Genocide in the Former Yugoslavia Before and After Communism

Marko Attila Hoare. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 62, Issue 7. September 2010.

Yugoslavia was the scene of genocidal and other crimes of mass murder while under the occupation of the Axis powers during World War II in the period 1941-1945. Following a period of nearly half a century under communist rule, 1945-1990, the region was again the scene of mass murder in the period following the break-up of the Yugoslav state, 1991-1999. The two episodes are linked both causally and thematically. The issues of what caused these incidences of mass violence, and how to interpret and classify them, can be examined through a broad historical sweep that takes into account the pre-twentieth-century background, the phenomenon of the rise of the nation state and the role of foreign occupying powers in World War II. The latter ended with a defeat of the two principal home-grown genocidal projects in the former Yugoslavia—those of the Croat Ustaša and Serb Četniks—and the victory of the communist-led Yugoslav Partisans. The communists, with a genuinely multinational ideology and organisation, generally (though not wholly) rejected genocide and ethnic cleansing and attempted to construct a nationally pluralistic Yugoslav state. Yet the end of their rule was followed by a further series of genocidal and similar crimes. This apparent paradox can be resolved by analysing the nature of communist rule and the backlash it generated. More than in perhaps any other instance of mass violence in recent world history, the politics of categorisation of genocide and mass murder in the former Yugoslavia have been inseparably bound up with their continued perpetration. Thus, there can be no understanding of these crimes without an understanding also of the political controversies over how to classify them.

According to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, genocide involves ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. It is this definition that the present essay will adopt. As we shall demonstrate, conceptual problems arise when this definition is interpreted to make two claims about the criteria for genocide: first, that the destruction of a group has to mean actual physical extermination of individual members of the group; and secondly, that intention to destroy a group has to mean intention to destroy a group as an end in itself, rather than for any other end (such as conquering and securing territory, or achieving ethnic homogeneity in a given territory). There is no basis for either claim in the wording of the UN Convention. Adoption of the first claim results in acts of intentional group-destruction—such as ‘ethnic cleansing’—being defined as something less than genocide, even if their purpose and outcome are the same: the destruction of a group in whole or in part. Adoption of the second claim confuses intent with motive, making it virtually possible to deduce or prove genocide on the basis of the evidence of the crimes committed or proof of the intent to commit them. Proving genocide then becomes a matter of proving motives in the minds of perpetrators which are rarely committed to paper. As we shall see, this interpretation of the international legal meaning of genocide has characterised international scholarly and legal discourse on the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

The atrocities of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, alongside those of Rwanda, have been largely responsible for the explosion of scholarly interest in the phenomena of genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder. In most of the comparative studies of these phenomena published during the last 10 years, discussion of the former-Yugoslav atrocities is given a prominent place. Yet scholars remain divided over whether, or to what extent, these atrocities can rightfully be classed as ‘genocide’. Norman M. Naimark has written of the ‘genocidal treatment of the Muslim population in the first months of the war [in Bosnia] …’ (Naimark, p. 160). Discussing whether the ethnic cleansing and mass murder in the former Yugoslavia constituted genocide, Eric D. Weitz concludes that it does, and that ‘as an eminently twentieth-century dictatorship, Serbia made ethnic cleansing and genocide a cause not only of the state but also of the population as well’ (Weitz, p. 235). Weitz describes not only the Bosnian Muslims, but also the Kosovars as having been victims of genocide in the 1990s (Weitz, p. 192). Martin Shaw has strongly challenged attempts to portray ethnic cleansing as something other than genocide, and has used the term ‘genocide’ in relation to Serb atrocities in Kosovo as well as in Bosnia (Shaw, pp. 48-62, 130, 148). Adam Jones has used the term ‘genocidal’ in relation to Serb atrocities in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (Jones, pp. 212-27).

Other scholars, however, challenge the notion that what occurred in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s should be termed ‘genocide’. According to Michael Mann, ‘I would not term Yugoslav cleansings in general as genocide. They were wild—with perpetrators sometimes out of control (not in Srebrenica), and with great local variations in their practices. It was not like the Final Solution’ (Mann, p. 358). Or as Jacques Semelin writes, ‘We have seen that the ethnic violence in Bosnia had limits, whereas it apparently had none in Nazi Europe or Rwanda. The distinction between “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” is thus a relevant one’ (Semelin, p. 345).

This essay is intended as a contribution to the discussion of the crimes of mass murder and genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1940s and the 1990s. It aims to provide an empirical overview of these crimes, linking them in a broad historical framework as a means of providing a general interpretation. In this way, we aim to touch upon the principal areas of controversy, above all over the term ‘genocide’ and its applicability to the former Yugoslavia. The essay is not intended as a definitive final statement on precisely whether or in what way all the crimes under consideration here constitute ‘genocide’. A case could be made that all the crimes under consideration here are in some sense genocidal, since all involve the intent to destroy a particular national group, or groups, in particular areas in whole or in part. It is, however, beyond the scope of this essay to justify the use of the term ‘genocide’ in relation to each one of the crimes under discussion; nor do we feel it appropriate to apply such a strong word to particular crimes without providing justification for each case individually. I have therefore chosen to use the term ‘genocide’ in relation to those crimes where there is a strong existing basis in the scholarly literature or in judicial verdicts. In the 1940s, this means above all the Nazi genocide of Jews, Gypsies and others; the Ustaša genocide of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies; and the Četnik genocide of Muslims and Croats. In the 1990s, it means above all the Serb genocide of non-Serbs in Bosnia & Hercegovina. I in no way wish to imply by this convention that some or all of the remainder of the crimes under consideration might not also constitute genocide or be genocidal. There is a strong case in particular for applying such a label to Serb crimes in Croatia in 1991-1992 and in Kosovo in 1998-1999, and to Croat crimes in Bosnia & Hercegovina in 1992-1994, and where appropriate we have indicated this.

Likewise, ‘genocide denial’ is a term that should not be applied to those who merely wish to use a narrower definition of ‘genocide’, or who wish to question the term’s applicability to certain cases; i.e. to those who uses terminology differently. ‘Genocide denial’ refers to denial of the fact of the crime itself in the face of overwhelming evidence, or the attempted justification of the crime. Scholars must be free to argue over what does or does not constitute ‘genocide’ without being accused of denial, yet those who do seek to deny or justify horrendous crimes must not be accorded undue respectability or shielded from justified condemnation.

The conclusions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in the case for genocide brought by Bosnia & Hercegovina against Serbia, may serve as an introduction to the discussion about the topic of genocide in the former Yugoslavia in general. The verdict of the ICJ is ambiguous at a number of levels. It found that Serbia was not guilty of genocide or of complicity in genocide, but was guilty of failure to prevent genocide on account of its failure to prevent the genocide carried out by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica. The ICJ also found that Serbia violated its obligation to punish genocide through its failure to co-operate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, in bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice.

Leaving aside the question of justice, there are a number of intellectual questions that this verdict raises. The judgement accepts that ‘it is established by overwhelming evidence that massive killings in specific areas and detention camps throughout the territory of Bosnia & Herzegovina were perpetrated during the conflict’; that the victims were in the great majority Muslims (Bosniaks); and that this suggests that Muslims were systematically targeted. These killings took place overwhelmingly in the early months of the war, particularly in the spring of 1992. For part of this period, up until 19 May 1992, Bosnian Serb forces were formally under Serbian control. However, the ICJ did not feel that it had been conclusively proven that these killings were carried out with the specific intent to destroy the Muslims, in whole or in part. The ICJ likewise ruled that ‘it has been established by fully conclusive evidence that members of the protected group were systematically victims of massive mistreatment, beatings, rape and torture causing serious bodily and mental harm, during the conflict and, in particular, in the detention camps’. However, the ICJ again ruled that it had not been conclusively proven that these atrocities were carried out with the deliberate attempt to destroy the Muslims as a group in whole or in part. The ICJ found that there was ‘conclusive evidence of the deliberate destruction of the historical, cultural and religious heritage of the protected group’. However, it ruled that this did not fall within the definition of genocide. In general, the ICJ concluded: ‘Neither the intent, as a matter of policy, to render an area ethnically “homogenous”, nor the operations that may be carried out to implement such policy, can as such be designated as genocide’.

The ICJ did find that in the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces were guilty of genocide. It also found that Serbia, at the time in the form of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was making ‘considerable military and financial support available to the Republika Srpska [the Bosnian Serb republic]’ at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, including the payment of the salaries of some Bosnian Serb officers. Since Bosnian Serb forces were not de jure or de facto part of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia could not be guilty of the genocide at Srebrenica. But Serbia was, by dint of its great political and economic influence over the Bosnian Serb republic, guilty of failing to prevent the genocide from taking place.

The Court, in the opinion of some, may have been justified in reaching these conclusions on the basis of the available evidence, but at the intellectual level, the verdict is unsatisfying, because it has created a situation in which genocide is deemed to have occurred only in one locality at one time—Srebrenica in July 1995—while other massacres of the same victim group carried out by the same perpetrator in the same general period were not genocide. The concept of a purely ‘local genocide’, as part of a wider campaign of systematic mass killings of a targeted group that was not genocidal, is problematic. Furthermore, the Court has determined that systematic mass killings that target a victim group, and that are accompanied by other acts, deliberately causing mental and bodily harm to members of this group, as well as by the systematic destruction of the victim group’s historical and cultural heritage, do not constitute genocide unless the intent to destroy the group in whole or in part can be proved, even if the intent was to create ethnic homogeneity through ‘ethnic cleansing’. Again, this is problematic as it implies that the crime of genocide cannot be proved solely on the basis of actions and their results, but only on the basis of proof of motive, which is very difficult to find. The most notorious example of this is the absence of a single known document in which Hitler gives the order to exterminate Jews during World War II. Finally, as a result of this verdict, a situation now exists whereby a state can occupy a large part of its neighbour’s territory, carry out systematic mass killings of a particular ethnic group with the intent to create ethnic homogeneity, then grant formal independence to the local forces under its command while continuing to arm, finance and influence them, and that when these local forces then go on to commit genocide, the state in question is guilty of nothing more than a failure to prevent. This, in a nutshell, is how the ICJ has judged Serbia’s actions in Bosnia in 1992-1995. This is not a verdict with which historians can rest content.

The problems raised by the ICJ verdict—of precisely what constitutes genocide, what constitutes responsibility, and what the relationship is between crimes at the local level and the plans of the top leadership—are ones that recur when the broader history of genocide in the former Yugoslavia is considered. There are two principal phases when genocidal violence occurred in the former Yugoslavia. The first of these was in the years 1941-1945, when Yugoslavia was under Axis occupation, and under the control also of the local quislings of the occupying powers. Briefly, the instances of genocide or related crimes included: the extermination by the ‘Independent State of Croatia’ (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH) and Nazi satellites and quislings of the greater part of the Jewish and Gypsy populations of Yugoslavia; the persecution carried out by the Croat fascists, or Ustašas, of the Serb population of the NDH, involving a combination of extermination, expulsion and forced conversions to Catholicism; the persecution carried out by the Serb extreme-nationalist guerrillas, or Četniks, of the non-Serb populations of parts of Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, the Sandžak and Montenegro, involving a combination of extermination and expulsion (these were at various times encouraged by the Italians, for their own reasons); the attempts by Hitler forcibly to assimilate the Slovenes in the parts of Slovenia that were annexed to the Reich, involving the expulsion of the Slovene elite to Croatia and Serbia; and the atrocities carried out by the smaller occupying powers and their local collaborators—Hungary, Bulgaria and Italian-ruled Albania. The Hungarians and Albanians carried out large-scale atrocities against Serbs; the Bulgarians carried out atrocities against both Serbs and Albanians.

This period of genocide was brought to an end by the victory of the communist-led resistance movement, the Partisans, in 1945. This victory allowed most of the expelled populations to return to their homes. However, the Partisans carried out atrocities of their own that may have approached genocide: above all the expulsion of the entire ethnic-German population of Vojvodina, involving the incarceration of large numbers of civilians in concentration camps; and the expulsion of the greater part of the ethnic-Italian population of Croatia and Slovenia. Widespread massacres were also carried out by the communist-led forces against both prisoners of war and civilians from the ranks of the non-communist Yugoslavs. These massacres involved the deaths of at least tens of thousands; however, the victims were targeted essentially on the basis of political rather than ethnic criteria, so are somewhat different in nature from the other crimes under consideration here (Tomasevich, pp. 751-68).

The new communist-dominated regime carried out trials of members of the UstašaČetnik and other quisling and collaborationist forces guilty of war crimes against the Yugoslav civilian population. The Četnik leader Draža Mihailović was indicted, among other things for having ‘given orders to his commanders to destroy the Muslims (whom he called Turks) and the Croats (whom he called Ustašas)’ (Zečević, vol. 1, p. 140). This was then legally upheld, and he was convicted on 15 July 1946 of crimes that included having

incited national and religious hatred and discord among the peoples of Yugoslavia, as a consequence of which his Četnik bands carried out mass massacres of the Croat and Muslim as well as of the Serb population that did not accept the occupation. (Zečević, vol. 3, p. 2370)

Other Četnik leaders too were convicted on these or similar grounds and some, including Mihailović and the Bosnian Četnik leaders Radoslav Radić and Jezdimir Dangić, were executed. Likewise, senior Ustaša leaders were tried and executed as war criminals, including Slavko Kvaternik, commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the NDH, and Mile Budak, who had served as the NDH’s minister of education and foreign minister. The trials continued into the post-war years. As late as 12 February 1986, the prominent accused Ustaša war-criminal Andrija Artuković, former NDH minister of the interior, was extradited from the US to Yugoslavia, where he was put on trial (Bulajić, p. 349). He was convicted and sentenced to death, though the execution was never carried out. Even after the communist regime fell, in the late 1990s, another prominent Ustaša war criminal, Dinko Šakić, former commander of the NDH’s Jasenovac death camp, was extradited from Argentina to Croatia. He was tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison on 4 October 1999.

The efficacy of these trials was due in large part to the fact that they were carried out by the victorious side in a civil war, against members of the defeated party. The new Yugoslav state, under communist rule, had both the will and all the instruments at its disposal to ensure the ruthless, efficient trial and punishment of the perpetrators of the worst acts of genocide and mass murder along ethnic lines, while there was no question of trying and punishing the perpetrators of atrocities from the ranks of the Partisans. These trials are therefore in stark contrast to those carried out by the international courts against the perpetrators of the atrocities of the 1990s, which can more plausibly claim to have been even-handed but whose will and ability to act may be called into question.

The second period of genocidal crime occurred in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia went through its break-up. The instances of genocide or related crimes included: the persecution, mass killings and expulsions of Croatian civilians in Croatia by the reconstituted Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, JNA) and Serb paramilitary forces, during their assault on Croatia in 1991-1992; the systematic persecution, mass killings and expulsion of Bosnian civilians (Croats, Muslims and non-nationalist Serbs), by the JNA, Army of the Serb Republic and Serb paramilitary forces during their assault on Bosnia & Hercegovina in 1992-1995 (alone of all the war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, some of these war crimes have been ruled by the international courts to have been genocidal); the persecution, killing and expulsion, involving some large-scale massacres, of Muslim civilians by Croatian and Bosnian Croat forces, during their own assault on Bosnia & Hercegovina in 1992-1994; the persecution and killing of Serb and Croat civilians by Bosnian army forces in Bosnia & Hercegovina, during their counter offensives of 1992-1995; the widespread killings of Serb civilians by Croatian forces in both Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina during their final counter offensives in the summer and autumn of 1995; the systematic mass killing and expulsion of Albanian civilians by regular Serbian police and military forces in Kosovo during their campaign against the Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës, UÇK) and the Kosovo civilian population in 1998-1999, which were escalated following the NATO intervention in 1999; and the large-scale reprisals against Serb civilians by the UÇK and Albanian civilians in Kosovo.

The violence in the former Yugoslavia in both the 1940s and the 1990s has frequently been portrayed as the expression of ‘ancient ethnic or tribal hatred’, for example by the International Herald Tribune. This amounts to straightforward racism against South East Europeans, and is not supported by a single academic authority. There is, however, an opposite stereotype that, though less offensive and less grossly inaccurate, nevertheless amounts to an exaggeration and oversimplification: the myth of centuries of ethnic harmony among the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. In reality, there have been much longer periods of peaceful coexistence than violence among the Yugoslav peoples, but there were nevertheless social and, more recently, ideological fissures between them that made genocidal violence possible, without predetermining it.

The greater part of the former Yugoslavia once formed part of the Ottoman Empire, a state based on Islamic supremacy combined with Christian and Jewish autonomy. In the Balkans, the Ottoman landlord class was Muslim while the peasantry was both Christian and Muslim. In Bosnia, which formed the epicentre for genocidal violence in both of the periods under discussion, during the eighteenth century the Muslim peasantry was mostly freed from its quasi-feudal obligations to the landlords, while the Orthodox peasantry remained mostly enserfed. So a class conflict underlay the division between Muslims and Orthodox that would become a national division between Muslims and Serbs. This can be compared to the seventeenth-century Polish Ukraine, where the Polish aristocracy governed their Ukrainian serfs through large-scale reliance on Jewish estate managers. When the Ukrainian peasants rebelled in the great peasant uprising of 1648, their rebellion involved large scale anti-Semitic violence. So it was in Bosnia. The Serb political factions that most radically defended the class interests of the Serb peasantry were the progenitors of the Bosnian Četnik movement that engaged in the mass extermination of Muslims during World War II (Hoare, pp. 97-98).

The Croats are a people standing on the geographic periphery between the former Ottoman and Habsburg worlds. Croatia was the location of the so-called ‘Military Border’, which guarded the Habsburg Empire against the Ottomans. This territory, with its large mixed population of Serbs and Croats, was not integrated into Croatia until the 1870s and 1880s. The Serbs of the Military Border therefore had a tradition of separateness vis-à-vis Croatia, one that Croatia’s Hungarian overlords played upon, according to a policy of divide-and-rule (Magaš, pp. 346-60). The structural divisions between Serbs and Croats in Croatia therefore bear some similarities with the structural division between the ethno-religious groups of the Ottoman lands.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new nation states emerged from the former Ottoman Empire and its borderlands. In every case—with the sole and interesting exception of the Albanians—these new nation states were unable to bridge the ethno-religious divide inherited from the Ottoman system. In every case, consequently, the emergence of new nation states involved the extermination or expulsion of members of the religious other. In Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro, this meant the Muslims and, to an extent, the Jews (McCarthy). In Turkey, however, it meant the Christians—hence the Armenian genocide of 1915; hence the expulsion of one and a quarter million Greeks from Anatolia in the 1920s. Echoes of this occurred with the Bulgarian communist expulsion of ethnic Turks in the 1980s, following failed campaigns of assimilation (Neuburger). It occurred also with the establishment of a fully independent Croatia, finally in 1995 with the recapture of the Krajina region, involving the exodus of 150,000 Serb civilians. The more intense instances of genocidal violence that occurred in the 1940s and 1990s must be seen against this background.

The emergence of modern party politics in the lands of Croatia and Bosnia in the second half of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries meant that the Serbs, Croats and Muslims were now divided also between different political parties. Efforts to build cross-national parties in this period—with the important exception of the social democratic and communist parties (Socijaldemokratska Stranka Bosne i Hercegovine and Komunistička Partija Jugoslavije)—essentially met with failure. Particularly after the establishment of Yugoslavia in 1918, the competition between these different nationally based parties for control of the state, both at the top and at the local level, became increasingly bitter. Yugoslavia was established on the basis of Serbian hegemony, with the Croats and other non-Serbs denied any autonomy. The campaign of Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb parties for autonomy at the state level gelled with their competition with the Serb parties for control of the spoils of office at the local level. Control of local government meant the ability to provide jobs for one’s friends and relatives (Hoare, pp. 101-52). Consequently, the question of how to organise the Yugoslav state—whether as a federal or centralised state—with or without self-rule for Croatia, Bosnia and the other individual Yugoslav lands—was for ordinary people a bread-and-butter issue of economic survival and local influence.

The interwar period saw an increasingly bitter political conflict between the Yugoslav nationalities that bordered at times on civil war. In the 1920s, this was marked by widespread paramilitary violence: the assassination of Stjepan Radić, leader of the principal Croat political party, by the Montenegrin Puniša Račić in 1928; the establishment of a brutal royal dictatorship in 1929; the assassination of Yugoslav King Aleksandar by Ustaša-funded Macedonian terrorists in 1934; and a renewed drift toward civil war by the late 1930s and early 1940s. In August 1939, the Yugoslav Regent, Prince Pavle, attempted to defuse Croatian opposition by granting autonomy to a Croatian entity that included a large part of Bosnia. This appeared to presage the territorial carve-up of Yugoslavia, and the consequent insecurity helped to generate extremism among both Serbs and Croats, and to a lesser extent among Muslims. The extreme nationalist groups, both Serb and Croat, which mobilised against the 1939 agreement between the regime and the mainstream Croatian opposition, were the forerunners of those that perpetrated genocide following the Nazi invasion (Hoare, pp. 135-48).

The genocide in former Yugoslavia during World War II was not the preordained result of the prior two decades of political conflict, nor was it the accidental result of Axis occupation. Rather, the invasion and occupation of Yugoslavia by the Axis powers, which took place in April 1941, created the conditions under which the most extreme elements among the Yugoslav nationalities could attempt to resolve their power struggle through collaboration with the occupier. At the same time, the occupiers’ genocidal policies provided a catalyst for the genocidal policies of the local actors. Part of the reason for the high level of genocidal violence in World War II Yugoslavia was, ironically, that German control there was relatively loose—in comparison to Poland or Ukraine. Yugoslavia was not a region of prime strategic importance for Germany. The Germans were most interested in Serbia, where they established a relatively tight, exclusive control. Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina, however, were strategic backwaters for Germany, so German control there was looser. Consequently, Bosnia & Hercegovina and most of Croatia were merged to form the so-called ‘Independent State of Croatia’ under the Ustašas, as an Italo-German condominium or buffer state. And it was precisely here that the worst violence took place.

The Ustašas, as a fringe group of extremists installed in power by the Germans and Italians, inherited a country gripped by the long-standing power struggle between Croats, Serbs and Muslims. Their genocidal policy was not in any way ‘provoked’ by Serb resistance, as Ustaša apologists sometimes claimed. Yet the Ustašas took power in the face of opposition from remnants of the Yugoslav Army and local Serbs, and their genocide was catalysed by this continuing power struggle. The Ustašas were hoping to take advantage of the Axis occupation to resolve the power struggle in Croatia’s favour. According to one source, Eugen Dido Kvaternik, who headed the Ustaša secret police, privately admitted to an interlocutor in 1941:

I know that you believe and expect, that England will win the war. I agree with you; I too maintain that the English in the end will win the war, but there will no longer be Serbs in Croatia. Consequently, whoever wins the war will have to accept the situation as they find it. (Kvaternik, p. 249)

What makes the Ustaša and Četnik genocides in World War II, and the Serb genocide of the 1990s, more similar to the Rwandan and Armenian genocides, and less similar to the Holocaust, is that they arose in the context of genuine power struggles between nationalities. Except for the Jews and Gypsies themselves, none of the victim groups targeted in the Yugoslav genocides were members of essentially passive, unresisting nationalities, as were the Jews in the Holocaust. Nor did the Ustašas and Četniks define their victims in a racial manner; nor did either the Ustašas or the Četniks aim at the total extermination of their victim groups (except for the Jews and Gypsies, in the case of the Ustašas). In this context, it is worth citing the infamous statement allegedly made by Mile Budak on 22 July: ‘We shall kill one part of the Serbs, we shall transport another, and the rest of them will be forced to embrace the Roman Catholic religion. This last part will be absorbed by the Croatian elements’ (Paris n.d., p. 100). Apocryphal or not, such a statement would have been unthinkable for Hitler with regard to the Jews: the Final Solution aimed at their total extermination, not at their expulsion and certainly not at their assimilation. Nevertheless, the Nazi Holocaust was structurally linked to these genocides. Hitler encouraged the Ustaša leader Ante Pavelić to adopt a hardline policy toward the Serbs (Burrin, p. 139). The Ustašas issued various orders to deport Jews and Serbs to concentration camps, treating the two groups as a single category for the purposes of administering genocide (Kačavenda & Živković, pp. 166-67, 235-36). The Ustaša death camp of Jasenovac was a killing centre for both Serbs and Jews, as well as anti-fascist Croats and others. Furthermore, Ustaša attempts to deport part of their Serb population to Serbia were co-ordinated with, and prompted by, Nazi efforts to deport ethnic Slovenes to Croatia (Brčić, pp. 303-9).

So far as the Četniks are concerned, Četnik propaganda targeted Jews as the supposed carriers of communism. Četnik leaders in Bosnia and Croatia were often closely allied with the Nazi-puppet regime in Serbia, which was itself directly involved in the destruction of the Serbian Jewish population. Četniks frequently killed Jews or handed them over to the Nazis. During roughly the first two years of the war, the Četniks in Croatia and Bosnia acted as auxiliaries to the Italians. The latter played a game of divide-and-rule, encouraging the Četniks to attack and persecute Croats and Muslims. Četnik massacres of Croat and Muslim civilians occurred under the Italian military umbrella. The Četniks also acted as auxiliaries of the Serbian Nazi-quisling regime of Milan Nedić, who hoped to use them to extend his power into Bosnia, with the aim of eventually establishing a Great Serbian state under the aegis of the Third Reich (Hoare, pp. 143-59).

The Ustaša and Četnik genocides were structurally linked to one another. Ustaša extermination of Serbs provided a catalyst for Četnik massacres of Croat and Muslim civilians; indeed, local Serb rebel bands carried out such massacres even before they gelled into the actual Četnik movement. Yet it is untrue, as apologists for the Četniks claim, that Četnik massacres were simply retaliation for prior Ustaša massacres. For one thing, the weight of Ustaša genocide occurred in Croatia proper and in western Bosnia, whereas the largest Četnik massacres occurred in eastern Bosnia and the Sandžak region—the latter was not even under Ustaša rule or touched by the Ustaša genocide. The Četnik officer Pavle Đurišić reported to Četnik leader Draža Mihailović in 1943 the results of his actions in eastern Bosnia and the Sandžak: ‘All Muslim villages in the three mentioned districts were totally burned so that not a single home remained in one piece. All property and crops were destroyed except cattle, corn and senna’. He continued: ‘During the operation the total destruction of the Muslim inhabitants was carried out regardless of sex and age’. In this operation ‘our total losses were 22 dead, of which 2 through accidents, and 32 wounded. Among the Muslims, around 1,200 fighters and up to 8,000 other victims: women, old people and children’.

The Ustaša and Četnik genocides were not equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews and Gypsies. World War II claimed the lives of nearly 17% of Bosnian Serbs, 13% of Bosian Croats and 9% of Bosian Muslims compared to approximately 80% of Yugoslav Jews and over 30% of Yugoslav Gypsies (Žerjavić, pp. 61, 75; Kočović, pp. 70, 126). In terms of relative death tolls, the Ustaša and Četnik genocides were similar in scale to the Nazi genocide of the Polish Christians. Both the Ustaša persecution of the Serbs and Četnik persecution of the Muslims and Croats, in the opinion of the present author, amounted to genocide, as they each involved an attempt to destroy a nationality, or nationalities, in whole or in part.

The orthodox Titoist viewpoint was that the Ustašas and Četniks were genocidal movements. That the Ustašas carried out genocide against the Serbs was not controversial under Titoism. As for the Četniks, their deliberate attempt to destroy particular groups was, as we have seen, legally confirmed by the trial of Mihailović and other Četnik war criminals. Two leading Titoist historians of the World War II genocides, Vladimir Dedijer and Antun Miletić, were typical in their equation of the Ustaša and Četnik genocides. Dedijer compiled a book about the Vatican and the Ustaša genocide called the The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican (Dedijer). Miletić edited a three-volume collection of documents about Jasenovac (more recently expanded to four volumes), in which he argued: ‘Hitler gave Pavelić a green light also for his Serbophobia. He deemed that genocide—expulsions, killings, imprisonment in camps and forced baptisms of Serbs—was the condition for the survival of the NDH’ (Miletić, p. 8). The two then produced a jointly-edited volume entitled Genocide of the Muslims, 1941-1945, which assembled documents detailing Četnik persecution of the Muslims. In the introduction, Dedijer claims that the Četniks’ genocidal policies were inspired by Hitler: ‘Hitler accelerated this process of destroying the Slavic people. His methods, proclaimed publicly in Mein Kampf, undoubtedly influenced also the concept of genocide in the movement of Draža Mihailović’ (Dedijer & Miletić, p. xxii). Likewise, in the words of Branko Petranović, doyen of Titoist historians of World War II and the post-war period:

The Muslims (‘Turks’) were the object of Četnik acts of genocide in December 1941, August 1942 and the start of 1943 in East Bosnia and the Sandžak, of which the first acts were a reaction to the Ustaša acts of murder of Serbs whose perpetrators were Muslims. (Petranović, p. 384)

Titoist historians tended to catalogue and describe such crimes, rather than interpret them. Historians in the West wrote relatively little about the Ustaša, and while some excellent monographs were written about the Četniks, these focused almost exclusively on Četnik relations with the Axis and Allies, rather than on atrocities (Tomasevich; Karchmar; Milazzo). This has only begun to change in recent years. This failure to interpret the genocides led directly to Serb and Croat nationalist revisionism. This was made worse by the fact that not all aspects of the Titoist line were given equal emphasis in communist education and propaganda, so not all aspects equally entered popular awareness.

In 2006, the historian Olivera Milosavljević published a study of collaboration with the Nazis in Serbia, which emphasised the fact that the Serbian Nazi quisling regime under Milan Nedić had not been merely collaborationist, but was a fully fledged fascist regime, with a Nazi-style ideology that claimed that Serbs were members of the Aryan race, and that was fanatically anti-Semitic (Milosavljević). Milosavljević confirms what the present author’s own research has suggested to him: that official Titoist statements about World War II emphasised the Nazi-collaborationist character of the Četniks and the Nedić regime, but not their genocidal or fascist character. This made it easier for the Serb-nationalist propaganda in the 1980s and 1990s to claim that it had only been Croats, Muslims and Albanians, but not Serbs, who had been genocidal or pro-fascist in World War II, and to deny Serb collaborationist killings of Jews, Muslims and Croats. Titoist propaganda had instead emphasised the Serbs’ domination of the interwar Yugoslav kingdom and their oppression of other nationalities, and many Serb intellectuals felt the Serbs as a whole were continually being made to feel guilty about this.

Conversely, Titoist propaganda strongly emphasised the Ustaša genocide. Just as many Serbs felt they were being made to feel guilty about the interwar Kingdom, so many Croat intellectuals felt Croats as a whole were continuously being made to feel guilty about the crimes of the Ustašas. Croat nationalist revisionism therefore did not focus on denial, as was the case with the Serbs, so much as on minimisation and relativisation. The best known Croat revisionist historian is, of course, the late Franjo Tuđman, who subsequently became Croatian President. Tuđman’s revisionism largely focused on the Serb death toll in the Ustaša genocide and particularly at the Jasenovac death camp, which he accurately claimed had been exaggerated by Titoist historians. However, Tuđman went to the other extreme, and underestimated the death toll at Jasenovac, placing it at 30,000-40,000 (the Jasenovac Memorial now has a death list of over 72,000 individuals). He also went on to suggest that the figure of six million Jewish dead in the Holocaust was unreliable; and he relativised Jewish suffering, comparing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with the Holocaust, and claiming that Jewish inmates had held a privileged position at the Jasenovac camp (Tuđman, pp. 156-60, 316-20). In essence, Tuđman claimed that what the Ustašas had done was no different from innumerable other acts of mass violence since biblical times, therefore no big deal.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was consequently an almost complete unawareness among Serbs of any Serb genocide or fascism during World War II. Conversely, mainstream Croat-nationalist opinion no longer cared about the Ustašas, and some elements were ready to embrace a more positive reinterpretation of them, including genocide denial. The politicisation of the violence of the 1940s contributed to an atmosphere that made new atrocities possible in the 1990s.

The genocide and atrocities that took place in the 1990s, like those in the 1940s, had their roots in the power struggle between the nationalities during the previous decades. The key difference was that this time, the crimes were linked to a conflict between states, not merely nationalities. Furthermore, the perpetrators worked through official Yugoslav state bodies, and there was no foreign occupation. The genocide had its roots in a Serbian nationalist rebellion against the Titoist system.

The communist-led Partisans under Tito were a predominantly western Yugoslav movement—Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian, with strong support among the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs, but much weaker support in Serbia. Furthermore, the Yugoslav communists’ understanding of the national question had been shaped in the interwar period, when they campaigned for the national freedom of the Croats, Macedonians and others, against the Serbian-dominated kingdom. Consequently, the victory for the Partisans marked a heavy defeat for traditional Serbian national politics. Serbia lost Montenegro, Macedonia and all of Bosnia, and had to accept the establishment of Vojvodina and Kosovo as autonomous entities within Serbia (Hoare, p. 449). On the other hand, for the first two decades of the communist regime, Serbia, as a republic substantially larger than any of the others and as the seat of the Yugoslav capital, enjoyed a position of first among equals in the centralised Yugoslav Federation. Mainstream Serbian national politics had traditionally involved support for one of two options: either a Great Serbia; or integral Yugoslav nationalism in which Serbia would play the leading role. The Titoist system initially seemed to chime with the second of these. From the second half of the 1960s, however, Tito inflicted two heavy defeats on the Serbian communists, and Serbia’s position became much weaker. Both Yugoslavia and Serbia were decentralised, and the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo gained virtual independence from Serbia as de facto republics directly under the Federal centre.

After Tito’s death, Serbia rebelled against this system, attempting first to restore Serbian control over Kosovo and Vojvodina, then to restore a centralised Yugoslav Federation under Serbian leadership. When the second of these goals had definitely failed by the spring of 1990, Slobodan Milošević switched to a policy of attempting to break up Yugoslavia and carve out new Serbian borders, effectively dismembering Croatia and destroying the republic of Bosnia & Hercegovina. Serb nationalist plans in this phase mimicked those of the Četniks in World War II (Hoare, p. 144).

In Bosnia, the Partisan movement had been, in numerical terms, predominantly Serb, and Serbs had dominated the organs of the Bosnian republic for the first two decades of Titoism (Hoare, pp. 324-28), but in Bosnia, as in Yugoslavia as a whole, power had shifted away from the Serbs from the late 1960s onwards. The Muslims increasingly replaced the Serbs as the leading nationality within the Bosnian republic during the 1970s and 1980s. This culminated in the Bosnian general elections of 1990, which brought to power a coalition of Muslim, Serb and Croat nationalists. The President of the Bosnian Presidency—the head of Bosnia’s seven-member presidency—was the Muslim nationalist leader Alija Izetbegović. Thus, Milošević’s attempt to carve out new Serbian borders in Bosnia coincided with a Bosnian Serb nationalist rebellion against the Bosnian republic in which Muslims were increasingly strong. It was the combination of the Republic of Serbia, the Serbian-controlled JNA and the Bosnian Serb nationalists that produced such a massive Muslim death toll in Bosnia in the 1990s (Tretter et al.), but this genocidal campaign did not just involve the killing and expulsion of Muslims and Croats, but also the attempted and largely successful destruction of Bosnia as the common state of Serbs, Croats and Muslims (Hoare, pp. 347-58).

There is some legal ambiguity over how much of the Serb campaign of mass killing can be considered to have involved genocide. Evidence of a genocidal intent may be deduced from the statement made by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić on 14 October 1991, in response to the Bosnian parliament’s preparation to vote in favour of the sovereignty of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia & Hercegovina:

Do not think that you will not lead Bosnia & Herzegovina into hell, and do not think that you will not perhaps make the Muslim people disappear, because the Muslims cannot defend themselves if there is war. How will you prevent everyone from being killed in Bosnia & Herzegovina? (Silber & Little, p. 215)

An early case for the genocidal character of the Serb assault on Bosnia & Hercegovina was made in 1995 by Norman Cigar in Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’, emphasising the ideological preparation of the mass killing by the Belgrade intelligentsia and the planned and systematic nature of the atrocities (Cigar).

The UN’s Commission of Experts, established pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 780 on 6 October 1992 in order to investigate allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other violations of international humanitarian law on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and chaired first by Frits Kalshoven and subsequently by M. Cherif Bassiouni, gave credence to the view that Serb war crimes in Bosnia encompassed genocide. According to its interim report of 9 February 1993,

Based on the many reports describing the policy and practices conducted in the former Yugoslavia, ‘ethnic cleansing’ has been carried out by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property. Those practices constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention.

The Commission of Experts then went on to conclude in its Final Report of 27 May 1994: ‘It is unquestionable that the events in Opština Prijedor since 30 April 1992 qualify as crimes against humanity. Furthermore, it is likely to be confirmed in court under due process of law that these events constitute genocide’.

Nevertheless, the only atrocity that has so far been recognised as genocide by either the ICJ or the ICTY was the Srebrenica massacre of approximately 8,000 Serb civilians by Bosnian Serb forces, which occurred quite late in the day—in July 1995, a few months before the war ended. The ICJ judgement, as we have seen, explicitly stated that other than the Srebrenica massacre, the mass killings in Bosnia & Hercegovina did not constitute genocide. On the other hand, in 1997, a German court convicted Nikola Jorgić, a Bosnian Serb, of genocide in the north Bosnian region of Doboj. Jorgić challenged his conviction, and brought his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, which nevertheless upheld the conviction. Two other Bosnian Serbs were also convicted of genocide by German courts.

Milošević had a partner in Croatian President Franjo Tuđman. The War of Yugoslav Succession is often wrongly portrayed as a contest between rival Serb and Croat nationalisms. In fact, the extreme nationalists among Serbs, Croats and, to an extent, the Muslims were in practice allied against the liberal centre and against the existing borders of the Yugoslav republics. Tuđman was a former Yugoslav general and hardline communist who had lived and worked for many years in Belgrade, and his starting point was that Milošević, Serbia and the JNA were not his enemies and that he should collaborate with them. On just about every issue of significance, Tuđman agreed with Milošević: on the need to break up Yugoslavia and redraw its borders; on the need to partition Bosnia and prevent its emergence as an independent state; on there being no place for the Serb minority in an independent Croatia; and even on the need for Croatia to turn over parts of its own territory to Serbia; to the point of actually winding down Croatia’s military resistance to Serbian occupation.

It is on this basis that Croatia’s involvement in the Bosnian genocide should be understood. Croatian forces joined in Milošević’s assault on Bosnia, engaged in the killings and expulsions of Muslim civilians and helped to bring about Bosnia’s collapse as a state (Hoare, pp. 81-87, 94-97). This Croatian policy reversed the Ustaša policy of World War II; whereas the Ustašas had attempted to co-opt the Muslims against the Serbs, Bosnian Croat extremists of the 1990s, under the leadership of the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ) and the guidance of the Tuđman regime in Zagreb, attempted to ally with the Serbs against the Muslims. Nevertheless, the roles of Serb and Croat forces in the Bosnian genocide were not equivalent; at least 86% of the killing of civilians during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 was the work of the Serb forces. It is on this basis also that the events should be understood surrounding Operation Storm in August 1995, when the Croatian Army attacked the Serb-occupied area of central Croatia known as the ‘Krajina’. Milošević cut his losses; the Serb generals ordered and organised the evacuation of at least 150,000 Serb civilians from the Krajina. Croatian forces killed several hundred Serb civilians, burned many Serb homes and established a reign of terror to ensure that few would want to return. In 2001, a member of the Krajina Serb general staff, Milisav Sekulić, published his memoirs, describing these events, appropriately entitled Knin Fell in Belgrade (Knin being the capital of Krajina) (Sekulić, pp. 178-79).

The third major phase of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession occurred in 1998-1999, involving a campaign by regular Serbian police and military forces against the Albanian population of Kosovo. This was escalated following the intervention in Kosovo by NATO, and ultimately involved the forced expulsion of about 800,000 Albanian civilians. But in contrast to Bosnia, the killings were on a smaller scale, reaching into the thousands rather than tens of thousands, for a total of approximately 10,000-12,000 (Ball et al.; Spiegel & Salama, pp. 2204-9). Unlike in Bosnia, there was no large population of Serbs in Kosovo that could be mobilised to kill their neighbours. No Serb official has been indicted for genocide in Kosovo. Following the Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo, Albanians carried out large-scale reprisals against Serb and other non-Albanian civilians.

The genocidal crimes of the 1990s occurred in a very different international atmosphere to those in the 1940s. In the earlier period, the fascists and their collaborators had been entirely defeated both in Yugoslavia and internationally, so those speaking in defence of the perpetrators were limited to small circles of right-wing émigrés. In the 1990s, however, international opinion was bitterly divided over the Yugoslav war. Until the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, at the very earliest, the Western alliance and the UN, if anything, favoured the Serbian side, and Western leaders rejected talk of genocide—in favour of terms such as civil war, ethnic conflict and the like. Furthermore, the Milošević regime was strongly supported by vocal members of the far right and far left of the political spectrum in the West, who claimed that its atrocities had largely been invented by the Western media (Hoare, pp. 543-63).

The international climate nevertheless shifted from 1995, as US President Bill Clinton succumbed to the pressure of Congressional opposition to take action against Bosnian Serb forces. In the same year, Jacques Chirac replaced Francois Mitterand as French President, and reversed France’s position on the conflict. Finally, in 1997, Tony Blair and the Labour Party replaced John Major and the Conservatives in power in the United Kingdom. As Brendan Simms has demonstrated in his book Unfinest Hour, the Conservative government was not only well disposed toward Milošević’s Serbia, but determined to prevent any US action against it (Simms). Blair and Labour, on the other hand, reversed this policy 180 degrees, as a result of which Britain spearheaded the NATO intervention that ended Milošević’s persecution of the Kosovo Albanians.

An additional factor changing the climate of opinion was the gathering momentum of the ICTY, which had been set up in 1993 during the Bosnian war. Milošević was indicted for war crimes in Kosovo in 1999, and subsequently for war crimes, including genocide, in Bosnia and Croatia. In 2001, the Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstić was convicted of genocide at the ICTY, while Milošević was handed over by the new Serbian authorities and put on trial. All these factors influenced mainstream opinion, which now tended to uphold the view that genocide had taken place. However, the controversy continued to rage. The decision of the ICJ of 26 February 2007, which confirmed that genocide had taken place but that Serbia was not guilty of it, can in some sense be seen as a compromise position.

The atrocities of the 1990s have also helped to heighten intellectual awareness, in the former Yugoslavia and in the outside world, of the genocidal crimes carried out in Yugoslavia during World War II. Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian historians have, since the early 1990s, added to the existing historiography and published documentary sources relating to these crimes. Scholars have also reacted against the tendency of nationalists and their Western supporters to employ a mythologised version of World War II. Philip Cohen’s Serbia’s Secret War: Propaganda and the Deceit of History, highlights anti-Semitism and collaborationism in Serbia during World War II (Cohen). To these may be added other works which, if not directly inspired by the events of the 1990s, have nevertheless contributed to the recent flowering of the English-language historiography of World War II Yugoslavia. Jozo Tomasevich’s War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration, posthumously published in 2001, was the first serious English-language study of the Ustaša regime. Published in 1990, Jonathan Steinberg’s All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941-43 is the first major English-language monograph dealing with the Holocaust in Yugoslavia, and is set against the background of the establishment of the NDH and the Ustaša genocide of the Serbs.

Tomislav Dulić’s Utopias of Nation: Local Mass Killing in Bosnia and Hercegovina (2005) is the first English-language monograph devoted to either the Ustaša or Četnik mass killings, constituting a comparative analysis of crimes carried out by the two movements based on local case-studies of events in particular areas of Bosnia, and is one of two major recent studies of the Četnik genocide in that country. The other is the present author’s Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Četniks, 1941-1943, which links the Četniks‘ genocide to their conflict with the Partisans (Hoare).

Thus, the Četnik and Ustaša atrocities have now begun to permeate the consciousness of the international intellectual community. Stevan K. Pavlowitch acknowledged the Četniks’ anti-Muslim atrocities in his most recent study of Yugoslavia in World War II, though he remains unwilling to acknowledge Mihailović’s involvement of them—something that a more careful survey of published documents and other sources would have required him to do (Pavlowitch, p. 158). This ambiguity is evidence of continued disagreement over scholars regarding the nature of the World War II atrocities.

The controversy over how to classify the atrocities of both the 1940s and 1990s is closely bound up with the question of how ‘genocide’ is defined. The ICJ accepted that systematic, large-scale mass killings of Bosnian Muslims had taken place across Bosnia in 1992, but ruled that they could not be considered genocide in the absence of conclusive proof that they had been undertaken with the specific aim of destroying the Bosnian Muslims in whole or in part. On the other hand, the Court ruled that at Srebrenica, it had been satisfactorily established that Serb forces intended to destroy the Bosnian Muslims in whole or in part. This creates a model whereby a systematic campaign of mass killing can amount to genocide in some areas, but in others merely to ‘ethnic cleansing’, which resembles genocide in every respect other than motive. Such a distinction encourages what might be called an ‘elitist’ model of genocide, where plenty of instances of mass killings are considered but only a small number qualify for the award of the term ‘genocide’.

In practice, to define genocide too narrowly, to make too great a distinction between mass killings intended simply to destroy part of a group as an end in itself, and mass killings intended to destroy part of a group in order to drive out another part of a group, to put too much emphasis on the motive behind the intent to destroy rather than simply on intent as such and to make too great an insistence that genocide has to be established for each locality separately, renders the concept of genocide largely useless as an analytical tool. It is more reasonable for genocide to continue to be defined as the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, but there is no reason why this has to mean actually destroying the individual members of a group, as opposed to destroying a group in a given area, through a combination of killings, expulsions and other means. As Adam Jones has pointed out, on the basis of the UN Convention’s definition, it is theoretically possible to commit genocide without killing anybody at all (Jones, p. 13). Of course, individual genocides are not necessarily equivalent to one another in either scale or intensity, and a genocide that aims at the physical extermination of every single member of the victim group—such as the genocide of the Jews and Gypsies in Nazi-ruled Europe or of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994—is of a whole different order of magnitude to one that seeks to exterminate physically only a part of the group while driving out the rest—such as the Ustaša genocide of the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs in the 1940s or the Serb genocide of the Muslims in Serb-occupied Bosnia & Hercegovina in the 1990s. But both are genocides. As the UN definition of genocide makes clear, genocide involves the ‘intent to destroy’ a group ‘in whole or in part‘.

The mass killings of national, religious or social groups are not exceptions or aberrations in history, but unfortunately form an all too central part of the formation of the modern world order. To attempt to separate the most extreme cases as belonging to an entirely different category would be to insert a legal distinction between historical phenomena that are essentially related. The rise of the nation state in the Balkan region of South East Europe, broadly defined, has been inseparable from the process of national homogenisation and mass violence against members of the ethno-religious ‘other’. The emergence of each new independent nation state in the Balkan peninsula—with the sole exception of Albania—has involved the mass extermination or expulsion of ethnically and religiously ‘alien’ elements that had formally inhabited it. During World War II, when the former Yugoslavia was under the occupation of the fascist Axis powers, the most radical attempts were made to create expanded and, ethnically homogenous nation states, above all by the Croat-extremist Ustašas and the Serb-extremist Četniks. The occupying powers both facilitated these native genocidal projects and carried out crimes of genocide and mass violence of their own. The defeat of the Axis, Ustašas and Četniks in World War II and the victory of the communist-led Yugoslav Partisans appeared to mean that nation states in Yugoslavia would be built on a more nationally pluralistic model, for with the exception of their ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia’s German and Italian minorities, the communists avowedly eschewed national homogeneity.

In practice, however, the long period of communist rule in Yugoslavia (1945-1990) was merely an interval between two episodes of genocide and mass violence, for which there are several reasons. Communist rule prevented the emergence of a pluralistic, democratic consciousness among its political classes; the nationalists who took power across the former Yugoslavia during the late 1980s and 1990s, themselves often former communists, inherited the communist traits of authoritarianism and intolerance, which were now simply expressed in nationalist terms. In Serbia, above all, there was not even a break between the communist and nationalist regimes; the regime of Slobodan Milošević, who came to power in the late 1980s, simply involved communists adopting the politics of nationalism. Yet more fundamentally, the mass violence of the 1990s represented a backlash against the communist Yugoslav order. Serbia, whose territory and power had effectively been steadily reduced under this order, rebelled against it. The Bosnian Serbs, whose position in the Bosnian republic from the late 1960s onwards grew steadily weaker in relation to the Muslims, rebelled against that republic as well. The Serbian regime and the Serb nationalists, in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, revived the policies of genocide and mass violence pioneered by the Četnik movement of World War II—even though the Milošević regime formally laid claim to the Partisan and post-war Yugoslav heritage, formally rejecting that of the Četniks.

Rejection of the guilt attributed to them for their historic crimes under the Titoist regime was part of the ideology of both Serb and Croat nationalists in the 1980s and 1990s. Croat nationalists reacted against the sense of guilt that Croats had supposedly been made to feel for Ustaša crimes, while Serb nationalists similarly reacted against the sense of guilt they had supposedly been made to feel for Serbia’s hegemony within Yugoslavia in the interwar period; they rejected also the Titoist portrayal of the Četniks as collaborationist and as essentially similar to the Ustašas. Just as Serb and Croat nationalists have denied or minimised their World War II crimes, so they have attempted to do the same with regard to their crimes of the 1990s. With the international community responding ambiguously to the latter, and their perpetrators never properly defeated as they had been in World War II, the question of how to classify these crimes—of whether, for example, the massacres in Bosnia & Hercegovina should be defined as genocide or not—remains a highly political as well as controversial question. By adopting a broad perspective and acknowledging all the factors that have gone into framing the debate on this question, the historian can do justice to its complexity.