The historical context of the creation of the Goli Otok camp
In the years following World War II, Yugoslavia was one of the most loyal followers of the Soviet Union. Yugoslav Communists sought to imitate the Soviet model in politics, culture, economy, and the judiciary, as well as in many other fields. Images of Stalin were a common sight in various state institutions, while limitless glorification of the Soviet Union and its leader saturated the public sphere. However, in so doing, Yugoslav Communists were guided by the conviction that they had to strengthen their regional role and spread Communism beyond Yugoslavia’s borders. This policy brought them into conflict with the Soviet Union, which was not in favour of Yugoslavia acting independently in Greece, Bulgaria and Albania.
The relationship between Belgrade and Moscow deteriorated quietly for months before escalating publicly. On 28 June 1948, the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), an international organisation of Communist parties controlled by the Soviets, issued a resolution aiming to put pressure on Yugoslavia, hoping for a change in the then-leadership. As the conflict had hitherto been secret, the Cominform Resolution (Rezolucija Informbiroa) came as a shock to the citizens of the country. After three years of intense Stalinisation in Yugoslavia, it was hard for much of the populace to comprehend the fact that the Soviet Union and Stalin were no longer friends; however, the Communist party leadership in Yugoslavia did not fall. Following this, the Soviets isolated Yugoslavia, both economically and diplomatically, and there were even indications that they might intervene militarily.
At the same time, the Cominformists [Ibeovci – Informbiro being the Yugoslav name for the Cominform] began to emerge. The Cominformists had been the followers of the Soviet Union as well as people confused by the new political situation due to the Yugoslav government’s information bias. Half a year after the Cominform Resolution was issued, when it became clear that there would not be a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, and that Yugoslav-Soviet relations could only be expected to further deteriorate, Yugoslavian Communists began a confrontation with the opposition in their ranks, both real and potential, and began organising a system of camps and prisons to imprison the Cominformists, the largest of which was the Goli Otok camp, established in July 1949.
Throughout history, numerous islands around the world have served as sites where political opponents were imprisoned. This isolated Adriatic island, situated far from the eastern boundaries of Yugoslavia, was the natural choice for the Yugoslav secret police, which was then called the State Security Service (UDBA – Uprava državne bezbjednosti), as the logical solution to the challenge of isolating real and alleged followers of Stalin. As the island has no drinking water, and both its soil and climate are unfavourable, it was neither inhabited nor capable of sustaining agriculture, other than some fishing and sheep farming. In spite of its position within a relatively densely populated part of the Adriatic, Goli Otok, 4.54 km2 in size, has remained deserted.
The greater part of the island is exposed to frequent blasts of a strong northern wind, the Bura, with just a segment of the south-western coast of Goli Otok partially sheltered. It is on this part of the island that a natural access point was formed, which later, when the camp was being built, provided the site for the harbour. The remainder of the inaccessible shoreline, especially the northern and eastern side of the island, is characterised by a chain of cliffs around 200 metres tall, and some 4 km long. The island’s highest peak is Glavina (227 m), while the sea surrounding it reaches a depth of 30 metres, and, off the eastern shore, as much as 103 metres. Due to such characteristics, the island had remained naturally isolated.
Its geological composition, dominated by limestone rocks, was the primary cause of the nonexistence of any sources of water, or permanent surface flows on the island, which meant that vegetation on the island is also scarce. The rocky inclines are covered by patches of dry grassland. After the camp was established, reforesting began on the south-western part of Goli Otok, which is nowadays the only “green” part of the island. The island’s climate is dominantly temperate, warm and wet, with hot summers. During winter, gusts of Bura very often reach a speed of up to 150 km/h, in such time the temperature can drop to -8°C. Taking into account all these geographical determinants, Goli Otok was a suitable place to establish a prison camp. The harsh climate would become ingrained in the inmates’ memories as one of its main characteristics.