Croatia’s Ustashas: From treason and genocide to simple national embarrassment
The funeral last month of Dinko Sakic, the former commander of the Jasenovac death-camp, has provoked condemnation from the Israeli ambassador, the Croatian Jewish community and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Jasenovac was the largest death-camp in the World War II Croatian Nazi-puppet state, and tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, anti-fascist Croats, gypsies and others were murdered there. In the late 1990s, Sakic was extradited from Argentina to Croatia to face trial, and received a twenty-year sentence. He died last month – a convicted and wholly unrepentant war-criminal, who had allegedly gloated that he wished more Serbs had died at Jasenovac. He was buried in full Ustasha (Croat fascist) uniform; at his funeral the presiding clergyman, Vjekoslav Lasic, said that the ‘court that convicted Dinko Sakic convicted Croatia and the Croatian nation’; that the ‘NDH [‘Independent State of Croatia’ – the Croatian Nazi-puppet state’] is the foundation of the modern Croatian homeland’, and that ‘every honourable Croat should be proud of Sakic’s name’.
The Ustashas – Croat fascists – were a movement of traitors and murderers who have been disgracing and undermining Croatia ever since they emerged at the end of the 1920s. Their treason culminated in the 1940s, when they established and ran the NDH on behalf of Hitler – a colonial master who had supported a unified Yugoslavia up until March 1941, who then offered his Hungarian ally Miklos Horthy the option of absorbing Croatia, and who only after this was rejected opted to establish a Croatian puppet-state as a fall-back solution. In May 1941, the Croatian puppet-dictator Ante Pavelic ceded a large part of the Croatian coast to Fascist Italy – his genocidal policy toward the NDH’s Serb population was, in part, an attempt to distract the outraged Croatian public from this unprecedented act of treason. Under Pavelic and the Ustashas, puppet Croatia (which included all of Bosnia) was ruthlessly economically plundered and exploited by Germany and Italy both for its natural and industrial resources and for its labour power – tens of thousands of Croats worked in the Reich during the War, either a slave labourers or ‘voluntarily’; those in the latter category were assigned the most menial forms of work by the German masters, and many of the women became prostitutes.
The NDH’s armed forces were almost wholly devoted to internal repression of the domestic resistance movement. Germany and Italy divided puppet Croatia down the middle into respective zones of influence; the Italians expelled the quisling Croatian armed forces from their zone in the autumn of 1941, while the Germans in 1942 placed the Croatian armed forces in their zone under their command. From early 1943, German commanders in the NDH enjoyed the right to alter Croatian legislation at will – prompting Eugen Dido Kvaternik, Pavelic’s former security chief one of the architects of the Ustasha genocide, to admit later that by this stage there was nothing left of the NDH’s ‘independence’ except the ‘N’ in its name [for ‘Nezavisna’ – ‘Independent’] . The soldiers of the NDH’s conscript army, the Home Guard, were among the most unenthusiastic of all collaborators and were treated as untermenschen by the German army; they increasingly defected to the Partisans in large numbers; in battles with the Partisans during the war’s later stages, many Home Guards would turn their guns against the Germans and Ustashas. Finally, the Ustasha regime during 1942 signed a series of pacts with the Serb-extremist Chetniks, for collaboration against the Partisans – despite the fact that the Chetniks periodically carried out massacres of Croat civilians (and above all of Muslims, whom the Ustashas considered Islamic Croats).
The history of the Ustasha movement, in other words, was utterly shameful – not only from the moral, but from the patriotic Croatian perspective. Nevertheless, ever since the Communist regime in Croatia fell in 1990, there have been those Croats who have sought to perpetuate the disgrace by their loud statements upholding the legacy of the former Ustasha regime. Croatia had been the largest bastion of the Partisan movement and had one of the most powerful and successful wartime resistance movements; Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav resistance leader – Europe’s greatest – was himself a Croat. The contemporary Republic of Croatia was itself originally established by the Croatian Partisans who defeated and destroyed the NDH. Yet despite this proud record, and despite the popularity which the Partisans enjoyed among the liberal intellectual classes in the West, right-wing Croat nationalists in the early 1990s worked – at the very moment when Croatia was fighting a life-and-death struggle for survival and independence against the militarily superior forces of Milosevic’s Serbia, and desperately needed a positive international image – to wreck Croatia’s international standing through their pro-Ustasha manifestations.
The ideological mission of the Croatian nationalist regime of Franjo Tudjman and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was to ‘reconcile’ the two former warring sides of the Croatian civil war of the 1940s – the Partisans and the Ustashas. Characteristic of this was the statement of Croatia’s current president Stjepan Mesic in the early 1990s, that Croatia had won twice in World War II – when it was ‘recognised’ by the Axis power in 1941, and when it ended the war as part of the Allied coalition. The Croatian constitution promulgated under Tudjman in 1990 formally upheld the Partisan tradition of Croatian statehood in opposition to the Ustasha tradition, but Tudjman balanced this formal Croatian identification with the Partisans with various statements that went some way to re-legitimising the NDH. Over and above the purely nationalistic ideological motive for doing this, Tudjman and the HDZ wanted to secure their support among the pro-Ustasha Croats, both at home and in the emigration, as well as among the pro-Partisan Croats who made up the majority of Croatia’s population and represented the political mainstream.
Ever since then – as in so many other ways – Croatia has paid an enormous price for Tudjman’s policy. Ustasha manifestations were ruthlessly exploited by the Milosevic regime and its supporters in the West to justify the Serbian assault on and occupation of Croatia. In this way, pro-Ustasha Croats – quite apart from their utter moral bankruptcy – continued to undermine Croatia in the 1990s, as they had in the 1940s. Some came from pro-Ustasha families who were persecuted or marginalised under the Communists, but others have simply been right-wing ideological nationalists who put their shameful, discredited and universally reviled ideological agenda before even the most basic considerations of national interest.
Upholding the Ustasha tradition in contemporary Croatia amounts to rejection of the liberal-democratic mainstream and the path of European integration – a rejection that is a manifestation of the global ideological current that Ian Buruma and Avisha Margalit refer to as ‘occidentalism’. It has blended together with opposition to the deportation of indicted Croatian war-crimes suspects to the UN tribunal in The Hague, something that once manifested itself in large demonstrations. It is the counterpart to Serb-nationalist opposition to the Hague tribunal, European integration, Kosova’s independence and ‘Western imperialism’ in general. But just as the number of Serbs ready to demonstrate for such an unworthy cause is dwindling, so pro-Ustasha outbursts in Croatia are now little more than a wart on the face of Croatia – exhibited mostly loudly in the form of the infantile, obnoxious rock-band Thompson.
The battle against the heirs of the Ustashas in Croatia has been won; the battle against the supporters of Karadzic in Serbia is being won. But strong international reaction to every manifestation of these poisonous dregs is always welcome to remind the world, and the people of the former Yugoslavia, that such behaviour is a disgrace and an embarrassment for every self-respecting nation.
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