Review: The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: a History

This review originally appeared in English Historical Review 130:544 (2015): 784-6.

The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: a History, by Marko Attila Hoare (London: Hurst, 2013; pp. xviii + 478, £55.00)

This exhaustively researched work is positioned by the author as his ‘third and final’ on ‘the history of national identity in Bosnia-Hercegovina and the birth of the modern Bosnian state’ (p. xvii). The first two, Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: the Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941–1943 (Oxford University Press, 2006) and The History of Bosnia: from the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Saqi, 2007), already stand as rigorous contributions to the literature which have helped to reopen the study of Yugoslavia’s experiences during the Second World War. The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War focuses on a social and national group who have usually been marginalised in studies of the Second World War in Yugoslavia. Yet despite the differences in title between this book and Genocide and Resistance, it could simultaneously almost be read as a companion volume to the earlier work. Whereas Genocide and Resistance ended in 1943, at the point when the Communist Party had achieved political and military superiority over the Chetnik movement in Bosnia-Herzegovina, The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War continues the history into 1943–5, when the Bosnian Communists continued to set up local and national state structures, expanded into areas where the Partisans had not been strong and intensified their infiltration of the Independent State of Croatia’s forces – all activities which make it possible to speak of a specifically Bosnian history of the Second World War but which would contribute to the Yugoslavia-wide victory of the Partisans in 1945.

While the first three chapters of this book cover the 1941–3 period from different angles, the later five discuss the second half of the war and indeed continue into 1950, in order to show how the Communist authorities consolidated one-party rule and dealt with the Bosnian and Muslim national questions, the status of Islamic religious institutions and the vestiges of Muslim autonomism. The ‘dual Bosnian resistance’ (p. 13) against the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), the Italian and German occupiers and the Bosnian Chetniks took two interdependent forms: on the one hand, military resistance through the People’s Liberation Army, which had its origins in the 1941 village uprisings against the NDH genocide of Serbs, and on the other hand, the underground activities of the People’s Liberation Movement (NOP) in the towns and cities, which fed invaluable supplies and intelligence through to the Partisans. Yet because of Serb Partisans’ attacks on Muslims in 1941–2, the Communists were initially unable to exploit Muslim alienation from the NDH. Muslim autonomists even made direct appeals to Hitler to save them from the NDH, and Himmler exploited this by setting up the SS ‘Handžar’ division, composed of Bosnian Muslims. The depth with which Hoare explores the context of the Handžar Division’s formation and disintegration ought to refute any generalisations about the national character of Bosnian Muslims as a people; rather, their history (and everyone else’s) in 1941–5 Yugoslavia appears as a complex matter of loyalties which ‘shifted and fluctuated’ (p. 7), often on very localised grounds.

The grassroots-level approach Hoare applies to the study of collaboration is equally effective for explaining the dynamics of how the Bosnian Partisans were able to subvert NDH garrisons from within and how they joined together hundreds of town- and village-level People’s Liberation Councils into the Bosnian republic which became part of Tito’s federal Yugoslavia. His example of how to move past an ‘out-of-date, top-down model’ (p. 4) for studying Yugoslavia’s Second World War makes him one of several recent historians of 1941–5 Yugoslavia who have left the collaboration/resistance binary far behind them and brought the subject into dialogue with broader currents in Second World War historiography. It simultaneously suggests that, as anthropologists have been demonstrating for some years, a similar grassroots level of analysis has much to offer historians of the 1990s post-Yugoslav wars.

The second historiographical intervention Hoare wishes to make is to re-centre the Yugoslav Second World War period as explicitly a ‘Yugoslav Revolution’ – terminology which, after decades of Titoist mythography, understandably went somewhat out of fashion. Hoare has no time for ‘the myth of a pristine, homogenous, top-down Communist-led resistance movement’ (p. 7), but the Communist state-building process certainly deserves to be classified as a revolution nonetheless. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘classified as several revolutions’ within a larger Yugoslav Revolution, since Hoare argues that the revolutions took specific courses in the different regions of Yugoslavia; even within Bosnia-Herzegovina, the dynamics of revolution in different areas varied widely. This study of the Bosnian Revolution, which Hoare compares to studies of revolutionary Petrograd or Paris, could very well inspire studies of similar scope for other Yugoslav republics. The concept of revolution presented here, though, is primarily about the building of political structures. Other social and economic aspects, such as land reform and the status of women, are not neglected, but this is more a political and military history than a social history; the contemporary study of revolutionary, wartime Yugoslavia still awaits its equivalent of Steve Smith’s Red Petrograd.

The book’s level of political and military detail is, however, much needed, and necessary if generalisations and outright misinformation about this period in Yugoslav history are to be challenged. The argument stands well on its own, but takes on added significance as part of Hoare’s wider body of work. The key to his account of Bosnian history is that the birth of the modern Bosnian state occurred during the Second World War with the establishment of its state structures, which this book covers. The historic foundations for a Bosnian national identity, he argues in The History of Bosnia, had however been laid before that. The implications of these two arguments are that the Yugoslav Communists could not be said to have created Bosnian nationhood from scratch; that Bosnia-Herzegovina was not some artificial creation when it declared independence in April 1992, but a republic with well-established statehood; and that this republic had the right to exist and defend itself, the process described in Hoare’s first published book, How Bosnia Armed (Saqi, 2004). If The Bosnian Muslims is indeed his final book on this period of Bosnian history, scholars will be well served by whatever the next will be.

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