Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Was Franjo Tudjman a Holocaust denier ?

tudjman1When faced with claims made by revisionist writers concerning the wars in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s, that they present as ‘challenging accepted wisdom’, it is generally a safe working assumption that they are all falsehoods, unless the writers in question actually present hard evidence to back them up. This can be shown by even the most casual glance at the ‘sensational revelations’ that these writers have been making since 1991: that Germany ‘encouraged’ Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia in 1991; that the Croatian chequerboard symbol was a ‘fascist’ symbol; that Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic recruited for the SS during World War II; that Izetbegovic’s regime reestablished a five-thousand strong SS ‘Handzar Division’ in Bosnia in the 1990s; that the Western media ‘fabricated’ the existence of Serb concentration camps in Bosnia; that the Bosnian Army was guilty of shelling its own civilians in Sarajevo in order to provoke Western bombing of the Serbs; that the US imported mujahedeen or Wahhabi fighters into Bosnia during the war; that Izetbegovic was a friend and ally of Osama bin Laden and shared his politics; that the fighting and massacres in the Srebrenica region were initiated by the Bosnian Army; that there is ‘no proof’ that the Srebrenica massacre occurred; that Croatia’s Operation Storm was the ‘largest single act of ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav wars’; that there was no Serbian ethnic-cleansing in Kosovo before the NATO bombing began in 1999; that no mass graves of Kosova Albanians were found in Kosova after NATO moved in; that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has focused disproportionately on Serb war-crimes suspects; and so on and so forth –  all these claims, and others, have either been shown to be complete fabrications or, at best, wild exaggerations, or they remain entirely unsubstantiated. Generally, only a bit of research is necessary to reveal each new claim of this kind as yet another falsehood.

On this occasion, I should like to turn to one of the older claims made by the members of the Milosevic-Karadzic lobby and by others who defend Milosevic and the Great Serbian record: the claim that the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was a ‘Holocaust denier’. This claim has generally been linked to Tudjman’s turgid, rambling, 1989 study of genocide and mass violence, Bespuca povijesne zbiljnosti: Rasprava o povijesti i filozofiji zlosilja [Wastelands of historical truth: A discussion of the history and philosophy of violence] – citations here are from the first edition, Nakladni zavod Matice Hrvatske, Zagreb, 1989.

This is what Tudjman wrote in Bespuca (p. 153) about the Holocaust:

After Hitler’s military forces had foundered in the Soviet expanses, together with the myth of German invincibility in the Blitzkrieg, there disappeared also for Germany the possibility of a territorial solution of the Jewish question outside of Europe. Already from the very start of the German-Soviet war, from the summer of 1941, the persecution of the Jews was increased, with fanatical propaganda about the need for the merciless uprooting of all members and supporters of Jewish-Bolshevism. Since with the development of the war the possibility of expelling the Jews to Madagascar had vanished, and the conquest of large Polish and Soviet expanses in the East had opened other possibilities for a territorial solution, so Hitler, at the start of 1942, with the goal of a ‘final solution’, took the decision on the resettlement, that is the expulsion or ‘deportation’ of the Jews to the East. Although the Berlin (Grossen Wannsee) confererence (21.01. 1942), at which Heydrich gave instructions to the high Nazi officials on the execution of Hitler’s new orders, spoke only of ‘evacuating’ the Jews from all European lands to the East, it was obvious that the final solution of the Jewish question in this way aimed at achieving their step-by-step annihilation. H. Frank had, before German functionaries in Krakow, spoken more directly of the ‘final solution’. Mentioning that in Poland there were now almost 2.5 million Jews, and including the mischlings perhaps up to 3.5 million, he would say that they ‘cannot all be executed or poisoned’, but that it was necessary ‘to take measures that would bring about their annihilation’, because the war would not be a complete success if Jewry survived.

Thus, in the third year of the Second World War (1942), began the period in which the Third Reich would attempt through the ‘final solution’, that is, the exclusion of the Jews from the life of Germany and the other European nations, to achieve their step-by-step extermination. But, as that goal could not be announced to the world public, and was in the form of a secret directive notified to only a narrow circle of Nazi confidants, this was also kept hidden from the majority of Germans, who took the deportation of the Jews to the East to be their resettlement in the Polish-Russian territories, and held the concentration camps to be work camps and not death camps.

Thus, the accusation that Tudjman was a ‘Holocaust denier’ is simply untrue. But nor is it quite true that the accusations came completely out of nowhere: in this case the lie contains three grains of truth:

1) Tudjman cast doubt on the figure of six million Jewish Holocaust victims (pp. 155-156):

Regarding the total number of Jewish victims in the Second World War, in world literature there is still not even an approximate scientifically determined fact. On the one hand, estimates range from about four million (G. Reitlinger, 1953) to up to six million (J. Lestchinsky and the American Jewish Congress, 1946, and N. Levin, 1968 and 1973). Raul Hilberg, whose book (1961 and 1973) in terms of comprehensiveness and quality exceeds that of Nora Levin, judges that the total losses exceed about five million or about one third of the pre-war Jewish population, but in his statistical overview alleges that of 5,100,000 deaths there are records for the deaths of 900,000, and casts doubt (putting question-marks) on some other numbers in the framework of the total figure. Those are, presumably, the reasons why there is a need to mention that, on the other hand, some consider the figure of six million deaths to be highly ‘exaggerated’.

This passage has frequently been misquoted to accuse Tudjman of putting the figure for Jewish Holocaust victims at only 900,000, though Tudjman was in fact claiming that a leading Holocaust scholar, Raul Hilberg, had put the figure at 5.1 million and the number of those for whom records existed at 900,000. However, Tudjman then argues (p. 156)

That the mentioned estimates of up to six million dead are based too much, both on emotionally partisan testimony, and on one-sided and exaggerated figures of the postwar settling of accounts for wartime misdeeds and retribution against the defeated perpetrators of war-crimes…

After discussing differing estimates of Jewish, Polish and other casualties at Auschwitz, Majdanek, and elsewhere, Tudjman nevertheless concludes his discussion of the Holocaust (p. 158):

Of course, these examples – whether unconfirmedly indiscriminate or highly contradictory – of giving different figures, do not bring into question the enormity of the war losses of particularly the Jewish and Polish, as well as some other peoples, and in particular are not important for an overall condemnation of the genocidal acts of their perpetrators.

2) Tudjman cites self-evidently anti-Semitic sources to try to show that in the Ustasha death-camp of Jasenovac, Jewish inmates had enjoyed a privileged role in relationship to other groups of prisoners, including Serbs and Gypsies, and had even participated in the persecution and killing of the latter (pp. 316-320). Typical of the way Tudjman gives credence to anti-Semitic testimony against the Jewish inmates of Jasenovac is his citation of an anti-Semitic Bosnian Serb former Jasenovac inmate, Vojislav Prnjatovic, whose statement Tudjman quotes (p. 318): ‘A Jew remains a Jew, even in Jasenovac. They have retained all their vices in the camp, only these are now more apparent. Selfishness, cunning, unreliability, avariciousness, treacherousness and a propensity to snitching are their principal characteristics.’

Tudjman then comments (p. 318):

This judgement of Prnjatovic’s reeks of exaggeration; we could say an anti-Semitic inclination, but similar things are said by other witnesses. Some of the Jewish camp officials were armed and participated in the killing. Furthermore, in their hands was, to a large degree, the ‘selection’; i.e., the separation of prisoners for ‘liquidation’, and partly even their actual execution.

Tudjman did not deny the crimes of the Ustashas against Jews in Jasenovac, but his discussion of the Jewish inmates of Jasenovac is dominated by their supposed role as perpetrators, rather than their suffering and loss of life. 

3) Tudjman moves straight on from his discussion of the Holocaust to a discussion of Israel and Palestine, in which he compares Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi treatment of the Jews (p. 160):

After everything that it had suffered in history, particularly that terrible suffering in the Second World War, the Jewish people will in a very short space of time carry out against the Palestinian people such a brutal, genocidal policy that it has justly been termed judeo-Nazism.

Tudjman described Israeli policy as tending toward a ‘“final solution” of the Palestinian question‘, and complained:

And all this is taking place in the middle of the nineteen eighties, when world Jewry still has the need to recall its losses in the ‘Holocaust’, and even to try to prevent the election of the former general secretary of the UN, Kurt Waldheim, as president of Austria ! (p. 160)

Tudjman had fought as a Yugoslav Partisan during World War II, against the Croat Ustasha fascists; his ‘anti-Zionist’ views concerning Israel and Palestine should be attributed not so much to any right-wing Croat nationalist tendencies on his part, but primarily to his formation as a Yugoslav general under Josip Broz Tito’s fiercely pro-Arab and anti-Israeli Communist regime, with its close links to Nasserite Egypt and the Non-Aligned Movement.

In sum, therefore, Tudjman was not a Holocaust denier, but he cast doubt on the figure of six million Jewish Holocaust victims; went out of his way to portray Jewish inmates of the Jasenovac death-camp as perpetrators rather than as victims; and relativised the Holocaust in a manner that can only be deemed deliberately offensive and provocative toward Jews – by comparing it to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

Tudjman was a crude Croat chauvinist who was entirely ready to write offensively about Jews, as he was about other groups, and to repeat anti-Semitic cliches about the role of ‘world Jewry’ in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to its alleged use of the memory of the Holocaust. But hostility toward Jews was not central to Tudjman’s worldview, as it was for ideological anti-Semites in the mould of Hitler, Corneliu Codreanu, David Duke, Osama bin Laden, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Hassan Nasrallah, Mahmud Ahmadinejad or other contemporary Islamic radicals. What was central was a profound cynicism and callousness with regard to questions of genocide and its victims, which led him to veer in the direction of anti-Semitism.

Originally a hard-line doctrinaire Marxist, Tudjman began his evolution into a Croat nationalist through his work as a historian, in which he had attempted to evaluate Croatia’s World War II history more positively; this involved emphasising the Croatian contribution to the Partisan movement. But it also involved challenging the view favoured by some Serb intellectuals, that the Croats were a ‘genocidal nation’, and challenging the high figures given by Yugoslav and Serb historians of Serb victims in the Ustasha genocide, in particular at Jasenovac. These were legitimate gripes: the widely accepted figure of several hundred thousand dead at Jasenovac was indeed a gross exaggeration; the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington today places the figure at 56-97,000 (though Tudjman’s own estimate of 30-40,000 was too low). Likewise, the overall figure for Serb deaths in the Ustasha genocide has frequently been put at around a million or upwards. But studies of war-losses carried out by the demographers Bogoljub Kocovic and Vladimir Zerjavic, a Serb and Croat respectively, have shown that the total number of Serbs killed on the territory of Croatia and Bosnia during World War II – including battlefield deaths and civilians killed by the Germans, Italians, Chetniks, Partisans and other non-Ustashas – was somewhat over three hundred thousand. These and other sources suggest a total figure of somewhat under three hundred thousand Serb victims of the Ustasha genocide.

As a historian, therefore, Tudjman was entirely justified in questioning the figures for Serb casualties in mainstream accounts of the Ustasha genocide, particularly where Jasenovac was concerned. But this bee in his bonnet then mutated into the highly cynical and offensive general theory set out in Bespuca, with its anti-Semitic overtones, in which genocide was relativised and the distinction between victims and perpetrators was deliberately blurred. This involved, as we have seen, a questioning of the figure of six million Jewish Holocaust victims; a portrayal, based on anti-Semitic sources, of Jewish inmates of Jasenovac as perpetrators rather than as victims; and a description of Israeli policy toward Palestinians as ‘Judeo-Nazism’. Tudjman had moved seamlessly from skepticism about mainstream evaluations of the Serb death-toll in the Ustasha genocide and resentment of the image of Serb victimhood in it, to skepcitism about the figure of six million Jewish deaths in the Holocaust and resentment of the image of Jewish victimhood in Jasenovac.

The type of anti-Semitic views expressed by Tudjman in Bespuca, particularly where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was concerned, was of a kind that is today not unusual among supporters of the UK’s ‘Stop the War Coalition’ and ‘Respect’ party, or among speakers at the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference. They reflect, in part, Tudjman’s background as a Yugoslav general under Tito’s fiercely ‘anti-Zionist’ Communist regime. But Tudjman was not a Holocaust denier. The accusation that he was, of course, is frequently made by radical leftists in the West, such as supporters of the SWP, who are themselves often apologists for Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime – all incomparably more anti-Semitic than was Tudjman. Such radical leftists hold views on Israel and Palestine that are generally similar to, if not more extreme than Tudjman’s, and share his hostility to the Bosnian Muslims, to the idea of a united Bosnia, and to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Of all the revisionist myths that such radical leftists peddle about the former Yugoslavia, the myth that Tudjman was a Holocaust denier is particularly cynical: insofar as it has any origins in reality, it derives from him having said the sort of things about Jews that they do themselves.

Friday, 6 March 2009 - Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Israel, Jews, Red-Brown Alliance, Serbia, SWP, The Left | , , ,

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