The Serbian Right-Wing Parties and Intellectuals in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, 1934-1941

This project aims to provide an in-depth analysis of the main features of political ideology and activities of the Serbian right wing from the assassination of King Alexander Karadjordjević in October 1934 to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s involvement in the Second World War in April 1941. This is a period that constitutes a distinctive era in Yugoslav history, which also coincides with the European-wide rise of right-wing extremism. The project will provide a considerable contribution to the existing knowledge of the European right wing in the period concerned. The case of interwar Yugoslavia has so far been of interest to fascist studies primarily because of the Ustasha movement, which came to rule over the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War. The Serbian-dominated fascist movement, embodied in the ZBOR led by DimitrijeLjotić, which lagged far behind in comparison with the Ustasha in terms of both its strength and role in the war, has also been a subject of research. Much of it was tendentious, reflecting the attitude of its authors (some of them former members of ZBOR) or, alternatively, a product of the state-sponsored sort of historiography in communist Yugoslavia, but more balanced accounts have emerged recently. It was, however, the Yugoslav Radical Union (Jugoslovenska radikalna zajednica ‒ JRZ) that underpinned the regime of Prince Paul (1934-1941), the nature of which can best be described, in line with a number of other regimes at that time, as conservative authoritarianism. Unlike the more extreme rightists, the JRZ has not sparked much interest among historians. This is perhaps not surprising as the “old”, conservative right wing on the European scale has received much less scholarly attention than outright fascism. Given the defining features of the historical era in question, the project will of necessity focus on the distinction between different strands of right-wingers, while acknowledging the common ground of their ideological make-up and policies. This is necessary because the dominant party considered here was JRZ, which was effectively a coalition of the old, conservative political parties with a considerable following across Yugoslavia, with the exception of Croatia. JRZ has been accused of exhibiting fascist leanings, especially during the premiership of Milan Stojadinović (also the first president of the party). On the other hand, virtually nothing has been written about that party under its second and last president Dragiša Cvetković, who also succeeded Stojadinović as prime minister, although it was during the former’s mandate that the Yugoslav regime introduced anti-Semitic measures and formed internment camps for communists. After Stojadinović’s fall from power, he founded the Serbian Radical Party, which became a staunch opposition to the government, especially in respect to their agreement with the Croats, which marked the end of unitary, centralist Yugoslavia. This new and short-lived party, as it was soon suppressed by the government, was apparently firmly positioned on the conservative right wing. The most extreme ZBOR was a negligent political force in its own right, winning no more than 1 per cent of votes in the 1935 and 1938 general elections. Another subject of study is an under-researched example of far-right extremism offered by the politically irrelevant, but dynamic and flamboyant, Yugoslav People’s Party (also known as Borbaši meaning Combatants) which expounded integral Yugoslavism ‒ the notion that the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes constituted a single Yugoslav nation ‒ and aped fascist methods of political activism.

In addition, there is also a selection of prominent intellectuals whose outlook and activities coloured, to certain degree, the political climate of right-wing politics in Serbia/Yugoslavia. The project will take a sample of personalities from literature and the Serbian Orthodox Church, since study of their work and publically aired views might provide insights into the complex reality of right-wing attitudes which are more refined and distinctive than those obtained from studying the bureaucratic machinery of political parties and government agencies. Perhaps the most famous figure among these personalities is the writer Miloš Crnjanski. The project will explore the right-wing ideas in the literary work and wider social engagement of Crnjanski and certain influences on his literature, drawing on his experience in diplomatic missions in Berlin and Rome. Another three writers ‒ Dragiša Vasić, Stanislav Krakov and Vladimir Velmar-Janković ‒ will also be studied as important right-wing figures in the Serbian public, political and literary life within Yugoslavia, because of which they were, just like Crnjanski, ostracized from the history of Serbian literature by the new communist authorities after 1945. On the other hand, the project will seek to assess the allegations that two church dignitaries, Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović and Justin Popović, were sympathetic towards extreme nationalism, and even fascism. It will also focus on the emergence of different interpretations of Svetosavlje, a distinctive Serbian variant of Orthodox Christian tradition, some of which were advanced by their younger associates gathered around the student journal of the Faculty of Orthodox Theology such as Dimitrije Najdanović and Djoka Slijepčević ‒ later prominent ideologues of ZBOR ‒ and which seemed to have come close to fascist ideology. Another interesting theme concerns the connection, if there was one, between the rise of virulent right-wing nationalism and the fact that after 1935 both Velimirović and Popović were departing from Yugoslavism, which had earlier been central to their political theologies.

An essential feature of the Serbian right wing’s case is that it operated in a multinational state – with regard to the ethnic structure Yugoslavia can best be compared with the First Czechoslovak Republic, although that country never succumbed to authoritarian rule. For that reason, Yugoslavia’s experience has most similarities with countries that were both multinational and ruled on the authoritarian lines such as Poland and Romania. The project will take into account these similarities and embark on a comparative analysis. The national question in Yugoslavia, primarily the Serbo-Croat conflict, was a scourge that prevented the country from acquiring internal stability and had an adverse effect on the Kingdom’s international position, being a principal political problem for right-wing politics. The importance of this background is reflected, for example, in the fact that (predominantly) Serbian far right/fascist movements expounded Yugoslavism rather than Serbian nationalism as their chief ideological tenet. Contrary to them, the JRZ’s political programme was marked by gradual abandonment, effective if not nominal until 1939, of the one-Yugoslav-nation concept as a way of diffusing national tensions. To better understand this seeming paradox, the project will engage with the place of Yugoslav nation-state building in the vision and practical politics of Serbian rightists. The project will also explore how the rightists perceived national minorities and what policies towards them they favoured and recommended (national minorities in this case are understood to comprise all non-South Slav population in Yugoslavia, mostly Germans, Hungarians and Albanians).

* This two-year project (2020-2022) is realised within the scope of the Program for Excellent Projects of Young Researchers (PROMIS) funded by the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia, Grant No. 6062708, Acromym SerbRightWing.