An Unfinished Story
A review of The Krajina Chronicle: A History of Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia • by Srdja Trifkovic • Chicago: The Lord Byron Foundation • 250 pp., $20.00
Srdja Trifkovic is no stranger to Chronicles readers, many of whom have found his articles commenting on foreign affairs, with particular attention to the Balkans, to be insightful, penetrating, and written with authority. His latest book, The Krajina Chronicle, provides further confirmation of his extraordinary talent.
The book is a history of the Serbian warrior-farmers who formed the first line of defense against Islamic invasions into the Habsburg Empire. It is a story of heroism and tragedy that reaches far beyond the old military frontier of the western Balkans. It is also a story that touches on some of the most eventful periods of European history. It ends tragically with the mass expulsion of the Krajina Serbs from their ancestral lands by Croatian military forces in August 1995, during Operation Storm. These forces, trained and equipped by the United States, drove out almost all of the Serbs from Croatia in a matter of days. The operation was made easier because the Krajina Serbs were ordered not to resist by their supposed ally, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
The Krajina Chronicle begins by tracing the early Slav settlements in the western Balkans in the sixth century and describes how, over time, the antipathies that developed between Croats and Serbs were intensified by religious and cultural differences, the Croats becoming Roman Catholic and the Serbs adopting the Orthodox Faith of the Byzantine Empire. By the Middle Ages, Trifkovic documents, Serbian settlements were well established in a number of regions in territory that was later to become Croatia—a fact that is denied by some Croat revisionists. These settlements were strengthened over the years by influxes of Serbian refugees fleeing the march of the Ottoman Turks. These hardy settlers eventually were transformed by their Austrian hosts into the warrior-farmers of the Krajina. And warriors indeed they were! Quite apart from resisting Islam’s encroachment into Central Europe, these Serbs fought in almost all of the wars entered into by the Habsburg monarchy from the 17th to the 20th century.
Used primarily as light cavalry and infantry, they played an important role in all of the many battles in which they were engaged. In the Seven Years’ War, for example, the Serbs contributed 88,000 troops to the Habsburg armies, and during the Napoleonic Wars they sent 11 regiments against Napoleon’s forces. (In World War I, when Austria invaded Serbia in 1914, the Krajina Serbs fought against their fellow Serbs.) In return for military service, the Serbs were given land and special privileges exempting them from local taxes and laws. They owed their loyalty to Vienna, not to the Croatian or Hungarian nobility. The special status afforded the Serbs was deeply resented by their Croatian neighbors.
As Croatian nationalism became increasingly prominent in the 19th century, the existence of a Serbian population with special privileges, a different religion, and different loyalties complicated and impeded the ability of Croatian leaders to deal with their Hungarian and Austrian rulers. As Trifkovic explains, this led to extreme antagonism, bordering on a “morbid obsession,” toward the minority Serbian population. This hatred of the Serbs was exemplified by speeches and writings of the Croatian political activist Ante Starcevic (1823-96), who was ahead of his time in advocating genocide against the Serbs. Starcevic wrote that the Serbs are “the race of slaves, beasts worse than any other,” fit for extermination. Trifkovic points out that there is hardly a town in today’s Croatia that does not have a street, square, or institution named for Starcevic, who is often referred to as the Father of the Nation.
Notwithstanding Croatia’s almost pathological hatred of the Serbs, it was Serbia that saved Croatia from being carved up at the end of World War I. Having been on the losing side of that conflict, Croatia, under the terms of the Treaty of London, risked losing much of her territory to Italy and Serbia. She would have been reduced to four counties around Zagreb and lost much of her coastline. Serbia rejected the Treaty of London, however, opting instead to incorporate Croatia into the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, thus uniting all of the South Slavs in one state that was to become Yugoslavia. While uniting all of the South Slavs may have been seen as a logical step in the spirit of Slavic self-determination, the new state soon ran into the same old difficulties. No sooner had it been proclaimed than Croatian politicians began agitating to break it apart.
In fact, Trifkovic argues, the bitter legacy of Serb-Croat relations seems to have been accentuated by the union:
From the moment of its creation at the end of the Great War until its disintegration just over seven decades later, Yugoslavia was constantly beset by national problems. . . . [P]roblems which proved impossible to solve, in the first royalist Yugoslavia [1918-41] were no less difficult in the second, communist one [1945-91].
The Krajina Chronicle provides a stirring narrative of the events that followed the formation of the first Yugoslavia until its abrupt and violent breakup after the Nazi invasion in April 1941. Hitler quickly gave control of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to Ante Pavelic, the leader of the Croatian fascist Ustasha movement. The Ustashe immediately embarked on a murderous campaign against the Serbs in Croatia. The policy was explicitly proclaimed: Kill one third, convert one third to Catholicism, and expel the remaining third from Croatia.
Trifkovic’s story of this mass murder spares no ghastly detail of the insane slaughter that took place in that early spring and summer of 1941. Most of the killing was done by cutting victims’ throats or by smashing their heads with a mallet or an ax. Later, when camps were set up to deal with the large numbers of the dispossessed—mainly Serbs, but also Jews and gypsies—the killing methods remained the same. How many lost their lives is not known, but estimates by holocaust historians range from 500,000 to 530,000. (Almost all of the author’s sources are senior German and Italian military or diplomatic personnel. When senior SS officers complain to Berlin about the killings, the reader is left with no doubt about the horrors inflicted upon the Serbs of the Krajina.)
The book also deals with the intricacies of wartime Yugoslavia and with the factional disputes and battles between Tito’s Partisans and Draza Mihailovic’s royalist Chetniks. Although both were engaged in a ferocious resistance against German and Italian occupiers, their real struggle was against each other in a bloody civil war.
Here again, Trifkovic presents a perceptive analysis of the forces at play in wartime Yugoslavia and of the eventual decision by Churchill to back Tito and to stop further military support to the Mihailovic forces. The Soviet army’s entry into Yugoslavia in the fall of 1944 decided the fate of the anticommunist forces, including thousands of Krajina Serbs. Although many found their way into Austria, hoping to be welcomed by the Western allies, they were betrayed by the British and Americans at the Yalta conference in February 1945, when Churchill and Roosevelt acceded to Stalin’s demand that all Soviet citizens be returned to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, anticommunist Serbs were included in this category.
In May 1945 the British army returned to Yugoslavia several thousand anticommunist Serbs who, upon arrival, were summarily shot. Fortunately, 14,000 Serbs, most of them from the Krajina, managed to find their way to Italy, where U.S. authorities refused to hand them over to Tito. Many of them ended up in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia.
In Tito’s communist Yugoslavia, the Krajina Serbs were not granted any favors by the new regime. Their dreadful suffering at the hands of the Ustashe was not formally acknowledged, and the survivors were, in effect, denied the right to mourn and had to accept the new regime’s slogan of “Brotherhood and Unity.” Thousands of homeless and refugee Krajina Serbs were denied permission to return to Croatia and were resettled instead in the northern region of Vojvodina, on the Hungarian border. Throughout the Tito years the Serbian areas of Croatia remained economically underdeveloped and without a clearly defined political identity.
In the concluding chapters of the Krajina Chronicle, Trifkovic recounts the futile attempt by the Krajina Serbs to remain a part of what was left of the disintegrating Yugoslav Federation. When Franjo Tudjman’s right-wing nationalist party came to power in 1990 with the undisguised aim of separating Croatia from Yugoslavia, the Serbs, determined to remain with Yugoslavia, formed an autonomous region and took up arms.
Croatia’s declaration of independence in May 1991 led to bitter fighting between the secessionist Croats and the Serbian minority. The conflict continued until a cease-fire was arranged in January 1992, which lasted with some exceptions until the devastating assault in August 1995 of Operation Storm, described by Carl Bildt, the U.N. special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, as “the most efficient ethnic cleansing we’ve seen in the Balkans.” Abandoned and betrayed by Milosevic and left to the mercy of a cowardly European Union and a vengeful Croatia supported by U.S. and NATO forces, the Krajina Serbs had come to the end of the line.
It is a credit to Srdja Trifkovic that his book will stand as a fitting, if perhaps the sole, testimony to a brave and extraordinary people—a compelling story, recounted in a stimulating and incisive narrative that covers a broad canvas without losing the attention to detail that brings life to historic events. The book also reveals the disturbing truth that the weak, however righteous their cause, remain at the mercy of the powerful.
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
For more information, or to purchase Dr. Trifkovic's The Krajina Chronicle, click here.