In September 2006, Max Bergholz stumbled upon some uncatalogued files in the Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. In the files was a description of massacres that erupted in the summer and fall of 1941 in and around the town of Kulen Vakuf, a rural region along the present-day border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. These files inspired Bergholz to undertake an in-depth microhistory of the region, examining the events that led to this intercommunal spate of violence and its aftermath. Out of this research grew Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community, in which Bergholz persuasively explains why a multiethnic community turned on itself and how this violence permanently altered perceptions of identity within the community. Bergholz differentiates his research from that of scholars who assume that nationalism inspired the violence that followed the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) in 1941. He specifically critiques scholars of the “bloodlands” approach, such as Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin ), who describe the wider region through the lens of national division and most often analyze history at the macro and meso levels. Instead, like Jan Gross in his study of Jedwabne, Poland, during the Holocaust (Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, English edition ), Bergholz shows that the violence unleashed in Kulen Vakuf was domestically and locally driven. There was no pressure from outsiders to kill, contrary to Snyder’s assumptions (255). Bergholz argues that macro-level histories, while valuable, cannot explain intercommunal violence in multiethnic regions in which the nation was not necessarily the primary focus of identity. This is particularly relevant for the recent English-language historiography on the NDH. A recent example is Sabrina P. Ramet’s edited volume The Independent State of Croatia, 1941–45 (2007), in which the essays generally take a top-down approach in analyzing the state and its policies. Furthermore, Nevenko Bartulin’s The Racial Idea in the Independent State of Croatia: Origins and Theory (2013) offers an intellectual history of Ustaša (Croatian fascist) nationalists and their perceptions of Croatian identity, which does not illuminate how nationalism and identity operated on the ground during massacres. To remedy the lacunae in the historiography, Bergholz proposes that micro-level analysis in rural regions is essential in understanding how and why violence erupted or was resisted, as well as how nationalism influences perceptions of identity at the local level (8–9). With a nuanced and persuasive argument, Bergholz suggests that spates of violence forged new local alliances, loyalties, and identities in a place where ethnicity previously had not been much of a divisive element. These new perceptions of “us” and “them” created dynamics where interethnic violence escalated or was stymied, depending primarily on the presence and fortitude of “advocates of restraint,” who attempted to keep violence in check (17). He comes to his conclusions through meticulous analysis of unpublished and private documents; official documentation from a number of local, state, and private archives in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia; and interviews with individuals involved in the events. He contextualizes his research by using a wide range of secondary sources, including those of local and regional scholars. The structure of the book is logical and accessible to readers ranging from specialists to advanced undergraduate students. Part I is a methodological and historical introduction that critiques the historiography of nationalism and conflict in the region and provides a brief history of the town and its surroundings. In this section, Bergholz clearly posits that while ethnicity became an important factor in how the people of the area identified themselves, especially after World War I, other factors, including profession, community loyalties, and class, competed with ethnic interpretations. In Part II, the meat of the argument, Bergholz closely analyzes the events of 1941, the year that mass violence broke out in the region. This section follows a fairly strict chronological order that conveniently contextualizes the events that led to the destruction of Kulen Vakuf and the massacre of parts of the region’s population. Bergholz describes an escalating spiral of violence and retribution in a peripheral area of a newly established and weak ethnicity-based state (the NDH). The violence began with small bands of newly formed Ustaša paramilitary units, who “inscribe[d] ethnicity on victims through acts of violence.” The Ustaša’s victims, the Orthodox Serbian community, “internalize[d]” this newly inscribed identity, and when they sought vengeance or material gains, they did so by labeling those they killed or abused in much the same way as had the initial perpetrators (16). Thus, Bergholz hypothesizes, violence facilitated a reshaping of identities and perceptions of others, hardening and foregrounding ethnic boundaries that may have been peripheral before World War II. He further argues that violence generated a sense of interethnic community, insofar as a number of individuals resisted the call to murder their neighbors on the basis of national identity, preferring to judge individuals according to their behavior. Part III briefly describes the postwar history of the region. Bergholz illustrates that even though the postwar communist government attempted to reconcile Yugoslavia’s national groups via the “Brotherhood and Unity” trope, this trope itself was a “clear acknowledgement that each individual belonged to an ethnic category … [due in part to the] wartime killing along ethnic lines,” and the violence of the war remained a sore spot for the people of the region (264). He describes postwar episodes of ethnic tension as “sudden nationhood,” in which common altercations between individuals of different ethnicities were cognitively transformed from ordinary quarrels into conflicts between nations (272, 277, 281, 283). Bergholz’s monograph offers a wealth of advantages to the professional reader. Instead of examining how elites and leaders used and manipulated national identity to spark intercommunal violence, he provides a much-needed, well-reasoned, and extensively documented examination of the relationship between nationalism and violence on the ground where the killing actually occurred (18). Following Rogers Brubaker’s theoretical lead on nationalism, he posits that ethnicity and nationalism are only frameworks in which individuals interpret their world. Responsible historians and scholars of violence must identify “factors that imbue an ‘ethnicized’ perspective with meaning and political salience at a particular time—or not,” and offer a reasoned argument to explain the relationship between identity and violence. To Bergholz, it is not nationalism that sparks waves of violence, but violence that generates the shaping of ethnic identity and social relations (19). He convincingly shows that while macro-level actors in the NDH initiated the call for violence based on ethnicity, some nominally “Croatian” locals (and newly defined Muslim “Croats”) used it for personal benefit and to settle old scores—sometimes intra-ethnically. In response, the Orthodox Serbian community initiated retaliatory strikes on Croats and Muslims, who were often conflated with the Ustaša. The Serbian insurgents similarly used violence for economic gain, to settle scores, and to purge their ethnic community of moderates who called for restraint. Both the Ustaša bands and Serbian insurgents justified the killings by invoking past injustices supposedly perpetrated by the other ethnic group in order to characterize preemptive and retaliatory strikes as legitimate forms of self-protection (36–38 and 56–57). Throughout, Bergholz responsibly and logically uses a number of different disciplinary methodologies and examples to argue his points about violence, civil war, and the fluctuating salience of ethnic identity during and after World War II. He presents a good overview of the historiography of the war itself, and of research on nationalism within the parameters of his study. Furthermore, the book fills a number of holes in the literature on nationalism by addressing why individuals choose or refuse to participate in ethnic violence. Refuting assertions that preexisting ethnic identification leads to violence at the local level, Bergholz offers a solid and original argument pointing to violence as generating specific visions of ethnic belonging and exclusion. Bergholz justifies and situates his work historiographically by pointing out that very few studies, especially in English, focus on the regional and local elite and their power vis-à-vis the central state in the NDH. He argues that microhistories of localities can better explain how the NDH operated than can studies of the top echelons of the Ustaša government (70). Microhistories bring to the fore the crucial but often overlooked local support for the exclusionary messages of both the Ustaša and Četnik (Serbian nationalist) movements. Bergholz concludes that although the local population was not very receptive to such messages until well after the violence and retaliation began (73–74), once it erupted, opportunists recognized the immediate economic openings that the instability offered for plundering or settling ongoing private disputes with individuals of other ethnic groups (77–79). Bergholz’s work offers potential avenues for further research on violence and identity politics, irrespective of geography. First, methodologically, he offers a solid defense of microhistory in the study of violence, ethnic cleansing, and nationalism. He acknowledges the paucity of in-depth examinations of national violence and genocide at the micro level and criticizes much of the existing literature for focusing too heavily on larger-scale forces and top-down analyses (186, 205, 272–273). To illustrate his point on microhistory, he cites a number of studies that diverge from typical macro-level analysis, including Donald Horowitz’s study of violence in South Asia (The Deadly Ethnic Riot ), Jonathan Spencer’s work on “collective panic” and “savage paranoia” in Sri Lanka (“Popular Perceptions of the Violence: A Provincial View,” in James Manor, ed., Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis, ed. , 187–195), and Robert W. Hefner’s research on local strongmen and violence in weak states (The Political Economy of Mountain Java: An Interpretive History ) (107, 115). Second, Bergholz’s study offers an example of one concrete motivation behind supposedly ethnic-based violence: the pursuit of material gain. The Croatian and Muslim men who joined Ustaša bands did so because it allowed them to become predators. They acted much like bandits in a lawless borderland society, preying not only on members of other ethnic groups, but also on conationals who were considered moderates or who decried violence and theft (91–93, 150, 153). Bergholz argues that their activities, while apparently irrational, made sense to the perpetrators in the short term. Reshaped identities and alliances offered shiftless individuals a justification for predation on neighbors, as argued by a number of social psychologists (91). Bergholz also offers non-European examples of this dynamic from histories of violence in African and Asian locales (90, 94, and 112). Third, Bergholz adds to the scholarship on violence by analyzing cases in which the perpetrators had intimate knowledge of their victims. He warns readers not to assume that because someone knows his neighbors well he will necessarily like or be loyal to them. To support this claim, he cites sociologists and criminologists who show that violence is more likely to occur between people who know one another well than among strangers (118). Individuals with specific grievances engage in extreme forms of violence, especially during times of stress or instability, as illustrated by Veena Das’s study of South Asia (Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary ) (120) and by Scott Straus’s analysis of Rwanda (The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda ) (137). Jan Gross, too, discussed this “privatization of politics” by “getting even” in his work on Sovietization in Eastern Europe (Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia ) (cited by Bergholz on 121). Fourth, Bergholz builds on scholarship that explores the dynamic between violence and emotion that provokes escalation. Citing sociologist of violence Randall Collins’s 2008 work Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory, Bergholz suggests that Collins’s “forward panic” idea, in which extreme violence against perceived tormentors occurs, is applicable to much of the violence in Kulen Vakuf (233–234). Furthermore, Bergholz holds that the trauma of violence was an emotive force for extreme retaliatory actions. Citing psychologist Nico Frijda’s essay “The Lex Talionis: On Vengeance” (in Stephanie van Goozen, Nanne van de Poll, and Joseph Sergeant, eds., Emotions: Essays on Emotion Theory ), Bergholz argues that some of the Serbian insurgents sought to destroy every trace of the Ustaša’s (Muslim and Croatian) presence, everything that would remind Serbs of their trauma. This helps explain the brutal murder of Muslim and Croatian women and children and the destruction of physical representations of their cultures in the town (234). The major weakness of the book, however, is Bergholz’s argument that violence acts as a generative force for restraint (mostly in chap. 5). In powerful prose, the author describes instances in which brave individuals sought to save lives by demanding discipline from potential perpetrators, pointing out known positive qualities of particular potential victims, and telling of personal connections to particular people. Common to all these examples is the presence of a strong, legitimate leader who objects forcefully to violence. Lacking this, the mob often descended into savagery. What can be salvaged from this part of Bergholz’s argument is this illustration that strong, effective, legitimate leadership could sometimes prevent intra-ethnic violence. Much less convincing is the argument that violence can spark widespread resistance to ethnicization and violence against a rapidly ethnicized other. Instances of tolerance and moderation are completely overshadowed throughout the book by the frequency of violent acts. Bergholz himself admits that with each massacre, the frequency of moderation declined. His later suggestion that the violence built “inter-ethnic solidarity” is also tenuous (315). Individuals who resisted killing might still have solidly self-identified by nationality and found other groups distasteful. Refusing to act violently could have been a moral or ethical decision, a religious stance, or an act of cowardice or fear. Of course, evidence to support this would likely be scanty. Overall, Violence as a Generative Force successfully challenges the assumption that ethnicity was the primary motivator of the violence that occurred in this part of Bosnia and Croatia during World War II. While nationalist rhetoric and policies that led to violence emerged from the macro and meso levels of government, on the micro level, “material gain and the opportunity to resolve long-standing inter-personal conflicts,” even intra-communal conflicts, sparked the waves of violence in and around Kulen Vakuf (309). The conflict came to be justified and explained through an ethnic or national lens, but the evidence shows that the perpetrators’ primary motives were instead personal ambition and enrichment, which Bergholz views as somewhat rational (310, 312). Bergholz persuasively argues that “nationalism does not simply produce violence. Rather … violence can produce immensely forceful waves of nationalism … it is a generative force” (296). © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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