Tracing Europe’s historical fault line
Yugoslavia’s turbulent past is forensically examined in this masterful first-person history
1941: The Year That Keeps Returning
In the autumn of 1991 I drove across the front line in Croatia through a village called Turanj. A day earlier several dwellings there had been flattened by artillery rounds. The remaining walls, studded with the scars of machine-gun fire, enclosed interiors that had been burned to charcoal. Having stopped countless bullets, a pig and a cow were slowly decaying in puddles of congealed blood. This was the first time I had experienced the systematic destruction of the Yugoslav wars.
The impact of what I saw in Turanj, deeply unsettling and frightening in itself, was multiplied by the obvious fact that the devastation was palpably wanton. Over the next four years of war in the former Yugoslavia I would witness the consequences of many other examples of horrifying violence, but none has stayed with me as clearly as this first one.
Turanj is the northern gateway to the region of Kordun, one of the heartlands of the Vojna Krajina, or Military Border, established under the Habsburgs as the imperial front line facing the Ottoman Turks. The sultan’s forward base was but 100km south, just inside Bosnia.
Behind Turanj was the Habsburg equivalent: the fortified city of Karlovac, Christianity’s first line of defence against the military prowess of Islam’s most successful power.
Successive Catholic Habsburg emperors had peopled the Military Border with Orthodox Serbs, whose primary role was to police this frontier against the Turkish threat. And so Croatia had a large rural Serbian minority possessed of a significant military tradition, and herein lay one of the main sources of tension that led to war in 1991 and the eventual break-up of Yugoslavia.
When the country started collapsing in the early 1990s, Croatians did not want to be a minority in a Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, and Serbs did not want to be a minority in an independent Croatia. Given the history of bloodshed between the two communities half a century earlier, during the second World War, if this conundrum were to provoke armed conflict, it was likely to be very unpleasant.
Bent over a map
At the time
I learned most of what I knew about the Kordun region by spending two afternoons bent over a map with a charming acquaintance in Zagreb. Slavko Goldstein was a publisher with impeccable English and entirely fluent German who had been born into Karlovac’s small but prosperous and lively Jewish community in 1928.
The depth of his knowledge about Kordun, in particular what had happened there during the period of the fascist Independent State of Croatia (NDH), from 1941 to 1945, astonished me: his memory was uncanny, not just for names but also for the physical attributes and mannerisms of people, many having died decades before.
Likewise he could detail the fate of specific individuals or villages, or, indeed, the different ideological colouring of the various regions of the NDH (notably his intimate understanding of the nuances in local Serbian politics).
He was a bottomless mine of fascinating information, which as war escalated around us proved invaluable for my work as the BBC World Service’s Central Europe correspondent.
I was not surprised, therefore, that when his book 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning first landed on my desk I found it engaging. What I hadn’t anticipated was that this would be one of the finest books I have read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
It is hard to say whether this book is a memoir, an autobiography, a rigorous history or a work of political philosophy. It is in fact all those, and the sum is still greater than the parts.