Myth: Between 500,000 and 2,000,000 Serbs were murdered by the Croatian government during World War II.
Reality: The exact number of war victims in Yugoslavia during World War II may never be known due to fifty years of intentional disinformation by the Yugoslavian and Serbian governments, Serbian exile groups, and others. However, it is likely that approximately one million people of all nationalities died of war-related causes in all of Yugoslavia during World War II and that as many as 125,000 Serbs died of war-related causes in Croatia during the War.
The question of war losses during World War II represents the most divisive, heated and emotional issue among all of the nationalities of the former Yugoslavia during the post-War period. The bloody multi-sided War in Yugoslavia involved the German, Italian, Ustashe, Partisan, Domobran, White Guard, Slovenian Guard and at least four different; Cetnik armies. The multifaceted war pitted Serbs against Serbs, Croatians against Croatians, Serbs against Croatians, and Serbian Orthodox against Catholics and Muslims. The loss of life was heavy and difficult to document. As the war progressed and even long after the war ended, the mythology of the numbers of victims continued to grow.
The Growing Numbers
On the question of the number of Serbs killed in Croatia, it became possible to simply pick a number and virtually any press medium in the world would publish the figure without question. In one sixty day period in late 1991, David Martin put the number at 500,000 in the New York Times; Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at 750,000 in USA Today; Josif Djordjevich at 1,200,000 in the San Francisco Chronicle; Teddy Preuss at 1,500,000 in the Jerusalem Post; and, setting an all-time record, Peter Jennings' ABC News program set the figure at a record 2,000,000. Further, each of the sources added a separate twist to the number. For some, the number represented total "killed," for others "murdered," others "murdered in concentration camps," and still others did not define how the losses occurred. None listed any source for the figures. To illustrate the magnitude of these charges, it would require killing one person every 90 seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the entire duration of the War to reach Mr. Preuss' figure of 1,500,000. The fact is one million people did not die in Croatia from all causes during the War. Many scholars doubt that there were a million lives lost to war-related causes in all of Yugoslavia during World War II.
Yet this mythology runs deeper than virtually any other. As early as April 1942 the Serbian Orthodox Church in America, based upon Mihailovic's reports, claimed that over one million Serbs had already been killed in Croatia. As the war progressed, the numbers continued to grow in the Serbian press until actually exceeding the number of Serbs in Croatia. It must be noted that no Croatian troops set foot in Serbia during World War II. Thus all accounting of Serbian losses must be for those living in Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovnia.
After World War II, the Communist Yugoslav government set the total demographic losses for all of Yugoslavia from all causes at 1,700,000. The figure was never verified and was contradicted by demographic data comparisons between the Yugoslav census of 1931 and 1948. Nevertheless, this figure, which included natural mortality and decreased birth rate, was presented to the West German government for war reparations. At the same time, the Belgrade media began circulation of the figure 750,000 Jews, Gypsies and Serbs killed in Croatia during the War. By 1958 the number 750,000 was used to describe losses at a single camp, Jasenovac. Such high numbers were used not only to gain additional war reparations from Germany, but also to legitimize the Communist governments' role in saving the peoples of Yugoslavia from the horrors of nationalism. Germany refused to accept the 1.7 million figure and demanded documentation. On June 10, 1964 the Yugoslav government secretly ordered that the exact statistics regarding war victims be assembled. The task was completed in the Socialist Republic of Croatia by the Center for the Scientific Documentation of the Institute for the History of the Worker's Movement in Zagreb. By early November, the data had been collected and were sent to the Federal Institute for Statistics in Belgrade. When the data were tabulated, excluding Axis forces, the actual figure was 597,323 deaths for all of Yugoslavia. Of these, 346,740 were Serbians and 83,257 were Croatians for all of Yugoslavia. These figures excluded the deaths of any person who died fighting for the Cetniks, Ustase, regular Croatian Army, Slovenian Home Guards or serving in the German or Italian Armies. The government returned the data for re-tabulation and the figures were confirmed and provided to Germany.
The Data Made Public
In July of 1969, Bruno Busic, an associate at the Center for Scientific Documentation, published data from the 1964 study showing that 185,327 people were thought to have died of all causes in Croatia during the War and that 64,245 may have died in German or Croatian prisons or concentration camps. In September of that year the magazine that published the data was banned and Busic was arrested in 1971. After serving two years in prison he escaped to Paris where he wrote several monographs on political prisoners in Croatia. He was murdered in Paris in October 1978 by the Yugoslav Secret Police. In 1985, the Serbian scholar Bogoljub Kocovic published a major scholarly research work which put the figure for total demographic losses in all of Yugoslavia at 1,985,000 of which 971,000 were war-related. Of these 487,000 were Serbs killed anywhere in Yugoslavia by any side including Germans, Italians, Croatians, Albanians, Hungarians, Soviets, American bombing or by other Serbs. Kocovic concluded that some 125,000 Serbs and 124,000 Croatians died in Croatia during World War II. Kocovic also noted what many previous demographers had ignored. The first post-war census was taken in 1948 and "it is fully justified to take into account these post-war victims of communist terror," in reference to the thousands of Croatians slaughtered in late 1945 and 1946 in what have come to be called the Bleiburg Massacres. In 1989 The Yugoslav Victimological Society and the Zagreb Jewish Community published what is now considered the definitive work by Vladimir Zerjavic which set total war losses at 1,027,000 of which 530,000 were Serbs and 192,000 Croatians. 131,000 Serbs and 106,000 Croatians were listed as having died of all war-related causes in Croatia.
The Myth Grows On
Regardless of which scholarly study is consulted, no study has ever reached the figures so casually thrown about in the media. And despite all scholarly evidence to the contrary, in 1992 the Serbian Ministry of Information in Belgrade continued to claim that 600,000 Serbs were killed and the President of Serbia claimed 750,000 were killed by the Croatians during World War II. The Western media, unfettered by any need for factual documentation not only published these numbers, but, as in the case of ABC News, increased them by over one million victims. The Serbian scholar Bogoljub Kocovic best summarized the dilemma of those who would dare to seek the truth in this complex and volatile history:
Very soon it dawned upon me that the major
obstacle to my work would be the myths created
over four decades about the number of victims,
myths by now deeply implanted in the soul of the
people of all religions, political beliefs and
nationality; myths which, by repetition became a
'reality'. There will be many who will reject my
study because it does not conform to their
beliefs...Many of them are looking for spiritual food
to ignite their hatred of the Croats.