As he does in many countries, Bob Dylan enjoys a great reputation in Croatia. In 2008 and 2010, he gave concerts here that received excellent reviews and publicity. But some of his Croatian fans are saddened, even outraged, that their musical idol expressed himself carelessly in describing their country’s historically fraught relationship with neighboring Serbia.
In an interview last year, Rolling Stone quoted Mr. Dylan as saying: “Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery — that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”
While some of Mr. Dylan’s defenders say that he was referring to the ethnic violence of the 1990s that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, most observers saw in Mr. Dylan’s comments a reference to Croatian leaders’ collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Following complaints by the Croatian community in France, Paris prosecutors opened an investigation this month into whether Mr. Dylan could be charged with “incitement to hatred.”
For centuries, Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; after World War I, it joined the new Yugoslavia. During World War II, the Germans and Italians installed a puppet state in Croatia and Bosnia, ruled by the Ustasha, a group of Croatian fascists whose genocidal violence — against Serbs, Jews, Roma and political opponents — was comparable to the Nazis’.
However, at the same time, we had in Croatia and Bosnia arguably the most successful resistance movement in occupied Europe, led by Josip Broz Tito (later the leader of Communist Yugoslavia). In September 1943, Croatian Partisans liberated a concentration camp on the island of Rab that held 3,200 Jewish inmates, saving a vast majority of their lives.
I am a Croatian Jew. Born in 1928, I lost my father to the fascists, but I escaped persecution in my home city, Karlovac, with help from two Catholic families, and found refuge in a Croatian village. To save us from likely deportation to a concentration camp in May 1942, my mother took me and my younger brother to the Croatian Partisans who controlled the southern part of the country, near the Adriatic coast.
I was 14. From that moment I felt freedom: No one was interested in whether I was a Croat or a Serb, a Christian or a Jew. During the next three years, I worked for the Partisans, first in auxiliary units in Partisan-controlled Serbian villages, and then for 15 months in a combat unit, mostly volunteers from Karlovac.
Before, during and after the war, I had close friends in two neighboring villages, one Croatian and the other Serbian, about 20 kilometers from my hometown. As I described in my most recent book, the villages’ relationship swung like a pendulum in the last century, from long stretches of understanding, tolerance and collaboration to periodic explosions of misunderstanding, conflict and war.
Balkan nationalism is a malady that slumbers in times of prosperity and stability, and explodes at other times. The worst was during World War II, when, according to the Croatian demographer Vladimir Zerjavic, some 567,000 people in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina lost their lives in the anti-fascist struggle and civil war: about 210,000 in or because of the war, and about 357,000 killed in genocidal and political terrorist attacks (at least three-quarters of them by the Ustasha, and considerably fewer by Serbian royalist Chetniks and by the Communist-led Partisans).
Under the system of rule established by Tito, we had more than 40 years of interethnic peace — or at least a truce. But with the breakup of Yugoslavia, old wounds reappeared. Ethnic Serbs in parts of Croatia, backed by the Serb-led Yugoslav Army, rebelled against Croatia’s declaration of independence on June 25, 1991. That summer and fall, perhaps 120,000 Croats (estimates vary widely) were expelled from areas with a mixed Croatian-Serbian population. Their property was plundered or destroyed; hundreds of elderly people who declined to flee were killed.
Four years later, before the Croatian military offensive known as Operation Storm, some 150,000 Serbs escaped or were expelled from the same area. Their property, too, was plundered and burned; hundreds of their elderly, too, were killed for trying to stay at home.
Since the start of this century, relations have slowly normalized. Some people can’t or won’t return to abandoned homes, but others have come back and restored their livelihoods. Serbian tourists are coming to Croatia’s Adriatic coast for summer vacations. Croatian musicians and performers are visiting Serbia, and vice versa. Basketball, water polo and handball teams of both countries play each other.
There have been setbacks — in Croatia, some right-wing politicians want to reduce the rights of the Serbian minority, and in Serbia historical revisionists have tried to whitewash the record of the Chetnik wartime leader Draza Mihailovic, whose forces killed Croatians and Muslims — but I believe they are temporary. Croatia joined the European Union this year and Serbia is trying to open talks on membership. Our future depends on peaceful cooperation and ever-stronger economic ties.
I believe that Mr. Dylan spoke out of ignorance, not malice. I hope he will apologize for his careless oversimplification and, in doing so, remain our idol in the struggle for human rights and interethnic tolerance.
Slavko Goldstein is the author of 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning, which was translated by Michael Gable from the Croatian, as was this essay.