Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Dragan Markovina’s falsehoods about my book ‘The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War’

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Dragan Markovina, the founder and first president of the New Left (Nova Ljevica) party in Croatia, has written a commentary on my book ‘The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War’, which I here reply to.

1) Markovina writes: ‘Ključni je pak, nezanemariv i neoprostiv problem ove knjige u tome što se u najbitnijem ni po čemu ne razlikuje od revizionističke historiografije u Srbiji, koja prodaje priču o dva antifašistička pokreta, i u Hrvatskoj, o tome kako je jedino zbog čega bi partizane trebalo honorirati činjenica da su stvorili federalnu Hrvatsku. Hoare zapravo tvrdi doslovno isto, da su postojala dva muslimanska oslobodilačka pokreta, koja su se zbližavala i udaljavala, da bi se na koncu ipak ujedinila u partizanskoj vojsci, a sve sa zajedničkim ciljem stvaranja federalne Bosne i Hercegovine. Ovaj autor to radi daleko pametnije od njegovih pandana u Srbiji i Hrvatskoj, na način da ne falsificira činjenice, ali bit ostaje ista.’

Neither of these claims regarding my thesis is correct. It is untrue that I claimed that the Muslim autonomists were some sort of anti-fascist resistance movement, and also untrue that I claimed that the two movements – the Partisans and Muslim autonomists – united to form a single movement. My thesis was that a) the Muslim autonomists were NOT an anti-fascist resistance movement, and were a resistance movement only insofar as they were anti-Ustasha, while being very much collaborationist in relation to the occupying powers; and b) that elements of them were coopted into the Partisans and NOP, but certainly NOT the autonomists as a whole, against which the Partisans fought throughout the war.

As regards the first of these claims, I am going simply to repeat what I wrote in response to Xavier Bougarel, who mischaracterised my thesis in a similar way:

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).


2) Markovina writes: ‘Hoare, jednako kao i hrvatski državotvorni povjesničari potpuno zanemaruje ideju socijalne revolucije kao konstitutivnog dijela dio te borbe, koju jedva da spominje, a i pritom posredno, ali očito u potpunosti relativizira moralne izbore. Kao da je potpuno svejedno da li je netko bio od početka i svo vrijeme antifašistički opredijeljen ili nije.’

Markovina doesn’t explain what he means by ‘the idea of social revolution’, and by linking it to the assertion that it was not ‘potpuno svejedno da li je netko bio od početka i svo vrijeme antifašistički opredijeljen ili nije‘, he suggests that he himself doesn’t know what he means. Because the whole point is that a social revolution and an antifascist movement are NOT the same thing.

Does he mean a social revolution in the countryside, among the peasantry who comprised most of Bosnia’s population ? But the real social revolution there had already been carried out by the royal Yugoslav regime after 1918, and involved radical agrarian reform to the benefit of the Bosnian Serb peasantry and at the expense of the Muslim landlords and their families, reducing many of them to poverty. Taking this radical social change a step further to encompass actual extermination or expulsion of the Muslims was what the Chetniks attempted to do, while the Partisans followed the more conservative policy of trying to preserve Bosnia’s traditional multiethnic coexistence.

Does Markovina mean a social revolution in the towns, among the proletariat ? But their socio-economic circumstances did not naturally lead them to support the sort of guerrilla uprising the Communists wanted to wage, involving destroying industrial assets to prevent the occupiers using them. In Zenica in July 1941, one veteran of the struggle recalled that local Communists feared ‘If we destroy the steel mill, the workers will become unemployed en masse and their hostility to Pavelić will be turned against the Communists’. When the Partisans destroyed the industrial assets of Drvar in September 1941, one Partisan recalled ‘To be honest, it has to be said that the best part of the people could not immediately understand and accept the meaning of this action. The majority of the population, which lived from their earnings from these factories, did not approve of their burning.’ Thus, the Partisan movement cannot be seen simply as some sort of outgrowth of pre-existing working-class struggle.

Does Markovina mean an idea of social revolution that existed in the Communists’ heads ? But the revolution in Bosnia wholly failed to unfold according to such pre-existing conceptions of what Communists thought it should look like; for example, richer peasants (‘kulaks’) were on the whole more likely to support the Partisans and poorer peasants to support the Chetniks. When the Communist leadership did shift in the direction of the ‘second stage’ of the revolution – of going from an anti-fascist struggle to a proletarian struggle – it had disastrous consequences for the Partisans in Hercegovina, where it led to systematic extermination of ‘kulaks’ that drove the local population into the arms of the Chetniks. The Hercegovinian Partisan Ljubica Mihić later recalled entering the struggle in the villages ‘with all the bookish, dogmatic prejudices concerning kulaks, middling peasants and poor peasants, and there I found a totally unexpected situation. Instead of by class, the division was national, and our ideas were not even accepted by the poor’.

The reality is that the Communists called the struggle they were waging a ‘Narodnooslobodilacka borba’ – National Liberation Struggle or People’s Liberation Struggle. They did not call it a ‘Klasnooslobodilacka borba’ or ‘Socijalnooslobodilacka borba’. They fought and won a national-liberation struggle using patriotic and anti-fascist rhetoric, not a class-liberation struggle using class rhetoric. The national struggle and the genocidal threat, represented in Bosnia by the Ustashas and Chetniks, were far more important than any social or class factors in mobilising people into the NOP. That is why the NOP took much stronger root among the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia than in Serbia, and stronger root among the Croats in Dalmatia (annexed by Italy) than among the Croats in northern Croatia, irrespective of prewar social conditions. And it is why the Muslim Bosniaks, who had mostly voted alongside their own ‘bourgeoisie’ for the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation before the war, were ready to join the NOP en masse.


3) Markovina writes:Autorova tendencioznost vidi se i po još jednom detalju, a to je izostanak priče o Mostaru, koji je spomenut izravno ili posredno tek na 5-6 mjesta, a isto vrijedi i za Hercegovinu generalno.’

This is what my index says:

‘Mostar: 15, 17, 30, 32, 46, 47, 50, 118, 124-5, 176, 185, 193, 225, 339, 276, 277, 291, 350, 360, 368, 377; Muslim Resolution of (1941), 42-43, 360; Chetnik activity in, 49, 106-7, 112; early NOP activity in, 67-69, 79-81, 82; liberation of (1945) 266–9’

In other words, Mostar appears in rather more than five or six places.


4) Markovina writes: ‘Zašto mislim da je izostanak šireg prikaza stanja u Mostaru planski izostao? Pa zato jer s mostarskim slučajem, u kojem je gro Muslimana, pa tako i moja baka bio u radničkom pokretu i činio najznačajniju bazu partizanske vojske i gradskih ilegalaca od prvih dana okupacije i rata, pa sve do kraja, sve Hoarine teze padaju u vodu. Mostarski muslimani su u najvećem broju, od početka i bez ikakvih kalkulacija bili u antifašističkom pokretu zato jer su bili komunisti. A Hoare se ponaša tako da kad mu nešto ne odgovara, jednostavno prešuti. Tako mu je svugdje drugo važan nacionalni sastav partizana, samo za Mostar spominje generalno jak antifašistički pokret, bez spominjanja nacionalnog sastava.’

What is notable here is that Markovina cannot simply criticise the book for (as he sees it) neglecting to discuss something sufficiently that he considers important. No, he has to make the accusation of deliberate bad faith, or suppression of evidence, on the historian’s part. Which, to put it as politely as possible, reflects his own authoritarian-Communist intolerance and small-mindedness when faced with anything that does not confirm his own biases and cliches. When I am constantly and repeatedly attacked by Twitter Chetniks for supposedly exaggerating the Muslim Bosniak participation in the NOP, it very strange to be suddenly attacked with the opposite accusation: that I am supposedly downplaying Muslim Bosniak support for the NOP !

In my book ‘Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia’, I wrote the following: ‘The Hercegovinian capital of Mostar was the large town in Bosnia-Hercegovina where during the 1930s opposition to the Belgrade regime was strongest, and perhaps the one subsequently where support for the NOP would be most pronounced. In the words of Čolaković: “For Mostar it is characteristic that there the Muslims are the main basis of our movement. Few Muslim homes in Mostar are not tied to our movement, not only those of the poor but those of the notables.” According to Humo: “In Mostar a broad People’s Liberation Front was created and the Partisan families contributed a lot to its cohesion and activity. Almost every family had someone in the Partisans, and the Party involved all those families in its work. The solidarity of the citizens was such that illegal agents could freely move about without worrying that someone would reveal them. Every house was ready to hide anyone in danger.” Finally Vlado Šegrt, former commander of the 29th Hercegovinian Division, said of Mostar: “Rarely could one find any other town with a greater percentage of the population ready to involve themselves actively in the Partisan movement. There were towns in which the great majority of the people sympathised with the Partisans and were just waiting for the time when we should come and bring freedom, but there were few towns like Mostar in which so many people were ready to accept such difficult and dangerous tasks. These claims are supported by the testimony of the Ustasha police, which reported powerful Communist activity in several areas of public life in the city: pupils of the Mostar Gymnasium were “over 80% Communist oriented”; in the tobacco factory Communists were “spreading Communism unhindered among our workers”; Mostar citizens, Croats as well as Muslims, were demanding the release of Communist prisoners and the return of sacked Serbs into the administration; and there were several Communists and sympathisers among the Mostar Home Guards. The NOP was present also in the German munitions factory NSKK, where its agents siphoned off weapons and uniforms for the Partisans. Even the mosques in Mostar could serve as a hiding place for the NOP’s armaments. That the Communists were able to operate so easily in Mostar owed something to the Italian military presence, for the Italians did not wish the Ustasha state to consolidate itself in their zone of the country and did not allow the Ustasha police to act freely against the Communists. In total, Mostar contributed nearly two thousand Partisans during the war. After the war, the NOP in Mostar was made the subject of an epic poem, entitled ‘Poem about Mostar’, by Hamza Humo, the great Mostar poet.’ (‘Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia’, pp. 213-214)’

In other words, I have already written about, in an earlier published work, all the things that Markovina accuses me of deliberately suppressing and being silent about. (NB But note also the exaggeration in Markovina’s claim that ‘Mostarski muslimani su u najvećem broju, od početka i bez ikakvih kalkulacija bili u antifašističkom pokretu zato jer su bili komunisti.’ The Mostar Muslims were mostly anti-fascist from the start, but they were not mostly Communist.)

I do not of course expect Markovina to be familiar with my earlier book. I cite this passage to show just how false and, indeed, disgraceful is his accusation that I suppressed evidence of the antifascist sympathies of Mostar’s Muslim population.


5) Markovina writes: I na koncu, da bi čitatelju raspršio sve iluzije, autor glavni dio teksta, prije zaključka, završi ovako: “I baš kao što su komunisti, koji su bili mala i progonjena sekta tridesetih godina prošlog stoljeća, poveli borbu za oslobođenje Bosne i Hercegovine protiv Sila osovine i njihovih saradnika, tako će i bivši ‘Mladi Muslimani’ i njihove pristalice, na čelu s Alijom Izetbegovićem, povesti Bosnu i Hercegovinu u sljedećem metežu tokom devedesetih godina. Bosanska revolucija, koja se ugasila četrdesetih godina, rasplamsat će se ponovo pola stoljeća kasnije”. Pet puta sam ovo pročitao, svaki put ne vjerujući vlastitim očima, da je netko tko ima toliko podataka i znanja, u stanju mrtav-hladan zaključiti kako je Alija Izetbegović nastavio revolucionarnu partizansku i Titovu borbu. Besramno.’

As the citation above makes clear, I did not write that Alija Izetbegovic continued the revolutionary struggle of Tito and the Partisans. I wrote that Izetbegovic and his group led Bosnia in the next upheaval, and that the Bosnian revolution which wound down in the 1940s flared up again half a century later. There was no suggestion that the political goals or ideological character of the two parties that led Bosnia in each of its revolutionary phases were equivalent, merely an observation on the structural similarities, whereby in each case a dedicated, persecuted sect assumes a leadership role in a revolutionary upheaval. I certainly made no moral judgement about whether either group was ‘the good guys’, because that is not the task of the historian.

The trouble here is that Markovina, given his own ideological background, cannot understand the phenomenon of revolution except in terms of the Communist party. Being a Communist in Bosnia during World War II meant being a revolutionary. But being a Communist in Bosnia, or elsewhere in Communist-ruled Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant being a conservative; a supporter of the status quo. It was anti-Communists who were the revolutionaries in the 1980s and 1990s; the ones who tore down the Berlin wall. Markovina is offended by comparisons between Communists and anti-Communists. He cannot step outside his ideology and look at the course of history objectively, or judge his own and other political currents by the same standard. That is his problem.

Saturday, 18 January 2020 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Conservatism, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, The Left, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment