I just lectured at Strossmayer University in Osijek, Croatia. Osijek is a few miles from Vukovar, a city best known for its unfortunate fate during the civil war in 1991. A war that resulted in the splitting of Serbia and Croatia and the dissolving of the Yugoslav Federation.

Osijek was not conquered by the Serbs like Vukovar was, but it was surrounded and cut off from the rest of Croatia during the war. Of Osijek’s 100,000 inhabitants, only 10,000 remained in the city. The rest escaped to live with family or friends. Out of the 10,000 who stayed, about 1,500 were killed by the shelling of the city. Driving around, I could still see many buildings with bullet holes and shrapnel damage.

During the Yugoslav federation, the city was a big industrial, cultural, and educational center of Croatia. Most of its inhabitants were of mixed origin: Serbian and Croatian. One could only determine who was who by name or religion: Serbian names usually end with ch, and Serbs are Slavic Orthodox while the Croats are Catholic.

When the war started, they tell me, it was hard to know who was on whose side because families were of mixed nationalities. Families broke apart. Parents denounced the spouses of their children. They denounced their own grandchildren. The depth of the hatred was unbelievable.

How did this happen? How could people become so hateful of their own families?

Was it because of religion? It could not be, because most people were not very religious.

Was it because of language? It could not be, because the Croatian language and the Serbian language were very close, like British and American English-just some different spellings and a different accent.

Was it fighting for land or resources? Since it was a mixed population, mixed marriages, it could not be that.

Croatians claimed that during the time of the Yugoslav federation the Serbs dominated them, taking the Croats’ tax money to Belgrade and returning nothing. But that alone would not cause so much hatred.

So what was it?
Nationalism. Their identity, their source of pride was “I am different from you.”

Is that enough to explain the atrocities of that war, when they were killing each other, shooting indiscriminately, shooting just to kill for the sake of killing. Where did this deep hatred come from?

Years ago my very good friend, a Croat sociologist, gave me an explanation-he did not dare to publish it-that was confirmed to me by the people of Osijek.

The nationalist politicians on both sides lied about atrocities that never happened. It was propaganda, to get the people stirred up, so their nationalistic identity would get stronger and stronger, and the birth of their nation would occur.

Croat TV would inform their audience that Croats in a village were murdered and burned, and their houses ransacked by Serbs. All over Croatia, Croats’ blood would boil, demanding revenge. But if one went to that remote village, the people there had no evidence these atrocities ever happened. Serbian TV from Belgrade would do the same, getting Serbs’ blood boiling for revenge, while there was no evidence that their reported violence happened either.

My host in Osijek told me that during the war she had to listen to a Croat TV news broadcast, then switch immediately to a Serb TV news broadcast, trying to decipher from the two what the truth might actually be.

The war undeniably left its marks. Slavonia, the region of which Osijek is the capital, used to be the breadbasket of Croatia. It has arable land, very productive soil, and flat, easy-to-farm terrain. But now the land is desolate. Slavonia is one of the most intensely landmined regions of the world. As one drives from Osijek to Vukovar, all along both sides of the road are signs: “beware of mines.”

The Croatian government has no resources to remove the mines, so the land is left unfarmed. As the agricultural industry has died the purchasing power of the population has gone down, and commerce is suffering. That in turn means Osijek’s industry has fewer outlets in which to sell, not to mention that Croatia is a smaller market than what used to be Yugoslavia.

The result? Osijek has 25 percent unemployment. Vukovar has 50 percent unemployment, and many of the unemployed are university graduates.

Croatia is a developed country. People are expected to go to school and graduate with a university degree. But there are no jobs. To emigrate is not easy, but some do succeed in moving to Germany, Sweden, Switzerland. The best minds are leaving the country.

The older people who remember how it was in Yugoslavia claim life was better then. True, it was a communist state, but still there was work. There was safety. Children stayed around and families did not split as children moved abroad.

The young people disagree. Why? Because they are taught in school that Yugoslavia was a prison state, that the Serbs were plundering the resources of Croatia, etc., etc., etc. All propaganda with a strong nationalistic fervor.

In Croatia you are not supposed to sing Serbian songs. Croats developed a language of their own in order not to speak Serbian. The language used to be called SerboCroatian. It was one language. Then Croat nationalists dug up old Croatian words used in the middle ages, created new words, and taught them at schools and forced the newspapers and other media to use them.

The result? If years ago I could communicate with Croats without any effort, now I cannot even read the newspaper.

For my lecture, the hosts spent hours debating how to announce in what language I would speak. They did not dare to say the lecture would be in Serbian. I did not know the new Croat language. They could not say I would speak in SerboCroatian because it would imply that the two are the same language, which would be not just very politically incorrect, but politically dangerous.

So they came up with a creative solution: It was announced that I would lecture in a combination of Serbian and Croatian languages. Of course, in essence all Croats understand Serbian language. They spoke the same language not so long ago. It is as if Lincoln failed to keep the USA united and Texans now spoke the Texan language, while Boston spoke Bostonian. They would both be English, just with a slightly different accent.

I lectured in Serbian and used literally three new Croatian words so I would live up to the advertisement that I was using a combination of the two languages.

I have one of my books translated to the new Croatian language. All the other six books are available in Serbian. My office did not bring the Serbian language books to sell at my seminar, although the participants could have understood it perfectly, in order not to get the audience upset.

In a restaurant when I ordered a Serb salad, which is lots of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and onions, the waiter was obviously shaken. I realized my mistake and ordered a Greek salad and told him to keep the cheese. Obviously it was, de facto, the Serb salad.

It reminded me of another politically incorrect request I made in Greece: I dared to order a Turkish coffee. They almost threw me out of the restaurant. It is a Greek coffee, they insisted. So in Turkey I ordered a Greek coffee and got a very quizzical look from the waiter. So what should I order, I wondered, in Croatia? To be safe I ordered a Balkan coffee.

The European Union is giving money for management education to “Western Balkan” states. What are the Western Balkans, I asked? Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, even Bulgaria. Look at a map: if Bulgaria is Western Balkan, what is Eastern Balkan then? I was told there is no Eastern Balkan. They are all Western Balkan.

Sincerely,
Dr. Ichak Adizes