Commemoration of bloodshed brings up the need to reconsider this type of symbolic depiction of historical events
Manipulation of Bleiburg
Ustashe symbols and insignia in Bleiburg - and only there given the generally accepted symbolism - signify one of there established groups of innocent (actually not dangerous) victims. Thus, from the moral standpoint it seems it would be more appropriate to wonder how come there are no symbols of other nations (and religions) whose members were also murdered there, rather than to express outrage because of displayed insignia of a definitely criminal ideology at the spot where it above all symbolizes victims
by Zarko PUHOVSKI
Novi List, Rijeka, Croatia, May 22, 2004
This year's commemoration of bloodshed that historians refer to as Bleiburg yet again brings up the need to seriously reconsider this type of symbolic depiction of historical events. It is undeniable that this year's commemoration in Bleiburg was especially good - as demonstrated above all by sensible speeches of Vladimir Seks and Mile Bogovic. However, every symbolic depiction of crucial events from history exacts its price - unavoidable distillation of not only interpretative meaning, but also the events ("marginal") themselves. Independently of emotional charge prompted by such symbols, more sober reconsideration points out a serious price exacted by their functioning [sic].
One Locale For Series Of Crimes
In this specific example, the monumental importance of Bleiburg in current public consciousness is partly assured by the fact that one locale became a symbol for a whole series of crimes that took place all over the former Yugoslavia (actually, the massacre did not take place in Bleiburg - partly because of the presence of the British troops), and the general assumption that all victims were Croats, again ignoring the truth and numerous Slovene, Serb and Montenegrin victims (including many Chetniks); furthermore, again totally unrelated to the truth, it is also generally implied that Yugoslav People's Army units that carried out executions included only Serb soldiers; finally, the Bleiburg myth ignores the fact that executions were carried out over the period of several months and that many (especially high Communist officials) knew about them; it is conveniently ignored that at that time that privileged group included also politicians who are together known exclusively as "fighters for the Croatian cause" (above all Andrija Hebrang, as well as, although significantly below him in the hierarchy, Franjo Tudman or Janko Bobetko).
By conveniently getting rid of the part of reality that might disturb purity of the symbol, we got Bleiburg as a sort of distilled essence of "Croat tragedy in the twentieth century". Undeniable basis for all later symbolism and mythology can be found in the fact that many defenseless persons were randomly executed, and that all victims were civilians (as those who had until recently been soldiers had surrendered). That is the origin of frequently repeated formulation about innocent victims that has provoked a lot of misunderstanding in the recent understanding of the whole issue.
Currently Not Dangerous
In the wartime context, which applies in this case, innocence does not imply moral innocence and does not contradict moral guilt. Otherwise, we would have an excuse to kill an evil hairdresser, a civilian in an enemy-controlled city because he supported the evil policies of his government, while we would not have a justification to kill a morally pure conscript who is driving a tank towards us with deep regrets and nothing but tons of love in his heart. However, moral innocence has very little to do with that, as in the definition of a murder "innocent" means "momentarily not dangerous", and is not the opposite of "guilt" but of "dangerous".
All the people captured by Bleiburg were in the full sense of wartime logic "momentarily not dangerous" and therefore from the wartime point of view innocent. Even possible war criminals among them are from that point of view innocent victims as, namely, they were not tried. Instead, they were executed - after being disarmed - in collective executions and in other ways. That, naturally, encounters disbelief as it is difficult to understand that a criminal (even a war criminal), is essentially a legal category, which, naturally, cannot be confirmed in a meadow or in a gutter next to the road. As the possibility that even the worst criminal be slain as a victim of mass bombardment of civilians in, for example, Coventry or Baghdad (taking into account all military and political differences) can be established only through statistical means, so that every such person is actually an innocent victim.
In local circumstances it is especially difficult to reach similar distinctions. In that, it is not especially comforting that other societies also needed a lot of time to reach similar understanding. For example, only some fifteen years after the bombing of Hiroshima or Dresden in some cases it was acknowledged that these acts were war crimes, while even more time was needed for a similar interpretation of mass rapes in eastern Prussia. (As usual) we are late in that respect too. The reason (not an excuse) for that can be found in for us characteristic jumping from one extreme to another, from the atmosphere in which Bleiburg could not be even mentioned in public to the period in which Ustashe were publicly (and almost in all cases) celebrated as Croat patriots on steroids.
The normalization will - slowly and with difficulty - come only when, given the assumption of unhindered public communication, a majority manages to come to a correct classification of all those who - given the facts - are still prepared to parade in public with Ustashe flags and symbols. Those, namely, who accept Ustashe symbols as symbols of an ideology, movement and state order with undeniably systematically prepared mass-criminal consequences, therefore, need not be treated as a political phenomenon. They merely deserve a moral qualification which can be summarized in the description of a person who is unable to distinguish between good and evil - a moral idiot.
Independently of reasons that could provoke such behavior in some members of our community, they abandon the moral consensus on which that community is based, and that consensus requires at the very least the condemnation of crime and instigation of crime (even if it comes after the fact). Of course, it is not necessary that all of that be prosecuted and sanctioned, but public morality will despite everything - as in other societies in Europe - have to develop in that direction.
Even if this attitude were fully accepted, if we wanted to stick to the principle of ethical generalization, we'd have to deal with specific situations. Precisely Bleiburg is paradigmatic among them. The condemnation of participants in the commemoration who wore Ustashe uniforms and flags is probably more prompted by unclear relations at home than by the understanding of the circumstances. Because, Ustashe uniforms in Bleiburg - and only there given generally accepted symbolism - signify one of there established groups of innocent (actually not dangerous) victims. Thus, from the moral standpoint it seems it would be more appropriate to wonder how come there are no symbols of other nations (and religions) whose members were also murdered there, rather than to express outrage because of displayed insignia of a definitely criminal ideology at the spot where it above all symbolizes victims.
Battle for interpretation of history - which continues the war verbally - is the key moment for postwar self-understanding of communities
The dilemma - aggression or civil war - is a totally wrong matrix for the interpretation of wartime events in Croatia, let alone in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In Bosnia-Hercegovina elements of civil war were even more pronounced, although ideological "purists" have tried to ban the very mention of the proscribed term there as well. Namely, the belief that those who claim that the armed conflict that took place in Croatia was also a civil war are simply traitors is equally mistaken as the belief that that formula is sufficient to fully describe the conflict
by Zarko PUHOVSKI
Novi List, Rijeka, Croatia, May 29, 2004
In the early nineties the prerequisite for every discussion about current event in Croatia was - name the aggressor. The pattern became so common that it ultimately could be boiled down to an abbreviated formula IA [for "imenovati agresora", pronounced ee-ah], which sounds vary much like the call of a donkey (although no one has dared notice that until now). During the war such reluctance could be understood - after all the country was under attack.
Today, one would guess, it should be possible to discuss those events with a bit more detachment. When, in a recent interview, a distinguished politician from Serbia faced the same demand - to "finally" name the aggressor - at least part of the public could have been prompted to more seriously reconsider the whole context of the conflict. Especially since until now the insistence has been that the conflict was nothing but an open and brutal aggression of Serbia on Croatia.
If we want to have in the least objective discussion of the aggression on Croatia, first we must get it into our heads that this was not the aggression by Serbia. Because, the army that attacked Croatia was named Yugoslav People's Army and, a fact of crucial importance, at the time of the attack most of its soldiers were not Serbs, not a negligible number of officers (especially in the air force) were ethnic Croats and Slovenes, and finally, authorities of the Socialist Republic of Serbia did not make any (formal) decisions about wartime operations (while the federal authorities, of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, did precisely that).
Therefore, this was an attack by Yugoslavia on Croatia. If we had an attack by Serbia on Croatia, Yugoslavia could even be tried one more time as a solution. However, whether we can describe a conflict between a state with a part of its territory that demands independence as an aggression is above all a legal matter. As far as international law is concerned we could assume that a necessary condition for an international conflict (within which traditionally aggression is only possible), is that both entities have international recognition. However, Croatia was only recognized in January 1992 as a sovereign state, when the first phase of the war was already over. It is not by chance that Kadijevic and company in that phase, in 1991, repeatedly used the formula: "This is an internal conflict on the internationally recognized territory of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia".
Careful With Aggression
Precisely this quote brings up a far reaching (and to majority of Croatian public potentially very unpleasant) parallel. Namely, the same formula was used (with the necessary differences regarding the sovereign state in question) by [late Minister of Defense Gojko] Susak in referring to the actions of Croat forces in the May and August of 1995. In other words, those who want to talk about the "Yugoaggression" on Croatia in 1991 will be forced by logic to accept that in 1995 Croatia carried out an aggression against "the Republic of Serb Krajina".
It cannot be denied, of course, that Croatia later obtained international recognition while "Krajina" (fortunately) was left without it. However, a later recognition cannot be used as an argument in the formal discussion of the events preceding it. It is also undeniable that Croatia had a democratically legitimate legal and political system, while "Krajina" did not, as well as that Croatia demanded the right that was based on the constitution of the former Yugoslavia, while "Krajina" was not in a similar position. However, so many political communities have managed to obtain international recognition without any internal legitimacy, simply based on de facto sovereignty, that they cannot be listed.
In other words, even from the strictly patriotic point of view, one need be careful when insisting on the aggression, because consequences may - logically - end up being different from those that are desired.
The same applies to another one of popular (and again insufficiently thought out) rhetorical ornaments of local patriots - the one that under the threat of the strictest possible (true, mostly of moral sort) punishment bans the use of the expression "civil war" when discussing events that took place in Croatia in the early nineties.
In the (imposed) consciousness of the local majority the interpretation of the recent war comes from the assumption about the aggression against Croatia (that is "our" view), or on the other hand from the assumption about the civil war (that is, naturally, "their" view) - tertium non datur (which is otherwise the methodical characteristic of opposed ideologies). If numerous other arguments are set aside, it still cannot be denied that numerous residents of Croatia were sentenced for fighting "in the ranks of the YPA and Serb rebels" by the Croatian judiciary. "Serb rebels", of course, were not Serbs from Serbia, from Pozarevac for example, who rebelled against the Serbian authorities, but on the contrary, Serbs from Drnis, for example, who rose against the (new) Croatian authorities. The fact that a portion of inhabitants of Croatia (who did not want to be citizens of the new independent state) rebelled against Croatian authorities and (with ample ideological assistance of Milosevic's party apparatus and YPA's military assistance) initiated (armed) struggle against the new authorities, is nothing else but a civil war.
Briefly, the dilemma - aggression or civil war - is a totally wrong matrix for the interpretation of wartime events in Croatia, let alone in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In Bosnia-Hercegovina elements of civil war were even more pronounced, although ideological "purists" have tried to ban the very mention of the proscribed term there as well. Namely, the belief that those who claim that the armed conflict that took place in Croatia was also a civil war are simply traitors is equally mistaken as the belief that that formula is sufficient to fully describe the conflict.
War After War
The war after a war is not our local invention. The battle for the interpretation of the past - as a verbal extension of the war - is the key moment for postwar self-understanding of communities that have recently survived a war. The existential truth of those who know very well that they were attacked without doubt contributes to the creation of such self-understanding; however, the issue (also) has to do with terms used to, appropriately, interpret this experience. In that self-understanding - due to its almost unavoidable ideological component - the truth is only one of elements. And the denial of the truth for the sake of nicer past carries in itself a seed of new (and definitely not only rhetorical) conflict. One would be hard pressed to conclude that something like that is in the interest of those who - as victims - are called to testify about the true nature of past conflicts, or in the interest of those who - in accordance with the principles of their profession - should give a coherent description of the truth.
Discussion about ethnic aspect of the demographic changes far below the acceptable level of politeness
Ethnic Dirtying Of Political Landscape
Today numerous local politicians find themselves in a fairly common dilemma - they would like to enjoy the homeland in which ethnic Croats constitute 90 percent of population, while on the other hand they do not want to pay - not even verbally - for the acts that brought that ethnic purity about. They would like to cash in the status of a collective victim of the Yugoslav aggression, while they at the same time want to deny that status to people who had almost identical experiences under pressure of numerous Croats (and Croatian state institutions)
by Zarko PUHOVSKI
Novi List, Rijeka, Croatia, March 6, 2004
Civilized societies, it is well known, do not engage in discussions about facts, only about the interpretation of facts. Recently fired up discussion about the ethnic aspect of the demographic changes in Croatia has again, however, brought to attention how distant our local society is from any semblance of civility. The emotional charge - which is displayed in the parliament in almost equally primeval manner as in numerous cafes, restaurants and bars all over the homeland - still blocks a clear look at the facts.
And the facts are, as usual, fairly clear, as they can be quantified. For the last ten years in Croatia the number of residents belonging to various ethnic minorities has dropped threefold. Today there are 300,000 Serbs, women, men and children, less than before the war, the fact that, although after the fact, has especially raised the temperature. However, now that 2001 population census results have been published, after a delay of several months, that fact should not warrant discussion.
Avalanche of Reactions
Nevertheless, unpleasant implication of these numbers led over the last few years to seemingly contradictory consequences. On the one hand the public was successfully denied a discussion about the nineties, while on the other hand every (no matter how infrequent) mention of causes of these demographic changes, unpleasant to the ear of the majority, provoked a veritable avalanche of reactions, attacks, polemics and even curses.
The situation, again, is not that "complex" as it sometimes appears. Some three hundred thousands of ethnic Serb Croatian nationals left the country (mostly) between 1990 and 1995. Some of them left their homes because, for example, they did not like the new Croatian flag or the coat of arms (initially it still closely resembled the flag and coat of arms of the pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia from WWII). Others, literally, left the country with a knife under their throat. Therefore, without doubt, their fates incorporate a whole spectrum of sometimes significantly different situations that should be individually interpreted, if only there were not so many of them. And given that we are talking about multitudes, sociological criteria are most appropriate means for every interpretation that hopes for rational acceptance (numerous individual cases known to those affected, those who helped them - as well as to the culprits - remain important for personal, judicial or artistic interpretations).
Providing Legitimacy For Krajina
Such radical changes in the composition of the population cannot, obviously, be the result of natural causes. Besides, even a superficial interpretation of the statistical information shows that those who in the nineties left the country (they are usually, even officially, referred to as "Serb refugees") included a high proportion of rural population. And experience indicates - regardless of specific local characteristics - that rural population does not abandon (its) land unless it is facing direct life threatening danger. In other words, frequent "excuses" for the events in 1995, according to which "the Serb folk abandoned Croatia following orders of its leadership" misrepresent reality in at least two ways. On the one hand, namely, they do not take into account an unfortunately frequently tested sociological pattern (without offering anything else as its replacement), while on the other hand they imbue officials of the "Republic of Serb Krajina" with precisely those qualities they lacked the most - legitimacy. Thereby they legitimize, indirectly, the Krajina entity, although it would be more appropriate to describe it as a long-term abduction of a non-negligible portion of Croatian population carried out by a group of imposters with assistance from abroad whose victims, besides, were not only ethnic Croats.
Monika Theirs - Steffi Ours
In the modern scientific and political literature it is customary to refer to similar sudden changes in composition of population that - as many indicators clearly show - took place under pressure as ethnic cleansing. This does not apply only to the wartime events in 1995 (as a consequence of which almost one thousand civilians were murdered, which clearly demonstrates that the departure of the rest was not simply an act inspired by the ideology of Serb nationalism). We must not forget "disappearances" of tens of ethnic Serbs, citizens of Croatia, in large Croatian cities in the fall of 1991 and, partly, in the spring of 1992 (including the cities that were not attacked by the YPA and its allies). Let us also not forget thousands that lost jobs, documents, apartments (an overwhelming majority of them, of course, never found these "lost goods"), and years of non-stop media propaganda against Serbs and "Serbdom". Finally, I am talking about the atmosphere in which, for example, the state-controlled Croatian TV (HTV) decided not to broadcast women's finals of the French Open Tennis Championship, to make sure Croats were not disturbed by the victory of the (then) Yugoslav citizen Monika Seles against "our" Steffi Graf. Therefore, the alternatives are not - as important Croat politicians seem to believe - successful action of the Croatian Army versus "ethnic cleansing", as obviously both went together.
The responsibility for this "cleansing" definitely does not belong to one side only. Not only because ethnic cleansing started in the rear of advancing YPA units in many parts of the country as early as the summer of 1991, nor because of - even earlier - actions of the local authorities in the Knin Krajina region, but also because Milosevic and Tudman and their governments, based on everything that is today known and has been shown (in the Hague, but also in Zagreb and Belgrade), in the spring and summer of 1995 very closely cooperated on the project of this "cleansing" (and its realization).
However, shared responsibility does not change the relevant facts. Hundreds of thousands of people have been fatefully damaged by the war and its consequences (on both sides, of course; but the Croatian media - with negligible exceptions - until recently only reported only about one side as a victim). Today numerous local politicians find themselves in a fairly common dilemma - they would like to enjoy the homeland in which ethnic Croats constitute 90 percent of population, while on the other hand they do not want to pay - not even verbally - for the acts that brought that ethnic purity about. They would like to cash in the status of a collective victim of the Yugoslav aggression, while they at the same time want to deny that status to people who had almost identical experiences under pressure of numerous Croats (and Croatian state institutions). It is as if, instead of the necessary serious discussion about ethnic cleansing, we repeatedly experience ethnic dirtying of the political landscape.
Translated on November 19, 2004