Afterword to "The Krajina Chronicle"

By Michael M. Stenton
Friday, 17 Sep 2010

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The history of the Krajina and its people is not the history of a country, not even a vanished country. It is much bigger than the history of a province, however. It is an element in the story of most of the great wars in Europe from the Ottoman offensives after the fall of Constantinople to the last decade of the twentieth century.

The Western Balkans can be seen as a large upland hinterland of Adriatic coast, a hinterland connecting northern Greece, Albania, Montenegro, most of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. Vlachs had driven their livestock through this upland hinterland for centuries. Much of the land was remarkably inaccessible until recent times. It was beyond the rule of ancient and medieval states and was a refuge for rebels and resisters until recent times. It was an upland universe of contiguous, thinly-populated areas – historically not unlike the Scottish Highlands, but an order of magnitude larger. Into this almost stateless zone the Ottoman state pushed remorselessly in the 15th and 16th centuries, establishing its control of towns, valleys and fortresses, and offering new religion or new taxes to the new subjects. 

The Ottoman intrusion made the peoples of this upland realm both more mobile and more important. Of course, Christian peasants could submit and stay on the good land of the river valley that Ottoman commanders could seize and tax. By 1700 these settled peasants might, or might not, be recognisably Albanian, Serbian, Croatian. But the rest had upland options. Mountain air made a man free. More exactly, it offered a distinctive freedom to the head of an extended family of successful stock-herders. They were free from tax and free to move, free to buy and sell. There were freedoms for the young men who were fit enough, clever enough, and tough enough to keep moving and trading… and canny enough to pay one coin to officials whose office was to collect two. They were free of Ottoman beys and pashas and Croat-Hungarian magnates. Wherever they went they were accompanied by the Orthodox hedge priests who could endure their lifestyle, or – in fewer places – by the Franciscan brothers who matched their ability to serve the people.

What is usually known as the Habsburg Military Frontier, or the Vojna Krajina, was a long strip of territories which followed the Habsburg-Ottoman Border from the Adriatic coast at Senj, south of Istria, to the Pannonian plain north of Belgrade and thence into Transylvania. It was created in its essentials even before the Habsburg House of Austria took control of it in 1521-1526; it was settled with Christian refugees from Turkish conquest who received land for military service; and it lasted in one form or another until the Ottoman Empire lost Bosnia and Bulgaria in 1878. It was a political-military expedient which created a warlike, difficult settler population that was deliberately isolated from the other parts of Croatia and Hungary. The Border provided an effective riposte to Ottoman raiding because it developed its own system of raids, ransomes and plunder. It was indispensable before 1683, the second Ottoman siege of Vienna, and it was still necessary for at least another century. 

The customs and loyalties of the Vojna Krajina are reminiscent of the Anglo-Scottish Border before 1603, and they changed even more slowly. By Mozart’s time the Border had largely served its purpose as a barrier to Islamic expansion, but it lasted until the late nineteenth century because the military skills were still useful in Austria’s wars against France or Prussia. The history of Hungary-Croatia before 1914, and of Yugoslavia from 1918 until its demise in 1991-1995, are commentaries on the Border’s residual importance.

Tito, the Communist victor of the civil war of 1941-1945, might have made the Croatian Krajina – with the Bosanska Krajina on the Bosnian side of the Border – a homeland republic for the Western Serbs who provided the fighting core of his Partisan army, or at least an autonomous area. But he was a Croat, and he did neither. Franjo Tudjman, Tito's general who became anti-Communist president of Croatia, provoked the Krajina Serbs into their final passage of arms in 1991. The Republika Srpska Krajina was almost emptied when the Croatian Army, trained and assisted by the United States, secured control in 1995. The region had been no less deserted in the late 15th and early 16th century when the Border was put together.

There are said to be two views about ancient Balkan hatreds, one reprehensibly nationalist and the other pleasingly sane: that is, antipathy is either age-old or it is factitious and modern. The first view discerns a contest that is endemic and, for good measure, incorrigible. But this opinion need not detain us.

The pleasingly sane view is that Croatia and Serbia began to quarrel in 1918, when they quarrelled within and about the new Yugoslavia without which they would have had nothing to quarrel about. In a narrow sense this view is true of pre-1914 Serbia. It is not, however, true of all Serbs, and it is not true of Croatia. One may indeed refuse to accept that any conflict is immutable, still less genetic, ineradicable, essential or, more recently, ‘anthropo-geographical.’ But, on the territory of today’s Croatia, there is a Serb-Croat quarrel which happens to be rather old. It is certainly not modern in origin: Croatian hostility to the Military Border can be traced back at least to the early 17th century. Iit became worse, not better, with time and ended up by infecting Yugoslav politics. It is a long story. Indeed, had there not been a pre-existing Serb-Croat problem in Croatia, Yugoslavia might even have been a success story. The longevity of the ‘hatred’ – an unsuitably narrow term – is neither ‘ancient’ (it was unknown before the early modern era) nor modern. It was an outcome of the Ottoman conquest which pushed people around so violently that the trouble caused is still not exhausted. The nationalist malefactors of the Romantic era and afterwards did have material to work on.

Nevertheless, with sufficient perspective, it is difficult not to see the Serbo-Croat quarrel as belonging to a civilizational divide lying where it is commonly supposed to lie. As late as 1915, Admiral Troubridge, commanding His Britannic Majesty’s guns at Belgrade, could write ‘Europeans,’ meaning a set of peoples none of whom lived in the Balkans. In his approval of Serbian courage and patriotism and in his disapproval of Serbian foolishness there is more than prejudice, irritation, or even accurate observation; there is a steady, adult recognition of an Other which is encountered as much as constructed.  

In Zagreb there were people who felt the same but in a more pointed way: the Croats were perhaps Slavic, certainly European, while the other Slavs, those defined by Orthodox faith, were something else. In Britain and America, the Irish were once spoken of in like fashion though the words used were different. The now conventional or fashionable labels for this perception – anti-Catholic bigotry or racial prejudice – say too much and too little. The term more to the point is civilizational. The English and their cousins had strong patterns of life and expectation which could assimilate some foreign differences with equanimity, but experienced other differences with allergic shock. Now that the Irish are assimilated – even, it seems, in Ireland – the Anglo-Saxons (race was evident, but was not what mattered) can affirm modern virtue by renouncing old prejudice. 

This was roughly what Yugoslavia was meant to make possible. Assimilation would remake a people. There might be a mutual confession of sins: in a fraternal, unified context, sophisticated, modern South Slavs would laugh at their former selves. A racial-linguistic unity would restore a unity that the empires, or perhaps the Churches, had pulled asunder. There were three attempts at Yugoslav oneness: the first during part of King Alexander’s reign between the wars; the second being the imposition of communist anti-nationalism after the Partisan revolution; and the third in the era of devolved power just before (1974-1980) and just after Tito’s death. The first was brief, the second was cancelled and replaced by the third.

Some observers will always feel that it was only the precise political frame of Yugoslavia that failed – because it was never settled, never quite right, not democratic in time – but that the Yugoslav formula itself was sound. (If so, Yugoslavia would remain an option for the distant future.) But Yugoslavia ‘as history’ did not achieve enough assimilation to subvert the past. Ireland may have been assimilated, but it was despite her best intentions. It was not assimilated to anything political until the European Union appeared as a non-British vehicle for assimilation. Irish nationality won the contest with Britain, after a fashion, and so came in the end to accept the loss of what was irretrievably lost – her language and her customary law.

In another continent and another context it may be said that Pakistan needs India to define itself: India does not. Indeed, it is the knowledge, in Pakistan, that India could envisage herself perfectly well without even thinking of Pakistan that feeds the extremely dangerous, neurotic Pakistani apprehension that India intends to find a way to actualize the assumption of absence. Croatia, Dr. Trikovic suggests, was for a long time in an analogous position. Croatia was not, of course, as sudden a concoction. But Croatia felt internally threatened and attracted by Serbia, while Serbia could be, more or less, cheerfully indifferent to Croatia.

Croatia, with its former Military Border, was burdened and blessed with a Serb population which had a different nationality, and this formed a Serbian Question which became a preoccupation bordering on obsession. Before 1914, by contrast, Serbia had no Croatian Question. This imbalance in Serb-Croat relations counted for as much as the various flavors of ideological nationalism. The Military Border explains how and why this is so.  

In the 19th century both Serbs and Croats made, from time to time, exaggerated and impossible territorial claims. But the Serbians did have a substantial population of fellow Serbs living on Croatian territory. Once the Habsburg empire collapsed Serbia could not be expected to ignore Bosnia with its Serb plurality, or the Vojvodina with its Serb majority; or to ignore the question of how much of the Krajina could or should be taken as Serbia’s national territory. Yugoslavia became the only way to prevent Serbia from taking its pick of former South Slav lands. To this extent, Yugoslavia was a Croatian political choice, however painful, which cannot be explained at all without the Krajina and Croatia’s Serbian Question.

Croatia clung to its Austro-Hungarian status and helped to defeat radical reconstruction after 1848. Serbia grew from a cluster of rebel counties in the pashalik of Belgrade; it survived on its wits until the two empires started to topple and presented inevitable problems. Little Serbia, before 1912, was confident about its power to assimilate new popultions – rightly and wrongly confident. Serbian expansion 1804-1878 had been growth from a micro-state to a small state. It had been limited and assimilation had been largely confined to Serbs. But over-reach was already evident in 1912-1913. Macedonian gains were maximized, and Bulgaria recruited as a permanent enemy, to ‘compensate’ for the Austrian refusal to allow Serbia to take northern Albania. The principle here was not language, religion or good sense, it was prestige and a crude conception of power.

Croatia in the nineteenth century was bound more tightly to Budapest then at any time since the Pacta Conventa of the early 12th century. Its struggle was political and legal. Until the late 19th century it could no more to annex Dalmatia than Serbia could touch Syrmia. Croatia was, in a sense, pessimistic about its Serbs of the Military Frontier – long before 1914 – and it needed stiff doses of national ideology to suppress the doubts. Some potions were Yugoslavist (there was a good deal of pan-Slav or Serb-Croat co-operation in Dalmatia), but others were concocted from theorized refusals to accept that the Serbs were really Serbs; or even if they were, that they could or should be allowed to remain Serbs. 

In Yugoslavia no one could win. Even if Croatia had made the Yugoslav state after 1918 – if, that is, Serbo-Croatia could have been designed just as R.W. Seton-Watson would have wished – it is doubtful if Serbia, with a confident personality at its zenith, could have been assimilated quickly enough to make any integrated Yugoslav system work. Croatia, as small as it was (or might be), and with all the disadvantages of having fought loyally for the wrong side in 1914-1918, could neither assimilate not be assimilated. Serbia, though bigger, was poor and bled white by warfare and disease. It was not rich enough or strong enough or attractive enough to assimilate Croatia with its a more developed economy and sense of ‘millenium-long’ (tisućletna) civilizational superiority. This was not an accident of Croatian politics nor a mere curlicue of vile ideology, it was something inevitable. It was an aspect of what Croatia belonged to by instinct and encounter – however embedded in dreary conceit and nationalist artifice. Only statesmanship and sympathy or a very high order could have solved the problems. 

If, as nearly happened, Serbia had been taken from the Ottomans by the Habsburgs after 1688 and assimilated, Balkan history and the story of modern Europe would have been different. To say the First World War could not have started as it did, would be both true and absurd. All the decisions about South Slav borders would have been Viennese, and Vienna would have had an even stronger motive to see beyond the fatal ‘Austro-Hungarian’ experiment of 1867. South Slav politicians, if necessary, might have managed the situation better and got straight down to bargaining about essentials: about borders. No territorial adjudication or dispensation is a certain solution when it takes place; but it puts down roots if it lasts, and fortune can help it to last – as the twenty aggrieved societies of the German Bund der Vertriebenen (League of the Expelled) know to their cost. Without a geographically defined Serbia and Croatia – amongst other states and territories – there could be no safe and stable Habsburg empire. The same would be true of any West Balkan successor state.

Serbia and Croatia, as this book shows, are not naturally equal. That the Serbs were more numerous, that the Croats were better technicians, that Belgrade may have been more dynamic and cosmopolitan than Zagreb, are minor points in this inequality. That the Croats had more Latin and less Greek is more relevant. What Croatia was part of in 1914 is evident; but what Serbia was to become was not. The Italo-Byzantine renaissance that could be glimpsed in the Serbian medieval monarchy could not be recovered. Having rejected the Turks and Islam, Serbia needed a new paradigm. There did not have to be a dramatic alliance or political-constitutional act driving this assimilation, however. Simply surviving quietly, doing business, running schools, sending students abroad, without any grand gestures at all, would have been an eminently feasible option.  

A federal Balkan state of Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and (perhaps) Greece was already a lost cause by 1914. Without Constantinople it lacked any meaningful centre, and Constantinople, though as magical as ever, was already too Turkish and still much too poor to be effective as a capital of a resurrected Christian monarchy. (The Allies occupied the City in 1919 but they did not know what to do with it and distrusted each other too badly to form an intention, civilized or not. It was secured on behalf of a secularized Turkey.) The entire south Balkan space, without an industrial base, lacked strength. Russia, though powerful at moments, was never as present in the Balkans as feared in the West, and it was in any case excluded by Bolshevism 1917-1941.

Serbia lacked a civilizational hinterland strong enough to serve the Yugoslav project. The trend of her assimilation was westwards; after its enlargement in 1912-1913 Serbia had just enough cultural resources and identity for itself, but not for something much bigger. After the killing of King Aleksandar Obrenović in 1903 and after the display of Serbian anger at the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the rejection of Serbia by Vienna was understandable; but it was mistaken as well as ill-fated. Whether Vienna was exceptionally foolish is another matter. There are few countries in Europe that were not wounded and shrivelled by blunders in the suicidal war of 1914.

Serbia in 1918 was expected to make further contact with ‘Europe,’ and found that Yugoslavia was the recommended vehicle for this contact. In the inter-war years, however, it was Serbia’s misfortune, as manager of the Yugoslav project, that Europe was economically inert. There was, of course, a possible Soviet assimilation available in 1945, but it was almost immediately rejected by Yugoslavia. Elsewhere it was infertile even when it could not be rejected. The European Union is the recommended vehicle today, and Serbia – resembling Croatia in 1918, albeit arguably on worse terms – desires membership as much to deflect harm as for any other reason.

A Serbian Yugoslavia, without Croatia-Slavonia, was possible in 1918, but seemed reckless. It might still have been too big for its own good. But the difficulties would have been far fewer and slower to mature. In the event, Croatia was incorporated by consent of a kind. Once inside it was technically, and morally, very difficult for Serbian politicians to renounce the Serbs (or Serbians) of Srem, Slavonia, Croatia and Dalmatia: the former Vojna Krajina. It is unfair to dismiss Yugoslavia as a mere pretext for ‘Greater Serbia.’ But Velika Srbija, once contained in the Yugoslav box, made it equally difficult to deal with Croatia. The Krajina Serbs had been granted something they could scarcely dream of before 1914. Their former ‘regiments’ had become a set of Yugoslav constituencies, as well as a measure of Serbian national achievement. Both combined to postpone Croatian autonomy between the wars, and then react against its various geopolitical forms in 1939-45 and 1991-95.

No Yugoslav people was likely to demand less than something close to its full territory. The Serbs were trapped into an appearance of responsibility for what was as much imposed on them as it was on others. Yugoslavia was a country desired by the few, not the many. It would have been possible, before 1914, on Austrian terms if Vienna had felt able to break with Hungarian privileges. But Vienna refused to base its imperial survival on the loyalty of South Slavs and therefore, in a sense, chose to be afraid of little Serbia. The one province that pre-1908 Serbia wanted above all was Bosnia, which had then a Serbian plurality. If ever Bosnia were gained, it would bring the Serbian state right up to the entire length of the old Military Frontier. Fear of this outcome tempted Austria to war; its imminence drew Croatia into Yugoslavia.

Having made Yugoslavia the Serbs had to re-imagine Serbia, but they did not since it seemed not to be strictly necessary. Having failed to make Croatia before 1914, the Croats had to contribute to the raw Yugoslavia that Serbia had delivered, and had to imagine a viable compromise. But the repertoire of national demands was already well established before 1914: Croatian rule in the Military Border and the annexation of Dalmatia. Furthermore, most Croats who liked the Yugoslav ideal saw Zagreb as the capital of a South-Slavia of former Habsburg lands which would include Bosnia and Vojvodina. Serbia’s role would be to applaud and assist. If there was in 1918 an outcome as implausible as this, it was an undifferentiated Yugoslavia with all ambitions renounced.

Yugoslav solidarity did have its moments. It defended Dalmatia and Istria against Italy and Slovenia against Austria. But in the long term, it was the price Serbia paid for her short time attempting the impossible. Royal Yugoslavia did not create any sort of Serbia, great or small, and Communist Yugoslavia was founded on the Communist Party doctrine that ‘greater-Serbian nationalism’ was the glue that must not hold the state together. For Croatia, Yugoslavia was, in 1918 and again in 1945, the least unpromising shelter from the storm of defeat. Twice, the Serbs as Yugoslavs saved the Croats from paying the full price of choosing the wrong side in a great war. But it was impossible to repay the kindness without betraying the national purpose that the kindness protected. Some Serbs saw this, but after the fatal months in 1918-1919 the die was cast and tragedy made probable.

Geopolitics has explanatory force. Croatia, whatever its quarrels with Hungarians and Austrian Germans before 1914, could not be kept inside Yugoslavia if Hungary and Germany were there to help her get out again. The pull of the North was irresistible once Magyar cupidity and German weakness were past. Germany was too weak to help in 1919-1933, and unwilling to do so in 1933-1941, but in April 1941 the Magyars and Germans plunged into Yugoslavia to a roar of approval in Zagreb. Between 1945 and 1989 the Cold War imposed a new set of restraints, but in 1991 in they went again. Weapons were smuggled across the Hungarian border. Danke Deutschland was the response from Zagreb for the heavyweight push for recognition of Croatia’s secession that shocked Europe as well, it is said, as the German diplomatic service. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was not the Austrian corporal’s revenant, and his motives were different. But motives are not the point. Events would have placed a similar temptation in the way of almost any conceivable German state, whether in the 1940s or the 1990s. Hitler’s specific wartime motive and Kohl’s sudden susceptibility to the Bund der Vertriebenen cannot disguise the gravitational likelihood of the Croatian apple falling off the Yugoslav tree whenever it was shaken. Linguistic affinitude is not enough to make a people or even, very much, an opportunity for a people, although the splutter of success in Italy did look like a winning formula.

This book is an attempt to bring together in one short volume episodes of European and South Slav history which are known of, when recalled at all, only in fragmentary form. At its heart is a story of political-religious toleration which created something and then stopped, leaving a half-tolerated zone of rivalry as a dangerous bequest to modern times.

The history of the Krajina and its people is not the history of a country, not even a vanished country. It is much bigger than the history of a province, however. It is an element in the story of most of the great wars in Europe from the Ottoman offensives after the fall of Constantinople to the last decade of the twentieth century.


Dr. Stenton is a lecturer at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and the author of Radio London and Resistance in Occupied Europe: British Political Warfare 1939-1943 (Oxford University Press, 2000)