An Historical Perspective

by Dennis Sharol


Yugoslavia was the product of WWI, which had begun in the Balkans and ended with the collapse of Austro-Hungarian power in the Western Balkans and of the final remnants of the Ottoman Empire. At its height, the Austro-Hungarian Empire included also Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Each of these territories had populations speaking South Slav languages and Bosnia-Herzegovina had, and still has, a substantial Muslim population. Bosnia-Herzegovina had been a province on the Turkish empire, but Austria had been awarded the right to administer it by the Treaty of Berlin in 1881 and in 1908 had annexed it unilaterally. Serbia, to the East, had also been part of the Ottoman Empire, but had secured its independence in 1882. Rivalry between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Serbian Kingdom for control of Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of the major causes of the First World War. It was at Sarajevo, the principal city of Bosnia-Herzegovina, that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on the 28th of June, 1914 by a member of the "Young Bosnia" movement who had been trained in Serbia.


The collapse of Austria released Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In other circumstances they might, perhaps, have been reconstituted as small states, for example as the three Baltic republics were at that time. As it happened, the Serbian Kingdom was very willing to take the smaller South Slav nations under its wing and the idea of a South Slav confederation had already taken hold among some political leaders from the smaller nations. Representatives of various nationalist groups and of the Serbian Government had met on Corfu in July 1917 and agreed on a Declaration of 14 Points. The chief point was that a new kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes would be established. This was to be a "constitutional, democratic and parliamentary" kingdom headed by the Karadjordevic dynasty of Serbia. The three principal nations were to form equal components of the kingdom. The Corfu Declaration represented the high point of the "Yugoslav" idea. When it came to the practical organization of the new kingdom and the adoption of its first constitution after the war, the contradictions inherent in the idea immediately began to emerge. While the smaller nations were insistent on their right to equality within the kingdom and were determined to have a federal constitution, many Serbs saw the new situation as the realization of their dream of a "Greater Serbia." The tension between the components of Yugoslavia persisted throughout its existence and has been the cause of a great deal of political violence, especially during the Second World War. Despite efforts to promote a single "Serbo-Croat" language, the new state would be deeply divided on linguistic as well as ethnic grounds. Moreover, the religious divide between the Orthodox Serbs, the Catholic Croats and Slovenes and the significant Muslim population in the southern parts of the country was also very deeply felt and would reinforce the separate identities of the various communities.


The Second World War was a traumatic experience for all of the Yugoslav peoples. It is estimated that 1,7000,000 people died in the war, or around 11% of the population. Of the dead, somewhat more than half are believed to have died at the hands of other Yugoslav citizens. The war pitted Serbian nationalists against Croatian nationalists as well as Communists against non-Communists and patriots of all varieties against the German occupying forces. There was a great deal of killing of innocent civilians, often in reprisal for earlier attacks. Some of the worst atrocities were committed by the Ustasha followers of Ante Pavelic who, in 1941, was installed by the Axis powers as the puppet leader of the "Independent State of Croatia" and proceeded to apply the Nazi solutions of deportation and extermination to the problem of the Serbs in Croatia. Old arguments about who was to blame, or who was more to blame, for the violence between Yugoslavs have been rekindled by the present conflict. As Fred Singleton writes in the preface to his history of the Yugoslav peoples, "there is no consensus amongst Yugoslavs as to the interpretation of the events which have brought them to their present situation," (Singleton, p.178).


Indeed, the experience of the war, far from promoting the idea of the Yugoslav "nation," reinforced the belief of many of its inhabitants that there was, at root, no such thing as Yugoslav patriotism, despite the common Nazi German enemy and despite the intermingling of the south Slav people over many centuries. In post-war censuses only a tiny percentage of the population were to describe themselves as "Yugoslav" by nationality and these were primarily the children of mixed marriages or else those, like diplomats and army officers, who regarded themselves as professional representatives of the federal identity. In the 1981 census the main national groups were represented in the population of 22.4 million in the following percentages:























At the end of the war it was the communist partisans, with some assistance from the western allies, who ended up in control of Yugoslavia. The role of western assistance is still a matter of controversy in itself. The decisive factor, certainly in the mind of Winston Churchill, was that the partisans, led by Tito, had proved most effective at fighting the Germans. The Marxist ideology of the partisans also claimed to transcend national enmities and rivalries.

Developments in the Soviet Union, and also in Yugoslavia, now suggest that this was an unsubstantiated claim and that the post-war communist regimes were able to keep nationalist movements in check because they were prepared to use repressive measures for this purpose, storing up resentments for the years ahead. In some cases, such as Rumania, communist rulers were to adopt unashamedly the language of nationalism, where this suited their aims.

In Yugoslavia the communist phenomenon resulted "in something which would have appeared impossible before the war: it gave Yugoslavia a dictator who was a Croat (though his mother had been a Slovene) and who held power for 35 years." (Singleton p.181). It is clear now that Tito did not succeed in solving the conflicts built in to the concept of Yugoslavia. Even in his lifetime there were many conflicts close to the surface and there were periodic purges of nationalists in the various branches of the Yugoslav League of Communists, notable in Croatia in 1971; but the centralized power of the communist party backed up by security apparatus and armed forces held the state of Yugoslavia together and prevented serious outbreaks of violence.


In as far as the system worked, it was because the concentration of power in the communist party allowed the more superficial structures of government and parliamentary assemblies to be run on strictly federal lines. A fair degree of autonomy was allowed in matters of language and culture and intellectual life was much less strictly regulated than in most other communist countries. Because the Red Army had not played the decisive role in the expulsion of German forces in Yugoslavia, Tito was able to resist Soviet pressure after the war and stayed outside the Warsaw Pact. He concluded an independent foreign policy through the non-aligned movement and convinced the West that the communism in Yugoslavia was an altogether more pragmatic and even liberal matter than in the Soviet-dominated states to the north. This stance enabled Yugoslavia to benefit from Western credits and investments and from the tourist industry.

In the 1970's there was much speculation in the West as to whether Yugoslavia would preserve its stability after Tito's death. Tito had devised a complex system of collective leadership for both the federal institutions and the communist party in the hope that the peace could be preserved by allowing the representatives of the various republics to take turns in holding the chairmanships. The main difficulty, as ever, was the problem of reconciling the desire of the smaller nationalities (Croats, Slovenes) for an equal role with the desire of Serbs for a role reflecting their numerical dominance and their sense of history. Tito died in 1980 and the system which he had devised survived him for almost a decade. There is no single or simple explanation for its ultimate failure. It may be explained in economic terms: the regional disparities within Yugoslavia were always great. In the 1980's the per capita GNP of Slovenia was more than twice the average for Yugoslavia, while that of Kosovo (historically a Serbian land, but now with a large and restive ethnic Albanian majority) was less than a third of the average. While the standard of living in Slovenia was comparable to that of neighboring Austria and parts of the EC, the Yugoslav economy as a whole sank into a crisis of external debt, hyper-inflation and rising unemployment which made its situation not much different from the rest of communist eastern Europe.


The system also began to break down over the Serbian question. Tito had given autonomous status within the federation to two traditionally Serbian territories, but without granting them the status of full republics. One of these, Vodjvodina, borders Hungary and has a significant Hungarian minority; the other Kosovo, has an ethnic Albanian majority and borders the state of Albania. In the early 1980's there was a rising tide of unrest in Kosovo and pressure for it to be granted full republican and a series of violent incidents took place. The instability in Kosovo and fear of further inter-ethnic violence persuaded some Serbs to leave, but this gave rise to new fear within Serbia that the ancient Serbian province, vital to the Serbian sense of nationhood, would be "lost."The vacuum in Yugoslav politics left by Tito and the partisan generation of leaders was in any case steadily being filled by a new generation of leaders with power-bases in the separate republics. In Serbia the dominant figure was Slobodan Milosevic who played on traditional Serbian sensitivities and acquired a grip on the communist party machinery in Serbia. He also acquired a following in the federal army, where the officer corps is mostly Serbian, and resurgence of Serbian national feeling was matched by the rise of nationalist feeling in other republics, but particularly in Slovenia and Croatia, where the sense of belonging to Yugoslavia was at its weakest.

A further element was the collapse of communist party rule all across Eastern Europe during 1989. In Yugoslavia communism did not depend on Soviet power as in most of the Warsaw Pact countries, but there was a dramatic loss of confidence in everything linked with communist parties, ideologies and economic management. The communist parties of the Yugoslav republics were, in any case, pulling in different directions. In January 1990 the central apparatus collapsed.



Malcolm, Noel. Bosnia: A Short History New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Donia, Robert J. Bosnia and Hercegovina: A tradition betrayed. New York: Columbia University, 1994.

Singleton, Frederick. A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.







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