Yugoslavia and World War II


In the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918–41)

The unification of the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia (known from 1929 on as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) was implemented in opposition to the federal concept advocated by the Croatian elite, and was never ratified by the Croatian Sabor. In addition, it was implemented by means of political and military repression. Protests broke out on 5 December 1918 in Zagreb, and there was much bloodshed (the so-called 'December Victims').

The Croatian Question. This was the name given to describe the struggle of the Croatian nation for the recognition of national distinction during the inter-war period (1918–41).

After a Constitution was imposed (1921), adopted by an unqualified majority, followed by an open monarchical dictatorship (1929), and the so-called Granted Constitution (1931), the Kingdom of Yugoslavia found itself in an ongoing political crisis. Due to unresolved national, economic and social issues, political dissatisfaction and tension reigned. Crisis was reached with the assassination of the Croatian representatives at the National Assembly in 1928, when the Croatian opposition leader, Stjepan Radić, was fatally wounded. This crisis entrenched more deeply the divisions between Croats and Serbs.

Stjepan Radić (1871–1928) was a politician and founder of the Croatian People's Peasant Party (later the Croatian Peasant Party), and the political leader of the Croats after the First World War. He stood against centralisation and Greater Serbian hegemony, and sought the federal organisation of Yugoslavia. He died in 1928 as the result of an assassination which was committed during a session of the National Assembly in Belgrade.
Banovina of Croatia 1939
Milan Šufflay (1879–1931), was a Croatian historian. He was murdered for his criticism of the ruling Yugoslav regime, which provoked Albert Einstein and Heinrich Mann to stage a public protest, calling the worldwide public to protect the Croatian nation from the Yugoslav regime.

After the assassination of King Alexander I in Marseilles in 1934, Prince Paul took power. On his initiative, an agreement was reached between the prime minister of the Yugoslav Government, Dragiša Cvetković, and the political leader of the Croatian people, Vladko Maček. This agreement established the Banovina (Banate) of Croatia as a unit with a significant degree of autonomy within the Kingdom; however, this only lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Second World War (1941–45)

After the military collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, following its conquest by the Axis powers in April 1941, Croatia found itself, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, within the newly-established Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatake – NDH), declared by the nationalistic group called Ustasha, led by Ante Pavelić, under German and Italian protection. Prior to this, Maček had refused to declare Croatian independence under the auspices of Germany. The other parts of Yugoslavia were annexed to the Axis powers, or quisling regimes were established in them.

Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980), was a Yugoslav politician and statesman, a Croat by nationality. As General Secretary of the Communist Party during the Second World War, he was the initiator and organiser of the Anti-Fascist struggle in Yugoslavia, and its supreme military commander. After the war, he became president of federal Yugoslavia, established a dictatorial system, eliminated all opponents, and remained the undisputed leader of the state and Party until his death.
The Villefranche-de-Rouergue uprising. This rebellion in the French town of Villefranche-de-Rouergue was incited by forcibly conscripted Croatian and Bosnian (mostly Muslim) members of the German 13th Waffen-SS Mountain Division in September 1943, with the aim of joining the French Resistance. Although the Nazis brutally crushed the rebellion, Radio London declared Villefranche-de-Rouergue the first town in western Europe to be liberated from Nazi occupation. In memory of the uprising, there is a emorial park in the town, and a road named Avenue des Croates.
Jasenovac. During the Second World War, the Ustashas opened concentration and labour camps in the territory of the NDH. The largest among them was Jasenovac, in which according to some estimates about 80,000 prisoners died , most of them Serbs, followed by Roma, Jews and Croatian anti-fascists. In 1966, a memorial site was created, with a memorial erected in memory of all the victims.

Apart from the Ustashas, who introduced racial laws under German orders and began to persecute Serbs, Jews and political dissidents, the Chetniks, paramilitary Serbian units and members of the defeated army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, also cooperated with the occupiers. The Chetniks were active in certain parts of Croatia, and their goal was to build a Greater Serbia on the ruins of the former Yugoslavia, which, along with Serbia, would include the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina and half of Croatia.

The Sisak Partisan Detachment, the first detachment of the People's Liberation Army of Croatia and one of the first organised anti-fascist formation in occupied Europe was created on 22 June 1941 near Sisak. Its members were Croatian nationals, which led to the spread of the Partisan movement among the Serb population. One of the members of the detachment was Janko Bobetko, who later became a Croatian general and Head of the General Staff of the Croatian Army during the Homeland War (1991–95). The date on which this detachment was created is marked in Croatia today as Anti-Fascist Struggle Day, in memory of the contribution to the liberation of Europe.

Although the NDH attempted to satisfy the age-old yearning of the Croatian nation for an independent state, it was not long before a large number of its citizens, appalled by the German-Italian occupation, by which part of Dalmatia had been ceded to the Italians, and by the Ustasha reign of terror and Chetnik atrocities against Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Partisans, joined the Anti-Fascist movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and Josip Broz Tito. The first Croatian Partisan unit was formed near Sisak on 22 June 1941, and was soon followed by the formation of Partisan units in other parts of the country. The Croatian Partisans then established a Croatian General Staff under the command of Andrija Hebrang.

After the unsuccessful Partisan uprising in Serbia in 1941, the centre of resistance moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Major Partisan operations were carried out, in which the majority of participants were soldiers from the Croatian territory. For example, during the German-Italian offensive on the Neretva and Sutjeska in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1943, more than half of the Partisan soldiers were from Croatia (of the 7,300 who died, 4,246 were from Croatia). From 1943 onwards, the Partisan movement was supported by the main Allied forces, who established a military mission at the Supreme Staff of the People's Liberation Army, commanded by Tito. Apart from drawing upon themselves significant forces of the German army, which they ultimately defeated, the Croatian and other Yugoslav Partisans made a great contribution to the struggle against Fascism by constantly sabotaging railway lines used by the Axis powers to transport the Romanian oil supply. A total of 1,800 trains were sabotaged, prompting Hitler to mobilise increasing numbers of soldiers to guard the lines from early 1942 on, though with no great success.

Resistence. By the end of 1942, there were about 25,000 members of the Partisan resistance movement in Croatia. In the autumn of 1943, there were 100,000, while by the end of 1944, the number had risen to 150,000. Of the 26 Partisan divisions under the command of the Supreme Staff, 11 were Croatian, 7 Bosnian-Herzegovinian, 5 Slovenian, 2 Serbian and 1 Montenegrin. Croatia was among the few countries in Europe to be liberated by its own forces, without the armed assistance of the Allies. The preamble to the modern Croatian Constitution invokes the fact that the modern Republic of Croatia is the heir of the free Croatia which came into being after resisting the Axis powers.

Thanks to their respectable strength, the Croatian Partisans managed to maintain control of most of their homeland during the war, and constituted institutions of government on the liberated territory. In June 1943, at sessions of representatives of the Croatian Partisans held in Otočac and Plitvice Lakes, the ZAVNOH (National Anti-Fascist Council for the People's Liberation of Croatia) was founded, headed by the famous poet Vladimir Nazor, as the highest political representative body of the Anti-Fascist movement in Croatia. Like a true wartime government, this body coordinated Partisan military operations and organised economic activities in the free territories. In the autumn of 1943, a similar body was established in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina (ZAVNOBiH). Representatives of both bodies participated in the revival of the Yugoslav state as a democratic federation at the 2nd Session of the Anti-Fascist Council of the People's Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) in Jajce on 29 November 1943. The rulings of that session are considered the foundation act of post-war Yugoslavia. Pursuant to a ruling by the 2nd session of the AVNOJ, representatives of the ZAVNOH constituted the Federal State of Croatia at the 3rd Session in Topusko in May 1944, as one of six Yugoslav federal states, thus reviving the continuity of the Croatian Sabor, which had been abolished in 1918.

Croatia in 1943
3rd ZAVNOH session in Topusko, 1944
All in the fight for a free Croatia (Partisan poster)

Towards the end of 1944, after the liberation of Belgrade and defeat of the Chetniks in Serbia, and the amnesty for deserters from quisling units (up to 15 January 1945), the Partisan movement spread further, but under Tito's leadership became centralised and ideologically exclusive, while its Croatian component became marginalised. In this context, the war in the area of Croatia ended in May 1945, with the military defeat of the NDH, the establishment of a centralised Communist regime in Belgrade, and summary justice for the defeated forces, civilians suspected of having collaborated with the Ustasha regime, and all 'class' enemies and dissidents, along with members of the German and Austrian minorities. It is within this context that tens of thousands of people were summarily executed in the Bleiburg massacre at the Yugoslav–Austrian border or during the 'death marches' following the end of the war.

In the Yugoslav Federation (1945–90)

Within the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia (renamed in 1963 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) Croatia's present-day borders were set, although its military leadership was partly marginalised (Andrija Hebrang). The purges within the Communist regime were intensified after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948.

Despite declaring the federal nature of the state's organisation, the principles of republican statehood and national rights, the Communist powers systematically denied Croatian state individuality, which led to the Croatian Spring in the 1960s, a cultural and political movement led partly by the Croatian Communist League and partly by cultural and scientific activists gathered around Zagreb University and Matica Hrvatska. This movement for reform demanded recognition and protection for Croatian as a literary language, the strengthening of the position of the republic towards the federation, the democratisation of society in line with the idea of self-management and the introduction of some forms of market economy.

Goli Otok. The islands of Goli and Sveti Grgur were the site of a Yugoslav labour camp and prison for political dissidents (from 1949), which was turned into a reform home for juvenile delinquents in 1956. It was closed in 1988. It remains a symbol of the repression of the Communist regime towards political dissidents.
Josip Broz Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru, the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, on Brijuni Islands in 1956. Tito's residence on Brijuni was his favourite, where he received many guests. Apart from its political alignment, Yugoslavia differed from the other countries of Eastern Europe by implementing a open border policy, which favoured the development of tourism in Croatia, and allowed its citizens relative freedom of movement and travel.
Croatian Spring. Political rally in Zagreb, 1971. The most prominent leaders of the movement were Savka Dabčević-Kučar (1923–2009) and Miko Tripalo (1926–95). After 1971, more than 2,000 people were sentenced for participating in the Croatian Spring, and tens of thousands were dismissed from their jobs or demoted. The work of Matica Hrvatska was proscribed and many newspapers and journals extinguished. A period known as the 'Croatian silence' ensued, which lasted until 1989.

Although the Yugoslav president, Josip Broz Tito, crushed the movement in 1971, and politically and judicially persecuted those who had participated in it, the Yugoslav republics were acknowledged as the bearers of sovereignty of individual nations and gained greater rights in the Constitution of 1974. This policy of Tito's was an expression of the need to maintain equilibrium between the federalist (Croatia and Slovenia) and centralist (Belgrade) powers.

After Tito's death, some individuals in the leadership of the republics, particularly in Serbia and Montenegro, expressed dissatisfaction with these changes, and openly advocated the reorganisation of Yugoslavia, initially on the basis of a unitarian, centralist Yugoslav state, then, in the early 1990s, on the basis of the formation of a Greater Serbia. This provoked resistance in Croatia and Slovenia, which were seeking a reformation of the state along confederal lines. The conflict between these two concepts came to a head in the first half of 1990 with open aggression on the part of Serbia, Montenegro and the federal army (JNA) against Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991–95) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–95).

Alpe–Adria. As one of the Yugoslav republics, in 1978 Croatia was one of the founder members of the Alpe–Adria Working Community, along with Slovenia, the Italian regions of Friuli–Venezia Giulia and Veneto, and the Austrian federal states of Carinthia, Styria and Upper Austria. During the 1980s, this organisation gradually widened its membership and created projects in the areas of economy, spatial planning, promoting the position of minorities and environmental protection, thus setting up a common historical heritage and good neighbourly relations.