Edina Becirevic and Marko Attila Hoare on the Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War
On 4 December of last year, the Bosnian Embassy in London did me the honour of hosting the launch of my book, The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History (Hurst and Co, London, 2013). Very special thanks for organising the event go to His Excellency Mustafa Mujezinovic, the Bosnian ambassador to London, who also gave the opening speech; to Ms Jasmina Turajlic, Second Secretary; to all Bosnian Embassy staff; and to Jon de Peyer of Hurst Publishers. Very special thanks go also to my friend and colleague Dr Edina Becirevic, for coming to London to speak at the event. The following articles are based on the texts of our respective speeches.
Since the aggression and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place two decades ago, so many books have been written on the subject. Yet, very few people have understood Bosnia as well as Marko Attila Hoare does. The first of Hoare’s books that I read was, How Bosnia Armed, and I remember many of my colleagues commenting that, finally, there had been a new approach taken to examining the war against Bosnia. Hoare’s handling of the topic was different because it followed the dynamics of the rise of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and attempted to determine why initial intentions to create a truly multinational Army of Bosnian people – of all nationalities – instead manifested as a predominantly Muslim, i.e. Bosniak, military force.
When war began in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the international community stood aside and watched as Serbia unleashed an aggression against the country’s non-Serb population. Hoare belonged to the world of academics, civil society members and journalists who understood what is going on and openly campaigned for the defense of Bosnia. He lived in the small universe of people who saw the genocide and aggression for what it was. And this is also why Hoare’s book How Bosnia Armed carried so much weight: his inquiry into past events did not deter him from lobbying for the defense of Bosnia, even when his analysis of the responsibility of Bosniak leadership led him to conclude that they had given up on the ideal of a multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina in exchange for the pursuit of exclusively Bosniak interests, and had thus played into the hands of Serb and Croat nationalists. The pattern that Hoare recognized, and was one of the first to analyze – on the loss of the multicultural character of the Bosnian Army – became a central theme as he tried to answer the question of why Bosnian leadership settled for the Dayton Accord; which essentially legitimized the division of Bosnia. And this pattern can be steadily traced through the post-Dayton period in Bosnia, too, in many political compromises that Bosniak political elites made at the expense of Bosnian statehood.
I am not sure where the saying originates, but I have heard it many times from many people, that “Serbs and Croats cannot destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina unless Bosniaks agree to it.” And Hoare’s work is therefore even more important; because it has offered researchers in Bosnia and Herzegovina a model of how to tackle this issue without falling into the stereotypical traps of dispersing responsibility for the war and genocide equally to all sides and of viewing it as a war in which there were no clear victims and no clear aggressors. Hoare’s methodological framework can be the example to researchers who identify as victims of the war and who want to address that pattern of de-multiculturization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This can allow them to step back from a sense of victimhood that disabled many of them to fully understand the dynamics of the war and aggression.
History is important not only for the sake of understanding the past, of course. Historical lessons matter in both the present and the future. Today in Bosnia, Bosniak political forces continue to be inconsistent in defending Bosnian statehood and preserving its multiculturality. The battle for what many still consider to be the core multicultural values of Bosnia and Herzegovina is now left to a group popularly called “the others” – representatives from ethnic groups who were not accommodated in the Dayton Accord – who stand behind the “Sejdić-Finci” ruling and demand political rights equal to those of the three dominant ethnic groups in the country.
Marko Attila Hoare has published four books. Besides How Bosnia Armed, he is also the author of Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943, which looks at the conflict between Yugoslav Partisans and Chetniks in Bosnia during World War II. In The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, he focuses on the history of national identity in Bosnia. All three of these books are essential reading for understanding the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the present day political chaos facing the country.
But the book The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History, which examines the role of Bosnian Muslims in World War II, not only comes full circle in his corpus, but carries a special significance in relating how events that took place in WWII still affect Bosnia and Herzegovinia presently and by deconstructing the Serbian propaganda of the 90’s, which put forth that all wars waged by the Serbian state were fought to prevent genocide against Serbs. For, it is unquestionable that the various collective myths and memories of the past, of different ethnic groups in Bosnia, played a role in the 1992-1995 conflict, and that they continue to shape – and sometimes strangle – Bosnian society today.
The genocide of Serbs in World War Two is indeed a part of the history of Yugoslavia and the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and no one seeking truth could deny that. However, growing up in Yugoslavia, the genocide and suffering of other people in Bosnia and Herzegovina was never mentioned at all. In school, history books told a one-sided story about both World Wars, giving us the impression that it was only Serbs who had been victims of genocide. And it was the continuity of this narrative that convinced many of my Serb friends to go into the hills to join the forces which turned their heavy artillery against Sarajevo.
In a way it is understandable that there were few books on the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina that went against the official narrative, for there were just as few brave historians willing to detail the complex alliances of the Second World War, and to tell the story that it was not only Serbs, Jews, and Roma who suffered losses. But World War Two meant suffering for Muslims and Croats as well; and while genocide against Serbs is an undisputed historical fact, the changing coalitions and patterns of crimes committed during the war were extraordinarily complex and convoluted. This latest book by Marko Attila Hoare plays a crucial role in setting the record straight, and not only for historians in the region. It also successfuly deconstructs stereotypes about World War Two that many Western historians, regardless of their ideological perspective, have blatantly promoted without reservation.
The residual effects of alliances and aggressions that played out during World War Two revisited Yugoslav society around the time of Tito’s death and began a discussion that is still ongoing; bringing with it an impact on all the societies of former Yugoslav states. But most of the narratives that have emerged are influenced by official dicourse of some kind or another. Some are apologetic toward the Ustasha, others toward Chetniks, some glorify the Partisan movement, and others, as Hoare writes, tell the tale “through the prism of Allied policy.”
Yet, Hoare, in this as in his previous books, does not depend on official narratives or safe stereotypes. He illustrates the complicated game Communists had to play in “leading predominantly Serb and peasant armed resistance to the Ustasha regime in the countryside,” while at the same time conquering the hearts and mind of a predominantly Muslim and Croat urban population. And both of those strategies were, as Hoare says, “ulimately necessary for the Communists to become masters of Bosnia; and both were achieved.”
The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War is the first book that views the history of World War Two in Bosnia from the perspective of the Bosnian Muslims – and not only that of political elites, but also of ordinary people, who formed different political and military alliances. Hoare concludes that, “Political divisions among the Muslim elite were not essentially ideological, but were between conflicting strategies of how best to safeguard its position, and the Muslim population as a whole, in the face of two threats: the assimilationalism and hegemonism of the Croat Ustashas and the genocide of the Serb Chetniks.” And Hoare refers to those threats as two sides of the same coin.
Future generations in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be thanking Marko Attila Hoare not only for this last book, but for all of his books, including those that I hope are yet to come. I say “future generations” because I am not confident that this generation of Bosnian historians and intellectuals fully grasps the importance of Hoare’s work. But I am hoping that there will come a day when real accounts of Bosnian and Herzegovinian history by rare historians like Hoare will serve as the essential content for history textbooks. For, books like this one do not only present fair accouts of Bosnian history of benefit to academics, but can also serve as the basis for a process of reconciliation among Bosnian people, who must understand their history in order to move forward into the future.
What Hoare always brings to his reader is the invaluable insight that time and the events of an era cannot be seen in isolated compartments; that we miss seeing key parts of the picture of today if we are blind to the realities of the past. And his work beyond the pages of this and his other books, to identify and address genocide denial, is a natural extension of this insight. The value of his commitment to bringing awareness to the dangers of genocide denial cannot be understated.
The issue of genocide denial is an understandably contentious one. There is always an accused “side,” for which denial of their crimes is desirable; and since genocide is rarely achievable without the backing of state-level apparatuses, accused perpetrators usually have the backing of both political power and historical rhetoric. But, as the list of genocides in the world sadly continues to grow year after year, the issue of genocide denial becomes one of greater and greater importance. And what motivates Hoare and activists like him, is the knowledge that it is precisely this denial that invites further genocides.
What sets Hoare apart in debates about the topic – and believe me, it is a topic rife with debates, usually fueled as much by emotion as by concrete evidence – is his firsthand knowledge of Bosnia and his exhaustive research on and in the region. He has developed a relationship with the Balkans that few Westerners who deny genocide occurred there, or who tend toward revisionist views of the recent conflict, can lay claim to. This has predictably made him a target of those who do wish to deny genocide, and yet Hoare has remained a consistent “thorn in their side.”
As academic discourse invites ever more questioning about what “truth” and “denial” and “narrative” actually mean; as denial itself is viewed increasingly as a valuable coping mechanism in the face of a world full of trauma; and as we are bombarded more and more by images that Stanley Cohen rightfully points out are bound to overload and overwhelm our senses of reality, it is so important that activists like Hoare continue to demand that we see. For, as Cohen pointed out in his famous treatise on denial, “there is nothing positive about a society denying that it has an AIDS problem or the failure of the international community to recognize early warning signs of genocide…” While my guess is that most people would quickly jump to agree with his first statement; until genocide is seen as something as dangerous and pernicious as AIDS, the world needs activists like Marko Attila Hoare fighting to remove people’s blinders.
Edina Becirevic’s book Genocide on the Drina River will be published this year by Yale University Press
Marko Attila Hoare
Thank you all for coming. I would like to begin by thanking His Excellency Ambassador Mustafa Mujezinovic, Second Secretary Ms Jasmina Turajlic and Jon de Peyer of Hurst Publishers for hosting and organising this event.
I started researching the subject matter of this book seventeen years ago, in 1997. The war in Bosnia-Hercegovina had just ended. As a graduate student in history, it was impossible for me not to be gripped by the need to understand why it had happened. Of course, I have my political views about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, which I have never tried to conceal. But history should not be researched and written with political objectives in mind; rather, it should be guided by the need to answer intellectual questions.
The genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina of 1992-1995 involved the destruction of the Bosnian state; the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Consequently, the questions I wanted to answer were: why had the state been created in the first place, and how had it been possible to build a common, multinational state encompassing Serbs, Muslims, Croats and others ? I believed it was necessary to understand how and why the Bosnian state had been created, in order to understand how and why it was destroyed a half century later.
I have used the name ‘Muslim’ to refer to the Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak people in my book. Although this nation is properly called ‘Bosniak’ today, in the 1940s, when the events described in the book take place, the Bosniak name applied to Bosnian Orthodox and Catholics as well, whereas Muslim Bosniaks were referred to as ‘Muslims’ in most of the documents. It was only in the 1990s that the Bosniak name came to be synonymous with Muslim as opposed to Orthodox, Catholic or other Bosnians. I do not, however, wish in any way to question the legitimacy of the Bosniak national name today.
The revolution in Yugoslavia in the 1940s, led by Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, had been the object of a great deal of myth-making, both by its supporters and sympathisers and its by its anti-Communist critics. Yet it has been greatly under-researched in the West when compared to other great European revolutions, such as the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. One of the purposes of my research has been to demystify the Yugoslav Revolution; to explain what really happened and what it really looked like. Set against the depressing outcome of the 1990s Bosnian war, the outcome of the 1940s revolution appears more positive, for it involved the establishment of a Bosnian state in which Croats, Muslims, Serbs and others were able to coexist for nearly half a century. But history is not about happy endings, and my work has sought to understand the flaws in this original state-building project, in a manner that might help explain the catastrophe of the 1990s.
My first book on Bosnia-Hercegovina in World War II – Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) focused on the Bosnian Serbs. It sought to explain how they had been led to support, in large numbers, the establishment of a unified Bosnian state instead of a Great Serbia – something that seems paradoxical in light of the apparently overwhelming and violent Serb rejection of this same state in the 1990s. In fact, as I showed, for many ordinary Bosnian Serbs, there was a fine line between supporting a unified Bosnia, as demanded by the Communist-led Partisans, and supporting a Great Serbia, as demanded by the anti-Communist Chetniks. Both options were open to the Bosnian Serbs; both reflected aspects of their national heritage; and many of them switched from supporting one to supporting the other at least once during the course of World War II.
In this, my second book on Bosnia in World War II, I focus on the Bosnian Muslims, and to a lesser extent on the Croats and smaller Bosnian minorities. The Croats were very much smaller and weaker in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the 1940s than the Serbs or the Muslims, and it was these two latter groups that were and remain ultimately most important for the outcome of the Bosnian question. My book stresses the diversity of forms assumed by the Muslim resistance to the new order established by the Nazis and Fascists in 1941, whereby occupied Bosnia-Hercegovina was forcibly incorporated into the Great Croat puppet state named the ‘Independent State of Croatia’, under the rule of the Ustashas, or Croat fascists. Members of the Muslim elite resisted this incorporation in a number of ways: some turned to an alliance with the Serb nationalists (Chetniks); others appealed directly to Hitler and the Germans; others built their own autonomous Muslim forces within the framework of the Croatian puppet state. But all of them shared the goal of ensuring the national survival of the Muslim people in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The Communists realised that in order to win the war in Bosnia, they would have to co-opt at least part of this Muslim autonomist movement.
For in the 1940s, the Bosnian Muslims were the key to victory in Bosnia-Hercegovina. This was apparent also in the 1990s; the Serb nationalists rebels under Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who attempted to conquer Bosnia on the basis of a total rejection of the Muslim population, found themselves unable to break the latter’s resistance; they were brought to the very of total defeat by the autumn of 1995, something they escaped only thanks to Western – above all US – diplomatic intervention. As the eminent Bosnian Muslim notable Muhamed Sudzuka had recognised already before World War II, the Muslims were the key to Bosnia and Bosnia was the key to Yugoslavia. So the Bosnian Muslim story was crucial for the outcome of the Yugoslav Revolution. The mass influx into their ranks of Muslims and others, including Croats and members of smaller minorities such as ethnic Poles and Ukrainians, was decisive for the Partisans’ victory in Bosnia. Above all, the mass defection of quisling troops to the Partisans – members of the Home Guard, Muslim legions, Handzar SS Division and even some Ustashas – enabled the Partisans to capture Bosnian towns and cities without destroying them or destroying their own forces in bitter street-fighting of the kind that broke the back of the Serb forces at Vukovar in Croatia in 1991.
In order to win Muslim support, the Communists championed the goal of a unified, sovereign state of Bosnia-Hercegovina within the Yugoslav framework, and treated the Muslims in practice, if not formally, as the sixth Yugoslav nation – alongside the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins. Considerable freedom was accorded to the Islamic religion. The Partisan triumph consequently resulted in a brief flowering of Muslim national life and freedom. Yet following this triumph, as the Communists began to consolidate their dictatorship, many of these freedoms were taken away. Muslim religious and cultural institutions were suppressed or neutered. Less respect was shown to the dietary needs of Muslim soldiers in the Yugoslav army. Official statements stopped using the large letter ‘M’, denoting a nation, in relation to the Muslims, and reverted to using the small ‘m’, denoting a mere religious community.
This curtailment of Muslim rights and freedoms set the stage for the next movement of Muslim resistance, involving members of the ‘Young Muslim’ organisation, including a youthful Alija Izetbegovic. But this movement was ruthlessly suppressed, and the Bosnian state that took shape in the 1940s did so on the basis of the hegemony of the Bosnian Serbs – as the group that had numerically dominated the Bosnian Partisan movement. It was when the Bosnian Serb hegemony began to crumble from the 1960s, as the Communists in Bosnia-Hercegovina moved to emancipate fully the Muslims and Croats, by recognising finally the Muslims as a nation and by removing the Ustasha stigma from the Bosnian Croats, that the Serb disenchantment with Bosnian statehood truly began; a disenchantment that would gather pace as the Muslims overtook the Serbs as the most numerous Bosnian nationality during the 1960s and 70s, and that would reach a head when Izetbegovic’s presidency sought to establish Bosnia-Hercegovina as a fully independent state, wholly separate from Serbia, in the 1990s.
The state of Bosnia-Hercegovina was therefore at all times a fragile project, based as it was upon a compromise between the national aspirations of its constituent peoples; a compromise that was unstable as the balance of power between them shifted. Nevertheless, the lesson of the 1940s is that in order for Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats to be reconciled and live in harmony, there has to be a strong, functioning Bosnian state. And this cannot happen again so long as the constitutional order established by the Dayton Peace Accords, which cripples Bosnia-Hercegovina as a state, persists.
Photos by Sarah Correia, Anna von Buchenroder and Jonathan Norton
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