Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Xavier Bougarel’s errors concerning the Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War


Xavier Bougarel has reviewed my book The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War for Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, but appears to have done so without reading it at all carefully. What follows is my correction of his misrepresentation of my work. Although I would have preferred to have published this correction in the journal in question, and although some academic journals (e.g. Slavic Review, Journal of Contemporary History) do permit authors to publish responses or corrections to book reviews, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies is not one of them.

1) On the character of the Muslim autonomist movement

Bougarel writes:

Hoare draws artificial parallels between two movements [the Muslim autonomist movement and the Communist-led People’s Liberation Movement] that had very different characteristics and aims. He ignores the persistent anti-communist views of most members of the Muslim autonomy movement (especially the Muslim clerics). He speaks of a ‘dual Bosnian movement of resistance’ (9), whereas the history of the Muslim autonomy movement is chiefly the story of their collaboration with the Third Reich. He even makes the odd assertion that the SS Handschar Division was ‘the flagship project of the Muslim autonomist resistance’ (103) whose ‘ruling ideology shared some common ground with the multinational Bosnian patriotism of the Partisans’ (195).

Bougarel here seems to be claiming that I have somehow glossed over the Muslim autonomists’ collaboration with the Third Reich, and presented them as some sort of anti-Nazi resistance movement. Yet this is the very opposite of what I actually did write.

i) I wrote ‘Although the Muslim autonomists were not a resistance movement in the sense of being anti-fascist, anti-Nazi or anti-occupier – they were none of these – they were a resistance movement in the sense of being anti-Ustasha and anti-NDH’ (p. 10). They were a ‘specifically Bosnian anti-Ustasha (though not anti-fascist, anti-Nazi or anti-occupier) current of resistance, that paralleled and overlapped with the Communist-led People’s Liberation Movement (NOP)’ (p. 14).

ii) I described the Muslim autonomist leader Uzeir-aga Hadzihasanovic as ‘the de facto leader of the pro-German but anti-Ustasha wing of the Muslim elite’ who ‘adopted a back-seat role in channelling Muslim autonomist opposition to the NDH’ (p. 41).

iii) I discuss the efforts of Muslim autonomists ‘who were anti-Ustasha but nevertheless ready to collaborate with the occupiers’ (p. 40) to seek ‘direct German military administration over the whole of Bosnia-Hercegovina’ (pp. 40-41); the stated desire of Murat-beg Pasic, a Muslim autonomist notable from Bijeljina, to ‘fight for Bosnia-Hercegovina, albeit under German military protection’ (p. 44); and the attempts of Muslim autonomists in Hercegovina to ‘express the loyalty of the Muslims of Hercegovina to the Kingdom of Italy’ and seek ‘the establishment of an autonomous Bosnia-Hercegovina under Italian protection’ (p. 50).

iv) I described in detail the Muslim Memorandum to Hitler of November 1942 as ‘the culmination of activity on the part of the pro-German, anti-Ustasha wing of the Muslim autonomist movement. Up until the summer and autumn of 1943, Muslim autonomist activity aimed predominantly at direct collaboration with the Germans to bypass the Ustashas, rather than at direct resistance activity.’ (p. 51).

v) I cite the Memorandum’s enthusiastically pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic words addressed to ‘Our Führer !’: ‘Nobody, not a single ethnic group, not a single tribe, likewise not a single nation in all Europe has with greater devotion felt and understood your gigantic movement to establish a New Order in Europe as have we Bosnians, Muslims of Bosnia. We have in the principles of National Socialism, your movement, felt that it alone brings justice, order and peace to Europe, which has been blighted and ruined by democracy.’ (p. 52) I cite the Memorandum’s reference to the fact that ’the Jewish problem among us has finally been solved…’ (p. 52).

vi) I describe the opposition of the leading Sarajevo Muslim autonomists Uzeir-aga Hadzihasanovic and Mehmed Handzic to collaboration with the NOP (p. 82); the fact that Handzic was the ‘most powerful opponent of both the Partisans and the Ustashas among the Muslim autonomists’ (pp. 247-248) and that the NOP may have assassinated him; the execution by the Partisans of the Tuzla Muslim autonomist leader Muhamed-aga Hadziefendic (p. 137); that Nesad Topcic, leader of the Muslim autonomist ‘Green Forces’, directed his activity primarily against the Partisans (p. 189) and was eventually killed by them (p. 257); that Tito considered Muslim autonomist leader Hafiz Muhamed efendi Pandza, with whom the Partisans collaborated, to have been ‘an agent of the Gestapo all along’ (p. 153); and the Partisans’ execution of Srebrenica Muslim autonomist Ismet Bektasevic after he abandoned them for the Ustashas (p. 143).

vii) I describe the origins of the Handzar Division in the machinations of the Nazi leadership: ‘At Himmler’s suggestion, Hitler approved in February 1943 the establishment of an SS division made up of Bosnian Muslims. The Ustasha functionary Alija Suljak arrived in Tuzla at the end of the March 1943 with the goal of mobilising the Muslim population behind the formation of a Bosnian SS division… The name chosen for the Division was the 13th SS Volunteer Bosnian-Herzegovinian Division (Croatia)’, an attempt to reconcile the feelings of both its Croat and Muslim members. Yet it was more commonly known as the Handschar (Scimitar) Division’ (pp. 53-54).

Regarding my supposedly ‘odd assertion’ of shared ideological ground between the Partisans and the command of the Handzar Division – this was demonstrated by evidence that Bougarel has not disputed.

viii) I wrote ‘The most notorious Muslim quisling unit – the 13th SS Volunteer Bosnian-Hercegovinian Division (Croatia), better known as the “Handschar” or “Handzar” Division, to which this book devotes some attention – was, like the Partisans, the repository of hopes for Bosnian autonomy on the part of sections of the Muslim population; the Bosnian autonomist goal was, ironically, shared by the Communist-led Bosnian resistance movement and by the Muslim supporters of its Bosnian Nazi antithesis.’ (p. 10)

The specific passage in my book to which Bougarel refers is as follows:

‘[the Handzar Division’s] ruling ideology shared some common ground with the multinational Bosnian patriotism of the Partisans. [Its commander Karl-Gustav] Sauberzweig informed his troops “you all know that, in addition to the Muslims, Catholics and people of the [Serbian Orthodox] faith also call this their home. They must all be absorbed into the Bosnian community… We shall give the first liberated land to the Muslims, but we shall not permit the others to be left out. Please consider this and forget the petty hatreds, which only cause new discord.” (p. 195).

Sauberzweig futhermore believed that ‘a community composed of all faiths must be constructed, and that all interests particular to each group must be forgotten in the interests of the community.’ (p. 195)

This echoed the Partisan support for Bosnia-Hercegovina as the common homeland of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. Bougarel has not challenged the veracity of the passages in question, so it is not at all clear why he considers my assertion to be ‘odd’.


Xavier Bougarel

2) On the Partisans as both a Bosnian and a Yugoslav movement

Bougarel writes:

At the same time, his [Hoare’s] emphasis on the ‘Bosnian patriotism’ of the Partisan movement in Bosnia-Herzegovina leads him to ignore its Yugoslav dimension. Yet this aspect was clearly visible not only in most official resolutions and propaganda tracts, but also on the ground. As Hoare himself notes, the region of Cazinska Krajina was long dependent on the Communist Party of Croatia, the Partisans of Vojvodina fought in Eastern Bosnia and the Bosnian units took part in the ultimate liberation of Serbia and Croatia. Hoare ignores the fact that the Yugoslav idea was decisive in mobilizing Bosnian Serbs, who were the majority of Bosnian Partisans until the war ended.’

Again, Bougarel’s claims that I a) ignore the Yugoslav dimension of the Partisan movement and b) ignore the role of the Yugoslav idea in mobilising Bosnian Serbs, are both directly contrary to what I actually wrote in the book. My actual position, as I elaborate in detail, is that both the Bosnian and Yugoslav dimensions are crucial to understanding the victory of the Partisan movements, but that the Bosnian dimension has been ignored by the traditional historiography.

i) I describe how the Staff of the Partisan Group of Shock Battalions appealed to the Serbs and Muslims of East Bosnia with the slogan ‘Long live the people’s liberation struggle of all the peoples of Yugoslavia !’ (p. 25).

ii) I describe the events of the First Session of the Antifascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ), which ‘issued individual appeals to each of the Yugoslav nations, including the Muslims’, and promised the Serbs ‘a free and brotherly union of Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia’ (p. 26).

iii) Chapter 4 is entitled ‘Bosnian assembly and Yugoslav federation’ and largely devoted to the relationship between the Partisan state-building processes at the Yugoslav and Bosnian levels; I argue that ‘The Bosnian and Yugoslav state-building impulses therefore converged. In November 1943 the convening of the First Session of ZAVNOBiH [Country Antifascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Bosnia-Hercegovina] and the Second Session of AVNOJ, establishing a new Yugoslav state on a federal basis, within which Bosnia would be one of six equal units, set the seal on this process and paved the way for the foundation of a Bosnian state’ (p. 155).

iv) I argue that the ‘laying of foundations of Bosnian statehood at this time [autumn 1943] was therefore the product simultaneously of specifically Bosnian, all-Yugoslav and international developments’ (p. 164).

v) I cite the First Session of ZAVNOBiH’s declaration that Bosnia-Hercegovina would be ‘in the great democratic federal union of peoples of Yugoslavia an equal member with the other countries of Yugoslavia’ (p. 179).

vi) I devote a subsection of Chapter 4 to the Second Session of AVNOJ (pp. 181-186), and another in Chapter 5 to the ‘Yugoslav Road to Bosnian statehood’ (pp. 200-203). I quote the KPJ Central Committee’s proclamation: ‘Peoples of Yugoslavia ! Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Muslims ! … Forward for a free Serbia, a free Croatia, a free Slovenia, a free Macedonia, a free Montenegro and a free Bosnia-Hercegovina in a free Democratic Federative Yugoslavia’ (p. 199). I argue that ‘The Bosnian and wider Yugoslav federal state-building processes ran parallel, each decisively influencing the other’ (p. 288).

vii) I describe how, at the Third Session of ZAVNOBiH in April 1945, the third speech was delivered by Sinisa Stankovic, president of the (Partisan) People’s Assembly of Serbia, who stated: ‘At this moment, the enemies and traitors are spreading lies about the disintegration of Serbdom. To this it can be replied, that never in history has Serbdom been so united as it is today in the free union of equal Yugoslav peoples’ (p. 301).

viii) I describe how the senior Bosnian Serb Communist and prime minister of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Rodoljub Colakovic, went out of his way to reassure Serbs that they were united within Yugoslavia: ‘We in Bosnia-Hercegovina do not feel threatened in the slightest. On the contrary, today more than ever, we feel the inseparable bonds that bind us to our brothers in Serbia, our brothers in Croatia and our brothers everywhere where there are Serbs in Yugoslavia. But we, at the same time, also feel fraternal blood ties with all the other peoples of the new Democratic Federative Yugoslavia’ (p. 303) and ‘Nobody is thinking of questioning the right of us Serbs outside Serbia to maintain the closest links with our brothers in Serbia, which will enable the most complete and fastest development of the Serb nation. This development can only be rejoiced over by the other nations of Yugoslavia, for it will mean, like the development of its other nations, the strengthening of our common homeland – Yugoslavia.’ (p. 303)

I could provide many more citations to refute Bougarel’s mischaracterisation of my book, but I will finish by noting his statement: ‘As Hoare himself notes, the region of Cazinska Krajina was long dependent on the Communist Party of Croatia, the Partisans of Vojvodina fought in Eastern Bosnia and the Bosnian units took part in the ultimate liberation of Serbia and Croatia.’ I do indeed note this, for the very simple reason that my book explores in detail the relationship of the Partisan movement in Bosnia-Hercegovina with the Partisan movement in the rest of Yugoslavia. Bougarel has used my actual position to argue against a straw-man position that he has falsely attributed to me.

3) On the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina as ‘a nation-state without a nation’

Bougarel writes:

he [Hoare] describes the new Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a ‘nation state’, a description that results in some semantic confusion: on page 287, he writes that in 1945, Bosnia and Herzegovina became ‘a nation-state without a nation’ (a contradiction in terms), then he concedes that the new Constitution implied ‘a nationally heterogeneous citizenry’ (336) and concludes by speaking of a ‘Bosnian multinational patriotic model’ (380; my emphasis).’

[NB the use of the term ‘Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ is Bougarel’s error – in the period under consideration, it was the ‘People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina’]

My terminology simply describes the contradictions of the Titoist state-building project. Here is what I wrote: ‘But although the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina was organised as a nation-state, it was not underpinned by any recognised “nation”, as was the case with the other five Yugoslav republics. It was, in other words, a nation-state without a nation.’ (p. 287)

The Partisans did establish a ‘nation-state without a nation’ in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and my book provides any number of quotations to demonstrate this:

i) The resolution of the Second Session of ZAVNOBiH, July 1944: ‘For the first time in their history, the peoples of Bosnia-Hercegovina equally and freely, on the basis of their own will and their own strength, are building their statehood. The Country Antifascist Council of the People’s Liberation of Bosnia-Hercegovina, as the carrier of Bosnian-Hercegovinian statehood and national sovereignty, declares that it recognises no government other than the Antifascist Council of the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia and the National Committee of the Liberation of Yugoslavia, which alone can represent the peoples of Yugoslavia internationally.’ (pp. 209-210)

ii) Pro-ZAVNOBiH rally in the Kljuc district, July 1944: ‘We are happy and full of pride that, for the first time in history, our people of Bosnia-Hercegovina, which was until yesterday exploited by all anti-people regimes, has gained its statehood.’ (p. 212)

iii) Pro-ZAVNOBiH rally in the Jajce district: ‘We are happy that under your leadership will be realised the age-old dream of the people of Bosnia-Hercegovina for the independent administration of their country, and that the infernal plans of those who in place of brotherhood bring discord and fratricidal strife among the peoples of Bosnia-Hercegovina will always collapse.’ (p. 212)

iv) Statement of Vojo Ljujic, Secretary of the People’s Front of Sarajevo, October 1946: ‘According to the statutes of the Federal constitution, the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina has its own Constitution, People’s Assembly and its own government, which in fact guarantees its sovereignty. Nobody gave this to us, nor has it even been given to us in history. Our history is full of difficult pages of slavery under Hungary, Turkey and Austria-Hungary. It is the history of colonial exploitation of slaves and peasants; the exploitation of the riches of our country, mines, forests, cattle and – most importantly – the human workforce. But it is also the history of a people that has always fought for its freedom, justice and statehood.’ And: ‘In the struggle for survival, once again in all its strength was born the aspiration for freedom and for the independent statehood of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and this aspiration our people carried and developed through the struggle, establishing at once a granite foundation for its achievement. Nobody has given us the freedom we have today, nor has anyone given us our statehood. We achieved it in struggle and it is ours’ (p. 312).

v) Statement of Vaso Butozan, President of the Constitutional Council of the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, December 1946: ‘Our Republic, like the other People’s Republics, has expressed its desire to live in an equal union of nations in the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. This program and this unity are of vital importance to the happier future of the Serbs, Muslims and Croats and other Yugoslav peoples. In such a federation, every nation is guaranteed its national development and flowering. In a federation of this kind, sovereignty and the independent exercise of government are guaranteed to every Republic, except those rights that are voluntarily transferred to the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. The peoples of Bosnia-Hercegovina express, on the basis of this Constitution, their statehood and sovereignty.’ (p. 326)

vi) Statement of Jakov Grguric, First Vice-President of the Presidium of the Constitutional Assembly of the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, December 1946: ‘By ceding one part of its sovereign rights, on the basis of the Constitution of the FNRJ, to the jurisdiction of the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina has not thereby lost its sovereignty; rather, it has, on the basis of its sovereign people’s will, only voluntarily transferred the execution of those sovereign rights to the state union; and this precisely in its own interests, for the purpose of a stronger protection of its national freedom and its economic and cultural development.’ (p. 327)

Bougarel has simply ignored the enormous quantity of documentary proof that I provided in my book, showing that the Partisans did indeed seek to establish a Bosnian nation-state, despite not formally recognising a Bosnian nation.

Of course, such a project was paradoxical and problematic, but this is something I emphasised myself: ‘This was, in essence, a nation-state represented by a sovereign “National” or “People’s” assembly, in the tradition established by the French Revolution, a tradition to which new nation-states in Europe had tended to subscribe. There was, however, a tension between the “political nation” or “people” of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the five “nations” recognised by the FNRJ Constitution – the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins. This tension was never resolved during the lifetime of the Yugoslav state and was formally the issue over which the war of 1992-95 broke out”.’ (p. 330).

Bougarel is free to insist there cannot be a nation-state without a nation, but he should direct his criticisms at those who attempted to establish one (Tito and his Communists), not try to shoot the messenger (me).

Monday, 25 July 2016 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, World War II | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The origins and nature of Ustasha racism

Review of Nevenko Bartulin, The Racial Idea in the Independent State of Croatia: Origins and Theory, Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2014

Almost anyone who has followed events in the former Yugoslavia since the war of the early 1990s is likely to be aware of who the Ustashas were, and to know that they carried out genocide against the Serb, Jewish and gypsy populations of their puppet ‘Independent State of Croatia’ (NDH), under the leadership of Ante Pavelic in the period 1941-1945. Yet scholarly understanding of this genocide is still in its infancy. There is no serious general explanatory history of this genocide in the English language, and while a wealth of respectable works on the topic have been produced by native historians in the former Yugoslavia, these have almost invariably tended to prioritise the description and cataloguing of crimes over analysis and explanation. In recent years, serious contributions dealing with particular aspects of the Ustasha question have been made by historians writing in the English language such as Tomislav Dulic, Mark Biondich and Esther Gitman, but it is no exaggeration to say that our scholarly understanding of the Ustasha genocide is considerably behind our understanding of the Rwandan genocide, even though the latter occurred a half century later.

Part of the problem is that historians who touch upon the subject have often seemed mesmerised by the sheer horror of the Ustasha regime and its deeds, to the point where their treatment of them has reflected outrage and condemnation rather than the pursuit of intellectual understanding. This, it should be said, is characteristic of much writing on the wars of the 1990s and the Milosevic and Tudjman regimes as well. Nevenko Bartulin’s new book focuses, once again, on a particular aspect of the topic; in this case, the origins and nature of Ustasha racial ideology. One of the strengths of his approach is that he sets out to explode many of the clichés that have bedevilled our understanding of the Ustasha question, but from a rigorously objective standpoint, untainted by any clear ideological or political bias of his own. Bartulin is unsparing in his discussion of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers and ideologists of all ideological persuasions, whether Croatian- or Serbian-nationalist, pro- or anti-Yugoslav, including not only the Ustashas themselves but such key figures of Croatian history as Ante Starcevic, Josip Juraj Strossmayer, Stjepan Radic and others, all the way up to the Communists of Josip Broz Tito, whose ideology did not mark such a clean break with what had gone before as might be expected.

Bartulin challenges both the idea that the Ustasha ideology was primarily Catholic-sectarian in inspiration, and the idea that it was a copy of Nazi ideology. Instead, he stresses its origins in native Croatian racial thinking going back to the nineteenth century. Paradoxically, while the father of integral Croat nationalism, Ante Starcevic, had slipped into overt anti-Serb racism at times, he had primarily been a civic nationalist; it had been the Yugoslavist-nationalist thinkers who had pioneered racial thinking among Croats, from which Ustasha anti-Yugoslav racial thinking emerged – both as heir and as reaction. Serb-oriented Yugoslavist thinkers like Jovan Cvijic believed in a common Dinaric racial identity of the Yugoslavs, in which the ‘Serbian type’ was the ideal, core component that could assimilate the rest; conversely, anti-Yugoslav Croatian race theory also drew upon the idea of a Dinaric racial ideal, but counterpoised it to a non-Dinaric Serbian ‘other’.

Racial Yugoslavism also formed the basis of the ideology of the Croat Peasant Party of Stjepan and Antun Radic. Bartulin quotes the Peasant Party’s official programme: ‘We Croats consider Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria as our national states’. The Radic brothers had upheld the concept of ‘a-Semitism’, which meant excluding the non-Slavic Jews from the Croat national movement and from the idea of a racially Slavic Croat nation (but supposedly without active hostility to the Jews in the manner of anti-Semitism), and the Ustashas drew upon this legacy to justify their own much more extreme anti-Jewish ideology. The Ustasha regime celebrated the Radic brothers as national heroes, but not Josip Frank – leader of the anti-Serb Pure Party of Right, traditionally viewed as the precursor to the Ustasha movement – because he was Jewish. The Yugoslav Communists who defeated the Ustashas in the war of 1941-45 also celebrated the Radic brothers as Croat national heroes, and they too embraced a national ideology based upon racial pan-Slavism, but this time directed against the Germans and Italians, which involved ethnic cleansing and persecution of Yugoslavia’s German and Italian minorities following their victory.

Nevenko Bartulin

Murderous and genocidal as it was, Ustasha ideology was not as absolutely racist as its Nazi counterpart. Jews and gypsies (except the so-called ‘white gypsies’) were considered racially alien and subject to racial laws modeled on the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws, though a small minority of Jews were declared ‘honorary Aryans’, so spared persecution. But because the Ustashas considered the Serb inhabitants of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina to be a racial mixture that included Croat elements, they did not entirely consider them as a group to be wholly racially alien, and their policy toward them was characterised by some flexibility. Thus, in addition to massacre and expulsion, Serbs were subject to assimilation attempts, via forced conversions to Catholicism and, subsequently, the establishment of a ‘Croatian Orthodox Church’ to replace the Serbian Orthodox Church on the territory of the NDH. There were three Orthodox generals in the NDH’s Home Guard.

Challenging the identification of the Ustashas with militant Catholicism, Bartulin argues that they were in fact not hostile to Orthodox Christianity as such, merely to the presence of a Serbian church on NDH territory, and were genuinely philo-Islamic. The Bosnian Muslims were celebrated as among the racially purest of Croats; Pavelic was ready to anger Catholic opinion by establishing a mosque in Zagreb. Nevertheless, the Ustasha regime preferred to force Serbs to convert to Catholicism rather than Islam or Protestantism, for fear of strengthening the Muslim autonomist movement and Volksdeutsche community respectively. Bartulin therefore stresses the pragmatic nature of the Ustashas’ use of Catholicism, though as his study focuses on the Ustasha leadership and intelligentsia, it does not consider the frequently genuinely Catholic-sectarian and anti-Muslim character of Ustasha activity at the local level in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Though Bartulin’s book may be somewhat too monographic to appeal readily to the general reader, anyone interested in the former Yugoslavia would benefit from reading his exercise in cliché-busting. With all the lazy binaries – Serb and Croat nationalist; pro- and anti-Yugoslav; pro- and anti-Communist – it is refreshing to read a work that stresses just how many common assumptions were shared by the various ideological currents and political groups; even by those that were mortal enemies.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015 Posted by | Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Marko Attila Hoare, World War II | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment