Ivo ZŠanic´
War  and  peace in  Herzegovina

Mart Bax
Medjugorje—Religion, Politics,
and Violence in Rural Bosnia
Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 1995; XIX + 139 pp.


Mart Bax is professor of political anthropology at the Free University of Amsterdam. His speciality is the interrelation of secular and ecclesiastical power, that is, their mutual striving for control over local populations. At the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, he studied the interaction of ecclesiastical and state power in the rural areas of Brabant in Belgium. During the 19th century, this Flemish region was the scene of a series of apparitions, which soon gave rise to particular types of devotion. Mass pilgrimages started under the auspices of the local religious orders. Bax noticed that this occurred at the same time as the foundation of the diocesan organization in the region and that the local cults served as a weapon in the conflict between local, convent dominated religious authorities, which until then had controlled the majority of the rural parishes in Brabant, and the new diocesan authorities, which were attempting to deprive them of power. Similar to the Brabant situation, but somewhat earlier, the promotion of the cult of the Virgin Mary in Mexico, Peru, and Ireland represented an important part of the defensive strategy of a fairly informal religious culture—which was being promoted by religious orders—against institutionalized and hierarchical structures.
As a place where the Virgin Mary appeared as “late” as 1981, and therefore suitable from the start for scrutiny of relevant processes, Medjugorje was to serve Bax “only” to verify an already established theory. His research was intended as standard ethnological field work with valuable insights into a small autarchic community invaded overnight by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. From 1983 onwards, Bax spent several weeks every year in Medjugorje. He finished his book in the second half of 1994, but the articles he continues to publish in scholarly publications show that his original motivation turned into a long-term professional interest. In this change, the key role was played by the war in the 90s, when his previous conclusions about the triangle which forms the subtitle of the book—religion, politics, and violence—showed themselves in a new light.
For the Croatian reader, the book is additionally important because it concentrates on a region—western Herzegovina—about which practically nothing was known for many years apart from a few ideologically-biased stereotypes. The authorities “knew” that this region had endemically retained its “ustasha” character and must therefore be suppressed without mercy, and the general public “knew” that it produced only primitive Gastarbeiter and nationalistic Croats, who are  best avoided altogether. During the last seven or eight years, the label “Herzegovinian” became, for the Croat public, a synonym either for the greatest national virtues or, again, for national shame. In the past the Herzegovinian Croat generally bore the stamp of a born terrorist, today he is branded a mafioso, the destroyer of the Old Bridge at Mostar and the creator of the concentration camp of Dretelj. The war appears only to have changed the type of stigma, leaving everything else within the vicious circle of misunderstanding, prejudice, and animosity.
Emphasizing that he by no means wishes to pronounce judgment on the (non-) authenticity of the Virgin apparition, Bax carefully discussed the “developmental dynamics of the social configuration of Medjugorje” on several levels. He is convinced that he has succeeded in demonstrating that “on the lower levels of integration, ocurrences that might be regular and explainable on a high level become erratic, unpredictable, and dependent on random circumstances and personal quirks.” He maintains that the attention of those who aspire to a better understanding of the problems in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina must be “more intensely and systematically devoted to processes and developments on the lower levels of social integration” (xix). It is easy to subscribe to this, but Bax’s methodological errors can be identified at precisely this point—which eventually results in an interpretation of the recent war which is not only obscure, but also in direct contradiction to the very sources that the author uses. Delving ever deeper into local events and relationships, and describing complicated longue durée processes, Bax obviously remained fascinated and confused by surface phenomena. While he skilfully clarified some blind points, he also laid the foundations for the emergence of other problems.
On the first level, Bax investigates the “management” of the religious cult: the gradual metamorphosis of the seers into officials with a more or less routine schedule of tasks in relation to the pilgrims. They have even become religious entrepreneurs of a sort. His further research concerns their complex relations with the Franciscans and the influence of the crowd of pilgrims on the social and psychological life of the previously isolated community. The logic of events followed the pattern familiar from similar pilgrimage sites in Mexico, Portugal, Italy, and France. Medjugorje rapidly came to experience the development of a sort of network of patron–client relationships, not only between the friars and the seers, but also between the Church hierarchy and acknowledged cults on the one hand, and the secular authorities on the other. In Medjugorje, however, this pattern was characterized by a greater complexity. First, the official Church did not acknowledge the apparition and subsequently refused to integrate the cult into its devotional system. Second, the state was communist and atheist, but gradually turned a blind eye to the cult out of material interest, joining the profitable system of “religious tourism.” All these events naturally remained hidden to the million of pilgrims.
Bax follows the complex relationships and power games of the local community with the secular authorities far into the past. This is especially notable in the case of SŠipovac hill. Today this hill plays an important role in the religious activities of Medjugorje, but until the fourteenth century it was the site of a non-Christian cult which was then
(re-)Christianized by the Franciscans together with the entire region. In brief, the story goes like this: 1) The Austrians settle some Serbs, who in time grow stronger economically—after the foundation of Yugoslavia, even politically—and at the end of the ’20s, they build a small Orthodox church on the top of the hill as a symbol of their presence in this Catholic region; 2) Croats respond in 1933 by erecting a fourteen-meter cross and by renaming the top of the hill KrizŠevac—Hill of the Cross; 3) although in opposition, the two symbols coexist until 1941, when the ustashas murder or drive out the Serbs and destroy the church; 4) after the war, the communists rename the hilltop Titovac and destroy the cross, at whose foot the population is forced to construct a huge five-pointed star out of the stones of the destroyed church; next to this star, the annual commemorations to the “national heroes” and victims of the ustasha regime are held; 5) financially strengthened after the apparition, in the middle of the ’80s the Franciscans manage to ensure that the local authorities “do not see” the demolishing of the star, the hill-top is renamed KrizŠevac and integrated into the system of Medjugorje devotion by weekly processions; 6) after the defeat of communism in 1990, the Croat national emblem appears on the hill-top, frequently accompanied by the letter U [ustasha]. Thus, the alternative processes of sacralization and secularization present themselves as the tools of a strategy aimed at establishing and strengthening power, as a long process in the course of which every bearer of power, religious as well as secular, imposes his own definition of the locality through ritual and symbolic activities.
The next crucial aspect of the local relationships is the conflict between the Franciscans and the secular priests. In Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Ottoman period there was no Church hierarchy and the cure of the souls of the Catholics was the business of the Franciscans. Immediately after the 1878 occupation, the Austro-Hungarian authorities founded bishoprics in cooperation with Rome, which also presupposed the establishment of parishes. In Bosnia this relationship between the old and the new structures was more or less settled without major conflicts, but in Herzegovina the conflict continues right up to the present. According to the major historian of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Srec´ko M. DzŠaja, the tendency was often not to promote and modernize the friars where necessary, but to subjugate them completely, to suppress them and in time to liquidate them, to “abolish one historical reality and install another.” Eventually, it is “sad” that during these hundred and twenty years “so much energy was spent on remonstrating and demonstrating who was the boss, and on mutual accusations, instead of searching for a modern model of coexistence for of the established ecclesiastical structures and the centuries-old non-established Catholic tradition in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”1
Nevertheless, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Franciscans in Herzegovina—that is, in the newly founded bishopric of Mostar-Duvno—held 63 parishes of the 79, as well as considerable lands, and were in every respect stronger than the diocesan structures. After the war, however, nationalization deprived them of this economic basis of social power, and in the middle of the 60s, the Holy See granted 33 additional parishes to the diocesan clergy.

The  Chaos  of  Violence and  the  Apparition

The most intriguing discovery of Bax’s book is the role of blood feuds in the events described. Blood vengeance is the most obvious expression of primary solidarity between the members of a group (all for one, one for all). In the period before state formation, it substituted in some ways for organized law, since every member was afraid that if he committed an act of injustice he would raise blood. Therefore, blood feuds are not simply “bad behavior,” and the status of those involved is not simply that of evil-doers. The brotherhood carrying out the act of revenge automatically becomes the target of the next act of revenge, so that it is not irrelevant to ask whether the actors are victims, criminals, or  both at the same time. Blood vengeance is a complex phenomenon sui generis and it cannot be absolutely abolished by individuals, however benevolent or strict they might be; rather, it retreats only before economic and cultural development and, of course, before the strengthening of the state authorities, which crush the tribal system by the logic of their consolidation.
Mart Bax explains how in the Medjugorje region the apparition of Our Lady served to limit the private use of violence on the part of men. In this process, the crucial role was played by women and the Franciscans, acting as the “interpreters of behavior and as ritual peacemakers” (p. 62). The constant interweaving of warfare, blood vengeance, and the policy of power within and between the religious and the secular structures is certainly displayed most vividly in the origins and development of the religious cult in the neighborhood of Gomila and in the relationships of the local brotherhoods.
The Scottish term “clan”, utilized by Bax, can be viewed as corresponding to that of “brotherhood” in the system of the Dinara region. All its members consider themselves brothers and sisters, since they originate or believe they originate from a single ancestor. The brotherhood has common property (forests, meadows, pastures, often a separate church and a cemetery) and each brotherhood member is a co-owner. It is ruled by a collective sense of responsibility, which is most strongly expressed in the institution of blood feud. However, things are not that unambiguous. Since before the appearance of the modern state there was no formal legal system, or it was fragile, it was only this sense of responsibility that could give support and safety to an individual. The sacredness of the given word substituted for the formal legal system in a certain sense, and pride was a regulation much stronger than any law. This ensured a degree of legal security despite the lack of formal institutions.
Gomila comprises three brotherhoods, presented by the author under pseudonyms: the Jerkovic´es are the oldest and the most respectable, and were the first to settle there (around 1250), they have the best vineyards and tobacco appreciated in Vienna and Istanbul alike, and at the local cemetery theirs is the front row of tombs, which are the most beautiful and the largest; the SŠivric´es occupy second place on the social and economic scale, as well as in the cemetery; and the Ostojic´es settled last, in the period of Turkish domination; their fields are of inferior quality, rocksstrewn, and their tombs are in the last row. Originally they were Orthodox, to the extent to which we can speak at all—in the modern doctrinal sense—about systematic religious practice in the early period of Ottoman domination.
In Ottoman times,  the hayduks, small bandit groups understood as popular opposition, made sporadic appearances in the region, as elsewhere in the Balkans. Since it sometimes happened that a peasant was tortured and betrayed their hiding places to the authorities, there was an eruption of blood vengeance, which was put an end to in the pre-Ottoman period by the consolidation of power of the local nobility. In 1512 the local spahi (the horseman vassal of the Sultan ) invited the Franciscans to establish order and secure regular tax-collection; in return, he  exempted them from taxes and granted them relative freedom in their activities. The Franciscans started from the fact that all three brotherhoods—as participants in the same popular culture—cultivated the cult of ancestors, so they arranged a common cemetery with appropriately dedicated chapels. According to the model of baptismal slava [a religious rite, related primarily to the cult of ancestors], they organized common gatherings there, as well as mutual godparenthood, and succeeded in interweaving the persons involved in blood feuds in a “highly complex fabric of interpersonal control” (p. 85). Peace was established, but Rome took a very unfavorable view of this Franciscan pre-Christian-Catholic-Orthodox syncretism.
In 1878, when a Catholic hierarchy was established in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the bishop of Mostar did everything in his power to prevent the gatherings around the chapels of the ancestors and to bring religious life in line with doctrinal guidelines in all respects. He built a parish church, which no local ever entered; the members of brotherhoods continued to gather for prayer at the cemetery, with the modification that the slava was amplified by the prescribed communion.
The social compactness was broken up only in Yugoslavia, when the Croats of Herzegovina, subjected to state repression, became politically radicalized. In 1937, a group of cŠetniks from CŠapljina attacked some of the SŠivric´es, and when the Ostojic´es discovered that their cattle had been killed, they were convinced that it was the SŠivric´es who had taken revenge. (Bax is not explicit, but one can gather from the context that the Ostojic´es became Croat Catholics over generations; however, they remained aware of their ties with some Serbian Orthodox brotherhoods east of the Neretva river, and kept in contact with them; in times of political tension, this fact made them suspect.) A local friar tried to organize a conciliatory slava, but on the eve, one of the SŠivric´es, who had become an organized ustasha in the meantime, desecrated the sacred place of the Ostojic´es—the chapel of their ancestor. When the tombs of the Jerkovic´es and the SŠivric´es suffered a similar fate, they accused the Ostojic´, but until 1941 the conflict remained at the level of mutual infliction of material damage. However, when the first victim fell in the ustasha-cŠetnik-partisan triangle, the chain of blood vengeance erupted once more, stretching into the postwar decades. From 1963 to 1980, the local courts registered at least sixty cases related to blood feuds.
This time the Franciscans did not have the power to intervene, since they were exhausted by the conflict on two fronts: with the communist authorities and with the bishop of Mostar. In 1975, when the Holy See ordered them to cede five more parishes to the diocesan clergy, and precisely those that had provided the majority of novices over the centuries, it seemed that their very existence was in danger. However, as an elderly Franciscan said to Bax, “God’s salvation was at hand” (p. 13), and according to the words of an old woman, “there was something extraordinary in the air, we all felt it.” (p. 14) In 1981, after vespers on June 24, six children announced to their friar that they had seen the Virgin Mary on the hill. The news spread like lightning and pilgrims started to come from all parts. The state repression and the refusal of the ecclesiastical authorities to acknowledge the apparition only gave an additional impetus to the revived acts of devotion and lent the Franciscans the aura of (political) martyrs.
The messages and instructions of the Virgin most frequently propagated peace, prayer, fasting, and contrition. Nevertheless, parallel to these general messages, there were those intended only for the local population, which the Franciscans concealed from the wider circle of pilgrims. The book on the Apparitions of Our Lady in Medjugorje (1983), written by Pater Ljudevit RupcŠic´, who kept records of all the messages from the beginning, included both categories. It was banned by the state authorities immediately after its publication and the author was arrested. The second edition by René Laurentin, published in French the following year, omitted the messages directed to the local population. Thus, one was not able to see what was clearly visible in the first edition: that from the very beginning the Franciscans supported and promoted the Marian movement, with the twofold aim:
One […] was the prevention of further diocesan encapsulation, and the international pilgrim circuit could help them achieve this. The other aim… was internal pacification. Unlike in Turkish times, it was no longer possible for them to enter into a coalition with the secular authorities for this purpose. (p. 96)
Two of the children stated that the Virgin insisted in particular that the hostile brotherhoods should restore the old sanctuary at the cemetery, as well as that they should revive the practice of slava. The American relatives of one donated the money, and after some time, the county authorities of CŠitluk gave official permission and even material aid. Under the leadership of the Franciscans and according to the instructions of several old men, who remembered what the place had looked like before, the peasants went to work. At the instigation of the seers, other neighborhoods joined in.
Working together like this, discussing, consulting, involving emigrated relatives in the project, had an extremely beneficial effect on a community that had been torn asunder for so long. “Whenever I had some free time I would help with the work,” Petar SŠivric´ said. “One evening Janko of the Ostojic´es—who was working on his row behind me—asked me whether I still knew who were in the graves next to his parents. Without a moment’s hesitation, I started drawing in the sand with him (tracing genealogy). Together with a few other people, we found the answer. I suddenly realized I had helped the man who had probably taken revenge on my father’s brother. I told him what I had just realized. Weeping, he fell to the ground. Father Jozo came over. We fetched some young tobacco from the fields, which he blessed and then placed on our hramovi (small temples of the clan founders). Father Jozo said that the war had made us all blind. After that I said hello to Janko when I saw him, and our wives took the cattle to drink at our well together, because it gives good water.” (p. 97)
In 1985, the great common slava was held at Gomila with official permission. It was the first since 1937, and many relatives from abroad came to join the celebration. Soon afterwards the Virgin appeared for the last time to those two children, telling them that their task had been accomplished. The slava was then held regularly until 1991, and throughout this period not a single act of personal revenge was registered. In addition, a “spectacular decrease” of crime in the entire region was recorded. The mass pilgrimage imposed new rules of behavior and directed the population towards economic activities. As Bax could frequently hear from the peasants, “since Gospa [Our Lady] came here for the first time, vendettas have stopped and families are reunited, we are all happy and well-off, and we try to be friendly and hospitable. That is also what Our Lady teaches us: we must be an example for the world.” (p. 22)
Even though after 1985 the slava was no longer indispensable, the Franciscans continued to perform it. This achieved two things: first, they strengthened their own connection with the population (since in  places of mass pilgrimage it often happens that the parochial priest and the parishioners are mutually alienated); second, they symbolically demonstrated their opposition to episcopal dominance, at least because the cult of ancestors was not a part of official church doctrine.
As for the economic prosperity that accompanied the rise of the new cult, the Ostojic´es benefited most. Since they had always been the poorest brotherhood, they had the largest number of Gastarbeiter, which in the changed circumstances meant having the largest initial capital. They built the only two “real” hotels and obtained the most taxi licenses; their network provided their own transportation to meet groups of pilgrims at the airports of Mostar, Split, Dubrovnik, and Zagreb. Although they were making a considerable profit themselves, the Jerkovic´es and the SŠivric´es watched with envy how they were being overtaken by the Ostojic´es, who had been “stone-eaters” until only recently.
However, this all came to an end with the Serbian rebellion in Croatia, especially with the ravages of the “reservists” of the JNA, the regular army of Tito’s Yugoslavia, in Mostar. The population fell increasingly into debt and only the Ostojic´es still kept doing transportation business of some sort, owing to bribery and good connections. Other brotherhoods considered it “unfair” and demanded that they share between them all “what was still left”. The Ostojic´es refused. On August 15, 1991, three hundred pilgrims they had brought started out for the Hill of the Cross, but a group of masked men chased them away, shooting into the air. The CŠitluk police arrested some of the Jerkovic´es. Several days later thirty-two taxis belonging to the Ostojic´es were demolished, and some forty Jerkovic´es and SŠivric´es disappeared from the village.
The war was approaching, the tension grew, and all men were fully armed. Parallel with the “great war” a local “little war” started in Medjugorje around Christmas, and several hundred men from all brotherhoods took part. Until the beginning of July 1992, “when the Croatian army imposed peace upon the western part of Herzegovina” (p. 101), 140 of about 3,000 inhabitants were murdered, 60 disappeared, around 600 escaped, and many houses were damaged or demolished. The victims came from all brotherhoods, and the Ostojic´ disappeared without a trace: some ran away, others were killed, and the place where their graves stood was turned into an empty hole. Their houses were later repaired, but appropriated by the Jerkovic´es and the SŠivric´es.

Forgetting or Remembering

In the final chapter, entitled “SŠurmanci’s Secret: A Never-Ending Story?”, Mart Bax explains another local process of longue durée. In the late autumn of 1992, Bax heard a loud explosion, but his Medjugorje host Franjo assured him that it was nothing of importance, and the day after he answered all questions with stubborn silence. Towards evening, however, Franjo took Bax to SŠurmanci, to the place above the Neretva river where the results of the explosion could be seen on the plateau, which could be reached by steps. “Comrades blew up this blasted cŠetnik monument!” exclaimed Franjo with a torrrent of curses. He spit with contempt on the remains and returned to the car. For a long time he ignored Bax’s questions, but then he erupted in a torrent of words:  “Why, why, why… you always want to know why!” Hadn’t I ever noticed that people didn’t want to answer my questions about SŠurmanci? (I had.) Hadn’t I ever noticed that no taxi, or anyone at all, ever wanted to go to SŠurmanci? (I had.) Hadn’t I ever noticed that the people here all acted as if SŠurmanci didn’t exist? “Look at the road… There are no signs telling you the way to SŠurmanci. At the church, all the hamlets are listed on the big stone tablet—not SŠurmanci. In all the guidebooks for tourists, the hamlets here are described—not SŠurmanci. You can buy postcards and slides of almost every spot around here—not of SŠurmanci… To us here, SŠurmanci is dead… we want to forget.” (p. 120)
Gradually, with the help of Pater Leonard, who never missed the opportunity to mention that “here every village has a secret like that,” Bax reconstructed this complicated story. During the Ottoman period, small garrisons, called “gatekeepers” (vratari), were built along the trade route from the coast to Mostar, in order to control the communication between the mountain villages and the trading centers along the Neretva river. In these posts the garrisons, supervisors, and toll collectors were Muslims. One such village was ZŠitomislic´, which controlled almost the entire region of Brotnjo—a fertile plateau on which Medjugorje is situated—and collected the profit from the village vineyards. Eventually, taking advantage of the general confusion which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman rule, the rich village of ZŠitomislic´ was attacked by Serbian rebels from Montenegro, obviously a strong uskok or hayduk band from what was called Old Herzegovina. They murdered or chased away the inhabitants, and then they appropriated their houses.
In an attempt to “pacify and incorporate the mainly Croat peasant population,” the new Austro-Hungarian authorities “were only too happy to use the militant Montenegrin Serbs”. Thus, for Croats, ZŠitomislic´ became—and remained—the symbol of Serbian repression. In Yugoslavia the situation became even worse: ZŠitomislic´ became a base from which the cŠetniks from eastern Herzegovina, under the protection of the de facto Serbian authorities, pillaged and raped all over western Herzegovina, cut down vineyards, destroyed water tanks and burned down houses. In a conversation with Bax, an old man from Medjugorje compared these events to what was happening in 1992: “Nothing has changed… only the horses have become tanks.”
The peasants of Medjugorje gradually started to respond to the terror, and during the Second World War “this regional violence formation was incorporated into a war figuration of national proportions.” (p. 122) Towards the end of the summer of 1941, the ustashas of Medjugorje, SŠiroki Brijeg, CŠapljina, and Humac surrounded ZŠitomislic´ and collected all the Serbs they could find—including women, children, and old people—took them to SŠurmanci in lorries, slaughtered them and threw them into a pit. At the end of the war and in the postwar years, reprisals followed: the new authorities and their repressive bodies killed almost half of the Medjugorje population and destroyed a large part of the parish. Some members of the Stojanovic´ brotherhood had survived because they had not been in ZŠitomislic´, and since in the meantime they had become partisan officers or influential members of the Communist Party, they had the main say in the postwar acts of vengeance; at the same time, they accepted the task of reconstructing ZŠitomislic´—and received financial support for this. By the early 60s, the village was completely rebuilt and was occupied by relatives of the victims.
According to Bax, who refers to the inhabitants, at the same time, Brotnjo was divided into a number of unofficial “counties” ruled by “distinctive” Serb partisans—but separated from the regular administrative division. Each house which had some relation to the ustasha movement—that is, all Croat houses—had to pay “reparations” to these parallel authorities. Those who refused were persecuted, so that almost all the young men of Brotnjo spent some time in the prisons of Mostar or Sarajevo. Bax claims that in a wider area, until the middle of 1994, he identified “sixteen similar configurations of Serb power centers and Croat communities dominated by them,” that is, “ethnically based antagonism between pairs or clusters of village communities.”
Without any intention of refuting Bax’s respondents, at least two factors should be mentioned which raise doubt regarding the existence of the described parallel authorities. First, the communists simply did not need them, since they had absolute control over the regular system of authority or repression, so that within this system they were able to reward the “distinguished” and punish the “subversive” without limit. Second, in the “politically unreliable” areas the rule was not to create “parallel counties,” but to reshape the borders of the existing ones or to move the county center—which meant both state investment and political power—to a “reliable” place. This was done according to the principle that the leading persons, naturally communists, were formally of the same nationality as the majority of the population, and if such cadres were not to be found on the spot, they were brought in from the vicinity. This form was strictly kept, and the fact that the form was presented as the content belongs to another story. Exceptions from this principle were possible, but they must be investigated and documented in a far more convincing way than Bax has done.
Within the system of these alleged parallel authorities, the Stojanovic´es obtained Medjugorje, Bijakovic´i, and SŠurmanci, and the inhabitants were compelled to build a large monument above the pit under police surveillance. It was solemnly unveiled in 1973, and from that date a commemoration was held on every April 27. The Croats felt that this was a humiliation, the more so because they knew that many of the victims did not have as clean a past as they claimed. Before and after those gatherings, which abounded in slogans about brotherhood and unity, local Croats were forced to repair potholes in the road and to remove the garbage. An ever greater national animosity was created, which abated only in the mid-80s, “thanks to the power of the Mother of God,” according to Pater Leonard, that is, “thanks to the economic boom in Medjugorje from which the authorities benefited as well,” according to the majority of inhabitants. Whatever the case, the authorities stopped the ceremonies in SŠurmanci. Seven years later, the hated monument was blown up, “but the memory lives on—on both sides,” as Pater Leonard lamented (p. 125).

Lost in Time

Bax’s study is remarkable in its ethnological, investigatory aspect, but before I comment upon its basic error—which stems from his belief, arising under the impact of war, that in his local model he discovered the stone of wisdom applicable to the understanding of wider processes—I must list some banal, and therefore hardly understandable mistakes.
Bax mentions that in 1512, the spahi of Medjugorje invited the Franciscans from the convent of ZŠivogosŠc´e “on the northern border of Bosnia”
(p. 84), whereas this convent is situated in the diagonally opposite part of Bosnia—on the coast near Makarska, in a region which at that time belonged to Ottoman Bosnia and which was in charge of the pastoral care of the Mostar region. During the centuries-long Habsburg-Venetian-Ottoman wars, the Croat population from the mountain Hinterland of the Adria did not migrate “southeastward”
(p. 103), which would mean further into the Ottoman Balkans, but in the opposite direction—towards the north and north-west. It is also rather odd to state that it was motivated to do so by a “sense of adventure.” The Austro-Hungarian Empire did not annex Bosnia and Herzegovina “a decade” after the occupation (p. 86), but three decades later, namely in 1908, and the anarchic months preceding the entry of the Austrian army can hardly be characterized as the “short moments of the flush of freedom.”
Even if these are minor errors, there is another, which greatly influences our understanding of the described processes. According to Bax, the first bishop of Mostar, whose name he does not mention, was “Hungarian” (p. 87). In fact it was Pater PasŠkal Buconjic´, a Croat, previously the custodian, and later the vicar of the Herzegovinian Franciscans. Such incorrect data in the analysis of a crucial historical moment can easily lead to the conclusion that there was (also) an ethnic element at the basis of the Franciscan–episcopal conflict, that is, precisely the element which played no role whatsoever. The greatest problem, however, is the presentation of the events after 1918, especially everything connected with the ustashas, who seem to fascinate the Dutch ethnologist in a peculiar way. Describing the events of 1929, after King Alexander’s proclamation of a dictatorship, Bax calls the Croatian Peasants Party (HSS), which by that time had existed no less than a quarter of a century, a “newly founded party,” (p. 71) in which “a part of the hard core” was formed by the ustashas (p. 72), and that can mean only one thing: that the ustasha movement was created—horribile dictu—within the HSS or at least collaborated in its foundation. However, thirty pages further on, the author claims that immediately after 1918, the Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina, responding to the terror, “organized armed gangs called ustasŠe, who kidnapped Serb leaders and were likely to murder them as well”. (p. 104) When, however, “the tension spread [from Bosnia and Herzegovina] to other regions and the country became ungovernable, the king disbanded parliament and instigated a wave of terror”. (p. 104), which, again, can only mean that the king was innocent until 1929, whereas the ustashas  had sowed the roots of all evil ten years earlier. Presenting the period between the wars, the author does not mention at all the event which was crucial for the direction of later developments—the assault on Stjepan Radic´ in Parliament in 1928!
The truth is that the HSS condemned violence from the very beginning and that it distanced itself from Pavelic´, even expelling those who established contacts with the ustashas, for example, a group from the Lika region in 1938. Violence between the wars, in which Bax with good reason sees the roots of much of the later evil, is presented as some sort of guerilla movement of mass proportions composed of the ustashas, and present above all in Bosnia. The reality, however, was different: state terror showed itself in arrests and beatings, and shooting at religious processions and non-violent protest demonstrations, whereas ustasha terror, beginning with 1931/32,  with the exception of so-called “Velebit insurrection,” took a form which could be compared to the early actions of ETA or the IRA. They placed time bombs: in Zagreb, Split, and on the railway tracks. The targets were the symbols of the state power and repression (the seat of the ban of the Sava banovina, the military headquarters, gendarme stations, the centers of anti-regime unions such as Young Yugoslavia in Zagreb), the attacks were carried out on symbolic dates such as Unification Day or the King’s birthday. This terrorism (altogether ten to fifteen explosions) could not have been different or of greater proportions because of the number of organized ustashas: Bogdan Krizman listed around five hundred names in emigration, and Fikreta Jelic´-Butic´ estimated their number in Bosnia and Herzegovina at two thousand, with some increase immediately before the war.
In his presentation of the war period, Bax states that the NDH, the Independent State of Croatia, was created by Germany and Italy in their own interests. He adds, however, that the “real power” was held by Pavelic´ and the ustasha organization, which is contradictory. Further ambiguity is created by his formulations that the NDH “did everything” to eliminate the Serbs “with the help of the vicious and pugnacious ustasŠa organization” (p. 104), that is, “with the help of the para-military ustasŠa organization.” (p. 122) Out of this it follows logically that in the NDH power was in the hands of a third—from the context we can presume, a Croat—political party, with respect to which the ustashas were only a para-military organization in charge of the dirty work. Thus, it becomes less and less clear who represented the actual power in the NDH: Germany and Italy, the ustashas, or that unnamed third party. But what really happened during the Second World War in Bosnia and Herzegovina was that in its central and southern part, “guerilla groups” were active, namely, the ustashas, the cŠetniks, and the partisans, whereas in the north there was a clash of the German armies with the Allied forces (p. 91). The most awkward fact is that in these passages Bax refers to first-class literature: the books by I. Banac, J. Tomasevich, F. Jelic´-Butic´, and B. Krizman. Therefore, only two conclusions are possible: either he read them at random and inexcusably superficially, or he used other sources and mentioned these as widely acknowledged authorities. Some of his insights are indeed precise, thus, for example, that the postwar vengeance acquired such large dimensions because towards the end of the war, the partisans unselectively accepted people who had been cŠetniks the day before. Still, the cŠetniks of Mihailovic´ are for Bax “activists of the resistance movement,” and the whole confusion is crowned by a nonsensical statement that in Bosnia and Herzegovina “in the early seventies, groups of armed young men who called themselves ustasŠe began to gather in Bosnia and Herzegovina, targeting government institutions, the region’s numerous arms depots, party officials, and villages dominated by Serbs.” (p. 105)
It seems that this statement is based upon the case of the Bugojno group of the summer of 1972, an episode, which is still mysterious and unsolved. These nineteen emigrants entered Yugoslavia with the intention of starting a “liberating insurrection,” but were discovered and liquidated by the secret police and JNA before they managed to do anything. Naively believing that they were expressing their courage and perseverance in the resistance against communism, Bax’s hosts wove long stories and boasted about some non-existent guerillas, and he, uncritical and uninformed as he is, blindly believed anything they said. One could call it a textbook example of what emerges when local wishful thinking and an ignorant field-worker meet.
Another example of an unscientific approach is Bax’s usage of two crucial terms, for example when he says that there were many “guerilla bands of Hajduci, UstasŠe and CŠetnici” (p. 103) or “small gangs of Hajduci or UstasŠe” (p. 83) in Bosnia and Herzegovina during Ottoman rule. The term hayduk is certainly unambiguous, but the usage of the two other terms in the context introduces confusion and suggests that there was an organizational and ideological continuity in the ustasha and cŠetnik movements between the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries, that is, that the policies that these groups are necessarily associated with in Croat–Serb relations—to which Bax rightfully pays great attention—were formed five centuries ago.
The terminology is not established once and for all, but experiences shifts in meaning through historical development. In South-Slav circumstances this sometimes leads to a touch of black humor. UstasŠ  or ustasŠa is an old term for an insurrectionist, a rebel, so that even folk epic poetry tells that “the ustasŠe attacked them [the Turks] / burned down the houses around town.” At the end of the nineteenth century, Vasa Pelagic´ writes about the courage of “the ustasŠe of Karad/ord/e” in Serbia of 1804, and a document on committal activities in Ottoman Macedonia, printed in 1906 in Belgrade, is entitled “Fight of Serbian ustasŠa-heroes of Old Serbia and Macedonia.” Nevertheless, after 1945, this term, in colloquial speech as well as in scholarly writings, both Yugoslav and foreign, was definitely reduced to the meaning adopted in the interwar period and in the Second World War. The same is true of the terms cŠetnik  or cŠetenik, in their general meaning soldier in a cŠeta (military unit), synonyms until the semantic separation, which was precisely a consequence of the new historical and political situations. Thus, the term cŠetenik is used in its original context by ethnology and folklore studies, in order to preserve its semantic precision.
It is logical to presume that the misinterpretations and errors mentioned here arose when the author was induced, by the recent war and as an aside to his original intention, to incorporate his research in Medjugorje into that wider context and even offer it as a clue to the understanding of considerably more complex and all-encompassing historical processes. Perhaps he was also led by an understandable wish to gain wider resonance for his specialized study. It is however obvious that in the very short time at his disposal he did not manage to study in detail the historiography and other literature necessary for such a radical conceptional and interpretational turn. The term Bosnia in the subtitle could be an attempt to take advantage of the interest it arouses in the media, since the author knows very well that Medjugorje is located in Herzegovina.
This motivation is also reflected in the fact that the book does not even mention the war between Croats and Bosnian Muslims although it happened in its entirety in front of Bax’s eyes. Since he had come there in order to investigate a Catholic Croat region, he was relatively quick in grasping the relationships to the Serbian-Orthodox element. However, he appears to have lost impetus when a third protagonist entered the game, moreover a non-Christian one, so he simply decided to ignore him, afraid—and with good reason—that the entire construction could collapse. Namely, his argumentation about the longue durée hatred between Serbs and Croats becomes useless when it comes to the turn of 1993, when this allegedly fatal chain of mutual extinction turns overnight into a “Christian alliance” against “Islamic fundamentalism,” and when the HDZ (the party in power in Croatia since 1990) begins to use the same “anti-Turkish” rhetoric against the Bosnian Muslims that was developed in the 80s by Serb nationalists and launched into operation by the SDS of KaradzŠic´ [Bosnian Serbian Democratic Party].
Striving to give greater value to an entirely localized historical perspective, Mart Bax’ study became an exemplary illustration of a long and by no means simple dispute of social macrohistory and anthropological microhistory. Attempting, as an ethnologist and sociologist of religion, to deal methodologically with the military and political nightmare in which he was caught, he obviously leaned towards those tendencies of social history which abandon the research of social structures and processes in favor of units of small space, in favor of the “microscopic”, everyday experience of people living on a confined area. Subsequently, these anthropological case-studies, by adducing a large number of single cases, are supposed to create an image of a larger entity, and there are even opinions that a certain case alone can be representative for an entity. According to Mirjana Gross, such authors refer back to the or “field research,” to the traditional way of work of an ethnologist who lives for a period of time among the members of a “primitive” social group and attempts to “understand” it with empathy. These writers are convinced that they can understand the researched world of certain human groups exclusively through their own interpretations of reality, through their “inborn theories”. Therefore, they believe that perhaps there is a direct way to historical truth based on the stories of those who have lived it. […]The history of  “everyday life” has no concept for the synthesis of individual stories of human experience and shares the attitudes of ethnologists. They, again, seek to solve the foreign culture and the way of life of its members on the basis of their symbolic and ritual activities.[…]The problem of theories is thus substituted by the “dense description” of details, in which the ethnologist expects from his object of investigation to speak for himself, in the same way as historicists and positivists believed that a historian must let the sources speak for themselves. […]Critics are of the opinion that it is impossible to reconstruct historical reality exclusively “from the inside,” on the basis of what people think of themselves, to renounce upon general notions and not to raise the question of the representativity of the results achieved in “microhistory”.2
Bax reproached the anthropologists and all those who investigated Yugoslav society for having begun very late to see that “the present-day hatred and atrocities are predominantly continuations on a larger scale of processes at the grass-roots level that were concealed behind the official communist rhetoric.” (p. 126) It is certainly easy to agree with the last part of this formulation as well as that in every war “regional violence formation is incorporated into a warlike configuration of national proportions” (p. 122), but if the problem is to be grasped in a truly analytical manner, we must inevitably raise a series of questions which the author avoids. Are all these “regional violence formations” typologically and generically identical? Are they all based on the ethnic principle? Do they all incorporate in the same way and with the same speed to make up the “configuration of national proportions”? Through which channels and mechanisms, communicational and social, is this incorporation performed? Who has the normative and the operative control over these mechanisms?
The relationship between the “lower” and the “higher” levels is rather ambiguous. There is no “local violence formation” which could be extrapolated to a higher level and could be treated as paradigmatic as, after all, there is no such all-encompassing “national configuration” which would be able to absorb everything, not even most of the “local formations,” impregnated by various social and historical experiences. The everyday experience of the people living on a narrow strip of territory is valuable, but with the proviso that one always keeps in mind the processes responsible for a large part of their fate.
In every reconstruction of historical phenomena, we establish a continuity between a certain part of the past and our own possible judgments, that is, the identity and the meaningful context of a social phenomenon in our presentation. However, this approach conceals dangers[…]Therefore, the historian’s skill consists, among other things, in the rational application of the concepts of continuity and discontinuity in the research of historical movements.3
For this reason it appears important to study precisely the methods and mechanisms of incorporation, for—as Bax himself says—a small war “can be a side-effect of organized warfare on a larger scale, but is not equivalent to it”. There is no doubt that “the small-scale local wars have become closely interwoven with the far larger ones” (p. 116); but the notion of “interweaving” does not tell us anything either about causal relationships, or about the possible prevalence of one element or another—especially in the early phases of the conflict; about the entire large territory—social and in relation to communications—between an autarchic village and what one might call a national level; or about the chronology of events. These aspects cannot be apprehended from a narrow local perspective.
Besides, it is precisely Bax’s analysis that suggests that in the couple ZŠitomislic´-Medjugorje, demonstrated as a paradigm of the Serbian-Croatian conflict, the fatal “configuration of the center of power and community under its domination” was certainly not triggered by some ustasha or cŠetnik, but by the acknowledgedly modern and administratively perhaps best organized European state of that period. In some other place the situation was certainly different, and to a very great degree.
The ethnographic material presented clearly shows that conflicts in Medjugorje were not determined by ethnic but by kinship loyalties, but Bax does not offer any modern example which could show that blood feuds of the sort he describes in western Herzegovina were common elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, he mentions one on the war in Croatia—pretentious, drawn out of context and based on a dubious source, the book The Fall of Yugoslavia. The Third Balkan War (Penguin, 1st ed. 1992, 2nd ed. 1993) by the English journalist Misha Glenny. Among the instant-interpreters of the bloody disintegration of SFRJ [Socialist Federate Republic of Yugoslavia] one could discern from the very beginning two “schools”: one asserted that Tito’s Yugoslavia was a multicultural idyll in which a seed of evil was planted by sinister nationalist politicians, KucŠan just as much as MilosŠevic´; the other considered it a land of endemic tribal hatred in which the latest war was a logical continuation and the final episode of earlier ones. Glenny was among the first in the West who promoted the second hypothesis, which is suggested in the subtitle of his book.
He is quoted by Bax twice, once as early as the introduction, when Bax says that during his stay in Herzegovina he was convinced that this was the region where “the most primitive branches of the Serb and Croat tribes live” (xvii), which is a formulation of Glenny’s. The second time is towards the end of his book, where he refers to Glenny’s presentation of the events in the Osijek and Vukovar area in the late spring and early summer of 1991. According to Glenny, the relations between Serbs and Croats there were “traditionally very good, even under the ustasŠa regime,” but then “something happened that disrupted that harmony in eastern Slavonia”. That something was a large number of newcomers—Croats from western Herzegovina and Serbs from Knin—who settled after the Second World War in the abandoned German and Hungarian farms in Vojvodina and Slavonia. Glenny was supported in this conclusion by a journalist from Vreme from Belgrade, MilosŠ Vasic´, with his statement that “communists took the most ardent fighters from the civil war and placed them in the middle of eastern Slavonia, through which they achieved that the hatred of war, after it was dug out again in 1991, spread also to those areas which had until then not been infected by it”.4
Subscribing uncritically to such views and insisting on his own a prioris, Bax is easily able to explain how the war began and whose fault it was that Vukovar ended as it did. Eastern Slavonia was settled by the “children and grandchildren of former ustasŠe who had emigrated from the region [western Herzegovina], so that in 1991, one could clearly see the “vengeful mentality of these emigrants in their battle against Serbs in East Slavonia—who also came from Herzegovina…” (p. 118).
Bax presents rather well the attitude of the Yugoslav communist authorities towards western Herzegovina, and already at that point he makes it clear how impossible it was for these authorities to give the land in the Podunavlje region, belonging to Volksdeutscher who had been driven out, to any Croat living there. It is true that there were some Croats who migrated from Herzegovina, but they were not included within the state colonization like Serbs (and also Croats from other regions), but came individually, at their own expense—mostly savings earned as Gastarbeiter abroad—and much later. The majority of Serbian colonists were not from the Knin region—according to Glenny—or from eastern Herzegovina—according to Bax, who simply substituted Glenny’s Serbs from Knin with his own Serbs from Herzegovina. Certainly, if one took into account all these facts, there would be no place left for regional stereotypes and a prioris which produce a “scholarly” alibi for MilosŠevic´, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and all those who systematically prepared conquests and dislocation of peoples long before 1991. Because, according to Bax and Glenny, it was actually a local settling of accounts by wild settlers, something like an all-round shoot-out in some Wild West saloon.
Bax’s material convincingly demonstrates that local communities have their own ways to suppress violence based on their own motivation and their own system of values, and their own ways to create relatively durable, socially and psychologically productive forms of cooperation and tolerance. In this respect, the study offers a good insight into the “civilizing or pacifying role of religion” (p. 99). It also clearly shows that economic progress reduces and eliminates social tensions, but that they reawaken under the influence of external violence. This violence need not have a political or ethnic motivation, nor always come from the “national level”. The fact that the non-ethnic motivation is often perceived as ethnic is a consequence of wider social psychoses and mobilization schemes, which are not produced by these small communities; they can only acquire them, apply them more or less brutally, and in the final account become, as they often are, their greatest victim.
All local communities have felt certain “exceptional” existential security in some historical situation and this situation lives in their social memory as a sort of golden age. If Bax had not been so fascinated by the ustashas and so ready to take every word of his hosts for granted, he would have been able to notice very easily in conversation with them that their ustasha attitudes were often—which is unreasonable, but historically explainable—reduced to irresponsible parading and spiteful negation of Yugoslavia, to pre-political perception of those four years as the only period in which they were “asked about their opinion” and when they could “freely declare themselves as Croats  and Catholics” instead of being mere game for hunting. The same motivation can be recognized behind the uncritical cult of Yugoslavia, the first rather than the second, of many Serbs west of the Drina river, and the idealization of the Turkish vakat in the historical memory of Bosnian Muslims. The actual basis of their tragedy, of which they are hardly ever conscious, rests in those who glorify such politically and morally unreasonable attitudes and incorporate them into ideological “configurations of national proportions”. (A recent example of such conscience and its manipulation was presented by the 4th congress of the HDZ: the presiding speaker read a telegram of greetings from a senior citizen in Zagreb, who, although hungry with only 800 monthly Kuna in her pocket [less than $150], was “happy, because she can finally freely speak of herself as a Croat”—which was followed by deafening applause.)
Resistance of small communities and their non-established cultures against dominant institutional systems can easily win sympathy. When such resistance is combined with resistance to an objectively repressive state such as Yugoslavia was, especially during the time of Rankovic´ (chief of the secret police during a part of Tito’s presidency), it may even inspire active solidarity. However, such solidarity will be hypocritical and counterproductive if it refuses to see that the resistance has another face, and that it is formulated in a way that makes it inevitable that the hunted one should accept the logic of the hunter and respond to the latter’s reduction of reality by an equally fatal reduction of his own.
As long as they were arrested for public exposure of Croatian national symbols and for singing Vila Velebita—a song forbidden since it was considered nationalist—Herzegovinian Croats were strengthened in their opinion that the only criterion of freedom was to expose those symbols and sing that song, and since during the ustasha rule you could indeed do that till you dropped, the NDH appeared to them as the only alternative to the repressive state of Yugoslavia: and at this point all critical thinking stopped. The communist regime was certainly responsible for the fact that, by criminalizing Croat identity and its symbols, it brought about the relativization of the truly criminal outbursts of chauvinism and radicalism. The Herzegovinian Croat would end up with more or less equal treatment at the police station  both for singing Vila Velebita and a ganga, a Herzegovinian folk-song which honors a pathological ustasha killer à la Luburic´.
Nevertheless, the list of the guilty is not exhausted by the communists or the Serbs. The non-established structure that represented the only authority to the singer during those 45 years and enjoyed his unconditioned trust bears its share of responsibility for the fact that the ustasha ideology, whether boastful or real, became the only model of resistance to communism, that general political consciousness was paralysed and the horizon of cognizance narrowed down to the choice between Yugoslavia and the NDH. Thus, political autism and moral relativism were encouraged—with fatal consequences. First, the NDH was turned into a myth which concealed the responsibility of its leaders for betraying the legitimate Croatian fight for a state of their own and for the evil that even the Croats themselves suffered (not to mention the Serbs and Jews). Second, at the time of the fall of communism western Herzegovina was in the state of mind in which it was practically inevitable that it should once more rush after a false prophet and his gang of political converts including returned emigrants of dubious past, and that, in a war with “the Turks” 115 years after the retreat of Turkey from the region, it should become the heir of another legacy that would postpone political and social emancipation for a long time to come.
Local communities, while entering various pacts with higher-level authorities at various points in time, were not always conscious of the network of relations in which they were being entangled or of the consequences. Sometimes they would be compelled by a sheer instinct for self-preservation, at others by pre-meditated calculations as to  how to obtain privilege. It is not difficult to see the responsibility of those who offered such privileges or protection according to confessional, ethnic, or “class” criteria. Nor is it difficult to condemn those who agreed to receive them, although they knew that they were obtained at the cost of their “subversive”, neighbors of the moment. Still, it is difficult to deny the fact that the recipients had good reason, confirmed by experience, to believe at least two things: first, that society was clearly divided into rulers and ruled, and second, that their neighbors would not have hesitated themselves if circumstances happened to bring in a different government which would offer the same privilege to them.
Vera Erlich wrote as early as 1965: “There is an obvious interdependence between the fate of a people and its dominant values. National values influence the course of history and historical events strengthen the values and goals which had come into being earlier in time. However, if we look for the beginning of this circle, we will confront a mystery”.5 Mart Bax committed only one error, but a substantial one: he started to believe that blood feuds offered him a clue to the mystery called Herzegovina, and the “revengeful” Herzegovinians the clue to the war as a whole.


1 Croatica Christiana Periodica, 34/1995, p. 191.
2 Mirjana Gross, Historiography Today. Zagreb: Novi Liber, 1996. pp. 291–92
3 Mirjana Gross, ibid., pp. 374–75.
4 Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War. Penguin, 1992 (1993) pp. 107–108.
5 Vera St. Erlich, “Ljudske vrednote i kontakti kultura” (Human Values and Contacts between Cultures). Sociologija VII, 3, (1965), p. 39.

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