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Croatia in the first Yugoslavia

From Academic Kids

This article is part of
the History of Croatia
series.
Before the Croats
Medieval Croatian state
Union with Hungary
Habsburg Empire
First Yugoslavia
Croatia during WWII
Second Yugoslavia
Modern Croatia

Shortly before the end of the Great War, on October 29, 1918, the Croatian Parliament severed relations with Austria-Hungary as the Allied armies defeated those of the Habsburgs. Shortly thereafter, they decided to form the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, with the intent of pursuing a joint state of all south Slavs previously in Austria-Hungary.

The young state was barely getting organized and was rather weak compared to its neighbours. Italy retained the Istrian peninsula, the city of Zadar and the island of Lastovo after the war, and had pretentions on the whole Adriatic coast, if not more. There was also an Italian irredentist movement in the city of Fiume/Rijeka that disrupted relations with Italy (until the Treaty of Rome, 1924 when the city and the port was divided between the two countries). The Kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro which were part of the winning alliance were also interested in Austria-Hungary's old territory.

The People's Council (Narodno vijeće) of the state, guided by what was by that time a half a century long tradition of pan-Slavism, chose cooperation with the eastern Slav neighbours and joined Serbia and Montenegro in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on December 1, 1918. The new country was ruled by the Serbian dynasty of Karađorđević and had a Parliament (Skupština) with representatives from all regions.

The Croats expected better treatment from their Slav brothers than they would expect from a possible Italian rule, but they were soon stripped of political power in royal Yugoslavia. Croat parties were but a significant parliamentary minority and were limited to leading the opposition, whereas the Serbian parties formed majority governments with the help of several Muslim and Catholic parties (Yugoslav Muslim JMO, Albanian/Turkish Cemiyet, Slovene-Bunjevac clericals).

On June 28, 1921, a crucial change in the constitution was passed which centralized authority in the capital of Belgrade and intentionally completely redrew internal borders resulting in Serbs being the majority in most of the regions. The vote was boycotted by representatives from almost all of the parties from Croatia: the Croatian Republican Peasants' Party (HRSS), the Republican Party and the Socialdemocrat Party.

The HRSS and its leader Stjepan Radić opposed the new state from the very beginning, and were later persecuted by the new government. Radić was detained in 1925 and released only after the party officially declared it supports the new country, and removed the word Republican from the party's name. Their dissent was seemingly entirely eliminated when Radić joined the government of Nikola Pašić in 1925, but this lasted only until 1927. Radić's HSS then formed a coalition with the Independent Democratic Party led by Svetozar Pribičević, a party of Serbs from the western parts of the country, thereby getting a chance to lead the country. In 1928 the coalition received a mandate to create a new government, but failed to form it.

The turning point was June 20th, 1928, when Stjepan Radić was mortally wounded by a Serb deputy, Puniša Račić in the middle of a Parliament session. Radić died on August 8 and an estimated 300,000 people gathered on his funeral in Zagreb on August 12.

The royal establishment used the newly created turmoil to continue with its centralization of power. On January 6th, 1929, King Aleksandar proclaimed a dictatorship and suspended the Parliament. Several political parties were banned, including the Croatian Peasants' Party. The far right party Croatian Party of Rights was also banned and went underground to organize the radical-right Ustaše movement.

Yugoslavia continued on its path towards a completely militarist society, arming for possible war with its neighbours Italy and Bulgaria. On October 3rd, 1929, the king divided the country into nine provinces (banovina) and renamed it the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The king imposed a new constitution in 1931 and held new elections for the parliament but only with candidates on an approved list.

In 1934, Macedonian radicals in exile assassinated King Aleksandar in Marseille, reportedly with the support of Croat extremists. The country continued to be ruled by Karađorđević king, young Petar, but under the aegis of a royal committee. The country remained centralized, and even though the dissenting parties appeared in the elections, the electoral law and procedure was considered very undemocratic.

The royal Yugoslavia also had religious issues detrimental to the Croatian population, as the government was unable to ratify a Concordat with the Vatican. The government wanted to sign it because it would detach the notions of Catholicism and the dissenting Croats, but was stopped in its tracks by none other than the Serb Orthodox Church, which lobbied against an official sanction of the Roman Catholic Church that such an agreement would entail. The SOC believed that the concordat would diminish its influence and lead its faithful to become Eastern Rite Catholics. They organized public protests, and in one such demonstration in 1937, several Orthodox priests and other people were injured by the gendarmerie in Belgrade (an event dubbed krvava litija). The concordat was never signed and as a result, the unofficial primacy of the Orthodox Church was reaffirmed and Catholics ended up even more alienated from the government.

Following Aleksandar's death, the new Royal Regent Pavle Karađorđević took a more favorable stance towards the Croatian desire for autonomy, and after several rounds of negotiations came to an understanding with the leadership of the Croatian Peasant Party. The Regent replaced Serbian prime minister Milan Stojadinović with Dragiša Cvetković who was more favorably inclined towards the idea. He signed the so-called Cvetković-Maček Agreement with Vladko Maček, the leader of the Peasant Party, on August 26, 1939.

Maček became a vice-president of the royal government while Ivan Šubašić was named the ban of the new Croatian banovina created by the merger of the provinces that encompassed Croatia, most of the Dalmatia and the littoral (though without Istria, most of Rijeka and Zadar, which were still under Italy), and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The new Banovina Hrvatska included the whole of the previous Sava and Primorje banovinas, as well as the counties of Dubrovnik, Šid, Ilok, Brčko, Gradačac, Derventa, Travnik and Fojnica.

However, this compromise was opposed by many. The Croatian nationalists considered it collaboration with an essentially harmful royal government, Serbian nationalists thought it created a "state within a state" for Croats, and the Communists dismissed it as something that needlessly divided the South Slavic peoples. In the end, this situation didn't last for long because lacking the leadership of a strong king, the militarist regime in Belgrade crumbled in 1941 and the Axis powers quickly occupied Yugoslavia.

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