The History Of Yugoslavia And Why It Split Up

The Yugoslavian Civil War lasted from 1991-1999. Image credit: Image credit:
  • The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established in 1918, laying the foundations for the first kingdom of Yugoslavia.
  • Tito was declared president for life of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963.
  • Slovenia and Croatia succeeded from Yugoslavia in 1991, leading years of civil war and the ultimate breakup of Yugoslavia.

The foundations of the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia were laid with the union of the kingdoms of Serbia, Montenegro, and the South Slavic area consisting of the former Austro-Hungarian territories of Slovenia, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Vojvodina, and Croatia-Slavonia. On December 1, 1918, the establishment of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formerly declared. This union came on the heels of an uneasy decade in the Balkans in the wake of the collapse of Ottoman rule in 1912-13 and the defeat of Austria Hungary in the First World War.

Union of Various Groups

The union brought together various groups of peoples, each with its own idea of what government should look like. The kingdom was divided into provinces along the boundaries of the formerly independent kingdoms, and traditional rivalries between the different groups persisted. Monarchist and nationalist sentiments both ran strong. Several years of struggle over the structure of the state, in a disunited Kingdom resulted in the establishment of a centralized state under a unitary constitutional monarchy in 1922. In order to facilitate the centralization of power the kingdom was reorganized, divided into 33 administrative oblasts, or counties, which ignored traditional boundaries. Constitutionally, power was shared between the monarchy and the Skupština, or assembly, but ultimately the balance of power lay in the hands of the King.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia

This system of government was relatively short-lived. Traditional rivalries and political divisions manifested in the form of a number of quarreling political parties. In 1929, King Alexander I took control of a disunited state, shutting down the assembly, declaring a royal dictatorship, and renaming the kingdom Yugoslavia. With the goal of a centralized and unified state, Alexander also redefined the kingdom’s internal boundaries, replacing traditional regions with nine banates, or provinces.

Alexander’s attempts at unification only further aggravated the alienation felt by non-Serbs in the kingdom, and tensions continued throughout his reign. Alexander was assassinated during a state visit to France in 1934, and with the crown passing to his eleven-year-old son Peter, a regency council took the reins. Years of continuing conflict over the structure of the state finally found a potential resolution in 1939 with the formation of the autonomous province Banovina of Croatia. The province was to have a degree of self-government while remaining a part of Yugoslavia. Plans for the new province were halted by the Second World War and the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, beginning in April 1941, which effectively broke up the country.

A Socialist Yugoslavia

Following the liberation of the country in 1944-45 King Peter II, son of Alexander, was deposed, and Yugoslavia was recast as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Developed in a model of Soviet Russia, the federation consisted of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Serbia was further divided into the two autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. In 1948, Yugoslavia broke from the Soviets, becoming an independent communist state. Under the new structure, power was centralized in the hands of Tito’s Communist Party of Yugoslavia, distributed across three levels of government, the communes, the republics, and the federation.

On April 7, 1963, Tito was declared president for life of the newly renamed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Under his government, ethnic tensions persisted. The Croatian Spring movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s called for greater autonomy and self-governance for Croatia. In 1974 the creation of two new autonomous provinces of Kosovo, and Vojvodina further aggravated tensions.


The creation of Serbia and Montenegro marked the end of Yugoslavia. Photo by Sherise . on Unsplash

Growing ethnic tensions, the redistribution of power from the centralized control of the federal government to the autonomous provinces following the death of Tito, the economic crisis of the 1970s, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe ultimately combined to contribute to the collapse of Socialist Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia succeeded from the federation on June 25, 1991, followed closely by Macedonia on December 19. These successions began the Yugoslavian Civil War, which lasted from 1991-1999 as provinces fought for their independence.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro joined together in a new federal republic under Slobodan Milošević, the “third Yugoslavia.” Despite deteriorating relations between the states and a growing push for Montenegrin independence in 2002, the federation persisted. In 2003, a new agreement was reached allotting greater autonomy to each state and renaming the country Serbia and Montenegro, marking the end of Yugoslavia.


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