Mentioning the war

Genocide discussions in post-Tito Yugoslavia



Tea Sindbæk


Genocide represents the ultimate threat – that of extinction – against an ethnic or national community. Thus we can expect claims of genocide, historic as well as those ongoing, to provoke strong reactions, especially in situations of complex or tensed national relations. In the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and in some its successor states the issue of genocide has frequently returned to political debate, sometimes dominantly staying there for years. This paper surveys some of the main examples of genocide discussions in Yugoslav historiography, literature and politics from the 1980s into the 1990s and points to possible political consequences of this use.


World War II reconsidered

The partisan fighting and the National Liberation War were founding myths of socialist Yugoslavia. The communists presented the partisan war effort as an all-Yugoslav liberation fight under the slogan of “Brotherhood and Unity” and claimed that they had solved Yugoslavia’s national question. The war, however, had also been the scene of large scale massacres and atrocities among national groups within Yugoslavia. Thus the communists also had to cope with a recent history of genocide and interethnic violence. This was done by blaming all crimes and atrocities on fascists and collaborators and delicately balancing the war guilt among Yugoslavia’s nationalities, ensuring that every nation had its collaborators.

   In the 1980s reassessing the history of massacres and genocide of the wartime occurred, especially within Serbian historiography, literature and media. Initially it may have been a part of the general intellectual iconoclasm directed against the communist regime, revealing dark sides of its history.[1] But as Milošević came to power and nationalism was lifted to a legitimate ideological standpoint in Serbia the massive focus on Serbian suffering and genocide of the past created visions of dangerous enemies within Yugoslavia and lend a helping hand to the politics of nationalist mobilisation.

   It has been suggested that the war and its “secret stories” was first taken up by writers rather than historians.[2] Indeed literary works of the early 1980s took up the issue of wartime atrocities – especially those committed against Serbs by Muslims or Croats. An example is Vuk Drašković’s novel Nož, which begins with the crude maltreatment and slaughtering of an orthodox family by their Moslem neighbours with whom they used to have close contacts. The uncomfortable details of this event are carefully described. Other works, like Jovan Radulović’s play Golubnjača and Vojislav Ljubarda’s book Anathema, had wartime massacres on Serbs as their theme. Through the decade more literature presenting wartime massacres appeared. In Danko Popović’s very popular Knjiga O Milutinu, published in 1985 and reprinted at least 14 times, a short chapter describes how Milutin hears Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina telling of the horrors happening there – especially the stories of the suffering of children seem terrible. Also Slobodan Selenić’s Timor Mortis from 1989 describes Ustaša assaults and killings of Serbs.[3]

   But in fact from the early 1980s historians engaged themselves in this theme also. One of the first to do so was Vladimir Dedijer, the author of Tito’s official biography from 1953. In 1981 Dedijer published a huge volume of Novi prilozi (New contributions) to Tito’s biography. Novi prilozi aimed mainly at revealing scandals and hitherto hidden controversial sides of Tito’s person, but it did also introduce the issues of the terror against Serbs in the NDH, the role of the Catholic Church, and the number of dead in the concentration camp of Jasenovac – questions that were later to be hotly disputed in historiography and public debate.[4]

   In 1984 Dedijer was elected head of a committee set down by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, SANU, to collect “material on genocide on the Serbian and other Yugoslav peoples in the 20th century.”[5] The committee had planned 21 publications on genocides committed mainly in Yugoslavia. By 1990 six of these were published, making up 10 large volumes, of which only one did not have Serbs as the victim group. Somehow the historians of SANU did attempt to balance the approach to the genocide discussions; in 1990 Dedijer together with Antun Miletić produced a large work on Četnik genocide on Muslims.[6] But as most of the material took a clearly Serbian perspective, these works, whatever the original aims, served mainly to polarise national historiographies, especially those of Serbia and Croatia.

      In the second half of the 1980s, as nationalism and revanchism became parts of the political agenda under Milošević, genocide history became widely cited also in Serbian journalism. Journals like Književne Novine and NIN took up the theme, and by the end of the decade and into the 1990s discussions of Jasenovac and the Ustaša crimes in general were regularly returning to magazines and newspapers as well as TV and radio.[7]



Jasenovac and Bleiburg

Two aspects of World War II in Yugoslavia have been particularly important in the revision and rethinking of the wartime history: The Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac and the “Bleiburg massacre”, in which thousands of refugees from Croatia and other places were killed by communist partisans. Regarding Jasenovac the main issue was the number of victims, estimates of which had been growing within Yugoslav and especially Serbian historiography. In his 1953 biography of Tito, Dedijer mentioned Jasenovac only in a footnote, in which he suggested that the number of victims was “more than 200.000”.[8] In the 1960s and the 1970s the suggested numbers of victims ranked somewhere between 300.000 and 700.000. The delicacy and disputable character of this question may be seen from the practice among some Croatian historians to avoid stating or supporting any number themselves and cite numbers from other sources instead.[9] In 1981, in the “New Contributions”, Dedijer gave a new number; citing Anton Miletić, Dedijer proposed that more than a million persons went through Jasenovac and that between 480.000 and 800.000 were killed there.[10] Obviously, the top number was growing, especially compared to Dedijer’s own starting point. An even higher number, in fact more than a million, was claimed by the Serbian historian Velimir Teržić.[11]

   Within Croatian historiography the numbers of Jasenovac-victims suggested from Serbian side was considered rather inflated, and the discussion within Serbian historiography was perceived as proposing an inherently “genocidal” mentality of the Croatian nation – which one historian had indeed almost done.[12] By the end of the decade some Croatian historians countered by questioning the validity of the Serbian “genocide history”, while others, most notoriously Franjo Tudjman, who was to become Croatia’s first president, argued that a “Jasenovać-myth” was developing within Serbian historiography.[13] This point of view was supported by new calculations of the number of Yugoslav war losses of World War II, which pointed to a total number just above one million, thereby indicating that the number of Jasenovac victims suggested in recent Serbian historiography must be overestimated.[14] However, the description of the Jasenovac tragedy as a myth, even if meant metaphorically, had to raise deep concern, especially among Croatian Serbs.

   Almost dialectically opposed to the Serbian interest in the Ustasha state and the camp of Jasenovac, there was a growing attention within Croat public debate on the “Bleiburg massacre”. According too the Croatian historian Mirjana Gross, there was a tendency to underline the mass murders at the end of the war and “forget” those committed during the war, meaning obviously that discussions would avoid the Ustaša crimes and concentrate on the Bleiburg killings instead.[15] Thus by the end of the decade the focus on Serbian national victimisation was countered by a Croatian one.

    Throughout the Serb-Croat war and in the years after it Serbian and Croatian historiography moved ever further apart and turned into national institutions. As a consequence the history of wartime massacres would be presented from a thoroughly national(ist) perspective. It is symptomatic that by 2001 Croatian history textbooks for high school pupils hardly mentioned the terrors of the Ustasha rule but elaborated on Chetnik atrocities and the Bleiburg massacres, while Serbian schoolbooks from 2002 carefully described cruelties of the Ustasha-regime and paid only little attention to the crimes of the Chetniks.[16]


Hidden history?

The focusing on the history of wartime massacres and atrocities was made more powerful by the claim that this history had been kept secret by communist politicians and national opponents. According to Vladimir Dedijer and other historians involved in the work of SANU’s genocide committee the wartime massacres had, for political and nationalist reasons, remained unexamined.[17] In fact Dedijer, citing Milan Bulajić, charged Croatian politicians directly for having prevented investigations of Ustaša crimes for the sake of Croatian national feelings.[18] Ironically, this same claim that the history of wartime massacres was deliberately silenced was raised again ten years later from the opposite side in a book on “suppressed Chetnik crimes”. Here it says: “For reasons well-known to us Chetnik terror in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina has not been investigated fully and systematically …”[19]

   Whether the wartime massacres were indeed kept hidden may be worth a question. Some researchers have argued that these issues were taboo or effectively buried, while others have claimed that the events themselves could be examined, but the approaches to this examination were limited.[20]

   On the one side it is clear that the wartime history could not be examined openly within the Titoist framework. But on the other it remains a fact that accounts of World War II atrocities have been published regularly in memoirs, works of history, and literature throughout the Titoist period, though compared to the partisans’ hardships these have not been a dominant theme. Thus it is indeed untrue that the history of wartime massacres was kept secret. Nevertheless, the assumption that the suffering of one’s nation had been silenced obviously strengthened the impression of the tragedy and thus provoked a stronger reaction.



The past in the present

The discussions of genocides of the past were accompanied by claims of ongoing genocides. In 1982 Serbian orthodox priests wrote an appeal to protection of the Serbian people and its holy places in Kosovo arguing that a ‘planned genocide’ was going on there.[21] This charge was repeated by Serbian intellectuals in 1986 in a petition to the Yugoslav and Serbian parliaments and in the well known Memorandum of SANU. This same Memorandum argued also that Serbs were now ‘threatened’ in Croatia and it linked the Serbs’ current problems in Kosovo and Croatia respectively to a history of interethnic strife and violence and to that of the Ustaša state.[22] Thus, from the perspective of the Memorandum, the historic questions were connected to the arguments of the day. It was presented as if genocides of the past were now to be repeated.

   By the end of the 1980s the fate of the Croatian Serbs became an important issue among Serbian intellectuals and politicians. An example is Mihailo Marković, former dissident and member of the Praxis group and one of the authors connected to the Memorandum, who allegedly entered politics in order to save the Krajina Serbs, whom he feared were to be slaughtered in an independent Croatia.[23]

   After the war genocides of the past were connected to the war results of the day and the policy of the Tudjman regime. In his book Genocidom do Velike Hrvatske Vasilije Krestić claimed that there was a clear continuity from Croatian nationalism of the 19th century over the NDH regime to that of Tudjman.[24] The same jump from past to present was made in relation to the 1998 reprint of Vuk Drašković’s Nož. On the cover of the book there is a quote from the author saying “Those who cover crime are ready for crime again”. This is followed by the statement, presumably from the editor, that “Today these words need no explanation”.[25]

   Thus the images of the genocides of history were drawn upon in explanations and evaluations of the present situation. Presumably, the way in which this history had been discussed and represented was important to this process.



In conclusion

Though the issues of wartime massacres and genocide had been present within history, literature and politics through the Titoist period, they became the focus of much larger interest from the beginning of the 1980s, initially mainly in Serbia. Works of literature and collections of historical documentary material produced close narratives of crude and brutality, and the impression made by these works were strengthened by the claim that these stories and histories had been silenced by politicians and national opponents. Furthermore, historic massacres were associated with events of the day, thus providing a threatening vision for the present.

   The genocide discussions provided visions of national victimisation and images of extremely brutal enemies, and thus served to polarise national relations and radicalise nationalist agitation. Furthermore, the presence of genocide scenarios in public debate may well have provided resources of fears and anger that would serve to brutalise confrontations in the case of armed conflict.

[1] See: Ramet, P.: Apocalypse culture and social change in Yugoslavia. In Ramet, P. (red.): Yugoslavia in the 1980s. Boulder 1985

[2] Hoepken, W.: War, Memory and Education in a Fragmented Society: The Case of Yugoslavia. East European Politics and Societies, vol. 13, nr. 1, 1999, p. 205.

[3] Drašković, V.: Nož. Beograd 1998, pp. 29-44; Popović, D.: Knjiga o Milutinu. Beograd 1986, pp. 78-79. For descriptions of these works, see also: Dragović-Soso, J.: Saviours of the Nation, London 2002, pp. 104-108, Wachtel, A.B.: Making a nation, breaking a nation. Stanford 1998, pp. 204-209, 221-223.

[4] Dedijer, V.: Novi prilozi za biografiju Josipa Broza Tita. vol. 2, Rijeka 1981, pp. 531-557, 489.

[5] Dedijer, V. & A. Miletić: Proterivanje Srba sa ognjišta: 1941-1944: Svedočanstva. Belgrade 1989, p. 8

[6] Dedijer, V., A Miletić: Genocid nad muslimanima, Sarajevo 1990.  

[7] Dragović-Soso, J.: Saviours of the Nation, pp. 111-114; Hayden, M.: Recounting the dead. In R. S. Watson (ed.): Memory, History and Opposition under State Socialism. Santa Fe 1994, p. 177-178; Denich, B.: Dismembering Yugoslavia, p. 381-382.

[8] Dedijer, V.: Josip Broz Tito. Prilozi za biografiju. 2. ed., Belgrade 1953, p. 545.

[9] Boban, L.: Ustaše. Encyklopedija Jugoslavije, vol. 8, Zagreb 1971, p. 444; Jelić-Butić, F.: Ustaše i nezavisna država Hrvatska, p. 187.

[10] Dedijer, V.: Novi prilozi p. 489.

[11] Dragović-Soso, J.: Saviours of the Nation, p. 111.

[12] Krestić, V.: O genezi genocida nad Srbima u NDH.  Književne Novine, 15.9 1986.

[13] Tuđman, F.: Bespuća povijesne zbiljnosti. Zagreb 1990, p. 10-23. See also: Boban, L.: Jasenovac and the manipulation of History. East European Politics and Societies, vol. 4, no. 3, 1990; Boban, L.: Still more balancing on the discussion of Jasenovac and the manipulation of history. East European Politics and Societies, vol. 6, no. 1, 1992;Gross, M.: Wie denkt man kroatische Geschichte? Österreichische Osthefte, vol. 35, no. 1, 1993, p. 93-95

[14] Zerjavić, V.: Jugoslovenske ljudske žrtve u drugom svetskom ratu. Zagreb 1989; Kočović, B.: Žrtve drugog svetskog rata u Jugoslaviji. London 1985.

[15] Gross, M.: Wie denkt man kroatische Geschichte?, p. 93-95. See also: Hayden, M.: Recounting the dead.

[16]Nikolić, K., N. Žutić, M. Pavlović, Z. Špadijer: Istorija 3/4. Beograd 2002; Matković, H., F. Mirošević: Povijest 4. Zagreb 2001.

[17] In the introduction to: Dedijer, V., A. Miletić: Proterivanje Srba, p. 8; Jefto Šašić in the introduction to: Miletić, A.: Koncentracioni Logor Jasenovac, 1941-1945. Beograd 1986, p. 7.

[18] In the introduction to Bulajić, M.: Ustaški zloćini genocide i suđenje Andriji Artukovića. Beograd 1988, p. 9-10.

[19] Dizdar, Z. & M. Sobolevski: Prešućivani četnički zločini u Hrvatskoj i u Bosni i Hercegovini 1941.-1945. Zagreb 1999, p. 21.

[20] For discussions of this, see: Bracewell, W.: National histories and national identities among the Serbs and Croats. In: Fulbrook, M. (ed.): National histories and European history. Boulder 1993, p. 157, Denich, B.: Dismembering Yugoslavia, p. 367, 370; Boban, L.: Jasenovac and the manipulation of History, 1990, p. 590;  Höpken, W.: Von der Mythologisierung zur Stigmatisierung: „Krieg und Revolution“ in Jugoslawien 1941-1948 im Spiegel von Geschichtswissenschaft  und historischer Publizistik. In: Schmidt-Hartmann, E. (ed.): Kommunismus und Osteuropa. Konzepte, Perspektiven und Interpretationen im Wandel. München 1994, p. 183.

[21] Reprinted in Petković, R. (ed.): Kosovo. Pošlost i sadašnost. Beograd 1989, p. 336-342.

[22] The petition is translated and reprinted in South Slav Journal, vol. 9, no. 1-2 (31-32), pp. 107-111.  Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, In Trifunovska, S. (ed.): Former Yugoslavia Through Documents, Haag 1999, p. 31, 33.

[23] Seccor, L.: Testaments betrayed. Yugoslavian intellectuals and the road to war. Lingua Franca, 1999. See also Marković’s defence of the Serbs outside Serbia in NIN, 13. 7 1990.

[24] Krestić, V.: Genocidom do Velike Hrvatske. Beograd 1998, p. 6, 147.

[25] Drašković, V.: Nož. Beograd 1998.