Book review: Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on APril 8

IN THE early 1990s when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate and a brutal war broke out between Serbs and Bosnians, the international community’s focus was suddenly drawn to this diverse, intricate and historically complex corner of Europe. One phenomenon that this crisis produced was a renewed focus on the Holocaust. In some cases the Bosnian Muslims were presented as victims of a “new Holocaust,” and the Serbs as new perpetrators. In reaction “from the very beginning of the 1990s, the Serbs began a vivid memorial activity” for Holocaust victims, writes Jovan Culibrk, the author of a new study on historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia.

Book cover

Book cover

A renewed interest in the Holocaust took hold. This interest, especially in Serbia, faced an uphill battle against denial, distortions and years of official Communist versions. This new book is an attempt to understand how this history has been shaped and revealed.

Historiography is the study of the history of history. As such it lends itself to an academic audience, rather than a popular one. But it is an important topic. How do we understand the past? What narrative are we told to digest since childhood about history, about right and wrong, and winners and losers? In some countries this is not an easy subject. Whether it is the history of Armenians in Turkey or Palestinians in Israel, there are sometimes official histories that don’t want to accept multiple narratives. This also happened in the Balkans.

Culibrk, who grew up in what is now the Republic Serbska in Bosnia, is well-placed to provide a study on this subject. A paratrooper in the Yugoslav army, an Orthodox bishop and academic with a specialty in Holocaust studies, he has spoken at Yad Vashem many times and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He begins his story by arguing that the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s and the breakup of Yugoslavia led to an interest in the Holocaust – primarily as it fueled local political agendas. Even the former president of Croatia throughout the Balkan wars, Franjo Tudjman, was a historian who wrote a revisionist account of Croatia’s role during the Holocaust. “The vast amount of scholarship produced about the role of historiography in the recent Balkan conflict diverted attention of academia from historiography itself,” he writes. In so doing it marginalized the role of researchers who were interested in the Holocaust, rather than drawing parallels with the modern era.

Looking back today, the author notes that “the paradox is that the Yugoslav Jewish community experienced its peak between the two world wars.” Yugoslavia was a kingdom at that time, one that had been cobbled together in the aftermath of World War I. Yugoslavia was attacked by the Nazis on April 6, 1941, and the country was conquered within two weeks.

However from the beginning there was continual resistance by partisans against German occupation. But the story is not cut and dried. In Croatia, a Nazi-collaborating mini-state was set up and run by a fascist movement called Ustaše. In Serbia the brutality of the German suppression of the partisans led to the murder of some 500,000 Serbs, some of them at the hands of the Ustaše. The Holocaust perpetrated by the Germans and their collaborators was near total, with some 75 percent of the Jews murdered.

However, the history of this mass murder would not be fully investigated or told for decades. After World War II the partisan Communist movement of Josip Tito came to control Yugoslavia and the official history become Marxist dogma of viewing anti-Semitism as part of a “typical characteristic of imperialism.”

Furthermore “it was hard to use wartime sources, because no organization of the tiny Yugoslav Jewish community survived the initial blow in 1941.”

Official histories acknowledged persecution of the Jews but saw it as part of a general mass murder. Outside Yugoslavia, few expressed interest in looking at the history of the Holocaust there. In the 1970s one researcher noted that of 342 publications on various Nazi massacres of Jews, only one related to Yugoslavia during the war. Even retrieving basic information on the fate of Jewish communities took decades. The author relates how in September 1945 the Union of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia had dispatched a questionnaire to the survivors.

But the data that came back was incomplete.

In 1956 they tried again, and the Yugoslav Bureau of Statistics followed up that request in 1964. In 1988 Yad Vashem sent a request trying to catalogue names for a computer database. “It was then that the names of 40,906 known victims from 120 prewar communities were finally, if not fully, listed.”

In the late 1990s and in the last decade, research on the Holocaust has finally become more systematic and has escaped the burden of the history placed on it by the Balkan wars, the author shows. Focus has delved into various areas of the Holocaust.

For instance, one military historian, Jonathan Gumz, examined how the Wehrmacht officers of the German army responded to their experience in wartime Yugoslavia.

This short book is an interesting examination of a narrow topic that has implications for our understanding of the Holocaust in general. The Holocaust is not a factual monolith; it has different meanings in different places. In France and Austria there has been reluctance to discuss local collaboration. In some places, including Croatia, there was official denial. In many Communist states the Holocaust was seen for years as not specifically anti-Jewish. It is not easy to be free from these debates over history; some of which use the Holocaust for modern purposes, describing modern movements as “new Nazis” and “the new Jews.” Yugoslavia presents an interesting case study in this respect.

Historiography of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia

By Jovan Culibrk

University of Belgrade

2014, 215 pages

$30.00

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