Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
If you've ever baked a cake, then you know how incredibly important it is to have the exact proportions of ingredients. Having too much or too little of one ingredient or, worse, forgetting it altogether can ruin a cake, tart, or batch of cookies. Though postwar Yugoslavia was made up of numerous different ethnic and linguistic groups, its cohesion was balanced like the icing on a cake by the rule of Josip Broz, the head of Yugoslavia's communist dictatorship. When Marshal Tito (as Broz was nicknamed) died and his strong arm left the seat of Yugoslav power, the entire confederation began to unravel.
Yugoslavia was created in the aftermath of WWI. Prior to WWI, the Balkans had largely been the military playground of two major powers of early modern Europe: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. However, WWI destroyed what remained of the once mighty Ottoman Empire and drastically weakened the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This created a power vacuum in the Balkans, one many Slavic intellectuals hoped would be filled by a new, pan-Slavic state. Through the work of several nationalist groups working with Western countries, the Slavs got their wish and founded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was officially and internationally recognized in May 1919.
Yugoslavia's early history was tumultuous, as ethnic conflict arose often between ethnic Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The government under the king was dominated by a rivalry between Serbs and Croats and their competing political philosophies: Serbs preferred a strong, central government, which they would likely dominate, while Croats preferred a decentralized federation of states.
These concerns created numerous problems, but the issues became secondary with the rise of a strong, aggressive Germany in the late 1930s. After Germany consolidated its control of Eastern Europe in the late 1930s and began WWII with its invasion of Poland, Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941. It only took 11 days for the German army to completely overrun the country, and over 300,000 Yugoslav troops and officers were taken prisoner by the Germans.
The German occupation of Yugoslavia gave rise to a communist movement in the pan-Slavic state. Indeed, the communists were the chief organizers of the anti-German resistance movement during WWII, and the Yugoslav communist party (named the Partisans) reorganized its leadership for that purpose in July 1941. Later that year, Josip Broz - Marshal Tito - began organizing Albanian communists in the South and conducted guerrilla movements against German military installations throughout Yugoslavia. When the tide of the war turned, it was Tito's communists who fought alongside Russian troops, pushing the Germans out of Yugoslavia.
Tito's Partisans emerged from the war the most powerful political force in Yugoslavia, and soon after the war's end, most Western countries recognized Tito's government as the legitimate government of Yugoslavia. Earlier in 1945, Tito's government had held 'free' elections, though most political parties boycotted the elections in response to the tactics of Tito's Partisans, who suppressed non-communist publications and hindered non-communist politicians' ability to campaign. The overwhelmingly communist government which was elected adopted a Soviet-style communist constitution later that year. Though the constitution set up many of the offices of a federal republic, including multiple ministries and various administrative freedoms given to the non-Serbian provinces, in reality, most actual power within Yugoslavia was concentrated in the presidency and Marshal Tito.
Tito's postwar government followed Soviet examples and collectivized and nationalized most large landholdings in the country, whether they were held by large landowners, banks, churches, or other groups. They even instituted Soviet-style 5-year plans, which set out incredibly ambitious goals, intending to rapidly industrialize the Yugoslav economy and enrich and empower the incredibly poor majority of the population in the rural areas of Yugoslavia.
Despite the Soviet-style communism practiced in Yugoslavia, Yugoslav relations with the Soviet Union were surprisingly poor. Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and the Moscow government expected Yugoslavia to fall in line and follow Soviet directives, much like the other communist governments under Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. However, Marshal Tito resisted integration into the Soviet economy, fearing an unfair trade balance that would undoubtedly favor the Soviet Union. Resentments between the two countries due to looting and rape by Soviet troops in Yugoslavia during WWII further strained relations. When Yugoslavia refused to attend a conference between the Soviet Union and its client states in 1948, the Soviet Union expelled Yugoslavia from its group of communist nations and called for Yugoslav communists to overthrow Marshal Tito's government.
However, Tito's power was never threatened in Yugoslavia. The vast majority of communists in Yugoslavia supported Tito, and his government openly suppressed opposing politics, at times jailing and executing political prisoners or foreigners accused of attempting to subvert communism in Yugoslavia. Despite this early radicalism, Yugoslavia slowly softened its communist stance in the 1960s. The economy was slowly liberalized, and Tito even allowed for the devolution of some power to the regional republics within Yugoslavia. In 1970, the country even signed an initial economic treaty with the European Economic Community.
In 1980, Marshal Tito died just three days short of his 88th birthday. Tito's strong hand and popularity proved crucial to Yugoslavia. Furthermore, his policy of dispersing Serbs - by far Yugoslavia's largest ethnic group - throughout the country had prevented Serb domination of the Yugoslav government. The death of Tito renewed many of these ethnic anxieties concerning the future of the Yugoslav government.
The 1980s were also a time of economic trouble for Yugoslavia, as the same problems that plagued the rest of the communist East also affected Yugoslavia. Inflation and unemployment were rampant, and living standards within the country fell. These issues, coupled with ethnic tensions, caused many republics within Yugoslavia to begin pushing for more decentralization and eventual independence. In 1981, for instance, Yugoslavia sent troops into its Southern republic of Kosovo to silence calls for independence there.
Tensions grew even higher when the fears of Yugoslavia's smaller ethnic groups were realized in 1989. That year saw the Serb Slobodan Milosevic take power and begin calling for increased centralization in Yugoslavia. Its other republics began almost immediately making preparations for independence. On June 25th, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia both declared independence from Yugoslavia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina did the same the following year. Though Slovenia's war for independence lasted less than two weeks, in Croatia and Bosnia the fighting lasted several years. Fighting in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was often ethnically-based, as the independence movement ignited age-old rivalries between Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims. Several instances of ethnic-cleansing occurred during the fighting, where Serbian troops raped, tortured, and murdered entire villages of civilians based solely on their ethnicity. Several Serbian generals have since stood trial in European courts for war crimes because of these actions.
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia both achieved recognized independence as part of the Dayton Accords in November 1995. Additionally, NATO and the UN established a peacekeeping mission in the region to hopefully avoid future ethnic conflict. However, this did not stop the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In the late 1990s, the Kosovo Liberation Army fought for independence from the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government. Serbians responded by invading once again and persecuting Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population. This time the international community responded in force. NATO and U.S. bombs fell upon the country, at times hitting targets in the capital Belgrade. The bombing campaign forced a hasty Serbian retreat, and by 1999 Kosovo's independence was recognized.
The ethnic and linguistic differences that Slavic intellectuals believed could be overcome to create a pan-Slavic state in the aftermath of WWI eventually tore the country apart. Only through the strong communist rule of Marshal Tito was the Yugoslav government able to simultaneously fend off Soviet hegemony and maintain peace in the diverse nation. The relaxation of communism and devolution of authority to regional republics during the later years of Tito's reign increased Yugoslavia's ties with Europe while also emboldening regional governments like Kosovo and Slovenia. With Tito's death, Serbian dominance of the central government encouraged Yugoslavia's other ethnicities and republics to pursue independence, especially after the accession of the Milosevic government. The ethnic differences between the Serbian government and regional republics fueled the bloody wars of independence that eventually dissolved Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
28 chapters | 268 lessons | 22 flashcard sets