A History of Yugoslavia: Emergence to Dissolution, 1918-2006

By Carl Savich

Yugoslavia emerged as a country as a byproduct of World War I, the Great War. The new nation was made up of disparate regions, ethnic groups, religions, and cultures, forged into a single and unified state. The ethnic, religious, and national conflicts, held in check after World War II, ultimately exploded in 1991 in civil war and the breakup of the country. By 2003, the name “Yugoslavia” no longer existed as Yugoslavia became Serbia and Montenegro. By 2006, with the independence of Montenegro, all the former republics of Yugoslavia had seceded. Yugoslavia no longer existed in name or form. 

The creation of Yugoslavia was the realization and apotheosis of “the Yugoslav idea”, the movement that the South Slav peoples and nations should be united into a unitary nation or country. The idea for Slavic unity goes back to its full emergence in the 19th century. The June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip was motivated by the Yugoslav idea. Gavrilo Princip represented or symbolized the Yugoslav idea, the goal to achieve South Slav unity.

Princip’s motives for the assassination were to attain the unity of the South Slavs in a single state, Yugoslavia:

“I am a Yugoslav nationalist and I believe in the unification of all South Slavs in whatever form of state and that it be free of Austria. …

The plan was to unite all South Slavs. It was understood that Serbia as the free part of the South Slavs had the moral duty to help with the unification, to be to the South Slavs as the Piedmont was to Italy… The political union of the Yugoslavs was always before my eyes, and that was my basic idea. Therefore it was necessary in the first place to free the Yugoslavs. …”

The goal of a united South Slavic state was eventually realized in 1918 after World War I. The country that emerged remained unstable and divisive throughout its tumultuous history. The 1991 breakup was the death of that idea, if ideas could have a life cycle.

The “first Yugoslavia” was known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes until October 3, 1929 when the name was officially changed to Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia became a country in 1918 following the defeat of the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria, by the Allies or Allied Powers, also known as the Entente, France, Great Britain, US, Italy, Serbia, and Montenegro. The borders of the “first Yugoslavia”, which lasted from 1918 to 1941, were determined at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The Versailles Peace Treaty was negotiated by President Woodrow Wilson of the US, Prime Minister Lloyd George of Great Britain, Premier Georges Clemenceau of France, and Premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, known as the “Big Four”, who created the new map of Europe. The country of Yugoslavia was led by the Karadjordjevic dynasty with King Peter I as the first leader of the country. His death in 1921 led to King Alexander I assuming the throne.

Yugoslavia was made up of regions that had been part of other countries. Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, the Bachka, the Banat, and Slovenia had been part of Austria-Hungary. These were added to Serbia and Montenegro which were already independent nations. Yugoslavia represented the apotheosis of 19th century Pan-Slavic ideals and aspirations of nationalism and unity. Like Italy and Germany before, the South Slavs sought to create a unified nation-state which would ensure their independence and self-determination.

Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1941 was beset by internal strife and conflict. The conflicts centered on the territories joined to Serbia and Montenegro. Kosovo Albanians wanted to join Albania as part of the 1878 League of Prizren program. In Southern Serbia or Macedonia, annexed from Ottoman Turkey in 1910 after the First Balkan War, Bulgarian groups sought to seize the region for Bulgaria. Croatia was the most unstable and volatile region. Croatian political leaders, led by Stjepan Radic, sought to establish autonomy for Croatia. The issue exploded in 1928. Stjepan Radić and two other Croat political leaders were assassinated in the Yugoslav parliament in Belgrade on June 20, 1928 by a member from Montenegro, Punica Racic. Radic had been a key Croatian political and opposition leader. The plans to create a solution to the Croatian issue failed. 

As a result, King Alexander created a dictatorship in 1929. On January 6, 1929, in response to the political crisis precipitated by the assassination of Stjepan Radic, King Alexander abolished the Constitution, suspended the Parliament, and established the “January 6th Dictatorship”, Sestojanuarska diktatura. He also changed the internal divisions or structure of Yugoslavia on October 3 from the 33 oblasts to nine new banovinas. The banovinas were not based on the national or ethnic composition of the country but were named after rivers. Most of Croatia was part of the Sava Banovina. This created conflict with Croatia because Croatian leaders sought a decentralized state where the subdivisions would be based on national or historical borders.

Radical nationalist groups also emerged such as the Ustasha Movement led by Ante Pavelic and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) led by Bulgarian Ivan Mihailov. These two groups united to sponsor terrorist acts against Yugoslavia. They also planned the assassination of King Alexander Karadjordjevic. King Alexander was assassinated in Marseilles, France on October 9, 1934. He was on a state visit to France, to strengthen the Little Entente, a defensive alliance formed in 1920 and 1921 between Yugoslavia, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. France signed a treaty with each member of the alliance. French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou was also killed. The assassin was the Bulgarian Vlado Chernozemski, in collaboration with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and the Ustasha organization. The IMRO sought to seize Macedonia or Southern Serbia. The Ustasha goal was to destroy Yugoslavia and create an independent Croatian state.

There was an agreement in 1939 to settle the Croatian dispute. The Cvetkovic–Macek Agreement or Sporazum was an attempt to resolve the Croatian issue, a political agreement between Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic and the successor to Radic, Croatian Peasant Party leader Vladko Macek. The agreement sought to define the borders of Croatia within Yugoslavia based on the inclusion of historical regions of Croatia and as many Croats as possible. The agreement, signed on August 29, 1939, established the Banovina of Croatia. The plan was to create a Croatian statelet within Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia remained neutral during World War II but was ultimately forced to decide on whether to join the Allies or to side with Great Britain and the U.S. On March 25, 1941, Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact to become a member of the Axis. Popular dissatisfaction, however, led to a coup d’etat in Belgrade on March 27, 1941 led by Yugoslav Air Force General Dusan Simovich. The Regent Prince Paul was replaced by King Peter II. Adolf Hitler reacted to this affront by attacking Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, occupying and dismembering the country. German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops attacked the country. The Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade, killing an estimated 2,500 civilians. The first Yugoslavia ceased to exist. What emerged was a German-occupied Serbia and an Italian-occupied Montenegro. Kosovo was annexed to Albania and Macedonia or Southern Serbia was annexed to Bulgaria.

In Serbia, the first organized guerrilla resistance movement was created by Draza Mihailovich. On April 17, 1941, the Yugoslav High Command surrendered at Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina. But at Doboj in northern Bosnia, Yugoslav Army General Staff Colonel Dragoljub-Draza Mihailovich, who was then Deputy Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav Second Army, refused to surrender and assembled a group of officers who would continue the conflict as a guerrilla war. Mihailovich explained his defiance: “I don’t recognize ‘capitulation’. That word does not exist in the Serbian language.” On May 13, 1941, Mihailovich and his group reached Ravna Gora on the western slopes of the Suvobor Mountains in Serbia, where Mihailovich established his headquarters. Mihailovich created the first guerilla resistance movement not only in Yugoslavia and the Balkans, but in all of occupied Europe. This resistance movement was called the Ravna Gora Movement, Ravnogorski pokret. 

Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas created an unprecedented sensation and frenzy in the U.S. in 1942 and 1943. This was reflected in their appearance in all phases of American media. They were featured on magazine covers, newspapers, comic books, Sunday newspaper comic strips, radio programs, five major novels, and a major Hollywood movie. 

A rival guerrilla movement was formed by Croat-Slovene Communist leader Josip Broz Tito. Since 1937, Tito had been the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. At first, both groups jointly fought against the German occupation forces in Serbia. But they could not reach an agreement on cooperation and fought against each other. The Partisans were defeated and driven from Serbia in late 1941. They were reorganized and regrouped in Bosnia. The two rival guerrilla movements would eventually engage in a full-scale civil war.

Serbian resistance had resulted in German retaliation and in massacres. To stop the guerrilla attacks, the Germans instituted a policy that would result in the execution of civilians and hostages. For every German soldier killed, one hundred Serbs would be killed. For every German soldier wounded, fifty Serbs would be killed. Kragujevac was where this policy was applied. On October 19-21, 1941, an estimated 2,778 Serbian civilians were massacred by German troops in retaliation for guerrilla attacks.

The Serbian, Jewish, and Roma populations of Yugoslavia became the targets of genocide. The Germans and Italians established the Independent State of Croatia, Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, NDH, made up of Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and parts of Serbia. The new fascist state was proclaimed on April 10, 1941, the day German troops entered the city of Zagreb greeted by cheering crowds. The Ante Pavelic regime embarked on a planned and systematic genocide of the Serbian population, as well as the Jewish and Gypsy or Roma populations in the NDH. The policy was to kill a third, convert a third, and deport a third of the Serbian population. Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies or Roma living in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina were de-recognized and subjected to elimination. A system of concentration camps was set up by the NDH itself with Jasenovac being the largest camp. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were murdered while others were forcefully converted to Roman Catholicism, and the remainder was deported to Serbia.

Of the approximately 40,000 Jews in the Independent State of Croatia, 32,000 would be killed during the Holocaust. In Croatia, 12,000 to 20,000 Jews were killed at the Jasenovac system of concentration camps run by the Croatian government itself. At least 25,000 Roma were killed in the NDH, which was almost the entire Roma population in the Independent State of Croatia. Between 320,000 to 340,000 Serbs were killed in the NDH, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Most of the Serbs were killed by the Ustasha made up of Croats and Bosnian Muslims.

The Ustasha genocidal policy against the Serbian population during World War II was one reason why the Krajina Serbs did not want to be part of an independent Croatia in 1991 when Croatia under Franjo Tudjman, a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite, seceded from Yugoslavia. The Tudjman regime did not seek to integrate the Serbian population in the new state nor did it provide any safeguards or assurances to the Serbian community.

The legacy of the World War II genocide, the Jasenovac concentration camp, and civil war created enmity between the four main antagonists, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Kosovo Albanians. This pent-up nationalist animosity and antagonism and resentment, kept in check during the Communist dictatorship, exploded in 1991. Each nationality group saw the others in stereotypical projections of the enemy, of the Other, projecting their own insecurity, fears, and guilt onto the others. Serbs were “Chetniks” or “Chetnici”, the Serbian resistance guerrillas of World War II. Croats were “Ustashi”, Croatian fascists in the NDH. Bosnian Muslims were “Turci” or “Turks”, the successors to the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Kosovo Albanians were “balisti”, members of the World War II Albanian nationalist organization the Balli Kombetar, National Front, a group that sought to create an Ethnic or Greater Albania incorporating Kosovo, Debar, and Chameria. The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 unleashed the national and ethnic rivalries that had been inculcated and developed during World War II and the period of Ottoman Turkish occupation.

Draza Mihailovich pursued a policy of guerrilla resistance that would lessen civilian deaths. He also envisioned a guerrilla movement that would remain in place and attack the occupation forces in conjunction with an Allied attack. This approach caused dissension and friction with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Tito, by contrast, had no regard for civilian casualties. Tito envisioned a guerrilla war that would seize Yugoslav territory in order to establish a Communist state. The Allies, the U.S., Great Britain, and the USSR, supported Mihailovich at the start of the war in Yugoslavia, and later backed both movements. Winston Churchill, however, opposed Mihailovich’s policy of waiting for the right moment to launch a major attack and to preserve their forces for that time. Tito got the upper hand when the perception was created that he was doing more fighting and was more dynamic and aggressive against Axis troops. This resulted in the Allies withdrawing their support from Mihailovich in late 1943 and switching their full support to Tito.

The Communist Partisans under Tito returned to Serbia in 1944 to support the Soviet offensive. On October 20, 1944 a Soviet Red Army offensive against Belgrade installed the Partisans in power. The Communist dictatorship that emerged abolished the monarchy and established a Communist state. By 1948, however, Yugoslavia had split with the Soviet bloc and pursued what became known as a nonaligned approach, siding with neither the U.S. nor the USSR during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, Yugoslavia was able to flourish and prosper because it took advantage of the bipolarity created by the rival Superpowers. US policy was to aid Communist Yugoslavia militarily and economically during the Cold War so that Yugoslavia could pursue an independent course from the Soviet bloc. US policy sought to encourage a middle course for Yugoslavia because it prevented Yugoslavia from joining the Soviet bloc. 

Once the Soviet bloc collapsed, Yugoslavia was no longer of any use to the US; Yugoslavia was expendable. The US no longer needed to prop up Communist Yugoslavia in the Cold War balance. With the collapse of the Soviet Communist bloc, there was no longer a counterweight that Yugoslavia could rely on. Being of no use to the US, Communist Yugoslavia was allowed to implode and to disintegrate as a nation beginning in 1990. With the counterweight of the Communist bloc gone, US policy could focus on dismembering Communist Yugoslavia and incorporating and absorbing the new, emerging “fledgling democracies” into the “free world”, the US or Western bloc, the only global system left. The objective of US policy following the Cold War is to totally and completely integrate the remnants of the former Communist Yugoslavia into US economic, political, and military blocs. 

Yugoslavia was a pawn in the larger chess-match between the two global superpowers during the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War superpower conflict, Yugoslavia lost its value even as a pawn, losing all economic, political, or strategic value. Yugoslavia became worthless and of no strategic value to the remaining superpower bloc led by the US. The ineluctable result was that Yugoslavia was immediately dismembered and destroyed as a unified state. Yugoslavia needed the Cold War ideological and geopolitical conflict to remain viable and integrated. The Cold War conflict gave Yugoslavia a raison d’etre. With the end of the Cold War came the inevitable end of Yugoslavia.

The civil wars in the former Yugoslavia were precipitated or caused by premature diplomatic recognition. The resurgent Germany, unified in 1989, sought to exert this newfound power by extending unilateral, unconditional diplomatic recognition when Croatia seceded in 1991. Germany exhibited this new diplomatic influence in foreign policy at the Maastricht Summit. Germany initially created the crisis in the Balkans in 1991. Germany used diplomatic recognition as a substitute for outright military aggression against the Balkans, particularly Serbia. German troops had invaded and occupied Belgrade in 1915 and again in 1941 after a massive bombardment that killed thousands of Serbian civilians. With German diplomatic support, Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 in violation of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, a violation of international law. Adolf Hitler invaded and conquered Yugoslavia in 1941 and then dismembered the country, “recognizing” the newly created independent states, one of which was the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi-fascist puppet state which “de-recognized” the Orthodox Serbs and incorporated Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The leaders of the new Germany, Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and later, Klaus Kinkel, a former German intelligence chief working for Croat, Bosnian Muslim, and Kosovo Albanian secession during the 1980s, sought to exert their new geopolitical power and influence in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a sphere from which they had hitherto been excluded. One means of German power expansion was to seek to create a unified Euro-state led, dominated, and controlled by Bonn. German leaders wanted a unified currency, a European parliament, common markets, and a common army. This unified, monolithic Euro-state would be dominated by Germany. Thus, German foreign policy sought unification, conglomeration, and centralization where it would advance German interests. 

A second means of power expansion was to dismember, de-recognize, and Balkanize states and destroy the status quo where doing so would serve

German interests by allowing German penetration and infiltration of markets and military and political influence. A policy of “Balkanization” was pursued where Germany sought entrée. This policy was achieved by a new form of aggression: diplomatic recognition. Thus, without firing a single bullet, Germany could achieve all its foreign policy and geopolitical goals and agendas which it set. Like with Adolf Hitler before them, however, the German policy led to disaster and war. In both former Yugoslav republics which Germany had recognized, two brutal civil wars erupted which unraveled and undid all of Germany’s machinations. 

Once it was seen that premature recognition was unjust and provocative, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and French President Francois Mitterrand accused Germany of precipitating and causing the civil wars in Yugoslavia through a reckless and dangerous policy of unconditional, unilateral recognition.

Was diplomatic recognition proper for Croatia and Bosnia in 1991 and 1992 without negotiations with Belgrade and without safeguards for the Serbian populations and without agreements ensuring minority rights? The international legal guidelines for recognizing new states were established in the 1932 Montevideo Convention. Under that Convention, three criteria must be first met before recognition could and should be granted: 1) there must be a government which is in control; 2) there must be clearly established borders; and, 3) there must be a stable population. With regard to both Croatia and Bosnia, these criteria were not met or satisfied.

Unilateral, unconditional, non-negotiated diplomatic recognition of the seceding republics of the former Yugoslavia violated the Helsinki Accords. Under the Helsinki Agreement, signatory states had agreed to respect the “territorial integrity” of member states, of which Yugoslavia was one. Unilateral and unconditional recognition of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina as independent states by the Vatican, Germany, and other states violated the Helsinki Agreement. Thus, premature recognition violated both the Montevideo Convention and the Helsinki Agreement. In recognizing the seceding Yugoslav republics, international agreements and laws were violated.

Approximately 30% of Croatia as constituted in the Communist Yugoslavia was settled by ethnic Orthodox Serbs who were the majority in those areas and who did not wish to be a part of the new nationalist Croat state, which

was anti-Serbian and anti-minority rights and which based its independence drive on a racist attack on Serbs. The city of Knin was made up of a majority Serbian population, before the civil war, the Serbian population of Knin was approximately 88%. The total Serbian population in this region of Croatia, called Krajina, numbered approximately 1,200,000. The Srem and Slavonija regions were also majority Serbian regions of Croatia. 

Even before the secession of Croatia from Yugoslavia, there were widespread skirmishes and battles in these regions. Instead of negotiations which would grant the Krajina Serbs autonomy or a legal safeguard to their minority rights which Serbia had granted to Kosovo Albanians, however, the Croatian government under former Communist general Franjo Tudjman, who had morphed into a neo-fascist nationalist, sought to unsuccessfully annex these areas by military force into a German and Vatican sponsored Greater Croatia. To assist Croatia in these efforts, Germany and the Vatican initiated a public relations and media campaign and attempted to gain international recognition for the Communist created borders of Croatia, which were arbitrary and artificial internal borders imposed by Belgrade under the Communist dictatorship of the Croat-Slovene Josip Broz. After a bloody and brutal six month civil war, neither Croatian military efforts nor German diplomatic efforts were able to prevent the secession of Krajina. While Germany supported the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, it at the same time opposed the secession of Krajina from Croatia. Thus, based on the guidelines of the Montevideo Convention and the Helsinki Agreement, Croatia should not have been recognized until it had resolved the issue of Krajina, Srem, and Slavonija.

Srpska Krajina was made up of Serbian majority areas in Croatia and territory which had constituted the Austrian Habsburg Military Frontier or vojna krajina which had been established between 1553 to 1578. The frontier was created as a security zone against incursions by the Ottoman Empire. Serbian settlers and their families remained in this area even after the frontier was abolished in 1881. Many of the regions in Croatia such as Lika, Baranja, eastern Slavonia, and western Srem were areas that had been part of the vojna krajina or where there were majority Serbian populations.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, more so than Croatia, met none of the criteria of the Montevideo Convention. Bosnia did not have a government which was in control. Under the Communist Yugoslav federation, Bosnia had a rotating, collective presidency modeled on the federal Yugoslav system to ensure that

Bosnia’s three ethnic groups, Serbs, Slavic Muslims, and Croats, would be represented in the leadership. So even before secession, Bosnia was in fact a state of three “nations” and was created in 1945 by the Communist dictatorship to protect the interests of all three groups from domination by the others. Realizing the precarious and delicate balance in Bosnia, it was resolved by the leaders of the three factions, Radovan Karadzic, Alija Izetbegovic, and Mate Boban, to meet in Lisbon, Portugal to reach a peaceful agreement on the future of the republic. From these meetings the Lisbon Agreement emerged which divided Bosnia into three ethnic zones or cantons, Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian, the so-called partition plan, all three united in a Bosnian confederation. This effort was a compromise negotiated solution meant to avoid a civil war.

The US State Department, through US ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmermann, “the last ambassador”, informed the Bosnian Muslim leaders that they did not have to abide by the Lisbon Plan, that the negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs and Croats should be rejected, and that a Muslim-dominated and Muslim-controlled Bosnia would be supported by the US in the UN and in the US media. Shortly thereafter the Bosnian Muslims reneged on the Lisbon Agreement and voted with the Croats to unilaterally secede from Yugoslavia. The Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum on secession and declared it null and void because under the Bosnian Constitution, all three ethnic groups had to agree for any political changes to occur. Immediately after this fait accompli, the civil war began in Bosnia. Thus, Bosnia never had a government in control, a prerequisite of the Montevideo Convention for recognition. What Bosnia did have was three governments.

Yugoslavia collapsed because the different ethnic and national groups sought to create their own independent states due to the fact that Yugoslavia no longer was of benefit to them. With the end of the Cold War, the conditions which held the country together, political, economic, cultural, social, were no longer present. As a result, the country broke up. The civil wars that erupted, however, could have been prevented. The ethnic, national, and religious conflicts that engulfed the former Yugoslavia were unnecessary. They were caused and precipitated by foreign actors such as Germany, the Vatican, NATO, and the US, powers which sought to advance their own geo-political and economic agendas and national interests. What resulted was needless bloodshed, suffering, and loss of life. The Yugoslav tragedy could have been prevented. 

Yugoslavia was officially dissolved and disbanded on Tuesday, February 4, 2003, following a parliamentary vote. The new country was designated Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro seceded following an independence referendum held on May 21, 2006. This was the last stage or vestige of Slavic unity in the Balkans. Yugoslavia was no more.

The collapse of Yugoslavia into independent states resulted in the death of “the Yugoslav idea”, the view that the South Slavs should be united into a single nation or state. Pan-Slavism was replaced by sovereignty and self-determination for the Slavic groups that constituted Yugoslavia resulting in the emergence of new Slavic states.