History of Croatia – World War I and the birth of Yugoslavia

Units of the Serbian Army enter Ban Jelačić Square in Zagreb, 1918 - from Josip Horvat's book "Politička povijest Hrvatske" (1989)
Units of the Serbian Army enter Ban Jelačić Square in Zagreb, 1918 – from Josip Horvat’s book “Politička povijest Hrvatske” (1989)

In 1908, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire officially annexed in its realm Bosnia-Herzegovina, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Although generally Slavic, this region had an ethnically and religiously-mixed population. For example, there were Catholics of Croat descent, Serbian Orthodox Christian and Bosnian and Albanian Muslims of Slavic and Turkish origin.

Historically, the Serbs had seen Bosnia-Herzegovina as their own. In their eyes, it was the Ottomans who had invaded and taken over their rightful domain. Though there were stril many Serbs spread out throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, there were also now Croats and more significantly, a large Muslim population inhabiting the area as well.

During what became known as the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, the little that remained of the Ottoman Empire in Europe was largely defeated and later carved up by a combined force of Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and Montenegrins (these groups along with the Romanians later on fought amongst themselves for the spoils of war). These wars give the Serbians a newfound sense of confidence and greatly alarmed Austria-Hungary. Tensions came to a breaking point on June 28, 1914 when the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef’s nephew and heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. It turns out that Gavrilo Princip had been assisted with this act by the Chief of Military Intelligence of Serbia, or at least that’s what is believed.

Painting depicting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Painting depicting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

In retaliation, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia exactly a month later on July 28.

Due to the complex network of alliances, the Germans came to the aid of their fellow German-speaking Austrians which of course created a counter-alliance made up of Russia (like the Serbs fellow Slavs and Orthodox Christians) as well as Great Britain and France. World War I had begun.

World War I alliances
World War I alliances

Initially, the Croats supported and fought alongside Austria-Hungary. However, it soon became apparent that there was a possibility that the Austrian-Hungarian Empire might not even survive the Great War. Should this have occurred (and indeed it did happen), many Croatian politicians thought that the time had arrived to lay the groundwork for their own independent state.

The only problem though was that an independent Croatia by itself would be weak and in a rough neighborhood surrounded by Hungarian, Italian and Serbian powers. The solution then would be to unify with other Slavic peoples into a unified state, an idea that became known as “Yugoslavia,” meaning South Slav. Such state made up of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes would be powerful enough to defend itself against its neighbors. The last thing that the Croatians wanted was the Italians to again occupy the Dalmatian coast.

Thus in 1915, Frano Supilo and Ante Trumbić, two Croatian politicians from Dalmatia, joined with others to create the Yugoslav Committee with the hope of unifying with the Serbs and also gaining international recognition for their future state. The Serbs at first were hesitant to join such a union but eventually in July of 1917, along with the Slovenes and Croatians, signed the Corfu Declaration. This agreement stated that a future Yugoslavia, should it be established, would be a constitutional monarchy in which the Serbs, Croats and the Slovenes would all have equal rights but that would be headed by the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty. Independence at the end of World War I came swiftly and in October of 1918, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes formed the National Council in Zagreb and declared their independence from what was left of the Austrian-Hungarian empire once and for all. There was no resistance to Slavic independence because on November 3, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself ceased to exist.

Old postcard photo of the town of Corfu
Old postcard photo of the town of Corfu

Where the Austrians and Hungarians had gotten out, the Italians tried to get in. Shortly after the end of the war, Italian troops invaded Dalmatia. Though technically governed by the National Council, in reality the area was lawless. The National Council had no reliable method of collecting taxes and more importantly, no standing army. In an attempt to restore order and also drive away the Italians, the National Council, on the basis of the Corfu Declaration, declared union with Serbia, with the Serbian Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević being declared the new ruler of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The areas of Montenegro and Macedonia were also incorporated into the new state, the later which had been captured by Serbia during the Balkan Wars.

Thus, the country (formerly) known as Yugoslavia was created. The official name however was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes
Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes

Many Croatians had hoped that such a state would allow them a level of autonomy not known during Austro-Hungarian rule. The leading Serbian politicians however would not play into this. Two Serbs in particular, Nikola Pašić and Svetozar Pribićević, favored a unitary state because large numbers of Serbs were spread out throughout the Kingdom, specifically in Bosnia and Croatia. A more centralized state would thus protect these minority Serbs in predominantly Bosnian and Croatian areas. The Croats however felt that this would threaten their interests since they were a minority in a what was rapidly becoming a Serbian majority-controlled state.

Around this time however the Croatian Republican Peasant Party, or HRSS, was growing in power. The HRSS was a movement supported by Croatian farmers that also distrusted the central Serbian government in Belgrade. In elections that took place in November of 1920, the HRSS obtained 50 of 93 Croatian seats in the Kingdom’s Constituent Assembly. Their leader, Stjepan Radić, believed that this gave him the authority to declare Croatia an independent republic. Instead of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Radić wanted to create a Balkan federation representing the peasants and farmers of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria. This of course was not in the interest of Belgrade and they arrested Radić and sent in troops into HRSS strongholds to prevent any large-scale civil disobedience from breaking out. Despite this, the HRSS grew in stature and became the main opposition party dedicated to defending Croatian interests.

Stjepan Radić
Stjepan Radić

Though popular with Croatian nationalists, the HRSS was unable to obtain any concessions from the central government in Belgrade. Tensions between Croats and Serbs only deepened when on June 28, 1921, the Vidovdan Constitution was passed. The Vidovdan Constitution was the first constitution for the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The date was especially symbolic because it marked Vidovan, or St. Vitus day, a particularly important Serbian holiday. Though it was a constitution written for the whole nation, in the eyes of most Croats, it only further strengthened the Serbian-dominated central government in Belgrade. 1

The HRSS boycotted the vote and resounded to drum up support for an independent Croatian state. However, the powers that were ascendent in the world at that time, namely Great Britain, France and the United States (the Allies and victors of World War I) preferred a strong and unified Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. They offered little if any support for Croatian independence.

In a change of tactics, Radić changed from demanding Croatian independence to greater autonomy within the Kingdom. He later joined his one time rival Svetozar Pribićević and formed a new opposition group known as the Peasant–Democratic Coalition. This Radić–Pribićević teaming up however was too much for the government in Belgrade to bear and Radić was eventually shot on June 20, 1928 and died a couple of months later. A hero to the Croatian people, Radić’s body was laid to rest in Zagreb. His funeral was apparently attended by at least 100,000 people.

After Radić’s death things only began to get worse. In order to prevent a full-scale ethnic conflict, King Aleksandar dissolved the parliament and proclaimed the Sixth of January Dictatorship and changed the name of the country to Yugoslavia, a name that was meant to foster south Slav unity.

So ended 1929. The 1930s would bring even more upheaval to Croatia.

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


Go to the main page

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.