Ghosts of Empire | Border Pains, Bravery and Brotherhood

A borderland on the edge of cultures and empires, Croatia’s position today feels eerily like a century ago

On Ban Jelačić, the central square in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, black letters carved into the white gray marble commemorate the honored dead: “Soldiers of the glorious 25th and 53rd Home Defenders Regiment, declaring themselves publicly in favor of the independent Republic of Croatia, were killed by machine guns from this building on December 5, 1918.”

At most, the plaque reveals only part of what happened on that gray autumn day, amid the agonies of a dying Empire ravaged by hunger and the Spanish flu bringing on the heaviest death toll in Croatia’s history – the joint torments of a political vacuum and violent anarchy following the Great War.

What actually happened, writes Croatian historian Ivo Goldstein, was that the Home Defenders Regiments initiated “accidental and chaotical” demonstrations on the main Zagreb square, some cheering the “Bolshevik” or the “Croatian” Republic as the spirit moved. “It is not clear what they really wanted,” Goldstein says. “Some of them didn’t even know that the new state had already been proclaimed.” What is certain is that they were “fatigued by war, destruction and post-war poverty.” In all, fifteen were killed and more than twenty wounded, in an exchange of gunfire triggered from the surrounding roofs by newly formed government forces and volunteers.

In such an atmosphere the first post-Empire state was launched – The Kingdom of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes – haunting Croatia to this day with the smoldering resentments of the past. The average Croat peasant had few regrets at the Empire’s passing – it had been hardly beneficial to a tiny, power and politically marginalized province at the Eastern frontier of the glorious Habsburg Empire. While in Austria and Czechia, about fifty percent of the population worked in industry, handicrafts, commerce and trade, in the Croatian lands, more than eighty percent of the population depended on outdated style of agriculture.


For centuries Croatia had suffered for its geo-strategic role on the frontier toward, first, the Ottoman Empire, and later to troubled Bosnia & Herzegovina and ambitious Serbia – a problem that, in some way, persists to this day. Time and again, the Croatian intellectual elite had to experience cultural submission, most painfully in the suppression of its language by “Germanization” or “Hungarization.

”The Great War devastated the country. By 1916, economic collapse had already destroyed public order, causing, as historians put it, “overall social apathy, mixed with frustration, despair and indignation.

”The atmosphere was brilliantly portrayed by Miroslav Krleža, the giant of 20th century Croatian literature. In his war stories collectively titled The Croatian God Mars, Krleža created the “poor Croatian man” archetype embodied by soldier Trdak Vid, who, together with his comrades, “in unnamed Croatian columns marches into the darkness of history.” A former k.u.k. soldier himself, Krleža and other progressive intellectuals of the day saw the salvation in a “brotherhood” of the common-language nations – above all, with the Kingdom of Serbia.

So not surprisingly, nobody questioned when on December 1, 1918 a new state was proclaimed, involuntarily, but fueled by the dreams of Croatian politicians who desperately wanted to protect the country from the imperial ambitions of stronger Western neighbors like Italy and Hungary.

Many hoped that the differences between the nations of the new kingdom would be ir-relevant: After all, Croats and Serbs speak al-most the same language. But the former were Catholics and the latter Orthodox, living for centuries politically and culturally opposed. All those unresolved misunderstandings between nations, so similar and yet so different, revealed themselves from the start, and were not to fade away until its bloody breakup 73 years later. And not even after that.

Hardly ten years had passed – marked by modest economic recovery and hard political compromise – when the first blow bloodied Croatian-Serb relations. In 1928, Serbian extremist Member of Parlament Puniša Račić opened fire in the National Assembly in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, killing two Croatian politicians and wounding three others. The most influential was Stjepan Radić, who died sometime later.“Despair, fury, hate and revenge” were felt at “every step” of Radić’s funeral, the largest Zagreb ever witnessed,” wrote Croatian author Miljenko Jergović. It was “a great political demonstration against Belgrade’s hegemony.”

From that point on, the nation of South Slavs was captured in a whirlwind of ethnic distrust.
Two years of dictatorship and suspended democracy followed, which left their mark, even after the king reinstated the Constitution two years later, in 1931. But the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – the name imposed by the King under the dictatorship – solved nothing.


On the contrary: Into the 1930s, Croatia became increasingly polarized between the Communists and the Ustashas, later collaborators with the Nazis, committing acts of brutality that would haunt Croatia for decades. It was, in fact, the Communists who would liberate the country from Nazism and lay the fragile foundations for the modern and relatively democratic Croatian state.

“Ustasha,” which in Croatian means “he who stood up,” became the name for a chauvinist terrorist movement formed in the early 1930s by rightist politician Ante Pavelić. In 1934, they helped coordinate the assassination of Yugoslav King Alexander in Marseilles by a Macedonian nationalist.

At the same time, during the 1930s, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia began developing a small but effective military force that, uniquely in Europe, became capable of con-fronting Hitler. This exceptional force, which carried out the only indigenous and successful resistance movement in occupied Europe, was made possible first and foremost by the tactical and strategic virtuosity of Josip Broz Tito. A modest locksmith from the tiny Croatian village of Kumrovec, Tito would go on to become one of the most important leaders of the last century.

So at the beginning of the 1940s, as European democracies collapsed one by one, in Yugoslavia the stage was set for a bloody civil war, which would leave deep and lasting scars, while at the same time, demonstrating an exceptional capability for inter-ethnic solidarity and joint effort for the common cause of liberation.

It was less than ten days after Hitler’s first bombs fell on Belgrade in the early morning of April 6, 1941, that Ustasha terror began. Four days after Germany invaded Yugoslavia, which collapsed like a house of cards, the so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was proclaimed. Three days later, the first Jews were deported into improvised death camps in Jadovno, south from Zagreb, and to the island of Pag, where they perished.

Eighteen days later, on April 28, the Ustashas killed 190 Serb peasants in village of Gudovec, near the town of Bjelovar. The NDH imitated German racial laws and opened concentration camps. The most terrifying of these was Jasenovac, in which at least 80,000 people were killed, most of them Serbs, Jews and Roma. By the end of the war, more than 80 percent of the Jews living in Croatia were killed, and many more Serbs and Roma.

The majority of those who survived did so in the Resistance. On July 4, led by Yugoslav communists, the first armed resistance emerged, which by year end would grow into an armed movement with about 7,000 guerrilla fighters, the so-called “partisans,” supported by a wide net of ordinary citizens.

Aside of hard and bloody battles, Tito’s biggest success was the recognition of the Allies. In 1943 and 1944, several British missions to Yugoslavia expressed unconcealed admiration for the partisans’ bravery and honesty in the fight against Hitler and his collaborators. Despite being ideologically opposed, Churchill and Tito developed strong personal respect and affection, memorialized in the photo of Tito brushing a crumb off Chur-chill’s lapel at No. 10 Downing Street in 1953.


Yugoslav partisans liberated the country – a unique triumph in Europe. But almost immediately, they spoiled it irreparably. During first several months after the war, the soldiers of the defeated collaboration armies, together with many civilians, were tortured and killed in what was probably a mixture of revenge and the liquidation of political enemies. Estimates say that 50,000 people were killed. Those massacres were kept secret during the Communist era, only to grow into a hidden national myth of “The Croatian Way of the Cross,” which would strongly erupt after the fall of Communism, invoking revisionism and even denial.

But that was not the only “original sin” of Communist Yugoslavia: For the next 45 years, it would stay shackled in a political one-party system, devoid of human rights, free speech and democratic elections. But still, just as it waged its own war and liberation, Yugoslavia would, unlike the countries liberated by Soviets, continue to be a unique case. This became visible first in 1948, when Tito resisted Stalin’s hard political pres-sure. He broke with him abruptly and turned the country partially toward the West.

That political success of “Tito’s historical ‘No’ to Stalin” – as official Yugoslav historiography celebrates it – was the main reason that the country, from the beginning of the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, enjoyed a prosperity previously unknown, while at the same time imprisoning itself in the troubling political stalemate of a one-party political system.

On May 4, 1980, at the peak of Yugoslavia’s economy success – which turned the country into one of the wealthiest Communist nations in the world – Tito, the unreconstructed old-style Communist, died. For a moment, there was a glimpse of hope that the country would now turn to pluralism, modernity and alliance with the West. But it did not.

In 1986, six years after the death of the Marshal, as they called him, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts published a “Memorandum” claiming that Serbia had been subordinated in Yugoslavia, and had a “right” to regain what it had been deprived of. Triggered by that document, nationalism spread like wildfire, taking over the media and public life, seeping into people’s homes and dreams.

Simultaneously, a young and ambitious Belgrade banker, Slobodan Milošević, gained power in the Serbian Communist party. “We are at war again,” he said he on June 28, 1989, speaking in front of two million people, mostly Serbs, on Gazimestan field. Better known as Kosovo field, the area is now mainly inhabited by people of Albanian descent, yet always had high importance for Serbs as the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 against the Ottoman Turks had ushered in centuries of foreign domination of the Serbs’ lands.

Less than a year later, in April 1990, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the nationalist political movement founded by historian Franjo Tudjman, captured absolute power in the first free elections in Croatia’s history. A horror scenario was on its way, worse than anyone had feared. Yugoslavia was rapidly rupturing along ethnic lines. The most important question was: What would the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) do if the country started to collapse?

Croatia’s new elite felt strongly that they should distinguish themselves from “the Balkans,” as they sarcastically labeled their southern neighbors. To that end, every effort was welcome, so the glorification of the k.u.k. Empire became an important flag to wave. Former disappointments with the Habsburgs were forgotten almost overnight. Otto von Habsburg became a welcome guest – although not his benevolent urges for democratization and the Europeanizing of the country.


Tudjman, the first president of democratic Croatia, which gained its independence in dramatic circumstances in the summer and autumn of 1991, was the key player to recon-figure the political and cultural landscape of the newly emerging country. But he himself was the incarnation of para-dox – a Tito partisan during WWII, and afterward one of the most ambitious army generals of the Communist dictatorship, he became persona non grata some years later and even ended up in jail because of his books about Croatian history, which were condemned as “nationalistic.”

When he gained power in 1991, Tudjman launched a platform of what he called “historical reconciliation of Croats,” which allowed Ustasha sentiments to re-emerge. That platform, together with the “anti-Balkan” attitude of his government, found its justification when the JNA took sides and launched a ruthless attack on Croatia. Pretending to act as a “buffer between opposing sides,” the JNA actually helped the Croatian Serbs exclusively, as the International criminal court for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, would conclude some years later. Until January 15, 1992, when the first effective truce was signed, a third of Croatia was occupied by Serb forces – with the old town of Vukovar totally destroyed. More than 15,000 died during the war in Croatia, with about 1,500 still regarded missing today. Half a million refugees, mostly Croats, were forced to leave their homes, and many smaller towns and villages were harmed, including the World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik.

But then, on January 15, 1992, Croatia gained recognition as an independent state from the majority of world’s countries, which paved the way to political equality and the liberation of its occupied territories during two quick police and military operations in May and August 1995. During the second of those, “The Storm,” waged August 4-7, 1995, the majority of Serbs left formerly occupied territories together with the illegal Serb army – an exodus that has burdened Croat-Serb relations ever since.

In the meantime, from 1991 to 1995, war erupted in Bosnia, cruel, exhausting and complicated. For Croatia, the worst part was between October 1992 and April 1994, when Croatian forces in BiH, the Croatian Defense Council (HVO), took on the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly Muslim Bosniaks. In the months that followed, the HVO destroyed the old Ottoman town of Mostar and opened concentration camps for Muslims, similar to the notorious Serb camps, to the disgust of the West after international journalists uncovered them in May 1992. War crimes were committed on both sides, but the ICTY, in its final sentence in November 2017, stated that Croatian state officials, including Tudjman, participated in a “joint criminal enterprise” with the ultimate goal to “establish a Croatian territorial entity.” To do that, said the ICTY, it was necessary to modify the ethnic composition of the territories. For these crimes, six leaders of Croatia and the Croatian part of BiH were sentenced to a total of 111 years in prison.


From here, Croatian history became a long and painful process of dealing with war and postwar trauma. Itself a victim of the Serb aggression, the Croatian government paradoxically waged a senseless war against the Bosnian Muslims, who in the neighboring country were fighting the same Serb army and volunteer militias.

After Tudjman died on December 10, 1999, his party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) lost the elections, opening the way to dismantle Tudjman’s autocratic and corrupted form of government. The democratization process began, opening the way for Croatia to join NATO and the EU. Nine years later, struggling to cooperate with the ICTY, Croatia succeeded in joining NATO.
On July 1, 2013, nine years after the “big bang” of 2004, when 10 Central European and Baltic countries joined the EU, and six years after Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia became the 28th member of the Union, with a huge, officially sponsored celebration on the main square of Zagreb. But a feeling lingered that it was too late: Multiple crises were undermining the confidence across Europe. Three years later, Brexit shocked the world.

So today, exactly a hundred years after the end of the Great War raised such high hopes, and after two more devastating wars shredded its fragile social fabric, Croatia stands more or less where it began in 1918: the provincial frontier of the Empire of today. Now democratic, it is similarly confused, with two basic paths to choose from: One leading to an open, tolerant and wealthy society, and the other to a nationalistic, backward-looking state of xenophobia and mistrust.

Still, the hope remains that the goodwill advice of Otto von Habsburg can be heard and respected at last, and that revisionist his-tory, like that on the plaque on Zagreb’s main square, would give way to honesty, political morality and social justice in this country ravaged by the storms of history.

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