The Rise of Yugoslavia – Part 1
The creation of Yugoslavia (the word means “State of South Slavs”) was the culmination of an historical process which began fourteen to fifteen centuries ago.
The Slavs came originally from the Russian Steppes and the northern forests of Byelorussia and their history over the years had been very turbulent. Wars and skirmishes had been waged back and forth between various Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian Princes, each trying to extend the territory under his control.
But these rulers all had to submit to a more powerful enemy when the Turks invaded Europe during the fourteenth century. Bloody indeed were the battles, but the invaders relentlessly forced their way north as far as Vienna, eventually retreating some way under pressure from the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The new line of demarcation split the territory roughly in half, bringing Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Monte Negro and Macedonia under Turkish rule, while Austria-Hungary retained control of Croatia and Slovenia. The new conquerors lost no time in imposing their religious ideas. Worship under the old Bosnian Church was forbidden. The Roman Catholic Church replaced it in the north, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the South. Although there was considerable resistance to this, it would be a mistake to think that the many peasant revolts during the next six centuries were over religious issues.
Eighteenth century poets and philosophers of that unhappy land often scratched their heads over the cause of these conflicts. Only by Marx’s Materialist Conception of History are we able to grasp their true significance and realise that they had their origin in the oppressive social conditions of feudalism. Religion served only to mask the more deeply rooted troubles. For instance, the feudal set-up peculiar to the area was such that peasants owned no land whatever. They were allowed merely to work the lord’s land, surrendering about fifty per cent. of the products to him. This was a constant source of struggle over the centuries and peasant claims to land ownership met with stubborn refusal. Then again, large numbers had been driven to the Velebit Mountains along the coast during the Turkish invasion, but this was very poor land. Subsequently migration took place eastwards to the fertile plain lands of Vojvodina in Serbia, to be met with fierce resistance from those already established there.
The Turks were eventually ousted from the Balkans in 1877. The Serbs did this with Russian backing, and Serbia became an independent kingdom. King Alexander 1 of the Obrenovich Dynasty was the first ruler, but he was assassinated in 1878 and was succeeded by King Peter Karadjordjevicb. Independent Serbia, it seemed, set the pace for Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia still under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was a living inspiration to nationalist dreamers, and for the power-hungry in Belgrade this was indeed a time of plotting and intrigue.
From the turn of the century there were popular demonstrations in favour of Slav unity and in opposition to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cries of working class discontent were now added to those of the frustrated petty nobility and a thwarted Bourgeoisie. Such was the state of affairs when on that fateful June day in 1914, one student Gavrilo Princip felled the Archduke Franz Ferdinand with a gunshot which rang round the world and sparked the dry tinder of European capitalist conflict into the flame of World War 1. Four years later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed and the Versailles Peace Treaty established a new unified Balkan State under King Peter Karadjordjevicb. Yugoslavia had arrived.
Six different regions were incorporated in the new state, each of them still under the influence of one or other of the major powers. Economic development had been patchy and uneven. Most industrialisation had taken place in the north which had been influenced by the rapid growth of European capitalism. The rest of the nation was still largely feudal with peasants representing about eighty per cent. of the population.
Yugoslavia was now a political democracy, but in 1918 the Royalists still held popular sway. Organisations such as The Social Democratic Party, the Nationalist groups “Young Bosnia” and “Serbian Youth” and the Yugoslav Communist Party, were left standing. At the general elections of 1921, however, the Communist Party won 59 seats and came within an ace of forming a government. There followed a bitter struggle with the Royalists that reached its peak with the assassination of Minister of the Interior Drashkovich. The Royalists promptly blamed the C.P. for this crime, imprisoned its leaders and declared it an illegal organisation.
From now on, the C.P. had to exist, clandestinely. It received financial support from Moscow and followed faithfully (or should we say slavishly) the Russian party line. In 1936 the Party was dealt a further blow. Its General Secretary Gorkich disappeared while in Moscow during the trials and his office was handed over to Josip Broz, otherwise Tito.
But the war clouds were gathering again, and in April, 1941. Yugoslavia was overrun by the Nazis. King Peter fled to England. From then until 1945, it was the familiar story of a peasants’ resistance movement to the German occupiers, but this again was divided broadly into two opposing sections. First there were the Royalists, known as the Chetniki, under the command of General Milhailovich. The Partisans were the other major group, organised and led by members of the Communist Party. Both groups had their eye on the future and fought with the intention of establishing their own type of government after the war.
Various minor parties such as the Social Democrats, Trotskyists, and Liberals hated both Royalists and Communists and were quite prepared to support the Nazis against the resistance movement. The Nazis were quick to see the value of “divide and rule” tactics and in 1943 by promising the Royalists a share in post-war government, managed to enlist their aid against the Partisans.
The Partisans fought on against gigantic odds, but it would be wrong to suppose that their heroism and courage were inspired only by a desire to be rid of the German invader. The peasants sighed for an end to the conditions of pre-war Yugoslavia, which had many similarities to Tzarist Russia. They lent a ready ear to the Communists who promised land reform and industrial development, and clearly compromise with the old order to any extent was impossible. Capitalist development was due for a fillip after the war.
In 1945 a plebiscite was held and declared heavily in favour of the establishment of a “people’s republic”. The Communist Party won the ensuing General Election by a large majority and the Royalists were eliminated as a political force. A formidable task faced the new government. Forty per cent. of the towns were in ruins and one-tenth of the population had perished during the war. The survivors were asked by their rulers to work hard and deny themselves now for happier times in the future. Millions gave their enthusiastic but misguided support to the government having been told that this was the path to Socialism Where have we heard all this before?
The Communist Party leaders were now in control of the state machine and theirs was the job of changing the feudal face of Yugoslavia into a Capitalist one —with the co-operation of the workers, of course. What matter that they called the new conditions “Socialism” or the “transitional period to Communism”? Mass working class ignorance would see that they remained in power for some time to come at least. Marshal Tito, the tireless underground leader in pre-war days and fearless partisan during the war, became the dictator of the new Yugoslavia, the man at the helm of the young capitalist State.
Like their brothers elsewhere, the Yugoslav Communist Party had many times said that they would grab the state machine as a temporary measure only, and use it to usher in Socialist society, It would then wither away, they claimed. How little they understood the role of the state machine. Since their rise to power it has become progressively stronger in the administration of Yugoslavia’s private property society.
The C.P. cry of “Electrification and Industrialisation” meant sweeping changes in favour of the industrial capitalists. But there had to be a compromise because agriculture was and still is a major industry, and the transformation of the peasant into a wage worker had to slow down. The average peasant had no desire anyway to exchange the devil he knew for one he did not, and stoutly resisted attempts to drive him into the factories and workshops. Collectivisation of farms was then abandoned, at least for the time being.