Kingdom of Serbia flag

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The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes

​A distinct ethnic group, the Slavs have long been found living across Europe, but by the late 19th century, only four countries could be deemed ‘Slavic’ states: The Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbia, Montenegro and the Kingdom of Bulgaria.

The Kingdom of Serbia had grown in power since emerging victorious from the first and second Balkan Wars, enlarging its territories and population by significant amounts, something that its neighbour – the powerful Austria-Hungary empire – became wary of. Montenegro’s independence had been officially recognised in 1878 and it had become a kingdom in 1910, sharing borders with both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Austria-Hungary empire’s population was almost half Slavic, but they had little political influence (which encouraged various nationalist movements). Bosnia and Herzegovina had a significant Slavic population but had long been part of the Ottoman Empire. The increasingly powerful Austria-Hungary took over administering it as the Ottoman Empires influence decreased

Map of the Balkans, 1914.

A unified state

Long before its actual creation, the idea of Yugoslavia – a unified state made up of different Slavic groups: Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – had been growing. For centuries, Slavs had suffered under various forms of oppression so it was felt the most obvious (and possibly only) way to prevent this would be to unite as a single country.

In 1848, foundations were laid down for how this new country would operate:

  • Three separate ethnic groups would be recognised: Serbs, Croats and Bulgarians. Each retaining their own dialect and language, but all ruled by a single King.
  • The ethnic groups within this new country would remain distinct from one another, but to the outside world, they would all be considered Yugoslavian.
  • Each group would be equally represented in the armed forces and each group would defend each other during times of conflict.
  • The two dominant religions – The Catholic and Orthodox churches would be considered equal. 

The Balkan Crisis of 1908 created tensions when Austria Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had formerly been part of the now fading Ottoman Empire. This angered many Serbians – who saw their fellow Slavs as, yet again, being oppressed - and strained relations between them and the Austria-Hungarians. Although the Treaty of Berlin helped alleviate this, relations were left permanently damaged which would lead to repercussions later.

​​It was events in Serbia itself which became the catalyst for the start of the First World War, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th April 1914, at the hands of a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. The assassin was part of a small group of student revolutionaries of who were supported by the Black Hand, A secretive Serbian nationalist group.

The Austria-Hungarians, seeing this as a chance to suppress a growing Serbia, took the opportunity to edge towards war – issuing an ultimatum to the Serbian government which it was unable or unwilling to completely agree to. And thus started the chain of events, as Russia sided with Serbia, and so Germany sided with Austria Hungary, before France and the United Kingdom also then joined the conflict. The ‘Great War’ had begun.

Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, shortly before they were shot dead on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo.

Marina Amaral

​During the First World War, a Yugoslav Committee was set up in London to further the idea of an independent Slavic state. Then in 1916, the now exiled Serbian Parliament officially decided to support the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and in 1917, a declaration for the creation of this new – post-war – state was issued, stating that the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were:

With the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918, the Slav dream of a unified Yugoslavia was to finally bear fruit. The Treaty of Versailles saw the Serbs, Croat and Slovene regions officially merge together from the former Austrian side of the empire and the areas of Banat, Bačka and Baranja joining from the former Hungarian side.

Additionally, the kingdom of Montenegro formerly joined the new country to create Yugoslavia (officially named the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929).

Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

The new kingdom

Yugoslavia was fundamentally an agricultural nation, with three-quarters of the workface employed in this field. Most were poor, peasant farmers (many of whom lacked access to education) with most of the larger, wealthier farms owned by foreigners. Farming technology was rudimentary at best and the country was still recovering from damage suffered in the First World War. Due to its dry climate, farming was often challenging and hard to scratch a living from.

What manufacturing that did occur, mainly took place in large cities, such as the capital Belgrade. Overall, Yugoslavia during this period, failed to take advantage of its potential in this area, due to poor infrastructure. However, in contrast, it had an abundance of natural minerals and a healthy mining industry. Unfortunately, like the larger farms, most of its industry was owned by foreigners, so most of what was produced was exported abroad. Compared to Eastern Europe, only Bulgaria and Albania were less industrialised than Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was also heavily in debt to Western Countries, a situation made worse when the Great Depression hit, and these debts started to be called in. The market for agricultural exports collapsed with countries around the world restricting outside trade, a situation which hit Yugoslavia – reliant on exporting its goods – hard. Yugoslavia had previously traded heavily with Italy but with Mussolini coming to power, this started to decline. As a result of this, Yugoslavia started to rely on Nazi Germany.

Herzegovinian women dressed to go to the market, Trebinje, Yugoslavia, 1930.

Early conflicts

Much of the early challenges surrounding the new country were based on the individual interests of ethnic groups (which sometimes were at odds with other ethnic groups) versus the actual reality of running the country effectively.

With the Serbs the dominant political force, many Croats were unhappy as they felt they were no better off in the new country than they were living under the rule of the Austria-Hungary empire. Kosovans living in Yugoslavia were unhappy too, as they were not of Slavic decent and felt more kinship with the Albanians and were angry that Kosovo had not been able to join Albania. Those of Macedonian heritage also resented the new country.

Timeline of Yugoslavia 1918 - 1940's. Note that Yugoslavia was officially titled the "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" until 1929.

​Vidovdan Constitution

Guiding a new country made up of separate, distinct ethnic group was always going to be challenging. Nikola Pašić was the dominant political figure of this early period, serving as Prime minister three times.

As he had a majority in the government, the new constitution was proclaimed on Vidovdan (St. Vitus day), 28 June 1921, and organised the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes as a parliamentary monarchy.

It removed any remaining ideas of autonomy for other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. 

Nikola Pašić, who served as Prime minister three times.

Route to a dictatorship

By the early 1920’s, the Yugoslav government was starting to use increasingly oppressive tactics to keep control: police pressure on voters and ethnic minorities, confiscation of rival political leaflets and various measures to rig elections. Although the Croatian Peasant Party continued to perform well in elections (despite its leader, Stjepan Radić, being constantly imprisoned) the main Serbian rival to the government – the Democrats – suffered badly under these tactics. Sadly, violence occurred on 20 June 1928, when a member of the government majority, the Serb deputy Puniša Račić, shot five members of the Croatian Peasant Party, including their leader Stjepan Radić, who eventually died from his wounds. Understandably given the violence, the opposition party now withdrew from parliament completely.

The often imprisoned Stjepan Radić, judging by his expression, this photograph was taken in-between prison stays.

Puniša Račić, photograph taken at a presumably calmer moment.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia

On 6 January 1929, using the violence in Parliament as an excuse, King Alexander abolished the Constitution, shut down Parliament, banned national political parties and assumed executive power, introducing a personal dictatorship (known as the "January 6 Dictatorship"). His aim was to clarify the Yugoslav ideology and the idea of a single Yugoslav nation. He changed the name of the country to "Kingdom of Yugoslavia".

His intention was to halt separatist ideas – ideas which would be a threat to the unity of the country – and maintain a centralised and unified Yugoslavia. He abolished historic regions which had links to specific ethnic groups, instead replacing them with new internal provinces, which were drawn up on non-ethnic lines, usually named after rivers. These were known as ‘banates’ (or banovinas). Politicians were kept under close surveillance – and sometimes imprisoned. Communism was banned as well as flags of the various Yugoslav ethnic groups. However, the effect was to further alienate the non-Serbian parts of the population and make them less amenable to the idea of national unity.  In 1931, King Alexander relinquished his dictatorship. 

A dapper looking King Alexander I.

The war encroaches

By the 1934, King Alexander was dead – killed by an assassin – and succeeded by his eleven-year-old son, Peter II with his cousin Prince Paul, as regent. By this point in time, nationalist dictatorships such as Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were increasingly flexing their muscles and increasing their power and influence across Europe, and pressuring Yugoslavia, with Prince Paul signing the Tripartite Pact in Vienna on 25 March 1941, in an attempt to keep Yugoslavia out of the Second World War.

Such a move was unpopular at home though and Paul was soon removed and exiled, with the now seventeen-year-old Peter becoming the ruling monarch.

Shortly afterwards, Hitler decided to attack Yugoslavia…