Persecution of Croats in the First Yugoslavia and its Political Consequences – An Introductory Evaluation

An Introductory Evaluation
Ante Cuvalo
Also see the Appendix to this article
Also see: Letters of Protest
We [the Serbs] are masters of your [Croat] lives and your possessions. You have nothing but two choices: either to stay in this country and be obedient, or to move out of our state. We want to dominate. We want to rule. We want to control your body, your soul, and your possessions, because we are the guarantors and the foundation of this great Homeland of ours .1
High Hopes and Big Disappointments
Regardless of the social, economic, and political predicaments to be faced by individuals and peoples in Europe, the end of the First World War was greeted enthusiastically. It was seen as the beginning of a new and better future for the world. Peoples who lived under the oppressive and/or foreign rule of the collapsing empires were especially exhilarated: they thought that the bells of freedom were real. Their hopes and expectations were heightened by declarations such as those of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, that the war was fought to make the world “safe for democracy” and by promises that national self-determination would be one of the guiding principles of peacemaking. Furthermore, important social and political changes were taking place. Revolutions were in the making; kaisers and tzars were gone; the newborn countries were promulgating democratic or what looked like democratic constitutions; peasants were becoming an organized political force; in older democracies, women were gaining the right to vote; and new laws promoting higher social justice, including the eight-hour workday, were being passed. These and similar positive changes were signs of a hopeful future.
The Croatian people, despite all the post-war economic hardships, also were caught up in the wave of enthusiasm. Woodrow Wilson’s portrait hung on the walls of numerous homes in Croatia. He was the man of their hopes. They believed that on the ruins of the Habsburg Monarchy they, along with other nations, finally would be able to achieve their dream of national and personal freedom. Even the small minority of Croatian politicians who rushed to unite Croatia with Serbia and Montenegro thought that their decisions would secure freedom and democracy not only for the Croats but for all in the newly formed country. Unfortunately, Croats soon realized that the post-war exhilaration was baseless. The reality was cruel and bloody.
Soon after the war, grave disappointments began to be felt in Croatia and the rest of Europe. The war years had hatched two opposing totalitarian ideologies that threatened the entire continent. Many of those who doubted the virtues of liberal democracy looked to the extreme Left or Right for answers. The result was that out of twenty-seven countries in Europe that professed democracy during the immediate post-war era only ten were able to preserve even a modicum of democracy by the end of the 1930s. It became obvious that the Great War and the post-war peace treaties did not lay the foundation for a better future but for another cataclysmic cycle.
The Croatian people did not have to wait very long for the new state to show its true face. Persecutions began even before the official unification of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (known as Yugoslavia after 1929) took place on December 1, 1918. In some official Serbian documents, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other former Habsburg regions united with Serbia were declared as “occupied lands” and the civilian population in these regions was subjected to Serbian military laws .2 Instead of a partnership an occupation began!
The persecution of the Croats in the period between the two World Wars has not been well- known or adequately researched. It was one of the taboo subjects in both monarchist and socialist Yugoslavia. Judicial, police, military, and other records in the country are still waiting for serious research on this important subject. This introductory survey and the partial list of persecutions that follow are based mainly on secondary sources and are intended to give the reader at least a taste of the bitter Croatian experience in monarchist Yugoslavia. However, for lack of available sources to the author, the survey is limited to persecutions from 1918 to 1936 only. We thought that a list and a short description of the main semi-official organizations involved in terrorizing all those who were considered enemies of the state would also be helpful; and, at the end, several political consequences of the persecutions will be mentioned.
Self-imposed Guardians of the State
The use of terror in monarchist Yugoslavia was applied against all those who were seen as enemies not only of the state but of the Serbian centralized and unitary regime. The real object of oppression, however, was not some aberrant individuals but an entire group, a political party, a whole people. In the old Byzantine tradition, the guardians of the state saw politics only as extremes: if one is not with us he must be against us. Politics of negotiations and compromises were not an option. For them that was seen as a defeat. Accordingly, there was no choice but to crush mercilessly all the “dark forces” in the country. Croats as a people were seen as the most dangerous state enemy, because they were not willing to give up their national identity and opposed the militant and Serbian-controlled state. It was necessary, therefore, to force the Croats into submission, to break their national will, to humiliate them, to prevent them from forming a unified, strong national political front, and to deprive their national struggle of sympathy support and legitimacy in the world.
The first anti-Croat terrorist acts were committed even before the official unification of the state took place. From October 29, when the Croatian Sabor (Parliament) severed Croatia’s ties with the Habsburg Monarchy till December 1, 1918, when the common state was proclaimed, all leading Croatian political, cultural, and religious persons who were seen as political opponents to the union, were either arrested, physically threatened, and/or lost their jobs. The man who assumed all powers in Croatia was Svetozar Pribicevic, the leading Serb politician in the land, and under his command all those who opposed unification with Serbia had to be silenced or crushed.
Only five days after the unification, a peaceful march at Zagreb’s main square was turned into a blood bath. Nine Croatian soldiers and five civilians were killed, and seventeen persons were wounded. A month later, the first post-war political trial in Zagreb was over and 23 Croats were sentenced from one and a half to ten years of prison. The harshest terror in the post-unification era, however, was exerted against the Croatian peasants, who made up the overwhelming majority of the people.
Towards the end and immediately after the war, the villages in Croatia, as in many other regions of Europe, were undergoing various political and social changes. The peasants had seen their sons sent off to the front from which many did not return. They were financially and physically exhaused by ever-increasing taxes and other war burdens, of war profiteering and the war itself. The Croatian peasants lost their traditional respect for state authority as well as monarchy. They became acutely aware of their precarious political, economic, social, and national position, and wanted change, some even a radical one.
In a number of places in Croatia the countryside was controlled by the “Green Cadres,” the rebellious bands of soldiers who had deserted and who were joined by various other social elements. Most of these were sons of peasants; and, it is estimated that the rebels’ numbers reached 200,000 at one point. The peasant population was, willingly or unwillingly, their main ally. This meant that many villages in Croatia were in near chaos toward the end of the war. Furthermore, the echoes of the revolutions in Russia and in neighboring Hungary were felt in Croatian villages too. Then, at the end of the war, they were pushed into a new state without being asked what they wanted. This new political arrangement did not ease the political, economic, and social tension in the villages. On the contrary, the new rulers and their harsh methods inflamed Croatian villages to the breaking point.
The peasants became well aware of political and social ideals, like personal and national freedoms, equality under the law, and social justice, but instead of getting closer to achieving such goals after 1918, they saw their situation in the new state getting worse. For example, Croatian peasants had to pay more kinds of taxes at higher rates than under the Habsburgs. Some taxes increased as much as eight hundred percent in comparison to the pre-1918 period. For example, the peasant had to pay tax on his home-made wine regardless if he sold it or had it only of his own use. The control over the tobacco production was so strict that persons had to pay fines, endure beatings, and even jail terms for smoking their own home- grown tobacco. Taxation easily turned into a national issue because a peasant in Croatia paid four times higher taxes than a peasant in Serbia. Even his vote was worth less than that of a citizen in Serbia. For example, the number of voters needed to elect a parliamentary representative were: Vojvodina 3,221; Montenegro 4,350; Serbia and Macedonia 5,657; Croatia and Slavonia 6,840; Bosnia and Herzegovina 7,478, and in Dalmatia (southern Croatia) 8,106 3 The peasant was especially offended by registration, stamping, and military mobilization of all large domestic animals (horses, mules, oxen). Most of the time, such animals and their owners were forced to participate in military maneuvers for long periods of time and quite often during planting or harvest seasons. These and similar pressures resulted in numerous peasant rebellions against the new regime in several parts of Croatia. Some independent peasant republics were proclaimed shortly after the new state was formed.
Among the most sensitive issues for the peasants in the immediate post-war era was the recruitment of their sons into military service. In many Croatian villages these efforts were marked by bloodshed. Everyone was weary and wary of war and militarism, especially the Croatian peasant who now had to serve a new state which behaved as a foreign power and oppressor from the outset. The problem of recruitment was also complicated by implementation of a Serbian law by which the village “zadrugas” (communes) and their leaders were responsible for bringing in the new recruits. But such village “zadrugas” did not exist in Croatia for very long. This resulted in military and gendarme expeditions into Croatian villages that apprehended, beat, and otherwise mistreated the recruits or, if they could not find them, their immediate family members, including mothers and sisters. Such raids would often result in killing, major destruction of property, and threats and insults of a national and religious nature. The relatives were kept in jail and most often maltreated till their sons or brothers surrendered to the military authorities.
Terror became the main means to pacify Croatia. In response, the peasants at first turned to rebellions and then accepted the political program of the brothers Antun and Stjepan Radic, who advocated a peaceful struggle for personal, national, and peasant rights. By embracing the program of the Croatian Republican Peasant Party, the peasantry became the backbone of the Croatian resistance during the 1920s. But peaceful politics did not bring desired results. On the contrary, the plan “to level off [Croatia] by the Serbian opanak [peasant footwear]” 4 continued. This culminated with the assassination of Stjepan Radic and his friends in Belgrade’s Parliament in 1928 and the King’s proclamation of a personal dictatorship a few months later. From that point on, more radical political forces in Croatia turned to violence as the only means of freeing themselves not only from the regime but from the Yugoslav state itself.
Statistical Indicators
Statistical data give a clear picture of the officially sanctioned bloodshed and oppression suffered by the Croats living in monarchist Yugoslavia. One source states that in the five years of 1929 to 1934, that is, from King Aleksandar’s assumption of dictatorial powers until his assassination in Marseilles, the following court sentences were imposed on the Croats for political “crimes” 5:
19 were condemned to death by hanging
16 were killed while serving a prison term
30 death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment
85 condemned to death but fled the country
146 were condemned to 20 years of hard labor
484 received penalties from 10 to 20 years jail terms
962 were condemned from 5 to 10 years
2,035 condemned from 1 to 5 years
15,000 condemned from one month to one year of prison
The evidence presented in the Appendix to this article, although partial and collected from secondary sources, strongly indicates the nature of the Yugoslav state and its predisposition toward the Croatian people. It includes over 4,700 cases that can be summarized in the following way.
Killings and imprisonments
231 killed by gendarmes and/or military forces
102 wounded
3,715 arrested
49 killed while in jail
40 condemned to death – out of that 22 executed
16 sentenced to life imprisonment
250 tried for verbal insult of the King’s name
14 condemned in absence
642 beaten and maltreated – out of which 27 children 48 groups of people maltreated and beaten (individual names not known)
Other persecutions
493 lost jobs or forced to retire 26 newspapers and organizations banned
7 killed
42 arrested
48 beaten and maltreated
Social and/or professional categories (if known)
1,445 peasants either jailed, tried and/or maltreated
472 students
450 workers
153 professionals
117 craftsmen and small business owners
68 state office holders
39 soldiers or policemen
According to regions (if known)
3,176 Northern Croatia
791 Dalmatia
355 Lika and the Littoral
203 Slavonija and Srijem
169 Bosnia and Herzegovina (the primary focus of this study was the Republic of Croatia and not Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Number of Cases according to years
1918 – 155
1919 – 36
1920 – 92
1921 – 209
1922 – 5
1923 – 60
1924 – 5
1925 – 705
1926 – 1
1927 – 8
1928 – 60
1929 – 110
1930 – 107
1931 – 205
1932 – 671
1933 – 1,529
1934 – 312
1935 – 466
The above numbers and categories clearly indicate that the harshness of the persecutions was directed against Croats, regardless of profession, age, gender, or place, and that the intensity of the persecutions reflects the political “moods” in the country at the time.
The Art of Torturing
Because the guardians of the state were guided by their hatred of real or imaginary enemies, they implemented a vast variety of tortures against their victims. The purposes of torture were not only to break the spirit of the victims and to send a message to others, but in many cases to show by sadistic measures, their absolute disdain for the “enemy.”
A common practice for gendarmes was to burst into a village and for a minor incident, or even for no reason at all, beat anyone they encountered, destroy property, and jail people without any legal stipulations. In order to humiliate a Croatian peasant, gendarmes would often force him to genuflect three times in reverence for the Serbian traditional military cap (sajkaca) and impel him to acknowledge that “the Serb was his master and god.” It was also a common practice for the police to beat or even execute their victims in broad daylight on a city street. Verbal insults, swearing vulgarities, and blaspheming everything holy to the Croatians were a common practice. The gun-butt was a favorite weapon in beating the common people. Its use was so prevalent that one of the Ministers of the Interior was nicknamed “Kundak” (gun-butt).
Those who ended up in prison endured all sorts of humiliations and tortures, from being cursed to being tortured to death. The following were some of the more common means of torturing political prisoners: merciless beatings over the entire body especially the kidney area; pounding the soles till they crack; knocking out teeth, breaking ribs, finger joints, and other bones of the body; jumping on the stomach and groin; sticking needles under nails; crushing testes; tying one’s hands to hooks on the walls, so he could not sit down and then hanging bricks on the testes; sleep deprivation for a week at a time; and even placing live coals in the armpits and then tying the arms to the body until the coals cooled. Numerous prisoners were tortured to death and some were simply shot. The official explanations were that they committed suicide or were shot while trying to escape.
Those working in prisons were proud of their inventiveness in torturing inmates. One such ill-famed tormentor was Dragomir (Dragi) Jovanovic in Belgrade’s prison. He even received a state patent for “inventing” new and more horrific means of torture. One of his “inventions” was driving wooden pegs soaked in gasoline under the nails of an inmate and then setting the pegs on fire. (This same Jovanovic was one of the chief officials and executioners in Belgrade during the Second World War.) The Belgrade jail, Glavnjaca, became a symbol of the Karadjordjevic regime and of the Yugoslav state. (An emigrant paper named Protiv Glavanjace/Against the Glavnjaca was published in Belgium at that time.) The persecutions and humiliations went so far that the families of the victims would receive a bill to pay for the bullets by which their close relatives were shot.
Besides using visible means of torture all oppressive regimes have other ways to persecute their opponents. These are more silent and perfidious. For example, losing or fear of losing one’s job is often used as a major instrument of political punishment. The insecurity of one’s own and/or his family’s material existence can often be harder than physical punishment. This type of persecution was overwhelmingly used by the Yugoslav regime and it is hard to measure its impact on society, and on the Croatian national life in particular. State Watchdogs
The official guardians of the state and the main instruments of the Belgrade regime were the armed forces, gendarmes, police, and the state revenue police. Among them, the gendarmes were the main “sword of the regime.” This semi-military force was formed in January of 1919 to impose “order” in the country. But “order” was never achieved and the number of gendarmes increased from 10,000 to 60,000 by the early 1930s. The gendarmes were also often augmented by military forces on raiding missions. Besides the above mentioned forces, there were 15.000 secret police agents, plus military intelligence, and king’s “special agents.”6 In addition to the above official guardians, there were a number of semi-official watchdogs of the state who were more than eager to help the regime to crash, what they labeled, the “anti-state elements,” “dark forces,” and “defeatists”! The following were the best known such organizations.
Unification or Death ( The Black Hand)
This terrorist organization was officially established in 1911, with help and under the protection of Serbian miliary forces, but its real beginnings go back to 1903. A group of officers belonging to this organization assassinated King Aleksandar Obrenovic of Serbia and his wife Dara and secured the royal throne to the Karadjordjevic dynasty in 1903. It also attempted to assassinate King Nikola of Montenegro and his family in 1907. The Black Hand became the “unseen government” of Serbia. The organization modeled itself after the Italian Mafia, and the use of terror was the primary means to achieve its goal of Greater Serbia which, according to the Constitution of the organization consisted (besides of the Kingdom of Serbia) of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Old Serbia and Macedonia, Croatia, Srijem, Vojvodina, and the Sea-coast. By 1914 the Black Hand had close to 150,000 members according to some estimates. Although the Black Hand was officially eliminated during World War I (1917), because King Aleksandar out of fear and/or personal revenge turned against the organization, its sympathizers, goals, and methods were still very much alive during the inter-war period.
The White Hand
It is believed that because Prince Aleksandar was prevented from taking full charge of the Black Hand, he founded his own conspiracy organization within the Serbian military forces and named it the White Hand. Lieutenant-Colonel Petar Zivkovic, who became Prime Minister and the symbol of royalist oppression in the early 1930s, became head of the new organization. The White Hand was an army within the army. Its purpose was to eliminate the Black Hand and to be a semi-official protector of the state and Karadjordjevic’s regime. Most of the political, judicial, economic, as well as military state decisions were made by such shadow forces in the country, first the Black Hand and then the White Hand.
The Chetniks (cheta means a cohort or a group)
The first written rules of Chetnik guerrilla type warfare were a translation of a Polish manual published in Belgrade in 1848.7 But the real beginning of the present-day Chetnik movement dates from 1903, when Serbian military officers organized a special training “school” for volunteers for the purpose of undertaking terrorist actions in Macedonia. At the time, Macedonia was a part of the ailing Ottoman empire and the main target of Serbian expansionism. The Chetniks became a useful instrument in executing special assignments (ethnic cleansing) of all who were not either Serbs nor ready to become Serbs in the regions that Serbia wanted to acquire. The Chetnik played a similar role during the two Balkan Wars and World War I, when they “cleared the land” of Turks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Macedonians and, toward the end of World War I, of Muslims in Sandzak and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Between the two world wars, although the Chetniks were split among themselves, they were united in guarding the state and in the struggle against “dark forces.” The Union of Chetniks for Freedom and Dignity of the Homeland became close to the Serbian Democratic Party, which was seen by many as not tough enough on the enemies of the state. This resulted into a split in 1924, when the Union of Serbian Chetniks – For the King and the Homeland was founded. This group became the tool of the Serbian Radical Party; the leader of this Chetnik faction, Punisa Racic, assassinated two and wounded three members of the Croatian political leadership in Belgrade’s Parliament in 1928. The regime rewarded the Chetniks by giving them arms and permission to use them, land grants, and money: in fact, they were not required to obey many state laws. Also in 1924, the Union of Serbian Chetniks – Petar Mrkonjic (Named after king Peter) was formed in Sarajevo. The last two Chetnik organizations were especially aggressive in establishing their chapters in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with an openly expressed goal of establishing a Greater Serbia.
Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists (Organizacija Jugoslavenskih Nacionalista/ORJUNA)
The ORJUNA was formed in Split by the royal regional administrator in Croatia in 1921. Its roots are in an organization named Yugoslav Progressive Nationalist Youth (Jugoslavenska Napredna Nacionalisticka Omladina/JNNO). Its “heroic” baptism of fire came when its members burnt the first issue of a newly founded Croatian newspaper in Split, “Hrvatski List” (Croatian Gazette). The ORJUNA was under the patronage of the Serb Democratic Party in Croatia. It gathered militant youth who supported the unitary Yugoslav state. Its chapters were formed first in Dalmatia, then in other parts of former Habsburg regions. The real reason for its formation was to have a terrorist organization for “special assignments.” As such ORJUNA became the leading instrument of terror against Croatian “separatists,” “communists,” “defeatists,” and all other “dark elements” in the country.
In that spirit ORJUNA gave instructions to its members in Croatia (August 1921) that “in these days of our activities, develop as much energy and action as possible. Our organization has to be firm and disciplined and stand firmly and resolutely against the separatists. After the assassination of Minister Draskovic [July 21, 1921], there is a need to start a struggle till the elimination not only of the communists, but of all those who are sowing hate against unitarism, the state, and Yugoslavism.” 8
ORJUNA terrorist activities were committed quite openly and often with great pride. Its leadership emphasized that “its terrorist actions contributed more than anything else to its own legitimization in the entire country….In practice, ORJUNA will propagate its goals by all possible means. It does not renounce the use of force. On the contrary it emphasizes the need for such type of actions.”9
ORJUNA had special units known as Action Groups, which were organized in military fashion. According to one estimate, by 1925 the Action Groups had about 10.000 members.10 They had military style maneuvers on a regular basis, used military equipment, and usually the leading Chetnik figures were heading such Action Groups. Their holy principle “Victory or Death” was accompanied by yet another sacred declaration: “Whoever is not with us, is against us!” 11
Serbian National Youth (Srpska Nacionalna Omladina/SRNAO)
The SRNAO was formed in 1922 at Belgrade University as the antitheses of ORJUNA, which was seen as too much Yugoslav-oriented and as such was polluting the true Serbian spirit and watering down their political goals. The ideology and political program of the SRNAO was formulated in a slogan: “All the Serbs to Serbia, Serbia to all the Serbs!” The goals of its existence, therefore, were “guarding of the Homeland and the king, the spread of [Serbian] nationalism, and defense of Serbian accomplishments to the extermination of all anti-state and anti-national elements.”12
The SRNAO was very close to the royal regime, to the Radical Party, to Punisa Racic’s Chetniks and to the Union of Serbian Chetniks “Petar Mrkonjic” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For example, on the occasion of the consecration of the SRNAO flag in Sarajevo, there was a personal delegate of the king, the government representatives, and a Serbian Church delegation. Leading men from all centers of power in Serbia were members of SRNAO. Nikola Pasic, the prime mover of Greater Serbian policies and the symbol of Serbian unitarism, was SRNAO’s honorary president and its main financial supporter .13 The biggest obstacle to SRNAO’s expansion in Croatia was the split between Svetozar Pribicevic, the main Serb politician in Croatia, and his former allies in Belgrade. Real confusion entered the SRNAO ranks, however, when Stjepan Radic, the leading Croat politician, made a deal with Pasic and entered the Belgrade government in 1925. The SRNAO did recover to some extent after the assassination of Radic(1928). After the King assumed all the power in the country and proclaimed Yugoslavism as the state national ideology (1929), SRNAO continued to work for its well defined goals but now under the Yugoslav name.
Some other semi-official terrorist organizations Organization of the Reserve Officers and War Veterans – It emphasized its “readiness and availability” to defend the state and vowed to fight “against all anti-state elements.” 14
The Alliance of Volunteers – It constantly reminded the public that the state was not secure, its foundations were not firm, and that it was threatened by outside and inside enemies. It expressed readiness to continue the struggle for the security and stability of the state .15
Organized Youth – Its main mission was to destroy the Montenegrin Federalists and the followers of the exiled King Nikola of Montenegro.
People’s Defense – Its main purpose was “to defend the newly established state by organized actions” against all external and internal “anti-state destructive activities and defeatist elements.” 16
People’s Guard – It was organized in April of 1920. Its members proved themselves to be worthy of the regime’s support during the violent suppression of the railroad workers’ and miners’ strikes in 1920. The Guard members served as shock troopers against the workers and their families. After the proclamation of the ill-famed “Obznana” banning the Communist party (December 29, 1920), the Guard numbers increased rapidly. They put themselves in the “service of the state” in order to eliminate the “destructive elements which in these days [1920s] were ready to attack the state.” 17 These formations were armed by the military authorities and were tools in the hands of the regime to do its “dirty work.”
Patriotic Youth Front – This was a terrorist organization of the Bogoljub Jeftic’s fascist party.
Young Yugoslavia – This was an ORJUNA militant organization for secondary school students who because of their age could not become full members of political parties.
All of the above groups followed the fascist model of organization, or at least they tried to. Fascists in Italy and Germany were hailed for their zeal and organizing capabilities. Such admiration is expressed, for example, by “Jugoslovenska straza” (Yugoslav Guard) (June 23, 1935): “…[While] the fascist Italy is able to mobilize so many fascist formations and while Hitler’s Germany resounds by the marches of the German youth, the Yugoslav youth can and must steel its soul and its muscles by joining the Chetnik organizations, where it will prepare itself for tomorrow’s obligations that it must accept.”
But these groups admired not only the fascist organizational model, they admired also Hitler for his anti-Semitism. The paper “Jugoslovenska straza” (Yugoslav Guard) clearly expresses such feelings when on October 6, 1935 wrote: “Hitler was right when he went so far as to banish all of those who had even the smallest amount of Hebrew blood in their veins. Hitler was right when he pushed out such a vile sect from Germany.”
The Yugoslav regime and its official and unofficial guardians always looked at their opponents as mortal enemies that had to be no less than totally obliterated. Not only did they themselves believe this, they were also very active in promoting public acceptance of this malevolent belief and the means of implementing it. It is sufficient to quote just a few examples of Serbian national propaganda that express this fanatical hatred.
After a Communist sympathizer assassinated interior Minister Milorad Draskovic on July 21, 1921 (believed to be a setup by the regime), use of terror was legitimized by the Belgrade Parliament a few days later. A new wave of persecutions began. The Serb paper “Straza” (The Guard) (July 23, 1921) in the Croatian city of Osijek exhorted its readers: “Let us learn from the ill-reputed Horthy! [Miklos Horthy, the last commander of the Habsburg navy and the man who crushed in blood the Communist regime in post-World War I Hungary.] Under the knife all those who think Bolshevik thoughts! Under the knife even women and children so that even their names do not remain! The final encounter with the anti-state elements must start right now. Serb villages and all who are nationally aware must be constantly ready. In order to stop the Bolsheviks, we must organize National Guards everywhere. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We all must get ready in order to settle the score with them [Bolsheviks] once and for all. Anyone who is not with us, is their ally, and he should be dealt with accordingly. Let us sharpen our knives, load our guns, the enemy has declared war against us. Either we or they [must perish].”
This total struggle not only was meant to be waged against the Communists but also against all who were perceived as enemies. The paper “Pobeda” (Victory), the voice of ORJUNA urged on August 4, 1921 that “a struggle must be undertaken till the total elimination not only of the Communists, but also of all those who are sowing hatred against unitarism, the state, and Yugoslavism.” An ORJUNA leader in Vojvodina was even more explicit: “Communists, those who advocate the republic, and the Habsburg black sympathizers [Croatians], have found themselves at the same camp. Those heterogenous elements are united by the abominable hatred of our state” and therefore have to be eliminated.18 On December 14, 1924, the newspaper “Srbadija” expressed the deeply held, uncompromising principle of either we or they: “If we [Serbs] want to preserve ourselves we must struggle using all available means in order to crash and destroy every opponent because the Croat Bolsheviks, Magyars, Germans, and Turks will destroy us if we re not quicker than they. Forget the stupidity that we are one people with three names. Scorn the ‘brothers’ who are after our existence and our head. Deal with them quickly and decisively.”
Stjepan Radic, the leading Croat politician at the time, was a constant target of Serbian nationalist forces. A day after he was arrested in Zagreb and a month before national elections, the SRNAO voice in Novi Sad, “Srbadija”(January 7, 1925) stated: “The gallows must crackle under the weight of the infamy of Stjepan Radic. Mehmed Spaho [leading Bosnian Muslim politician] must be forced to feel the pains of a man impaled alive on the stake… The moment has to be utilized to finish up all important chores before the elections, so that afterwards it can be crystal clear who we are, what we are, what is our name, and who is the master in this Serbia of ours.” According to the Serbian nationalists “one can only master over people like Croats, but never cooperate and work with them in a common effort.” 19
Political consequences
Persecutions of Croats in the newly formed South Slavic state had the opposite effect from what the guardians of the state and of the regime intended. Instead of preserving the state, it undermined its very existence. The fact is that most of the Croats could not identify with the Yugoslav state from its beginning because the state itself and the Serbian centralist regime was imposed upon them. The persecutions that followed simply alienated them even further from the Serbs and the state. Those Croats (and even some Serbs from Croatia) who once worked for the unification of the South Slavs became quicky disillusioned with the state and joined the anti-centralists and even anti-Yugoslav elements. Influential individuals outside the country who promoted unification of the South Slavs before and during the First World War and used to raise their voices against mistreatment of the Serbs and others in the Habsburg empire suddenly fell silent. Instead of condemning the use of terror and pressuring the regime to reform the country, they often blamed the victims. As a result, Croats increasingly felt more isolated in their desperate need for human and national rights.
The persecutions also helped to politicize and homogenize the Croatian nation, especially the rural population. Terror became a catalyst in crystalizing Croatian goals for nationhood. If there was confusion toward the end of World War I about which road to take, it became clear that Yugoslavia was not the answer. Elections clearly indicated that the Croats wanted a federalist republic as a minimum and an independent state of their own as maximum. As the terror against Croats increased, so did their demands escalate along with increasingly radical means to achieve them.
Another important consequence of the terror was a break with Croatian political traditions and pluralism. The old institutions of Sabor (parliament) and Ban (viceroy) were abolished. The traditions of personal liberties, rule of law, and tolerance of religious and ethnic differences were greatly undermined. Reserves of national energy were used up in inevitably resisting the attempts at Serbianization. According to Serb expansionists, their need to crush any move toward Croatian national identity was necessary because Croats did not have a history or culture of their own, besides being of a servile nature meant to be obedient to others.
Croatians are usually depicted as the destroyers of both Yugoslavias. As a result, historians who would like to believe that Yugoslavia was a natural and positive historical development and the Serbs its true makers and defenders, ignore the persecutions of Croats and others,20 which in reality sealed the fate of the country from its very beginning. It is Serbian centralism, messianism, expansionism, and terrorism that eliminated even the possibility of a successful unification of the South Slavs.
The Yugoslav experiment tragically interrupted the historical continuity of the Croatian people. Experiences in that state had major negative effects on Croat political, economic, social, and cultural developments. The 1918-1990 period was another long and often bloody intermission in the centuries-long history of Croatia. However, the gap is bridged now, and the future of the Croats is in their own hands. It is up to them not to dwell in the past but to live up to the challenges of the present and the future.
1 Srbadija. The official organ of the Novi Sad Regional Committee of the SRNAO. February 7, 1925.
2 Narodne Novine. April 28, 1919. See also Rudolf Horvat, Hrvatska na mucilistu. Zagreb: Kulturno-Historijsko Drustvo “Hrvatski Rodoljub,” 1942, 81.
3 Vladimir Radic, Zlocin od 20. Lipnja i Medjunarodna Stampa. Paris: n.p., 1931, 22.
4 Dragoljub Jovanovic, Ljudi. Ljudi… Medaljoni 46 umrlih savremenika. Belgrade: D. Jovanovic, 1975, 65.
5 John I. Pintar, Four Years in Tito’s Hell. Buenos Aires: H.P.K.: 1954, 17.
6 Struggle. Translated by Louis Adamic with a Preface by the Translator. Los Angeles: Arthur Whipple, 1934,7.
7 Pravilo o cetnickoj vojni. Protolmacio iz’ pol’skoj sa n’kim prom’nama, izmetcima i dodasima Matija Ban. Belgrade, 1848.
8 Pobeda. August 4, 1921.
9 Vidovdan. May 30, 1925.
10 Politika. June 3, 1925.
11 Dobroslav Jevdjevic, Izabrani clanci. Novi Sad: Jovanovic & Bogdanov, 1925, 5.
12 Srpska rijec. December 13, 1924.
13 See Nusret Sehic, Cetnistvo u Bosni i Hercegovini (1918-1941). Sarajevo: ANUBiH, 1971, 68.
14 Ratnicki glasnik. 1922, 69. As in Berislav Gligorijevic, “Organizacija jugoslovenskih nacionalista (Orjuna).” Istorija XX veka. Vol. 5. Belgrade: Institute drustvenih nauka, 1963, 318.
15 Jugoslavija (Almanac of the Veterans’ Alliance). 1922, 153.
16 Narodna obrana. 1926, 10; Gligorijevic, Orjuna, 318.
17 T. Kazlerovic, Obznana. Beograd, 1952, 13; Statist. Beleske Ust. Skupstine, 1920-1921, I, 20; Gligorijevic, Orjuna, 320.
18 Jevdjevic, Izabrani clanci, 42.
19 Balkan. March 28, 1922.
20 See, for example, Alex N. Dragnich, The First Yugoslavia, Search for a Viable Political System. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.
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