Croatia: Living the Past, Not Confronting It
When socialist Yugoslavia fell apart, or was torn apart (as some historians claim), falling into civil and international war, Croatia, as well as some other former Yugoslav countries, looked back into its past in order to find its foundations, on which it can historically, ideologically and, most importantly, symbolically lay on. Today, Croatian society faces considerable historical revisionism or even forgery – especially with regard to remembering the crimes at Jasenovac concentration camp.
Although legal basis for its 1990s independence and international recognition was mostly based on the 1974 Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – in which Socialist Republic of Croatia existed within same borders as today – Croatia was searching for its historical roots in all spheres of life in early 1990s. This was mostly present in introducing state symbols of the democratic Croatia in early 1990s. The official coat of arms that Croatia introduced, was slightly modified historical coat of arms. Additionally, in 1994, after using the transitional currency Croatian dinar (as substitute for Yugoslav dinar) from late 1991, Croatia introduces Croatian kuna (marten), due to historical roots of the currency, since marten fur was used as a currency in middle ages. With all these national symbols, the biggest problem was that they were symbolically compromised during the World War II (WWII).
With the beginning of WWII in September 1939, Croatia was a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, multi-national and multi-confessional kingdom under a Serbian king. Germany, along with Italy and Bulgaria invaded Yugoslavia on April 6 1941, crushing the Yugoslav army in just 11 days. Already before the official surrender of the army, a Nazi-backed puppet state, Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was declared in Zagreb on April 10, by its future army commander Slavko Kvaternik. With the blessing of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy the state was created by a Croat fascist terrorist group, called Ustasa (or Ustasha, from Croatian verb “ustati”, to rise up, to rebel) – Croatian Revolutionary Organisation. Founded in 1930 from Croatian right-wing parties, the group was outlawed in Yugoslavia (where it organised occasional small-scale terrorist attacks before the war) and the vast majority of its members spent the time before the war in camps of their fascist allies – Germany, Italy and Hungary – where they received training and support of their fascist mentors. Group numbering in hundreds, was headed by their leader, poglavnik (head) Ante Pavelic. Through a fascist ideology, strongly opposed to communism and liberal democracy, Ustasa movement sought to form an independent Croatian state, inhabited solely by Croats and, later, Bosniaks (considered as Croats of a Muslim faith), announcing ethnic cleansing from especially Serbs, who are considered as the biggest enemy. Already in the following month, NDH passed racial laws, modelled upon Nazi ones, outlawing Serbs, Jews and Roma. Although Serbs were targeted before the war, Jews and Roma were added into racial laws upon the pressure of Germany. Nevertheless, NDH’s role in the Holocaust had disastrous consequences for the Jewish community of Croatia and Bosnia, with only around 9,000 out of approximately 40,000 Jews surviving the war (Goldstein 1999, p. 136), while the Roma community, for which undoubted data of pre-war community size is non-existing, was brought near to total destruction. Croatian concentration and death camp Jasenovac, modelled upon Sachsenhausen camp (Goldstein 2001, p. 312), in central Croatia was a place in which Ustasa killed 83,145 people (according to a name by name list made by the public institution of Jasenovac; the list which is not closed and is constantly growing), vast majority due to their ethnic background – Serbs, Roma and Jews – but also Croat (and other) anti-fascists.Ustasa movement and NDH included all existing historical Croatian symbols, such as the coat of arms, Croatian kuna and Croatian national anthem. Therefore, in 1990s with forming of a modern democratic state, these symbols could be used, on the one hand, for rallying everyone from moderate citizens to even the far right elements in the society. On the other hand, the inclusion of these symbols, although most of them were used before NDH, could be used for discrediting the new-born state, especially by the Serb-dominated central Yugoslav government as well as the large Serb minority in Croatia, partly traumatised by its WWII experience. It goes without saying that 1990s Croatian political establishment cherished a partial historical revisionism, aimed at downplaying NDH regime and its crimes, while stressing the crimes of the anti-fascists, communist-dominated Partisans. This was seen in practical and, especially, in symbolic moves of the Croatian political elite in 1990s. For example, a law passed in early 1990s allowed former Ustasa and Domobran (regular NDH armed forces) members to gain pensions from the state, similar to former Partisans. On a more symbolic level, tragedy and trauma of Jasenovac was replaced with a trauma of the event from Bleiburg and the so-called “Stages of the Cross”. Bleiburg is a small municipality in southern Austria on the border with Slovenia, where Ustasa, Domobrani and other Nazi and fascist collaborating forces surrendered to the British army, which turned them in to the Partisans. At a very small extent on Bleiburg, but a bigger extend on the way to Yugoslavia (“Stages of the Cross”) the unknown number of POWs and some civilians were killed. Before 1990s Bleiburg was commemorated on the spot, since it was out of reach of Yugoslav authorities. Strongly supported by the Croatian Catholic Church (whose distinguished members supported or lightly criticised NDH regime or its crimes), Bleiburg event remained a place to not only commemorate the dead, but to praise NDH and condemn socialist Yugoslavia and Partisans. This has become “the place of the tragedy of the Croatian people”, largely underplaying crimes committed by those units before. Bleiburg was used for downplaying Ustasa crimes, exaggerate Partisan crimes and therefore discredit the whole anti-fascist movement led by communist partisans. In the end, it was used for discrediting the socialist Yugoslavia (Croatia was trying to separate from in 1990/91) and justifying a war that followed. Being highly marginalised and downplayed itself in the period of socialist Yugoslavia, facts upon the death toll on Bleiburg and along way remain unknown and highly disputed, making it an ideal place for forming national myths, boosting up the number of killed into hundreds of thousands and re-writing the history. For years and even nowadays, no matter how difficult it may be, Bleiburg has not been extensively researched, therefore left completely in the field of personal memories, or personal histories, under a strong influence of the Catholic Church. In present-day Croatia, Bleiburg is often put in balance with Jasenovac – treating both crimes alike.
Although difference in terms who was killed and due to what rationale, there is a one strong similarity between Jasenovac and Bleiburg: mythology and manipulation with the death toll. Although Jasenovac certainly was a place of Holocaust and genocide, it was also a place of highly disputed numbers. During the time of socialist Yugoslavia the numbers claimed by state authorities was set on around 700,000 (Goldstein 2016, p. 109) – a number that is completely impossible from the demographic point of view, since it would mean that the complete Serb community perished in the war. This was used as a tool of condemning Croatian and every other nationalism, said to have catastrophic consequences for the Yugoslav nation. Although numbers closer to facts were only established in the last 20 years, the previous over-exaggerated number still stood as a reminder of the manipulation done by Yugoslav authorities. The figure nevertheless did not fade out from collective memory and is often cited in present-day Serbia and the Republic of Srpska (Serb entity in Bosnia). Even the memorial site of Donja Gradina in Bosnia and Herzegovina, just across river Sava and once a part of Jasenovac memorial site, has this figure still present on the site, where an annual commemoration is held, usually in the presences of highest officials from Serbia and the Republic of Srpska. The exaggerated number was especially used in Serbian propaganda during the 1990s conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia, trying to put the historical blame for genocide to Croats and justify the armed conflict with newly created Croatian state.
With Croatian nationalism highly depending on Serbian one, as well as all the misdeeds of Yugoslavia, Croatian narrative regarding Jasenovac and the character of NDH was made mostly as a counter-narrative to previously existing ones. In the Croatian nationalistic narrative, Jasenovac was not a place of massive killings, but a labour camp, whose victims were rather an exemption and not the rule. Therefore, a 1990s Croatian parliamentary commission for investigating WWII and post WWII crimes established only 2,238 victims (Goldstein 2016, p. 114) of “a labour collection camp Jasenovac”. This report and the work of the commission was never proven by the parliament as a whole and the report stands as a historical reminder of the historical revisionism processes in 1990s Croatian politics.
Current historical revisionism in Croatia, questioning WWII issues, is still present and vibrant. This revisionism comes as a direct consequence of the 1990s war, in which certain issues dating from the WWII were presented in a new light. Even legally, some issues stay disputed. For example, Ustasa war chant ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Home(land)’) is known as a pro-fascist chant, but usually is only sanctioned with fees as an offence for disturbing the public peace and order, and rarely as a hate crime, because the chant is not directly mentioned in the law. Additional problem is that during the 1990s war, a paramilitary unit Croatian Defence Forces (HOS), initially a party army of the right-wing Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), used ‘Za dom spremni’ during the war and afterwards. Since the unit was integrated into the Croatian army during the war, the chant stayed on their unit insignia and flags, and was later recognized by the state for their associations of war veterans. Therefore, although the chant is banned, it still legally exists on the other end. Additionally, one of the HOS battalions is named after Ustasa commander Rafael Boban, who committed crimes against civilians in NDH. Right-wing politicians use this gap in order to tackle the ban of the chant and to use it freely in the public space. Vice-Chair of the Croatian Parliament, Ivan Tepes, said in the recent months that there is nothing wrong with using ‘Za dom spremni’, since Croatian soldiers used it in the war.
Current historical revisionism, questioning even the very nature of NDH and the character of the Jasenovac camp, grew stronger in the past few years. After 1990s total denial of the magnitude of Jasenovac crimes, a new revisionist tendencies grew in the field of quasi-scientific research and civil society in Croatia. During the term of the centre-left government, a NGO ‘Association for Researching the Threefold Camp Jasenovac’ was officially registered in April 2015. Backed upon non-confirmed data, gossips and individual data taken out of context the NGO tends to underplay the crimes committed in the camp between 1941 and 1945. According to the NGO, the camp was solely “a labour, prisoner and a collection camp” where around 1,000 people died from a number of causes (diseases, labour, and killings). Besides undermining the crimes of Jasenovac, by claiming it is a product of a myth, NGO claims majority of crimes took place between 1945 and 1951, when (according to their opinion) crimes were committed by communist forces over, mostly, Croats. Their claims of crimes committed after 1945 have no ground in scientific research, especially for, as they call it, “a post-war camp for the destruction of Croatian patriots and German national minority”. In other words, the genocide and Holocaust did not take place in Jasenovac between 1941 and 1945, although Croatia’s criminal law sanctions denial or downplaying of genocide and war crimes. Members of the NGO even went so far that they put a wreath for all victims of the camp “between 1941 and 1951”.
The NGO and the whole denial of Jasenovac crimes entered the mainstream. The clearest example was a documentary film ‘Jasenovac – The Truth’, made by a far-right movie director Jakov Sedlar. The author is previously most known for his 1999 feature film ‘Four-men-row’, portraying the Bleiburg story, used as a propaganda tool for the 2000 elections on which right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), after the death of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, lost the elections to the centre-left coalition. ‘Jasenovac – The Truth’ premiered at Zagreb’s central cinema theatre Europe and gained, mostly marginal right-wing politicians and authors, but also the minister of culture Zlatko Hasanbegović and the Ambassador of Israel to Croatia, Zina Kalay Kleitman. Besides public high-level screenings, movie was presented by Sedlar himself on a TV show on public Croatian Radio-Television (HRT). The ambassador and minister were called by the director, especially since Sedlar has done multiple co-productions with Israeli film-makers and has made a theatre play on Anne Frank as well. The movie tries to prove, using manipulations, forgeries and myths, how the nature of the camp was a clear forgery and how Ustasa did not kill Jews in Croatia, even trying to protect them from Nazis. Although there were even high-ranking Ustasa officials that saved Jews and had even family ties to Jews, figures on the Holocaust in Croatia (presented earlier in this text) show the scope of the disaster for this community. Besides forging the history and downplaying Ustasa crimes, film ends by showing the persons from public life (politicians, historians, human rights’ activists, journalists, writers), who are blamed for spreading “lies about Jasenovac). A lot of “evidence” in the movie were later proven false, while Sedlar was stating that he had no idea that they were forged. Since the movie was so controversial, ambassador reacted in an open letter, writing that the film “very selectively shows history, tries to revise many historical facts and offends the feelings of people who have lost their loved ones in Jasenovac”.On the other hand, minister Hasanbegović said after the movie before the audience that movies like this one are “useful because they talk about many taboo topics”. He said that the movie was a good way for resolving a number of controversial issues from Croatia’s past. Furthermore, in a private conversation with a Holocaust survivor Slavko Goldstein, he said that the central historical event in Jasenovac, the last attempt of a break-out of prisoners in April 1945 (a day before the camp was liquidated), which is commemorated annually, never took place. Comment given by Hasanbegović did not surprise many, since from his coming to power in January, he has proven that both his past and present are highly connected to historical revisionism and downplaying the Ustasa crimes. Although he is mostly a rigid anti-communist, claiming that the Croatian history starts with the first democratic multi-party elections in 1990, he was known for his praising of the Ustasa regime and defaming Croatian and Yugoslav anti-fascist victory. As a student he was common participant of pro-fascist protests and even wrote for a pro-Ustasa journal ‘Independent State of Croatia’, edited by Pavelic’s son-in-law, where he claimed that Ustasa are “martyrs and heroes”. In 1990s, he was a member of Croatian Liberation Movement (HOP), pro-Ustasa party formed by Pavelic in his exile years after WWII. In the second part of 1990s, he was the president of the youth branch of far-right Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HCSP), also praising the Ustasa regime. In recent years, just before becoming the minister, he called the Partisan anti-fascist victory in WWII as the biggest loss in Croatia’s history and said that the state should stop financing the commemoration of Jasenovac. When media published his photo with Ustasa uniform cap and his articles, he first said it was a photo-montage and he never admitted writing the text and never expressed his regret for writing pro-Ustasa texts. He just said that he never supported any totalitarian regimes and that Ustasa crimes are the biggest moral downfall, but he did not explicitly condemn the Ustasa regime as a whole. Hasanbegović was recently condemned by international intellectuals and activists, while a number of respected media worldwide described him as controversial and pro-fascist. Usual Hasanbegović’s tactic when called for his downplaying of the NDH regime is to quote that he is “against all totalitarian regimes”, both the fascist and communist ones.
This is now a dominant rhetoric of Croatian right-wingers, from President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic to, now technical, Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic. Although this right-wing government, along with Oreskovic and Hasanbegović, are now actually former and most probably will never take high-ranking public positions, the damage is already done. They have introduced the narrative of two totalitarianism to Croatian politics. This dichotomy, mostly present in Central and Eastern European post-communist countries – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine – is either tolerated and condoned among liberal-democracies in Western Europe. Although, of course, crimes of all totalitarian regimes must be condemned and victims commemorated with respect, equilibristic approach to history is highly inappropriate and superficial, looking historical processes from the current position, completely disregarding the context. Additionally, this narrative is almost exclusively (with only few exemptions) used by nationalists for historical revisionism and overplaying the communist crimes, nationalists who have accepted capitalism in late 1980s and early 1990s. Fascism and Nazism are used here solely as an alibi so that all attack can be used against Communism, even against Yugoslav one, which was a lot less brutal and more liberal than the one in mentioned countries. Therefore, fight against communism and the complete communist-led antifascism brings upon the rehabilitation and relativisation of fascism, paving a road for new conflicts, being them armed or symbolical.
Goldstein, I 2001, Holokaust u Zagrebu, Novi liber, Zagreb.
Goldstein, I 1999, Croatia: A History, C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., London.
Goldstein, S 2016, Jasenovac: Tragika, mitomanija, istina, Fraktura, Zagreb.