A glutton for punishment, Saturday I took a Croatian Wars Walking Tour, beginning at Ban Jelacic Square. During the tour, our guide enlightened us about the “history of Zagreb and Croatia during times of conflict”. I was hoping this tour would help cure my hopeless bewilderment with Balkan conflicts, including the Yugoslavia communist era and Croatian Homeland War – ha!
The amount of information provided was dizzying. To be beneficial, tours like this require focus and research. They make you realize just how little you know about history outside your immediate experience. It’s humbling, but in a good way.
The tour helped fill gaps in my understanding of the complicated history of Yugoslav and Croatian wars. Our guide was one of the best communicators I’ve experienced in years of tours. Spoken in clear, simple English, the presentation was impressive. Her voice was strong enough that everyone in the group of about 15 could hear over street noise and other distractions. She summarized both sides of controversial issues that are rarely discussed.
“The Yugoslav critique of Stalinism and the concomitant elaboration of the Titoist model of self-managing socialism continue to bewilder observers East and West, as well as the Yugoslavs themselves.” Cambridge University Press Oskar Gruenwald
We visited Grič Tunnel but were unable to go inside. It was cordoned off until later that evening in preparation for Christmas Market kickoff celebrations. Built during World War II, Grič Tunnel functioned as both bomb shelter and promenade.
Communist Era and Croatian Homeland War
Later, we spent time in an underground tunnel / bomb shelter near Dolac Market. The tunnel houses an “interactive exhibition focusing on the Croatian Homeland War and the country’s relationships with neighboring nations”. We watched a short documentary that ended with the sad, heartbreaking interview of a young Croatian soldier during battle.
Although our guide was born and raised in Zagreb, her Bosnian father fought in wars there, so she was well-versed from both an academic and personal standpoint. Her presentation about Yugoslavia’s communist era and life under Tito covered much I didn’t know. and clarified misinformation. She said that Croatians have mixed opinions about Tito, viewing him as hero, villain, or somewhere in between the two. I’ve heard that before.
Timeline and Influences
Below is a short timeline of individuals, organizations, and occurrences that influenced the wars. It’s by no means a comprehensive account of what happened. The wars began in response to an oppressive Nazi government. Beginning in 1941, communism dominated Croatia for nearly 50 years. In 1971, nationalism began growing, and during the Croatian Spring, the people revolted.
Stjepan Radić 1904-1928 – co-founder of the Croatian People’s Peasant Party and known as one of the greatest Croatian politicians and organizers of the Croatian people
Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes 1918-1929 – one of several “independent nation states” that emerged after WWI
Kingdom of Yugoslavia 1929–1941 – a royal dictatorship imposed by Serbian King Alexander Karađorđević to “force national unification and stifle political opposition”
Ante Pavelić 1910-1959 – a rightist politician and chief of the Nazi Independent State of Croatia
Communist Party of Croatia 1937 – founded by Josip Broz Tito as part of a communist movement in Yugoslavia
Benito Mussolini 1940-1941 – led brutal battles between Italian fascists and Tito communists, especially for Croatian territory in Dalmatia and Istria, and inflicted radical racist acts against Jewish, Roma, and Serbian populations
Josip Broz Tito 1943-1980 – leader of the Communist Party of Yugoslav Partisans and in 1963, proclaimed “President of Yugoslavia for Life”
Ustaše 1941-1945 – led by Ante Pavelić, a Croatian fascist, ultranationalist organization founded to resist King Aleksandar I. Karađorđević who proclaimed Royal Dictatorship (known as the Six-January Dictatorship) over Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths
Hitler and the Independent State of Croatia 1941-1945 – during WWII, Hitler led Nazi Germany in an invasion of Yugoslavia, overtaking the entire country in just 11 days
Tito Anti-Fascist Movement Partisans 1942-1945 – an armed resistance movement led by Josip Broz Tito to combat Axis occupation during WWII
State Security Administration UDBA 1946 – WWII and Cold War secret police used for spying, intimidation, and terror against dissidents of the communist regime
Tito and Stalin Split 1948 – Josip Broz Tito splits with Joseph Stalin and Moscow “unwilling to give up his territorial and political ambitions in the Balkans” and accept Soviet control
Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) 1961 – a “forum of 120 countries not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc” established in Yugoslavia through an initiative of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito and still in existence today
Croatian Homeland War 1990-1995 – known as the Croatian War of Independence fought between “Croat forces loyal to the Government of Croatia, which declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA)”
Croatian Governments 1943 – Present
Croatia is soon to become part of the EU Schengen countries. Croatian governments from 1943-present include:
- Federal State of Croatia 1943-1945
- People’s Republic of Croatia 1946-1963
- Socialist Republic of Croatia 1963-1990
- Republic of Croatia 1990-1991
- Croatian Politics 1990-2000
- Republic of Croatia 2022 – President Zoran Milanović and Croatian Parliament with several political parties including the Croatian Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party
There’s a plethora of information available about these governments and wars and differing opinions on everything, including the future. Nothing compares to visiting foreign countries in person and experiencing them for yourself.
Vukovar Massacre 1991
The Battle of Vukovar, located in Slavonia, a region in northeast Croatia, was “one of the bloodiest battles on Croatian soil” and lasted 87 days. Thousands of the Croats and non-Serbs, “were sent to concentration camps and approximately 22,000 fled the area for their lives”.
The Vukovar massacre, also known as the Vukovar Hospital Massacre, is one of many horrific stories about the “killing of Croatian prisoners of war and civilians by Serb Paramilitaries“. In the final days of the battle, an evacuation of the Vukovar Hospital was negotiated between Croatian authorities and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA).
A group of Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, and Muslims who fought on the side of the Croatian National Guard were transported to a farm south of Vukovar. They were “beaten for several hours before the JNA pulled its troops from the site, leaving the prisoners in custody of the Croatian Serbs and Serbian Paramilitaries. The prisoners were taken to a prepared site, shot in groups of ten to twenty, and buried in a mass grave”.
The mass grave was discovered in 1992, and over 200 sets of remains were exhumed by an International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The ICTY convicted two JNA officers in connection with the massacre.
Former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was tried for a number of atrocious war crimes, including those at Vukovar. Before his trial was completed, Milošević died in prison.
In February 2015, the International Court of Justice ruled that the siege, massacre, and simultaneous atrocities committed elsewhere in Croatia did not constitute genocide.
This post touches on just a few historical points surrounding these complicated wars. Over the years, I’ve traveled to many Balkan countries and have my own opinions based on observations and personal experiences. Eastern and Central European countries visited include – Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovakia, and Slovenia, I’ve posted about these countries and spent extended time in each location, I don’t get into politics in posts, but with countries formerly a part of Yugoslavia, that’s almost impossible.
Ljubljana, Lake Bled, Plitvice Lakes, Rastoke
There’s still much to experience and explore in Zagreb, but over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking day trips to Ljubljana Slovenia, Lake Bled, Plitvice Lakes National Park, and the Croatian village of Rastoke. More later…
Yes, the aftermath of the war is clear. I was at Plitvice years, ago but it was summer, and we hiked around the lake. This will be a new experience. It’s just a day trip. On the way to Lake Bled today – hoping the weather holds!