Few issues in Balkan history have been more controversial than the atrocities committed in the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH) during World War II. Attempts, some inaccurate and divisive, have been made to record massacres and killings and determine more precisely the number of lives lost, but less attention has been directed to the complex causes. Furthermore, there has been a tendency to examine the low hanging fruit found among records of the most egregious episodes. Likewise, the discussion of atrocities has often been a dichotomy of good versus bad with simplistic explanations for why one side were victims and the other perpetrators.
Having stumbled upon an important collection of previously unutilized documents that pertained to atrocities in and around Kulen Vakuf, Max Bergholz embarked on an unconventional and comprehensive study of murders, thefts, and communal violence that took place in the summer and autumn of 1941. In this original and outstanding micro-history, Bergholz relates the history of Kulen Vakuf, a picturesque village on the banks of the Una River, seeking to determine the antecedents for wartime violence, but discovering that the region was remarkably peaceful and ethnically inclusive. After Yugoslavia was defeated by the Nazis and the Independent State of Croatia was established by Ante Pavelić, the ethnic dynamics in this rural region changed. Driven more by the opportunity to steal and loot than Zagreb policies, newly christened Ustaše and those willfully affiliated with them began terrorizing the local communities in this distant region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Choosing to fight instead of being victims, an insurgency was organized to oppose the Ustaše and later troops from the NDH who were ordered into the region. The insurgency was not a product of communist organization, in part because there was very little knowledge of communism and no significant impetus for residents to pursue communist ideology. In September 1941, the insurgency struck, costing the lives of Ustaše, NDH troops, and civilians, including women and children. There were some who chose to save others, but a horrific slaughter ensued taking the lives of approximately 2,000. Not content to end the story at the war's conclusion, Bergholz skillfully examines the post-1945 era explaining the legacy of 1941 and how it altered and hardened identities that remain significant components of the political landscape of the region.
Bergholz's most noteworthy finding is that ethnic rivalry was not the principle source of violence in 1941, but ethnic identity and its concomitant nationalism arose from the extreme violence of that year. This recasts the arguments that traditionally emphasized ethnic division as having been deeply imbued by imperial policies and many other factors, ultimately reaching a breaking point that led to the atrocities in Croatia. Instead, Bergholz argues that the ethnic divisions were fueled by the process of violence that erupted in and around Kulen Vakuf. The Ustaše and their followers had been driven into ethnic identity, because there were clear material advantages to joining Ante Pavelić’s movement. The galvanization of ethnic identity was a product of immediacy and the more violence that ensued the deeper the ethnic divisions became. Furthermore, the violence in this small village in 1941 created a multitude of essentially new identities. These were sometimes forged into single national identities, especially in the postwar era.
Bergholz's intricate and painstakingly-crafted study, deeply imbued with comprehensive archival work in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia, forces historians to reexamine their previous notions of communal violence in World War II Yugoslavia as well as many other places where judgment to blame preexisting ethnic tensions has become standard and accepted interpretations. In many ways, Bergholz's well-crafted micro-history is a call for more careful studies of the origins of violence and how violence manipulates identity. There is no doubt that Violence as a Generative Force will became a standard source for all seeking to understand the connections between identity and violence.