Yugoslavia past, present and future

When the term “balkanization” is used, it has long meant to break a territory or a region up into hostile, unmanageable parts. The Balkans have long been portrayed in imperialist ideology as a region filled with colorful, violent, backward people, the “hillbillies” of Europe.

The region has a long history of struggle against powerful empires, both in feudal and capitalist times. The Ottoman Turkish Empire, using Islam as a rationale for its rule but tolerating other faiths, controlled much of the region, including Greece, Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria, until the 19th century.

The Hapsburg Austrian Empire, using Catholicism as a rationale for its rule but tolerating other faiths, came eventually to control Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia. Although far smaller than the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, through its development of commercial capitalism, was more advanced than the Ottomans by the 18th century and able, with support from other European empires, to advance its position in the Balkans.

As is true throughout history, religious institutions and ideology served as forms of ruling-class domination and social division among oppressed peoples. Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity and Islam divided Croatians and Serbians (including Muslim Serbians in Bosnia, called “Muslim Slavs”), who were essentially the same people, similar to Indians and Pakistanis — divided by religion and a subsequent political partition — but are the same people.

I teach a course on the history of imperialism and try to give students a framework for understanding that there different kinds of empires have existed throughout history. Empires have existed throughout history but what we called imperialism in the 20th century or “globalization” in the 21st is a new system, not simply a continuation of old empires like Egypt, Rome, the Byzantine Empire or the Ottoman Empire.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, this new world system was seen as rapidly establishing colonies through the world. It came to be called imperialism by many figures, most importantly, Vladimir Lenin, who saw this development as representing the rise of monopoly capitalism and leading inevitably to great wars. Today this system is usually referred to euphemistically as “globalization” or “corporate globalization.”

Lenin argued that as industrial capitalism developed productive capacities limited only by the earth’s resources and labor pools, industrial powers established rival empires who fought each other to turn into colonies areas of the world which had escaped earlier colonization (Africa, Asia and other regions), and take colonies and spheres of influence away from “less advanced” empires like Spain, Portugal and Ottoman Turkey, using various nationalist movements as pawns in their manipulations.

In Africa, for example, the British formed alliances with various nationalities as they expanded their rule and often claimed to be protecting “minorities” from attack as they established colonial control. In Cuba in 1898, the U.S. launched a war against Spain, ostensibly to liberate Cuba, which it then turned into a protectorate, demanding that Cuba put into its constitution a provision that permitted U.S. intervention when the U.S. saw fit. The Philippines, which had nothing to do with Cuba, was conquered and turned into a formal colony by the U.S. as part of this war to “liberate” Cuba.

The Balkans were divided up between the Muslim Ottoman Turkish Empire and the Roman Catholic Austrian Empire, who had fought wars with each other over the regions and instilled hatreds among its subject peoples for centuries. Ottoman power in the Balkans grew from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Turkish victory over the Serbians in the battle of Kosovo in 1389 became for many Serbians what the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in the first century of the Christian era became for many Jews, a world-historic symbol of their defeat (for Jews their dispersal, for Serbians their subjugation).

Although the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna, the Hapsburg Empire’s capital, twice in the 17th century, they were compelled to cede Hungarian and other territories to the Austrians by the end of the 17th century. The Austrian Empire, now firmly part of a commercial capitalist Europe, engaged in colonial development and wars, expanded its control of the Balkans in a series of wars against the Ottomans in the 18th century. The Ottomans also fought and lost wars to the feudal Russian Empire, similar in many respects to the Ottomans in its backwardness, which took territories in the Caucasus region.

The colonial wars of the 18th century eventually spawned the American anti-colonial revolution and the French bourgeois revolution, which inspired and aided revolutionary movements for national independence and bourgeois institutions in Europe and Latin America.

Revolutionary nationalist movements in Serbia and Greece ended Ottoman rule and by the middle-19th century, the powerful global British and French empires were seeking to prop up the Ottomans, whom they referred to derisively as “the sick man of Europe,” against the Czarist Russian Empire, whom they feared might develop into a major capitalist rival if they gained access to ports trade routes under Ottoman control.

The desires of the peoples of the Balkans had nothing to do with the manipulations of the various empires or the wars they fought in the Balkans, the Crimea and other places. However, the peoples of the Balkans could not be so easily controlled. Having won their independence from the Ottomans, many Serbians, imbued with the bourgeois democratic ideals of the French revolution, championed the establishment of a larger inclusive state of southern Slavic peoples, or Yugoslavia.

This dream of a Yugoslavia was motivated primarily by 19th-century liberal humanistic revolutionary principles (the principles which led to the national revolutions in Hungary, Germany, Italy and other countries in 1848 which Marx and Engels supported), not by the drive to create a “Greater Serbia” that would be a powerful empire in itself.

While there were and certainly are right-wing Serbian national chauvinists, the contentions made by supporters Yugoslavia’s dismemberment in the 1990s that Serbians who fought for Yugoslavia were merely fighting for a “Greater Serbia” is as absurd as saying that Northerners who fought to preserve the Union during the Civil War in the U.S. were fighting for New England Yankee domination of North America (a view that might be popular with Confederates but no one else).

The rise of an industrial capitalist German Empire in the last decades of the 19th century challenged the hegemony of the British Empire, threatened the French and Russian empires, and created a new situation in Europe. The German Empire came into existence through a successful war against the French, and soon threatened the domination of the British Empire.

After the German and Italian states were unified at the beginning of the 1870s and sought empires themselves, and before the European empires met to carve up Africa among themselves at the Berlin Conference of 1885, they worked out in the 1878 Congress of Berlin a Balkan “settlement” centered on the accession of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the former Austrian Empire which had transformed itself into a so-called dual monarchy, sharing power substantially with the Hungarians over its subject Slavic nationalities.

Keeping a war from breaking out in Europe was essential for the imperialist powers if they were to complete and consolidate their carving up of Africa and other regions of the world, preventing anti-colonial revolutions from threatening all of them as they fought with each other in the colonial regions.

A big war in Europe, as against the “little wars” they were fighting against the peoples of Africa and Asia (and the pawns and surrogates they were using to fight each other), would threaten the whole system of imperialism, as Lenin later understood when he saw World War I as an imperialist war that would produce revolutions in the main imperialist centers and anti-imperialist uprisings in the colonial regions.

But the violent, unstable nature of imperialism dashed these aspirations. Two “Balkan wars” largely removing the remnants of the Ottoman Empire from the region were fought in the region and resolved by the imperialist powers just before a young Serbian in 1914 assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, the capital of the Bosnian province of the Austro Hungarian Empire and World War I, the greatest war in human history to that time, ensued.

Serbian casualties in the war were enormous, but Yugoslavia was finally established with the Allied victory. The new state was a liberal constitutional monarchy under the former King of Serbia with a strong labor movement and left on the political scene. The victorious allied powers (Britain, France and the U.S.) supported Yugoslavia largely to prevent a revival of German imperialist power in the region.

The Yugoslav League of Communists became a significant force by the 1930s. At the same time, Croatian rightists funded first by fascist Italy (which had its own designs on the region) used terrorist violence in a campaign to create and independent Croatia, including an armed uprising in 1932 and the murder of the Yugoslav King, Alexander, in 1935.

In the 1930s, a new more powerful European fascist state, Nazi Germany, embarked upon a policy of military annexations to regain all of the lost territories of German imperialism and its allies in Europe. This meant annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia, aiding Croatian chauvinists against Yugoslavia, and annexing Polish territory, along with using reactionary and fascist groups in Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states to transform those regions into “satellites” of a German-dominated Eurasian Axis.

In 1941, after the Nazi conquest of Western Europe and before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy demanded that the Yugoslav government join their broad alliance against “international Communism,” which the Nazis made into a centerpiece of their “New Order” in Europe to get recruits from occupied and collaborator regions to fight their wars.

Although the Yugoslav government was initially ready to do this rather than face massive invasion and certain conquest, a popular movement in the streets of Belgrade, led initially by schoolchildren and joined by anti-fascists of all backgrounds, led to anti-Nazi military elements of the military to lead the government to resist the fascist powers.

Yugoslavia was then invaded and dismembered. A Croatian fascist puppet state led by the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist movement, calling itself “The Independent State of Croatia,” with control over Bosnia, was then created by Hitler and Mussolini. Unlike the secular German and Italian fascists who had long backed them, the Ustasha was deeply connected with the Roman Catholic Church and promoted an ideology which mixed extreme nationalism and a chauvinistic definition of Catholicism, which scholars have usually termed “clerical” (or religious-based) fascism.

Similar movements existed in many European countries, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, and allied themselves with the Axis, as did the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, a clerical fascist Palestinian leader, who directly aided the fascist war effort in the Middle East by issuing a “Fatwah” that called for an uprising against the British in Iraq in 1941. Fleeing to Iran (still under the pro-Nazi Shah) and then to Berlin after the British suppressed the uprising, Husseini was hailed by the Nazi regime, met with Hitler on a number of occasions and became a major propagandist and organizer for the Fascist Axis, broadcasting vicious pro-fascist and rabidly anti-Jewish propaganda in Arabic on Axis radio and helping to recruit Muslims in the Balkans and elsewhere to the Axis cause. These included Muslim clerical elements that played a role similar to the Ustasha in organizing the Muslim population in Bosnia and Albania to join Waffen SS military units and participate in the fascist oppression and racist atrocities against Serbians, Jews and Roma people (Gypsies) in Axis-dismembered Yugoslavia. This history is central to understanding the response of Serbian people in Bosnia and the Kosovo conflict in the Yugoslav Civil War of the 1990s.

Following the German invasion and the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, Serbia became a German-occupied province. With Hitler’s approval, the fascist dictator Ante Pavelic turned the Serbian minorities in Ustasha controlled Croatia and Bosnia into targets of genocidal racist persecution. In Croatia, the Jasenovac death camp was established by Croatian fascists who carried out genocide against hundreds of thousands of Serbian people and tens of thousands of Jewish and Roma people.

Jasenovac, where an estimated 700,000 perished, became the third largest death camp in Europe, surpassed only by Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The Yugoslav partisan movement, led by the Yugoslav League of Communists, fought the Nazis, their Ustasha and other fascist allies, and established a socialist Yugoslavia at the end of the war. Although U.S. and British imperialists were very hostile to Yugoslavia at first, the development of the Cold War changed that.

The Yugoslav leadership broke with the Soviets by 1948 and took a nonaligned position in the Cold War and general world affairs. Because of its conflict with the Soviets and their allies, Yugoslavia became in the 1950s and 1960s the only country in the world led by Communists with whom the U.S. had fairly amicable relations.

Socialist Yugoslavia was the most advanced state that had ever existed in the region in regard to the quality of life its people enjoyed. It was also a state which played a very positive role in both the nonaligned movement in the world and in the United Nations from the 1950s on. However, Yugoslavia, like the Soviet Union, made serious errors in dealing with questions connected to the traumas of the Second World War, errors that ultimately strengthened its internal and external enemies.

Just as the Soviets defined the conflict as a struggle between fascists and anti-fascists and refused to address in official accounts and education the specific genocide directed against Jewish people, particularly, or the role of anti-Soviet nationalist groups in Soviet Republics that had allied themselves with the Nazis, the Yugoslavs also defined the conflict as one between fascists and anti-fascists and failed to deal with the decimation of Serbian people and the genocide carried out by the Croatian fascist Ustasha against Serbian minorities at Jasenovac and at other places in the territories they controlled.

In both cases national tensions were denied rather than addressed and broader ideals of internationalism and friendship of peoples were asserted rather than effectively implemented.

However, these errors should not be exaggerated or, as Marxists used to say, over-determined (made to explain subsequent events exclusively). As many Yugoslavs contend, intermarriage between people of Muslim and Christian backgrounds in Bosnia, and of course between Serbians and Croatians, along with friendly relations between the various peoples of Yugoslavia, did exist at a much higher level than in the prewar era or at any time in the history of the region.

In less than 60 years under Communist leadership, the peoples of Yugoslavia made substantial progress in living, working, and advancing together after six centuries of political, religious, and ethno-cultural division and separation at the hands of empires seeking to dominate and exploit them.

Yugoslavia also faced attacks by relatively powerful émigré Croatian rightists, including Ustasha elements centered in West Germany, Canada and the U.S., who funded anti-Yugoslav elements in the country and attacked Yugoslav officials and installations abroad with terrorist assassinations, bombings and plane hijackings. Even Ante Pavelic, the Ustasha fascist dictator (often called by anti-fascists the “Hitler of the Balkans”), after barely surviving an assassination attempt in Argentina, was given refuge in Franco’s Spain, then receiving U.S. aid, where he died. In present-day Croatia, Pavelic remains a “hero” to the secular and clerical right.

Following the death of Joseph Tito (leader of the Yugoslav Communists, the WWII partisans, and founder of the Yugoslav Socialist Federation) in 1980, the Yugoslav leadership established a complicated rotating presidency of the federated socialist state, which undermined central authority.

Meanwhile, the global inflation of the 1970s and 1980s, which negatively affected both capitalist and socialist countries, also hurt Yugoslavia, as it did the Soviet Union. Unlike capitalist countries, which could “export capital” to less developed regions without having to worry about the financial overhead of maintaining employment and other expensive social guarantees at home, socialist countries had no captive markets and “enterprise zones” abroad and were much less likely to receive investment from the capitalist IMF-World Bank system because of their restrictions on capital.

In the Serbian Republic province of Kosovo, Albanian nationalists in the 1980s attacked the Serbian minority and demanded virtual autonomy. In Croatia, rightists supported by both nationalist émigré groups and the Vatican, grew more brazen in their attacks on Serbians and their advocacy of an “independent” Croatia. The Vatican, which has never acknowledged either its support for the wartime Ustasha regime or its well documented assistance to various fascist war criminals to escape capture after WWII, played a major role in providing assistance to anti-socialist and nationalist elements in the region as it did in Poland and other Soviet-allied countries.

Following the destruction of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia too was dismembered. In the Soviet Union, the dismemberment was carried out through the Soviet Communist Party, first by its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and then by a former Gorbachev ally, Boris Yeltsin, whom Gorbachev had taken from obscurity in 1985 and made leader of the powerful Moscow party in 1985. Yeltsin eventually broke with both Gorbachev and the Soviet Communist Party, became president of the Russian Federation, and the center of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist forces in the country.

In Yugoslavia, Franjo Tudgman, also a former member of the Yugoslav League of Communists, played a role similar to Yeltsin and formed a nationalist so-called “democratic movement” that defeated Communists in elections in Croatia in 1990 and then embarked upon a separatist path, openly identifying with right-wing Croatian nationalists of the past and eventually embarrassing his German and U.S. supporters by denying the scope of the WWII Holocaust.

Together, people of Serbian and Croatian background constitute the overwhelming majority of Yugoslavians, and without Croatia, Yugoslavia cannot exist except on paper. A bloody and complicated civil war then developed, with Croatians leaving the Yugoslav army to join the Croatian separatist army; the Serbian Milosevic-led government fighting to sustain Yugoslavia; the Tudgman-led Croatian government fighting for a separatist state; and anti-Communist forces in Bosnia appealing to the Muslim majority population launching their own separatist war of independence, which led the Serbian minority in Bosnia, who were the primary victims of the mass murder carried out against Serbians by the Ustasha in WWII, to form their own state as ethnic massacres and atrocities escalated on all sides in the region.

Far-reaching economic sanctions against Yugoslavia (which now in reality consisted of Serbia-Montenegro) were then established by the major capitalist states, which supported the dismemberment as both a victory against any state that identified itself with socialism and a carving up of the region in ways that would permit the capitalist states to more efficiently exploit its resources and peoples.

These policies were implemented also with bombing and intervention with ground troops in Bosnia and Kosovo by the NATO states which produced the greatest fighting and loss of life in Europe since WWII.

Scholars have long observed that civil wars are among histories bloodiest, as the American Civil War certainly was. Whatever crimes and atrocities were committed in Yugoslavia during the civil war, it should be remembered that the NATO states did nothing to aid or sustain Yugoslavia and everything to aid and abet its dismemberment, whatever hypocritical pieties they may utter about their “humanitarian intervention.” The Serbians displaced from their communities and/or massacred by Croatians, Muslim Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians were usually ignored while the crimes committed by various Serbian forces were given enormous coverage and often taken out of the context in which they occurred.

As was true earlier in Afghanistan, many foreign fighters who came to Bosnia and Kosovo to aid the forces that the U.S.-NATO bloc supported were subsequently implicated in terrorist attacks in Spain, Britain, and other countries.

As the 21st century began, the imperialist states had once more “balkanized” the Balkans and agreed among themselves to keep it weak, divided and dependent. In Bosnia, for example, which the defenders of imperialism hail as an example of “nation building,” the Christian Science Monitor reported an unemployment rate of 49 percent in 2003. In Croatia, which was a rich republic in Yugoslavia, youth unemployment today is 34 percent, according to the United Nations Development program. Travelers in both Croatia and Serbia mention huge increases in unemployment, and neglect of basic infrastructure, along with the failure to repair the devastation of the civil war.

All of this has produced great cynicism along with deepening ethno-cultural hostilities. Unlike the Yugoslavia led by the League of Communists, which stressed fraternal relations and mutual respect among the constituent republics, including the minority nationalities within the republics, the “post-Communist” states of Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, etc., define themselves on nationalist grounds and in effect make sections of the populations “foreigners” on land where their families have lived for centuries.

The dismemberment of Yugoslavia was an imperialist victory on many levels. Large sections of the broad left in Europe and especially the United States lost perspective and focused most of their energies in attacking Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbians, forgetting about the role of Germany and the United States in supporting the separatists and the historical and political context in which the tragic events took place.

Incredibly, the fascist revivals in Croatia and Bosnia were and are still largely ignored.

One must ask without having any clear answer these questions: why were they ignored by liberals, progressives and the left?

For the peoples of dismembered Yugoslavia, it will be a long and difficult road back from the disaster that has befallen them and forward to some form of economic and social cooperation and reconstruction, just as it will a long and difficult road back and forward for the people of the United States to overcome the social-economic stagnation and infrastructure decline, and parasitic militarization of recent decades.

Both peoples have been victimized, although in different ways, by the advance of reactionary imperialist forces over the last generation. And both, along with the working people, Communist and left forces through the world, have a common interest in fighting imperialism and moving both back and forward to the positive policies of social reconstruction, internationalism, and peace that appeared to be on the horizon at the end of WWII.

Norman Markowitz is a professor of history at Rutgers University.