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War in the Balkans: Yugoslavia Disintegrates

Yugoslavia, 1919-70 | Croats, Slovenes and Serbs, 1970-91 | War in Bosnia | War in Kosovo

Yugoslavia, 1919-70

Yugoslavia had been the creation of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and part of the break up of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was an artificial unification of a variety of people – Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Albanians, Hungarians, Macedonians and others including gypsies. Before World War II these were people ruled by a monarch, Alexander, who changed the name of the region to Yugoslavia, hoping to give his subjects a greater common identity with his rule. Under Alexander's autocratic rule that portion of Yugoslavia called Serbia dominated, accompanied by bureaucratic and police repression.

King Alexander was assassinated in 1934. His son, under a regent, ruled until 1941 when German armies invaded. Germany troops occupied Serbia and a part of Slovenia. Fascist Italy took control of Slovenia in the north, part of the Dalmatian coast, western Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. Bulgaria took a part of Macedonia. Hungary took the region northeast of Serbia, Vojvodina, an area that included some Hungarians and a German minority. Croatia remained independent but an ally of Germany and Italy.

Croatia extended its rule into Bosnia and Herzegovina (Hercegovina), and there Serb resistance to fascist rule began. The Croatians retaliated opened concentration camps and exterminated Jews and gypsies while Serbs took to the hills and forests in self-defense.

Among the Serbs, a group supporting Yugoslavia's monarchy fought now and then against German occupation and sometimes collaborated with the Germans. The advantage in resistance to German occupation went to those who fought in the name of both democracy and patriotism – guerilla fighters under the leadership of Josip Tito, a half-Croatian, half-Slovene Communist whose slogan was "brotherhood and unity." It was Tito's group that won aid from the British, the British recognizing Tito's organization as the one effective opposition movement against the Germans.

It was Tito's force that liberated much of Yugoslavia, not the Russian army. After the war, Tito wished to maintain his authority in Yugoslavia rather than become subservient to Moscow. Tito became Yugoslavia's president-for-life, and Yugoslavia became a federation of six nominally equal republics and two autonomous regions – Kosovo and Vojvodina. Kosovo had an Albanian majority and Vojvodina had a large Hungarian population. In keeping with his slogan of brotherhood and unity, and compatible with the old Marxist slogan of workers of the world unite, Tito and his Communist Party suppressed nationalism, and it put a number of Croat nationalist leaders in prison.

Tito's regime abolished organized opposition groups. It nationalized industries. It collectivized agriculture and instituted centralized economic planning. Then his regime moved toward economic decentralization, what was called worker self-management and the Yugoslav road to socialism. In the 1950s and 1960s, Yugoslavia had prosperity. It was a tourist destination and was exporting metal goods and textiles. Yugoslavia was enjoying good relations with the West, including the United States, where strategists believed it worthwhile to play Tito's independence against control from Moscow.

Tito was a hero among many in Yugoslavia for having overthrown fascism, for having created a society with full employment and a sense of purpose. With prosperity, ethnic hatreds declined. Many people saw themselves as Yugoslavians rather than Croats or Slovenes, et cetera. Intermarriages between people of different ethnicity were developing – except in Kosovo, where the Christian Serbs and the Muslim Albanians were more divided.


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