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.
Goldstein appears as the central character in this study of the momentous year, 1941, when the Nazis ripped up Royal Yugoslavia, triggering a local civil war of unique brutality along the confessional fault lines of Europe’s imperial history.
The son of an esteemed Karlovac bookseller, Goldstein suddenly found himself the citizen of a fascist state that rapidly adopted the merciless anti-Semitism of its primary great-power sponsor, Germany. The Ustasha, as the Croat fascists were known, were already primed with genocidal urges towards their Serbian minority.
In well-translated elegant prose, the book reveals the events of 1941, which the author describes with photographic accuracy. He then starts to move back and forth between 1941 and 1991 while occasionally dipping into the communist period that separated the two wars. In doing this he explains how 1941 set relations between Serbs and Croats on a path that might one day lead the two peoples back to the tragedy they were trying so hard to escape.
Yet despite his presence as witness, actor and narrator, this is as objective a work of historical research as one may encounter. When Goldstein is trying to piece together who, for example, was responsible for his father’s arrest in Karlovac soon after the establishment of the NDH, he returns to other witnesses, to documents, to newspapers and to records to ensure that his memory is not be playing tricks.
Goldstein’s swift passage from childhood to adulthood (there was no space for adolescence) was defined by the realisation that his father, Ivo, was an early victim of Croatia’s medieval concentration-camp network.
Goldstein is typically modest about the exceptional courage he demonstrated in fleeing Karlovac and Kordun before eventually joining the communist partisan movement that of all the armed formations roaming around the devastated country tried hardest to prevent revenge killings.
After a career of more than 50 years as an editor, Goldstein has learned how to drift back and forth between the intimate, the local, the national and the international almost without the reader noticing it. In this way he is able to pinpoint the degree to which Croatia’s appallingly nasty fascist regime was rooted in local traditions and to what extent external forces acted as a handmaiden to the NDH’s butchery.
His wisdom and professional skills culminate in an extraordinary chapter called “A Tale of Two Villages”. Situated just over three kilometres apart, the first, Banski Kovacevac, is Catholic – that is to say Croatian – the second, Prkos, has an Orthodox population that is Serbian. Goldstein has been visiting both villages for more than 70 years, and he traces the history back to before the second World War.
Through the microhistory of several characters, some of whom he has known across those seven decades, he offers an explanation as to why men and women of good will and tolerant disposition will ultimately be crushed by the diabolical mischief of political manipulators, whether they are the Croat Pavelic, the dictator of the NDH, the Serb Miloševic in the 1980s and 1990s, or the German Hitler.
The cursed relationship of Banski Kovacevac and Prkos would be a moving story in itself (with Goldstein himself, as always, doing his utmost to find a way of reconciling the communities). But in 70 pages of a single chapter Goldstein reveals more about the history of Yugoslavia and about capitalism, fascism, communism and war in Europe in the 20th century than any other book I have read.