Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 30, 2008

Worst European massacre since the end of WWII?

Filed under: Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

Marshall Tito: far bloodier than Radovan Karadzic

In news coverage of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, there are constant references to the 8,000 dead at Srebrenica as the greatest massacre in Europe since WWII. For example, an article that appeared in the July 22nd Independent starts off:

The massacre of around 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995 stands out as the worst carnage of the Bosnian war and the largest mass murder in Europe since the Second World War.

As an amateur historian, my curiosity was piqued. Was this really true? As it turns out, this very region was the scene of a far bloodier massacre that occurred in the town of Bleiburg in May 1945, just after the formal end of WWII. Bleiburg was on the border between Austria and Slovenia and a hub for Croatian Nazi collaborators, mostly Ustashe members. There were 30,000 POW’s who would be joined by another 60,000 Croats fleeing Tito’s advancing Partisans. Many of these were civilians who had absolutely no record of working with the Nazis.

When the Partisans reached Bleiburg, they wreaked bloody vengeance on the refugees, even though Tito himself was a Croat. As indicated from the wiki entry on Bleiberg, there are varying estimates of the casualty figures by respected historians but even the lowest estimate far exceeds whatever happened at Srebrenica.

For example, Croatian historian Vladimir Žerjavić estimates the numbers killed during the Bleiburg massacre at between 45,000 and 55,000 while British journalist Misha Glenny came up with the figure of 50,000 soldiers and 30,000 civilians executed.

Clearly the bloodbath was meant as retribution for Ustashe crimes at the Jasenovac death camps during WWII. A wiki entry on the Ustashe states that around 32,000 Jews, 40,000 Romas and between at least 300,000 and 700,000 Serbs died there.

Tito’s Partisans were not the only Communist-led soldiers who carried out war crimes. Anthony Beevor, whose book on the Stalingrad siege I found most useful in a survey of films about the pivotal WWII event, also wrote “Berlin: The Downfall 1945” that alleges that Red Army soldiers raped two million German women.

One imagines that if the left adopted the approach of Human Rights Watch, it would look at Bleiburg as just another Srebrenica type mass murder, with the perpetrators deserving to be put on trial at a place like Nuremburg or The Hague.

Yet Marxists have always used a different criterion. It is less focused on “evil” in the abstract, preferring to look at violence through the prism of history. While wars of liberation are often led by men and women who would disdain the kind of “collateral damage” associated with Bleiburg, there are notable exceptions.

For example, the FLN in Algeria often resorted to extreme violence against noncombatants, so much so that a liberal intellectual like Albert Camus decided to condemn them in numerous articles that have been the inspiration for Eustonian type declarations against the dastardly Serbs.

But unlike Algeria, Bosnia involved no such clear class distinctions. (Kosovo does involve these kinds of distinctions but that is a matter best taken up separately.) Perhaps the best analogy is with the communal riots associated with the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan that resulted in over 10,000 deaths and 28,000 injuries by some accounts. Since both conflicts had nothing to do with social or economic emancipation, there was little point in trying to put a Marxist spin on a human tragedy except to point to the role of imperialism as Tony Cliff did at the time:

The power mainly responsible for communal clashes is British imperialism. It is she, who is responsible for the preservation of feudalism, which is the social background for the influence of religion on the masses. It is she who is responsible for the introduction about a century ago and preservation of the zamindar system, whereby permanent large landowners were put to lord over big estates in place of the former system of tax farmers. The British rulers put Hindus to rule over Moslem peasants and vice versa, thus sowing the seeds of communal discord. It is British imperialism, which is responsible for the competition of the clerks and members of the free professions, which receives a, communal colouring. And it is she who is responsible for the communal electoral system, for the sub-Federation organisation, etc.

And so, to the platitude of the Labour Government that they want to give independence, but the Indians are not capable of ruling themselves, and will cut one another’s throats in communal clashes, we must answer that the occupation army has not yet left India, that the pillars of imperialist rule – the Princes, zamindars etc. – are still in the saddle; and without their eradication the independence of India can only be a fiction.

The task of leading India’s independence of course cannot be carried out by the feudalist Moslem League or by the capitalist Indian Congress.

This should have been the approach of the socialist movement during the Bosnian civil war. Instead some elements became disoriented by the mammoth pressure orchestrated by the bourgeois press and well-funded NGO’s and began to look for “evil” men to demonize.

There seems little point in my opinion in debating over how many Muslims were killed at Srebrenica. Even accepting the 8,000 dead as an established fact, one has to ask whether justice is being served by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. On July 3rd, it decided to free the ex-commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica, who was originally convicted of failing to prevent men under his command killing and mistreating six Bosnian Serb prisoners. Such is the state of affairs in The Hague that this was the only charge preferred against him despite such reports in the mainstream media at the time:

Oric is a fearsome man, and proud of it.

I met him in January, 1994, in his own home in Serb-surrounded Srebrenica.

On a cold and snowy night, I sat in his living room watching a shocking video version of what might have been called Nasir Oric’s Greatest Hits.

There were burning houses, dead bodies, severed heads, and people fleeing.

Oric grinned throughout, admiring his handiwork.

“We ambushed them,” he said when a number of dead Serbs appeared on the screen.

The next sequence of dead bodies had been done in by explosives: “We launched those guys to the moon,” he boasted.

When footage of a bullet-marked ghost town appeared without any visible bodies, Oric hastened to announce: “We killed 114 Serbs there.”

Later there were celebrations, with singers with wobbly voices chanting his praises.

(Bill Schiller, “Fearsome Muslim warlord eludes Bosnian Serb forces”, The Toronto Star, July 16, 1995)


  1. Certain href=”http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/?p=674″>paleocons have the same take on the Hague Tribunal as you do. I suspect you’re both right on this one.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 30, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  2. Link: here, I hope.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 30, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  3. I was born and grow up in Yugoslavia and Bosnia, and lived in Sarajevo until the war broke out. Actually I lived in Sarajevo trough siege for 3.5 years and witness it from day 0.

    Now, all what I want to say is: you have no clue what you are writing here, even less you have knowledge from history. Western journalist during the war (I see it in Sarajevo) and are no less than hyenas (or: war whore like Chris Amanpour from CNN) who only duty is to make money, not to convey the truth.

    The same is here. “Liberal blogger” and “marxist” with own blogs trying to generate hits and visits with crappy articles like yours, by making parallels with so-called: crime from Bleiburg.

    Comment by Sarajevo — May 29, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  4. Jen – If you would have ernestly checked out some of Trotsky’s indispensible classics on the class roots of morality that I linked to you before (eg, Their Morals and Ours; Terrorism & Communism) you wouldn’t be surprised that Lou defends Tito here while criticizing him elsewhere. Like the article you cited says, when judging a so-called war crimes “…Marxists have always used a different criterion. It is less focused on “evil” in the abstract, preferring to look at violence through the prism of history.”

    The point is morality is not eternal, as if originated by God, rather morality is inherently dialectical, as is anything that’s a product of particular social relations in a particular epoch. Thus morality, like social relations, necessarily has an indeterminate character. This truism is why folks like Louis argue that Marxism is absolutely indispensible for making sense of the world; for getting to the truth, and the ultimate goal of the philosopher is to always seek the truth.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 28, 2009 @ 6:59 am

  5. Not true,Jasenovac is not death factory. Tito kill people there between 1945.-51. All that people u say was killed by ustashe are not killed by ustashe,they are killed after WW2 by Tito. That was people,who survive Bleiburg .They returning to Yugoslavia and they are killed by Tito .And he say that was victims of ustashe terror by WW2. There in Slovenia and Croatia are more than 1500 places with bones . Few near my house. Sometimes winners create they own history but wrong history. When in 1980s start works in Jasenovac there found thousanda bodies …..but with german and ustashe emblems not jews or Serbians. Then they stoo works there. Its easy to find true,come here and start dig u will see bones and uniforms….Croatian and German. More then 1000 000 ppl Tito kill after WW2 and he put guilty on ustashe.That was comunism.

    Comment by Marko — May 11, 2016 @ 8:29 pm

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