In the last months of the Second World War and after the war, all of Europe was severely affected by its consequences. Yugoslavia was no exception. The intensity of the violence reached a new peak between the autumn of 1944 and the summer of 1945, when mass killings occurred across the country. However, the Yugoslav authorities denied for decades that these mass killings had ever taken place and stopped all attempts to reveal them. Moreover, the Western Allies, despite knowing about these crimes, chose to ignore them in order to preserve the alliance with the Soviet Union.
The political manipulation and the flaws in previous research had a tremendous impact, even on the generations born after the end of the Second World War. Unlike some other Eastern European countries where communism was installed with the help of the Soviet Army, Yugoslav partisans had gained power without the help of Soviet troops. The communist government of Yugoslavia was not imposed by a foreign power but was a result of internal factors. This is one of the reasons why the successor states of Yugoslavia have such problems to come to terms with the communist past and why former communists could often continue their careers under now democratic conditions. Macedonia is still the only former Yugoslav republic where a lustration law has been enacted (since 2009).
Croatia has not passed a law which would make the prosecution of the perpetrators of communist crimes possible. Moreover, 27 July is still celebrated as an unofficial national holiday although that was a day when in 1941 the first communist massacres happened. Between 1945 and 1990 that day was celebrated as the Day of the Uprising of the Peoples of Croatia and the murder of several hundred Croatian villagers, including women and children, was forgotten. Former leading members of the communist party still play an important role in Croatian politics and hold positions of power. The Lustration Law is therefore mostly supported by small right-wing parties and NGOs. They argue that the de-communisation of Croatian society is essential for social and political change.
Today, due to the reluctance to deal with the Communist past and, incomplete de-communisation of Croatian society, this topic in Croatia is still a matter not only of political and scholarly debates, but also of everyday life. Questioning total demographic losses and investigating communist crimes is often seen as ‘historical revisionism’, particularly by the former Croatian president Stjepan Mesić who compared it with ‘celebrating Fascism’ and argued that this might prevent Croatia from joining the EU. In February 2007, Mesić contributed to the international debate sparked by the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. On the introduction of a Day of Remembrance in which Italy remembers the Italians either killed or forced to leave Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War Napolitano criticised ‘hatred and bloodthirsty furor’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. In his reply Mesić accused Napolitano of racism. In October 2011 Mesić expressed his concerns about ‘the second historical revisionism offensive’ in order ‘to judge communism which is equated with Nazi-Fascism’. Mesić said that the same thing was happening in the other transition countries and concluded that ‘the democratic Europe seems to be too democratic… towards such excesses’. Mesić ignored that in 2011 the Croatian Parliament itself had adopted the European Day of Remembrance of Victims of All Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, commemorated on 23 August. This day also refers to victims of communist crimes. Without impartial and thorough research the ‘historical truth’ will keep disappearing behind a politically motivated smokescreen of half-truths, distorted facts and manipulated victim numbers. Croatian historians are by no means the only ones whose work is seriously affected by pressure coming from various political circles. Serbian and Slovenian historians have also reported that there is still strong resistance to this kind of research. The governments and judicial systems of the former Yugoslav republics showed no willingness to prosecute the perpetrators of these atrocities or to pass and enforce Lustration laws. As according to Serbian historians most documents about these executions are kept in Serbian archives, only a close cooperation between Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian authorities and researchers will finally make conclusive results possible.
During the last two decades several investigations have been carried out in three republics of former Yugoslavia, but the results were not satisfactory. At first sight, they seemed to be impressive. Approximately 1,800 mass graves have been identified in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. On the other hand, only a small percentage of these locations have been exhumed, mostly due to financial reasons, and in many cases the victims have not been identified which leaves plenty of space for future, politically motivated manipulations.
Despite the political obstacles, the intensity of the Yugoslav violence is very well presented by two numbers. This thesis has shown how harsh Yugoslav repression – compared to post-war purges in France and other western European countries – really was. Demographic losses in former Yugoslavia were among the highest in Europe. According to Vučković, Žerjavić and Kočović, Yugoslavia lost approximately one million people during the war, including 597,323 victims of the so-called ‘fascist terror’ counted in Yugoslav research in 1964. That means that approximately 400,000 casualties are unaccounted for. There is evidence that most of them were killed by communist partisans and the Yugoslav Army. The results provided by the research on ‘Victims of Dugopolje’ provides strong evidence that the majority of deaths occurred in the last few months of the war and immediately after the war. However, it remains unknown how many of those who stood trial later and were punished by death are included in that number.
Although it is still not possible to answer the question ‘how many people were killed in Yugoslavia during and immediately after the Second World War and how many of them fell victim to communist repression?’, the cases presented in this thesis show that number is certainly measured in thousands. In Macelj, Tezno and Jazovka alone, 2,789 human remains were discovered. This number may not sound that high, but it is important to keep in mind that these are only three out of 1,800 possible mass grave locations in former Yugoslavia and the exhumations were stopped in the early stage of investigation. Each location actually consists of several locations (Jazovka probably two), which are known under the same name. In Macelj, only 23 mass graves were dug out while there could be up to 130 mass graves. At the moment it is impossible to estimate how many people ended their lives only on these three locations. Only a further research can give at least an approximately accurate answer and prevent further manipulations with the number of victims on both sides.
The cases presented in this thesis provided sufficient evidence that thorough research could reveal more details about specific perpetrators of these atrocities. However, even when that is not possible, due to lack of archival documents, those that are available to us show a certain pattern. Following their capture, the majority of prisoners-of-wars and civilians were under control of the Yugoslav Army and its units actively participated in mass killings. In the following weeks OZNA was taking over. It is important to understand that OZNA was not part of the military but a police organisation and it did conduct investigations with the aim of getting information which would help improve its work. This is a reason why in some cases OZNA reacted angrily when prisoners were liquidated “too quickly”. KNOJ, which was subordinated to OZNA, conducted its military operations with a surgical precision. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the Yugoslav Army acted spontaneously. Sometimes that apparently was the case, and it is possible that those actions were a result of desire for revenge. However, in the cases when the killings were carried out on a massive scale, they were carefully planned and systematically organised. One example of systematic and organised mass killing is Kočevski Rog.
The question that often arises in discussion about this topic is – who ordered these crimes? Were they indeed a result of erratic behaviour and looting by a victorious army? It seems that this was not or not very often the case. Moreover, several documents presented in the fourth and fifth chapter suggest that all organisations in former Yugoslavia, including civil authorities, OZNA and the Yugoslav Army, were under strict control of the KPJ (Communist Party of Yugoslavia). In the most important matters the communists interfered in anything which was of particular interests. For example, some of the documents prove the local KP committees, such as the one in Stubica, occasionally contacted higher KP committees asking them to instruct the higher military commands how to proceed in the field. Given the fact that there was apparently a strong bond between the KPJ and the mass executions, it can be concluded that this was done with the knowledge of the Politburo, and therefore, Tito as well.
This might be the reason why so many former communists strongly defend Tito’s role and persistently claim that the killings were only ‘isolated incidents’. Another reason – at least for the older generation – might be the wish to protect themselves against prosecution. Acknowledging these atrocities and taking responsibility could also somehow diminish the role of the NOP in the anti-fascist uprising in former Yugoslavia which plays an important role for the self-understanding and prestige of the successor organisations of the Yugoslav communist party.
What is often forgotten in this story is who the victims are and why coming to terms with the past is essential for true peace. In 1997 John Paul Lederach presented his integrated framework for peace building in which the fourth phase represents ‘the longer-term perspective, which is often adopted by people who seek to prevent conflict and to promote a vision of a more peaceful and socially harmonious future’ which he called the ‘desired future’. Lederach believed that protracted conflicts cannot be fixed quickly because the healing of the people and the rebuilding of their relationships are necessary and they do take time.
20 years after the end of Homeland War and 70 years after the end of the Second World War, Croatian society is still not living in that ‘desired future’. The victims of the events, described in this thesis, are not only who were slaughtered, but many others whose lives have been affected. This is why profound changes in the Croatian society are necessary and they begin with objective and systematic research.”
By Blanka Matkovic Thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Philosophy
University of Warwick, Department of History August 2015