Serbian and Croatian Nationalism and the Wars In Yugoslavia


The creation of Yugoslavia as part of the reordering of Europe after the first world war made a great deal of sense. In geopolitical terms, it helped accomplish the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, removing Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Hercegovina and Vojvodina from Austrian or Hungarian control. At the same time, the creation of a Land of the South Slavs, or Yugoslavia (Jugoslavija, from jug, south, plus slavija, of Slavs) met the demands of at least some of the dominant political figures among the South Slavic peoples, particularly the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. These peoples and the Mecedonians speak closely related languages or dialects of the same languages or dialects of the same language. Serbian and Croatian are as closely related and mutually intelligible as British English and American English, while the relationships of Slovenian and Macedonian to Serbo-Croatian are about the equivalent of those of Dutch and Schweizerdeutsch, respectively, to German. The fact that Croats and Slovenes are mainly Catholic while Serbs and Macedonians are mainly Orthodox Christians did not seem to differentiate these peoples overwhelmingly. In terms of criteria of language/dialect, religion, traditional economic structures and other cultural features, there were and are probably fewer differences between Serbs and Croats than between Bavarians and Prussians. The existence of a sizable population of Serbo-Croatian speaking Muslims in Bosnia and Hercegovina was an additional complication, but many of those Muslims who identified themselves as Turks had left Bosnia for Turkey at the end of the war, and most of those remaining identified themselves as Serbs or Croats, albeit of Muslim confession. The large Albanian population of Macedonia and Kosovo was another potential problem, but was ignored under the Serbian urge to recover Kosovo, the site of the Serbs' legendary defeat by the Turks in 1389.

As an empirical matter, the South Slav peoples were so closely related that they should be able to live together as well as the speakers of the various dialects of German. As a practical matter, they were so intertwined territorially that they had to do so. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs lived in Croatia, largely as a result of migrations there during the seventeenth century, which had been encouraged by the Austro-Hungarian Empire although some Serbs had migrated to Croatia long before this time. Serbs, Croats and Muslims lived intermingled in the towns of Bosnia, and their separate villages were intermingled throughout the countryside. Vojvodina was and is a complex ethnic mosaic, with large Serb and Hungarian populations and smaller groups of Croats, Germans (until 1945), Romanians, Ruthenians, Slovaks and others. There was no way to delineate state boundaries on a national basis unless the South Slavs could be conceived of as a nation.

The call for a joint state of these closely related peoples had arisen in Croatia in the mid-19th century, and was embraced at different times and with different intensities by political figures from all of the Yogoslav peoples. However, this idea of a common Yogoslav identity competed throughout the 19th century with the separate nationalist ideologies of Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Bosnian Muslims, which were developed at the same time. These separate national ideologies identified the individual nations quite differently, and in ways that were incompatible. The creation of Yogoslavia was in part a Wilsonian response to those political figures who called for the self-determination of the South Slavs in their own Yogoslav state. This decision was supported by ethologies, notably the great Serbian scientist Jovan Cvijic, and the borders of Yogoslavia were drawn keeping in mind the linguistic and cultural characteristics of the Yogoslav peoples.

The political success of the Yugoslav ideology at the Versailles conference did not mean that the separate nationalist ideologies were overcome; rather, they drove Croat, Macedonian and Slovene nationalists into determined opposition to the Yugloslav state. From their point of view, the creation of Yugoslavia denied the right of self-determination to the separate Yugoslav peoples. Croat and Macedonian nationalists created terrorist movements, with the support of the fascit government of Italy, to attack the Yugoslav state. In 1932, these terrorists succeeded in assassinating the King of Yugoslavia while he was visiting France.

Since Yugoslavia was based on the coexistence of the speakers of Serbo-Croatian, who formed the great majority of the population, we will concentrate on the Serbian and Croatian nationalist ideologies and programs. The Serbs of Serbia had been the first people in the Balkans to attain autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, and the Serbian national ideology had its inception before the others. This Serb ideology tended to be inclusive, viewing the speakers of most dialects of Serbo-Croatian as Serbs. The Yugoslav ideology that started in Croatia in the 1840s was also all-inclusive, but recognized the diversity of most South Slavs. The Croatian ideology that developed in the 1850s, however, was exclusive, particularly in regard to Serbs. Where Serbian linguistic ideology saw most of the dialects of Serbo-Croatian as one language, the Croatian ideology took pains to distinguish them, making an article of faith out of distinguishing as separate languages Croatian and Serbian dialects that were and are mutually intelligible.

The Serbian ideology was compatible with Yugoslavism in that Serbs could consider most of the other Yugoslav peoples, excepting the Slovenes, as Serbs, and most of Yugoslavia, except Slovenia, as Serbian land. The Croatian ideology was absolutely incompatible with a Yugoslav identity, however. To distinguish the Croats from the Serbs required rejection not only of the idea of a common language, but also rejection of the idea that these peoples are interrelated. The main founder of the Croatian ideology in the mid-19th century, Ante Starcevic, was frankly racist about Serbs, viewing them as "slaves" and "the most loathsome of beasts." At the same time, and rather inconsistently, Starcevic was inclusive in regard to Muslims, regarding them as "the best Croats," and dismissed a separate Slovene identity by calling them "Mountain Croats." At this time, national identity was clearly not bound exclusively to religious confession.

The first Yugoslavia (1919-1941) was clearly dominated by the Serbs, under a Serbian royal family. The inclusive Serb ideology led to centralist government policies and a dictatorship after 1929, which provoked greater resistance from other national groups. Whether Yugoslavia would have survived the 1940s had World War Two not occurred is not known. The Serb-controlled government had granted autonomy amounting to virtual independence to the Croats in 1939, and the Yugoslav state might have split a few years later. However, he April 1941, the Axis powers bombed Belgrade and invaded Yugoslavia. The Germans proceeded to dismantle the Versailles division of territory by returning much of Vojvodina to Hungary and Macedonia to Bulgaria, while attaching Bosnia and Hercegovina to a newly proclaimed "Independent STate of Croatia," known as the NDH after its Croatian name: Nezavisna Drazava Hrvatska. This new state was put under the control of a Croatian fascist party, the Ustasa. A much reduced Serbia was occupied by the Germans.

1941-45: The First Round of Ethnic Cleansing

The Ustasa government of the NDH embarked on an ambitious plan for creating the purely Croat Croatia envisioned by the exclusivist ideology. They planned to do this by eliminating "disordering elements," namely the Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. The last two groups were to be completely eliminated, according to the doctrines of the Ustasas' Nazi patrons. The Serbs, however, were treated according to the Ustasas' own ideology, which as a rather inconsistent blend of racism and political hatred. As historian Aleksa Djilas puts it, the Ustasas viewed serbs as a political enemy but described them in racist terms, and treated them in the way the Nazis treated "racially inferior" peoples. By July and August 1941, the Ustasas began to implement their agenda for dealing with the Serbs: one-third would be killed, one-third driven from Croatia (including Bosnia and Hercegovina), and one-third converted to Catholicism, a step that would remove their "national consciousness" and render them harmless politically.

The techniques of the Ustasa campaign against the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia from 1941-45 will be familiar to all who have seen the details of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia since 1992. Some concentration camps were created, but most of the slaughter took place in towns and villages. The techniques of the 1940s were like those of the 1990s: a group of armed men would descend upon a settlement of people who they defined as ethnonational enemies. Murder, rape, and burning of the structures would follow.

The numbers of dead in the 1940s slaughter have been debated with increasing intensity, with some Serbs claiming that more than a million Serbs were slaughtered, and some Croats, including the President of Croatia, claiming that the numbers were closer to 100,000. A conservative estimate given by Aleska Djilas is that one in six of the approximately 1,900,000 Serbs in the NDH in 1941 had been killed by 1945: 125,000 in Croatia, or 17.4% of the Serb population there, and 209,000 in Bosnia and Hercegovina, or 16.7% of the Serb population there. Many more were expelled from their homes. In revenge, Serbs mounted terror campaigns against their enemies, especially against Muslims in Bosnia. It would be fair to characterize the 1940s slaughter, however, as one in which the main victims were Serbs, at the hands of Croats and Muslims, in that order.

1945-1991: From "Brotherhood and Unity" to Enmity and Partition

The main non-nationalist force in Yugoslavia during the war years of 1941-45 was Tito's Communist-led army, the Partisans. By the end of the international war, the Partisans had also won the civil wars within Yugoslavia, overthrowing the Ustasa regime and the Serbian royalists, the Cetniks. The regime set up by Tito was avowedly anti-nationalist, both for reasons of the ideology of communist internationalism and for the practical political reason that the major potential for opposition to communist rule lay in nationalist parties. A basic principle of communist Yugoslavia was the "brotherhood and unity" (bratstvo - jedinstvo) of the Yugoslav peoples. Communist Yugoslavia was set up as a federation of republics, all but one of which bore the name of one of which bore the name of one of the constituent peoples of Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia. The exception was Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Muslims were the largest group, followed by Serbs, then Croats, and others. Until the 1971 census, "Muslim" was not one of the categories listed for identification, and Serbs were the nominal majority in Bosnia and Hercegovina. In 1971, however, Muslims could identify themselves as such on the census forms, and from then on, Muslims were the largest national group in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

The forty-five years of communist Yugoslavia did not produce "brotherhood and unity." Instead, the country fragmented into an increasingly loose federal structure, with the republics becoming increasingly independent of control by the federal government. Whatever central control existed depended on the communist party, and when that fragmented in January of 1990, there was no central authority left in the country. In free elections in 1990, the message that won in all of the republics was one of nationalism, of a distinctly illiberal bent. In each instance, the winning party promised to turn the republic into the national state of the majority "nation," ethnically defined. In constitutional terms, the ethnic nation became sovereign: the Slovenes in Slovenia, the Croats in Croatia. Minorities were thereby excluded from among the primary bearers of sovereignty. Thus the post-communist transformation was from state socialism, in which the state was dedicated to the rule of that part of the population that formed the "working class," to state chauvinism, in which the state was dedicated to rule by that part of the population that formed the majority nation, ethnically defined. Others were excluded politically, and soon, in many cases, physically.

the premise of the movement to state chauvinism was that the Yugoslav peoples were not so closely related as to be able to live within the same state, but rather so incompatible as to make life together impossible. Empirically this was nonsense, since wherever Yugoslav peoples lived intermingled they intermarried in large numbers, particularly from the 1960s until late into the 1980s. However, the political rhetoric of enmity and partition rapidly overcame that of brotherhood and unity. What succeeded politically within Yugoslavia was the message that joint state of Serbs, Croats and others was not in fact possible, and that the various nations had the right to "self-determination." When the "international community" accepted this message, Yugoslavia, a founding member of both the United Nations and the League of Nations before it, was doomed.

The Partition of Croatia

One difference between the demise of Yugoslavia in 1991 and its creation in 1919 was a change in the dominant patterns of serbian nationalism. Where the dominant Serb national ideology had been inclusive of all speakers of Serbo-Croatian in 1919, by 1991 the Serbs had accepted a nationalist ideology that was an exclusive as that of the Croats. The single distinguishing criterium of Serbs, Croats and Muslims became religion, as an inherited characteristic rather than active belief. Thus Serbs did not contest the identities of Croats and Muslims as separate peoples, nor did they contest the rights of the various Yugoslav peoples to "self-determination." What they did contest was the right of the Yugoslav republics to self-determination. From their point of view, the Croats could have their Croatia, but it could not include areas with Serb majorities. Similarly, if the Muslims wanted an independent Bosnia and Hercegovina, that was fine, but it would not include regions with large numbers of Serbs.

In the case of Croatia, the Serbs' suspicion was perhaps justified. The Croatian Democratic Union party, led by Franjo Tudjman, had won the 1990 elections on an antiSerb platform. It had then immediately taken steps to ensure that the Serbs would be rendered second-class citizens in a Croatia defined constitutionally as the national state of the ethnically Croat people. The partition of Croatia began in August 1990, when Krajina region Serbs, who formed a strong local majority there, resisted attempts by the new nationalist Croatian government to impose upon them purely Croat state symbols, including a flag very much like that of the fascist state that had slaughtered so many Serbs in 1941-45. When Croatia declared independence in June 1991, the Serbs in this region and in some other parts of Croatia announced their own desire to remain in Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav army, rapidly transforming into a Serbian army, supported the Serbs. In the course of the fighting, from August 1991 until January 1992, the Serbs took control of about one-third of the territory of Croatia. Some of these regions had a Serbian majority before the war began, but others had not.

The pattern of the war in Croatia was the de facto partition of the regions of the republic that had been most mixed ethnically. In effect, in these six months of war, the mixed areas of Croatia were divided, and the populations forced to divide themselves, rather like the Hindu and Muslim populations of India and Pakistan in 1947, though on a much smaller scale. The effects of the population transfers have been to render hundreds of thousands of people homeless, refugees, while homogenizing the populations. An index of this homogenization is that by March of 1994, only about 150,000 Serbs remained in parts of Croatia under government control, of the more than 300,000 in those regions before the war began. The others had fled to Serb-controlled areas of Croatia and Bosnia, or to Serbia itself.

The Partition of Bosnia and Hercegovina

The Bosnian situation was more complicated. Since there was no single majority nation, in independent Bosnia and Hercegovina could not be the nation-state of any single group, unless its citizens chose to define themselves primarily as Bosnians rather than as Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. Unfortunately, they did not do so, and in the free elections of 1990 more than 80% of the voters chose separate nationalist parties, one Muslim, one Serb, one Croat. This political partition of and by the voters proved fatal to Bosnia as it became increasingly clear that Yugoslavia would disintegrate in the name of the separatist self-determination of the separate Yugoslav peoples.

The increasing likelihood that there would be separate, independent Serb and Croat states made an independent Bosnia and Hercegovina an unattractive option for most Serbs and Croats living in that republic, at least outside of Sarajevo. By joining Serbia and Croatia, respectively, they would become members of ruling, sovereign majorities, rather than of potentially threatened minorities. Further, annexing large areas of Bosnia and Hercegovina had always been elements of the Serbian and Croatian nationalist ideologies.

Reflecting these beliefs, the presidents of Serbia and Croatia met on the border of their republics in March 1991, while Yugoslavia still existed, and agreed on the partition of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia upon the breakup of Yugoslavia. This agreement was restated by the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs and Croats in a meeting in Austria in May 1992. The Serb and Croat political parties in Bosnia and Hercegovina acted on their plans to divide the republic. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, these parties armed their own people and made plans for the military partition of Bosnia and Hercegovina once Yugoslavia was gone.

In terms of public politics, the Serbs and Croats differed, since the Croats stood officially for an independent Bosnia and Hercegovina. However, as noted at the time by Lord Carrington, the European Community's mediator in Yugoslavia, the Croats combined this official stance, in favor of an independent Bosnia and hercegovina, with practical politics aimed at ensuring that this "republic" would have literally no central authority of any kind. This left it an empty shell, much like the former Yugoslavia after 1990. Thus the Croat position amounted to favoring Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia, making it easier to annex Croat-dominated regions to Croatia.

Bosnia remained peaceful, if extremely tense, as Serbs and Croats fought in Croatia from August 1991 until January 1992. As the cease-fire held in Croatia, Bosnia's Serbs and Croats began to implement their plans for dividing the republic, proclaiming "autonomous" Serb and Croat territories. A referendum on independence at the end of February 1992 looked like an ethnic census, with 63% of the electorate voting, more than 99% in favor of the separation. The Serbs, 33% of the population, boycotted the vote, and said that they would defend their territories against any attempt to separate them from what was left of Yugoslavia.

March saw increasing tensions and outbreaks of violence. On April 1, 1992, Serb forces, some from Serbia, attacked Muslims in Eastern Bosnia. Croat forces, some from Croatia, attacked Serb settlements in the north of Bosnia and in Hercegovina. Fighting quickly spread. In an attempt to stop the fighting, the EC and US recognized the independence of Bosnia on April 6, 1992. However, since so many of the putative citizens of this supposed state preferred to be Serbs in a greater Serbia or Croats in a greater Croatia rather than "Bosnians" in an independent Bosnia, recognition only ensured that the war would intensify. Having been told that they could not partition Bosnia and Hercegovina through negotiations, the Serbs and Croats proceeded to do it in the field, with bloodshed. The Bosnian Serb forces received enormous support from the former Yugoslav Army, while the Bosnian Croat forces were supported by the Croatian Army.

The course of the war has effected the partition of Bosnia and Hercegovina. The campaign of "ethnic cleansing" there since 1992, like those in Croatia in 1941-45, have been aimed at creating homogenous nation-states. The difference is that while in the 1940s the primary victims were Serbs at the hands of Croats and Muslims, in the 1990s the primary victims are Muslims at the hands of Serbs and Croats. An estimated 200,000 people have been killed thus far. While their ethnic breakdown is unknown, the UNHCR has released figures (September 1994) on some of the almost 1,000,000 displaced persons in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Of these, 765,000 Muslims and Croats were displaced from areas under Serb control, while 189,000 Serbs were displaced from areas under Muslims of Croat control.

Figures on Muslims displaced in areas under Croat control, or of Croats displaced in areas under Muslim control, were not reported, although these two groups fought in Hercegovina and central Bosnia, and each displaced members of the other in areas in which they attained control. However, Bosnia's Croats and Muslims, under very strong American pressure, agreed in March 1994 to create a "Federation" between themselves. This "Federation" seems to exist primarily in the minds of the American diplomats who created it, since virtually no steps have been taken to implement it on the ground, and its Constitution does not provide a structure for a workable government. Croat and Muslim refugees cannot return home even within this "Federation."

Self-determination and Ethnic Cleansing

It would be comforting but irresponsible to view the Yugoslav tragedy as the result of "irrational passions" or the criminality of some individual politicians. However, the courses of the wars of the Yugoslav secessions and succession have been driven by a very firm logic, that of self-determination of the nations involved. By this logic, states serve the interest of the nation, ethnically defined, not of all citizens. Minorities have few rights indeed in the new states; state chauvinism, like state socialism, is a totalizing ideology. Minorities are thus always under threat, which is why they reject the state which excludes them. In areas where an overall minority forms a local majority, war is likely. But a more difficult problem follows as well: a state can exist only when it has a nation to serve, and if the population does not define itself as a nation, the state cannot exist. When the population of Yugoslavia partitioned itself into Serbs, Croats, and others, Yugoslavia was doomed. In the same manner, when the population of Bosnia and Hercegovina partitioned itself into Serbs, Croats, and others, that supposed state was stillborn.

Yugoslavia collapsed when separate, exclusivist Serbian and Croatian nationalism triumphed politically, thus rendering the joint state nonviable. This same triumph of nationalism, ratified internationally by the diplomatic recognition of the self-determination of the republics in the former Yugoslavia, also rendered the joint state of Bosnia and Hercegovina nonviable. The tragedy is that the former Yugoslavia, which was built upon the premise of the coexistence of the Yugoslav peoples, provided the only framework for avoiding armed conflict between them. When it was dismembered as a result of nationalist movements based on their supposed implacable hostility, "ethnic cleansing" was the logical result.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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