On this day in 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (official name: Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) joins the Axis Powers by signing the Tripartite Pact.
Those of you who have read ahead, knows that not only will Yugoslavia leave the Axis, but they will also be invaded by Germany, so what gives? Let’s try to untangle this.
In 1939, Prince Regent Paul had deposed the Prime Minister, Milan Stojadinović, and replaced him with Dragiša Cvetković, a relatively unknown Serb who had served as minister of health. Prince Paul gave Cvetković mandate to reach an accord with the Croatians in Yugoslavia. The new Prime Minister immediately began talks with Vladko Maček, the leader of HSS (the Croatian Peasant Party).
The goal was to federalize Yugoslavia after over 20 years of being a centralized, Serbian kingdom. The negotiations dragged on for months, and Paul kept pushing both sides to keep at it. Yugoslavia suddenly found itself in a horrible position, geopolitically speaking.
After spending 20 years being surrounded by weak, unstable, small nations, they now shared a border with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (Germany with the annexation of Austria and Italy with the annexation of Albania), and two of their four remaining neighbors also hatched revanschist schemes against Belgrade (Hungary and Bulgaria).
The Croatians had been unhappy with their situation ever since the creation of Yugoslavia, and the displeasure and nationalism grew. Open revolt seemed to loom just around the corner, and a revolt would likely open the door for a German or Italian intervention, something Belgrade for obvious reasons did not look forward to.
During the Summer of 1939, internal and external threats more or less forced Serbs and Croatians to sit down and talk. Vladko Maček was deeply concerned with the increasing support for the Ustaša in Croatia, and Prince Paul was equally concerned with Yugoslavia’s neighbors. On 20 August, two weeks before the German invasion of Poland, an accord was reached, determining the relationship between Zagreb and Belgrade.
This agreement, “sporazum”, created a separate “Banoniva Hrvatska” (Banate of Croatia), which constituted around 1/3 of Yugoslavia and it enjoyed large degrees of autonomy within the kingdom. A coalition government was formed, lead by Dragiša Cvetković; Maček became vice prime minister and four more members of HSS were granted posts in the government. After a decade of routinely boycotting governmental procedures, the Croatians were back in the parliament.
The new Croatian banoniva received a stadtholder, a “ban”, who was answerable only to Prince Paul; the old Croatian parliament (“Sabor”) was reestablished as a national assembly. At the same time, many of the political institutions that had been present during the Austro-Hungarian rule of Croatia, was brought back to life, but the Croatians now had even more autonomy than under the Habsburgs. The new ban, Ivan Šubašić, began his time in office by abolishing cencorship of the press.
Croatia after the implementation of sporazum was larger than it had been under the Habsburgs. With the large Croatian population living in Herzegovina, that territory was taken from Bosnia and awarded to Croatia. Croatian nationalists further demanded that all of Bosnia would be given to Croatia, and return to the borders Croatia enjoyed during the 11th century. The new Croatia with 4.4 million inhabitans (75% of whom were Croatians), included 164 000 Muslims and 866 000 Serbs. For politicians who advocated Greater Serbia, the sporazum was an absolute disaster. For the other ethnic groups of Yugoslavia, it was a tragedy. Sporazum only concerned Croatia and Serbia, the other groups were left out in the cold.
But only two weeks after the sporazum, the Second World War broke out. The internal difficulties of Yugoslavia had been addressed too late.
In 1940, Fascist Italy grew more and more aggressive. Mussolini’s Foreign Minister, count Galeazzo Ciano attempted to make Vlatko Maček to cut ties with Serbia and under Italian “protection”, an independent Croatia (except Dalmatia, who the benevolent Italians would administer) would be created. Maček declined, and under orders from Hitler, a furious Mussolini was forced to scrap his plans to invade both Yugoslavia and Greece in March 1940.
Yugoslavian leaders were very much aware of what a race against time they had before them, and likewise knew it would take extremely delicate and skillful diplomacy. Prince Paul tried to avoid formally binding Yugoslavia to Nazi Germany. The constant threat of an Italian invasion made him seek closer ties with France and Great Britain. When the French army collapsed in May, a shocked government in Belgrade even began initiating diplomatic talks with the Soviet Union, which the anti-communistic Yugoslavia had thus far refused.
On 28 October 1940 Mussolini decided to ignore his German ally; Italy attacked Greece. Meanwhile, the performance of Italian troops in North Africa was abysmal, a military disaster, and Germany had already sent troops there to prop up their Fascist ally. Once they had arrived, German commanders said they wanted provisions and war material to reach them via the shortest route, i.e. through the Balkans. Newly appointed Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, countered this by sending several divisions to Greece.
Unfortunately, this placed Yugoslavia in a hopeless situation, caught between a rock and a hard place. Belgrade HAD to pick a side now, German pressure was immense. Bulgaria had already declared war on Great Britain, and allowed German supply depots to be sent through Bulgaria, along with German troops.
The Yugoslavian government and Prince Paul tried for as long as they could to not have to join the Axis Powers, who now consisted of Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Chief of the General Staff of the Royal Yugoslav Army, Milan Nedić, had shown pro-German sympathies as early as the Stojadinović government. In November 1940 he suggested that Yugoslavia should join the Axis, which caused Prince Paul to fire him.
That the bell would toll for Yugoslavia soon was clear to everyone. When 350 000 German troops arrived in Bulgaria in March 1941, Yugoslavia felt they had no other option than to negotiate with Germany. Prince Paul initially refused to openly sign a pact with Germany. The Yugoslavian ambassador to Germany (the future Nobel literature prize winner), Ivo Andrić, was told to stall for time as long as he could. But German pressure was too much, and on March 25, Yugoslavia officially signed a pact with Germany and Italy. The pact was signed even though Prince Paul and the government knew that most Serbs immensely despised Germany, remembering all too well the First World War. The signing of the pact was a political death sentence for Prince Paul and the government.
A mere two days later, on 27 March, a bloodless coup ousted the Prince Regent and the Cvetković government. The protesters made young Peter their King (as Paul had been Prince Regent until Peter would come of age). And this coup is what finally lead to the destruction of the first Yugoslavia (the Kingdom).
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