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*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents
“No country of people’s democracy has so many nationalities as this country has. Only in Czechoslovakia do there exist two kindred nationalities, while in some of the other countries there are only minorities. Consequently in these countries of people’s democracy there has been no need to settle such serious problems as we have had to settle here…With them the basic factor is the class issue, with us it is both the nationalities and the class issue.” – Tito
Yugoslavia was arguably one of the most unusual geopolitical creations of the 20th century. The Yugoslav state had never existed in any historical sense, and the ties that bound together its constituent peoples were tenuous at best. Although nominally all “Slavs,” the country was an amalgamation of languages, alphabets, cultures, religions and traditions, which ensured its short existence was littered with splits, conflicts, and shocking violence. In a sense, it’s somewhat surprising that it lasted as long as it did.
In the wake of World War I, as the political boundaries of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, initially known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, came into existence with a monarch as its head of state. Confirmed at the 1919 Versailles Conference, the “first” Yugoslavia was a particularly fragile enterprise, and there was almost constant tension between the majority Serbs and the other Yugoslav nationalities, especially the Croats. As a result, the Kingdom was a land of political assassinations, underground terrorist organizations, and ethnic animosities. In 1929, King Alexander I suspended democracy and ruled as a dictator until he himself was assassinated in 1934.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was particularly vulnerable to the forces that engulfed the rest of Europe at the end of the 1930s, including fascism and communism. When the Axis forces attacked in 1941, the country quickly capitulated and was dismembered by the Nazis and their allies. A separate Croatian state was formed, led by Ante Pavelić, who committed some of the worst crimes and human rights abuses of the war. The Balkan region was virtually emptied of its Jewish population, victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
From the beginning, fascism was opposed by two major groups in the region, the monarchist Chetniks and the communist Partisans. The latter, led by Josip Broz Tito and backed by the democratic powers, emerged in the dominant position at the end of the war. The World War II era produced many leaders of titanic determination, men whose strengths and weaknesses left an extraordinary imprint on historical affairs, and the struggle between massively divergent ideologies catapulted some individuals unexpectedly onto the world stage.
During his reign, Tito managed to quash the intense national feelings of the diverse groups making up the Yugoslavian population, and he did so through several methods. He managed to successfully play the two superpower rivals, the United States and Soviet Union, off against each other during the Cold War, and in doing so, he maintained a considerable amount of independence from both, even as he additionally received foreign aid to keep his regime afloat. Only upon his death did the fabric of the state tear asunder and age-old identities reassert themselves, bringing about a period of intense conflicts that produced a new equilibrium with ethnically-based successor states that cracked up the state he once led. Cold War rivalries also provided Yugoslavia with a geopolitical significance that evaporated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Without its charismatic dictator who transcended national rivalries and two superpowers interested in its stability, Yugoslavia collapsed within the space of a few short, bloody years in the 1990s.
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