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Book Review 236: Empire on the Adriatic

May 19, 2012 - Harry Eagar
EMPIRE ON THE ADRIATIC: Mussolini's Conquest of Yugoslavia, 1941-1943, by H. James Burgwyn. 385 pages, illustrated. Enigma

I only wish there had been more context in James Burgwyn's interesting account of Italy's attempt to control parts – not all – of Yugoslavia. In fact, when it comes to imperial hubris, the Fascists were surprisingly modest.

All they wanted, at least at first, was Dalmatia and an expanded Albania. (Foreign Minister Ciano, however, had been plotting against Croatia for years, which is not in “Empire on the Adriatic,” one of the items that, to my mind, would have helped clarify the hideous political situation that confronted the Italians, and, on the ground, the 2nd Army.)

As Burgwyn says, the kingdom of Yugoslavia was hardly a happy democracy (although an argument could have been made that it was the least fascist state east of the Rhine). The invasion of Italy and Germany turned it into a Hobbesian nightmare.

No element was not guilty of terrible atrocities – about a million dead and another million displaced in 29 months or so, a toll worse than Spain's agony of a few years before. But it can be argued that among the guilty, the Catholic Croats were guilty of atrocities earlier and worse than anyone else's.

Burgwyn is not the sort to argue that though. He says, correctly, that it was the invasion that started the catastrophe.

Burgwyn's assertion, which he says was the view also of the Nuremburg Tribunal and both the Italian and German army commanders, that 95% of Croats did not support the wholesale murders of the Ustasha is harder to accept.

The Ustasha were led to their slaughters by hymn-singing priests and egged on by the Vatican. On the principal that popular leaders cannot get too far ahead of the led, the idea that 19 of 20 Croats were opposed is unlikely.

Be that as it may, once the killing started, all participated. Although Mussolini backed Pavelik and the Ustasha, the 2nd Army worked to thwart him. Its generals calculated that it was better to be friends with the more numerous Serbs.

When it came to murdering Jews and gypsies, the army intervened, not because it had any use for Jews or gypsies, but because it found the roundup incompatible with its honor. Considering what the Italian army did in Africa, all that proves is that military honor is a flexible concept.

Nevertheless, whether their motives were pure or not, the army did save Jews.

As it worked out, the Partisans (Communists) profited most from the civil war. This is ironic, says Burgwyn, since the anti-communist Catholics and Fascists opened the gate to the tiny and harmless pre-war Yugoslavian Communist Party.

Not for the first time, rightwing anti-communist fanatics were Communism's best recruiters.

Burgwyn's theme is that the Yugoslavian situation developed along the same lines as all attempts by imperial invaders to impose their will on a resistant population. It can be done, but it requires a massive effort, which Italy could not afford.

As usual, early notions about winning hearts and minds (the Fascists thought to Italianize the Slavs) failed, and in frustration the invaders turned to indiscriminate violence.

“Empire on the Adriatic” was published in 2005, and while Professor Burgwyn says not a word about parallels with the American fiasco in Iraq at that time, a dust jacket blurb by his friend Jonathan Steinberg makes the point:

“Reading this book today reminds us that trying to control a hostile country full of insurgents and 'terrorists' without enough troops and a clear objective has always been a recipe for catastrophe.” It's too much to hope that busy American leaders would ever take time to wade through this book – while not brilliantly written, the problem is the subject matter, not the author – but it would repay their efforts a thousand-fold if they did so.


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