Yugoslavia (in Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene: Jugoslavija, Југославија) was a name given to three different states that existed on the western part of the Balkan peninsula during most of the 20th century. The name is a portmanteau of "jug" (south) and "slaveni" (Slavs), as the majority of people in these three states spoke South Slavic languages.
In the Beginning...
The idea of a united South Slavic state has its roots in the Pan-Slavic ideology that emerged in the late 17th century, but only gained prominence in the 19th century, when it was called the "Illyrian movement" (after a popular theory - later discredited - that the Slavs are the descendants of the ancient Illyrians).
The South Slavic people include the following: the Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Bulgarians, the Macedonians, the Bosnians and Bosniaks (Bosniaks being Muslim Bosnians) and the Montenegrins. Yugoslavia also included several minorities, of which the Albanians, Italians and Hungarians were the most prominent.
While the South Slavs are ethnically and linguistically very closely related, their unification was made difficult by the fact that they have substantially different religious, cultural and historical heritages. For example, the Croats and Slovenes are mostly Catholic, the Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins mostly Orthodox Christians, and the Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim; the Croats, Slovenes, and Bosniaks use the Latin script, while the eastern nations use the Cyrillic one; Slovenia and most of Croatia spent most of their history as part of the Habsburg Empire, the Adriatic Coast was under Venetian influence for centuries, while the other countries as well as part of Croatia were conquered and ruled by the Ottomans for centuries, etc.
Another fact detrimental to the development of a Yugoslav identity was that, by the time unification became a realistic possibility, the nation-building process among the Croats, Serbs and Slovenes had already been mostly completed; few were willing to become Yugoslavs.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia
After the end of World War I, all the south Slavic peoples, with the notable exception of the Bulgarians, were united under the rule of the Serbian royal dynasty, the Karađorđevićs (pronounced "Karageorgevich"). The resulting state was called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
The first ruler of the country, Petar I, soon passed away and rulership of the country was left in the hands of Alexander I, who became one of the most prominent personalities associated with Yugoslavia, second only to Josip Broz Tito.
Ethnic strife plagued the country almost from the beginning. Notice how the other nationalities were not even mentioned in the country's name, and any nationalist sentiments were suppressed.
Alexander attempted to create a strong, centralized Yugoslav state and, in order to implement his reforms, took drastic measures. In 1929 he forced a new Constitution, abolished the historical administrative boundaries, banned all national political parties and had many of their leaders arrested and ruled as de facto dictator. He also banned the Communist Party, whose leaders (including Tito) went into hiding.
Unfortunately for the king, his measures served only to further alienate the non-Serbs from the idea of unity. Furthermore, the king's pro-French stance served to alienate him both from Mussolini and from Stalin. Alexander was assassinated during an official visit to France in 1934 by a member of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, a Macedonian national liberation movement. However, the operation was masterminded and assisted by the Ustaše ("Oostashe"), a Croatian fascist movement that had its stronghold in Fascist Italy. As an aside, this was the first assassination of a head of state to be caught on film.
Alexander was succeeded by his 11-year-old son Petar II, with his cousin, Prince Pavle, acting as regent. This was an unfortunate turn of events, since the political scene of Europe was set to explode into WW2. The French attempts to build an anti-German and anti-Italian bloc failed, as one by one Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria fell under the influence of the Axis powers. When Czechoslovakia was dismembered and annexed by Nazi Germany and Albania turned into an Italian protectorate, Yugoslavia was left surrounded by enemies.
Pavle desperately tried to placate the nationalist unrest in his country, most notably by allowing the Croats an autonomous region. But this was too little, too late: he finally bowed to Axis pressure and signed his country into the Axis pact. It's worth noting that Hitler offered Yugoslavia very favorable terms: it was the only country that was not required to provide troops outside its borders. Pavle, however, underestimated the anti-fascist sentiment in his country, and his military leaders (with some covert support from Britain) staged a coup against him, got him exiled, and installed the 17-year old Petar II as king. Then all hell broke loose.
World War II: Partisans, Ustaše and Četniks
While the new government tried to assure Hitler that nothing had changed, the Fuhrer would have nothing of it: on the 6th of April 1941 combined Axis forces from Germany, Italy and Hungary invaded Yugoslavia and crushed the already demoralized Yugoslav Royal Army in less than two weeks.
Hitler, content that the Balkans were now secure, then turned his attention to his old nemesis: Stalin's Soviet Union. Little did he know, however, that the Reich's problems in Yugoslavia were only beginning.
The Axis powers occupied Yugoslavia and divided it among themselves, with parts annexed by Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. Small rump-states were created in Serbia and Montenegro, run by puppet regimes. But by far the largest puppet state was the Independent State of Croatia, run by the Ustaše leader Ante Pavelić, a Croat nationalist who embraced fascism, and became one of Hitler's most loyal allies. Both the occupying forces and the local regimes implemented policies of forced assimilation, resettlement of minorities, and outright genocide (the most often targeted groups were Jews, Roma and Serbs, but others also suffered).
These measures, as well as the fact that Pavelić was forced to give a large part of the Croatian coastline to Italy, turned more and more people against the Ustaše. Soon, two resistance movements had taken form: the monarchist and pro-Serb Četniks ("Chetniks") and the pan-Yugoslav and pro-communist Partisans, led by Tito. The Partisans initiated a guerrilla campaign that developed into probably the largest resistance forces in Europe. The Četniks were initially supported by the exiled royal government as well as the Allies, but they soon focused increasingly on combating the Partisans rather than the occupying Axis forces. By the end of the war, the Četnik movement had transformed into a collaborationist Serb nationalist militia completely dependent on Axis supplies. The highly mobile Partisans, however, carried on their guerrilla warfare with great success. While they took heavy casualties, the Partisans were always able to evade complete destruction, most notably at the battles of Neretva and Sutjeska, when they were outnumbered roughly 6:1 by the Axis forces. Seeing the success of the Partisans, the British shifted their support to Tito, dooming the Četnik movement.
The Yugoslav Partisans were able to expel the Axis from Serbia in 1944 and the rest of Yugoslavia in 1945. The Red Army provided limited assistance with the liberation of Belgrade and withdrew after the war was over. Tens of thousands of Axis prisoners and collaborators, real or imagined, were imprisoned or executed, and the local German minority was practically destroyed. Western attempts to reconcile the Partisans with the royalist government (who had fled to London back in 1941) failed, and Tito was elected by a referendum to lead the new independent communist state, starting as a prime minister.
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia soon took all power into their own hands, and tried to form a federation with Bulgaria and Albania, but Stalin's intervention prevented it. Finally, increasing conflicts between the two leaders led to the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. After that, the country criticized both Eastern bloc and NATO nations and, together with other countries, started the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, which remained the official affiliation of the country until it dissolved. Democratic reforms were not implemented, however, and the country remained a one-party state, with Tito having the final say in most things. Political dissidents (particularly Stalinists and nationalists) were often dealt with harshly.
Overall relative peace was retained under Tito's rule, though nationalist protests did occur, but these were usually repressed and nationalist leaders were arrested. However one protest in Croatia in the 1970s, called the "Croatian Spring" was backed by large numbers of Croats who claimed that Yugoslavia remained a Serb hegemony and demanded that Serbia's powers be reduced. Tito, whose home republic was Croatia, was concerned over the stability of the country and responded in a manner to appease both Croats and Serbs, he ordered the arrest of the Croat protesters, while at the same time conceding to some of their demands. In 1974, Serbia's influence over the country was significantly reduced as autonomous provinces were created in ethnic Albanian-majority populated Kosovo and the mixed-populated Vojvodina.
After the Tito-Stalin Split, the economy was re-organized along the principles of "workers' self-management", as advised by Tito's vice president, Milovan Djilas, in which the state enterprises were run by the employees in the manner of a cooperative. At first it worked, and Yugoslavia's economy soon recovered and greatly surpassed pre-war levels. This system was later re-organized in an attempt to improve its efficiency, but the market-orientated reforms introduced in the late seventies - and especially during the eighties - led to increasing unemployment and reliance on IMF debts (there is evidence that the U.S. government was deliberately intervening to move the country away from socialism). Unlike the people of the Eastern Bloc, Yugoslavs were allowed to emigrate freely since the late 1950s, and this caused many to find work in Western Europe, notably Germany, with the money they brought home also helping the Yugoslav economy. Indeed, a number of North American actors, such as Stana Katic and Sasha Alexander, were born to these emigrants or in some cases (Željko Ivanek) are these emigrants.
Yugoslavia had a vibrant cultural scene that included writers such as the Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, Miroslav Krleža, Mešha Selimović, Branko Ćopić and others. The most prominent sculptor was Antun Augustinchich who made a monument standing in front of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The pianist Ivo Pogorelić and the violinist Stefan Milenkovich were internationally acclaimed classical music performers, while Jakov Gotovac was a prominent composer and a conductor. The Yugoslav pop and rock music was also a very important part of the culture; notable artists included rock band Bijelo Dugme (their lead guitarist and chief songwriter, Goran Bregović, later achieved international recognition as a composer of film scores), pop idol Zdravko Čolić, and singer-songwriter Đorđe Balašević (whose death in 2021 was widely mourned in all of the former Yugoslavian countries). The Yugoslav New Wave was an especially productive musical scene, as well as the authentic subcultural movement called New Primitives.
Yugoslav cinema featured many notable actors, and had it's own sub-genre of war movies, called Partisan Movies (similar to the Soviet Osterns, but also combining elements of Spaghetti Westerns and Hollywood war movies), such as Wild Wind. Being cheap and much more open than the Eastern Bloc countries, Yugoslavia was a popular place for Western companies to produce their movies. Films such as Genghis Khan (1965), Kelly's Heroes, Fiddler on the Roof, Cross of Iron and the Winnetou series of westerns were filmed party or wholly in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia also had a strong sports scene, especially football, basketball, volleyball and waterpolo.
Break-up and War
The death of Tito in 1980 left the country without strong leadership to hold it together, and by 1990 the economic problems were becoming severe. National tensions flared, especially between the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. Soon, the elites in Belgrade (led by Slobodan Milošević) started pursuing an aggressive nationalistic policy, refusing to acknowledge the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina, and outright refusing Croatian and Slovenian requests for greater autonomy. One thing led to another and, by 1991 The Yugoslav Wars had started. See that page for more details. After the dust had settled, all that was left of Yugoslavia was Serbia (including Kosovo and Vojvodina) and Montenegro.
The Final End of Yugoslavia
The third Yugoslavia was no more than a rump state, retaining the name in an attempt to present itself as the sole legal successor of the old socialist state, but the UN refused to acknowledge this status. In 2003 the country renamed itself "Serbia and Montenegro". Three years later a referendum on independence was held in Montenegro. About 55% of the Montenegrins voted "yes", and so ended the last remnant of the former Yugoslavia.
A significant number of people in ex-Yugoslav countries are nostalgic about the old state; this regional variety of Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell is known as "Yugonostalgia". For example, in Vojvodina one man has set up Yugoland, a place dedicated to Tito and Yugoslavia, while Tito's birthday is still celebrated in Kumrovec, Tito's village of birth (in Croatia, right next to the Slovenian border).