The Croatian veterans of the Homeland War – the branitelji – occupy a special place in the collective memory of Croatia. As the “defenders” of the nation against what was perceived as an aggression by Serbia and Serbs in Croatia, the branitelji became the true heroes of the narrative of the young state. Their central role in realising the “thousand year old dream” of the Croatian nation to have its own state was cemented by the regime of the reformed communist Franjo Tuđman, which – together with the branitelji – were portrayed as the creators of Croatia. The indebtedness of the nation to its heroes manifest itself in a wide range of benefits and privileges made available to the veterans after they had ended their service.
However, even if most veterans were provided for materially by the state, gradually an ever widening social, political and emotional gap developed between the veterans and the general public. Instead of a warm reconciliation taking place between the heroes and those for whom they had fought, thereby facilitating the successful reintegration of the former soldiers into society; alienation, suspicion and tension came to mark their relation. This thesis aspires to provide an answer to the question of how this happened.
Firstly, the massive offering of benefits and privileges to the veterans came after a long and troublesome implementation, during which many burdened veterans lost faith in the state’s ability to provide for them, thereby becoming disillusioned and frustrated. Moreover, the law which regulated the benefits had no obvious overarching aim of using the benefits and privileges to stimulate reintegration: While pensions and invalidity compensation was highly prioritised, reintegration and employment programmes were given little weight. Furthermore, the vague definitions of the law merged with intransparent practices to open for massive exploitation by ordinary citizens who had never held a gun, but rather saw the status as branitelj as a way out of post-war economic uncertainty. This led to the total number of veterans becoming – in the eyes of the citizens and most veterans themselves – hopelessly inflated, thereby reducing the credibility of “true” veterans as the citizens came to view the entire veteran segment of the population with suspicion. Finally, as the state – mostly meaning Tuđman’s party, the HDZ – had monopolised the care for the veterans, no citizen led initiative existed to catch those veterans who were too broken down to address their problems through bureaucracy. Independent charity would also have brought about closer personal contact between ordinary citizens and the veterans, something which would have made reconciliation and reintegration easier.
Secondly, as the HDZ of former President Tuđman was ousted from government at the dawn of the new millennium, the right wing forces of Croatia united with the organisations of the veterans to bring back their political option to power. The mobilising factor became Croatia’s cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the nationalists of the former government skilfully exploited the discontent of the veterans to realise their thirst for power. However, as the protests gradually spun out of control and the measures became more extreme, popular opinion turned sharply against the veterans primarily, rather than against the political forces hiding in the background. This political manipulation contributed greatly to the gap between veterans and ordinary citizens.
Finally, one has to search for reasons in the organisations of the veterans themselves. Initially aspiring to assist former soldiers in realising their rights and facilitating reintegration to society, the organisations quickly began operating more as the personal clubs of interest groups or individuals. Corruption, fraudulence and theft became part of the internal life of several organisations, thus contributing to the increasingly widespread public conception that most “veterans” were really opportunists still capitalizing on the war. Moreover, most organisations had clear political ambitions from the start, ambitions which were often extreme and unaccommodating in the view of ordinary citizens, who were slowly becoming tired with wartime rhetoric and inflammatory ideological discussions. The members of these organisations were often as politically diverse as the population in general, thus the insistence on a political agenda also created the potential for discord among the veterans. This disunity rendered reintegration to society even more difficult for the ever more alienated and marginalised heroes of the Homeland War.