Yugoslavism between a National Idea and a Tool of an Authoritarian Regime

Dušan Fundić
Institute for Balkan Studies, SASA

Yugoslavism between a National Idea and a Tool of an Authoritarian Regime

In a declaration that his cabinet submitted to the National Assembly and Senate on 3 January 1935, Bogoljub Jevtić, president of the Council of Ministers of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, emphasized the following: “Safeguarding Yugoslavia, preserving the unity of the Yugoslav nation and the integrity of the state – that is the supreme law, for each and every one of us, an unbreakable oath for our entire generation, and for posterity… The Kingdom of Yugoslavia is the territorial, political and moral bequest of many a generation; it is the sacred legacy of the Martyr King…”[1] The legacy of King Alexander I Karađorđević, assassinated in Marseille in October 1934, could be summarized (for the sake of brevity) as follows: the Constitution he had “gifted” his subjects three years before his death and the idea of integral Yugoslavism. The fundamental concept underlying the ideology of Yugoslavism was the view that the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were essentially one nation that had, owing to the whims of history, spent centuries under the yoke of foreign invaders. From the second half of the 19th century, the intentions of the supporters of South Slavic movements had been diverse, ranging from using the guise of Yugoslavism in the struggle for the particular interests of the nation to which the proponents, individual or collective, belonged, to political interests rooted in the belief that only strong and territorially large states can ensure independence and freedom, to the idealism of genuine Yugoslav nationalists.[2]

After its victory in the Great War and the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, together with the South Slavic politicians that had until recently been Habsburg subjects, went on to form a new state, which would in time secure the recognition of the Entente Powers. The first decade in the life of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (1918–1929) was marked by chronic political instability, primarily due to the tense Serbo-Croat relations. However, an agreement between Nikola Pašić and Stjepan Radić, the respective leaders of the People’s Radical Party (NRS) and the Croatian Republican Peasant Party (HRSS). Both enjoyed unequivocal support among the Serbs and Croats respectively. The agreement, in which Radić’s party renounced its republicanism (removing the word from its name) and accepted the country’s form of government after having boycotted political life for years, was an important step forward.[3] The kingdom – the widespread model of government in Europe, with a few exceptions – was an unstable constitutional and parliamentary state. Besides inter-party conflicts, another problem was the autocratic tendencies of the regent and later king Alexander, who already in December 1918 thwarted the election of Nikola Pašić as the first prime minister of the new state although the relevant political parties had given their consent for his appointment.[4]

After Pašić’s death (1926), the increasingly hostile political situation led to a violent incident in the National Assembly: Puniša Račić, a member of NRS, shot and wounded several HSS deputies, some mortally.  In August 1928, Stjepan Radić succumbed to the injuries sustained in this incident. On 6 January 1929, the king responded by introducing a personal regime that would continue the previous policy of unitarism and centralism but with one novelty in the field of national ideology. All identity differences were laid aside; laws were promulgated to ban any organizations that could spread “tribalˮ mentality. From 6 January to 3 October 1929, ending with the law on the internal organization of the country, which was now split into divisions (“banovinaˮ) named after toponyms, the idea of a three-named people (“tribeˮ) – the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – was replaced by the concept of a unitary Yugoslav nation.[5] The introduction of the king’s personal regime was part of the increasingly popular trend of authoritarianism sweeping the European continent. Political conflicts, economic difficulties, the threat of communist revolutions, etc. were used as excuses to justify these changes. The case of Yugoslavia, however, was closer to the behavior of Serbian (and other Balkan) monarchs in the second half of the 19th century, whose power the emerging political parties had tried to curtail. Alexander’s personal rule did not entail a drastic turnaround as did those in Central and Western Europe that promised “revolutions from the rightˮ or targeted racial enemies. There was “little democracyˮ in Yugoslavia after 1929 but also little fascism.[6]

Two years later (1931), Yugoslavia’s sovereign gave his country a constitution – the so-called Octroyed Constitution, which restored limited parliamentary freedom but only for universally Yugoslav organizations while the king retained decisive influence. After the elections, a political organization whose membership included selected deputies was formed – the Yugoslav National Party (JNS), which ruled in the spirit of the king’s principles.[7] The program of this party emphasized that the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were all members of one Yugoslav nation in terms of their origin, language, centennial aspirations, and shared historical fate and experience, and saw Yugoslav national unity as a natural fact. In the following years, the members of the party would tour the country in an effort to popularize the idea of Yugoslavism in a series of public gatherings and meetings followed by press releases, propaganda movies and similar means. It is important to note that, despite the proclaimed break with everything that had been a characteristic of the pre-1929 Kingdom, there was one very important aspect in which this was not true. Namely, the majority of ministers and officials were recruited from the same circle as before.

Already in the early 1930s, the members of the former political parties – ideologically diverse, ranging from Croatian nationalists who favored federalization to staunchly pro-Yugoslav liberals to democrats, who condemned centralism, unitarism and/or the lack of political freedom. The king, however, would remain committed to the principles formulated in 1929 until his death. The disappearance of his undisputed authority showed that the concept of integral Yugoslavism had very shaky foundations. In early 1935, JNS found itself faced with strong opposition against its policy rooted in the king’s legacy. The opposition responded violently to the regime’s repression, exacerbating the crisis in the country.[8] Pressured from various sides, the government of Bogoljub Jevtić proved increasingly authoritarian, and the elections of May 1935 turned into terror on both sides. Paul Karađorđević, Prince Regent and also the late king’s fraternal cousin, continued the Crown’s dominance over the government and toppled Jevtić after the latter failed to win an adequate number of votes.

Having come to power, Milan Stojadinović, the former Minister of Finance and Nikola Pašić’s protégé, founded a new political organization: the Yugoslav Radical Union (JRZ). The very structure of this party indicated a new watershed in the policy of Yugoslavism. JRZ came into being through the fusion of one faction of NRS, the Slovene People’s Party, and the Yugoslav Muslim Organization. The memberships of the last two included the majority of Slovenes and Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims, respectively. None of those parties lost any of their local distinctive features, and so JRZ is more aptly described as a coalition bloc than a compact party. Stojadinović’s intention was to politically isolate HSS and thereby compel Radić’s successor, Vladko Maček, to cooperate.[9] The program of JRZ highlighted the need to achieve unity in the state and among its people and to preserve the monarchy and the Karađorđević dynasty while “respecting the three names of our peoples.ˮ In other words, despite the – by then already commonplace – calling on the legacy of the late king, with Prince Paul’s support, Stojadinović re-espoused the idea of a three-name nation, suggesting the possibility of self-government to alleviate regional and historical differences.[10] It is certainly not insignificant that Stojadinović’s government allowed the use of the “tribalˮ flags and symbols that had been banned since 1930.

The idea of acknowledging the peculiarities of individual Yugoslav peoples was accompanied by the conviction that the creation of a unitary nation was to be left for the future. This understanding of the Yugoslav identity is commonly known as realistic Yugoslavism.[11] Members of JRZ spoke of a racially and nationally uniform nation but of three individualities formed over the course of historical evolution, which the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes should not renounce.[12] This resumed acknowledgment of the “three names of our peoplesˮ led to staunch resistance and scathing criticism among the supporters of the former regime. In an interpellation of a group of JNS senators of November 1935, Stojadinović was accused of having renounced the legacy of King Alexander; implementing a policy that was “at odds with the basic principles of healthy Yugoslav thoughtˮ; losing authority and allowing anarchy in the country; and finally “unprecedented terror against every nationally conscious person.ˮ[13] Conversely, Stojadinović accused the prominent members of Jevtić’s cabinet of being fascists, underlining that everyone but them was welcome to join JRZ.[14] The JRZ – JNS conflict aptly illustrates the shift after Stojadinović’s rise to power. The clash came to its end after the attempt on Stojadinović’s life in the parliament (March 1936). Prince Paul and his prime minister believed that the assassination attempt had been orchestrated by Petar Živković, the former president of the Council of Ministers (1929– 1932) and the pillar of Alexander’s dictatorship, who served as Minister of the Army and Navy in Stojadinović’s cabinet. Although the subsequent indictment did not mention General Živković, Stojadinović (with Prince Paul) used this incident to remove a powerful actor in Yugoslav political life and present himself as a champion of democracy, unlike the forces of the former dictatorship.[15] Dismissed from service, Živković became the president of JNS which, according to its proclamation of August 1936, still advocated “a unitary and indivisible Yugoslav kingdom, with one people in one state… a decentralized unitary state, one free, equal and nationally indivisible nation.ˮ[16]

Also, while King Alexander’s methods, which became even more pronounced in the period after his death, can be described as paternalist authoritarianism, Milan Stojadinović wanted to be seen as a modernizing leader who decisively resolved the multitude of accumulated problems.[17] In practice, Stojadinović’s government was indeed more “liberalˮ in (not) enforcing the laws promulgated under Alexander’s personal regime – in a nutshell, it was “more democratic than the last [regime] but not democratic.ˮ[18]

Post-1929 Yugoslavism can be seen not only as a national idea or nation-building project but also as a means of authoritarian rule. More specifically, the concept of Yugoslavism was in practice tied to a “powerful personˮ who used the top-down system, edicts and political machinations to try to legitimize his regime. This view of Yugoslavism is particularly noteworthy given that integral Yugoslavism did not remain the official policy for long after King Alexander’s death. Only eight months passed between his death and the ascent of JRZ; soon after Stojadinović’s fall in February 1939, the concept of realistic Yugoslavism evolved into the agreement between the Crown and HSS about the creation of the Banovina of Croatia (August 1939), which was essentially the prelude to the federalization of the country and dropping the concept of a unitary Yugoslav nation.

In order to assess the policy of Yugoslavism in the appropriate context, it is important to note that the Stojadinović government’s backtracking to the pre-1929 situation was the same path that his political opponents had chosen to follow. The united opposition (Democratic Party, NRS, Alliance of Agrarian Workers) reached an agreement with the Peasant-Democratic Coalition, which included HSS and the Independent Democratic Party (where Serbs from the territory of former Austria-Hungary made up the bulk of the membership) in the village of Farkašić (October 1937). They agreed to push for a new constitution and to accept the system of hereditary parliamentary monarchy, headed by the Karađorđević dynasty embodied in the underage King Peter II and the existing regency. For the future organization of the country, they believed, it would be necessary to ensure the restoration of political freedoms and democracy with the consent of the majority of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The agreement of the opposition forces in Yugoslavia, which can be seen as a democratic form of realistic Yugoslavism, would crumble, along with its authoritarian variant, with the agreement of August 1939.[19]

The toppling of Stojadinović’s government, in a plot organized by his associates with Prince Paul’s support, and the subsequent agreement on the formation of the Banovina of Croatia, led to increased authoritarianism in the country’s political life. The Regent’s personal decision created a new administrative division with much wider powers than the banovinas introduced in 1929 had had; HSS came to power in this new division although no elections had been called (admittedly, there was little doubt about the support this party enjoyed among the Croats). The problem was, in fact, the agreement’s lack of legitimacy because the Serbian political factors (and the representatives of the Bosnian Muslims) had been almost completely sidelined in its passing. Admittedly, there is also the question of what the non-Catholic population of the newly created banovina, comprising almost a quarter of its total population, had wanted. This “solutionˮ of the country’s organization was not seen as final, and there was talk of referendums and possible changes of internal borders. After two decades of attempts to put into practice the ideas of integral Yugoslavism seen as more than mere citizenship, the country’s political life began to veer in the direction of a multi-national state.

[1]Stenografske beleške Narodne skupštine Kraljevine Jugoslavije, knjiga I, III redovni sastanak Narodne Skupštine Kraljevine Jugoslavije držan 3. januara 1935. godine u Beogradu (Belgrade, 1935), 91.

[2] The examples of the Italian and German unification were used as models for overcoming religious, linguistic, ethnic, political and economic differences, Е. B. Vahtel, Stvaranje nacije, razaranje nacije. Književnost i kulturna politika u Jugoslaviji (Beograd: Stubovi kulture, 2001), 83-85.

[3]D. Djokić, “(Dis)integrating Yugoslavia: King Alexander and Interwar Yugoslavism“. In Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918-1992, ed. Dejan Djokić (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2003), 151.

[4]M. Radojević, Srpski narod i jugoslovenska kraljevina, tom 1 (Beograd: Srpska književna zadruga, 2019), 239-242.

[5] Until 1929, the most ardent supporters of integral Yugoslavism were the members of the right-wing Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists (ORJUNA), who shared some views with the ideology of fascism, including anti-communism, authoritarianism, anti-clericalism, expansionism (they also saw Bulgarians as part of the Yugoslav nation), the theory of national revolution, aggressive propaganda, and terrorizing political opponents. ORJUNA enjoyed the support of the regime and, until 1921, worked primarily against the communists; after the communists were banned, their targets became “tribal separatistsˮ - all parties that had regional features, including both NRS and HSS. See V. Dragosavljević, “Influences of Italian Fascism on the Ideology and Political Practice of the Organisation of Yugoslav Nationalists (ORJUNA)“. In Serbian-Italian Relations: History and Modern Times, eds. in chief Srđan Rudić, Antonello Biagini, ed. Biljana Vučetić (Belgrade: The Institute of History, Roma: Sapienza University of Rome, Research center CEMAS, 2015), 231 – 241.

[6]The representatives of this ideology were the members of Croatian and Yugoslav fascist organizations (The Ustaša – Croatian Revolutionary Movement; Yugoslav National Movement – ZBOR) but the regime was pushing them towards the political periphery, Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914 – 1945 (London: UCL, 1995), 326.

[7] The party was originally called the Yugoslav Radical Peasants’ Democracy (1931 – 1933), for more details see Lj. Dimić, Kulturna politika u Kraljevini Jugoslaviji 1918, tom 1 (Beograd: Stubovi kulture, 1996), 290–291. From 1933, the Yugoslav People’s Party (the so-called borbaši) was also active. Led by Svetislav Hodjera, the former Chief of Staff in the cabinet of Petar Živković (1929 – 1931). Hodjera’s party would practically cease to exist after the agreement about the creation of the Banovina of Croatia. See. R. Lompar, Politička karijera Svetislava Hođere. U: Studenti i nauka, Studikon 2, ed. Gordana Đigić (Niš: Filozofski fakultet, 2017), 39–49.

[8]Dimić, Kulturna politika, 331–332.

[9]T. Stojkov, Vlada Milana Stojadinovića 1935–1937 (Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 1985), 54-55.

[10]Arhiv Jugoslavije, Beograd, Fond Milana Stojadinovića, 37-1-4, Deklaracija Stojadinovića, Korošeca i Spaha.

[11]Lj. Dimić, Srbi i Jugoslavija. Prostor, društvo, politika (Beograd: Stubovi culture, 1998), 135.

[12]J. Bakić, Ideologije jugoslovenstva između srpskog i hrvatskog nacionalizma 1981-1941 (Zrenjanin: Gradska narodna biblioteka "Žarko Zrenjanin", 2004), 360.

[13]Stenografske beleške senata Kraljevine Jugoslavije, redovan saziv za 1935 i 1936. godinu, knj. 1, od I prethodnog do XIII redovnog sastanka, od 20 oktobra 1935 do 27 marta 1936 godine sa budžetskom debatom u načelu i pojedinostima (Beograd, 1936), 13–16. D. Bakić, “Prilog za biografiju: politička karijera Uroša Desnice u vremenu iskušenja (1919–1941)“, Zbornik radova sa znanstvenog skupa Desničini susreti 2014., ur. Drago Roksandić i Ivana Cvijović Javorina (Zagreb: Filozofski fakultet Sveučilišta u Zagrebu, 2015), 245.

[14] D. Tešić, Jugoslovenska radikalna zajednica u Srbiji 1935–1939. (Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 1997), 43. 

[15]B. Simić, „Atentat u Narodnoj skupštini marta 1936 – pozadina, sudski proces, posledice“, Nauka i savremeni univerzitet 9 (2020), 163–174.

[16]Proglas Jugoslovenske nacionalne stranke (Beograd: Generalni sekretarijat Jugoslovenske nacionalne stranke u Beogradu, 1936).

[17]M-Ž. Čalić, Istorija Jugoslavije u 20. veku (Beograd: Clio, 2013), 150.

[18]B. Simić, Propaganda Milana Stojadinovića (Beograd: Institut za noviju istoriju, 2007), 38–39.

[19]M. Radojević, Udružena opozicija 1935–1939 (Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 1994), 176 – 202.