By Anne Snider, Purdue University PhD Candidate and National Postal Museum Guest Researcher
Yugoslavia has always been a multinational country; its people have different historical pasts and cultural traditions, including three main religions – Islam and two forms of Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Serbian Orthodoxy. These historical pasts were shaped by interactions with the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires that conquered and held portions of the northern and eastern regions of what later became Yugoslavia. After independence in 1918, successive Yugoslav governments dealt differently with the question of how to unite their citizens into a cohesive “Yugoslav,” literally “South Slav,” identity. All recognized the significance of postage stamps as a conduit to communicate with domestic and international audiences by highlighting important historical figures, political ideologies, cultural diversity, and technological advances.
Upon gaining independence in 1918, the government of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes—commonly known as Yugoslavia—had to rebuild its infrastructure from the ravages of war and unite multiple currencies and postal agencies into a single unified system. As a result, the first general issue Yugoslav postage stamps were not released until January 16, 1921. The interwar stamps of Yugoslavia frequently depicted the monarchy as seen here, Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević and his father King Peter I (Fig. 1). Postcards were also simple means to familiarize citizens with the various regions of Yugoslavia and their King. The image of the monarch was significant not only as the head of state, but also because both Prince Aleksandar and his father, King Peter I, had been on the battlefields during the war and worked side-by-side with soldiers to bring about Yugoslav independence. A postcard featuring an image of the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia and the 1931-34 stamp issue of King Aleksandar both served to personalize the monarchy and highlight the new, expanded territorial borders of Yugoslavia (Fig. 2).
During World War II, Yugoslavia was split by civil war and occupation. The Independent State of Croatia (NDH) emerged on April 10, 1941 following the invasion by Germany who then helped establish a fascist puppet regime under the leadership of Ante Pavelić. Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria occupied the remaining Yugoslav territory. Pavelić quickly harnessed postage stamps as a propaganda tool and continued to do so until Germany’s surrender in 1945. On December 3, 1941, the Croatian government released semi-postal stamps depicting Axis soldiers holding shields with the state emblems of NDH, Nazi Germany, and Italy (Fig. 3). The surtax from these stamps supported Croatian Volunteer soldiers fighting in the East.
Commissioning stamps that celebrated Croatian culture and artistry also helped promote a historical legitimacy that predated Habsburg and Serbian influence. For example, the stamp commissioned for the 1943 Croatian Philatelic Society Exhibition in Zagreb, designed by V. Kirin and engraved by K. Seizinger, depicts St. Mary’s Church and Cistercian Cloister in the medieval city of Zagreb in 1650 and tied the new state with a long ago historical past (Fig. 4).
Josip Broz Tito and his Partisans liberated Yugoslavia in 1945 and attempted to unite all its people under a new, non-nationalist foundational myth of the People’s Liberation Struggle to overthrow fascism. By doing so, Tito’s government sought to eliminate the nationalist strife that led to the civil war and instead unite Yugoslavs under the political ideology of Tito’s style of Socialism (Fig. 5). During the war, the People’s Liberation Struggle consisted of men, women, and children of all nationalities within Yugoslavia. It provided a platform that everyone could ostensibly unite behind—Croat, Serb, Macedonian, and Bosnian—and provided a symbol to which all citizens could lay claim. Images depicting male and female Partisans engaged in active combat against fascism emerged on postage stamps immediately following liberation in 1944 (Fig. 6) and continued to appear until Tito’s death in 1980.
Beginning in 1945 until Tito’s death in 1980 stamp designs were frequently commissioned by the communist government to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s liberation or the various military days. The imagery served as a reminder of the centrality of Tito as the leader who, with the help of all Yugoslavs, liberated Yugoslavia from fascism (Fig. 7).
By highlighting cultural diversity, for example through folk costumes from all regions of Yugoslavia (Fig. 8), and historical figures such as authors, artists, and scientists, postage stamps became an educational tool to celebrate the multiculturalism of Yugoslavia and the artistic achievements of all its citizens. Stamps also promoted Yugoslav technological advancement and carried motifs of attractive vacation locales to an international audience through air mail stamps, perhaps to encourage foreign tourism (Fig. 9).
Thus, Tito’s communist government unleashed the propaganda potential of postage stamps in a much more systematic fashion while at the same time celebrating ethnic diversity, and unlike during previous Yugoslav regimes, created optics that promoted inclusivity and equality.
I have highlighted here an extremely small sampling of the material I collected during my week at the National Postal Museum International Collection and Library. My dissertation analyzes material culture such as postage stamps and currency in much greater detail than I have done here. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Scott’s Publishing Company, 2018 Scott Standard Postage Stamp eCatalogue vol. 2 (New York: Scott Pub. Co., 2018), A710.