The Construction of Croat Identity in Herzegovina


In the 25 December 2009 issue, the cover of Croatia’s popular news weekly Globus featured a dramatic cover on the eve of the first round of presidential elections; the headline Hercegovina odlučuje (Herzegovina Decides) was superimposed over the portraits of four of the leading candidates. The stereotypes, urban legends, and conspiracy theories of the infiltration of a “Herzegovinian lobby“ into Croatian politics, prevalent during the war years and hard-handed rule of President Franjo Tuđman in the 1990s, were once again a part of the political discourse in Croatia. In fact, the media hype surrounding the second round of elections (between the candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Ivo Josipović, and independent Milan Bandić) portrayed the elections as a referendum between a civilized, European Croatia and a backwards, nationalist Croatia as allegedly embodied by (western) Herzegovina, the largely Croat-inhabited part of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). Even though he lost the election, Bandić did win over 90% of the votes in Bosnia-Herzegovina on a platform of anti-communism that specifically targeted the Bosnian Croat population, which potentially could have affected the will of the voters actually living in Croatia had the Diaspora electorate been more numerous.
The presidential campaign brought the issue of Croatia’s relationship with Croats living in neighboring countries, and their role in Croatian politics, to the forefront after nearly a decade of different policies vis-à-vis BiH following the death of Tuđman in 1999. The reality is that Croatia's relationship with Bosnian Croats, especially those in Herzegovina, existed long before Tuđman and has continued to be a part of contemporary Croatian political life after his death. However, Tuđman's widely criticized politics towards BiH, his support of the Herceg-Bosna parastate and the war crimes committed by some of its armed units, and the influence of individuals from Herzegovina in his inner circle embittered many in Croatia towards the Herzegovina Croats. But considering the construction of Croat identity in BiH and the history of the Catholic population in this multiethnic and multiconfessional country, the close ties between western Herzegovina and Croatia should not be surprising. Yet the fragmentation of empires and two attempts at creating a common South Slavic state in the twentieth century has left a Croat population in BiH separated from Croatia by an international border. The legacy of the traumatic twentieth century and the ongoing political crises in BiH affect the fate of Croats in Herzegovina and their ability to cooperate with Sarajevo, and not rely on leadership from Zagreb.
This article is not a comprehensive attempt to explore all aspects of Croat identity in Herzegovina, nor is it an exhaustive overview of the political influence of individuals from Herzegovina in Croatia in the last two decades. It would be impossible to fully delve into detailed case studies of key cities and towns such as Mostar, Ljubuški, Široki Brijeg, Stolac, Međugorje, Grude, Tomislavgrad, Livno, and others that define the tapestry of Herzegovinian reality. Rather, I intend to scratch the surface of some key historical turning points that have shaped the construction of Croat identity in Herzegovina, the relationship between states and national feelings, and how those factors have affected the participation of Herzegovina Croats in contemporary Croatia, both at the highest levels of state power and at the level of the average voter. These observations are merely the first step in identifying certain areas where field research and a systematic examination of available archival material can help to unravel the complexities of this, in the words of Bosnian Croat author Ivan Lovrenović, “European-Oriental microculture.“

Historical and Religious Foundations
Ethno-national identity, despite the rhetoric of politicians and ideologues who seek to exploit it, is fluid and multilayered, and co-exists with a plurality of other local, cultural, sexual, and countless other identities in each person. It is shaped by countless historical events, and the choices made by groups or even key individuals can dramatically change how subsequent generations come to perceive what exactly national belonging means. Historian John Hutchinson has made the distinction between political nationalism, which seeks to mobilize a political constituency in securing a representative state, and cultural nationalism, which subscribes to the notion that “nations are not just political units but organic beings, living personalities, whose individuality must be cherished by their members in all manifestations“ (122). In the case of BiH, the nationalisms of its peoples tends towards the latter, explaining why ethno-national identity has not corresponded with distinct political units but communities that transcend existing borders. The histories of the Balkans and Central Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are characterized by repeated attempts to form homogenous nation-states out of empires and multinational states, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was often in the midst of these nationalist projects.
The “national question“ clearly dominated the political developments in the Yugoslav states that existed in the twentieth century (1918–1941, 1945–1991), and BiH, with its three largest ethnic groups (Croats, Serbs, and Muslims/Bosniaks), was often at the heart of the struggles between Zagreb and Belgrade. In his landmark study on the national question in Yugoslavia, Ivo Banac notes that “nations are…defined by cultural criteria, a set of characteristics which here also includes a peculiar historical consciousness, emotional allegiance, as well as earmarks of institutional and, in certain cases, religious separateness“ (24). A staggering amount of both Western and local scholarship has tackled the issue of nationalism in BiH and Yugoslavia in the last three decades, especially after communist Yugoslavia disintegrated into bloody ethnic conflict in the 1990s, a discussion of which could easily take up several articles. So rather than analyze all of the various theories of ethnic and national identity, I will concentrate on a few aspects which seem particularly relevant to the Croat identity in Herzegovina. The work of two Bosnian Croat authors, the abovementioned Lovrenović and Jure Krišto, provide contrasting arguments and interpretations on practically all issues related to Croats in BiH, and will serve as reference points throughout this article.[1]
According to Banac’s definition, religious separateness is one of the characteristics of national identity, and in the case of BiH, this is perhaps the primary one. As Vjekoslav Perica asserts in Balkan Idols, “the major religious institutions worked together with modern secular nationalistic intellectuals on the task of creating the nations and nationalities of Yugoslavia by means of mythmaking, linguist efforts, commemorations, and holidays and through the creation of ‘national saints’ and calculations involving memory and history“ (6). The relatively compact ethnic identity of the medieval Bosnian kingdom would fragment into multiple and distinct religious, and then national, identities during the course of conquests and struggles between empires that lasted for centuries. Lovrenović explains that “religious and confessional divisions…are the dominant characteristic of the entirety of Bosnian history and social reality for the last five centuries, and they – not linguistic, ethnic, cultural, or any other criteria – lie in the very foundation of all group identification differences among the population of this country“ (121).
For Bosnian Croats, and especially those in western Herzegovina, religion and collective, or cultural, memory play the most prominent roles in their identity, which, as will be seen later, inevitably have drawn them into the political life of Croatia. And it has not been a one way relationship. For as often as irredentist claims on BiH have come from Zagreb, there have been frequent aspirations from Herzegovina to join with Croatia in opposition to the majority opinion in the perceived homeland.[2]
Most scholars agree that it was the Franciscans, sent by Rome to challenge the Bosnian Church in the 14th century, who formed Croat identity in BiH. Marko Attila Hoare argues that the “Franciscan friaries were the only institution that represented a cultural continuity between Bosnia before and after the Ottoman conquest“ (58). The first Franciscans arrived in 1291, and in 1339–1340 the Pope established the Vicariat of Bosnia, known as Bosna Srebrena. The Franciscans continued to be the spiritual leaders of Bosnia’s Catholic population after the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century, and under the millet system they took on even more important roles as the political representatives of Catholic communities (Lovrenović 145). Whereas a significant portion of the indigenous population converted to Islam, the Serbian Orthodox Church preserved the memory of the Serbian medieval kingdom (likewise conquered by the Ottoman Empire) and the Bosnian Catholics gradually gravitated towards a Croat identity. Since the Catholic Church in Bosnia had no direct ties with the medieval Croatian state, the adoption of a Croat identity by Bosnian Catholics was a slower process than that of the Bosnian Orthodox population, who became Bosnian Serbs (Hoare Bosnia 61).
Although the Franciscans were able to expand under Ottoman rule, establishing monasteries throughout the Vilayet of Bosnia, they were always considered to be somewhat of a suspect element since their religious leaders were in Rome and Vienna, centers of the Ottoman Empire’s enemies. Not surprisingly, Bosnia’s Catholics, second class citizens under the Islamic Ottomans, gravitated to the West (in particular to Croats living in the Habsburg Empire) for not only religious guidance, but intellectual, political, cultural, and economic exchange. Ottoman Bosnia was a place of overlapping Western European, Byzantine, and Islamic spheres, which Lovrenović asserts is a fundamental part, and specific to, Bosnian identity, regardless of confessional differences (7). Krišto, while recognizing that there existed a feeling of being Bosnian, nevertheless believes that the sense of belonging to one of these “spheres of civilization“ was equal if not greater than that of a Bosnian state, which was effectively destroyed in the 15th century (21).
In 1735, the Vatican created an apostolic vicarage, led by Franciscan bishops, in Bosnia that extended into parts of Croatia, Dalmatia, and Hungary, but after 1757 its territory was reduced to lands south of the River Sava. In the mid-19th century, the Franciscans in Bosnia were divided after what Lovrenović coined the “Barišić Affair,“ when a separate Herzegovinian apostolic vicarage was established by Rome in 1847.[3] Further divisions in Bosnia’s Catholic community occurred in 1881 with the arrival of the regular Catholic Church hierarchy into Bosnia following the creation of the Archbishopric of Sarajevo (Vrhbosna), representing “an alien Episcopal authority over Bosnian Catholics“ (Hoare Bosnia 78). Not only were Bosnians Franciscans divided internally with a second center in Herzegovina, but the arrival of Catholic clergy cemented the ties with the Church in Zagreb.

The Politicization of Identity
Parallel to the religious changes among Bosnia’s Catholics, dramatic political changes in the second half of the 19th century would have a lasting effect on the national identities of the region’s inhabitants. In the aftermath of the Bosnian Uprising (1875–1878) and Russo-Turkish War, Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia under the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin. Austria-Hungary added “Herzegovina“ to the name Bosnia-Herzegovina, and completely annexed BiH on 5 October 1908, which was widely supported by Catholics but met with protests from the Orthodox and Muslim populations. The occupation of BiH in 1878 is perhaps one of the most important moments for the purpose of examining the relationship of Herzegovina’s Croats with Zagreb. This pivotal event marked the continuous unification of Catholics in BiH with Croats in Croatia proper; for the next 113 years Herzegovina was in the same state as the majority of other Croats, whether it was Austria-Hungary (1878–1918), the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918–1941), the Independent State of Croatia (1941–1945), or socialist Yugoslavia (1945–1991).
The absorption by the Habsburgs represented not only the modernization of BiH, but greatly accelerated the creation of a Bosnian Croat identity. For Catholics in Herzegovina, this period cemented the ties with Croatia and fulfilled their aspirations of being part of the western European sphere of civilization. It was logical that Herzegovinians would gravitate towards Zagreb for educational, religious, economic, and political reasons, while still retaining the specific elements of Bosnian identity noted by Lovrenović. Serb, Croat, and Muslim political parties developed in the late 1800s, further reinforcing religious and national differences, but still within the context of BiH. The Vatican preferred to support Bosnian Catholics through the newly established archbishopric and the “aggressively Catholic“ Archbishop Josip Stadler over the politically unreliable Franciscans, who had been so vital for preserving the Catholic traditions during the long period of Ottoman rule. The period during which Stadler served as the Archbishop of Vrhbosna (1881–1918) coincided with the development of the Bosnian Croat movement, notably because of Stadler’s association of Catholicism with “all-Croat“ (svehrvatksi) identity (Lovrenović 155).[4] The fact that the Catholic community in BiH was the numerically smaller than the Orthodox and Muslim ones meant that the clergy increasingly saw advantages in drawing closer to the nation-building project of Croatian nationalists (Biondich 137).
The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after defeat in World War One and the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (subsequently the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) shifted power away from the capitals of Vienna and Budapest to Belgrade. Moreover, the Catholic Church in Croatia was no longer part of a Catholic empire, but subordinate in a kingdom with a Serbian monarch who favored the Serbian Orthodox Church. Idealized visions of a common South Slavic state were quickly dashed by the reality of the new state, in which a new “Yugoslav“ identity was unsuccessfully forced upon a population with already reified national identities.[5] The “national question“ paralyzed the functioning of a normal political system and poisoned relations between Serbs and Croats, as well as between other groups, to the point that the royal dictatorship declared in 1929 merely fomented the growth of radical right- and left-wing organizations seeking fascist intervention or communist revolution. In the Dalmatian hinterland and Herzegovina, the political frustration was compounded by the global economic crisis and a disastrous drought in 1935 which further radicalized and polarized the population (I. Goldstein 115–116). For example, not only did a large number of extreme nationalist Ustaše come from Imotski,[6] a Croatian town bordering Herzegovina, but fifty-eight men from there fought in the communist-led International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (“Dalmatinci“ 9).[7] Belgrade’s price controls and monopolization of tobacco production in the 1920s also contributed to resistance and hatred of the Yugoslav regime, most often in the form of organized smuggling operations and subsequent repression by the authorities (Ćorić 102–106).[8]
The main Croatian party seeking a political solution to the national question was the Croatian Peasant Party, led by Stjepan Radić until his assassination in 1928 and afterwards by Vladko Maček. By the 1920s, and especially by the mid-1930s, the Peasant Party eclipsed all of the other traditional Croatian parties and represented more of a national movement than a party with narrower interests. The Peasant Party extended its influence into BiH, and as Hoare notes, “the absorption of the Bosnian Croat electorate by the Croatian Peasant Party by 1923 marked the end of a distinct Bosnian Croat political line“ (145). Whereas the 19th century witnessed the religious ties between Croatia and the Catholics in Bosnia acting as the main transmitters of national identity, in the 20th century this transmission of the Croatian “nation“ shifted into the political sphere. According to Max Weber,
In so far as there is a common object lying being the obviously ambiguous term ‘nation,’ it is apparently located in the field of politics. One might well define the concept of a nation in the following way: a nation is a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own; hence, a nation is a community which normally tends to produce a state of its own (25).
Croatian politics had long functioned within the context of multinational states, but the factions demanding independence at all costs, including the use of violence and terror, grew throughout the interwar period in response to the unrelenting repression of the Yugoslav regime. Both the regime in Belgrade and the Peasant Party leadership excluded Bosnian Croats, especially in western Herzegovina, from power, further radicalizing them.
Although the Croats in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were unsatisfied with the existing political system, the political elites had different opinions regarding whether a reorganization of the Yugoslav state would be sufficient or if the creation of an independent nation-state was the only solution for the national question. Proposals for a federal Yugoslavia would have created several units based on historical borders, in which case a distinct BiH would exist with all three national groups sharing power. This concept was essentially adopted by the communists and forms the basis of today’s independent Bosnian state. The other extreme, from the Croatian nationalist point of view, was the absorption of BiH in its entirety by Croatia, the so-called “border on the River Drina“ option eventually implemented by the pro-fascist Ustaša movement from 1941–1945. Ante Starčević, a 19th century Croatian politician hailed as the “Father of the Homeland,“ had viewed Bosnia’s Muslim population as Islamic Croats and therefore legitimately a part of the Croatian nation, a belief shared by Ustaša leader Ante Pavelić and hardline Croatian nationalists in the 1990s (Banac 363–364). The third conceptual framework for resolving the national question was a compromise falling short of a large, independent Croatian state but annexing Herzegovina into an autonomous Croatian unit, the Banovina Hrvatska negotiated in 1939. Although Tuđman and his advisers from Herzegovina essentially pursued this option in the 1990s, this solution was widely criticized at the time of its implementation by Serbs (who demanded a Serbian Banovina), nationalist Croats (who wanted full independence), and Muslins (who were ignored in the negotiations and were divided up between the remaining administrative units). The Banovina Hrvatka solution also fragmented the Bosnian Croat community. Even though western Herzegovina’s population was 85% Croat, only a third of the Bosnian Croat population lived there, the rest scattered across other parts of BiH (Gagnon 161).
The Banovina Hrvatska did not last long enough to disprove its critics; the invasion by the Axis in April 1941 swept away the first Yugoslavia and enabled a marginal terrorist group of extreme Croatian nationalists, the Ustaše, to come to power supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Pavelić (from Bradina near Konjic) and many of his closest associates were from Herzegovina, and the newly declared Independent State of Croatia absorbed BiH in its entirety, a fact emphasized by the new regime in order to stifle criticism that the Ustaše had been forced to cede large parts of Dalmatia to Italy. Despite the fact that Croatian nationalism had for centuries been closely tied with the Catholic Church, the Ustaše characterization of Muslims as “the flower of the Croatian nation“ meant Islamic culture and organizations flourished in Zagreb during World War Two (Hasanbegović 184). As in 1878 when BiH became part of Austria-Hungary, the majority of Bosnian Croats welcomed the new state. As Hoare has observed, “the Bosnian Croat sense of neglect by Zagreb [in the 1930s] and vulnerability in the face of the Serbs and Muslims paved the way for their turn towards the Ustaše in 1941“ (Hoare Bosnia 146).
The participation of so many Bosnian Croats, especially from western Herzegovina, in Pavelić’s criminal and ultimately self-destructive regime had lasting negative consequences for this community. Ustaše atrocities and reprisal massacres of Croat and Muslim civilians by extremist Serb Četniks ensured that the spiral of violence in Herzegovina would permanently scar the collective memory of all the peoples of this region. The communist-led Partisans would eventually grow into a truly multiethnic movement, but in the first few years of the war in BiH it was predominantly a Serb rebellion that did not immediately mobilize the Croat and Muslim populations, especially because the boundaries between Partisans, Četniks, and simple bandits was fluid in 1941 and 1942 (see Hoare Genocide). The prominent role of Serbs in the Partisan resistance meant that the top three posts in post-war BiH were held by Bosnian Serbs (Vojislav Kecmanović, Rodoljub Čolaković, and Đuro Pucar).
The role of the Church in western Herzegovina likewise affected how the communist regime, after the victory of the Partisan movement in 1945, would treat the defeated supporters of the Ustaše. As Mark Biondich has observed, “the most pro-Ustaša priests were for the most part the younger generation and those from Herzegovina, while the hierarchy and the orders based in Croatia and Bosnia were more reserved,“ adding that the Catholic Church in the Independent State of Croatia was not as monolithic an institution as the subsequent communist historiography has claimed (157–158). Some members of the Catholic hierarchy certainly collaborated with the Ustaše eagerly and openly, such as the Archbishop of Sarajevo, Ivan Šarić, who regularly glorified Pavelić in his publications. But contrary to the stereotypes that the Catholic clergy in Herzegovina participated in Ustaše crimes against Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and antifascists en masse, Hoare has extensively documented how the resistance to the Ustaša genocide was authentically interethnic and provides numerous examples of Franciscans as well as regular clergymen (including the bishop of Mostar) who risked their lives to protect those persecuted by the regime (Hoare Bosnia 215–217).
World War Two and the post-war repression by the new communist authorities was ultimately devastating for the Bosnian Croat community, which was not only saddled with the collective guilt of the Ustaša movement, but had been physically decimated by the conflict. Most of the trauma suffered by this community was channeled into the construction of the Bleiburg myth, a narrative of deliberate genocide committed by the victorious communists against Croats in the last days of the war and during the subsequent death marches. Perpetuated by the Diaspora and remnants of the Ustaše in exile, the collective memory of Bleiburg was used as a rallying point for anticommunist and anti-Yugoslav Croats, and would significantly influence the more radical elements of Croatian nationalism in the 1990s.

Bleiburg and the Politics of Traumatic Memory
While the Catholic Church and the political modernization and unification under Austria-Hungary after 1878 had been the forces drawing the Croats of western Herzegovina into Croatian politics, after 1945 the collective memory and commemorative culture of the Bleiburg tragedy became one of the key pillars of Herzegovinian Croat identity.[9] Although the defeated Independent State of Croatia had been viewed positively by many in Herzegovina, polemics about the mistakes committed by the Ustaša regime and its intrinsic association with massive war crimes did not make it a feasible foundation for rebuilding a Croatian state counter to the Yugoslav one. Bleiburg, with its victimization narrative, could serve this role, and thus it became one of the leitmotifs of the Croat émigré community at the same time as it was being suppressed in the collective memory of those who had remained behind in communist Yugoslavia.
In early May 1945, the Independent State of Croatia’s political leadership, military units, and accompanying civilians fled the Partisan advance through Slovenia towards Austria, where they hoped to surrender to the British and escape communist retribution. Even though Germany capitulated on 8 May, these forces fought until 15 May, when the main body of soldiers and officers tried to unsuccessfully surrender to the British at the Austrian town of Bleiburg. Instead, the British insisted they surrender to the Partisans, as per agreements between the Allied leadership, and sent the soldiers from the Independent State of Croatia who had previously surrendered back into Yugoslavia. This marked the beginning of the Križni put (Way of the Cross), the death marches into camps across Yugoslavia and mass liquidations without proper trials of tens of thousands of prisoners.
The number of people killed in the battles leading up to the surrender at Bleiburg or liquidated in the death marches afterwards varies greatly and has been subject to considerable exaggeration: demographer Vladimir Žerjavić estimates 45,000 to 55,000 Croats (75–79); Slavko Goldstein cites 20,000 Serbs, Slovenes, and others alongside 50,000 Croats (“Bakarić“); and Zdravko Dizdar notes that 62,000 have been identified by name from the territory of the Independent State of Croatia, but adds that estimates have ranged from 60,000 to 600,000 (189–190). Apart from the tendencies of nationalists and émigrés to widely inflate the alleged number of Croats killed at Bleiburg, a more problematic aspect of the Bleiburg myth is the “nationalization“ of the victims. Namely, Bleiburg is perceived as an exclusively Croat site of memory. It symbolizes the “greatest tragedy“ of the Croatian people, deliberate genocide against Croats, the “Croatian Holocaust“ and “Croatian Golgotha“ (see Goldescu and Prcela; Beljo; Ivezić; and Omrčanin). In addition to units associated with the Ustaša regime, thousands of Germans, Montenegrin and Serbian Četniks, Slovenian White Guards, and Cossacks were likewise captured and/or killed. A representative of “Slovenian anti-Bolshevik veterans“ spoke at the commemoration in 2008, but in general the symbols, speakers, and organizations at Bleiburg are all ethnic Croats.
One stereotype of Herzegovina still perpetuated in Zagreb is that nothing grows there except for “snakes, rocks, and Ustaše.“ Such was the perception in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, and the repression of Herzegovinian Croats by the communist regime reinforced the Bleiburg victimization myth. According to Lovrenović, “after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, practically every single Croat family (and indeed, many Muslim families as well) was somehow affected by Bleiburg and the subsequent repression“ (184). The Catholic Church in BiH was punished for real or alleged collaboration with the Ustaše. Based on statistics collected by Krišto, 73% of the clergy in Banja Luka, 69.77% in Mostar, and 56% in Sarajevo lost their lives during or immediately after the war, many of them killed by Partisans (320–321). These figures are considerably higher than other areas of Croatia, where approximately 20% of the priests were killed. Following Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac’s refusal to cooperate with the communist regime and his trial in 1946, the Catholic Church was collectively tarred with the brush of fascist collaboration
Western Herzegovina, already an economically underdeveloped region, was further ignored by the central government, except for its state security organs, during the period of reconstruction and socialist modernization. As mentioned previously, from the end of the war until the mid-1960s, Bosnian Serbs held the key political and administrative positions in BiH (prior to mid-1966 the secret police was 75% Serb), and Bosnian Croats were treated as second-class citizens (Hoare Bosnia 320, 324–328). Thousands of Croats from Herzegovina left, some to Zagreb and other Croatian cities, while most sought better economic opportunities abroad. According to studies of guest workers in Germany, the majority of Croats coming from Yugoslavia were from Herzegovina and other parts of BiH (Künne), while many other Herzegovinian Croats emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.[10] In 1971, Croats represented 22.1% of the entire population of Yugoslavia, but represented 39% of Yugoslavs working abroad (and 42.2% of the workers coming from BiH) (Ćorić 138–140).
For the disparate Croat communities abroad, from both Croatia and BiH, Bleiburg became mythologized as “an emotional symbol of collective tragedy.“ Ivo Goldstein concludes that
the symbol had its completely utilitarian political purpose, as a unifying point and as the only common emotional connection of an otherwise politically divided and frustrated émigré community. And finally, the rousing mythology of Bleiburg had its unspoken and carefully hidden purpose. The long-term, therefore probably most profound, function was intended for future generations and for history: to use the broad veil of the Bleiburg myth to hide most of what happened earlier, from April 1941 until 1945, events which almost fatefully led straight to Bleiburg Field (368).
The Catholic Church played an important role in constructing the Bleiburg narrative and organizing the commemorative culture at the site of memory on the Austrian-Slovenian border, beyond the jurisdiction of Yugoslav authorities but close enough to provoke the regime. Although the Church could not mobilize Croats around Bleiburg within Yugoslavia, as it was a taboo topic, the development of Međugorje in western Herzegovina as a pilgrimage site in the 1980s revitalized the role of the Church among Croats throughout the country (Perica 119–122; I. Goldstein 611–612).
Fieldwork conducted in 2007 and 2009 at the Bleiburg commemoration has shown that a considerable number of individuals and groups in attendance, perhaps a majority, are from communities in western Herzegovina. Although no systematic demographic study has been carried out, based on observations of banners, flags, posters, and identifying symbols on clothing (jackets, t-shirts, etc.) it is clear that the Herzegovinian presence at Bleiburg is significant. Furthermore, since 2003 when Croatian Catholic bishops became an official part of the commemoration, representatives from BiH have twice led the Mass at Bleiburg; Archbishop of Vrhbosna Vinko Puljić in 2005, and Bishop of Mostar Ratko Perić in 2009.
Political rituals, commemorations, and the construction of memorials are all components that contribute to the construction of a common memory, and ideally a common national identity (Young 6). As anthropologist David Kertzer has argued, “ritual offers a powerful means for dramatic presentation…this is often seen in the manipulation of symbols and accompanying rituals connected with traumatic national experiences of the past, especially wars, which lend themselves particularly well to a universal form of political symbolism, one that pits the enemy against the savior“ (70). For émigré Croats, the Bleiburg commemoration erased the differences between Herzegovina and Croatia and united them in a supposedly common victimization narrative under Yugoslav communism, which ignored the reality of the Ustaše regime and ideology that had precipitated such a tragedy. The commemorative culture of Bleiburg transformed many perpetrators of horrific crimes into innocent victims and attempted to rehabilitate the Ustaše as simply Croatian patriots and anticommunists. As former Croatian President Stjepan Mesić has stated on numerous occasions when discussing the issue of Bleiburg, “there is no doubt that people on the death marches and at Bleiburg were killed without trials, but it is manipulative to claim that all those who were killed were innocent…it is a pure manipulation to argue that they were killed only because they were Croats“ (“Mesić“).[11]

Herzegovina and Contemporary Croatian Politics
The aftermath of the communist victory in World War Two prompted two demographic trends among the Croats of Herzegovina; one was massive emigration abroad, as discussed above, and the other was gravitation towards Zagreb for those who wanted an escape from the limited opportunities in their home towns. It is therefore not surprising that individuals seeking political careers would look for them in Zagreb, or that in the twilight of communism and the first decade of independent Croatia in 1990s Croats from Herzegovina would play key roles in the Croatian state-building project. In his study on Bosnian Croats, Lovrenović repeatedly lays the blame for Herzegovina’s political reliance on Zagreb exclusively on Tuđman, who “taught the Bosnian Croats to hate their true homeland of Bosnia, and to project all of their emotions and expectations towards an abstract concept of Croatia“ (213). While Tuđman’s disastrous policies towards BiH and support of certain unsavory politicians from Herzegovina contributed to the negative image of Herzegovinian Croats among the Croatian public, the historical turning points of the last two centuries (from the Austrian occupation to the construction of the Bleiburg myth) explain why that community would be just as likely to turn towards Zagreb as it would towards Sarajevo in building its future. After Croatia’s declaration of independence in 1991, for the first time in over one hundred years Herzegovina’s continuity of being in the same state with the majority of Croats was disrupted, which certainly affected their political decisions.
Perhaps no other symbol of the “Herzegovinian lobby“ in the 1990s was more prominent than Gojko Šušak. Many hold Šušak, who met Tuđman in the late 1980s during the latter's visits to the Franciscans in Norval, Canada, responsible for opening the door for the rehabilitation of the Ustaše and for pursuing an aggressive policy determined to annex western Herzegovina. Although the details of Tuđman’s discussions with the Norval Franciscans and émigrés such as Šušak, characterized by Paul Hockenos as “the most radical wing of the Croat Diaspora“ (78), are not clear, the North American Croatian community’s support for the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ – Hrvatska demokratska zajednica) was instrumental for that party’s victory in the 1990 elections and subsequent fundraising for arms during Croatia’s war for independence. In Darko Hudelist’s controversial biography of Tuđman, the Franciscans were allegedly instrumental in shaping the erstwhile Partisan-turned-nationalist’s policy of “national reconciliation,“ enabling both descendants of Ustaše and Partisans to join against the common enemy, the Serbs (614). By allying himself with individuals such as Šušak, Tuđman, a former communist general, could channel the mobilizing power of the Bleiburg emigration while not completely alienating more moderate Croats wary of the pro-fascist Ustaša legacy.
Šušak was born in Široki Brijeg in 1945, emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, returned to Croatia in 1990 as and held the position of Croatian Minister of Defense from September 1991 until his death in May 1998. More than just a loyal minister, he was arguably Tuđman’s closest associate in shaping Croatian politics in the first decade of independence. According to one of Šušak’s predecessors, Martin Špegelj, in mobilizing Croatia for the war against Serbian aggression “it was possible to notice the tendency for the restoration of the spirit and the structure of the Independent State of Croatia, which Šušak’s people used constantly in announcing the return of Home Guard and Ustaša officers from emigration“ (195). While no former Ustaše officers actually came to fight in the war, distinctions were made between those cadres who came from the Yugoslav People’s Army, i.e. individuals who could potentially not be trusted, and those who were recruited from the French Foreign Legion or who had no former military experience. War crimes trials in recent years in The Hague (Tihomir Blaškić) and in Zagreb (Mirko Norac and Rahim Ademi) revealed that Šušak had influence over certain commanders and units that circumvented the official chain of command in the field.[12] In addition to such associations with the darker chapters of Croatia’s war for independence, Šušak’s public image as one of the most hard line Croatian nationalists was bolstered by the claim that he personally fired shoulder-launched missiles into Serb villages in 1991 to provoke a conflict (Silber and Little 140–141).
Moreover, Croatia’s policies vis-à-vis Bosnia-Herzegovina were firmly in the hands of Šušak, another instance of a chain of command separate from the official Croatian government structure (Bing 344–345). The disintegration of communist Yugoslavia and the bloody conflict that ensued was above all a struggle for territory, especially over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since the communist system had drawn the republican borders at the end of World War Two, the most radical nationalist forces replacing communism sought to revise the borders along “natural, ethnic lines.“ For Slobodan Milošević and his allies in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the goal was to carve out as much territory as possible from the remains of Yugoslavia in order to create a Greater Serbia. For Tuđman, Šušak, and other hardliners, the Croats living in Bosnia-Herzegovina would become the subject of their territorial machinations.
When the international community recognized Croatia in early 1992, it was agreed that all the Yugoslav successor states would be recognized with their so-called “AVNOJ,“ or communist-era, borders intact (Barić 92–93). The liberation of all territory occupied by the Serbs the previous year became Zagreb’s priority, and the eventual military operations leading up to and including Flash and Storm in 1995 were therefore considered legitimate. Thus the official policy of Croatia included the recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territorial integrity, after that country also declared independence in the spring of 1992.
But the unofficial policy, still the subject of passionate debates in Croatian political and academic circles, was to eventually incorporate some, if not all, Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina into a territorially expanded Croatian state. As mentioned above, the destruction of the common Yugoslav state in 1991 meant that for the first time in over one hundred years the Croat community in Bosnia-Herzegovina was separated by an international border from the political, cultural, and religious centers it had been gravitating towards. The question was how to best protect the Croats in BiH as the country unraveled. Numerous eyewitnesses, political actors, and analysts have concluded that Tuđman’s obsession with the 1939 Banovina Hrvatska, as well as Šušak’s connection to western Herzegovina, set the stage for the attempted partition, with Milošević, of Bosnia-Herzegovina.[13] For example, erstwhile close associate of Tuđman and former Croatian president Stjepan Mesić, who even testified in The Hague regarding the issue, has repeatedly spoken out about Tuđman’s planned division of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Mesić 35).[14] Some politicians, notably Miroslav Tuđman, and historians, most recently Josip Jurčević in a book based on his expert witness testimony in The Hague, continue argue that Tuđman was committed to a unified BiH, which, as noted above, was the official position of the Croatian government but was ultimately undermined by Tuđman’s actions (see Jurčević).
As with the earlier absorption of Bosnian Croat political parties by the Croatian Peasant Party in the 1920s, the HDZ officially established its own party branches in BiH in August 1990 (HDZBiH). Tuđman and Šušak saw that the moderates in the party leadership were replaced with hardliners and nationalists (incidentally drawn from Bosnian Croat communist cadres that came to prominence after 1966), such as Mate Boban, who would carry out orders from Zagreb. On 18 November 1991, the same day as the fall of Vukovar in Croatia, the HDZBiH leaders declared the formation of the Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna (Hrvatska zajednica Herceg-Bosna), which laid the foundations for a para-state carved out of BiH. In April 1992 Herceg-Bosna formed its own armed forces, the Croatian Defense Council (HVO – Hrvatsko vijeće obrane), and just as thousands of Herzegovinian Croats had fought in Croatia the previous year, Croat volunteers from Croatia, and eventually the Croatian Army, poured into BiH. The meeting between Boban and Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb leader, in May 1992, is further proof that some kind of deal to partition BiH between Croatia and Serbia had been made at the highest levels (see Šarinić). As Marko Attila Hoare observed, “Western Herzegovina, formerly the most pro-Ustaša region of Bosnia-Herzegovina and oppressed in the first two decades of Titoist rule, now became the regional center of a Bosnian Croat insurgency directed against a Sarajevo that long been synonymous in Herzegovinian Croat minds with Serbian communist domination“ (Hoare Bosnia 370). The result of this policy was the tragic violence between Croats and Muslims, widespread ethnic cleansing, the formation of notorious internment camps, and atrocities against civilians committed by both sides until the Washington Agreement in March 1994.
The association of Šušak, and more broadly Herzegovinians, with the atrocities in the war in BiH contributed to their negative image in the Croatian public. Furthermore, many observers, such as Lovrenović, lay the blame for the current catastrophic situation of Croats in BiH at the feet of Tuđman and Šušak. As noted earlier, only a third of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Croats lived on the territory of the proposed Herceg-Bosna state, which resulted in attempts to “humanely resettle“ Croats from central Bosnia into Herzegovina, or “swap“ territory historically inhabited by Bosnian Croats (namely the Posavina region in northeastern BiH) in an attempt to consolidate the Croat population. But rather than create the conditions for Croats in BiH to ensure their political and civil rights within the framework of that country, the misguided policies of the 1990s reinforced their reliance on Zagreb for support. Furthermore, thousands of Croats from Bosnia-Herzegovina were settled in areas of Croatia formerly inhabited by Serbs as part of Tuđman’s social engineering project to alter the percentage of Serbs in the country, which has unfortunately resulted in large numbers of “settlers“ relying on state support in economically devastated areas.[15]

The war in the 1990s and the ongoing problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina continued the trend of orienting the country’s Croat population towards Croatia, even as Croatian administrations since 2000 have completely turned away from Tuđman’s support of Herzegovinian separatism. The role of individuals from western Herzegovina closely allied with Tuđman contributed to their negative image, especially since people such as Šušak were not only associated with the Ustaša legacy but involved in the darker aspects of Croatia’s War for Independence. Ivić Pašalić, another former close associate of Tuđman and unsuccessful candidate for his successor as president of the HDZ, and Ljubo Ćesić Rojs, a former bus driver turned general and politician, likewise added to the public image of Herzegovinian Croats that for many citizens of Croatia symbolized the corruption and authoritarianism of the Tuđman regime.
Not only were Croats from Herzegovina directly involved in the highest levels of power in Croatia since 1990, but they were influential in voting for parliamentary and presidential elections. Traditionally more conservative, closer to the Catholic Church, and loyal to Tuđman’s HDZ, the Diaspora votes from BiH have benefited right-wing parties in all of the elections since independence. The Croatian presidential elections in December 2009 and early 2010 once again made the issue of Herzegovina and Croatian politics front page news. Most of the candidates campaigned throughout BiH, even Ivo Josipović of the Social Democratic Party, which had promised to abolish the Diaspora electoral unit during the parliamentary campaign in 2007.
Despite loyalty to the Croatian Democratic Union, the majority of votes cast in BiH went to Milan Bandić, who was from a Herzegovinian village near Grude, and not the ruling party’s candidate Andrija Hebrang.[16] After Bandić entered the second round to challenge Josipović, the media characterized the elections as a choice between a primitive populist backed by the Herzegovinian lobby and a civilized, pro-Western candidate. The internet portal caused a scandal with the sensationalist headline “Bandić supported only by peasants and Herceg-Bosnians,“ illustrating the persistence of stereotypes in the Croatian political culture (“Uz Bandića“). Bandić did go on to overwhelmingly win the overall Diaspora vote (92.02%) and even more convincingly the Diaspora votes in BiH (94.28%), but with only slightly more that 100,000 votes cast, this electorate was not significant enough to challenge Josipović for the total number of votes (60.26% vs. 39.74%).[17]
The ongoing political turmoil in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the election of a new Croatian president means that the fate of Bosnian Croats and their relationship with Zagreb will continue to be one of the key issues in ensuring stability among the Yugoslav successor states and the ability to make progress towards integration into the European Union. The political deadlock over the future of the Dayton Peace Accords, the perception that Croats do not have the same rights as Serbs and Muslims in a BiH divided into two entities, and simmering ethnic tensions (epitomized by violence between Croat and Muslim soccer fans in Široki Brijeg in October 2009)[18] all reinforce the deep national and political divisions in this post-war community. Whether or not Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Croats will be able to realize their rights as a constituent ethnic group of the country they live in, or whether their identity as an artificially divided Diaspora separated from their Croatian homeland will prevail depends on the ability of local political leaders to develop viable and democratic states in the post-Yugoslav landscape.

Assist. Prof. Dr. Vjeran Pavlaković
University of Rijeka, Croatia


[1] Interestingly, both authors were born in 1943; Lovrenović in Zagreb (but attended high school in Mrkonjić Grad and worked for many years in Sarajevo) and Krišto in Stipanjićima near Tomislavgrad. Lovrenović’s was a frequent contributor to the weekly Feral Tribune, one of Tuđman’s most fervent critics, while Krišto works in the Institute of Croatian History, Tuđman’s former workplace.
[2] According to polls in the 1990s cited by V.P. Gagnon, Jr., some 78% of Croats did not want parts of BiH annexed to Croatia, a figure which has likely not changed significantly in the last decade (164).
[3] Father Rafo Barišić, embroiled in power struggles between Rome and the Bosnian Franciscans, transferred to the recently constructed monastery in Široki Brijeg and initiated the separation of Herzegovina from Bosna Srebrena (Lovrenović 147).
[4] Krišto rejects Lovrenović’s analysis of Stadler (essentially accusing Lovrenović of being trapped in a pro-Yugoslav communist mentality), arguing instead that Stadler’s ideology was “secular“ and even “liberal“ (358).
[5] For various perspectives on the interwar period, see the edited volume by Tomislav Jonjić and Zlatko Matijević, Hrvatska između slobode i jugoslavenstva.
[6] Of the approximately 500 Ustaše interned in Italy in the 1930s, 160 came from Imotski and another 125 from Herzegovina (Ćorić 113).
[7] Out of approximately 150 volunteers who fought in the International Brigades from Dalmatia, the most came from Imotski (58), Zadar (18), Split (17), Šibenik (16), and many other smaller towns on the coast.
[8] A member of Radić’s Peasant Party from Herzegovina likened Belgrade’s treatment of the region to that of an African colony (Ćorić 96).
[9] Lovrenović laments that the earlier characteristics of Bosnian Croat identity that had tied that community to Bosnia, namely the cultural and historical tradition of the tolerant Franciscans was replaced in the 1990s by a narrower allegiance to the Church as an institution, the tragedy of Bleiburg, and frustration at the loss of the Herceg-Bosna parastate and its condemnation through war crimes trials at The Hague (183).
[10] Paul Hockenos characterizes them as a hybrid of “political and economic refugees“ (29).
[11] In a subsequent article written for Novi list, Mesić emphasized that “individuals lost their lives because they were members of enemy units who refused to surrender, and clearly there were those among them (and not just a small number) who had bloodied their hands in the most horrific ways in the previous years“ (“Bleiburg“).
[12] In the case against Blaškić, the defense was able to prove that a separate chain of command existed between certain units responsible for war crimes and structures in Bosnian Croat political leadership that led directly to Šušak. Judgment of Tihomir Blaškić (ICTY Case: IT-95-14-A), 29 July 2004. Web Ademi was likewise found innocent of war crimes in the Medak Pocket operation after the court found that effective operational control was held by Norac, a young Croatian commander also linked to Šušak.
[13] Hudelist claims that for a while in the 1980s Tuđman considered the more radical option of incorporating all of BiH into Croatia, but after 1991 returned to his previous view that the Banovina Hrvatska model was the most practical solution (704–705).
[14] He added that Tuđman was “directly responsible for the conflict between Bosniaks and Croats because of his territorial aspirations.“
[15] For an example of Tuđman’s plans on resettling Diaspora Croats, see the second volume of Predrag Lucić’s Stenogrami o podjeli Bosne (485–486).
[16] Bandić won 47.60% of the Diaspora votes, Hebrang took 23.78%, and Miroslav Tuđman, the son of Franjo Tuđman, came in third with 8.61%. Official elections results at
[18] Veteran columnist Ivica Đikić argued that the ongoing tensions between Muslims and Croats, which exploded in Široki Brijeg, were primarily due to the frustration among Croats that the Muslims were the reason why Tuđman’s Greater Croatia project failed to be realized (“Taoci“).

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