Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence

Out of the chaos of the Balkan Wars and World War I emerged a South Slav state whose principal ethnic communities maintained a shaky union that completely disintegrated with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

Although President Woodrow Wilson believed that the Slavic peoples of southern Europe shared a common national identity that made them prime candidates for a state of their own under the principle of national self-determination, the Croatians, Serbs, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and other former subjects of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the region did not. During the nineteenth century, most of them, especially the two largest communities—the Serbs and the Croats—had developed separate national identities based on different histories, religions, and, in some instances, alphabets. Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes;independence
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
[kw]Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence (Dec. 1, 1918)
[kw]Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence, Kingdom of the (Dec. 1, 1918)
[kw]Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence, Kingdom of the Serbs, (Dec. 1, 1918)
[kw]Slovenes Declares Independence, Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and (Dec. 1, 1918)
[kw]Independence, Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares (Dec. 1, 1918)
Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes;independence
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
[g]Balkans;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
[g]Croatia;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
[g]Serbia;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
[g]Slovenia;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
[g]Yugoslavia;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
[c]Independence movements;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 1, 1918: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Declares Independence[04560]
Korošec, Anton
Trumbić, Ante
Pašić, Nikola
Alexander I
Wilson, Woodrow

By the early twentieth century, Serbian nationalism had departed from its idealistic, pan-Slavic origins and was focused on creating a Serbian nation that included many regions where Serbs dwelt, even though in areas like Croatia the Serbs were ethnic minorities. In 1878, Serbia and Montenegro had achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire’s rule, and Serbian nationalists were already focused on liberating other Serb-occupied lands from Ottoman and Austrian rule. This desire for independence was often accompanied by the fervor that drove a young Bosnian Serb to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 in the hope of ending Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia.

The wars in the Balkans did not, however, begin with an assassin’s shot in Sarajevo. By 1914, intrigue, perfidy, and political rivalry had already produced two wars and multiple alliances of convenience among the region’s principal Slavic communities. The First Balkan War (October, 1912-May, 1913), Balkan Wars (1912-1913) pitted Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece against Turkey and resulted in Serbian reacquisition of several Serb-populated areas of the Ottoman Empire, including the city of Kosovo and large portions of western Macedonia. Soon after the First Balkan War ended, however, conflict among the victors over Macedonia’s final division led Bulgaria (with encouragement from the Austro-Hungarians) to attack its former allies in June of 1913, triggering the Second Balkan War. This time, Greece, Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, and Turkey joined forces to rout Bulgaria. Serbia’s success in the two wars had nearly doubled its territory, and Serbian nationalism gathered momentum. The conflict’s next round focused on Bosnia, whose annexation by Austria in 1908 had thwarted Serbia’s pursuit of land to the west. When the archduke was assassinated, threats and counterthreats involving the investigation of the murder triggered a network of secret treaties of mutual assistance on all sides, and World War I began.

At the war’s outset, Croats, Slovenes, and even Serbs living in parts of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire battled the besieged region of Serbia and Montenegro. In late 1914, however, the dynamics of the war changed when Slovene, Croatian, and Serbian nationalist leaders announced their intention to create a united South Slav state at the war’s end. Slovenes and Croatians had previously contemplated the creation of a South Slav state of their own under Austrian sponsorship, but wartime exigencies gave the idea a new direction. As the war progressed, the idea also gained support among the Allied Powers as hundreds of thousands of Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, and Montenegrins died in battles against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. On the diplomatic and political front, Serb, Slovene, and Croatian leaders aggressively worked toward that objective. In London, for example, Ante Trumbić and others from the Dalmatian region of Croatia formed the Yugoslav Committee in an attempt to convince the Allies to repudiate the Treaty of London (1915), London, Treaty of (1915) in which the British, French, and czarist Russian governments promised much of Croatia to Italy in return for its support.

In July of 1917, Trumbić and the Serbian leader Nikola Pašić signed the Declaration of Corfu, Declaration of Corfu (1917) in which they agreed to form a democratic Serb, Slovene, and Croat state governed by a constitutional monarchy. Toward that end, a National Council of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs was formed to take control of the future country. In October, 1918, Austro-Hungarian forces in the region collapsed, and World War I ended one month later. Under the leadership of Anton Korošec, the National Council had already become the de facto government of Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia, although details concerning the rights of minorities and the form of government were still to be negotiated.

When Italian forces quickly launched an attack against Dalmatia, the negotiation of details was tabled in favor of the quick construction of the state and Serbian royal dynasty. On December 1, 1918, the kingdom announced its independence. It was immediately recognized by the victorious wartime powers at Versailles, although the Versailles delegates did express concerns about the new state’s stability and its policies on the rights of minorities. In the short term, the latter issue led the League of Nations League of Nations;minority rights to make the adoption of minority-rights charters in each of the new European states (carved from the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires) a prerequisite of official recognition. Unfortunately, despite these covenants, minority rights languished in the region. Matters were made more complicated by disputes between the Croats and Serbs over the state’s form—the Croats favored a loose federation of states, whereas the Serbs wanted a centralized country under Serb rule—and this disagreement destabilized the kingdom for nearly a decade.


In 1929, the Serbian king Alexander I assumed dictatorial powers and renamed the country Yugoslavia (land of the Slavs). Five years later, while vacationing out of the country, Alexander died at the hands of an assassin with Croatian connections. Political conflict between the Croats and Serbs continued until Germany invaded Yugoslavia in June of 1941, an event that ended both the debate and the pre-World War II Yugoslav state.

Yugoslavia’s interwar history was filled with ethnic strife, and many Yugoslav lives were lost during World War II. To secure its hold on Yugoslavia, German occupiers exploited anti-Serbian sentiments and created puppet governments in Croatia and in the primarily Muslim region of Kosovo (in present-day Serbia and Montenegro). Frequently, Croats used the cover provided by the German army to settle old scores with the Serbs. In response, Tito Tito (born Josip Broz), the leader of the Yugoslav Communist Partisans, led a resistance that killed at least 200,000 Yugoslavs, most of whom were Croats.

Under Tito’s independent communist regime, postwar Yugoslavia was relatively stable, and the danger of a backlash was somewhat mitigated by the fact that Tito was a Croat by birth. Above all, however, ethnic strife was tabled during Tito’s regime and for a decade thereafter by Tito’s systematic efforts to unite Yugoslavs around a transnational identity and by the persistent threat of Soviet intervention in Yugoslav politics (although he was initially aligned with Joseph Stalin, Tito broke with the Russian leader after World War II).

With Tito’s death in 1980, the foundation of Yugoslav politics—which had seemed shaky even at Versailles—began to erode. This disintegration quickened as the Soviet Union began to liberalize and tolerate more political debate, and old divisions between Yugoslav communities resurfaced. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did Yugoslavia: In 1991, Croatia and Bosnia—which both had large Serbian minorities—seceded, and this led to the dissolution of the South Slav state of Yugoslavia in a series of civil wars whose most intense period lasted roughly from 1991 to 1995. This conflict was so bloody and vile that the United Nations was forced to create a permanent War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague where cases arising from the Yugoslav wars were still being heard a decade after their end. Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes;independence
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period

Further Reading

  • Benson, Leslie. Yugoslavia: A Concise History. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Excellent follow-up reading on both the origins and development of the area formerly known as Yugoslavia.
  • Curtis, Glenn E., ed. Yugoslavia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1992. The last edition of the long-trusted Library of Congress study of the country, this volume contains an excellent summary of Yugoslavia’s founding and a wealth of data on the nature of the state on the eve of its disintegration.
  • Lederer, Ivo. J. Yugoslavia at the Paris Peace Conference: A Study of Frontier-Making. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. Older but widely available and still perhaps the most detailed account of the critical, World War I-era state-making days.
  • Ramet, Sabrina P. 1996. Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to Ethnic War. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press/HarperCollins. An outstanding analysis of the country’s final days.

Ilinden Uprising in Macedonia

Balkan Wars

Outbreak of World War I

Birth of Czechoslovakia