Ethnic & Political Tension in Postwar Yugoslavia

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  • 0:01 A State of Sheer Personality
  • 1:45 Fault Lines of Friction
  • 3:44 Slobodan Milosevic
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Yugoslavia was cobbled together from spare pieces of multiple empires across history. Just like mismatched pieces of puzzle, it only fit together when forced. This lesson explains how Yugoslavia lasted so long before falling apart so completely.

A State of Sheer Personality

Imagine an old jumble of jigsaw pieces that don't necessarily go together, but are instead bits and pieces of other puzzles from long ago. If you absolutely had to, you could probably force them together into something that, at least from a distance, resembled a complete puzzle. However, those pieces wouldn't fit next to each other and indeed would probably burst apart if the pressure was let up on any one of them.

That's a pretty apt analogy for the country of Yugoslavia for much of the 20th century. Taken from pieces of the old Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, this puzzle was held together by sheer force. But wait, what was the problem? After all, the word Yugoslavia itself means 'a homeland of the southern Slavs.' However, all of these various parts of old empires not only didn't fit together, but they hated each other. During World War II, they even went as far as to fight against each other.

In fact, the only reason that the country managed to survive as long as it did was because of its leader from 1945 until 1976, a strong-willed man named Josip Tito. Tito was actually half Slovene and half Croat, but was loved by the worst enemies of the Croats, the Serbs. Tito worked throughout his time as ruler of Yugoslavia to lessen those tensions. He constantly talked about the concept of brotherhood and unity, asking Yugoslavs to put their differences behind them in order to work for the greater good of the state. However, with his death in 1976, the strong force that held all those jigsaw pieces in place suddenly disappeared.

Fault Lines of Friction

Unluckily for the Yugoslavs, their society was fractured more than even the most complicated jigsaw puzzle. Founded as a homeland for the Slavs, a significant minority of people weren't Slavic at all! However, the real divide between Yugoslavs was one of religion. The region had been the crossroads of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Muslim Ottoman Empire, and Catholic Austrian Empire.

Different regions still had different beliefs. The largest region, Serbia, was strongly Orthodox, while the richest, Croatia, was solidly Catholic. As if that weren't enough, the region between the two, Bosnia, was devoutly Muslim. These religious divides were a huge deal, and you may be thinking what else divided them. That's the interesting part: much of the rest of what divided these ethnic groups had been purely invented!

Bosnians may say they speak Bosnian and can't understand Serbs or Croats, but the reality is that these languages are as similar as American and British English. People there pretended that the differences were greater to reinforce why a united Yugoslavia could never work. However, with those invented cultural differences comes some very real historical differences.

As I said earlier, Yugoslavia largely split into various fighting groups during World War II, and many of these found each other. In fact, the Croats treated the Nazis as liberators from what they considered to be Serbian domination and actively helped the Germans in their occupation. Meanwhile, the Serbians, with heavy support of the Soviet Union, maintained one of the most effective resistance campaigns in history. Much of Serbia was actually free because the Nazis were unable to really establish control. After the war, Tito was able to sweep many of these differences under the rug. However, with his death, personalities that were determined to divide the country would emerge.

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