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November 07, 2008

An authoritative history of a country made up almost entirely of border strips – and thus shaped by European geopolitics: Croatia Through History: The making of a European state - Branka Magas

Posted by Brendan Simms

Croatia Through History: The making of a European state
by Branka Magas
Pp. 743. London: Saqi, 2007
Hardback, £45

Imagine a country made up almost entirely of border strips. Croatia, as one map in Branka Magas's superlative new history shows, has a 241 km boundary with Serbia; shares 329 km with Hungary; 501km with Slovenia; and a 932 km frontier with Bosnia-Herzegovina; and that is before you look at the six-hundred kilometre Adriatic coastline. At the same time, the country is not much more than 150km broad at its widest extent. No wonder, therefore, that Magas tells us that Croatian history is largely the product of European "geopolitics".

In the early sixteenth-century, for example, Catholic Croatia became a European necessity. As Ottomans stood poised to overrun central Europe, it stood – as the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand remarked, "as a rampart and a living shield before our inner Austrian lands". The large numbers of castles and fortifications depicted in this beautifully illustrated book underline the point. So long as the Turks were at the gates, Croatia was grateful for Habsburg protection, and the Serb soldier-peasant immigrants who manned the "military border" were not a controversial issue.

As the Ottoman threat receded, tensions opened up between the Croats and their overbearing Hungarian neighbours, and with the Serb orthodox population. The growth of Italian nationalism and territorial demands on Dalmatia created a new front in the west and north-west. In order to meet these challenges, nineteenth century Croatian nationalists manned, as Magas expertly puts it, educational, linguistic and cultural "fortifications" in defence of their schools and language. By 1900, the country was, or believed itself to be, beleaguered on all sides by Italians, Hungarians, Serbs who sought a "Greater Serbia" and - most worryingly of all - the Germans, whose Drang nach Osten threatened to swamp the intervening Slav peoples.

It was for this reason that the Croats, along with the Slovenes, were so keen on the first Yugoslav state of 1918, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, because union with Serbia seemed to guarantee the only protection against Italian or German domination. But the shot-gun marriage with a Belgrade Serb elite which was much more interested in expansion towards Macedonia and the Aegean was not a happy one. In one particularly extreme incident three Croat deputies, including the legendary leader of the Croat peasants’ party Stjepan Radic, were shot dead by a Serb nationalist MP in the parliamentary chamber. Only in 1939 was a power-sharing agreement worked out.

Not long afterwards, however, royalist Yugoslavia disintegrated at the onslaught of Hitler's Germany in 1941, and was broken up into a congeries of occupation zones and puppet states.

One of these was the "New Independent State of Croatia" under Ante Pavelic. His fascist Ustashe movement unleashed a merciless campaign of genocide against the Serb Orthodox population under his control. "Kill a third, expel a third, convert a third", was the slogan. Here Pavelic was not merely indulging a pathological bloodlust, but mapping out a new geopolitical destiny for Croatia. As one ustashe paper argued,

it is sufficient to cast a cursory glance at the map to see that Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia are just the edges of historical Croatia, whose heart is Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The argument was that only control of Bosnia - which meant the elimination of the Serb majority population there - would give the state defensible borders.

As Branka Magas persuasively argues, Pavelic's regime was deeply unpopular, not only because of its atrocities but for its turn away from Dalmatia. To the horror of Croatian nationalist opinion, he surrendered the Adriatic coastline to Mussolini's Italy, his long-time sponsor. Tito's communist partisan movement, by contrast was able to articulate not only a much more inclusive vision, but was also an effective defender of the Croat national interest. The Italians were eventually chased not only out of their occupation zone, but had to surrender Istria - their booty from World War One - as well.

What held Tito's Yugoslavia together after 1945, and especially after the breach with Stalin in 1948, was the fear of Russian invasion. So long as that remained acute, Croatia snuggled up closely to the other Yugoslav Republics, and ethnic relations between Croats and Serbs within Croatia itself were subordinated to the primacy of foreign policy.

It is no accident for example, that the stirrings of nationalism during the "Croatian Spring" took place at a time of international détente, when east-west relations were improving. By contrast, Serbs and Croats closed ranks when Soviet power loomed large, as it did with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

It was the end of the Cold War under Gorbachev as much as the death of Tito in 1980 which loosened the bonds between Croatia and Yugoslavia, and put relations between Serbs and Croats within the republic back on the agenda. Even before Croatia declared her independence in the early summer of 1991, Serb militias sponsored by Belgrade had begun to partition the country.

Yet while Croatia's elite and much of public opinion looked west, towards "Europe", the new President, Franjo Tudjman, remained fixated, as Pavelic had been, on Bosnia. Thousands of Croat regulars were sent there, initially to fight the Serbs and then to assist local Croat militias in their struggle against the legitimate government in Sarajevo. Only military defeat and American diplomatic intervention forced Tudjman to abandon his annexationist dreams.

At the moment, Magas concludes, Croatia is firmly set on the path to integration into the European Union. It remains to be seen whether this will be end of the story, or is merely the latest in a long line of choices the Croats have come to regret. As the kaleidoscope is shaken once again by the Kosovan declaration of independence, Croatia may recall how little "Europe" did to help them in 1991.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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