Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia's Failed Historian

Dragutin Hedl reflects on the legacy of Croatia's leader - Tudjman the Tito fan, the fanatical nationalist, the lover of luxury and hoarder of riches, his country's self-proclaimed hero - and its wrecker.
By Dragutin Hedl

Three weeks before he went into hospital in Zagreb, President Franjo Tudjman confidently told foreign journalists: "Physically and psychologically I am completely healthy."


It's not thought that he was attempting to deceive his audience - even though he had less than two months to live at the time. Like all dictators, the Croatian president was convinced of his own immortality. But it seems that none of Tudjman's doctors had the courage to tell him that his cancer had returned and he had to undergo surgery.


Formerly one of Tito's World War II partisans and then a communist army general he was also, by the time he led Croatia to independence in 1990, a fierce nationalist. But when in power, he revived bitter memories of the nationalist neo-fascist Ustase regime that ran Croatia as a Nazi German puppet state during World War II.


History favoured him. The nationalist hysteria released by his Serbian opposite number, then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, rocked and shook the Yugoslav federation just as communism was foundering everywhere in east and central Europe. Later, Tudjman was happy to rewrite history, giving his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party the credit for destroying communism in Croatia.


Even though he was considered a dissident under communism - he spent a short time in prison because of his support for nationalism - he was scarcely a rebel against the one-party system in the former Yugoslavia.


He had a passport and he travelled around the world, seeking allies for his plans to create an independent Croatian state and establishing links with the Croatian political and economic diaspora.


When he came to power, he began to pay back his debt to the Croatian émigrés who helped him financially in his first election campaign. He found a cheap way of doing this by encouraging the emergence of the neo-Ustasism they favoured.


He became quickly notorious for finding good words for the World War II Ustase regime, rejecting the view that it was a puppet state, collaborating with German occupiers and chose instead to read it as part of Croatia's 'historical aspirations' for statehood.


The Ustase insignia - a capital letter U - returned to public view and the Zagreb's famous Square of the Victims of Fascism was renamed to suit the new regime's view. Around the country streets were renamed after Ustase minister Mile Budak. Soldiers and policemen hung pictures of Ustase state president Ante Pavelic in their barracks again.


Thanks to Tudjman, Croatia got its state (it was recognised by the international community on January 15 1991). Yet, had there been no Tudjman, historical circumstances suggest that someone else would have done it. Indeed some think that Croatia could have got its own state even without war, had a wiser state policy been conducted. This argument could scarcely be aired during Tudjman's rule.


In the bloody Yugoslav drama, Croatia was an indisputable victim of Serbian aggression, but with the end of the fighting, Tudjman sensed the time was ripe to realise of his old dream to create a 'Greater Croatia'. To do this - to recreate the old Banovina of Croatia - implied the annexation of a large part of what was by then the independent state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.


The war that followed was bloody and marked by some of the worst war crimes reported in the former Yugoslavia. There was much speculation that the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague would have eventually indicted him alongside Milosevic had Tudjman's death not ended that prospect.


Tudjman discussed the division of Bosnia with Milosevic on several occasions (they met on 47 occasions). He created the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, and despite his endless public pledges to support his neighbour's sovereignty, he continued to advocate it even after the Dayton peace agreement.


Notoriously, he said that he was happy that his wife was "neither a Serb nor a Jew". And some anti-Semitic remarks in his book Horrors of War: Historical Reality and Philosophy, drew international criticism, particularly from Israel, which did not ease until prosecution this year of the former commander of the World War II concentration camp at Jasenovac.


He liked abundance, pomp and luxury. In this sense he subconsciously emulated his idol, Josip Broz Tito. The fact that he was the head of a small, poor country that had been exhausted by war was not an obstacle for him. He bought a new aeroplane and surrounded himself with expensive cars and unprecedented luxury.


Like Tito, he loved military uniforms and had tailors make him a completely white one, modelled on the one in which Tito appeared most often. He did not take Tito's old rank of Marshall, but settled for Commander of the Croatian army instead, even though there was no such a rank.


He did however, take on Tito's former summerhouse on the Brioni Islands and his former Zagreb villa. (When it was no longer legally possible to keep it on indefinitely, Tudjman bought the villa from the state, but not before he had enlarged it and redecorated it at state expense.)


Like Tito, he liked honours as well. In one day, he awarded himself nine decorations. And he was prone to exaggerate: he claimed that Croatia was one of the oldest nations in Europe, and believed that he would have got a Nobel prize for his history books - if he weren't a Croat.


But, unlike Tito, who did not worry about material wealth, during his ten years in power Tudjman looked after his family, making it - according to his closest associates - one of the richest in Europe.


His older son Miroslav is a Croatian intelligence service chief and his younger son Stjepan and daughter Nevenka have grown rich from business deals eased by their government contacts. His wife Ankica founded a humanitarian foundation whose financial management has been much criticised. Two grandsons by Nevenka, who met and married a Serb while her father was serving in Belgrade, have found fame for their activities with private banks and expensive sports cars.


Tudjman created a Croatian state in the image of a space to be ruled by 200 families, making free with state property and funds. The country's economy soon floundered. The late president leaves behind him an army of unemployed, a million pensioners trapped by near-worthless pensions and a foreign debt of nine billion dollars.


He cared little for human rights or democracy, though he readily invoked the latter. He said that Croatia was a victim of a foreign conspiracy, that the political opposition were mere "geese in the fog," and that up to 15 per cent of the population were plotting against his state.


The result was the creation of the kind of pseudo-sovereignty based on international isolation that Albania's Stalinist ruler Enver Hoxha would have recognised.


Having little feel for the time in which he lived, Tudjman turned to myths and history for his ideas. Whatever was national was elevated, sovereignty was the highest value of a state.


Yet even though he always liked to talk about himself as a historian, it seems that he learnt nothing from history. If he had genuinely been one, he would have lived in fear of its judgement.


He may be seen as the founder of the Croatian state, but there is hardly anything positive to add. When the deconstruction of his cult begins, hardly anything will remain of his grand image.


Dragutin Hedl is a regular correspondent for IWPR in Zagreb.