Just when the Croats were seeming to get more of the autonomy that they desired, World War II broke out. Initially, Yugoslavia observed a policy of neutrality but eventually the country’s leadership was persuaded in March of 1941 to ally with Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the other members of what became the Axis powers, namely Italy and Japan. However, pro-British officers in the Yugoslav Army staged a coup shortly afterward and broke with Germany. As the coup was led mostly by Serbs, most Croatians didn’t support the new regime. The Nazis then declared war on Yugoslavia, entering the Croatian territories with little resistance in April of 1941. They set up puppet governments throughout the various Yugoslav republics, with Croatia forming the Independent State of Croatia, or NDH, under the nationalist Ustaše party. The Ustaše were admirers of the fascists and set up a new government similar in structure to that of Nazis; Ante Pavelić became the head of this new government. Though the Ustaše were given parts of Bosnia to administer, the rest of Yugoslavia was carved up into German and Italian spheres of influence. The Ustaše though were weak and eventually lost favor with many Croatians after Italy was awarded parts of Dalmatia and the NDH military commanders proved to be impotent without German and Italian leadership.
So began an extremely dark period in Croatian history. The Ustaše didn’t trust the Serbs and in keeping with Hitler’s anti-slavic policy, persecuted and later and began rounding up and killing Croatian and Bosnian Serbs, much in the same way that the Nazis were murdering any Jews that they came across. There is much evidence that one in every six Croatian Serbs died between the years of 1941 and 1945. Others who perished at the hands of the Ustaše included Jews, Gypsies and any Croats who openly opposed the ruling fascist order. 1
The Ustaše did not rule unopposed and soon resistance to them strengthened. The most prominent armed opposition to them were the četniks, made up of Serbs who pledged loyalty to the former Yugoslav government that was at the time in exile. They carried out attacks upon the Croats and their collaborators. Eventually though a new group emerged known as the Partisans. They were led by a man named Josip Broz Tito. Born to a Croat mother and a Slovene father, Tito would eventually become one of the most powerful men in Yugoslav history. However for now, Tito was the rebel commander against the fascist governments that had gobbled up Yugoslavia. Tito ignored ethnic divisions and instead promoted a pan-Yugoslavism that drew the support of many Yugoslavs who were tired of the infighting between the various ethnic factions. When the fascists in Italy fell in September of 1943, Tito’s Partisans captured much of their weaponry in Yugoslavia and took over the Croatian provinces of Istria and Dalmatia. The Germans eventually defeated them there but their initial successes had gained the attention and support of the British, who recognized the Partisans as a capable fighting force and potential ally. With British support (at least moral support), the Partisans began mopping up what remained of the weakening fascists and finally on the 8th of May, 1945, entered the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
What remained of the Ustaše and their affiliates, including the Domobrani, a kind of national guard, were rounded up. Most of the them were executed and thrown into mass graves by the Partisans with the remaining marched to prison camps deep in southern Yugoslavia. Many of these people were never heard from again. It is believed that nearly 50,000 of these Croatian prisoners died in Tito’s anti-fascist/Ustaše campaign.
As for the Ustaše leader, Ante Pavelić, he escaped and lived out the rest of his days in South America and later Spain, where he died in 1959.
Tito and his Partisans had fully liberated Yugoslavia from the fascists and were now fully in control of the country. They had sacrificed a lot and were now ready to shape the state in their own image.
Part of the Series, “History of Croatia”
History of Croatia
Early History up until the Ottomans
The Ottoman advance and Austro-Hungarian rule
The Revolutions of 1848 and the Rise of Croatian Nationalism
World War I and the Creation of Yugoslavia
1930s until World War II
Croatia during War II
Croatia under Tito’s Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia: The Beginning of the End
The Homeland War and the Road to an Independent Croatia
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