1991 – The Croatian War of Independence


1 March 1991 – Pakrac

An old professor of mine during my third year as an undergraduate ran a course on Eastern European history. I enjoyed writing my dissertation on Czechoslovakia and Poland during the Second World War, but his expertise ran much wider than that. We got into a conversation about how the fall of Communism was a good thing because it meant that UEFA got a bunch of great new football teams such as Croatia, Serbia and Ukraine. He grinned, and said that one of his most embarrassing “predictions” in the late 1980s was that Yugoslavia would be one of the only communist states to remain intact. “I said, ‘Oh, Yugoslavia will have to remain together. The bloodshed would be horrific if any of the ethnic groups tried to secede’.” He paused. “I suppose I was half right.”

A disclaimer, which I don’t normally put in these articles: I do not claim to be an expert on Yugoslavia or Balkan politics. My interest as a historian is in the way in which stories about the war have been interpreted and filtered into the popular imagination. And, in particular, how they have been received in the United Kingdom. I don’t care who was “right” and who was “wrong”. And while I sympathise with those affected, it is not my intention here to tell “the real history” of Croatia. I hope the footnotes to this piece offer at least some starting point for those wanting to do their own research.

As tensions increased following the fall of the Berlin Wall, a football riot broke out between Dinamo Zagrb and Red Star Belgarde (respectively Croatia's and Serbia's top teams). For some, it marks the informal star of the war of independence. footage has been uploaded to Youtube.

As tensions increased following the fall of the Berlin Wall, a football riot broke out between Dinamo Zagrb and Red Star Belgarde (respectively Croatia’s and Serbia’s top teams). For some, it marks the informal star of the war of independence.
footage has been uploaded to Youtube.

The various civil wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s were horrific. It made “ethnic cleansing” a widely recognised term, a euphemism to describe the mass murder of various ethnic groups. Even today, the independence of Kosovo is disputed, while the tensions between Serbs and other nations have often been expressed in violence at international sporting events.1 As a child just becoming aware of international events and the news, the violence in the former Yugoslavia was the first war I remember watching on television. And its effects are still being felt.

Like my professor, ethnic tension is often cited as the root cause of the violence. And in many ways it was. But the source of that tension was historical – not in the sense that the histories of these groups led to inevitable conflict; but that ethnic histories could be manipulated by political leaders to mobilise national groups to war.

Croatia is the land of Marco Polo and the neck tie. (The country is locally known as Hrvatska – which was corrupted in French to “cravat”.)2 In the Middle Ages it was an independent kingdom, but over the Early Modern period it spent time under the rule of Venice, the Hapsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire. When the Austro-Hungarian state was dismantled following defeat in the First World War (prompted by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in neighbouring Bosnia), Croatia, along with a number of other Balkan states, formed a new Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Then, after Nazi occupation during the Second World War, Yugoslavia emerged as an independent Communist state.

Unlike many of the other countries in the region, Yugoslavia was not a puppet of Moscow. It was fairly liberal, allowing much more foreign travel and educational opportunities than its neighbours. Indeed, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin wall, it was expected that the state would be become the first Eastern member of the European Economic Community.3 Instead, growing tensions within the Republic following the death of Tito boiled over into bloody violence. The question ever since for political scientists and historians has been – why?

At the time, and in the popular narrative, ethnic tensions between the various groups have been blamed. For the ex-Yugoslavia was by no means ethnically uniform. Slovenians, Croats, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Albanians, Macedonians and Serbs all lived within the union. The capital, Belgrade, was within Serbia, but there were various constituent republics based around key towns such as Zagreb (Crotaia) and Sarejevo (Bosnia). This reflected the country’s origins as an alliance between various ethnic groups within the Balkans. Aside from these national/ethnic differences, there was also a mix of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic religion.4 Certainly the mass murders in Kosovo and Bosnia were done in the name of “ethnic cleansing”.5 But regardless of how these events were spun, or the way ethnic identity was harnessed to provoke political mass movements, the historical picture is not quite so clear.

The former Yugoslavia and successor states as of 2008. (Source)

The former Yugoslavia and successor states as of 2008. (Source)

Indeed, Dejan Djokic has noted how one of the more interesting arguments during the Slobodan Milošovic trial centred over the Croatian Party of Right and the historical figure Vuk Stefanović Karadžić – a nineteenth century Serb linguistic reformer. In a debate between the ex-leaders of Serbia (Milošovic) and Croatia (Stjepan Mesic), the battle was over the true interpretation of historical events. For the Serbs, the Croatians took their political heritage from a proto-fascists; for the Croats, they were part of a line of freedom fighters, first against the Austrians and now against the Serbs.6 Others have published studies which show how political discourse at crucial points in Yugoslavian history – 1984-85, 1989-90, 1996 and 2003 – bear the marks of manipulation by political elites. What mattered most, argue Sekulić, Massey and Hodson, was that ethnic identities could be mapped onto political and economic movements. This allowed political and historical narratives to become distorted.7 These histories became necessarily adversarial, as Raymond and Bajic-Raymond discuss with regard to Franjo Tudjman (Croat) and Milošovic.8

In the end, national identities are built on history. Key events and public figures are interpreted and used as symbols of good or evil, and held up as role models for particular interests. They proclaim common interests, a shared heritage which is worth defending and building upon. And it is often said that history cannot exist without the nation.

No history is value free, nor can it ever hope to be. But when used as a call to war, it can be tremendously powerful. There is a danger that we lionise the good – “Churchillian spirit” or “the spirit of Dunkirk” destroying the Nazis – and forget that it is all part of the same process that allowed Hitler’s “Third Reich” to be placed in a continuum of great German states. This is why we should be always be sceptical of those who try to ‘rehabilitate’ the British Empire9 (as well as those who use it for their own nefarious ends).10

All history is distorted. This is not to say that all history is bad, but simply to make us keenly aware that what we think of as “the truth” is often far from objective. We shouldn’t stop building and retelling national myths necessarily. But we should always be questioning and presenting alternatives. An important lesson to learn as we move forward with the 30-for-30.

  1. See: Ellen Connolly, ‘Balkan fans riot at Australian Open tennis’, The Guardian, 24 January 2009 < http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jan/24/australian-open-riot > (accessed 25 March 2015); ‘Serbia and Albania game abandoned after drone invasion sparks brawl’, CNN, 15 October 2014 7:27pm EDT < http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/14/sport/football/serbia-albania-game-abandoned/ > (accessed 25 March 2015).
  2. ‘Cravat’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cravat > (accessed 25 March 2015).
  3. V. P. Gagnon Jr., ‘Yugoslavia in 1989 and after’, Nationalities Papers 38(1) (2010), 23-39.
  4. See: Wendy Bracewell, ‘The end of Yugoslavia and new national histories’, European History Quarterly 29(1), 149-56.
  5. See particularly: ‘Srebrenica Massacre’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebrenica_massacre > (accessed 25 March 2015).
  6. Dejan Djokic, ‘Coming to terms with the past: Former Yugoslavia’, History Today 54(6) (2004).
  7. Duško Sekulić, Garth Massey, Randy Hodson, ‘Ethnic intolerance and ethnic conflict in the dissolution of Yugoslavia’, Ethnic & Racial Studies 29(5) (2006), 797-827.
  8. G.G. Raymond, S. Bajic-Raymond, ‘Memory and history: The discourse of nation-building in the former Yugoslavia’, Patterns of Prejudice 31(1) (1997), 21-30.
  9. Seumas Milne, ‘This attempt to rehabilitate empire is a recipe for conflict’, The Guardian, 10 June 2010 8:01 BST < http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jun/10/british-empire-michael-gove-history-teaching > (accessed 25 March 2015).
  10. Mark Tran, ‘Mugabe denounces Britain as “thieving colonialists”‘, The Guardian, 18 April 2008 16:09 BST < http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/apr/18/zimbabwe.independence > (accessed 25 March 2015).
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