Myth: The people of Croatia asked to join Serbia in forming Yugoslavia in 1918.
Reality: The people of Croatia did not ask to join Serbia in 1918. The elected representatives of the Croatian people voted for a "Neutral and Peasant Republic of Croatia" in 1918.
The Yugoslav Committee
The basis of the myth that Croatia willingly joined Serbia in 1918 is to be found in the complex history of the Yugoslav Committee. The Yugoslav Committee was formed by exiles living outside the Croatian homeland during World War I. The Committee was led by Franjo Supilo and Ante Trumbic and included the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Each repudiated the Committee within a few years of the founding of Yugoslavia.
"Yugoslavs" were Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian people who identified themselves with the movement toward a single Yugoslav or South Slavic state. Exiled Yugoslavs living in North America and Britain were the primary supporters of the Yugoslav Committee. Having established offices in London and Paris as early as 1915, the Yugoslav Committee became an active lobby for the cause of a united South Slav state during the First World War.
The concept of a united South Slavic state had been discussed by Croatian and Slovenian intellectuals since the mid-nineteenth century. In reality, the "Yugoslav Idea" never matured from the conceptual to practical state of planning. Few of those promoting such an entity had given any serious consideration to what form the new state should take. Nevertheless, the Yugoslav Committee issued a manifesto calling for the formation of such a South Slavic state on May 12, 1915. The document, like the rhetoric of those who produced it, was vague concerning the form and system of government. It received little official recognition. At the same time Serbia, led by Nikola Pasic's pan-Serbian Radical Party, saw the "Yugoslav" concept as a useful tool in the long sought development of a "Greater Serbia." As the War dragged on, the Allies began to think of the concept of Yugoslavia as a blocking force in the Balkans to counter future German expansionism. Although no formal agreement was announced until July 1917, the Yugoslav Committee and the Serbian Government-in-Exile worked hand-in-hand from November 1916 onward.
On July 20, 1917, the Serbian government and the Yugoslav Committee issued the text of an agreement known as the Declaration of Corfu, which called for the formation of a multi-national state. The document was deliberately mute as to whether the government would take the form of Western-oriented Croatia or of the Eastern-oriented Serbia. The vast majority of the Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian people had no knowledge of the declaration made by a small group of exiled intellectuals and the Serbian Government-in-Exile. Nonetheless, the signers claimed to speak for all South Slavic peoples and the Declaration of Corfu became the justification claimed by Serbia for the forced unification of Croatians and Slovenes under the Serbian crown.
The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes
As the War drew to a close, the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to disintegrate. The Croatian Sabor or Parliament met in Zagreb on October 29, 1918, to declare "the Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia" to be a free and independent state. The Habsburg Crown recognized Croatia and transferred the fleet to the Croatian government on October 31st. The Croatian government in Zagreb was fully formed before the fall of Austria, Germany, or Hungary. The Yugoslav National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was organized in Zagreb on October 15, 1918. This twenty-eight member Council was self-appointed, not elected. Although its president was a Slovene, the Council was dominated by Svetozar Pribisevic, a Serb. On November 24th this self appointed group called for a common state with Serbia. This is the body so often cited as having "asked" to join Yugoslavia.
The mythology overlooks another Congress held just blocks away on the very next day. This was the Congress of Stjepan Radic's Croatian Peasant Party attended by almost three thousand elected delegates from every part of Croatia. The Peasant Party was the largest and most popular party in Croatia at that time and would remain so during the period between the Wars. It won absolute majorities in every subsequent election. This Congress assailed the National Council as arbitrary and unconstitutional and unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a "Neutral and Peasant Republic of Croatia." Following this Congress, there were huge demonstrations in the streets of Zagreb supporting independence.