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Vol 2, No 19
15 May 2000
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Match Point,
Badly Played

Patrick FitzPatrick

This article is written in response to Sam Vaknin's The Insurgents and the Swastika, part of the Union of Death debate series

In his inimitable style, Dr Sam Vaknin has again provided CER's readers with a provocative look at a compelling "Balkan" topic, in this case Ante Pavelić's "Independent State of Croatia" (NDH). Historical accuracy, however, demands that the cautious reader take a few more factors into consideration if she or he is to understand the importance of the NDH and the Ustaša movement not merely in historical light, but also as they remain relevant to political life in Southeastern Europe today.

In particular, Vaknin would have better served his own argument, and fostered a more useful understanding not only of Croatian history but also of the trauma that the NDH visited upon the Serbian national consciousness, had he examined the deeper, more complex history of Serbo-Croatian relations both prior to and during the Second World War.

The Ustaša genocide against the Serbs was as devastating as it was precisely because there had been so little inkling that it was coming. It was most certainly not, as Vaknin has claimed, the "logical and inescapable conclusion of a long and convoluted historical process."

The importance of accuracy

As much as many Croatians today hope they buried the last politics of the century with the moldering corpse of Franjo Tuđman, long-term peace in the Balkans is contingent on their willingness -and the Serbs'- to do exactly the opposite.

In 1994, Rice University's Prof Gale Stokes asked, "Having unleashed the demons [of war and the past], can the Serbs and Croats enter into the common European home again?" His conclusion is worth quoting at length:

There is at least one relatively recent example of a nation that committed gruesome atrocities and yet returned to a position of honor and strength in Europe, and that is of course Germany. The Germans cannot take all of the credit for this happy result ... but Germany re-entered Europe on new terms not only because of [Allied] coercion. Germans undertook their own serious and successful efforts to accept responsibility for their problematic history. This painful renegotiation of the past was absolutely essential to the creation of a democratic Germany and a stable Europe. The acceptance of responsibility that characterized postwar Germany consisted of three elements, what one might call the three Rs of responsibility: reconciliation, remembrance, and regret. (emphasis added by PF)[1]

By contrast, Vaknin claims that while Germany has "exorcised [its] Nazi demon" the "Croats chose the path of unrepentant Austria" and have refused to do the same. This is a dangerous and inaccurate assertion not only in the manner in which it betrays the historical record, but also in the sense that this, and similar assertions about present-day Serbs, runs counter to the type of political culture and discourse necessary for long-term peace in the Balkans.

If nothing else, there is a consensus in the recent historiography of Yugoslavia and its disintegration that holds Tito's imposition of bratsvo i jedinstvo and a ban on public discourse about wartime atrocities committed by all sides -the Ustaša, the Serb collaborationist Nedić regime, Četnik forces and Partisan brigades- provided one of the vital ingredients for the ongoing wars of Yugoslav dissolution.

In the ban on public discussion - the first step in Stokes' "three Rs" - Croatians in the past fifty years have had no more chance to engage in a public debate over their responsibility and involvement in the NDH and its genocide than Serbs did over Croatian claims that they had unjustly dominated Royal Yugoslavia and had committed atrocities in Kosovo during the Balkan wars and in the interwar colonization program. Instead, the pasts of all national groups in Socialist Yugoslavia were simply used as politically expedient "whipping boys" by Tito's regime whenever local dissidents of any nationality or political flavor became restless.

Quite simply, none of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia have had a truly honest, open and democratic debate or discussion - at the public or the élite levels - over national pasts and misdeeds. If there is to be long-term stability in the region, such a debate is an absolute necessity, and Croatians should lead the way with a discussion of the NDH genocide before tackling the issues raised by the excesses and war crimes of Croats under Tuđman's semi-dictatorship.

To do so would open a bridge to Belgrade by setting a sterling example for their Serb brethren, who must eventually engage in the same debate over the many and varied crimes of the Milosević regime.

Unfounded stereotyping

While, as Vaknin says, some Croats do "hold all things Eastern (Serbs, the Orthodox version of Christianity, Belgrade, the Ottoman Empire, Macedonia) with unmitigated contempt dipped in an all-pervasive feeling of superiority," such a broad, sweeping ethno-national stereotype is not worthy of the author's skills or argument. These rhetorical flourishes may make for a provocative read, but they do little to shed light on the questions at hand.

Certainly, such sentiment is easily found in Tuđman-era tourist propaganda, including a 1996 brochure I was handed not long after arriving here, which claimed:

Croatia has always been on the civilizational divide ... Even now, in the 20th century, it had the precarious position between the West and the Eastern bloc, and today it is once again defending the Western civilization against the barbaric onslaught from the East.

Yet the fact remains: history gives lie to this assertion just as much as it does to Vaknin's claim that Croats' inclusion in the First Yugoslavia was "galling" because they "fiercely denied both their geography and their race to cling to the delusion of being part of 'Europe' rather than the 'Balkans.'"

Vaknin is correct in his choice of starting point: Croats were early supporters of the idea of a common Yugoslav state, as the very notion first originated in Croatia's Illyrian Movement, led by Ljudevit Gaj and based on the intellectual frameworks erected by Josip Strossmayer and Franjo Rački.

The Croats, who had for centuries struggled to preserve a separate identity within the broader frameworks of the Kingdom of Hungary, Austria and the Austro-Hungarian empire, sought continued preservation of their national identity through a model which paralleled one popular among Czechs and Slovaks of the time - that is, one that provided for the preservation of every Slavic nation individually, as a step toward the eventual creation of a loosely (con)federal pan-Slavic state.

A more Serbo-centric variant later emerged in Serbian Interior Minister Ilija Garašanin's Načertanije in 1844. As Lawrence Meriage noted in the 1970s, two successful Serb revolts against the Ottoman empire in the early decades of the nineteenth century succeeded in establishing not a democratic state, but rather an autocratic kingdom which replaced absolute Ottoman rule with that of Miloš Obrenović. Those within agitating for the institution of nineteenth century parliamentary democracy did so largely in the hope that a strong central state based on the system would serve as a break on Obrenović's power.[2]

The notion of all Serbs liberated from oppression and living in a common state led naturally to Garašanin's vision of a south Slav state uniting Serbs and Croats. Garašanin, though, was one of the primary defenders of the royal power base in Serbia, and instituted the trinity of a strong army, an educated central bureaucracy and the cult of the monarch as a hedge against encroachment from parliamentarian and constitutional forces. Garašanin's vision of a Yugoslav state was thus fundamentally centrist and based on the royal family, though not chauvinistically Serb-nationalist as many have portrayed it.

The nature, composition and foreseen mechanics of the "Yugoslav" states each camp envisioned thus differed significantly, but this in and of itself was never enough to start a war, nor was it alone sufficient to give rise to the NDH. In fact, the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw significant Serbo-Croatian cooperation, as both struggled to plot a course for the future while laboring under, and working against, separate occupying powers.

Col Josip Jelačić, for example, took his oath as Croatian ban from the Serbian Patriarch Rajčić and sent troops and aid to Vojvodina Serbs rebelling against the Magyars in 1848, while strengthening his political ties with the increasingly functional Serbian kingdom. Later, in Croatia, thirty five years of internal Serbo-Croat political infighting began when Dalmatian Serbs sided with Italian autonomists agitating for Dalmatian autonomy (as opposed to its incorporation in Banska Hrvatska) following the 1867 compromise (Ausgleich) between Austria and the Hungarian Kingdom.

But this came to an end in 1903 in separate political developments which laid the groundwork for future political cooperation between Serbs and Croats not only within Croatia, but between the Serbian state and the Croatian proto-state. That year, the much despised Khuen Héderváry left Croatia to become prime minister of Hungary following demonstrations by Serbs and Croats alike against his rule, while in Serbia the new Karađorđević dynasty established a true parliamentary democracy and re-aligned Serbian foreign policy from reliance on Austria to cooperation with Russia.

In Croatia, the new climate led to the establishment of the Serbo-Croat (or Croato-Serb) Coalition, which saw strong Serbo-Croatian legislative and political cooperation from 1906-1912.

Interwar opposition to Yugoslavism

Of the two Croatian factions strongly opposed to the Serbo-Croat Coalition and the future Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the Croatian Party of Right (Hrvatska stranka prava, or HSP) was the most vitriolic, basing as it did its ideological framework on the notion that Serbs did not exist at all, but rather were Croats who had been forced to convert to Orthodoxy and had thus been cut off from the Croatian national consciousness. If any "mainstream" party contributed intellectually and politically to the Ustaša, it was the HSP - although many analysts question whether the HSP can truly be considered a "mainstream" party.

More important and influential, though, was the Croatian Peasant Party (Hrvatska seljačka stranka, or HSS) of Stjepan Radić and later of Vladko Maček, as Vaknin rightly suggests. But for all of his influence and pro-Croatian independence sentiment, Radić was never a Serb-hater, but rather saw Serbs, Croats and Slovenes as "three brothers" who would best be served by living together under the "Austro-Slavic" model of Josip Strossmayer.

Furthermore, as Serb and Croatian scholars alike readily acknowledge, Croats continued to play an important role in the formation of the first Yugoslavia, as men like Ante Trumbić and Frano Supilo worked through the Yugoslav Committee jockeying against, and working with, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić.

What Vaknin fails to point out, however, is that interwar tensions between Serbs and Croats had little to do with the type of near-absolute racism of the Croatian Party of Right, but rather everything to do with a replaying of the wartime tensions between Pašić and Trumbić / Supilo. Quite simply, the latter had been forced to accept a more Serb-dominated Kingdom than they would have preferred as, on the international stage, they were almost wholly reliant on Serb military power and Serbia's international political-diplomatic capital to stave-off Allied promises of part of Dalmatia, Istria and the Slovene Alps to Italy in the "secret" Treaty of London of 1915.

To safeguard Croatian territory from Italian encroachment -particularly of concern to Trumbic, who was from Split- Croatians among the wartime Yugoslav Committee made concessions to Serbian royal power against which the Croatian opposition would argue in the decades that would follow. Even the Serb Pašić felt the sting of royal prerogative when King Aleksandar refused to seat him as Prime Minister, and the passage of what Vaknin called the "pro-Serb, pro-central government" Vidovdan Constitution was as much a result of Royal power as it was of Radić's politically ill-advised and divisive move to boycott the Assembly in Belgrade.

From that day forward, however, the mainstream Croatian opposition was for enhanced Croatian autonomy within a more loosely federated Yugoslavia - from Radić, through his death and culminating in the incomplete Cvetković-Maček agreement. Genocide against Serbs was no more a hallmark of Croatian politics in the interwar period than genocide against Bosnian Muslims was of Serbian politics in the 1980s.

Fascism spreads

Croatian fascism, then, did not originate from mainstream Croatian politics during the interwar period, but rather with a small fringe group that was forced out of Yugoslavia and ultimately found succor -and backing- in fascist Italy. Even Vaknin was forced to admit that the Ustaša was a "minority with limited popular appeal" and that Croatian fascism was "not an isolated phenomenon."

Vaknin is correct in asserting that the Ustaša "did not materialize ex nihilo," but errs in attributing the movement's rise to power to some inborn flaw in the Croatian national character. Rather, as we have seen, there was little in the pre-1939 status of Serbo-Croat relations, beyond persistent bar fights in local areas and occasional violence in connection with political demonstrations, to suggest that Croats viewed Serbs as anything other than the brothers that Radić called them. Ethnic hatreds or Croatian distaste at being "left in the Balkans" had little to do with the rise of the Ustaša state, although the movement's excesses and tainting of Croatian national symbology did much to engender such inter-ethnic distrust in the forty five years that followed.

Instead, a far more convincing explanation is found in Vaknin's own note that across the globe -in Italy, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, even Canada and the United States- extremists in the 1930s turned to fascism as a new and powerful ideology to advance their own particularistic interests and pet hates. The Ustaša differed mainly in that its program was put into practice because it received heavy backing from Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

Croats against the Ustaša

On 10 April 1941, Nazi troops entered Zagreb and German occupation authorities wasted no time in trying to convince Vladk Maček to form a new government. Maček refused, and Slavko Kvaternik declared the "Proclamation on Establishing the Independent State of Croatia." Some days later, Maček committed the most egregious moral sin of his life when, on the eve of his retreat from public life, he called upon "all Croats to obey the new government" and on "all HSS supporters in positions in the administration ... to cooperate sincerely with the new national government."[3]

What followed, as Vaknin correctly points out, "was no industrial affair" but rather a primitive series of massacres that claimed the lives of at least 380,000 Serbs.[4]

Vaknin is also correct in noting that Serbs flocked to join forces in opposition to the NDH, but does his greatest disservice to history and to those who hope for future Serbo-Croatian rapprochement by completely neglecting to discuss Croatian participation in Partisan brigades fighting the Ustaša.

Tito and the Yugoslav Communist Party leadership were in Zagreb when Pavelić's NDH was proclaimed, but immediately departed for Belgrade, remaining in close radio and courier contact with Croatian Communist leaders. All Yugoslav communists refrained from open acts of resistance against Nazi occupation forces so long as the Nazi-Soviet Pact held. The day Hitler's forces invaded the USSR, Croatian Communists joined their Serbian counterparts in committing their first acts of resistance.

By the end of 1941, there were at least 6000 individuals (60 percent of whom were Croatian Serbs) serving under arms in Partisan groups in Croatia and most Serbian villages and some Croatian ones had extensive networks of unarmed civilian sympathizers. By comparison, at the end of 1941 there were more than 120,000 Ustaša.

The Partisan organization in Croatia grew quickly, and while Croatian Serbs were a majority among the Croatian detachments, Tito's forces had marshaled more than 30,000 men in Croatia by 1942, 100,000 by 1943, and nearly 175,000 by 1944. Throughout the war, the Croatian Partisan movement was marked by close working relationships and inter-ethnic harmony between Serbs and Croats in the field and in back rooms, and the movement was more organized and stronger than that in Bosnia-Hercegovina (which had its own general staff), though less well organized but far stronger in weapons and numbers than the Slovene detachments.

In total, 51,000 Croats died as Partisans in Croatia, 47,000 in their home villages and cities in Nazi and NDH reprisal attacks and in accidents of war, 20,000 perished in prisons and concentration camps as political dissidents, and 70,000 were killed while wearing collaborationist colors.

Vaknin's piece is thus interesting, and the notion that he seeks to convey is an important one that ultra-nationalist Croatians wishing to bury their past without use of Stokes' "Three Rs" should hear. Unfortunately, his incomplete historical analysis, effusive rhetoric and ethnic stereotyping is guaranteed to force those Croats who do wish to follow Stokes' advice - an informed majority among the Croats of my acquaintance - to click through to another page. That would be a shame, for just as much as Mesić's election should give hope to the opposition in Serbia, so too would a constructive debate about the meaning and relevance of the past.

Patrick FitzPatrick, 11 May 2000

The Union of Death:

This article is part of the Union of Death debate

See also Sam Vaknin's original article or join in the debate yourself by e-mailing us

Moving on:


  1. Gale Stokes, "Nationalism, Responsibility, and the People-as-One: Reflections on the Possibilities for Peace in the Former Yugoslavia," Studies in East European Thought, 46 (1994), pp. 91-103, reprinted in Gale Stokes, Three Eras of Political Change in Eastern Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 145.
  2. Lawrence Meriage, "The First Serbian Uprising (1804-1913): National Revival or Search for Regional Security," Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 4(1), 1976: pp. 187-205. See also Gale Stokes, "The Absence of Nationalism in Serbian Politics Before 1844," Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 4(2), 1977: pp. 77-90.
  3. After his retreat from public life, Maček spent several months in Jasenovac and the duration of the war under house arrest. Maček quotes from Ivo Goldstein, Croatia: A History, (Montreal: Queen's-McGill Press, 1999), pp 133.
  4. In total, some 487,000 Serbs perished during the international and civil wars in Yugoslavia, representing 6.9 percent of their pre-war population - the highest percentage of any ethnic group save for the Roma and Jews. Of this total, 82,000 are believed to have died as partisan fighters, 23,000 while fighting with Royalist or collaborationist forces, and 382,000 died as a direct result of Ustaša atrocities. These figures are drawn from two computer aided demographic analyses separately in the 1980s, one by a Serb émigré, another by a Croat from Croatia. See: Vladimir Žerjavic, Jugoslavija: manipulacija žrava drugog svjetskog rata ("Yugoslavia: Manipulation of the Victims of the Second World War," Zagreb: Yugoslav Victimological Society, 1989), and Bogoljub Kocovic, Žrtve drugog svetskoga ratat u Jugoslaviji ("Victims of the Second World War in Yugoslavia," London: Naša Reć, 1985).



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