Crucial to the understanding of the first Yugoslav state is the Croat relationship towards a union with other South Slavs (including the fellow Catholic Slovenes), which can be described as tenuous at best. The initial decision to accept unification with Serbia – already a fact on the ground by November 1918 – was driven in part by fear of falling under the rule of Italy or Hungary. Once the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established, however, Croat leaders began demanding political autonomy – a notion that ran contrary to the idea of brotherhood of South Slav tribes, as well as the political organization of the state as a centralized monarchy.
Serbo-Croat relations reached their nadir in 1928, as Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) deputies regularly insulted their Serb colleagues in the parliament. On June 20, an enraged Serb deputy shot HSS leader Radić and three of his associates in the parliamentary chambers. On January 6, 1929, King Aleksandar dissolved the parliament and established autocracy as an emergency measure. He also renamed the kingdom “Yugoslavia” and subdivided it into nine provinces (banovina), named after rivers.
Aleksandar’s attempt to foster Yugoslav unity failed. He was assassinated in 1934, during a state visit to France. With the growing threat from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the regency attempted to pacify the Croatians by giving them political autonomy: on August 1939, Prime Minister Dragiša Cvetković made a pact with the new leader of the HSS, Vladko Maček, and established the Province of Croatia (Banovina Hrvatska).
Map of Yugoslav provinces (banovina), with Croatia in red.
Eighteen months later, German tanks were greeted with flowers in the streets of Zagreb, and the Banovina became the Independent State of Croatia. Though Maček declined participation in the new regime, many of his followers joined the Ustasha, and some later joined the Communists. Maček himself spent the war underhouse arrest, and in 1945 emigrated to France, then to the United States, where he died in 1964.
Following the 1939 pact, Maček sent out a memorandum to all the subcommittees of his party. Its original was quoted in a 1997 book by Serbian-American historian Rade Rebić (see here); translation below courtesy of the Reiss Institute.
Memorandum from V. Maček to HSS sub-committees, August 1939:
“It is the duty of every individual and prominent member of the Croat National Movement to explain the real ideas behind the Agreement to our followers at every opportunity. Every member always has to bear in mind that the ways and means of the struggle are designed to minimize effort and casualties, while achieving the best possible results. The Croat Movement seeks to exploit every opportunity to achieve as much success as possible, which is why we made this Agreement as a tool of the struggle of Croatian people and peasants. Let it be clear, then, that in making the Agreement the Croat leadership did not renounce the ultimate objectives of the Croatian people.
What is to be done now is:
1. The Agreement achieves two of the Movement’s major objectives:
а) It breaks the unity of the state, dividing it into two entities. It will be the duty of Croat national leadership to reinforce and deepen this division.
b) it forces Belgrade – meaning the Cabinet and the Prince Regent – to abandon the idea of national unity, which is very important… Most importantly, it destroyed the very foundation of Yugoslavia… We need to always emphasize the separate character of Croat and Slovene people, thus flattering the Slovene faction of Dr. Korosec and provoking the public in Serbia.
2. The Agreement lets our deputies into the Cabinet as ministers. We need to always refer to them, internally and to the media, as “Croatian Ministers”. This ensures:
а) Participation in the government.
b) Control over the government, i.e. knowledge of policies and decisions.
c) Control of money, with the right to use state income to further the Croatian National Movement’s cause. This weakens the Belgrade government significantly, diminishes its area of influence, and makes the Croatian Ministers capable of further weakening the government and harming the state. At each opportunity the Croatian Ministers will agree and obtain further concessions to Croat separation… This position gives the Croatian Ministers a key to open many opportunities.
3. The Prince Regent is in our power now. We always appear cautiously faithful to him, while in reality he is a puppet on our string.
4. May our followers not be confused by statements made by Croatian Ministers or even the Prime Minister, in Belgrade. Those are merely formalities, meaningless, a deception.
5. In our press, in our statements and conversations, we need to attack all those who do not understand that the idea of national unity is now dead forever. We need to seek further autonomy and express dissatisfaction with the present Agreement, and always complain that it is not being fully implemented. That way, the Croatian Ministers and Prime Minister can always appear as friendly to the central government and the Prince, asking for new concessions and new rights for Croatia by invoking the need to appease popular discontent in the interest of the state union and betterment of Croat-Serb relations.
6. Avoid the use of “Province of Croatia” (“Banovina Hrvatska”), using instead simply Croatia, Croatian government, etc. Always speak of Croats, Croatian people, and point out Croatian identity as a factor in international relations of the state union. Never mention, neither in writing nor in speeches, either the state union or Yugoslavia
7. We need to achieve separation in sports, establish our own press office, our own radio, and at every opportunity present ourselves to the outside world as representatives of the Croatian people. Our Croatian Ministers will endeavor to always note their particular Croat identity in their official communications, promoting the separate character of Croatia and the Croatian people.
8. All the institutions, associations, enterprises, cultural societies and other such things must always be named as Croatian or Croat. Emphasis Croats everywhere and at every opportunity. Strictly separate Croat writers from the Serbs, Croat literature from the Serb, Croat history from the Serb. In short, always separate and divide…
9. The mission of our relevant agents will be to gradually remove all the traces of national unity. There is no mention of a Croatian coat-of-arms or flag in the Agreement, but there are avenues to introduce them, and the current government is unwilling and unable to prevent us from doing so. All we have to do is threaten to resign and they will cave.
10. We need to systematically purge and remove all words, names and designations in the Serb manner, used until now…
11. Open interference with the gendarmerie and the military would be difficult, as the Serbs are very sensitive on that matter and would react. We need to undermine them in other ways. Let us use the methods tested in Austro-Hungarian times. In particular we need to ensure that our followers, e.g. military physicians, infiltrate the highest ranks of the military. They can then weaken the military and erode the discipline… We will endeavor to persuade the government to trust the Croat Home Guard… Its organization should be patterned after the former Austro-Hungarian institution (“domobranstvo”), using the same names, same markings, same orders, etc. Especially nurture the spirit of the Home Guard, the Croat National Movement, and separate Croatian objectives.
12. Do everything to gradually abolish the celebration of Vidovdan… When the Sokols or other such organizations organize public celebrations, we need to interfere or even ban them outright…
13. Always point out that the Agreement is just a step in the process of achieving our objectives. Always talk about a free and independent, separate Croatia. Always speak of Croatian interests, Croatian rights, Croatian duties…
14. Our enemies are always to be attacked in the harshest terms, accuse them as corrupt, harmful to Croat interests, and oppressors of Croatian people… Their achievements are to be denigrated, their newsprint ignored or mocked, and they themselves ridiculed and derided.
15. The international situation is developing to our benefit. The Versailles system is collapsing, and Yugoslavia is that system’s artificial creation. Our leadership will strike a balance between the Axis and democracy… The primary objective is to destroy Yugoslavia. In that we have the full support of the Catholic Church, as well as international Communism.
16. These instructions are to be strictly followed, and interpreted appropriately to all sympathizers. Keep them secret and confidential. Croatian delegates will give everyone more detailed instructions. Forward, all, to a free and independent Croatian state!
With faith in God and peasant solidarity!”