Yugoslavia: a historic view

When the term “balkanization” is used, it has long meant to break a territory or a region up into hostile, unmanageable parts. The Balkans has long been portrayed by imperialist ideology as a region filled with colorful, violent, backward people — the “hillbillies” of Europe.

I teach a course on the history of imperialism and try to give students a framework for understanding that different kinds of empires have existed throughout history.

Birth of imperialism

What we called imperialism in the 20th century or “globalization” in the 21st is a new system, not simply a continuation of old empires.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many figures, most importantly, Vladimir Lenin, called this new world system imperialism. Lenin saw this development as representing the rise of state monopoly capitalism and leading inevitably to great wars. Today this system is usually referred to euphemistically as “globalization.”

Lenin argued that as industrial capital developed productive capacities — limited only by the earth’s resources and labor pools — industrial powers established rival empires who fought each other to turn into colonies areas of the world that had escaped earlier colonization (Africa, China and other regions), and to take colonies and spheres of influence away from “less advanced” empires like those of Spain, Portugal and Ottoman Turkey. These rising empires used various nationalist movements as pawns in their manipulations.

The Muslim Ottoman Turkish Empire and the Roman Catholic Austrian Empire had divided the Balkans between them. For centuries, they fought wars with each other over the region and instilled hatreds among its subject peoples.

Who are the peoples of the Balkans?

The desires of the peoples of the Balkans had nothing to do with the manipulations of the various empires.

Serbians and Croatians constituted nearly 75 percent of the total Yugoslav population, with Serbians being a 2 to 1 majority. Other significant nationality groups were Slovenes, Albanians, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Roma (gypsy). There was also a Yugoslav ethnic designation for the people who wanted to identify with the entire country. Many who were born to parents in interethnic marriages called themselves Yugoslav. Christians, Jews and Muslims were all part of the region’s religious makeup.

Many who call themselves Bosnians have emigrated to the U.S. Even though there was no distinct Bosnian nationality in Yugoslavia, Bosnia today is a separate state as a consequence of the civil war and the U.S.-NATO bloc’s intervention.

Rival empires

By the mid-19th century, the powerful British and French empires sought to prop up the Ottomans, whom they referred to derisively as “the sick man of Europe,” against the czarist Russian Empire. They feared czarist Russia might develop into a major capitalist rival if it gained access to ports and trade routes under Ottoman control.

The rise of an industrial capitalist German Empire in the last decades of the 19th century challenged the hegemony of the British, threatened the French and Russians, and created over time European-based alliances that fought each other for imperialist domination over the whole world.

Systemic tendency towards war

These empires feared a “big war” in Europe (as opposed to the “little wars” they were fighting against the peoples of Africa and Asia) would threaten the whole system of imperialism. But the violent, unstable nature of imperialism, and its competition for markets and investments, dashed these aspirations. A relatively unimportant incident in the Balkans — the assassination of the Austrian Archduke by a young Serbian — led the imperialist powers into the greatest war in human history up to that time.

When World War I began, Lenin understood it was an imperialist war for spheres of influence, but in the long run could produce revolutions in industrial Europe and anti-imperialist uprisings in the colonial regions.

Although Serbian casualties in World War I were enormous, Yugoslavia was established with the French-British-U.S. victory. The new state was a liberal constitutional monarchy under the former King of Serbia. Yugoslavia had a strong labor movement and left on the political scene. The Yugoslav Communist Party became a significant force by the 1930s.

The victorious allied powers supported Yugoslavia, largely to prevent a revival of German imperialist power in the region.

The rise of fascism

Even with the growth of the left and labor, at the same time Croatian rightists, funded first by fascist Italy, which had its own designs on the region, used terrorist violence in a campaign to create an independent Croatia. The terror campaign included an armed uprising in 1932 and the murder of the Yugoslav king, Alexander, in 1935.

In the 1930s a new, more powerful European fascist state, Nazi Germany, embarked upon a policy of military annexations to regain all of Germany’s lost territories from the previous war. This meant annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia, aiding Croatian chauvinists, and annexing Polish territory, along with using reactionary and fascist groups in Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic States to transform those regions into “satellites” of a German-dominated axis.

In 1941, after the Nazi conquest of Western Europe and before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, Yugoslavia was invaded and dismembered. Hitler and Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, created a Croatian fascist puppet-state. Ustasha, the Croatian fascist movement, led the “Independent State of Croatia” with control over Bosnia. Unlike the secular German and Italian fascists who had long backed them, the Ustasha was deeply connected with the Roman Catholic Church and representatives of “clerical” or religious-based fascism.

Serbia became a German-occupied province. With Hitler’s approval, the fascist dictator, Ante Pavelic, turned the Serbian minorities in Ustasha-controlled Croatia and Bosnia into targets of genocidal and racist persecution. In Croatia, the Jasenovac death camp was established. The fascists there carried out genocide against hundreds of thousands of Serbian people, and tens of thousands of Jewish and Roma people. Jasenovac, where an estimated 700,000 perished, became the third largest death camp in Europe, surpassed only by Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Cold War politics emerge

The Yugoslav partisan movement, led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), fought the Nazis, the Ustasha and their fascist allies. At the end of the war, these movements established a socialist Yugoslavia. Although U.S. and British imperialists were very hostile to Yugoslavia at first, the development of the Cold War changed that.

The Yugoslav leadership broke with the Soviets by 1948 and took a nonaligned position in the Cold War and world affairs. Because of its conflict with the Soviets and their allies, Yugoslavia became in the 1950s and 1960s the only country in the world led by Communists with whom the U.S. had fairly amicable relations.

Socialist Yugoslavia was the most advanced state that had ever existed in the region in regard to its people’s quality of life. However, Yugoslavia, like the Soviet Union, made serious errors in dealing with questions connected to the traumas of the Second World War, errors that ultimately strengthened its internal and external enemies.

The Soviets defined WWII as a struggle between fascists and anti-fascists only, and, for example, refused to address the specific genocide directed against Jewish people.

The Yugoslavs also defined the conflict as one between fascists and anti-fascists and failed to deal with the decimation of Serbian people and the genocide carried out by the Croatian fascist Ustasha.

Broader ideals of internationalism and friendship of peoples were asserted rather than effectively implemented. However, these errors should not be exaggerated. As many Yugoslavs contend, intermarriage between people of Muslim and Christian backgrounds in Bosnia, and of course, between Serbians and Croatians, along with friendly relations between the various peoples of Yugoslavia, did exist at a much higher level than in the prewar era or at any time in the history of the region.

The former socialist Yugoslavia was made up of six republics and two autonomous provinces. The republics were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia, of which the two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, were a part.

In less than 50 years, under Communist leadership, the peoples of Yugoslavia made substantial progress in living, working and advancing together after six centuries of political, religious and ethno-cultural division and separation at the hands of empires seeking to dominate and exploit them.

New conditions, problems

Meanwhile, the global inflation of the 1970s and 1980s negatively affected both capitalist and socialist countries, especially Yugoslavia. Capital-poor socialist countries had no captive markets and cheap labor “enterprise zones” abroad, and were much less likely to receive investment from the capitalist International Monetary Fund/World Bank system because of their restrictions on capital.

Yugoslavia also continued to face attacks by influential émigré Croatian rightists, including Ustasha elements, centered in West Germany, Canada and the U.S. This network funded anti-Yugoslav elements in the country and used terrorist assassinations, bombings and plane hijackings against Yugoslav officials and resources.

In the Serbian province of Kosovo, whose population is majority Albanian, Albanian nationalists in the 1980s attacked the Serbian minority and demanded autonomy. In Croatia, rightists supported by both nationalist émigré groups and the Vatican grew more brazen with attacks on Serbians and advocacy of an “independent” Croatia.

The Vatican, which has never acknowledged either its support for the wartime Ustasha regime or its well documented assistance to various fascist war criminals to escape capture after WWII, played a major role in providing assistance to anti-socialist elements in the region.

Socialism destroyed

Following the destruction of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was dismembered.

Like in the Soviet Union, former communists had a hand in the destruction. Franjo Tudgman, a former member of the League of Yugoslav Communists (the successor to the CPY), formed a nationalist “democratic movement” that defeated Communists in elections in Croatia in 1990 and then embarked upon a separatist path. He openly identified with right-wing Croatian nationalists of the past and eventually embarrassed his NATO-bloc supporters by denying the scope of the WWII Holocaust.

Together, people of Serbian and Croatian background constituted the overwhelming majority of Yugoslavians. Without Croatia, Yugoslavia could not exist. A bloody and complicated civil war then developed, with Croatians leaving the Yugoslav army to join the Croatian separatist army. The Serbian Milosevic-led government fought to sustain Yugoslavia. The Tudgman-led Croatian government fought for a separatist state. Anti-communist forces in Bosnia appealed to the Muslim-majority population and launched their own separatist war. The Serbians then moved to form their own state in Bosnia as ethnic massacres and atrocities escalated on all sides in the region.

Major capitalist states established economic sanctions and intervened militarily against Yugoslavia, which at that point consisted of Serbia and Montenegro. The U.S. and NATO conducted military campaigns, including a 78-day bombardment of Serbia in 1999. Depleted uranium, land mines and other remnants of that war remain a long-term problem for the region.

These states supported the dismemberment as both a victory against any state identified with socialism, and a regional re-division that would permit them more access to exploit its resources and labor force.


As the 21st century began, the imperialist states had once more “balkanized” the Balkans and agreed among themselves to keep it weak, divided and dependent. In Bosnia, for example, the Christian Science Monitor reported an unemployment rate of 49 percent in 2003. In Croatia, youth unemployment today is 34 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program. Travelers mention huge increases in unemployment and neglect of basic infrastructure, along with the failure to repair the devastation of the civil war.

All of this has produced great cynicism along with deepening ethno-cultural hostilities. Yugoslavia, led by the League of Communists, stressed fraternal relations and mutual respect among the constituent republics, including the minority nationalities within the republics. The “post-Communist” states of Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, etc., define themselves on nationalist grounds and in effect make sections of the populations “foreigners” on land where their families have lived for centuries.

The struggle continues

For the peoples of dismembered Yugoslavia, it will be a long and difficult road back from the disaster that has befallen them. Yet, forms of economic and social cooperation and reconstruction on the basis of self-determination and equality are in the self-interest of the peoples of the Balkans, as they are in the interests of the people of the U.S.

We both have been victimized, although in different ways, by the advance of reactionary imperialist forces over the last generation. We both, along with the working people, labor and left forces throughout the world, have a common interest in fighting imperialism in favor of the positive policies of social reconstruction, internationalism and peace that appeared to be on the horizon at the end of WWII.


Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.