Slovenia and Croatia in the First Yugoslavia

The new nation (called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes until 1929, and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia thereafter) lasted barely 22 years until its sudden death by German Blitzkrieg in 1941. The old boundaries that had separated its component nations were officially abandoned (though no one forgot them) and the country was divided into 33 small districts each named for its largest city or town.

Jože Plečnik's Triple Bridge, Ljubljana
As a component of the new nation, the Slovenes’ biggest problem was trying to replace the necessary social and economic resources that membership in the Empire had formerly provided. The World War I peace settlements had given a third of Slovenia’s land and a quarter of its population to other countries, primarily Italy, which got all of Slovenia’s seacoast and much of its western territory. Social and economic problems were gradually overcome, however, and Slovenia flourished economically within Yugoslavia’s domestic economy, where its comparatively advanced development gave it an advantage. Although the sometimes domineering behavior of the Serbs, who never hesitated to exploit the advantages of majority rule, may have upset the Slovenes, this never became the severe problem it was for the Croats. During these two decades, Slovenia made its greatest progress in cultural areas: the establishment of a national university in Ljubljana and the transformation of that city through Jože Plečnik’s genius.

Croatia had a different experience. It seemed to Croats that they had exchanged the tyranny of Hungarians for the tyranny of Serbs. For 50 years, their culture and language had been at risk, and rebellious nationalist parties (in various flavors from left to right) had attracted many followers. Croats were in no mood to see what they regarded as their national rights trampled on. Serbs, for their part, were baffled by what seemed to them the insane touchiness of the Croats, who seemed to care nothing for the ideal of a united South Slavic nation and to be entirely focused on their own perceived grievances.

Trouble between the two groups started almost immediately. The Serbs insisted on a strong central government, which they would, by reason of numbers and history, control. Croats took this as a betrayal of the agreement they had signed, and the Croatian Peasant Party (CPP) issued a statement declaring that it did not recognize the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, on the grounds that the Croatian Sabor had never assented to its ruling the Croatian people. The national government responded by throwing the party’s founder and leader, Stjepan Radić, into jail, and the Croatian people responded in turn by electing him and his party to represent them in the national parliament, the Skupština. The CPP, loyal to its principles, refused to take seats in what they considered an unlawful assembly, and thereby gave up any chance of influencing policy. This made it easy for the Serb-led central government, without effective opposition, to pass laws that increased its own power.

Stjepan Radić, pictured on a modern Croatian banknote
After a few years on the sidelines, Radić saw his mistake and changed tactics, joining a power-sharing alliance between the CPP and the leading Serbian party. He brought the CPP into the Skupština and joined the government as Minister of Education. This arrangement lasted barely a year, however, before Radić called off the alliance. He and the CPP remained in the Skupština, becoming the government’s principal opposition. Radić’s hostile and provocative speeches aroused fury among Serbian and Montenegrin representatives, whom he never lost an opportunity to charge with corruption, and in 1928 one of them shot him, and several other Croat representatives, on the floor of the Skupština. Radić, who died of his wounds, became a martyr in Croatian eyes. (The picture here is from a modern Croatian 200-kuna banknote.) By the time of Radić’s death, most Croats were divided politically between those who hoped for a peaceful separation from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and those who believed that violence was necessary; few were still committed to staying in.

King Alexander I
King Alexander judged that the country had become ungovernable, and in early 1929, a few months after Radić’s assassination, he suspended the constitution, dissolved the Skupština, and undertook a period of dictatorial rule, during which political dissent was banned and many dissidents arrested or forced to emigrate. The king also introduced a plan to obliterate regional differences and antagonisms by dividing the country into districts (called banovine) whose borders cut across old provincial boundaries; the new districts were named after rivers rather than peoples. He changed the name of the country to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. None of these efforts improved the situation measurably. The king relaxed his dictatorship two years later, in 1931, but nothing much had changed.

Mussolini, determined to ensure that Yugoslavia never grew strong enough to challenge Italian domination of the Mediterranean, had constantly played an underhanded role in attempting to subvert Yugoslav authority. In Macedonia, he encouraged a revolutionary movement dedicated to overthrowing Yugoslav rule in favor of union with Bulgaria, and in Croatia he gave similar support to violent separatist groups. One Croatian politician who favored that approach was Ante Pavelić, who had fled Yugoslavia for Italy and formed a revolutionary group there along Fascist lines. (Originally, it represented the violent wing of the Croatian Party of Right in both membership and political ideals.) Mussolini provided this group — which named itself the Ustaše (‘those who stand up,’ i.e., ‘the insurgents’) — as well as the Macedonian rebels, with weapons and training.

In 1934, il Duce’s efforts bore fruit when King Alexander was assassinated in Marseilles, where he had just arrived on a state visit. The trigger was pulled by a Macedonian, but the Ustaše were believed (with good reason, although some Croatian apologists deny it) to have been full partners in the plot. Alexander’s only son was twelve years old, so the king’s brother Paul became regent, and returned the country to top-down dictatorial rule. This did nothing to reduce political tensions between Serbs and Croats. Demonstrations in Zagreb were fiercely suppressed by a police force that was increasingly composed of Serbs. It was a bad marriage that never stopped getting worse.

World War II: Invasion and Defeat

In the spring of 1941, Hitler, who had frog-marched Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria into the Axis camp, demanded that Yugoslavia follow suit. The regent, Prince Paul, acceded to the Führer’s combination of threats and promises, but as soon as this became known in Serbia, he was overthrown by a popular uprising and a military coup. Hitler’s reaction was a full-blown tantrum, in which he vowed not only to impose his will on Yugoslavia, but to destroy it as a nation.

German invasion of Yugoslavia in April, 1941
Goering was ordered to reduce Belgrade to rubble through waves of bombing attacks. (Fortunately, the attacks, though devastating, fell somewhat short of achieving this goal.) German infantry invaded from Austria, and armored divisions from Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Italians attacked from the Adriatic coast, and Hungarians across their own border. The Yugoslav Royal Army collapsed with shocking speed and surrendered unconditionally to the Germans in a little more than a week. Some of its equipment was outmoded, and the strategy chosen by the high command — to try to defend all the country’s borders — served them no better against Blitzkrieg tactics than it had served the Poles or the French. I found this black-and-white map of the invasion on the Web, but without color you could spend a week trying to figure it out. So I colored it, and at some point in the process I inadvertently cropped the map so that it doesn’t show the southernmost part of the country. However, it does show all the invading forces and the routes they took. Bulgarian troops moved into Macedonia, which is below the map, but that happened a week after the Yugoslav surrender.

Regardless of deficiencies in equipment and strategy, the main cause of the army’s weakness lay in Yugoslavia’s failure to become one nation. Soldiers from all regions were drafted into the enlisted ranks, but the officers were overwhelmingly Serbian — of 136 generals carried on the books as active, only four were not Serbs. The policy of treating Yugoslavia as a “Greater Serbia” rather than a federation of distinct peoples — a policy with which the army command were largely in sympathy — had done nothing good for morale. Slovenes, Macedonians, and especially Croats were loth to take great risks defending a country that, from their point of view, belonged to someone else. Because of their numbers, Croats were the largest non-Serbian category in the ranks. They formed the majority of two army groups that, in the event, refused to fight and instead welcomed the Germans as liberators. Many Bosnian Muslims, whom the Austrians had treated comparatively well during the period (1878–1918) when they controlled Bosnia, felt little enthusiasm for the Yugoslav cause.

It has been pointed out that Hitler’s decision to crush Yugoslavia and invade Greece in the spring of 1941 delayed the planned invasion of Russia (called “Operation Barbarossa”) by six weeks, an interval that proved crucial when the Wehrmacht was prevented from achieving a complete victory by the descent of the Russian winter later that year. Both Serbs and Greeks claim credit for this: the Serbian argument is that their uprising and resistance provoked the fury in which Hitler made this strategically unwise decision. The Greek argument seems stronger: if Greece had not embarrassed the Axis during the fall and winter of 1940, by not only repelling the invading Italians but going on to take a chunk of Albania from them, Hitler might well have waited until Russia was beaten before falling on Yugoslavia. The cause of his bad timing, by this reasoning, was the desire to secure the flank that Mussolini’s weakness had left exposed. In the event, neither Greece nor Yugoslavia was capable of delaying the Germans for long, but six weeks proved enough to keep Russia from going under in 1941.