Review: Croatia: a Nation Forged in War

This review originally appeared in Central Europe 10:1 (2012): 82-84.

Marcus Tanner. Croatia: a Nation Forged in War. 3rd edition. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press (2010). ISBN 978-0-300-16394-0.

Marcus Tanner’s Croatia: a Nation Forged in War and its Yale University Press stable-mate, Tim Judah’s The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, have become standard texts for undergraduates studying the former Yugoslavia for the first time. Widely distributed in paperback, they and Judah’s follow-up on Kosovo are accessible enough to the general reader that they have come to make up part of the Anglophone public narrative of the region. The publisher has recognised the continued demand for historical accounts of these peoples and territories, and Yale issued new editions of both Croatia and The Serbs after the political changes of 2000 in their related nation-states. Now, Yale and the authors have updated them again at a time when the region is appearing to enter a new phase of its history: as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia begins to be wound up in The Hague, the process of EU accession is moving fitfully on, although a deepening of the economic crisis to which Tanner points in the new final chapter for his third edition of Croatia might yet bring these teleological expectations to a halt.

Tanner, like Judah, came to history writing as a journalist who had reported extensively from former Yugoslavia during the 1990s conflict (Tanner was Balkans correspondent for The Independent between 1988 and 1994). Like Judah, he appears himself in the narrative at certain points to contribute a first-hand account of certain moments in the conflict, such as a visit to the eastern Slavonian towns of Ilok and Vukovar in 1992 on the anniversary of their capture by Serb forces. Unlike Judah, whose narrative weaves backwards and forwards through the national history of the Serbs, Tanner gives his book a strictly linear focus. The scope of both works also differs: while Judah set out to write the history of ‘the Serbs’, that is, a people, Tanner frames his account as the history of ‘Croatia’, that is, a territory. It begins nonetheless with the moment at which the territory known as Croatia came to be associated with the people known as the Croats, their migration into the devastated former Roman province of Illyricum. The tension between recounting the history of a territory and recounting the history of a people re-emerges throughout the book, when discussions of Catholics in Ottoman Bosnia or new social movements in Yugoslav Slovenia become necessary to contextualise events in the geographical space of Croatia itself. In a demographically complex region, of course, this would be impossible to avoid.

This third edition adds a new chapter that covers Croatia’s political and social history between 2000 and 2010: quieter and more peaceful years that have nonetheless thrown up new obstacles to ensuring the wellbeing of Croatia’s residents. Tanner makes clear that Croatia’s post-war prosperity had been built on high levels of state borrowing with consequences being felt in public spending cuts, while corruption ‘now touched the lives of almost everyone’ (p. 329). The overview of economic policy and its regionally uneven impacts on Croatia is useful, while this chapter contains noticeably more critical and minority voices from within Croatian society than the older material: the reader hears from a human rights campaigner, a Jewish community activist, an LGBT organiser, and a politician of Serb ethnicity who was then the deputy prime minister for regional development, reconstruction and return.

How will this book, which was first published in 1997, help as a whole to improve the understanding of readers learning about this region for the first time? Tanner’s account poses several challenges to the nationalist history that dominated public discourse in Croatia during the 1990s. His presentation of Croatia’s history before the nineteenth century undermines the idea that this territory was always destined to join together into one political entity – an idea that he argues derived only from the nineteenth-century Romanticism of Ljudevit Gaj. Independent Dubrovnik, for instance, ‘used its change of allegiance [the break from Venice in 1358] to maximise its independence, and not to forge closer links with the Croats’ (p. 25). One foreign ruler at least, Napoleonic France, is credited with ‘a positive role in Balkan or Croatian affairs’ (p. 72) in the shape of an economic and educational revival in Dalmatia. Some familiar nationalist myths (the notion that Josip Jelačić’s statue in Croatia pointed towards Hungary as the national enemy; the narrative that Croats were tricked by a small circle of politicians into joining Yugoslavia in 1918) are undone, as – at least for a time – is the myth of a permanently steadfast and watchful Military Frontier (Vojna Krajina). Tanner’s Krajina is in a ‘lamentable’ state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (p. 38), although it has recovered its martial virtues by 1850, when an excerpt from a history of the 1848–49 uprising is used to record the monthly military service of all adult males in the region’s extended households (zadruge). War is shown as part of the fabric of everyday life.

On a deeper level, however, the account remains embedded in a conflict-centric narrative of Croatian history. If a nation has been ‘forged in war’, as the subtitle relates, what do its members do when they are not at war, and are they always destined to return to war? The geographical location of Croatia suggests to Tanner that war is inescapable: ‘their lands have always been the object of predatory interest on the part of stronger neighbours’ (p. 337). This observation rests on a Hobbesian, zero-sum view of security which, to be fair, is shared by the majority of political actors who have exerted power in Croatia or attempted to. The early sixteenth century becomes a kind of second ethnogenesis when the Croats acquired a historical sense of the role they were to play in Europe and the world: in the space of eight years Croatia acquired its description as ‘the ramparts, or bulwark, of Christendom’ (p. 32) from Pope Leo X in 1519 and its unique visual symbol in the red and white šahovnica emblem used to seal the Habsburg Emperor’s allegiance as King of Croatia in 1527. Tanner’s Croatia, in this sense, was very much forged in war, and in war with the Ottomans at that.

Writing a history of Croatia necessarily involves choices about how to represent intercommunal violence and intolerance. Croatia is not, and could not be, absolved of all blame. Tanner devotes a chapter to the terror of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH): its rounding up of Jews for extermination, its determination to deport all Serbs, its mass killings, its persecution of political enemies within the Croat people itself. Tuđman’s infamous thanks to God that ‘my wife is now a Jew or a Serb’ (p. 228) and his ‘concessions to the extreme right of a symbolic nature’ (p. 284) are included, as are the 1993 massacre at Ahmići in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other atrocities committed by Bosnian Croat forces (one of many occasions where the narrative must necessarily escape the territorial frame of today’s Croatia), and an anti-Serb riot by Croats in Zagreb in 1902. At other points in the narrative, the fault for intolerance or escalation lies with the Serbs: their rejection of Bishop Strossmayer’s attempts to reconcile with the Orthodox Church; their upsetting of Prince Paul’s concordat with the Vatican in 1938; their aspiration to dominate 1980s Yugoslavia, their obsession with Kosovo, and their disinterest in the new social movements that were leading Slovenia towards democratisation; their rioting after Milošević’s Kosovo Polje speech in 1989. Krajina Serbs’ antipathy to Tuđman in 1990 is narrated as stubborn and unreasonable:

Tudjman’s talk of Croatia’s past glories and independence was anathema to them. They were particularly hostile to the red-and-white Croatian flags his supporters waved at HDZ rallies, which they insisted was the Ustashe flag. In fact the old chequerboard symbol had been the official coat of arms of the Socialist Republic of Croatia and had faded from use on election posters and other propaganda only in the 1950s. No matter. The Serbs had now decided it was the footprint of the Ustashe. (pp. 223–24)

Meanwhile, Tuđman and his party at this time are guilty of no more than ‘euphoria’ and ‘triumphalism’ (p. 226). There would be room here for wider discussion: the divergent meanings projected on to what may seem to an outsider the trifling difference of whether a white or red square appears on the top left of the chequerboard; the effect of family memories of intercommunal violence during the Second World War and the sudden public visibility of these memories in 1980s Yugoslavia; the critiques made not just by Serbs but by left-wing Croatian writers such as Viktor Ivančić that Tuđman and his state bore dangerous ideological similarities to the NDH. The author need not accept all these interpretations; to cover them would still help readers understand what has been said about this turning point in Croatian history.

There is more discussion of the Croats’ relationship to extremism and violence than of similar points about the Serbs. The NDH is clearly stated to have lacked ‘a popular base’ (p. 154), and similarly ‘[t]he Gospić murders were not typical’ (p. 282) of Croatian tactics during the war of independence: it follows that the Croats as a people are not inherently violent towards their national Other. If the same is not said about the Serbs, was it the task of this book to also do so? Violence against Serbs is clearly made out to be an aberration rather than, for instance, an aspect of strategy. Tanner’s interpretation of the aftermath of the Oluja offensive in August 1995 is that Serb civilians chose to leave and that Croat soldiers and civilians then burned villages and looted empty homes – though in his new chapter he mentions that ‘almost 200,000 Serbs were swept out of the country’ (p. 332) during Oluja, perhaps suggesting more agency on Croats’ part. By 1998, when Croatia reincorporated the UN-administered territory in Eastern Slavonia, state control is seen as strong enough that violence would not recur: Tuđman ‘was determined that the re-absorption of Vukovar and its surroundings would not be accompanied by reports of revenge killings and house burning’ (p. 305) thus gave responsibility for the transition to the well-educated and moderate (and female) politician Vesna Škare-Ožbolt. There is no suggestion here – as has been suggested not just by national Others or international actors but also inside Croatia – that ethnic cleansing could have been a strategy that Tuđman had embraced or acquiesced in between 1990 and 1995.

The new chapter, admittedly, does bring with it Dubravka Ugrešić’s description of the 1990s Croatian leaders as ‘criminals out for money who manipulated people with that ethno-nationalist stuff’ (p. 315). However, this perspective is not worked into the account of the events themselves, where even for a general readership it would be possible to present multiple interpretations of the same events. Awareness, for instance, of the Serb nationalist narrative that Oluja involved the intentional ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Krajina is important in understanding the competing claims to truth that continue to obstruct intercommunal dialogue, but it will have to be gained from other sources. At one point (p. 304) competing Croatian and EU narratives of Oluja are discussed, yet still do not hear from the Serbs – although the reader of Croatia is likely also to have read The Serbs, where the experiences of Krajina refugees are discussed as length. The account of seventeenth-century Croatia and Bosnia also relies on a single narrative, in this case ‘the strong impression […] of mutual intolerance between the Catholic and Orthodox communities’ (p. 48) left by the 1636 travelogue of Henry Blount. This is the only primary source used on the seventeenth-century lands at any length; briefer quotations from two other travellers relate to converts (poturice) and illustrate ‘the compromises people had to strike under Ottoman rule between their private convictions and the external pressure to convert to Islam’ (p. 49). The competing historical narrative of a multicultural Bosnia that would underpin anti-monoethnic political identities in the twentieth and twenty-first century – itself a selective narrative, of course – is important for an understanding of the region but is silenced here.

A border nation, Tanner implies, will always have to fight for its survival – as a political entity and as a cultural group. Powerful nation-states, one may infer, are inherently homogenising and aggressive, and all groups have fixed cultural boundaries even though their political borders may shift. Tanner’s preface states that ‘[t]he people of the border land are always aware that beyond their narrow boomerang of territory […] their world stops and that of the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, or the Muslim Bosnians, begins’ (p. xi). In practice, the identity of territory is not so fixed, as Tanner acknowledges in saying that ‘the Ottoman impact on Croatia was immense, scarcely less than the impact of the Turks on the other southern Balkan nations, the Serbs, Albanians, Greeks and Bulgars’ (p. 41) (though should we not then speak of the Ottoman impact on the Croats?). Tanner’s medieval chapters make clear that Croatia was not homogenous throughout its history – still an important point to make in the face of nationalist narratives that aim to prove the opposite. A possible further step, suggesting that identities might not be fixed even after the nation-state and nationalist movements have done their homogenising work, has not been taken (in contrast, for instance, to Ivan Lovrenović’s Bosnia: a Cultural History, published at the same time as Croatia’s second edition). We hear very little, for instance, about the appetite for ethnonational ambiguity in Istria, a border region in its own right that was not integrated into Croatia until 1945. The deconstruction of ethnic identity and an attention to the activities of ethnic entrepreneurs have become hallmarks of recent research on the Yugoslav conflicts: giving some sense of this alternative approach to understanding the region has thus become more important since the first edition of this book was published. Framing a historical account as the history of a territory rather than a people could have enabled a historian to do precisely that.

Yale University Press’s list now contains histories of the Serbs, Croatia and Kosovo; Bosnia-Herzegovina is covered by Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia, the first of the post-1991 wave of single-country histories. Others, such as Lovrenović’s Bosnia or Branka Magaš’s Croatia Through History, are regrettably less available in paperback. Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro now also have their English-language historians. The general reader still does not have, however, a book that brings together the cultural, economic and interpersonal connections that still run through the former Yugoslav region after its political fragmentation – what Judah himself has identified as an ongoing ‘Yugosphere’.[1] For the benefit of students and for instructors introducing them to the current state of knowledge on the region, perhaps a future text from Yale might do exactly that.

[1] Tim Judah, ‘Good News from the Western Balkans: Yugoslavia is Dead, Long Live the Yugosphere’, LSEE Working Papers 1 (London: LSE, 2009).

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