Review: Sarajevo, 1941–1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler’s Europe

This review originally appeared in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 13:3 (2013), 534-6.

Emily Greble, Sarajevo, 1941–1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler’s Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011, 276 pp., £21.50 hbk).

Few cities in contemporary Europe are the subject of as many myths as Sarajevo. Historians of Tito’s Yugoslavia have debated whether Sarajevo was an example of the country’s multi-ethnic ideal put into practice or the exception in a fatally-flawed system. Later, under siege between 1992 and 1995, Sarajevo with its multi-ethnic history became a compelling symbol of a cosmopolitan, defiant and creative spirit that pre-dated and transcended the homogenising logic of the nation-state, even as its political leaders appealed increasingly to a narrower Bosniak nationalism. Yet to even exist after 1945, Sarajevo’s multiculturalism had had to persist through the Second World War and the annihilation of so many other multicultural communities under Fascist occupation – a period that has received much less attention in English-language historiography, but is the subject of Emily Greble’s book.

Greble’s detailed study covers the years between 1939 and 1945. It begins with how Sarajevo’s religious organisations reacted to the threat of the Second World War, enters its main narrative with the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941 and Sarajevo’s double occupation by the ‘Independent State of Croatia’ (NDH) and German military authorities, and ends with the arrival of Partisan troops in April 1945. The result is an account of the city’s wartime institutions (including the Islamic Religious Community, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish Communities, the Franciscan order, and the city council), which shows how an urban ‘identity’ is produced, and indeed interpreted, through the actions of people, groups, networks and institutions that constitute the city’s social fabric. In the case of Sarajevo, this urban ‘identity’ was thought to consist of a distinctive multi-ethnic, multi-confessional history and of the local practices that had developed for managing it.

After an introduction setting out Greble’s approach to studying identity and nationalism, Chapter 1 presents vignettes of Sarajevans associated with various city institutions on the eve of war, Chapter 2 describes the establishment of NDH and German occupation, Chapter 3 addresses questions of conversion and complicity, Chapter 4 assesses the failure of the NDH’s national programme, Chapter 5 shows how Sarajevo fitted into the wider strategic context of the war in Yugoslavia, Chapter 6 looks at the beginnings of organised resistance to occupation and Chapter 7 covers the Communist takeover of power. Greble finds that Sarajevo’s demographics did not fit the ‘prescribed categories’ (p. 88) that the NDH attempted to impose in determining who should be purged from ‘Croatian’ soil. Her investigation, however, goes further to narrate how what Sarajevo elites regarded as the city’s traditional culture guided their attempts to negotiate the structures of occupation.

This book is not a hagiography of Sarajevo. The city elites’ annoyance with refugees from outside (pp. 136–9) echoes anthropological accounts of refugee crises in Bosnian cities during the 1992–95 war. With regard to the Jews of Sarajevo, Greble acknowledges that ‘for every Sarajevan helping a Jew, there was another eagerly awaiting to claim the property of a Jewish neighbour dragged off in the night’ (p. 113–4); and the implications of the argument that city leaders challenged the ‘genocidal agenda’ of the NDH only once they had ‘realized that the state would not respect their criteria for determining who belonged to the national community’ (p. 89) could be read as overshadowing the myth of Sarajevo to a more troubling extent than is concluded here. Nevertheless, Greble still finds it possible to speak of ‘the persistence of a civic community spirit despite the overpowering ideology of Nazism and Ustashism’ (p. 117), and to argue that behind complicity was often an intent to protect the local community and a Sarajevan ethics of inter-confessional relations that was irreconcilable with the totalising policy of the NDH.

This book’s approach is in keeping with the intellectual predecessors identified in its introduction. Greble draws together several threads in the current history of contemporary Europe. Within the historiography of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the book explicitly responds to Omer Bartov’s invitation to historians to write ‘community studies’ (pp. 2–3), and has a more distant inspiration in the microhistory of early modern Germany. Using Philippe Burrin’s idea of ‘structural accommodation’ (p. 163) to explain the city leaders’ actions brings Sarajevo into dialogue with the history of Nazi-occupied Paris, blurring the collaboration/resistance binary (though Philippe is unfortunately renamed ‘Jacque’ in the text). As regards the Second World War in Yugoslavia, meanwhile, Greble joins Tomislav Dulić, Alexander Korb and Marko Attila Hoare in revisiting these events through locally-grounded studies that are not restricted either to engaging with the Titoist narrative of the ‘anti-Fascist liberation struggle’, or to examining inter-ethnic mass killing as a forerunner of the 1990s wars (though the Partisans’ myth of Sarajevo as a centre of their armed resistance is repeatedly questioned). Finally, she situates the book within a broader historiography of central and eastern Europe by drawing on the ‘national indifference’ school associated with Tara Zahra and others (p.22), which spotlights ways in which the reach of elite-driven nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries appears not to have been as wide as has typically been thought.

As a microhistory, however, the scope does not quite go all the way down. The protagonists are city officials and religious leaders rather than the Sarajevans who were affected by their decisions but had less power to shape them. This suits Greble’s aim of studying how the ‘civic consciousness’ of Sarajevo was re-produced – and thus, she argues, protected – by Sarajevo’s elites, but leaves room for further research on Sarajevans’ everyday experiences during the war. At the same time, though the conclusion makes an excellent case for ‘reading wartime through a local lens’ (p. 252), the potential to feed these findings back into a wider European history of national identification and persecution during the Second World War is largely unexplored: what could be gained from reading the Sarajevo experience in dialogue with Budapest, say, or Thessaloniki? Sarajevo 1941–1945 nonetheless joins a growing number of works that bring new perspectives to contemporary European history by refusing to write of national identity as elite-driven, fixed, or necessarily primary. It thus commends itself not only to Yugoslav specialists but to scholars with broader interests in the Holocaust and the contemporary history of Europe.


Bartov, Omer. 2003. ‘The Roots of Modern Genocide: on the Macro- and Microhistory of Mass Murder’ In The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective, ed. Robert Gellatelly and Ben Kiernan. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Burrin, Philippe. 1993. France under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: New Press.

Dulić, Tomislav. 2005. Utopias of Nation: Local Mass Killing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1941–1942. Stockholm: Elanders Gotab.

Hoare, Marko Attila. 2007. The History of Bosnia from the Middle Ages to the Present Day . London: Saqi.

Zahra, Tara. 2008. Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in Bohemia, 1900–1948 . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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