Great War conflicts
The Great War grew out of the dilemmas of Austria-Hungary. The Dual Monarchy’s structure seethed with discontents that could not be dealt with without radical constitutional change: but any such changes were vetoed by Hungarian landowners and German nationalists. Balkan expansion was the technique used by the Dual Monarchy to try to square the circle: this led to enmity with the Kingdom of Serbia that drove Serbia into the arms of France and Russia. In the end, as Trifkovic notes, Austria-Hungary willed the war with Serbia that became the Great War. Local Croat nationalists saw the war with Serbia as part of a greater war with Serbs, including those within the Dual Monarchy. War against Serbia was popular with many Croats; a wave of lynchings of Serbs and looting of Serb property occurred even before war was declared. Such actions, and deportation of thousands of Serbs, continued for the rest of the War (Pp90ff).
Croat soldiers fought well for the Dual Monarchy, Czech soldiers badly. Serbia crushingly defeated the invasion. After the conquest of Russian Poland, Germany was free to intervene and Serbia was conquered, though the Serbian Army was evacuated by the Entente navies. The Dual Monarchy’s South Slav troops were mainly then used on the Italian front, as both Serbs and Croats could agree to oppose Italian claims. They were commanded by Field Marshal Svetozar Borojevic von Bojina, a Krajina Serb (Pp93ff).
As the Dual Monarchy frayed under the strain of war, President Wilson’s Fourteen Points exacerbated separatist tensions, even though the Fourteen Points envisaged autonomy within the Monarchy rather than independence outside it. When the Habsburg monarchy collapsed, the United States was the first country to recognise the new Yugoslavia. A unity Trifkovic argues came about 50 years too late: nationalist politics had generated too strong a sense of separate identities and bitter divisions. Alas:
In chaotic times, when sound policy is most needed, it is pretty ideas and tempting concepts that rule, however good or bad (p.96).Trifkovic himself regards the Serbia claim for South Slav unity, articulated after the first wave of victories against Habsburg forces, as “an act of bravado, if not downright folly” with destructive effects. This was an ambition of Serbian leaders, not its citizens: even though Serbia was a constitutional monarchy with adult male suffrage and, until the annexation of Kossovo and Macedonia in 1912, a culturally homogenous one.
One thing Trifkovic’s history makes obvious is that Balkan political leaders and intellectuals were rarely, if ever, committed to the national principle as a general principle, applying universally. It was, in the end, all about what you could get for your nation. But why would one expect the politics of group rights to operate any other way? If people “count” according to their group membership, then the better your group does, the better. And what reliable basis exists for making, enforcing and building mutually beneficial arrangements between groups? Particularly when political entrepreneurs will always arise willing to claim legitimacy by their absolute identification with one group (and against another)?
Croats began to see, as the Dual Monarchy crumbled, the South Slav Unity option as a protection against Italian claims. Croat leaders wanted the Serbian Army in so as to keep the Italians out and the Reds down. With the Serbian Regent’s acceptance of their support for combined Kingdom, Yugoslavia was born (Pp96ff).
And was in deep trouble from the beginning. Serbs outside Serbia greeted the advancing Serbian Army with jubilation. Most Croats felt the disappearance of Croatia into a Greater Serbia was intolerable:
From the moment of its creation at the end of the Great War until its disintegration just over seven decades later, Yugoslavia was constantly beset by national problems. These problems were dealt with in different ways and different intentions, on average once every decade: from the centralism of the Vidovdan Constitution to King Alexander’s imposition of Yugoslav integralism of 1929; from the quasi-federal of the Serb-Croat Agreement of 1939 to the bloody Stalinist dictatorship of 1945; from the quasi-federalism of the 1953 Federal People’s Republic (FNRJ) Constitution to the confederal ‘Amendments’ of 1968; and finally, from the chaos of Tito’s last period – embodied in the Constitution of 1974 – to the doomed attempt of his successors to keep the clumsy edifice functional amidst the collapse of communism and the emergence of a unipolar world. The national problems which proved impossible to solve in the first, royalist Yugoslavi (1918-1941) were no less difficult in the second, communist one (1945-1991) (Pp104-5).Both Royal and Titoist Yugoslavia collapsed under the weight of these “structural deficiencies”.
The root of which were Serb-Croat tensions where, apropos Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences”, what distinguished them was enhanced. Serbs would not accept being ruled by Croats or Croats being ruled by Serbs. Geographical dispersion made the first impossible to avoid even under the most federalist of arrangements, the reality of the Serbian Army being the basis of the creation of the state ensured Serb dominance. Croatian politics in the Yugoslavia state were national and unified: Serbian politics was political and divided. Frustration at the effective monopoly of Croatian politics by the Croatian People’s Peasant Party (Hrvatska pucka seljacka stranka, HPSS, later HSS) led Ante Pavelic to found the Ustasa as a violent quasi-fascist movement: one which denied any legitimacy whatsoever to Serbian claims within “historic” Croatia.
A war of horrors
The realism of Prince Paul’s Regency government (the Ustasa having arranged King Alexander’s assassination in 1934) in attempting to come to some arrangement with Croat aspirations, and with Hitler, was undermined by the Government’s lack of Serb support. Signing a Pact with Hitler which achieved as much as was practical in the circumstances provoked a military coup whose only clear goal was rejection of said Pact: this proved both very popular among Serbs and utterly disastrous. Nazi Germany and its allies attacked and overwhelmed Yugoslavia in 10 days. Yugoslavia was promptly dismembered – bits to Germany, bits to Italy, bits to Hungary, bits to Bulgaria, Serbia under German occupation and an expanded Croatia under Ustasha rule. As Trifkovic observes “the Serbs have not recovered since” (p.124).
Not that this was some pre-conceived plan: even Ustasa rule was an improvisation. But one assisted by the HSS leader asking for “sincere cooperation” with the new regime. The entry of German troops into Zagreb was popular (p.129). The Ustasa regime proved disastrous, however. Pavelic’s:
mix of Nazi brutality and racism, fascist irrationality and reinvented primitivism soon turned Croatia into a pandemonium of anarchy and genocide (p.128).Extermination of Jews, Gypsies and Serbs within Croatia became Ustasa policy, one Pavelic felt was authorised by Hitler (p.137). A policy which included an extraordinary law allowing execution within two hours of anyone who ‘offended the honour and vital interests of the Croat people’ or who ‘in whatever way’ threatened the Independent Croat State (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska NDH), though formal processes were soon dispensed with as too slow and cumbersome. Jewish property was seized and distributed to the Ustasa elite. Preparatory speeches pushing the ideology of ethnicity, religion and violence prepared the ground. Contradictory images of Serbs as both alien interlopers and apostates were simultaneously propounded: hate does not, however, require intellectual consistency, merely emotional consistency. In the words of the Minister for Education:
We have three million bullets for Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. We shall kill one third of all Serbs. We shall deport another third, and the rest will be forced to become Catholic (p.139).This one-third die, one-third expel, one-third convert formula was one widely attributed to a Jew-hating Czarist Minister (Konstantin Pobedonostsev) of a few decades previous.
The Catholic Church in Croatia was complicit in the Ustasa program, the Archbishop of Sarajevo declaring that there are “limits to love”, published a laudatory poem to Pavelic and stated that:
It is stupid and unworthy of Christ’s disciples to think that the struggle against evil could be waged in a noble way and with gloves on (Pp141-2).But the good Archbishop was upholding a long rhetorical tradition in attributing to Serbs (and, for that matter Jews) an identity of malevolence. Consider the words of Cardinal Count Kollonitsch, Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary in the beginning of the C18th that the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Arsenije III was solius diaboli filius (the son of the devil) and his flock diaboli asseclas (the devil’s dependants), hence it was important to ensure that “quietly and with little fuss” they be unified with the Church of Rome “even against their will” (p.46).
Ideas have consequences: centuries of establishment of identities of malevolence bore fruit. The Ustasa genocide – unprecedented in the bloody history of the Balkans – actually preceded the beginning of the Nazi genocide against the Jews by a few weeks and was undertaken with a brutality that shocked even Nazi observers: historians estimate that about half a million Serbs were slaughtered (some Nazi officials offered even higher estimates). Croatia’s Serbs suffered a rate of slaughter exceeded across Europe only by Jews. Mobile extermination squads roamed the countryside. Some Ustasa leaders openly acknowledged that the aim was to create new “demographic facts” no matter who won the War (Pp143ff).
Trifkovic contrasts the Nazi and Ustasa brutalities:
Whereas the Nazi Holocaust adopted the style and methods of a developed industrial state (complex equipment, intricate administrative network) Ustasa terror was ‘primitive’ and ‘traditional’. Nazi system included plans, reports, lists of victims, statistics: Ustasa orders were mostly oral and the apparatus of terror functioned in an arbitrary manner and with a random selection of targets and methods of killing. Nazi terror was for the most part depersonalized and bureaucratic, it was cold, abstract, objective – just like Nazi hatred; the Ustasas were direct and personal. Some aspects of Nazi terror, with its discipline and bureaucratic pedantry, were ‘puritannical,’ whereas the Ustasas engaged in orgies of sadistic violence, against children and adults alike. The commander of the (Italian) Sassari division reported that ‘population in some places were completely exterminated, after having been tortured and tormented’ (p.148).The details that Trifkovic recounts are appalling (Pp149-51).
All this was done quite openly, with maximum attempt to involve Croat and Muslim citizens by distributing to them the land and property of their slaughtered Serb neighbours. As Trifkovic points out, the “Serb question” had mattered far more to ordinary Croats than the “Jewish question” did to ordinary Germans. In the end, their lack of “industrial methods” was the only thing that frustrated the aim of eliminating all Serbs within Greater Croatia (Pp151-2).
Risings took place in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro in 1941: the first was about survival, the latter about resistance. The latter were effectively defeated and Serbia pacified prior to the arrival of the Red Army in 1944, the former continued so that Croatia was never pacified: when the choice was resistance or extermination, resistance could only be stopped by extermination, with the level of resistance in an area generally being directly proportion to the level of terror: there being only about 30,000 armed Ustasa, they could not be everywhere. Their German and Italian allies declined to help: Italian troops and authorities at times actively hindered Ustasa efforts (Pp153ff).
The Ustasa also – by killing the pillars of the old order, since the killings particularly targeted Serbian notables – cleared the ground for the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), whose ideological peregrinations (which included early flirting with allying with the Ustasa) are a Balkan (therefore particularly convoluted) version of the general Comintern gyrations of the period (Pp157ff).
German generals and officials agitated against the killings to Berlin and any Ustasa official they thought could be talked to, arguing (completely correctly) that the killings were creating revolt. While some were genuinely horrified, the disastrously disruptive effect was what most attracted German condemnation: after all, action against civilians was accepted Wehrmacht practice, but in a targeted form (Pp163ff).
The Italian approach – which aimed at pacification of their areas – often involved helping Serbs and expelling Ustasa, since that was the quickest and easiest way to pacification. But the Italian generals had more troops and more local autonomy than their German counterparts (Pp169-70).
Serbian civil war
To add to the horrors, the Serbs had their own civil war between the “royalist” Cetniks and the Communists. The ruthless specificity of German reprisals blunted Cetnik willingness to undertake actions against German occupation, the Italians were effectively defending Serb civilians, so Cetnik operations largely concentrated against the Ustasa. The combination of this with Stalinist penetration of Western intelligence services led to the Cetniks eventually being labelled “collaborators”. The Communists, whose violent resistance only started after 22 June 1941, acted to try and sabotage Italian-Serb rapprochement. The downward spiral into Serbian civil war was actively fostered by the Ustasa (Serbs killings Serbs was a dream come true) while the Italians – as they extended their area of control – attempted, often successfully, to isolate the Communist Party. Partisan attacks on Italian garrisons by forces driven out of Serbia and Montenegro attempted to undermine Italian-Serb rapprochement while Germany put pressure to halt the effectively pro-Cetnik Italian policy (since that created havens for the Cetniks to attack Germany’s Ustasa allies) (Pp171ff).
The Italian response was to reduce their area of control, which left a vacuum from which the Partisans gained the greatest advantage. Hitler’s response was to order the “pacification” of Yugoslavia: his concern was to eliminate the Cetniks since Serb nationalism was the great enemy (a sign of Pavelic’s continuing influence with Berlin). The German military sweeps battered the Partisans but Berlin still saw the Cetniks as the main enemy (partly due to fear of an Allied landing), while the Italian commander ordered his forces not to fight the Cetniks: his strategy was to use the Cetniks to blunt Partisan attacks, saving his own men. It is clear that Italian policy in Yugoslavia showed greater realism than did German, since it was not hobbled by giving any credence to Ustasa aims and claims even though Mussolini had provided Pavelic and the Ustasa refuge in the pre-War period. The autonomy of the Italian Army extended to effectively ignoring Mussolini’s orders where they contradicted their preferred strategy. Partisan attempts to negotiate a modus vivendi with German forces against the Cetniks failed due to Hitler’s determination to destroy all insurgent forces. A remark by Mihailovic, the Cetnik leader, that the Communists were worse than the Germans greatly damaged his reputation in London (Pp183ff).
Churchill, who had a recurring belief in the Balkans as a region of “strategic opportunity”, continued his pattern of errors about Gallipoli in 1915 and Greece in 1941 by backing Tito and rejecting the Cetniks as collaborators. A process aided by Stalinist double agents in British Intelligence (Pp191-2).
While Trifkovic does not go into detail, in the case of Gallipoli, Churchill supported an unsupported naval attack followed by an army attack – after the Turks had been suitably warned by the previous attack – completely ignoring pre-war Admiralty planning that called for a joint army-naval attack (which, if that had been the first attack, would have worked, since even the unsupported naval attack came close to suceeding). In Greece, he supported intervention when expelling the Italians from Libya had not been completed, provoking a massive German response in Greece and the despatch of Rommel and the Afrika Korps to Libya. True, it delayed Barbarossa by possibly crucial six weeks and, even more to point, wore down German elite forces (the paratroopers in particular were so mauled by the near defeat in Crete that the Germans never used them en masse again). But a heavy price in Balkan lives, Imperial troops and Royal Naval vessels was paid to not achieve the specific aims of the Greek campaign. By contrast, Churchill’s error in Yugoslavia had little effect on the course of the War: the damage to Western understanding of Yugoslavia realities was rather greater.
Meanwhile, Hitler continued to seek the elimination of the Cetniks and the Partisans. Yet, when Italy surrendered, Italian forces – on British orders – gave their weapons mostly to Tito’s forces. The combination of Partisan military success being particularly visible, British support for Tito (and resultant weapons supply), Mihailovic’s lack of political acumen and the Soviet Red Army’s arrival made Tito the winner of Serbia’s civil war. Some of the Cetniks managed to escape Tito’s forces and the Ustasa to be interned by the British as “surrendered enemy soldiers”. Thousands were forcibly repatriated to Tito, most of whom were summarily executed. The 14,000 who made it to Italy were more fortunate, as Truman’s anti-communism protected them from repatriation. They ended up emigrating to the US and other Western countries (Pp193ff).
The new, Stalinist, rulers of Yugoslavia set up borders that punished Serbs outside the 1914 boundaries of Serbia: the Krajina Serbs and all the other elements of the former Military Frontier were simply incorporated in Croatia. The Yugoslavia was built on three myths – the equal contribution of the peoples of Yugoslavia to resistance, the equal suffering under occupation and the equating of Ustasa and Cetniks. There was never a process of de-Nazification in Yugoslavia – even exhuming bodies in mass graves was blocked – since that would have exposed the founding lies of Tito’s Yugoslavia (Pp205ff).
The Krajina Serbs were a devastated community – one estimate was that 50,000 Serb households had been destroyed. Many were resettled in Vojvodina, in lands and property confiscated from the expelled Germans of the region. Schooling levels regressed while the Croat leadership starved Serb-majority areas of investment. A revolt against impossible food provision demands was brutally suppressed and Serbs in Croatia were systematically denied any institutions of leadership.
Tito set up a system of squabbling national Communist Parties with himself as arbiter. Eight million Serbs, 40% of Yugoslavia’s population, had effectively one-eighth of the voting power in the rotating collective bodies set up by the Constitution of 1974. This systematic diminution of Serb voice led directly to the later rise of Slobodan Milosevic after Tito’s death (Pp208ff).
The collapse of the Soviet bloc, and arrival of multi-party politics, in Yugoslavia detonated these tensions. The Ustasa genocide was still a living memory among Krajina Serbs while the “greater Croatia” of Tito’s boundaries became the focus of Croatian nationalism – thereby retaining Croatia’s “Serbian question”. The victory of Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Community (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica HDZ) with strong émigré links and clear intent to crush Serbian aspirations led to over 100,000 Serbs fleeing to Serbia. The Krajina Serbs decided that, if Croatia had the right to secede from Yugoslavia, they had the right to secede from Croatia. A local referendum affirmed support for Krajina autonomy: the Zagreb government declared it invalid. A Croatian referendum supported independence for Croatia and a new Constitution was proclaimed that denied the Serbs status as a constituent nation of Croatia. The intent to form a Krajina Serb republic was announced: other Serb communities stated they wished to join it. The EU announced that no redrawing of boundaries was to be recognised – a decision that special envoy Lord Owen denounced as folly (Pp212-4).
The Krajina Serbs demonstrated themselves capable of enforcing their ambitions on the battlefield, and a Serbian Krajina Republic came into existence, with other (but not always neighbouring) Serb areas joining in. The new Republic:
covered an area of 17,000 square kilometres, but it was strategically vulnerable, politically unconsolidated, and economically weak (p.215).A ceasefire, the Vance Plan, was arranged but resolved nothing. The original Krajina leader – Milan Babic – resigned and was replaced by Milosevic loyalist Goran Hadzic. Serbia was the isolated and impoverished Republic’s only economic support, but was itself under foreign economic sanctions. The corruption-riddled Republican government presided over economic collapse.
The Croatia Army launched periodic attacks, their military successes being followed by atrocities against Serb civilians. With NATO support and Belgrade’s indifference, Croatia launched its final assault in August 1995. The region was effectively – and clearly intentionally – ethnically cleansed of its Serbian population, only a few thousand (mainly elderly) Serbs remaining (Pp215ff).
Trifkovic ends with a summary of the history of the Krajina Serbs as a people with a glorious military tradition but a lack of focus worthy of their loyalty – the only constancy being their fidelity to Orthodoxy (until Communist dominance was imposed). He concludes: “but it is not over. In the Balkans, it never is” (Pp224-6).
The Krajina Serbs were a people whose history I was unaware of. It turns out that their story is central to Balkan history. Srdja Trifkovic’s The Krajina Chronicle: A History of Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia tells their story very well and, in the process, illuminates the tragedy of Yugoslavia, as well as wider trends in European history.