Murder and Fascism – Rise of the Ustaše | BETWEEN 2 WARS I 1934 Part 3 of 4

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In 1934, the world witnesses the very public rise of a Croat terror organization in Yugoslavia that will eventually collaborate with the Nazis and commit hideous crimes against humanity during WW2. It is the Ustasa. Welcome to Between-2-Wars a chronological summary of the interwar years, covering all facets of life, the uncertainty, hedonism, and euphoria, and ultimately humanitys descent into the darkness of the Second World War. Im Indy Neidell. As we have seen, the 1930s is a decade where rulers across the world try to mold their countries and subjects into their own worldviews. Hitler approaches it by creating a state within the state that then proceeds with the total Nazification of Germany; in the Soviet Union, Stalinist economic policy attempts to transform the economy via a “revolution from above”; Both approaches start with an underground extremist political movement centered on political violence. In the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, this will all come together in fateful combination for a monarch who has done everything he can to forcefully unify a quarreling nation often paralyzed by ethnic conflict. That monarch is King Aleksandar I, who as we saw in our previous episode on Yugoslavia had done away with the parliamentary system and made himself dictator, in an effort to forge a single Yugoslav identity and put an end to the “tribal” division that he thought were destroying his country. One of the most radical changes he introduces is the Banovina system which reorganizes the Kingdom into nine new provinces which carefully ignore ethnic boundaries or old borders. He couples such reorganization with the suppression of his opponents. And as the 30s begin, Aleksandar and his Prime Minister, Petar Zivkovic, appear to have everything under control. Vladko Macek, leader of the now-banned Croat Peasant Party (HSS), is safely in jail and awaiting trial because of his alleged involvement with a separatist bomb plot; Svetozar Pribicevic, a Democrat, and a leading opposition voice allied to the Croat Nationalists is under virtual house arrest in Serbia; the illegal Communist Party is under constant police surveillance, and other opposition leaders are lying low. But there is an undercurrent of resentment felt by many of the Kings subjects. When Macek and over 20 other defendants go on trial in April 1930, it quickly turns into a public fiasco. Many of the defendants retract previous confessions, claiming that they were extracted under torture. Macek and his legal team deny the charge of separatism, but also openly denounce the proceedings as an act of propaganda. Macek and seven co-conspirators are acquitted. Thirteen others receive jail sentences, and the accusations of torture leave a bitter aftertaste with much of the Croat public. Conscious that this can easily trigger “tribal loyalties,” Aleksandar and Zivkovic move to mobilize popular support. They seed a new regime-friendly “grassroots” movement amongst Croat peasants to supplant the influence of the HSS. With the help of Karla Kovacevic, former vice president of the HSS, they create the “Yugoslav Peasant Movement” with almost weekly pro-Yugoslavian mass rallies throughout Croatia. They fund cultural organizations to publish journals and calendars and run libraries and archives that promote the Yugoslav idea. And they make sure that any resistance is held in check by an efficient police state. As soon as Aleksandar seized power, he had enacted several laws to create a new security apparatus primed to monitor and pressure any potential political threats. Anyone who wants to hold a public meeting has to request permission three days in advance, provide authorities an agenda for the meeting, and accept the presence of a police agent who has the power to disperse it immediately if he deems it unlawful. Special courts are set up to deal with any acts of treason. Control over the press is tightened with state censors given significant power to ban anything which might threaten the regime. Their primary targets are stories about Croat-Serb disputes and economic difficulties, but the paranoia of authorities sometimes goes further. For instance, an article on the Indian independence movement is censored out of a Croat paper for being an analogy for independence. Paranoia spreads through state security institutions. Thousands of politicians are monitored daily, every minute detail of their lives recorded. But even fairly apolitical citizens draw the spying eye of the state. Choral groups are disbanded by authorities if they are unable to sing the Yugoslav national anthem. Teachers are monitored closely for any sign that they are not wholly devoted to Nationalist education. Denunciations are encouraged

with frequent cases of citizens accusing one another of insulting the King or displaying tribal symbols. It checks organized resistance for now, but the colossal effort burdens a regime that soon seems to be running out of steam. Aleksandar and Zivkovic are running out of ideas. In the first year of the dictatorship, 163 new laws introduce significant changes. But already in 1930, only one or two acts of relevant legislation can be considered as substantial. Not a big deal if they would so far be successful in cementing their goal of Yugoslavism right? But that is hardly the case. The countless rallies by Kovacevic’s Yugoslav Peasant Movement havent really managed to engage the Croat peasants for Yugoslavism. They dismiss participants and speakers as sycophant opportunists. By 1931 the movement is already fading into insignificance. Muslims in the Bosnia and Herzegovina region are also suspicious of the regime. They resent its tendency to view Islam as a barrier to further integration. While authorities make concerted efforts to intervene in religious matters, they fail or decline to investigate reported cases of discrimination and abuse by state operatives. Now, the common gripe amongst most non-Serbs is that Yugoslav unitarianism is basically an unconvincing cover for Serb dominance. But many Serbs are also dissatisfied. King Aleksandar, viewed by Serbs as their champion, has also taken away their political representation and democratic rights. Professors at the University of Belgrade fume at being forced to focus their lessons on “Yugoslav history” and literature instead of continuing to follow Serbian biased historiography and culture. Continued economic hardship doesnt help. Agricultural prices, although taking slightly longer to fall than other South Eastern European countries, have by now plummeted. Protectionist isolationism has gripped many industrialized foreign countries during the trade war launched by the US Smoot Hawley Act in 1930. By 1934 Yugoslav exports have fallen by 58%. The German Banking Crisis of 1931 also impacts Yugoslavia. The Austrian bank, Creditanstalt, whose collapse triggered the crisis in the first place, was the largest lender to Yugoslavia. As the domino effect topples bank after bank, any alternatives are eliminated, and Yugaolavias pool of credit dries up. That could be mitigated somewhat by German Reparations, but the Hoover Moratorium, which effectively ends Germanys reparations obligations also cancels the annual payment of $16 million Yugoslavia receives. As always, economic difficulties drive political decisions in a new direction. France is pressuring Aleksander to return to democracy. When in 1931 they offer a badly needed loan, under the condition of a new constitution, the King agrees. But despite royal assurances, its hardly a return to democracy. The highest goal of Yugoslav unity is used to justify hugely restrictive regulations of the re-established “parliamentary” system. New electoral rules are designed to prevent any tribal or religious parties remerging. In practice, this means that no meaningful opposition can be elected at all. Candidates can only stand if they have support in every single one of the 306 electoral districts, and can only run if they are on a government-approved list. A Senate system is also introduced, but this is similarly restrictive, with the King selecting half of the members personally and the loyal Banovina councils the rest. The first election is announced for November 8, but only the governments party is allowed to stand. Elections proceed despite a joint statement from leaders of the former major parties; the Radicals, the Agrarians, the Democrats, the Slovene Peoples Party, and the Yugoslav Muslim Organization declaring that the new constitution has changed nothing. Macek and his HSS are not signatories; instead, they author a leaflet calling on Croats to boycott the election. In the run-up to voting day, the state apparatus does everything they can to encourage participation. The press reminds readers that failure to vote is a betrayal of the millions who died for Yugoslavia in the Great War. Police also ramp up surveillance of any “tribalist” individuals and take action against anyone encouraging a boycott. Predictably, the government party wins the election. In December it is given a name: Yugoslav Radical-Peasant Democracy, a cumbersome amalgamation of the names of previous parties to provide some sense of continuity. But this effort to force unity soon backfires. Factions now start to emerge within the single-party. Some Croat deputies grow increasingly rebellious, and probe how far they can forward tribal interests and get away with it. Some of the Serb deputies start planning for a revival of the Radical Party. In April 1932, as things

continue to deteriorate, the King forces Prime Minister Zivkovic to retire. His successor only lasts a couple of months and is replaced in July by Milan Srskic. But he wont really do much other than aggravate groups already resentful of the government. And resentful they are. Despite the lack of organized resistance, spontaneous peasant riots are frequent in 1932. In one incident near Ludbreg, 200 hundred angry Croat peasants march along a country road to personally confront the governor of their Banovina, all while waving Croatian flags and singing nationalist hymns. Constitutional resistance re-emerges. Frustrated by the lack of change, ex-politicians from the Croatian Peasant Party, Independent Democrats, and other federalist and even separatist groups, draft the Zagreb Points in November 1932. The resolution condemns royal absolutism and demands a reorganization of the state with respect for autonomous interests. The resolution triggers similar demands from Slovene and Muslim leaders. The King does make a small concession, loosening electoral regulations somewhat. Other than this, however, nothing changes. No new elections are held, and Macek is again thrown into prison at the beginning of 1933. The other Croat leader, Pribicevic, had been freed from his internment in 1931 because of ill health and allowed to emigrate. Free from the risk of prison, he will now mount an intense campaign against Aleksandars rule form abroad. But there are more sinister forces for Aleksandar on the horizon. There has always been another side to the Croat nationalism beyond the HSS and its constitutional politics. The most significant radical movement is the Croatian Party of Rights. Active since the mid-19th century, the Party of Rights espouses extreme Croat nationalism and anti-Serb feeling. Founded on the principle of a Greater Croatia, many of its leaders have denied the existence of separate Serb, Slovene, and Bosnian Muslim nationalities altogether, seeing them instead as Croats corrupted by foreign influence. The Party of Rights has never been able to build a mass movement, being side-lined by the charismatic Radic and his peasant following. Many no longer live in Yugoslavia, and the ones in the country have been operating underground since Aleksandars dictatorship began. The more militant members both at home and abroad are now coalescing around Ante Pavelic. He is currently in exile making connections with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, the IMRO a long-established militant movement for an autonomous Macedonia. This has resulted in Pavelic being sentenced in death in absentia, which only heightens his radical credentials. Even before he left Croatia, Pavelic had set up a rudimentary paramilitary group and an underground newspaper. Now a more forceful movement gains importance under Pavics leadership. Founded in 1930 it is called the Ustasa after the Croatian verb ustati to rise up. Its constitution is released in 1932 and declares that the “movement has the task to liberate Croatia under foreign yoke, with all means, including an armed uprising, in order that it become a completely free and independent state on the whole of its historic ethnic territory.” Pavelic and the Ustasa find natural allies in the growing fascist movement throughout Europe. The Ustasa reject parliamentary democracy, espouse fundamentalist Roman Catholicism, have extreme nationalism as their ideological bedrock, and foster cults of violence and strong one-man leadership. In contrast to other fascists, Pavelic has no interest in mass politics. Instead, his movement is made up of a small and elite fighting force engaging in violent terrorism. An Ustasa insurgent, according to Pavelic, “must be severe and merciless, without mercy and pardon, for his duty is to lessen the pain of the Croatian people with fire, iron and blood, to crush with force the neck of the foreign parasite and so liberate his homeland.” With this in mind, training camps are set up in Hungary and Italy, two powers with territorial claims against Yugoslavia, who also provide a great deal of funding to the burgeoning group. From these camps, acts of terror are planned and executed. These primarily involve planting time bombs on trains to Yugoslavia to cause material destruction, fear, and chaos. In September 1932, a small uprising in the Lika region of Croatia is planned, with a police station being raided by Ustaše. It is, however, quickly crushed, but it unnerves Yugoslav authorities who are unsure how powerful the movement is. By 1934, the Ustase number 600 members, all are well trained and fanatically committed to an independent Croatia. Throughout all this unrest, resentment, and terrorist fermentation, Aleksandar has slowly been retreating from public and

domestic politics. Ruling is increasingly left to the JRSD, renamed the Yugoslav National Party (JNS) in July 1933, whose ministers and loyal press largely manage to keep the King placated as he focuses on foreign policy. Local elections in October 1933 are once again profoundly undemocratic but this time also exceptionally mishandled. Government ministers make no effort to be subtle in the intimidation of voters and manipulation of results. The King takes the ministers assurances that the results demonstrate his nation is happy. In the aftermath of the election, a British diplomat laments that the only person in the Kingdom fooled by the election is the King himself. And it does seem that both the King and his government fail to see any danger at this point. In the wake of the chaotic elections, the British Consul in Zagreb reports that “every section of the population of Slovenia and Croatia cordially hates the Belgrade Government and bitterly resents the failure of the Monarch to attempt to remedy the situation.” On a royal visit to Zagreb to celebrate his birthday on December 16, authorities foil a Ustasa assassination plot. The police only tell Aleksandar about this the following day. He reacts pretty calmly and decides to stay in the city as planned until December 26. As 1934 rolls around, Yugoslavia simply seems to be adrift. Srskic resigns as prime minister in January and is replaced by Nikola Uzunovic who continues the same policy of issuing the same unitarian slogans, the same unitarian policies, and the same police repression that has been the order of the day since 1929. But change seems to be in the air. On advice from France, Aleksandar has softened government relations with the HSS. Indeed just before embarking on a visit to France on a diplomatic mission, he tells a confidant that upon his return “I will do everything that is necessary to form a Royal government from all former political groups or parties, respectively, which have until now been in opposition.” But hell never be able to make this happen. He arrives at the French port of Marseilles on October 9, 1934. The King and the French Foreign Minister ride through streets flocked with onlookers and cameras. A gunman leaps forward shooting at the King and the Minister. Aleksandar dies instantly, victim of one of the first assassinations captured on film. The attack is carried out by Vlado Chernozemski a member of the IMRO and an instructor at an Ustasa camp in Hungary. In fact, the assassination is a joint effort from the two anti-Yugoslav terrorist groups. Chernozemski tries to flee the scene but is cut down by a police saber, shot in the head, and then savagely beaten by the crowd. Somehow he survives and is taken for interrogation. He dies later that evening. Three Ustasa members have traveled with Chernozemski to support his effort, are also unable to escape, and are arrested. Surprisingly, and despite governmental fears, ethnic violence does not flare up in reaction to the Kings death. In fact, Aleksandars body first comes to Zagreb to lie in state and is visited by an estimated 200,000 Croats. Yugoslav flags fly at half-mast across the entire Kingdom. His grand funeral takes place in Belgrade, and some nationalist firebrands are even released from prison to attend proceedings. One Slovene politician is quoted as saying that “everything else is forgotten” and that “we ought to work and live for Yugoslavia.” Macek is also freed in December and similarly appeals for unity. Foreign leaders also pay their respects. Hermann Göring from Germany and Phillipe Petain from France solemnly attend the event. But is is not over; instead, Aleksandars death has put an end to any unification process. The rest of the decade will see further stratification along ethnic lines, the continued influence of fascist ideology, and growing public apathy. In 1941, when the Nazi war machine turns to the East, Pavelic and the Ustasa will join them, grow into an army and proceed to subjugate, oppress, incarcerate, and murder hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Yugoslav Jewish, Roma, and Sinti men, women, and children. If you havent seen our first two installments on interwar Yugoslavia, then you can watch them right here. Our TimeGhost Army member this week is [!!!]. Thanks to people like [!!!] we are able to continue making quality historical content such as this, so do the right thing and subscribe to us on Patreon. Subscribe, ring the bell and…

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