Monday, 11 September 2017

War in the Balkans - My Take Part I

The Balkans 1908 - Ottoman Empire and the Austro/Hungarian Empire most significant players
Went on a great walk yesterday. A young guide took us through the story of the Croatian place in the Balkan Wars, or "The Homeland Wars" as they refer to it. Cristina/Kristina/Krstina? was born in 1989, two years before the commencement of the conflict but she has a passion for her city and her country and for history. She was more than capable of guiding us through this complex period. This is my attempt to summarise the story as told by her. It's incomplete, probably not 100% reliable but I wanted to share what I know because a) it's so recent, b) so complicated, but perhaps most importantly c) this is an attempt to understand how bitter ethnic and political divisions can play out over time.
Austro Hungarian Empire 1900

Kristina began the story around WWI, saying that we needed to understand the early 20th century Balkan story to grasp the conflict of the 1990s.

Kingdom of Serbia 1918
The Balkans 1913
The end of WWI saw the transition of Croatia (and the region) from the Kingdom of Serbia (dissolved in 1918) to the 'Kingdom of Croatia, Serbia and the Slovenes' with each state having its own presidents and a degree of autonomy. It became known as Yugoslavia - literally the Kingdom of South Slavs. Prior to this the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dominant in the region and the new Kingdom retained an amicable relationship with the Austro-Hungarians.  

Throughout this period the borders of the sub-states were changing every time someone sneezed. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was huge. Maybe one third of the Balkan Peninsula - which is the land that is contained by Hungary and Romania in the north, the Black Sea in the east, the Adriatic in the west and Turkey in the south, and includes Greece (a non Slavic culture). There have been many historic tensions in play though this region for centuries.

Kingdom of Yugoslovia 1918
The Ottoman Empire had been and gone for instance, but a large number of Muslim families who had settled northern Bosnia, a sparsely populated area, remained and had lived there peacefully for hundreds of years. The Orthodox Churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and later a Serbian Orthodox branch) had broken from Rome while Slovenia and Croatia remained Catholic with links to Rome. In addition the Slavic descendant tribes made up most of "Eastern Europe" (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania and a few more). Every country in that region in fact, bar Hungary and Greece. And further there had been those with dreams of a united Slavic Republic, including all those countries, for many years.

Back to WWI and a time when many young Croatians fled, got an education and began to agitate from abroad for change. A young man named Josip Broz was among them. He was handsome, charismatic, intelligent, astute, articulate and fascinated by socialism.

Josip Broz
WWII arrived. And this when it gets complicated. The Balkan States particularly Croatia and Serbia are invaded by Italy and Germany. Croatia does a deal with the axis powers to retain a degree of independence for a few favours including implementing some facist ideals. As part of that there emerges a hard right nationalist movement, the Ustace which holds power and embarks on a campaign of mass killings and imprisonment of Serbs, Romanies and the Muslim community. The Ustace are vicious, unrelenting and target Serbs in particular.They seek a pure Croatian state.

          "This country can only be a Croatian country, and there is no method we would hesitate      to use in order to make it truly Croatian and cleanse it of Serbs, who have for centuries endangered us and who will endanger us again if they are given the opportunity."

— Milovan Žanić, the minister of the NDH Legislative council, on 2 May 1941.

It's a form of the German SS. They create internment camps mirroring Germany, but without the gas chambers. Many prisoners of these camps die of starvation or disease, but most, estimated at 300,000, are murdered.

Meanwhile Josip Broz becomes a devotee of Communism and of Stalinism in particular.  He adopts the nickname Tito (no specific meaning - just sounds good), founds a Croation Communist Party and begins to forge a united resistance as leader of the Croatian Liberation Army (aka the partisans). The partisans/Communist party are local militia determined to fight a guerilla war of liberation against the occupying forces, the Ustace and what they see as the Croatian puppet government.

No comments: