Post-WWII Yugoslavia as Harbinger

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4976-5024:

It is true that the statistics associated with postwar Yugoslavia are worse than in any other country. Some 70,000 collaborationist troops and civilians were killed by the Partisans in the aftermath of the war: when compared to the population as a whole, this is more than ten times as bad as in Italy and twenty times as bad as in France.33 At first sight, the anecdotes that emerge from the postwar period also appear to support the stereotype of Yugoslavian cruelty. Dusan Vukovic, who joined the Partisans at the tender age of eleven, claims that he saw a Ustasha skinned alive and then hung on a tree branch with his own skin. ‘With my own eyes I saw the Partisans cut off noses and ears and gouge out eyes. They cut symbols of various kinds into the flesh of the captives, too, especially when they thought they had Gestapo personnel in their hands.’ Other eyewitnesses speak of routine sadism, such as guards killing their victims slowly with knives, riding prisoners like horses, or binding men and women together and throwing them into rivers to watch them drown.

Numbers aside, however, the violence that occurred in Yugoslavia at the end of the war was no more cruel than that which occurred in other countries. On the contrary, the same themes that pervaded here were present throughout the continent. There is no difference between the anecdotes above and the stories of French miliciens who are supposed to have arrested Resistance fighters during the German occupation, ‘ripped out their eyes, put bugs in the holes and sewn up their sockets’. Czech mobs were just as likely to carve Nazi symbols into the flesh of SS men they caught hold of, and Belgian maquisards thought nothing of burning collaborators alive. Despite the stereotypes, therefore, the cruelty that took place in this unfortunate part of the Balkans should not be considered unique – rather it was symbolic of a dehumanization that had taken place across the continent.

Neither does the ethnic dimension to the violence set Yugoslavia apart. Such ethnic tension might have been missing in most of western Europe but, as I have shown, it was an integral part of the war and its aftermath in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Ukraine. There were also numerous smaller, more regional conflicts involving minorities across the continent, some of which were every bit as violent on a local scale.

In fact, the only unique thing about Yugoslavia is how well it simultaneously encapsulates all of the themes I have discussed so far in this book. As in the rest of Europe, much of the violence in Yugoslavia was motivated by a simple desire for vengeance. As in the rest of Europe, the rifts caused by the war were deliberately concealed beneath a layer of cosy mythology once the war was over. The postwar breakdown of law and order was no different there than in other badly damaged areas of the continent. Lack of trust in the new police force, whom the people feared ‘as they would a plunderous mob’, was no different from the fear that Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Austrians and East Germans felt towards their own militias (or indeed towards Soviet soldiers). Lack of trust in the courts was the same as it was in France and Italy and, as in those countries, often led to people taking the law into their own hands. Clandestine, unofficial prisons were set up for collaborators, just as they were in France and Czechoslovakia; gulags were created for prisoners of war, just as they had been in the Soviet Union. Populations of Germans and Hungarians were expelled, just as they were from other countries across the continent.

It is only the involvement of the Yugoslav state that points the way to a new theme that I have not yet discussed in depth – the idea that much of the violence was politically motivated. Almost all of the events described up to now were brought about by individuals or groups acting outside state control, and who were eventually brought back into line by a combination of the Allied armies and traditional politicians. In Yugoslavia it was the state itself that conducted the violence, the Allies were absent, and traditional politicians had been replaced by revolutionaries. It is perhaps unsurprising that these fighting men took a distinctly unsubtle approach to returning the country to law and order.

Tito’s right-hand man, Milovan Djilas, put their methods succinctly in an interview published in a British magazine in 1979: ‘Yugoslavia was in a state of chaos and destruction. There was hardly any civil administration. There were no properly constituted courts. There was no way in which the cases of 20–30,000 people could have been reliably investigated. So the easy way out was to have them all shot, and have done with the problem.’ While the French and the Italians tried to rid themselves of collaborators through the courts, and bemoaned the inadequacy of their purge ever afterwards, Tito recognized the shortcomings of his legal system and dispensed with it altogether. ‘We put an end to it,’ he reminisced later, ‘once and for all.’

There is no doubt that the massacres that occurred in Yugoslavia after the war were, at least in part, politically motivated. Since the Communists were intent on forcing Croatia and Slovenia to rejoin a Yugoslavian federation, it made no sense to allow tens of thousands of staunch Croatian and Slovenian nationalists to put that reunion in jeopardy. Neither could Tito allow the continued existence of Mihailović’s royalist Chetniks to jeopardize his vision of a Communist Yugoslavia. Both groups therefore had to be dealt with one way or another. Those who were not shot were imprisoned for years or sometimes decades.

Politically motivated violence by the state was not unique to Yugoslavia. Other Communist groups across Europe were perhaps more subtle in their pursuit of power, but equally ruthless, and just as willing to resort to violence when they believed it necessary. For countless millions of people throughout the eastern half of the continent, therefore, the end of the war did not signal ‘liberation’ at all, it merely heralded a new era of state repression. The Nazi terror was over: the Communist terror was about to begin.

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Filed under Balkans, Germany, nationalism, USSR, war, Yugoslavia

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