Bosnia in World War II
by Marko Attila Hoare
Enver Redžić, Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Second World War, Frank Cass, London 2005, 272 pp., paperback £19.99, hardback £65
The appearance in English translation of Enver Redžić’s seminal work on Bosnia-Herzegovina in World War II (Bosna i Hercegovina u drugom svjetskom ratu, OKO, Sarajevo 1998),. will mark a turning point in the English-speaking world’s ability to understand an important subject. No other historical episode has been the object of so many claims, counterclaims, myths and misconceptions on the part of a Western intelligentsia that has studiously avoided studying it seriously. Tito and his Partisans; the Ustashe and their genocide of the Serbs; the Chetnik movement and its ambiguous record as a ‘resistance’ movement; the brutalities of the Axis and the heroism of Yugoslav resistance - all are hazy concepts that have swum around Western political discourse on the break-up of Yugoslavia. Western ignorance of all these concepts have resulted in their clouding rather than informing this discourse. One aspect of this ignorance has been that the land of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as central a battlefield in 1941-45 as it was in 1992-95, makes virtually no appearance in the sketchy histories of Yugoslavia that have up till now appeared in English.
Writing Bosnia-Herzegovina out of the history of Yugoslavia in World War II is not something that only English-language historians have been guilty of. No general history of Bosnia-Herzegovina in World War II appeared during the Titoist period. The closest thing to a history of the Partisan movement in Bosnia-Herzegovina was Veselin wuretić’s ‘Narodna vlast u Bosni i Hercegovini 1941-1945' [‘The People’s Government in Bosnia-Herzegovina 1941-1945'], Belgrade 1981, a book virtually unreadable for any but the hardened specialist. During the 1990s wuretić’s writings on World War II degenerated into outpourings of Serb-nationalist paranoia. Such was the fate of several originally serious historians of the subject. Dušan Lukač, author of an excellent study of the Partisan uprising in West Bosnia, wrote in his 1998 work: ‘Three genocides over [sic.] the Serbs in the twentieth century’ that Tito was ‘blinded by Croat nationalism and Serbophobia’ and consequently ‘took systematic measures aimed at disintegrating the Serbian nation and state’. Among these, it would appear, was the establishment of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a federated republic within Yugoslavia, distinct from both Serbia and Croatia.
Enver Redžić remains by comparison cool and dispassionate in his analysis of the multi-faceted conflict of 1941-45. His work puts Bosnia-Herzegovina back into its own wartime history, but the real originality and conceptual improvement lies in the fact that he devotes an equal part of his text to each of the four domestic factions as well as to the occupying Axis powers. He examines Bosnia-Herzegovina in relation to Germany and Italy, the Ustashe, the Chetniks, the Muslim autonomists and the Partisans. The plans and politics of each of these forces regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina is therefore studied in its own right. Although Redžić is clearly more sympathetic to some of these forces than others, he does not allow his feelings to cloud his judgement. His work is based on archival material from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Germany and the result is impressive, its sharpness seemingly unaffected by the author’s 83 years of age at the time of publication.
Redžić’s biography is deeply interwoven with the central themes of Bosnian wartime and post-war history. As a Communist and Partisan he became a member of ‘ZAVNOBiH’, the ‘National Antifascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Bosnia-Herzegovina’ established under the umbrella of the Partisan movement. As Director of the Institute for the History of the Workers’ Movement in Sarajevo he assumed a leading role in the Bosnian historical establishment. Nevertheless, like many others, he fell into disfavour for advocating ideas that exceeded the bounds of the politically acceptable in the period of relative liberalisation of Communist rule in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His sins included the use of the term ‘Bosniak’ in his writings on the history of the Muslims. He advanced the thesis that it was their belonging to Bosnia-Herzegovina rather than Islam that provided the basis for their national identity, that the Serbs and Croats were increasingly merging with the Muslims in a unified Bosnian community and that their links with Serbia and Croatia were becoming increasingly unimportant. Such views of his were harshly criticised by both Serb and Muslim members of the Bosnian Communist elite.
Ustashe and Muslims
Bosnia-Herzegovina in World War II is a work of synthesis that also contains much original material. Among the most interesting themes is the relationship between the Ustasha regime and the Bosnian Muslim community, for while the latter was publicly described by leading Ustashe as the ‘flower of the Croat nation’, in practice it proved to be unassimilable and ultimately threatening to the very existence of the ‘Independent State of Croatia’. The Ustashe viewed with great suspicion the Bosnian SS Division ‘Handžar’ as a force for Muslim autonomism that threatened the assimilation of the Muslims into the Croat nation and consequently the territorial integrity of the Independent State of Croatia. Redžić cites the SS Division’s German commander as believing that the Ustashe viewed the Muslim SS troops as a worse enemy than either the Partisans or the Chetniks. Widespread Muslim collaboration with the Partisans led elements among the Ustashe to advocate the purging of Muslims from the apparatus of the Croatian quisling state and their replacement by purely Catholic Croats.
Conversely Hitler and other German leaders came to have greater respect for and confidence in the Muslims than the Croats as allies and as soldiers. In the autumn of 1943 Hitler, the Austrian, aired the view that in the event of a British landing in the Balkans the Croat quisling troops would be worthless whereas the Muslims would prove the most reliable, just as they had been at the time of World War I in the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Hitler’s plenipotentiary Hermann Neubacher hoped that the Muslims could be used, as they had been in Austro-Hungarian times, as a bulwark against both Croat and Serb nationalism.
Shifting alliances and conflicts
Redžić skilfully portrays a kaleidoscope of shifting alliances and conflicts among the Germans, Italians, Ustashe, Chetniks and Muslim autonomists. One advantage of this over earlier literature is that World War II in Bosnia-Herzegovina is no longer presented as simply a two-way struggle between the resistance in the shape of the Partisans and the ‘occupiers and their minions’ in the shape of everyone else. The Partisans were simply one member of a hexagon of six camps, none of which was a definite and permanent ally of any of the others. There is evidence to suggest that at one time or another collaboration, or at least talk of collaboration, took place between elements within each camp and each of the others. The Partisan victory was itself a product of the conflicts between the non-Communist forces; as much as by guerrilla fighting the Communists succeeded through their political cooption of sections of the opposing camps, something that both the Chetnik and Ustasha leaderships attempted, in the long run unsuccessfully.
Redžić’s section on the People’s Liberation Movement (broadly speaking the Partisans) is perhaps the least interesting, if only because so many more detailed studies of the subject appeared during the Titoist period. Given his age and background it is unsurprising that Redžić brings no revisionist or iconoclastic ideas to bear on the Partisan movement. He is less critical of it than Adil Zulfikarpašić, another prominent Muslim Partisan who broke with the movement soon after the War without ever subsequently doubting that it had been the right side to back at the time. One might have hoped that Redžić would have spiced his text with some tidbits of insider information about the goings on in the Bosnian Communist centre, though as a professional historian he may rightly have feared to tread on a slippery slope that has led the work of others to degenerate into compilations of hearsay.
More substantial criticisms can be made of the work in terms of style. The format inevitably involves plenty of repetition as the same events and issues are examined from the standpoint of the different actors, but not always with anything new being added each time. The original work had a rough and unpolished feel to it, although this has to a great extent been remedied in the English version by the skilful editing of Robert Donia. The book is also patchy in places. The section on the Chetniks adds a Bosnian dimension to the study of the movement that has not previously been seen in English-language works, but nevertheless suggests a rushed examination of even the published documents. In his section on the Ustashe and the Independent State of Croatia, Redžić appears to have altered his views between the introduction and the conclusion: he begins by portraying Ante Starčević, nineteenth-century father of integral Croat nationalism, as the precursor of Ante Pavelić and the Ustashe, but ends by stressing the latter’s betrayal of Starčević’s principles - above all his rejection of Catholic Croat annexationism toward the Muslims and refusal to pursue Croatian national unification under the German-Austrian aegis.
The weaknesses of Redžić’s work remain relatively insignificant in relation to its strengths: not since Jozo Tomasevich’s seminal 1975 study of the Chetnik movement (and the same author’s War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945, published posthumously in 2001) has an English-language book about Yugoslavia in World War II combined such a broad sweep with such a wealth of detail. It is to be hoped that Bosnia-Herzegovina in World War II will prove to be a foundation stone for further studies of the numerous issues it raises.
Marko Attila Hoare's Genocide and Resistance in Hitler's Bosnia: the Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 is due to be published later this year by the British Academy in association with Oxford University Press.