How Yugoslavia Was Pushed To WWII (I)

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, under the official name the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918‒1929, was formed on December 1st, 1918 as a state for the South Slavs (except Bulgarians). It was composed of parts of the former Austria-Hungary (Carniola, Croatia, Slavonia, Srem, Bačka, Baranja, West Banat, Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the independent Kingdom of Serbia (with Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo-Metochia). A Croat-Serb-Slovenian agreement to establish the new state after WWI has been formulated in July 1916 in Corfu island in Greece (the Corfu Declaration) where the Serbian Government and army had found refuge after being driven from the mainland by combined Austro-Hungarian, German, and Bulgarian forces.

However, political disagreements among the component national groups (primarily between the Croats and the Serbs) started immediately after the formation of the state. The Roman Catholic Croats, who accounted for circa ¼ of the Yugoslav population, required the federation while the Orthodox Serbs prefered the centralized state. Inter-ethnic conflicts between the Croats and the Serbs culminated in 1928 with the assassination in the Parliament in Belgrade of the leading Croat politicians by a Montenegrin representative due to their dirty provocations by words and insulting the Serbs as a nation (swearing Serbian fucking mother). In order to preserve the peace in the country, the King Aleksander (born in Montenegro) suspended the Constitution, all political parties and established personal rule for a while. The new administrative territories governorates (banovine) were established named after river basins and other natural but not ethnic or historical features. He also renamed the state – the Kingdom of Yugoslavia but all of these measures did not pacify Croatian (and Serb) nationalism. The King was finally assassinated by agents of the newly formed Croatian terrorist movement – the Ustashi, in Marseilles during the official visitation of France in October 1934.[i]

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s involvement in the whirlwinds of WWII raises the question of whether it was possible to avoid the war and especially the bloody destiny what had struck Serbs during WWII (and after). Therefore, in the following text, it is going to be outlined some of the observations in order to dispel prejudices and stereotypes created mainly by the combination of the Serbian emigrant and anti-Serbian Yugoslav communist (Titoistic) historiography. These misguided stereotypes can be classified into three groups of misinformation:

  1. Accession of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to the Tripartite (Berlin) Pact on March 25th, 1941 was an independent act of the Yugoslav Government itself and, above all, of the chief Regent Prince, Pavle Karađorđević, who brought Yugoslavia into the alliance with Germany, Italy and Japan due to his Germanophil feelings and politics.
  2. The coup of March 27th, 1941 in Belgrade, ie. the coup d’état of the Yugoslav Royal Army, led by Generals Borivoje Mirković and Dušan Simović, was a patriotic-libertarian act of honourable part of Yugoslav officers, which was spontaneously executed and politically independent of any external factor.
  3. Mass popular demonstrations against the accession of Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact that followed the coup of March 27th, 1941 were organized by the Yugoslav communists, ie. by illegal Communist Party of Yugoslavia (the CPY).[ii]

However, in the following lines, I would like to point out the true essence of the background of the phenomenon called “March 25/27th, 1941” in the Yugoslav historiography for the purpose to break the misconceptions that have been imposed on the Yugoslavs imposed by Serbophobes from both sides of the “liberal-democratic” West and the Yugoslav communists.

Geopolitical background

 After the rapid capitulation of France in June 1940, only the United Kingdom (the UK) remained in the war against the former Austrian Corporal and his Nazi Germany, with a little chance to win it and with much bigger chances of making a humiliating peace agreement with Berlin.[iii] It is no wonder, then, that British politicians and diplomats have tried by all means, including military coups, to drag any neutral country into the war on their own, no matter what the sacrificed country had to pay for the eventual victory of the perfidious Albion. Thus, at the onset of British dirty diplomacy in the spring of 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia found herself too, which was temporarily (from the assassination of King Alexander in October 1934 to the adulthood of King Peter II in September 1941)[iv] governed by the chief Regent Prince Pavle Karađorđević.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, 1918-1928. Map of inner administrative division
The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, 1918-1928. Map of inner administrative division

How historically dishonest British politics has been, dressed in extremely perfidious and dirty diplomacy, is perhaps best understood by a saying from WWI that “British soldiers will fight on the Western Front until the last drop of French blood!”

After the German Anschluss of Austria in 1938, the Italian occupation of Albania in April 1939, the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Tripartite Pact, which member already was Hungary (1940/1941), the Kingdom of Yugoslavia had no common border with the Axis Powers only on the section with the Kingdom of Greece. Taking into account, on the one hand, such new geopolitical position and traditional Croatian separatism, servitude and treachery and Serbian patriotism and freedom-loving on the other, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia in March 1941 faced a great psychological, political and patriotic dilemma how to resist A. Hitler’s diplomatic pressures but as well as with good political offers by Berlin for signing Yugoslavia’s accession to the Triple Pact. A. Hitler was in a hurry to implement the Barbarossa Plan of the invasion of the USSR, so the Yugoslav side could not endure time indefinitely in the process of negotiations. However, expected Croatian treachery and knife-throwing to the backside of Yugoslavia in the case of A. Hitler’s decision to invade the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was a major trump card by Berlin in the negotiations with Belgrade.

Prince Paul himself, as well as the political establishment of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, could only rely at that time on the possible concrete and prompt assistance of Great Britain, which at that moment was losing the war but had not yet lost it, and had far greater economic and human resources than the Third Reich taking into account the immense resources coming from the British overseas colonial empire (still the largest in the world).[v] Consideration should also be given to the US’ factor hovering like the “New Israel” as Damocles’ sword above A. Hitler’s neck. However, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia needed concrete and prompt military assistance to eventually deter the Austrian Corporal from invading Yugoslavia in the case of refusing to sign an alliance with the Führer. Prince Paul was otherwise a strong anglophile, both by education and manners. The impression was that the Prince would rather abdicate than turn his back on Britain. A. Hitler himself held him as a British puppet in the Balkans what Prince Paul, in fact, was. The British King George VI was his cousin, which naturally strengthened his alliance with the UK. However, it was at this critical time for the survival of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia that Albion had to finally reveal its true face and show the Serbs that it was not proud at all, but above all perfidious, who eventually threw a British marionette of Prince Paul into A. Hitler’s arms.[vi]

Peter II King of Yugoslavia
Peter II King of Yugoslavia

In addition to the treason factor (that is, the extremely treacherous knife-stabbing to the backside of Yugoslavia) of Croats, in the case of A. Hitler’s attack on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (in the case of refusing to sign the membership to the Tripartite Pact by Belgrade), the communist fifth column in the country had to be seriously taken into consideration as well, since the Nazis and communists have been from August 23rd, 1939 (when the Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement was signed) not only friends but also direct allies.[vii] Therefore, in December 1940, General Milan Nedić, the Minister of Defense of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, prepared an order to open six concentration camps for the communists in various places in Serbia, as needed, in order to eliminate as much as possible a communist treachery if the Kingdom of Yugoslavia decides to oppose A. Hitler what meant to be invaded by the military forces of the Tripartite Pact (what in practice occurred in April 1941). In this context, it was General M. Nedić’s proposal that the city and seaport of Thessaloniki in Greece be taken over by the army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia before the Italian soldiers enter it after B. Mussolini’s aggression against Greece in November 1940. If the Thessaloniki was to be occupied by the Italians, possible British military assistance to Yugoslavia before A. Hitler’s invasion would be practically impossible.

It turned out that this precaution was not needed because the Greeks had successfully fought against the Italians (they even entered Albania, from which the Italian invasion of Greece started), but on the other hand, any assistance from the British to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was absent. As for General M. Nedic’s plan about the concentration camps for the communists, it was soon discovered by a communist spy (insider) in the Government. It was a young officer, Živadin Simić, who served in the Ministry of War. He handed over a two-page copy of this document to one unknown “very important friend” whose identity was later discovered to be Josip Broz Tito (1892‒1980). The copy of the document was soon duplicated and distributed throughout Belgrade from house to house so that the plan for the neutralization of the communist fifth column could not disappoint. The catastrophic consequence of Ž. Simić’s spying was soon felt by the Serbs during and after the war.

Prince Paul of Yugoslavia

The chief Regent of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia since October 1934 till March 1941, the Prince Paul Karađorđević (1893‒1976) was born in Saint Petersburg in Imperial Russia, and became educated at Oxford, UK. He was the first cousin of the King Aleksandar Karađorđević (1888‒1934), whose eldest son Peter (1923‒1970), was eleven years old when his father was assassinated in France on October 9th, 1934 by the Croatian Nazi-fascist Ustashi terrorist organisation led by Ante Pavelić.[viii] Prince Paul became the chief Regent of Yugoslavia by King Aleksander’s will. He was a zealot Anglophile and an art expert who, in fact, had very little interest in politics and had not been briefed by the King Aleksandar on his potential duties. However, as the chief Regent, he faced two focal problems to be solved urgently:

Prince Paul of Yugoslavia
Prince Paul of Yugoslavia

1) To try to find domestic peace through an agreement with the Croat nationalists but not to disappoint Serbian counterparts.

2) To attempt to preserve the Yugoslav neutrality in WWII as stubborn as possible.

After four years in which his ministers failed to find a proper solution to the urgent problem of hostile Croat-Serb relations, Prince Paul undertook to do so by himself at the eve of WWII. He was quite aware of the constitutional impediments to the basic changes while the heir to the throne was still a minor, but through his new PM, he concluded on August 26th, 1939 an Agreement with the leading Croat politicians, giving them considerable autonomy in the wast region of Yugoslavia. Other projected constitutional changes have been postponed by the start of WWII.

He was pressured by A. Hitler to have Yugoslavia join the Tripartite Pact, which Yugoslavia’s neighbours Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania already signed. However, the Regent managed to postpone a decision as long as possible for, in fact, two years. After the military cop n Belgrade on March 27th, 1941, the „English friend“ Prince Paul was forced to leave Yugoslavia and remained in British custody in South Africa during the entire WWII. After the war, he lived in Paris until his death.[ix]

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] Stephen Clissold (ed.), A Short History of Yugoslavia: From Early Times to 1966, Cambridge, 1968; Jan Palmowski, A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century World History, Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 674.

[ii] Branko Petranović, Srbija u Drugom svetskom ratu 1939−1945, Beograd, 1992, 63−97.

[iii] See more in [Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won, New York: Basic Books, 2017].

[iv] Peter II was the King of Yugoslavia during WWII. His and dynastic ties to the British royal family have been good preconditions for the future monarch of a multinational state of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. On October 9th, 1934 assassination by the Croatian and Bulgarian terrorists of his father King Aleksandar in France brought him to central attention of political life in Yugoslavia as he was a minor (11) at that time. Therefore, his uncle Prince Paul became a chief Regent of the country. In essence, due to the global geopolitical circumstances, he could only watch how the Kingdom of Yugoslavia has gradually drifted away from its Little Entente allies (Czechoslovakia and Romania) into the Axis bloc. On March 27th, 1941, as a consequence of the military coup in Belgrade, he was proclaimed new King of the country (being still minor). Nevertheless, the Axis occupation and division of the country forced him to flee and stay in London where Peter II established the Government-in-exile supporting the Yugoslav Army in the Motherland (the YAM) led by the General Dragoljub Draža Mihailović (1893‒1946) as only legitimate and internationally recognized resistance forces in Yugoslavia. He very well recognized that his political future as the monarch of Yugoslavia after the was primarily depended on the military success of the YAM and, therefore, Peter II spent much time lobbying the UK and the USA’s political establishments on behalf of his Government-in-exile and the General Dragoljub Draža Mihailović (who was a Minister of War in that Government). Nevertheless, the final military victory of the former Austro-Hungarian Corporal from WWI, Josip Broz Tito and his Partisans, with the crucial help by J. V. Stalin and W. Churchill, cost Peter II his royal inheritance after WWII. A new illegal communist constituent People’s Assembly in Belgrade refused to permit the King’s return to Yugoslavia in November 1945 and, therefore, Peter II lived for the rest of his life in emigration. He died in 1970, never having returned to Yugoslavia [Peter II Karađorđević of Yugoslavia, A King’s Heritage, New York, 1954; Bogdan Krizman, Jugoslavenske vlade u izbjeglištvu 1941‒1943, Zagreb, 1981].

[v] About the British overseas empire, see in [Norman Lowe, Modern British History, Third Edition, New York: Palgrave, 1998; T. O. Lloyd, Empire, Welfare State, Europe: History of the United Kingdom 1906‒2001, Fifth Edition, Oxford‒New York: Oxford University Press, 2002].

[vi] See more in [Нил Балфур, Сели Мекеј, Кнез Павле Карађорђевић. Једна закаснела биографија, Београд: Литера, 1990].

[vii] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Ney York: Basic Books, 2010, 119‒154.

[viii] Ante Pavelić (1889‒1959) was a founder of the Croatian Nazi-fascist Ustashi state and nationalistic opponent of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. A leader of ultra-right the Croatian Party of Rights, he condemned Croatia’s union with Serbia in the fall of 1918 as illegal. His nationalistic ideal was to create an independent state of a Greater Croatia from the borders with Slovenia to the Adriatic Sea and the River of Drina. A. Pavelić went into exile in 1929 and with help from Italy’s B. Mussolini he established the Ustashi movement as a terrorist organisation. Committed to the Croatian independence by using terrorist methods against the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Ustashi movement and organization was implicated in violent acts in the 1930s, including the assassination of the Yugoslav King Aleksandar in France on October 9th, 1934 (when the French Minister of Foreign Affairs was killed too). After the occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941 by the Axis forces, B. Mussolini made A. Pavelić leader of the puppet Greater Croatia but with large territorial concessions to Italy in Dalmatia. After WWII, he escaped to Argentina but was forced to leave that country to Franco’s Spain after the attempt of assassination by a Serb patriot. Finally, he died in Madrid in 1959 [Bogdan Krizman, Ante Pavelić i Ustaše, Zagreb, 1978].

[ix] Neil Balfour, Sally Mackay, Paul of Yugoslavia: Britain’s Maligned Friend, London, 1980. See more in [J. B. Hoptner, Yugoslavia in Crisis, 1934‒1941, New York, 1962].

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