Tito At Parade
9th May 1975: Yugoslav statesman and president, Marshal Tito (1892 - 1980) salutes as troops march past at a military parade at Belgrade to mark the 30th anniversary of liberation. Keystone / Getty Images

Location of Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia was located in the Balkan region of Europe, to the east of Italy.

The Origins of Yugoslavia

There have been three federations of Balkan nations called Yugoslavia. The first originated in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and World War One. At the end of the nineteenth century, the two empires which previously dominated the region – Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans – began to undergo changes and retreats respectively, sparking discussion among intellectuals and political leaders about the creation of a united South Slav nation. The question of who would dominate this was a matter of contention, be it a Greater Serbia or a Greater Croatia. The origins of Yugoslavia may partly lay in the Illyrian Movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

As World War I raged in 1914, the Yugoslav Committee was formed in Rome by Balkan exiles in order to come up with and agitate for a solution to a key question: what states would be created if the Allies of Britain, France and Serbia managed to defeat the Austro-Hungarians, especially as Serbia looked on the verge of destruction. In 1915 the committee moved to London, where it had an effect on allied politicians far greater than its size. Although funded by Serbian money, the committee – comprised mainly of Slovenes and Croats – was against a Greater Serbia, and argued for an equal union, although they conceded that as Serbia was the state which did exist, and which had the apparatus for government, the new South Slav state would have to coalesce around it.

In 1917, a rival South Slav group formed from deputies in the Austro-Hungarian government, who argued for a union of Croats, Slovenes, and Serbs in a newly reworked, and federated, Austrian led empire. The Serbs and the Yugoslav Committee then went further, signing an agreement to push for the creation of an independent Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the Serb kings, including land currently in Austria-Hungary. As the latter collapsed under the pressures of war, A National Council of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was declared to rule Austria-Hungary’s former Slavs, and this pushed for a union with Serbia. This decision was taken in no small part to rid the area of marauding bands of Italians, deserters and Habsburg troops.

The Allies agreed to the creation of a combined South Slav state and basically told the rival groups to form one. Negotiations followed, in which the National Council gave in to Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee, allowing Prince Aleksander to declare the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes on December 1st, 1918. At this point, the devastated and disjointed region was only held together by the army, and bitter rivalry had to be damped down before borders were set, a new government was formed in 1921, and a new constitution was voted in (although the latter only just occurred after many deputies walked out in opposition.) In addition, in 1919 the Communist party of Yugoslavia formed, which received a large number of votes, refused to join the chamber, committed assassinations and got itself banned.

The First Kingdom

Ten years of political infighting between the many different parties followed, largely because the kingdom was dominated by Serbs, who had expanded their governing structures to run it, rather than by anything new. Consequently, King Aleksander I shut the parliament and created a royal dictatorship. He renamed the country Yugoslavia, (literally ‘Land of the South Slavs’) and created new regional divisions to try and negate the growing nationalist rivalries. Alexander was assassinated on October 9th, 1934 while visiting Paris, by an Ustasha affiliate. This left Yugoslavia governed by a regency for the eleven-year-old Crown Prince Petar.

War and the Second Yugoslavia

This first Yugoslavia lasted until the Second World War when Axis forces invaded in 1941. The Regency had been moving closer to Hitler, but an anti-Nazi coup brought the government down and the wrath of Germany onto them. War ensued, but not one as simple as pro-Axis versus anti-Axis, as communist, nationalist, royalist, fascist and other factions all fought in what was effectively a civil war. The three key groups were the fascist Utsasha, the royalist Chetniks and the communist Partisans.

As the Second World War was concluded it was the Partisans lead by Tito – backed at the end by Red Army units - who emerged in control, and a second Yugoslavia was formed: this was a federation of six republics, each supposedly equal – Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro - as well as two autonomous provinces within Serbia: Kosovo and Vojvodina. Once the war was won, mass executions and purges targeted collaborators and enemy fighters.

Tito’s state was initially highly centralized and allied to the USSR, and Tito and Stalin argued, but the former survived and forged his own path, devolving power and gaining assistance from western powers. He was, if not universally regarded, then at least for a time admired for the way Yugoslavia was progressing, but it was Western aid – designed to keep him away from Russia – that probably saved the country. The political history of the Second Yugoslavia is basically a struggle between the centralized government and the demands for devolved powers for the member units, a balancing act that produced three constitutions and multiple changes over the period. By the time of Tito’s death, Yugoslavia was essentially hollow, with deep economic problems and barely concealed nationalisms, all held together by the cult of Tito’s personality and the party. Yugoslavia may well have collapsed under him had he lived.

War and the Third Yugoslavia

Throughout his rule, Tito had to tie the federation together against growing nationalism. After his death, these forces began to increase rapidly and tore Yugoslavia apart. As Slobodan Milosevic took control first of Serbia and then the collapsing Yugoslavia’s military, dreaming of a Greater Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence to escape him. Yugoslav and Serbian military attacks in Slovenia failed quickly, but the war was more protracted in Croatia, and longer still in Bosnia after it also declared independence. The bloody wars, filled with ethnic cleansing, were mostly over by the end of 1995, leaving Serbia and Montenegro as a rump Yugoslavia. There was war again in 1999 as Kosovo agitated for independence, and a change in leadership in 2000, when Milosevic was finally removed from power, saw Yugoslavia gain wider international acceptance again.

With Europe afraid that a Montenegrin push for independence would cause a new war, leaders produced a new federation plan, resulting in the dissolution of what remained of Yugoslavia and the creation of ‘Serbia and Montenegro’. The country had ceased to exist.

Key People from the History of Yugoslavia

King Alexander / Aleksander I 1888 - 1934
Born to the King of Serbia, Alexander lived some of his youth in exile before leading Serbia as regent during World War 1. He was key in declaring the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, becoming king in 1921. However, years of frustration at the political infighting made him declare a dictatorship in early 1929, creating Yugoslavia. He tried to bind the disparate groups in his country together but was assassinated while visiting France in 1934.

Josip Broz Tito 1892 – 1980
Tito led the communist partisans fighting in Yugoslavia during World War 2 and emerged as the leader of the new second Yugoslavian federation. He held the country together and was notable for differing markedly with the USSR, which dominated the other communist nations of Eastern Europe. After his death, nationalism tore Yugoslavia apart.

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Wilde, Robert. "Yugoslavia." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/yugoslavia-1221863. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Yugoslavia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/yugoslavia-1221863 Wilde, Robert. "Yugoslavia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/yugoslavia-1221863 (accessed June 7, 2023).