In 1941, genocide broke out in Croatia and Bosnia, and we still cannot explain why. During the spring of that year, Croatian fascists—the Ustasha—burst into Serbian homes, abducting hundreds of males over the age of 16 and executing them, usually in mass shootings. Weeks earlier, Hitler’s Germany had broken up the (Royal) Yugoslav
state and given control of the new Independent State of Croatia (NDH) to the Ustasha, but the Nazis did not order its members to kill anyone. As it was, Serbs and Croats had co-existed peacefully in Croatia since the sixteenth century, when the Habsburgs invited Serbian Orthodox settlers into the areas bordering Ottoman territory. If the 1941 massacres remain a riddle, their consequences are clear. In the early 1990s, during the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia, Serbs, Croats and occasionally Muslims followed the same script enacted fifty years earlier: armed men broke into peaceful homes, dragged out all the adult males to murder them, and then expelled their families.
For this reason, the historian Slavko Goldstein has dubbed 1941 “the year that keeps returning.” Goldstein was born in Sarajevo in 1928, to a Jewish couple—a bookseller and his wife—who had moved to the region from Palestine. He was 13 when he saw the Ustasha killing Serbs in the Croatian town of Karlovac, where he grew up. On the night of May 5, Goldstein recalls, five members of the Ustasha youth movement abducted the heads of three Serbian households at gunpoint. He pays special attention to one of the kidnapped men, a lawyer named Milan Vujicic, who had married into a prominent Croatian family, become part of the city’s elite and courageously opposed the dictatorship of Yugoslav King Alexander. Such was the esteem for Vujicic in Croatian circles that Governor Ivan Subasic wanted to appoint him a deputy when Croatia gained de facto autonomy within Yugoslavia in 1939. Two years later, those facts amounted to his death sentence. The bodies of Vujicic and the other two Serbs were discovered in a shallow grave. The message was clear: there would be no compromise under the Ustasha, especially with Serbs, whose ethnicity was suspect and therefore threatening. Vujicic, like his father and forefathers a native of Croatia, spoke not only the same language as the Croats (we once called it Serbo-Croatian) but also the same local dialect. Unlike the Croats, his religious heritage was Eastern Orthodox, but this attracted little notice in a secular urban milieu. He and the others were murdered because their lives challenged the notion of a pure Croatian identity.
The Ustasha town council did not learn about the murders until the next day, and its demand for an investigation was quashed by the Ustasha commissioner for Karlovac County. The victims’ families could have identified the five young men who had murdered their loved ones: they were followers of the little-known right-wing extremist Ante Pavelic, who had founded the Ustasha movement in 1930 in Italy, where he had been living in obscurity, along with several hundred other terrorists, under the protection of Mussolini before being empowered by Hitler. Pavelic and his cronies had seduced the killers of Vujicic with the glittering charms of power. A shrewd German intelligence officer knew the type: he reported to Berlin in July 1941 that “the Ustasha movement has attracted many new adherents and, since moral character was not an issue, the worst rabble can be found in its ranks.” One father sent his son from Karlovac to Switzerland so that he would not be tempted to fall in with such bad company.