CROATIA: MYTH AND REALITY
C. Michael McAdams

CROATIA AND THE CROATIANS

Croatia emerged as a unified nation state in 925 A.D. and, through a personal union under a single king, joined what would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the twelfth century. Throughout the history of the Empire, Croatia maintained varying degrees of autonomy with its own Ban or Viceroy and Sabor or Parliament, which first met in 679 A.D. Following World War I, Croatia was absorbed into the new artificial state that would become Yugoslavia. From 1918-1941, the first Yugoslavia was little more than an extension of Serbia with a Serbian king, ruling from the Serbian capital of Belgrade, with Serbian laws. This marked the first time in history that the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, and Macedonians had lived together in a single state. The history of royalist Yugoslavia was marked by the brutal suppression of Croatian political, human, and civil rights.

The Croatian nation rallied around the Croatian Peasant Party and Stjepan Radic, its elderly, nearly blind, pacifist leader. Radic, along with four other Croatian leaders, was gunned down by a Serbian Deputy on the floor of Parliament in 1928. Serbian King Alexander Karageorgevic followed this blow by declaring himself absolute dictator and banning all political parties. Croatian Parliamentary Deputy Ante Pavelic then formed the Ustase ("Insurgent") Croatian Liberation Movement to gain independence by force. Alexander was assassinated in 1934 and was succeeded by his cousin Prince Regent Paul, an Oxford educated half Russian who cared little about politics or Yugoslavia.

World War II

Between 1934 and 1941 Yugoslavia moved closer to Hitler under the leadership of Milan Stojadinovic, who formed his own storm troops and adopted the title Vodja or Fuhrer. Later Premier Dragisa Cvetkovic would lead Yugoslavia into the Axis fold with Mussolini and Hitler on March 24, 1941. Almost immediately a military coup was staged by two Serbian air force generals assisted by the British secret service.

Finding instability on his southern flank unacceptable on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler ordered the immediate conquest of Yugoslavia. The Serbdominated army surrendered without a fight. The Government and Serbian royal family fled to Britain with millions in gold and established the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile which laid the entire blame for the war and defeat on the Croatians.

Pavelic's Ustase immediately took control of Croatia including Bosnia and Hercegovina. The new Croatian state was divided into German and Italian occupation zones while Italy annexed large parts of Dalmatian Croatia outright. Italy declared Croatia to be an Italian Kingdom and even named a king who never set foot in his erstwhile domain. The Croatian State, known by its Croatian initials NDH, never fully gained control of the country but mounted a fierce resistance against the Serbian Royalist Cetnik and Communist-led Partizans operating in Croatia and Bosnia. The Croatian state also sent air, naval, and infantry units to fight on the Russian Front. Most of the infantry perished at Stalingrad. Serbia became a Nazi puppet state under General Milan Nedic who intensified the persecution of Jews, Gypsies, and Croatians that had begun under the royalist regime before the War.

On June 22, 1941, now a national holiday in Croatia, a unit of forty Croatian Partizans launched an attack on occupation forces near the Croatian city of Sisak. This marked the beginning of the first, largest, and only successful war of liberation against the Nazis. The Partizans, led by a Croatian, Josip Broz Tito, were disproportionatly Croatian in number. By 1943 over 300,000 Partizans had liberated large sections of Croatia and Bosnia establishing a state that was recognized by the Allies as the legal government the following year.

While the Partizans consisted of fighters of every nationality, only two divisions were Serbian, one was Montenegrian, seven were Bosnian and eleven were Croatian. Much of the leadership of the Partizans was communist and the outlawed Communist Party contributed the organizational structure needed to emerge victorious. However, ninty-five per cent of the Partizans were noncommunist peasants and workers of every political stripe, especially members of the Croatian Peasant Party. Each fought for the promise of a democratic and autonomous Croatia within a new federal Yugoslavia.

Hundreds of thousands perished in the multi-faceted war among Partizan, German, Italian, Croatian, and various Serbian forces. As the war drew to a close, thousands of Cetnik went over to the Partizans en masse. Unlike the latest conflict in Croatia and Bosnia, which was often mislabeled a "civil war," World War II in Croatia was indeed a civil war with cousins fighting against cousins and even brother against brother.

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Edición electrónica de Studia Croatica, 1998