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The Resistance Movement

The communist-led Partisans eventually grew into Yugoslavia's largest, most active resistance group. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) had sunk into obscurity after the government banned it in 1921. Police repression, internal conflict, and the Stalinist purges of the 1930s depleted party membership, and by the late 1930s its leadership in Moscow directed only a few hundred members inside Yugoslavia. The Partisan leader, Josip Broz Tito, son of a Croatian-Slovenian peasant family, had joined the Red Guards during the 1917 Russian Revolution and become a party member after returning to Yugoslavia. Tito won membership in the Central Committee of the Yugoslavian Communist Party in 1934, then became secretary general after a 1937 purge. In the four years before the war, Tito directed a communist resurgence and built a strong organization of 12,000 full party members and 30,000 members of the youth organization. The party played some role in demonstrations in Belgrade against the Tripartite Pact, and it called for a general uprising after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Partisan slogan "Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People," combined with a pan-Yugoslav appeal, won recruits for Tito across the country--despite the fact that before the war the communists had worked for the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In July 1941, with some Cetnik support, the Partisans launched uprisings that won control of much of the Yugoslav countryside. The Partisan leaders established an administration and proclaimed the Uzice Republic in western Serbia. But in September the Axis struck back. Germany warned that it would execute 100 Serbs for every German soldier the resistance killed, and German troops killed several thousand civilians at Kragujevac in a single reprisal. Tito correctly reasoned that such actions would enrage the population and bring the Partisans more recruits, so he disregarded the German threat and continued his guerrilla warfare. He also arranged assassinations of local political figures and ordered attacks on the Cetnici to coincide with German action against them. Mihajlovic, however, feared that German reprisals would turn into a Serbian holocaust, so he ordered his forces not to engage the Germans. After fruitless negotiations with Tito, the Cetnik leader turned against the Partisans as his main enemy. Cetnik units attacked Partisans in November 1941 and began cooperating with the Germans and Italians to prevent a communist victory. The British liaison to Mihajlovi advised London to stop supplying the Cetnici after the Uzice attack, but Britain continued to supply Mihajlovic.

In late 1941, the Partisans lost control of Western Serbia, Montenegro, and other areas, and their central command withdrew into Bosnia. Despite the setbacks, Bosnian Serbs and other Yugoslavs flocked to the Partisans. The Serbian-based Cetnici expanded into Montenegro, where they gained local and Italian support. Soviet dictator Joseph V. Stalin, fearing that Partisan action might weaken Allied trust of the Soviet Union, and suspicious of revolutionary movements not under his control, reportedly instructed Tito to limit the Partisans to national liberation and antifascist activities. Moscow refused to supply arms to Tito, maintained relations with the government-in-exile, and even offered a military mission and supplies to the Cetnici.

At Bihac in November 1942, the Partisan leaders, anxious to gain political legitimacy, convened the first meeting of the Anti- Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (Antifasisticko vece narodnog oslobodjenja Jugoslavije, AVNOJ), a committee of communist and noncommunist Partisan representatives from all over Yugoslavia. AVNOJ became the political umbrella organization for the people's liberation committees that the partisans established to administer territories under their control. AVNOJ proclaimed support for democracy, the rights of ethnic groups, the inviolability of private property, and freedom of individual economic initiative. Stalin reportedly barred Tito from declaring AVNOJ a provisional government. In 1943 Germany mounted offensives to improve its control of Yugoslavia in anticipation of an Allied invasion of the Balkans. The Partisans, fearing that an Allied invasion would benefit the Cetnici, attacked Mihajlovic's forces. In March the Partisans outmaneuvered the German army and defeated the Cetnici decisively in Hercegovina and Montenegro. In May, however, German, Italian, Bulgarian, and NDH forces surrounded the Partisans and launched a final crushing attack. In fierce combat in the Sutjeska Gorge, the Partisans escaped encirclement. This proved a turning point in their fortunes; when Italy surrendered in September 1943, the Partisans captured Italian arms, gained control of coastal territory, and began receiving supplies from the Allies in Italy.

Tito convened a second session of AVNOJ in November 1943. This session, which included representatives of various ethnic and political groups, built the basis for the postwar government of Yugoslavia. AVNOJ voted to reconstitute the country on a federal basis; elected a national committee to act as the temporary government; named Tito marshal of Yugoslavia and prime minister; and issued a declaration forbidding King Petar to return to the country until a popular referendum had been held on the status of the monarchy. Tito did not notify Stalin of the November meeting, which enraged the Soviet leader. The Western Allies, however, were not alarmed, because they believed that the Partisans were the only Yugoslav resistance group actively fighting the Germans. At Teheran in December 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin decided to support the Partisans. A month later, Britain stopped supplying the Cetnici and threw full support to the Partisans. The first Soviet mission arrived at Partisan headquarters shortly thereafter. The United States kept a military mission with Mihajlovic to encourage continued Cetnik aid for downed American fliers.

In May 1944, German airborne forces attacked Tito's headquarters in Drvar, nearly capturing him. Tito fled to Italy, then established new headquarters on the Adriatic island of Vis. After throwing full support to the Partisans, Britain worked to reconcile Tito and Petar. In June 1944, at Britain's urging, Petar named Ivan Subasic, former ban of Croatia, as prime minister of the government-in-exile. Subasic accepted the resolutions of the second AVNOJ conference, and Petar agreed to remain outside Yugoslavia. In September the king succumbed to British pressure and summoned all Yugoslavs to back the Partisans.

When the Red Army reached the Yugoslav-Romanian border in September 1944, Tito traveled secretly to Moscow, arranged for the Soviets to enter Yugoslavia, and secured Stalin's word that the Red Army would leave the country once it was secure, without interfering with domestic politics. Soviet troops crossed the border on October 1, and a joint Partisan-Soviet force liberated Belgrade on October 20. The majority of the Red Army then continued into Hungary, leaving the Partisans and the Western Allies to crush remaining Germans, Ustase, and Cetnici. When the Partisans advanced into Croatia in the bloodiest fighting of the war, Ustase leaders and collaborators fled to Austria with regular Croatian and Slovenian troops and some Cetnici. The Partisans finally occupied Trieste, Istria, and some Slovenian enclaves in Austria, but they withdrew from some of these areas after the Allies persuaded Tito to let the postwar peace conferences settle borders. The Partisans crushed a small Albanian nationalist revolt in Kosovo after Tito and Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha announced that they would return Kosovo to Yugoslavia.

World War II claimed 1.7 million Yugoslav lives, 11 percent of the prewar population--a mortality second only to that of Poland. About one million of those were killed by other Yugoslavs. The average age of the dead was twenty-two years. The country's major cities, production centers, and communications systems were in ruins, and starvation was widespread (see World War II and Recovery , ch. 3).

Data as of December 1990

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