The Croatian War of Independence

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  • 0:01 Existing Tensions
  • 1:33 Move Towards Independence
  • 3:36 Wider Effects
  • 4:31 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.

Held together by the sheer personality of Josip Tito, Yugoslavia was one of the more ethnically fractured countries in the world by the early 1990s. This lesson looks at the road to independence for one of its largest ethnic groups, Croatia.

Existing Tensions

After the establishment of Yugoslavia there was a definite tension between the Croats and the Serbs, two of the largest ethnic groups in the country. On the surface, the Croats were Catholic, whereas the Serbs were Orthodox. But this was Yugoslavia, where there were even Bosnian Muslims—the whole country was very diverse. However, it was more than just religion at play in the conflict. After all, while the Serbs were largely responsible for the most successful resistance movement against the German occupation to be found in Europe, the Croats had fielded units to fight alongside the Nazis!

Fortunately for the country as a whole, the leader of that Serbian resistance was a half-Croat named Josip Tito, who would rule the country after the war. Tito tried to maintain some idea of a Yugoslav unity and was largely successful because of the sheer force of his personality. He located the country's capital in Serbia, but put a great deal of economic investment in the northwest, the heart of the Croat homeland. A major theme of his rule was brotherhood and unity, or the idea of putting Yugoslavia before ethnicity. However, Tito could not live forever. By 1976 he was dead, and while Serbs and Croats would join each other in line to mourn his death, they would no longer pay their respects to his ideology.

Move Towards Independence

Yugoslavia was technically a socialist state, even though it had horrible ties with the Soviet Union. That said, a sort of historical friendship existed between the Serbs and the Russians, so the Croats knew they could not just walk away as long as the Soviet Union was strong. This was especially true since, during the 1980s, Serbia was seeking to become the most powerful part of Yugoslavia. Already it contained a plurality of the population, but under the new Serbian president, Slobodan Miloševic, Serbia would come first.

Luckily for the Croats, their moment came in the early 1990s. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was in chaos. Had the political will even existed for an intervention in Yugoslavia, the Russians would still have been unable to pull it off. Croatia and its northern neighbor, Slovenia, took advantage of the moment to declare their independence in 1992.

While the Slovenes were able to gain their independence quickly, there was simply too much bad blood between the Croats and the Serbs. War dragged on for years, spilling over into other parts of Yugoslavia. The conflict was especially brutal because the Yugoslav army was remarkably well equipped. Much of it fell under the control of the Serbs, but whole units deserted to fight for the Croats.

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