The End of the War in Yugoslavia

In 1943, Allies’ favor officially shifted from the Chetniks to the Partisans, who received all their assistance from that point on. Military missions to both groups had produced convincing evidence of collaboration on the Chetnik side. The Allies didn’t send troops, but they did help with air support and with supplies that could be dropped in. The number of troops under Tito’s command at the end of 1942 was estimated at 236,000, and this number continued to increase as Italy dropped out of the war (enabling Tito to seize some armor and heavy weapons) and the situation of Germany deteriorated with the Red Army’ westward progress.

Ljubljana liberated, May 1945
By the summer of 1944, the Russians were moving into Romania and Bulgaria, which deserted the Axis and put their armies under Russian command. The German forces in Greece, in danger of being cut off, had to abandon that country and retreat through Yugoslavia. While a Bulgarian army drove the Germans out of southern Serbia and Macedonia, Tito’s Partisans assisted the Red Army in liberating Belgrade. The Russians and Bulgarians then headed north into Hungary, pursuing the retreating Germans, and the Partisans were left in control of most of Yugoslavia. Tito by now had under his command no mere guerilla force, but a conventional army, divided into four army groups and numbering in all 800,000 soldiers.

The Independent State of Croatia remained, however. In late October of 1944, to cover the continuing retreat of German troops from Greece, Army Group E, a mixed force of Ustaše and German troops (many of these Cossacks who had been recruited in Russia) formed a line of defense west of Belgrade between the Sava and the Danube, the so-called Syrmian Front. They were joined by additional collaborationist troops, including some Montenegrin Chetniks and units of the Slovenian Home Guard. This fortified line was held for nearly six months; Tito’s army, more accustomed to guerilla fighting in mountains and forests than conventional maneuvers on flat plains, didn’t succeed in breaking it until May 12, 1945, five days after Germany’s unconditional surrender.

The German commander of Army Group E surrendered, but many of the Croat and Slovene forces in that group refused to hand over their weapons and tried to fight their way into Austria, intent on surrendering to Allied rather than Partisan forces. A number of small-scale armed conflicts followed, the last on May 15, when a force of Ustaše and Slovene Domobranci, demanding passage into Austria, fought it out with a Partisan unit blocking their way near the Slovene village of Poljana, close to the border. The battle ended when a British tank force appeared, and the British officers refused to accept the collaborators’ surrender. They were forced to surrender to the Partisans instead. The Battle of Poljana was the last fought in Europe during World War II.

Retreating troops and civilian refugees in Austria
Some Croatian and Slovene troops and civilian collaborators (and even a few Serb Chetniks) did succeed in getting to Austria, but the fate of these refugees was unfortunate. The British, basing their actions on a provision of the Geneva Convention that all prisoners of war should be repatriated as soon as possible after the cessation of hostilities, handed both military and civilian refugees over to Yugoslavia. Tito wasn’t the least bit sentimental when it came to dealing with enemies. Many were massacred, and others were marched long distances to concentration camps, some dying along the way. An official project of today’s Slovenian government is the investigation of mass graves in the country, which — being the only part of the former Yugoslavia that borders on Austria — got most of the refugee traffic. No fewer than 570 such graves have been located, some containing large numbers of bodies and some smaller, but not all can be definitively associated with the events of 1945.

Brotherhood and Unity: Tito’s Nation

During the last year of the war, the royal Yugoslav government in exile (headquartered in London) signed an agreement recognizing the Partisans as Yugoslavia’s official armed force and proposing a postwar government that would include both communists and royalists. This government, called Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, was actually established before the war ended, but Tito — justly regarded as the country’s liberator — had overwhelming political support, and in November 1945, a democratically elected assembly deposed King Peter II and renamed the country the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (later the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).

Socialist Federal Yugoslavia with its six republics and two autonomous (after 1974) provinces
The word Federal in the name of the new country was significant. All the ethnic provinces of the old Yugoslavia were constituted as republics. There were six: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia. But although Slovenia and Croatia were made republics and Ljubljana and Zagreb thus became capitals, everything was tightly under Tito’s control. The only form of nationalism he tolerated was Yugoslav — more local varieties were firmly suppressed.

Most statues are like this one, showing Tito as a burdened Partisan leader
Always a charismatic leader, Tito wasn’t reluctant to indulge the cult of personality. Squares, statues, and avenues dedicated to him were found all over the country. (Many statues have disappeared and avenues been renamed since the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Podgorica — the capital of Montenegro — has resumed its original name; from 1946 to 1992 it was called Titograd.) Although he took a stand against Stalin and became a Cold War neutral, Tito was hardly more merciful in dealing with opposition than the Soviet ruler. The Serb Draža Mihailović, leader of the Chetniks, was tried and executed in 1946 for treasonous collaboration with the Axis, and, a few years later, Yugoslavs suspected of Stalinist sympathies enjoyed the sometimes brutal hospitality of the state in prison camps. But the regime, harsh though it could be, treated the country’s nationalities with comparative even-handedness. From the outside, at least, Yugoslavia seemed to have achieved the unity that had evaded it in the past.

Djilas, Kardelj, and Ranković during the war
Tito vigorously promoted the slogan “Brotherhood and Unity” as the basis of the new Yugoslavia. Whether the reason was political astuteness or mere coincidence, all the largest nationalities were represented among the cadre of men who led the new Socialist Federal Republic. In addition to Tito himself (the son of a Croat father and a Slovene mother), they were Edvard Kardelj, a Slovene who became the country’s chief economic planner; Aleksandar Ranković, a Serb who became its chief policeman; and Milovan Djilas, a Montenegrin (and thus ethnically indistinguishable from a Serb), who became the communist party’s chief ideologue — and, after falling out with Tito in the 1950s, Yugoslavia’s most famous dissident.

Meeting with Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indira Ghandi
Tito remained popular with the Yugoslav masses, who never stopped seeing him as the father of their nation. He took advantage of his split with Stalin to become a notable Third World leader. Kardelj’s tinkering with the communist economic model brought comparative prosperity for three decades, and the people enjoyed certain freedoms denied to those in other socialist nations. Yugoslavia was unquestionably a happier country than those that remained in the Russian orbit. Even today, some of Tito’s former followers, disgruntled with the real and imagined shortcomings of their various independent governments, gather in his honor to celebrate the good old days he presided over.
Working a domestic crowd

Aspirations toward independence were still alive, however, especially in Croatia, and in the late 1960s agitation began among students and intellectuals in favor of greater cultural and economic rights for their republic. Croats felt that they were being denied the right to take pride in their national history, and that the considerable wealth brought into Croatia through tourism was being handed out by the Belgrade government to poorer sections of the country, leaving Croatia an unjustly small fraction of its earnings. (Slovenia, the most industrially advanced republic, had a similar complaint, although it didn’t press it at this time.)

The movement, sometimes called the Croatian Spring by analogy with the Prague Spring of 1968, grew for a couple of years, and student demonstrations broke out in Zagreb in 1971, at which point the central government finally reacted. They sent police to beat the demonstrators, arrested and imprisoned the alleged ringleaders, and fired a few Croatian politicians thought to have been too tolerant.

In the aftermath, however, Tito undertook to introduce some reforms that he hoped would prevent future agitation of the same kind. A new constitution, introduced in 1974, gave more autonomy to the six republics. Beyond that, it also granted autonomy to two regions that, although not unequivocally parts of Serbia, had been administered as provinces of that republic. One was Vojvodina (‘the dukedom’), a district north of historic Serbia that had been part of Hungary before World War I.

The other was Kosovo, in the southwest: this was the heart of the medieval Serbian empire, although it had been under Ottoman rule from the 14th century until the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. In it were the tombs of the old Serbian kings, the most venerable of Serbia’s monasteries, and Kosovo Polje (‘the plain of blackbirds’) where the Serbian empire had fallen to an Ottoman army in 1389.

Distribution of ethnicities in Kosovo (apparently as of early 2008)
For centuries now, however, the majority of Kosovo’s population had been Albanian. The size of the majority had waxed and waned over time with the fortunes of kingdoms, empires, and religions, but a solid Albanian majority is at least as old as the Serbian “Great Migrattion” north to the Krajina in the late 1600s. (This map is more or less current, so the distribution probably shows more Albanians and fewer Serbs than it would have showed in in Tito’s time.) The constitutional grant of autonomy in 1973 gave Albanian Kosovars some hope of gaining political control over their own destiny. However, this change provoked anger in Serbia, where it was felt that this historic ground must remain forever Serbian, regardless of how many Serbs happened to live there. Some Serbs feared that Kosovo’s majority (who constituted one-third of the world’s Albanians) would try to detach the province from Yugoslavia and make it part of their mother country. This was very unlikely, as Albania was then a drab Stalinist dictatorship without friends in the world except China and North Korea. Even later, when the political scene changed in the 1980s, Albania’s weak economy offered little in the way of temptation. But nationalist sentiment is more often passionate than rational.
Tito's funeral, May 1980. The grandstand is full of international representatives.

Thus the fires of nationalism, smoldering in various forms beneath the surfaces of Croatia, Serbia, and Kosovo, were ready to break out when the charismatic leader was gone. Tito died in 1980, but another decade passed before the explosion. Under Tito, the main highway between Zagreb and Belgrade had been named “The Road of Brotherhood and Unity.” By 1991, the irony of this would be obvious to all.