Fifty years ago, in June 1972, Yugoslavia’s Territorial Defense Force desperately tried to restrain and kill militants associated with the Australian-based Croatian Revolutionary Brotherhood.
For the second time in ten years, foreign-based nationalists are trying to incite an uprising against the country’s Communist Party government, led by President Josip Tito. Their goal was to create a Croatia independent of the rest of Yugoslavia.
Because they believed that now was the time for a revolutionary uprising of Croats, and after learning from the smaller, unsuccessful attack in 1963, the militants devised a daring plan to go deep into the heart of Yugoslavia. to strike. The downfall of the operation, which was launched under the code name Operation Phoenix, would be echoed by the governments of both Yugoslavia and Australia.
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Militants move into Bosnia
Nineteen men, many of them Croatian Australians and some of them from West Germany, had been preparing for months. Inspired by Fidel Castro’s tactics during Cuba’s revolution and observation of the recent suppression of the “Croatian Spring” movement, they believed they could rally the Croats of Yugoslavia against Tito.
On the night of June 20, 1972, the militants managed to evade detection by the authorities and enter Yugoslavia from Austria. They hijacked a truck and drove to Bugojno, a central Bosnian town with a large ethnic Croatian population. There they tried to recruit locals for their cause.
The militants received little sympathy from the indigenous population – some of whom reported to the authorities – and began attacking Yugoslav outposts and spreading propaganda. Aware that they had no way of escaping the country, their goal was to give their case maximum visibility.
Frightened and embarrassed by these developments, Yugoslavia mobilized thousands of men and placed central Bosnia under quarantine. Tito was personally involved in the operation. After a brutal firefight on June 25 in which most of the attackers were killed, the surviving members of the invasion fled into the hills. Only after another four weeks were all 19 men accounted for. Fifteen militants and 13 Yugoslavs were killed in this bloody event.
The four prisoners were on trial in Yugoslavia. Three were executed and the last member, the youngest, was sentenced to life in prison. He would later be released and eventually died during the break-up of Yugoslavia almost 20 years later.
For Australia, the incident was unique. An organization founded and established in this country attacked Yugoslavia in an astonishing way.
Now, new research, and the increasing accessibility of primary source documents in the former Yugoslavia, has highlighted the significant impact of the attack in both countries.
The militants did not cause a Croatian uprising against Yugoslavia, and the Yugoslav government was undoubtedly reassured by their failure to attract local support. But the psychological impact of an attack deep in the country was significant. Tito was furious. His security detail feared that diaspora-Croatian nationalists had the will and sophistication to try to assassinate the president.
The prestige of Yugoslavia’s security services has eroded. To ensure that an event like this is never repeated, Tito launched a “special war” against emigrant nationalists – a decade-long international campaign of targeted assassinations. Yugoslavia has also increased pressure on countries such as Australia to suppress Croatian nationalist and extremist organizations in their territory.
In Australia, the attack has not been reported for weeks. When initial reports from Yugoslavia arrived, it was openly challenged by the Australian government, with Attorney General Ivor Greenwood declaring that he was “not aware of any factual basis for such allegations”. The Australian government, distrustful of its Yugoslav counterpart, had to be convinced that the unlikely events actually took place.
When the full extent of the incident became known in the run-up to Australia’s 1972 election, the government was caught flat-footed and deeply embarrassed. Police findings that at least some members of the group were recruited and trained in Australia have been widely reported in the press.
Australian security forces, more interested in fighting communism than in investigating efforts within migrant communities, did not have files on many of the fraternity – based members of the fraternity. They were unable to give William McMahon’s coalition government a clear picture of what happened and how such a conspiracy was organized by Australians.
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Commonwealth police quickly launched a series of raids, reporting to the government that about 300 Croatian Australians were of “particular concern”. The question of how best to respond to these developments has slandered a government that has been reluctant to alienate migrant communities but did not want to give the impression that such a conspiracy is acceptable.
The Labor Party, long concerned about the risk posed by violent Croatian nationalism in Australia, seized on the invasion as proof that the McMahon government was incapable of grappling with locally based terrorism. They would act aggressively against Croatian nationalist organizations when they came to power later that year, although this led to harmful typecasting of ordinary Croatian Australians and sometimes serious impacts on innocent individuals.
Coupled with the September 1972 bombings of the Yugoslav General Trade and Tourism Agency in Sydney, the June attack in Yugoslavia weakened McMahon’s law and order record that entered the 1972 election. Indeed, Labor MPs like Jim Cairns have warned the government that any attempt to campaign against law and order has been undermined by their failure to address this issue.
Although it is impossible to assess the role of a single issue in any campaign, and although neither party put the issue of Croats at the center of their election campaign, the invasion resonated.
Journalists Laurie Oakes and David Solomon later wrote, noting that the government’s inability to deal with Croatian nationalist violence means that “Labor can appear stronger on national security than the coalition”. The narrowness of McMahon’s election loss made every weakness more important.
A forgotten episode of Australian national security history, the 1972 attack is more than just a footnote. The incident had real consequences for the political tracks of both Australia and Yugoslavia.