The Origins of a Fascist Reputation: Milan Stojadinović, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia (1935-1939)

Dragan Bakić,
Institute for Balkan Studies SASA

The Origins of a Fascist Reputation: Milan Stojadinović, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia (1935-1939)

Milan Stojadinović, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia (24 June 1935 ‒ 4 February 1939), established cordial relations with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, which earned him the reputation of a fascist-in-the-making. That was a common place in the historiography of communist Yugoslavia, which held him solely responsible for the shift from supporting Western democracies to collaborating with the Axis Powers.[1] An American historian of Slovene origin has portrayed him as an ambitious politician who resorted to fascist methods to establish his dictatorship.[2] On the other hand, the Yugoslav prime minister has been described as a ‘political opportunist’ who gambled on Nazi Germany’s market for economic benefit.[3] A more recent assessment has also come to the conclusion that there is no ground to consider Stojadinović a fascist dictator.[4] 

After the assassination of King Alexander Karađorđević in October 1934, the Prince Regent, Paul (1934-1941), and his Prime Minister undertook the difficult task to calm internal tensions in the country, arising from Croatian separatism, and to provide security against the revisionist neighbours. In the international environment increasingly dominated by the Axis Powers, in which friendship with France and the regional alliances such as the Little and Balkan Ententes could not vouch for Yugoslavia’s security, Stojadinović concluded a friendship treaty with Italy on 25 March 1937. The Italian Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano, had much personal sympathy for Stojadinović and believed he was a fascist at heart.[5] For Italy, the agreement was reassurance against the menace that Germany might become after the inevitable Anschluss. Yugoslavia was spared from the main external danger and cut the ground from external support for the Croatian Peasant Party led by Vladimir Maček, let alone for the pro-fascist terrorist Ustaša organisation, which had found refuge in Italy and been responsible for the murder of the late king. Nevertheless, Stojadinović fostered close relations with Germany to protect his country against another change of Italian policy.[6] Importantly, he did not assume any commitments to the totalitarian powers and maintained equidistance between two ideological blocs in Europe, democratic France and Britain, on the one hand, and the Axis, on the other. In parallel, he balanced between Italy and Germany, which served to offset the pressure from both powers. Clearly, his conduct of foreign affairs was dictated by realpolitik considerations and was exceedingly successful.      

The origins of Stojadinović’s reputation as a fascist-in-the making lay, in fact, in the propaganda of his political adversaries. Stojadinović was labelled a fascist by the illegal Communist Party, but their voice was not influential, apart from stemming from their crude stigmatisation of the Yugoslav monarchy as a ‘monarchical-fascist dictatorship’. The communist view became important only after the war, when it was translated into the official historiography. Of the Serbian democratic opposition, Dragoljub Jovanović, the leader of the left-wing Agrarians, was the first to mount an attack on Stojadinović as early as February 1937, i.e. before the conclusion of the Italian treaty. He pointed out the emergence of the democratic and fascist front in Europe and asserted that whoever claimed to be neutral was ‘in fact on the side of fascism’.[7] This was not surprising in view of his favouring a ‘Russo-Franco-English orientation, for democracy, for the Slavdom’, with little regard for the realities. It was, however, the concerted campaign of the United Opposition, a coalition of Democrats, Agrarians and a faction of Radicals, that inflicted the most damage to the image of Stojadinović’s Yugoslav Radical Union (JRZ). It should be noted that their campaign was especially pronounced from October 1937 onwards. By that time, the Serbian opposition parties had centred their criticism on the Italian rapprochement and the shift in Yugoslav foreign policy, appealing to the emotional sympathy of the people for their allies from 1914-1918. ‘Mr. Stojadinović’s government has accepted the initiative from Rome and Berlin, the sole purpose of which is to detach Yugoslavia from her earlier foreign policy system’, and started to operate ‘outside the framework of the League of Nations, the policy of France and England, which base the maintenance of peace on the collective security’, read a declaration signed by the leaders of Radicals, Democrats and Agrarians.[8] It was a mark of their determination to score political points on account of Stojadinović’s unpopular foreign policy that they used the occasion of the visit of the French foreign minister, Yvon Delbos, to Belgrade in December 1937 to stir dissatisfaction among the people.[9]

In addition, the United Opposition accused the government of organising their own ‘storm detachments’ and threatened that terror would be met with force.[10] The opposition leaders even addressed the Regency with the warning that JRZ was ‘making combat organisations of their members, dressing them in uniforms, and intend, as the reports we have received suggest, to arm them as well, and to start a fight with such organised, uniformed and armed detachments.’[11] They referred to the youth organisation of JRZ, which was about to hold a large congress in Belgrade. The appropriate uniforms were mandatory, in fact, for those who followed Stojadinović during his journeys across the country, were present at the official reception of the visiting statesmen and secured party rallies during the 1938 elections. Overall, their number was modest. It should also be noted that, on the European scale, uniform-wearing was a widespread craze and by no means confined to fascist or far-right groups.[12] Although sufficient to draw fire from the political opponents, the practice of uniform-dressing seems to have reflected the fact that the JRZ youth was nowhere near in size compared to the mass movements of Italy and Germany. In fact, it was not organised on a larger scale, or more militarised, than other party formations in Yugoslavia such as Maček’s Croatian Peasant Defence (Hrvatska seljačka zaštita) and Croatian Civil Defence (Hrvatska građanska zaštita), or fanti under the leader of the Slovene People’s Party, Anton Korošec. 

But there was another important development that informed the campaign against the JRZ government. The three Serbian opposition parties concluded an agreement with Maček on 8 October 1937 in the village of Farkašić, demanding restoration of full political liberties, revision of the 1931 constitution and rearrangement of Yugoslavia’s internal structure on the basis of a consensus between the majority of Serbs, majority of Croats and majority of Slovenes.[13] This development allowed the Serbian United Opposition to pose as a champion of democracy and to raise the prospect of solving the Croatian question by democratic means. The Serbian opposition was now able to offer a coherent political strategy and to attack the JRZ regime on grounds of both foreign and domestic policy. The accusations of distancing from France, Britain and the Little Entente were now coupled with incrimination for the growing fascistisation at home, the most visible sign of which was the emergence of the uniformed JRZ formations allegedly prepared to use violence against their political opponents.[14] The Serbian opposition thus wielded a powerful slogan among the democratically-minded, anti-German, and much less anti-Italian, Serbian population: for peace and democracy, against totalitarian aggressiveness and fascism in Yugoslavia associated with Stojadinović and his party.      

The fascist trappings of the Stojadinović regime manifested themselves in a much more conspicuous manner during the campaign for the 11 December 1938 elections. Stojadinović had no qualms about admitting to Prince Paul that the staging of the first major rally in Belgrade had been ‘entirely à la Hitler’.[15] He must have believed that the Anglophile Regent would regard such a staging as a matter of pragmatic expedience rather than political conviction. In Petrovgrad, the fascist flair was even more pronounced because the rally was held out in the open, with the Yugoslav premier arriving in a car surrounded by motorcyclists. His chief propagandist, Milan Jovanović-Stoimirović, has recorded with displeasure that it was there that ‘the fascist organisation of Stojadinović’s guard emerged at once, suddenly and loudly. The uniformed members of the party yelled ‘Leader, Leader! … All in all, the people did not like it. They voiced disapproval, and serious, dignified at that’.[16] But the same staging was repeated in Novi Sad on 13 November on an even larger scale. According to the German minister in Yugoslavia, Viktor von Heeren, that rally was a grand expression of the authoritarian character with which Stojadinović had imbued his party.[17] It was hardly a coincidence, however, that the fascist iconography was most conspicuous at the two rallies held in the northern part of Serbia (Petrovgrad and Novi Sad) populated by a considerable German (and Hungarian) minority. Stojadinović killed two birds with one stone: he demonstrated his inclination to fascist methods before Berlin and Rome, and secured the votes of the local Germans. But Stojadinović did not organise a large rally in a single town in Šumadija, Serbia’s heartland, since he knew that the aping of fascist methods there would not be well received among the Serbian peasants. He clearly manipulated the use of fascist technique to achieve a foreign policy goal which also benefited him domestically during the elections.

Stojadinović won the elections, but his flirtation with fascist iconography undermined the confidence Prince Paul placed in him. A later inquiry revealed that the Novi Sad rally had alarmed the Regent. Prince Paul complained to the chief of the Belgrade police, Milan Aćimović, about the crowd hailing Stojadinović as the Leader. ‘What am I then?’, he said.[18] This is consistent with the Regent’s later utterance to his close friend, the art historian Milan Kašanin, to the effect that he removed Stojadinović because of his ambition to become ‘a second Duce’.[19] Prince Paul engineered a cabinet crisis, and Stojadinović resigned less than two months after the elections. 

Stojadinović opposed the new cabinet formed by Dragiša Cvetković on account of his concessions to the Croats. On that platform he founded the Serbian Radical Party, which was liberal-democratic in its outlook. With this in view, it is interesting to note that a fascist label stuck to Stojadinović even during this later period. This in part resulted from the continued tarnishing of his reputation on the part of Cvetković: to justify his own policy and discredit Stojadinović, the new prime minister presented him as having slid into fascism during his premiership.[20] Prince Paul and Cvetković were both afraid that Berlin and Rome could press for Stojadinović’s return to power on the grounds of their confidence in his friendly attitude towards the Axis. For that reason, and to keep him quiet about the Croatian issue, they interned him in April 1940. Concern about Stojadinović culminated in the run-up to Yugoslavia’s accession to the Tripartite Pact. On 18 March 1941, Prince Paul handed him over to the British in breach of the Yugoslav constitution. Since Churchill was anxious to draw Yugoslavia into the war, he saw Stojadinović as ‘a potential Quisling’ and extended his full assistance to have him transported to Mauritius, where he remained until 1948 under the watchful eye of the British colonial administration.[21] It was a bitter irony that after the coup d’état of 27 March, which refuted Yugoslavia’s signature of the Tripartite Pact two days earlier, the putschists handed Prince Paul to the British ‒ he was interned in Kenya and long disparaged for having made an arrangement with Germany. This shows the absurdity of taking the not disinterested official British assessments of either Stojadinović or Prince Paul for granted. 

            In conclusion, Stojadinović’s fascist reputation was partly the product of a relentless smear campaign by his political opponents (of different shade and at different times) and the British, and partly resulted from the real fascist trappings of the later period of his premiership. As far as the latter was concerned, some of it was a mark of the fascist era, a transmission of the fascist style as part of borrowing from a model that seemed attractive because of its apparent success. But there was also a strong element of Stojadinović’s political tactics, as he never failed to impress on Ciano that he modelled his JRZ on the Fascist Party. The sight of some 300 uniformed party members saluting the Italian foreign minister at the train station in January 1939 was not wasted on Ciano as evidence of fascistisation, especially as he did not notice that the same 300 men greeted him again in the JRZ office and on several other occasions during his visit.[22] This encapsulated the essence of Stojadinović’s playing with fascist motifs: it lacked true conviction, but was rather geared towards producing the effect and conveying the political message he believed to have been opportune. It was all mostly window-dressing, effectively employed to bolster relations with Rome and Berlin. It should also be noted that the Stojadinović government was no doubt the most liberal one between 1929 (when King Alexander proclaimed his dictatorship) and the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1941. Far from imposing corporatism, violence against political opponents and ideological indoctrination, he held elections, which he won with less than 60 per cent of the vote. It was only after his fall from power that the parliament was suspended and internment camps for communists and anti-Semitic legislation were introduced. 

[1] For example, F. Čulinović, Jugoslavija između dva rata, vols. 2 (Zagreb 1961), II, pp. 113-118; D. Lukač, Treći Rajh i zemlje jugoistočne Evrope, 2 vols (Beograd: Vojnoizdavački zavod, 1982), II, pp. 133-134; V. Terzić, Slom Kraljevine Jugoslavije 1941: uzroci i posledice poraza, 2 vols (Beograd: Narodna knjiga, 1984), I, p. 224; B. Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije 1918-1988, vol. 3 (Beograd: Nolit, 1988), I, Kraljevina Jugoslavija 1914-1941, pp. 285-286. An important exception is D. Biber, ‘O padu Stojadinovićeve vlade’, Istorija 20. veka: zbornik radova, VII (1966), 5-71. 

[2] J. Hoptner, Jugoslavija u krizi 1934-1941 (Rijeka: Otokar Keršovani, 1972), pp. 121, 144-145 (Serbo-Croat edition of Yugoslavia in Crisis, 1934-1941, New York, Columbia University Press, 1962).

[3] J. Lampe, Yugoslavia as History: Twice There was a Country, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 183-185.

[4] D. Djokić, ‘“Leader” or “Devil”? Milan Stojadinović, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia (1935-39) and his Ideology’, in In the shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe, eds R. Haynes, M. Rady, Tauris (London: Academic Studies 2011), pp. 153-168.  

[5] Ciano’s Diplomatic Papers, ed. by Malcolm Muggeridge, translated by Stuart Hood (London: Odhams Press, 1948), pp. 98-105. Italian historiography has thus tended to perceive Stojadinović through the lenses of Ciano’s assessment of Stojadinović’s fascist affinities. For example, see L. Monzali, Il sogno dell’egemonia. L’Italia, la questione Jugoslava e l’Europa Centrale (1918–1941) (Firenze, Le Leterre, 2010), p. 69; G. B. Guerri, Galeazzo Ciano. Una vita (1903-1944) (Milano: La Nave di Teseo, 2019), p. 319 (epub ed.).  

[6] D. Bakić, ‘Milan Stojadinović, the Croat Question and the International Position of Yugoslavia’, Acta Histriae, v. 26, n. 1 (2018), 207-228.

[7] Archives of Yugoslavia (AJ), Belgrade, Milan Stojadinović Papers, 37-22-156, ‘Spoljna politika Stojadinovićeve vlade’, 6-2-1937.  

[8] AJ, Stojadinović Papers, 37-10-60, Declaration signed by Aca Stanojević, Ljubomir Davidović and Jovan Jovanović, 2-4-1937. 

[9] AJ, Stojadinović Papers, 37-10-60, Leaflet titled ‘Delbos u Beogradu’ with the statement of the United Opposition leaders dated 11-12-1937 and the press clips describing the clash between pro-French demonstrators and the police in Belgrade.  

[10] AJ, Stojadinović Papers, 37-10-60, Anonymous leaflet, 10-10-1937; also ‘Obaveštenje građanima Beograda’ signed by ‘Akcioni odbor građana’, October 1937.    

[11] AJ, Stojadinović Papers, 37-10-60, Jovan Jovanović, Ljubomir Davidović and Miloš Trifunović to Radenko Stanković, 20-10-1937.   

[12] J. F. Fuentes, ‘Shirt Movements in Interwar Europe: a Totalitarian Fashion’, História, n. 72 (2018), 151-173.

[13] T. Stojkov, ‘O stvaranju Bloka narodnog sporazuma’, Istorija XX veka: zbornik radova, VI (1964), 245-301.

[14] M. Radojević, Udružena opozicija 1935-1939 (Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 1994), pp. 138-139.

[15] AJ, Prince Paul Papers, reel 4, Stojadinović to Prince Paul, 16-10-1938, scans 568-573.

[16] M. Jovanović-Stoimirović, Dnevnik 1936-1941 (Novi Sad: Matica srpska, 2000), p. 216.

[17] D. Biber, ‘O padu Stojadinovićeve vlade’, p. 42. 

[18] M. Jovanović-Stoimirović, Dnevnik, p. 377.

[19] K. Dimitrijević, Vreme zabrana (Beograd: Prometej 1991), p. 288. 

[20] АЈ, Stojadinović Papers, 37-12-79, Unsigned record of the 9 July 1939 meeting of the JRZ Main Committee; M. Jovanović-Stoimirović, Dnevnik, p. 294. 

[21] D. Biber, ‘Britanske ocjene Stojadinovića i njegove politike’, in Fašizam i neofašizam (Zagreb: Fakultet političkih nauka, 1975), pp. 265-277.    

[22] D. Gregorić, Samoubistvo Jugoslavije: poslednji čin jugoslovenske tragedije (Beograd: Jugoistok, 1942), p. 53.