World War II had devastated both Yugoslavia and Croatia. In the war’s aftermath, the Partisans of Josip Broz Tito consolidated their rule over the Yugoslavia. Elections after the war gave a decisive victory to a communist-oriented party in Yugoslavia known as the People’s Front. On 29 November, 1945, the new National Assembly dominated by this party then declared Yugoslavia a federation of six republics, namely Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. The People’s Front eventually became the Yugoslav Communist Party.
Communism brought to Croatia the nationalization of most businesses, centralized state planning and the confiscation of private land. Similar to the Soviet Union, a series of five-year plans were created in order to rapidly industrialize the country and strengthen the economy. The election of the communists in Yugoslavia put them at odds with the Catholic Church in Croatia. When Croatia’s popular Archbishop Stepinac was offered a post in the Yugoslav communist government in return for breaking with the Vatican, he refused and was imprisoned for 16 years.
Break with Stalin
Yugoslavia seemed to be on the same path as the Soviet Union until June of 1948 when Josef Stalin denounced Tito and the Yugoslav Communist Party for what he deemed to be “ideological deviations.” 1 As the self-declared head of the Communist world, Stalin assumed that the Yugoslavs would replace Tito with someone more to his liking. However, he was greatly mistaken.
Though Stalin tried to isolate Yugoslavia, Tito’s Partisan comrades believed in and supported their leader. This emboldened stance against Stalin and the Soviet Union won Yugoslavia many fans, both domestically and amongst Western countries. Those who sided with Stalin amongst Yugoslav’s communists were rounded up and sent to prison camps on Goli otok, a previously uninhabited island that now belongs to Croatia.
Not to take his slight lightly, Stalin set up a blockade of Yugoslavia, causing further distress on a country that was already close to economic ruin. Fortunately, aid from western countries helped to alleviate such hardship, and the Yugoslav government rethought their rigid adherence to strict communist principles. In a break from the Communist model of centralized planning popular in the USSR, Tito’s government supported industrial workers’ self-management of their own enterprises. In another break from the Soviet Union and Stalinism, Tito renamed the Communist Party in Yugoslavia the Yugoslav League of Communists and granted each republic a greater bit of autonomy to run their own domestic affairs. Stalin was not thrilled but he also couldn’t do much to stop the relatively popular Tito and his comrades.
During this time, Croatia was overseen by one of Tito’s most-trusted comrades, Vladimir Bakarić. Bakarić did what he could to safeguard Croatian interests, being more tolerant of the Croatia’s Catholic heritage in a country that was predominantly Orthodox Christian and Muslim. This inadvertently also increased Croatia’s cultural and spiritual links with the West.
Many reformists within the country also called for greater integration of the various Yugoslav republics, both politically and culturally. For example in 1967, an attempt was made to unify the Serbo-Croatian language. However, this provoked huge opposition from Croatian nationalists and intellectuals who felt that it was a big step in the direction of diluting Croatia’s identity as a nation. The effort at lingua-unificaiton was thus abandoned.
The “Croatian Spring”
The early 1970s brought what many historians now refer to as the “Croatian Spring.” Around this time, leaders from the Croatian branch of the Yugoslav League of Communists increasingly became more nationalist and tried to obtain concessions from the central government in Belgrade for greater autonomy for Croatia. Such sentiment became apparent in April of 1971 when Croatian nationalists won control of the students’ union at the University of Zagreb. The local authorities did little to intervene or stop them. The students and other reformists demanded more economic liberalization and greater social reforms. Initially, Tito tolerated the movement in Croatia as a balance against increasing Serb nationalism. However by 1972, the government in Belgrade became alarmed at just how powerful the “Croatian Spring” movement was becoming and eventually clamped down on it by arresting many of its leaders and forcing its supporters within the Croatian League of Communists to resign.
Not only were reformists in Croatia silenced, but also those in other republics, most notably Serbia, as well. However, it was the Croats who suffered the most for their liberal and nationalist sentiments. Many Croats were barred from joining high positions within the government and replaced with more compliant Serbs. This only created greater Croatian resentment against the central government in Belgrade. Some Croats took extreme actions to address their grievances. One such (and extreme) example occurred in 1976 when Croatian nationalists hijacked a TWA airliner, giving the world the impression that many nationalist groups within Croatia were little more than terrorist organizations than legitimate opposition groups. The Yugoslav secret police launched a campaign to silence such critics abroad, assassinating many Croatian exiles who called for the violent overthrow of the government.
Death of Tito
On May 4, 1980, Josip Broz Tito, the most influential leader of Yugoslavia of the 20th century, died. There was no one else like him to take his place. This, among other things, eventually led to Yugoslavia crumbling apart and the bloody wars of independence that would follow barely a decade later.
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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