He Understood Evil

1941: Godina koja se vraća [1941: The Year That Keeps Returning]

by Slavko Goldstein
Zagreb: Novi Liber, 494 pp., HRK180.00
Ranko Šuvar/Cropix
Slavko Goldstein in his office at the publishing company Novi Liber, Zagreb, Croatia, 2006

I came across this remarkable book, which has not yet been translated into English, while writing recently about the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It deserves attention, because it explains, perhaps better than any book I know of, how different ethnic groups, who lived side by side in peace for centuries, were made to turn against one another and become each other’s executioners in that unhappy country. Written by the distinguished Croatian journalist and publisher Slavko Goldstein, whose father was killed by the Ustashas, the pro-fascist nationalists who were brought to power in Croatia by the Nazis when they occupied Yugoslavia in 1941, the book is a memoir of that fateful year, a meticulous historical recreation, and the cautionary account of the events that led to the deaths of some 32,000 Jews, 40,000 Gypsies, and 350,000 Serbs between 1941 and 1945.

“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,” Shelley wrote in A Defense of Poetry. Unlike many intellectuals who tend to rationalize and minimize the disagreeable chapters in their nation’s history, Goldstein not only wishes to tell the truth, but to put himself in the shoes of various victims and even a few of their executioners. That makes 1941 a most unusual book, a story of one family’s tragedy that is also a careful work of history that, because of its interest in many individual human beings and their parallel stories, often reads like a novel.

The tale Goldstein tells starts in April 1941, after an uprising on March 27 in Belgrade led to a military coup. The army overthrew the Yugoslav coalition government that had been forced to join the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers two days earlier; and the new government, consisting of Serbian officers, aware that the Nazis were making preparations to invade the country, tried to make itself more representative by also including some Croatian politicians. It was too late. Hitler declared that the uprising in Yugoslavia had drastically changed the entire political situation. Originally, he wanted to leave Yugoslavia alone, so that he could attack Russia. Now, he said, Yugoslavia must be regarded as an enemy and dismembered as quickly as possible.

The Germans encouraged Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria, which had long-standing claims on Yugoslav territory, to participate in the invasion by extending to them the opportunity of annexing the Adriatic coast, Banat, and Macedonia respectively. Likewise, a promise of political independence was extended to the Croats. Days later, on April 6, Yugoslavia was attacked by Germany without a declaration of war, Belgrade was bombed, and the country was quickly occupied and partitioned. Croatia proclaimed its independence on April 10 and German troops were greeted as liberators when they entered Zagreb, the Croatian capital. For the Croats, after more than eight centuries of…

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