construction that would allow for a high degree of independence amongst its member states. By focusing Croatia on Europe, he tried to maintain its distance from the rest of Yugoslavia ‘so as not to become dependent upon the Balkans which, whatever one may say, are simply an Asian protuberance. Our duty is to make the Balkans more European rather than to make the Croats and the Slovenes more Balkan…’
Radic’s party repeatedly boycotted both the parliament and the elections that were always prone to fraud and were regularly the signal for the Serb-dominated police force to inflict violence on non-Serbs. The Croatian Peasant Party was more of a national movement than a political party. Therefore, in the 1920s and 1930s, its contribution was for promoting ethnic nationalism rather than for creating a sense of ‘Yugoslavism’.
One of the low points of the troubled history of the first Yugoslavia came in 1928 with a Montenegrin delegate’s assassination in parliament of Radic and two other members of the Croatian Peasant Party. Two of the victims were killed instantly. Radic died some time later from the wounds that he had sustained in the attack.
At the same time, the Empire of King Aleksandar was confronted with territorial claims and other threats from surrounding countries. The danger from abroad and the internal state of deadlock resulted in the King abolishing democracy and introducing a monarchic dictatorship. He also began to suppress every expression of ethnic nationalism. Hence, he replaced his Kingdom’s extensive title with a shorter name: from 1920 onwards the country was officially known as South Slavia or Yugoslavia.
 Dobrica Cosic, quoted in Cohen, Bonds, p. 1.
 For a survey of the history of the first Yugoslavia see, for instance, Almond, War, pp. 112-132; Glenny, Balkans, pp. 402-412, 428-436, 473-477; Lampe, Yugoslavia, pp. 99-196; Mønnesland, Land, pp. 211-238.
 Johnsen, Enigma, p. 39.
 Lampe, Yugoslavia, p. 106.
 Batakovic, ‘Integration’.
 Also Allcock, Yugoslavia, pp. 229-230.
 Some 19th century nationalists contended that the Croats had also protected Western Europe against the Avars and the Mongols, Deschner/Petrovic, Krieg, p. 101.
 Lampe, Yugoslavia, pp. 108-109, 151, 161; Van den Heuvel, Land, pp. 10 and 34; Tiersky, Mitterrand, p. 204; Naarden, Western Perceptions and Balkan realities, p. 31.
 For the arguments mentioned here, see for instance: Dusan Necak, ‘Historical Elements for Understanding the ‘Yugoslav Question’’, Akhavan/Howse (eds.), Yugoslavia, p. 16; Lampe, Yugoslavia, p. 99.
 Stallaerts, Afscheid, p. 74. Also Rogel, Breakup, p. 7: ‘World War I determined what happened to the Southern Slavs; Lampe, Yugoslavia, p. 70: ‘Only the course of the First World War … made it possible to form the first Yugoslav state …’.
 Weithmann, Brandhaard, p. 64.
 Lampe, Yugoslavia, p. 4.
 Almond, War, p.119.
 Pavkovic, Fragmentation, p. 25.
 Lampe, Yugoslavia, p. 183.
 Cohen, War, pp. 8-9.
 Almond, War, p. 128.
 Lampe, Yugoslavia, p. 130.
 Cohen, War, p. 11.
 Cohen, War, p. 10.
 Radic quoted in Cohen, Bonds, p. 15.
 Cohen, Bonds, p. 16.