The History of Yugoslavia

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Podcast Transcript

From 1929 to 1992, several governments ruled over the Balkans, all of whom used the name “Yugoslavia.”

Yugoslavia was a country that began with a dream but was born out of war and ultimately ended in war. 

While the nation of Yugoslavia no longer exists, Its legacy can still be felt in the countries that formerly compromised it. 

Learn more about Yugoslavia, its rise, and its fall on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In a previous episode, I did an overview of the  Balkans where I went over many of the countries that make up the region. 

In this episode, I want to focus on the country that played an instrumental part in the region’s history in the 20th century: Yugoslavia. 

The story of Yugoslavia actually starts about about 1500 years ago with the Slavic Migration. 

Around the middle of the 6th century and the early 7th century, an ethnic group known as the Slavs began to move from their homeland in what is today Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.

The reasons for the Slavic migration were many, including a change in climate from the end of the Roman Climate Optimum, population pressures, and taking advantage of changes in populations in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. 

The Slavs migrated in all directions. The Eastern Slavs moved into what is today Russia. 

The Western Slavs settled in what is today Western Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

However, what is relevant to this episode is the group of Slavs that went south and settled into the Balkan Mountains and what is today Bulgaria. 

The word “Yugoslavia” simply means “the land of the southern Slavs” in several southern Slavic languages. 

Despite the existence of Southern Slavs in Bulgaria, the term Yugoslavia has always only referred to the Slavs who live in the Balkan Mountains.

The Slavic people of this region eventually became linguistically cut off from their Slavic kin further north, with Hungary and Romania situated between the two Slavic regions. 

These southern Slavs eventually began to separate linguistically from the Slavs to the north and developed their own family of Southern Slavic languages. 

Here, I’m going to skip over a thousand years of history, which includes conquest by the Byzantines and Ottomans and religious influences from Orthodox and Catholics. 

The important thing is that these Southern Slavic groups had much in common but had developed separate ethnic identities based on language and religion. 

By the 19th century, the northern part of the region, including modern-day Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia, was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A pan-southern Slavic known as the Illyrian Movement sprang up during the period.

The Illyrian Movement got its name from the former Roman province of Illyria. At the time, it was thought that the Southern Slavs descended from the ancient inhabits of Illyria. They used the term Illyrian to describe all Southern Slavic people.

The Illyrian Movement was a cultural and political campaign in the first half of the 19th century, primarily in the Croatian regions under the Habsburg Monarchy. It aimed to promote the unity and identity of South Slavs and foster a sense of national consciousness. 

It reached its peak in the 1830s and 1840s.

Despite the lofty goals of the movement, it was mostly a Croatian movement that served to strengthen Croatian national identity. 

The movement’s leaders didn’t particularly want independence; they just wanted some autonomy under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

The movement never really achieved any of its political goals, and it eventually fell apart in 1845 due to differences in, believe it or not, poetry.  

Despite the movement’s failure, it started getting people to think about Pan-Slavic Unity. In 1848, during the revolutions that took place that year around Europe, a plan was put together for the creation of a South Slavic Federation.

The federation would be exactly that: a union of what was called the three tribes of the Southern Slavs, the Serbs, Croats, and Slovines. Each would be equal in the government, although the federation would have a single king at its head. 

Nothing was done with this plan, but things were happening. In 1867, the last of the Ottoman troops left Serbia. In 1872, the Congress of Berlin was formed by major European powers to decide the fate of the Balkans, and in 1882, Serbia became its own kingdom.

Now, we have to fast-forward once again, this time several decades, to the First World War.

The war did not go well for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which fought with Germany as the Central Powers. In 1918, near the end of the war, the empire was dissolved.

In its place in the Balkans, a provisional National Council of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs was established with representatives from the various groups. On October 29, they declared a new state called the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, and just two days later, formally sought to merge with Serbia and Montenegro.

Things moved very quickly, and on December 1, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was declared in Belgrade. 

The dream of the pan-Southern Slavics from the 19th century had finally been achieved. There were some issues with the new borders with Austria and Italy, but for all practical purposes, Yugoslavia was born….even though they weren’t using the name quite yet. 

The original idea was for a federation where each constituent country would have a significant amount of autonomy. A system that would be akin to Switzerland’s federal system.

However, that wasn’t what happened. 

In 1921, a new constitution was approved, which greatly centralized power, removing power from the constituent regions and concentrating it in the hands of the Serbs.  This caused many supporters of the initial merger to rebel against the government. 

Finally, on January 6, 1929, King Alexander I declared the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, abolished the constitution, and established a dictatorship to be run by himself. 

In 1934, Alexander was assassinated while on a trip to Marseille, France. It was the first time an assassination was caught on film; if you’ve never seen it, it is quite dramatic.

This put eleven-year-old Peter II on the Yugoslav throne, with his father’s cousin, Prince Paul, serving as regent.

Ethnic tensions continued to rise during the 1930s. Attempts to devolve some power were made, but few people were satisfied. 

Prince Paul aligned Yugoslavia with Italy and Germany and formally signed the Tripartite Pact with the Axis Powers on March 25, 1941. 

Just two days later, Prince Peter was overthrown in a coup d’etat led by pro-British factions in the military, and King Paul II was formally put on the throne at the age of 17.

This didn’t sit well with the Germans, and despite the goodwill of the British, there was nothing they could do if Yugoslavia was attacked. 

On April 6, just ten days after the coup, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany along with forces from Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy. All the bordering countries annexed small pieces of Yugoslavia, and the Germans established a puppet government. 

There was resistance to the German rule and the puppet governments. Most notable were the communist Partisans led by Josip Broz Tito and the royalist Chetniks.

Tito’s forces eventually took the upper hand, and by 1943, he had established control over most of the country.

On November 29, 1943, Tito announced the creation of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia. This new state was primarily designed to organize resistance efforts against the Germans and Italians. 

After Germany had surrendered in 1945, in November, Tito declared the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with Tito as Prime Minister. 

The new country initially aligned itself closely with the Soviet Union. The Soviets established communist governments across Eastern Europe that they could control, and Joseph Stalin assumed that Yugoslavia would follow in their footsteps. 

Tito, however, didn’t want to be a puppet of Stalin. He began pursuing policies that were more independent of Stalin.

Yugoslavia was more decentralized, and factory workers were more able to vote changes in their work pace.

Perhaps most importantly, both Stalin and Tito were simply alpha personalities who wanted to have their way.

The disagreements between Tito and Stalin soon came to a head. 

In June 1948, the Soviet Union, through the Cominform (the Communist Information Bureau), formally expelled Yugoslavia, citing “nationalist elements” in the Yugoslav Communist Party and accusing Tito of betraying communist principles.

Stalin, not wanting to see other Eastern Block countries follow in Tito’s footsteps, ostracized Yugoslavia and cut off trade with it. This forced Tito’s hand, resulting in his creation of trade alliances with Western countries.

Tito became a leading figure in the Non-Aligned Movement, which sought to establish an independent path for countries not aligned with either the Western or Eastern blocs during the Cold War.

During the entire Cold War, Tito’s Yugoslavia was a communist country, but they weren’t like other countries controlled by the Soviets. Westerners could freely visit Yugoslavia, and Yugoslavians were able to travel outside of Yugoslavia as well.

Yugoslavia, however, was ultimately held together by Tito. His iron grip on power in Yugoslavia kept a lid on ethnic tensions. However, in 1980, Tito died. 

The death of Tito allowed many of the pressures that had built up inside the country since the establishment of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to start to leak out. 

Ethnonationalist leaders began to emerge, such as Slobodan Miloševi? in Serbia, who became the president of Serbia in 1989. 

With the collapse of the Communist Block in Eastern Europe, it was only a matter of time before Yugoslavia followed suit. 

In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence, and Macedonia did a few months later. In 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit. 

The result was several wars in what was now the Former Yugoslavian Republic.  The war in Slovenia was short and did little damage. It lasted only ten days. 

However, in Croatia and Bosnia, there were major cases of ethnic cleansing and mass murders. The Srebrenica massacre took place in July 1995, with over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys killed by Bosnian Serb forces.

The topic of the Yugoslavian Wars will be addressed in more detail in a future episode. 

NATO eventually got involved, and The Dayton Accords were signed, effectively ending the Bosnian War by establishing Bosnia and Herzegovina as a single state with two entities.

However, in 1998, another war broke out in Kosovo, which was a part of Serbia that had a majority ethnic Albanian population. This again got NATO peacekeepers involved. 

In 2000, Slobodan Miloševi? was removed from power, and in 2003, The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was reconstituted as the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

However, even that didn’t last very long, as in 2006, Montenegro declared itself independent and split from Serbia.

Finally, in 2008, Kosovo announced its independence from Serbia. However, unlike other parts of Yugoslavia that became independent, Kosovo has never been universally recognized as independent by much of the world. 

As of the recording of this episode, 104 out of 193 countries in the United Nations recognize Kosovo, or 54%. 

The dream of a country for all southern Slavs in the 19th century was one of the few political dreams that actually came true.

However, it never materialized like it was dreamt. Yugoslavia became centralized, not federalized, and the constituent states were pushed aside for the central government. 

This ethnic resentment eventually boiled over into the 1990s in one of the worst displays of bloodshed of the decade. 

Today, the nations of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo are the legacy of the idea that was Yugoslavia.