“None of Us Dared Say Anything”: Mass Killing in a Bosnian Community During World War II and the Postwar Culture of Silence

Max Bergholz, Concordia University

Research Grant, 2013, 2014

The seeds of this research project first crystalized in September 2006 while I was sifting through un-catalogued documents in the basement of the Archive of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo. One day I discovered a handful of blue folders, which stopped me in my tracks. The papers inside—a confidential communist government investigation of “Sites of Mass Executions” during 1941-1945—mentioned repeatedly a largely unknown community: Kulen Vakuf, a small town and its environs in northwest Bosnia. There, during two days and nights in September 1941, the documents indicated that approximately 2,000 people—men, women, and children “of the Muslim population”—were killed by their neighbors, described as “insurgents” and “Serbs.” The folders offered only a glimpse of this multi-ethnic community’s sudden descent into intercommunal violence. But this snapshot provided a compelling micro lens through which to embark on a search for macro answers to questions of global significance: What causes intercommunal violence among neighbors in multi-ethnic communities? How does such violence then affect their identities and relations? My research project was part of the search for answers to these questions. 

During my fieldwork, I sought to reconstruct the history of this multi-ethnic community’s collapse into intercommunal killing during the summer of 1941 and the resulting transformation of its residents’ lives. Contrary to a widely held view that sees nationalism leading to violence, I discovered that the upheavals wrought by local killing created dramatically new perceptions of “ethnicity”—of oneself, supposed “brothers,” and those perceived as “others.” As a consequence, the violence forged new communities, new forms and configurations of power, and new practices of nationalism. The history of this community was marked by an unexpected burst of locally executed violence by the few, which functioned as a generative force in transforming the identities, relations, and lives of the many. As such, telling the story of this largely unknown Balkan community in 1941 provides a powerful means through which to rethink fundamental assumptions about the interrelationships among ethnicity, nationalism, and violence, both during World War II and more broadly.

Local-level analysis revealed how violence created new, under-researched dynamics of nationalism in which daily incidents triggered traumatic memories of violence that led to momentary eruptions of "sudden nationhood."

In my research, I devoted sizable attention to analyzing the period of April-September 1941, during which time, unprecedented levels of locally executed violence occurred in my region of study. I sought to explain why some neighbors, who previously lived together in peace for long periods of time, engaged in violence on an ethnic axis and why this violence occurred in certain locations and at certain times, but not others. Yet, during my research, I uncovered archival documents and unpublished manuscripts that allowed me to push beyond solely analyzing causes of and variations in violence. They enabled me to illuminate how intercommunal violence can telescope multiple, simultaneous transformations in the meaning of ethnic categories and boundaries and, in so doing, can create new forms of local communities, particularly those whose members seek to escalate killing and, counter-intuitively, those who seek to restrain killing.

Triangulating among archival documents, memoirs, and oral history interviews, I followed the history of this local community into the decades after the cataclysmic events of 1941, to when communism was built, during which time, identities and social relations continued to be deeply influenced by the experience and memory of local violence. Here, local-level analysis revealed how violence created new, under-researched dynamics of nationalism, in which daily incidents triggered traumatic memories of violence that led to momentary eruptions of “sudden nationhood.” Taken together, my project suggests an overarching argument: Local, intercommunal violence is not merely destructive in a host of ways; rather, it can be an immensely generative force in the creation of social identities and configurations of power.

  1. Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2016).

  2. "Sudden Nationhood: The Microdynamics of Intercommunal Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina after World War II." American Historical Review 118, no. 3 (June 2013): 679-707.

  3. "As if nothing ever happened: Massacres, Missing Corpses, and Silence in a Bosnia Community." In Élisabett Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus, eds., Destruction and Human Remains. Disposal and Concealment in Genocide and Mass Violence (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 15-45.

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