"The three-month journey through the Balkans led me to four different cities in four different countries which were the main hubs of the cultural, intellectual and historical output of Yugoslavia until the civil war."

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Travel Report: Stevan Bozanich

Stevan Bozanich, a PhD student in the Departments of History and Hellenic Studies, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further his research in Southeast Europe.

January 28, 2020

The Graduate International Travel Award made my Fall 2019 research trip possible. I visited four archives across four different countries of the former Yugoslavia: the Archives of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, Serbia; the State Archives of Montenegro – History of the Workers’ Movement in Podgorica; the Archives of Bosnia and Hercegovina in Sarajevo; and, the Croatian State Archives in Zagreb. My research interrogates the ideology of the Serbian nationalist Chetnik movement from Second World War Yugoslavia. The project looks at groups of Chetniks from three different regions: in the Bosnia-Serbia borderland, in the Montenegrin-Bosnian-Croatian borderland, and in Montenegro. Each region was occupied by a different Axis power and the occupation regime dictated the type of resistance to Axis control and the level of atrocities against civilians. In some areas, like in Croatia, the resistance was predicated on the genocide committed by the fascist Croatian Ustasha government against ethnic Serbs, while the Chetnik-perpetrated massacre of ethnic Croatian and Bosnian Muslim civilians in Bosnia and Montenegro was based on a desire to create a homogenous ethnic Serbian homeland after the war. This last point often resulted in Chetniks collaborating with the Axis powers against the Communist Partisans to better realise this goal. My ultimate aim with this project is to better understand how groups create identities for themselves in wartime conditions and how these identities can lead to genocide and mass violence.

At the Archives of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, I was able to see the documents relating to the Yugoslavia Government-in-Exile which detail how they perceived the Chetnik movement as a whole. The fond contains over 25 metres of telegrams, reports and letters sent between different levels of the government, as well as to and from the main Chetnik actors in occupied Yugoslavia. The Archives of Yugoslavia also houses the register of interwar Chetnik associations which contain the personal details of members, such as age, place of birth, and the circumstances under which individuals joined the various Chetnik associations. This was useful in determining how and why one would sign up to a paramilitary organisation in peacetime which can then be compared to reasons for enlisting during wartime.

After a month in Belgrade, I then headed to Montenegro. Podgorica straddles the Morača River and it is on the right bank that the State Archives of Montenegro – History of the Workers’ Movement archives are located. The papers relating to the Lim-Sandžak Chetnik Detachment are located here which are essentially the correspondence between this detachment and other detachments in Montenegro and the other Chetnik groups. The leader of the Lim-Sandžak Detachment, Pavle Djurišić, had a cult of personality built around him during the war, and his men were fatally loyal to him. When he retreated to surrender to the Allies in 1945, scores of his men followed him and were killed by the Ustasha. Between the start of the war in 1941 and their deaths in 1945, Djurišić led his men in massacring several hundred Bosnian Muslim civilians in Montenegro and the Sandžak of Novi Pazar. These papers reveal the ways in which the aura around Djurišić was created, an esteem which could influence people into killing others and, eventually, themselves.

In Zagreb and Sarajevo, the archives contained general information on the various Chetnik units, but it was in Zagreb that the more important information revealed itself. The Croatian State Archives contain documents relating to the Dinara Chetnik Division, the section of the Chetniks which operated on the Croatia-Bosnia border. This unit was largely responding to the genocide against ethnic Serbs carried out by the Croatian Ustasha regime. Geographically distant from the ethnic homeland of Serbia, essentially being a minority people within a minority republic in Yugoslavia, the ethnic Serbs of Croatia felt an existential threat against them and banded together to fight the occupier. This often meant collaborating with the Italian occupation forces against the Ustasha regime, something which on the surface seems antithetical. But when put alongside the destruction of ethnic Serbs makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the existential threat that the Chetniks of the Dinara Division felt sometimes manifested itself in massacres against ethnic Croatian civilians, often assumed to be or accused of being part of the Ustasha regime. These documents help to show how the asymmetric nature of the war in Yugoslavia could be instrumentalized against a civilian population.

The three-month journey through the Balkans led me to four different cities in four different countries which were the main hubs of the cultural, intellectual and historical output of Yugoslavia until the civil war in 1991-1999 tore the country apart. Today, each city is the capital of its respectful country and houses its main state archive. Without the GIRTA, this trip would not have been possible, and the documents collected on it may never have seen the light of day. My project, my intellectual growth and my life experience is richer for it. Now it is up to me to translate these milestones, and the rich documentary evidence collected, into a dissertation worthy of this award.