Is Croatia Embracing Its Nazi-Era Past?

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Is Croatia Embracing Its Nazi-Era Past?

Imagine if Germany appointed as its culture minister a historian who called the Nazis “heroes” and “martyrs”; a man who used to wear an SS uniform and belong to a far-right party; a man whose work as a historian revolved around showing that the Nazis weren’t actually so bad and who said that the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated.

That would create an uproar around the world. Yet something similar is happening in Croatia.

During World War ii, Croatia was ruled by the Ustashi, an axis-aligned regime that was every bit as bad as the Nazis. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust published by the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, the Ustashi killed over 600,000 people, 500,000 of which were Serbs. The Ustashi-ruled Independent State of Croatia had a population of around 6.3 million, meaning the Ustashi killed around one in 10 of its own people. Eighty percent of the nation’s Jews were murdered. Almost one in four of its Serbs were killed, and another quarter exiled or forcibly converted to Catholicism.

The Ustashi were gratuitously cruel. As Brad Macdonald wrote in The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy:

Killings were performed in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable. Ustashi soldiers were recorded to have torn victims apart limb by limb, and slit people’s throats with special knives, and removed organs one by one, and smashed people’s heads with sledgehammers. Others were burned alive. No one was spared, and many of these vile acts were performed on children and infants. There are records of Ustashi soldiers cutting open pregnant mothers and ripping out the unborn child.

Now the Ustashi are making a comeback. Today, the Ustashi’s “modern sympathizers see them as the country’s founding fathers,” wrote Agence France-Presse (afp) last month.

Historian Tvrtko Jakovina told afp that downplaying the Ustashi’s atrocities “has existed for years, but in a different intensity.”

“It has now penetrated cabinet ministers and the mainstream media,” he said. Ognjen Kraus, the leader of Croatia’s Jewish communities, said that the government “is simply not doing anything” and that it “does not want to.”

The nation’s new right-wing coalition that came to power at the start of the year is responsible for much of this change. As part of that coalition, Zlatko Hasanbegović became Croatia’s culture minister in January. He was once a member of a small far-right, pro-Ustashi party. “As a historian, his work focuses on downplaying the crimes of the Ustashi and cautiously rehabilitating its ideas,” wrote Foreign Policy.

“[S]ince taking office, Hasanbegović has done nothing to blunt his radicalism, cutting funds for progressive groups and independent media and endorsing a revisionist documentary film that denies the scale of the crimes committed by Croatia during its alliance with Nazi Germany in the 1940s,” they continued.

Reporters Without Borders, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Serb and Jewish groups in the region have all condemned the new government.

The government’s tolerance of such a man as a minister in government is creating a climate of fear throughout the country. Croatia’s remaining Serbian minority is complaining that Serbs are being harassed on the streets. Earlier in the year, a journalist on local television told those living in Croatia’s capital—especially “mothers with children”—to be careful when walking past a Serb Orthodox Church, because the priests might try to kill them.

Croatian soccer fans frequently chant Nazi-era slogans during games with only indirect criticism from the government. During one game with Israel, for example, they shouted, “We Croats! Ustashi! Ustashi!”

“Given the fact that these chants were clearly heard by all those in the stadium, their failure to respond is an indication of tolerance for such outrageous, insulting and clearly anti-Semitic behavior,” wrote Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Israel and Eastern Europe.

“These incidents, however, are only the tip of the iceberg of a much wider and dangerous phenomenon, whereby fascist slogans have become acceptable parlance in Croatia, and are considered to be expressions of patriotism,” he wrote.

He warned that Croatia is “a country where manifestations of fascism and anti-Semitism are very common, especially in the local soccer stadiums, but not easily identifiable by those ignorant of the country’s World War ii and Holocaust history.”

Over the May 13 weekend, Croatia’s prime minister, first deputy prime minister and an envoy visited Bleiburg, Austria, where a number (estimates vary hugely, but probably thousands) of Ustashi units had been executed by their vengeful Communist invaders.

In Germany, no one mourns the Nazis who were killed, often brutally, by the invading Soviet forces. It is clear that mourning such men would be inappropriate. Yet Croats regularly mourn the killing of these Ustashi. The Catholic Church even held a mass for the dead.

Croatia is a member of the European Union. It is, supposedly, a fully onboard member of the liberal, tolerant Western world. This kind of support for fascism is supposed to be unthinkable.

As Zuroff wrote, “I don’t understand how such a person can become a minister in a country that is a good and respected member of the European Union.”

Puppet of Germany in 1941

Croatia is succumbing to the same pull toward the fringe right that is sweeping all of Europe. But there, it is mixed with a deep hatred that is accentuated by the wars in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Nazi puppet state of Croatia included what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Serbia. Zlatko Hasanbegović and others want that territory back.

This is the clearest example yet that the rise of the fringe right in Europe is making the world a more dangerous place. Across Europe, people are turning to national self-love in an increasingly uncertain world. But too often, love of one’s own leaders quickly turns to hatred for others.