Exposing the Secret Crimes of Communism in Serbia

Communist repression in Serbia saw 52,000 people killed and thousands more locked up, says a historian who is investigating the crimes of the regime after World War II.

Marija Ristic
09 Sep 13

Because state secrecy persisted long after Communism collapsed, few people have realised the sheer scale of the repression in Serbia after World War II, according to Srdjan Cvetkovic, who has spent a decade researching crimes committed during the period.

Cvetkovic is a historian at the Serbian Institute for Contemporary History, and until recently was a member of the state commission for finding the graves of those killed at the height of repressive Communist rule, which lasted from the end of the war until 1953.

“We at the commission managed so far to find data that 52,000 people were killed in Serbia by the regime,” said Cvetkovic, who works from the fourth floor of the Historical Museum of Serbia in an office cluttered with books and archive documents.

“The majority of them, around 17,000, were illegally detained in various prisons and camps. Our estimates are that an overall number of 60,000 to 70,000 were victims of repression,” he told BIRN.

The state commission managed to find out the names and the locations of the graves of these 52,000 victims after the Serbian security services provided them with documents, Cvetkovic explained.

“The archives have long been closed in relation to this topic, you could find some documents here and there, which is nothing compared to the documents that were recently provided to the archive of Serbia by the BIA [Security Information Agency] and which I could access as a member of the commission,” he said.

As regards the identities of the victims, Cvetkovic said that for a long time political propaganda had obscured exactly who was killed by the Communist regime and for what reasons.

“After World War II, the state promoted the narrative that the [wartime] conflict was among [nationalist] Chetniks and [Communist] Partisans, and the victims of the Communist regime were only Chetniks,” he said.

“But in reality, the victims were ordinary citizens – usually those who had wealth and who were perceived as different in any way. This is what our data shows – 80 per cent of the victims were civilians,” he explained.

Official killers

Cvetkovic said that the Department for National Security, the OZNA, Yugoslavia’s security agency between 1944 and 1946, was responsible for the majority of the arrests and liquidations.

The OZNA was led by Josip Broz Tito’s close associate Aleksandar Rankovic, who became the subject of renewed controversy last month in Serbia when Prime Minister Ivica Dacic paid homage to him.

Speaking in late August at a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the death of Rankovic, Dacic said that the security chief deserved a proper place in Serbian history and that he would personally advocate his rehabilitation.

But Cvetkovic insisted that Rankovic’s role in history was very clear: he was responsible, as the head of the OZNA, for all the notorious crimes that the service committed.

“The OZNA was doing the arrests, investigations, liquidations,” he said.

“First they would enter some city, occupy the building of some wealthy man and in his basement they would bring people for interrogation. Here people were tortured and usually, after a few days, they would kill them in some area out of town,” he continued.

Cvetkovic said that more than 20 years after the fall of Communism, Serbia still hasn’t managed to face up to the crimes that were committed by the old regime.

“Even after the introduction of a multi-party system, even in this system we had many people that were part of old Communist regime. Therefore in the case of Serbia, unlike in other eastern European countries, there was no clear discontinuity from the old regime,” he explained.

“Serbia failed to properly transform from Communism into democracy because the archives needed to be open right afterwards, then lustration needed to take place, [as a result of which] all those who violated human rights would be excluded [from holding office],” he said.

Crimes on display

A lustration law was passed in 2003 to target former Communist collaborators, but Cvetkovic complained that it was being implemented too slowly.

“It is unfortunate that 23 years after Communism we are speaking about some measures that we should have taken right after the fall of the authoritarian regime,” he said.
The exhibition will take place in March next year in Belgrade / Photo: U ime naroda repesija u Srbiji

This is one of the reasons, he explained, why he decided to turn his ten years of research into Communist repression into an exhibition.

“This will be the first time that someone’s actually tackled this topic in a multimedia way. We decided to name the exhibition ‘In the Name of the People’ because all these crimes were committed with that justification,” he says.

The exhibition, which will take place in March next year in Belgrade, will deal with the Communist regime from 1944 until 1953, and be made up of four parts – revolutionary terror in Serbia, political trials and concentration camps, collectivisation and repression.

Cvetkovic said that every visitor will have a chance to experience or relive that period through videos, trial and interrogation simulations, movies and debates.

“The idea is that all this material we gathered in the commission and which has been undeservedly forgotten, we present to the general public, which still, 70 years after these crimes were committed, doesn’t know about them,” he concluded.