Yugoslavia was arguably one of the most unusual geopolitical creations of the 20th century. The Yugoslav state had never existed in any historical sense, and the ties that bound together its constituent peoples were tenuous at best. Although nominally all “Slavs,” the country was an amalgamation of languages, alphabets, cultures, religions and traditions, which ensured its short existence was littered with splits, conflicts, and shocking violence. In a sense, it’s somewhat surprising that it lasted as long as it did.
In the wake of World War I, as the political boundaries of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, initially known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, came into existence with a monarch as its head of state. Confirmed at the 1919 Versailles Conference, the “first” Yugoslavia was a particularly fragile enterprise, and there was almost constant tension between the majority Serbs and the other Yugoslav nationalities, especially the Croats. As a result, the Kingdom was a land of political assassinations, underground terrorist organizations, and ethnic animosities. In 1929, King Alexander I suspended democracy and ruled as a dictator until he himself was assassinated in 1934.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was particularly vulnerable to the forces that engulfed the rest of Europe at the end of the 1930s, including fascism and communism. When the Axis forces attacked in 1941, the country quickly capitulated and was dismembered by the Nazis and their allies. A separate Croatian state was formed, led by Ante Pavelić, who committed some of the worst crimes and human rights abuses of the war. The Balkan region was virtually emptied of its Jewish population, victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
During his reign, Tito managed to quash the intense national feelings of the diverse groups making up the Yugoslavian population, and he did so through several methods. He managed to successfully play the two superpower rivals, the United States and Soviet Union, off against each other during the Cold War, and in doing so, he maintained a considerable amount of independence from both, even as he additionally received foreign aid to keep his regime afloat. All the while he remained defiant, once penning a legendary letter to Joseph Stalin warning the Soviet dictator, “To Joseph Stalin: Stop sending people to kill me! We've already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle... If you don't stop sending killers, I'll send a very fast working one to Moscow and I certainly won't have to send another.”
Internal issues plagued the country in its final years and Tito had tinkered with Yugoslavia’s constitution on several occasions. His final attempt, in 1974, saw the partial separation of Kosovo – crucial in the Serb national story – from the rest of Serbia. A number of reasons led to the rising Serb nationalist sentiment after Tito’s death, but Kosovo was a central aspect. Yugoslavia required far-sighted, magnanimous leaders to avoid internecine disputes, but none were available, or at least in positions of power in the 1980s. In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman – a long time Croat nationalist – emerged as the republic’s leader, and Slobodan Milošević rose to prominence in the middle of the decade and, despite apparently being a career communist, positioned himself as “defender of the Serbs.” He began ousting his rivals and installing sympathetic underlings into leadership positions in Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro, essentially giving him a majority bloc at the federal level.
Depending on the source, many authors have focused on different catalysts for Yugoslavia’s demise, but Vesna Drapac may have succinctly summed the situation up when he wrote that by the end, the state “lacked a reason to exist.”