Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Should Croatia apologise for the Bleiburg massacre ?

This article was published today in BCS translation by Al Jazeera Balkans

The Bleiburg massacre is the term used to refer to the mass murder of tens of thousands of prisoners of war and civilian prisoners from the ranks of pro-Nazi quislings and collaborators, by the Communist-led Yugoslav Partisans at the end of World War II. Named after the Austrian town of Bleiburg near the Yugoslav border, where the repatriation of these prisoners began, the killing process involved the forced march of the prisoners and their mass execution at multiple sites. The largest component of those killed were Croats who had served the Nazi-puppet ‘Independent State of Croatia’ (NDH) and its Croat-fascist (Ustasha) leadership, but they included also Slovenes, Serbs and others.

The massacre became a cause celebre for the anti-Communist Yugoslav emigration after World War II. It implicated the British forces in Austria, who had either refused to accept the surrender of the prisoners and insisted they surrender to the Partisans, or had actually repatriated them to Yugoslavia and their deaths. The legacy of the massacre remained controversial after the war, because on the one hand the Yugoslav Communists and their supporters refused to accept any wrongdoing, while on the other, its commemoration was often bound up with expressions of support for the Ustasha regime. For anti-Communist Croats, including but not limited to Ustasha sympathisers, the massacre served as a foundation myth for their self-identification as victims of the Yugoslav Communist regime, which they identified as anti-Croat. Whereas this regime, liberal and left-wing Croats and the anti-fascist world generally have focused on the genocidal crimes of the Ustashas against Serbs, Jews and others, in particular at the notorious death-camp Jasenovac, anti-Communist Croats have commemorated the Bleiburg massacre. The choice of commemoration – Jasenovac or Bleiburg – depended upon political orientation and family background. Croats remain divided over this to this day, reflecting the nation’s division since World War 2 between pro-Partisan and anti-Communist camps.

Of course, the crimes of Jasenovac and Bleiburg were not equivalent: Jasenovac involved actual genocide against whole groups targeted purely on the basis of their ethnicity, while Bleiburg was a case of the victors in a civil war massacring the losers. The Partisans were not attempting to destroy or exterminate the Croat nation, as the Ustashas were the Serbs and Jews. Nevertheless, Bleiburg was undoubtedly a war crime: many civilians were murdered, as were many conscript soldiers who were not guilty of any crimes. And though many of those killed in the Bleiburg massacre were indeed Ustasha war-criminals, these too should have been given fair trials, not extra-judicial executions. The Croatian parliament supports the commemoration of Bleiburg, and Croatia’s Social Democratic president Zoran Milanovic has said he will lay a wreath at one of the massacre sites this year, but the commemoration has not received acceptance from liberal Croatia or from the wider liberal-democratic world. This is in part because of its association with pro-Ustasha revisionism, but also out of simple unwillingness to acknowledge Partisan or Allied war-crimes against Axis or pro-Axis victims. Nobody has ever been punished for Bleiburg. There is no doubt that many people from non-Communist families whose relatives were murdered or persecuted by the Communist remain hurt and bitter about this. Hence, the issue remains a wound that divides Croats.

Liberal principles would suggest that war-crimes by all sides should be acknowledged and repudiated if post-war reconciliation is to be achieved. This is the principle followed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) which has sought to bring to justice war-criminals from all sides in the 1990s wars: Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians and Macedonians alike. The same principle would suggest that an acknowledgement and apology are due for Bleiburg too. But this raises the question: who should give them ?

In fact, Bleiburg was a crime in which Croats were perpetrators as well as victims, and for which the state of Croatia was as responsible as any other. The armed forces that carried out the massacres were Yugoslav and Partisan. Croatia was a founding member of the Yugoslav federation, and had, until comparatively late in the war, contributed more Partisans than any other Yugoslav land. Tito himself was a Croat from Croatia. The contemporary Republic of Croatia is legally one of the successor states of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. The post-Communist Croatian constitution since 1990 has explicitly included among its ‘historical foundations’ the ‘establishment of the foundations of state sovereignty during the course of the Second World War, as expressed in the decision of the Territorial Antifascist Council of the National Liberation of Croatia (1943) in opposition to the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia (1941), and then in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Croatia (1947) and in all subsequent constitutions of the Socialist Republic of Croatia (1963-1990)’. In other words, the contemporary Croatian state formally affirms the Partisan legacy against the NDH legacy.

Furthermore, the Croatian struggle for independence in the 1990s was led by former Partisans, most notably Franjo Tudjman as president, Janko Bobetko as chief of general staff of the Croatian Army and Martin Spegelj as defence minister and founder of the Croatian Army, as well as Josip Manolic as prime minister and Josip Boljkovac as interior minister. The paradox for the Croatian right is that they commemorate Bleiburg while celebrating a Croatian independence that was achieved by former members of the army responsible for Bleiburg, and revere Tudjman, who rose to the rank of general in that army. Indeed, Tudjman until the very end of his life, continued to praise Tito for his services to the Croat nation, even suggesting that he may not have given the orders for the Bleiburg massacres. While Tudjman lived, a prominent square in central Zagreb continued to bear the name ‘Marshal Tito Square’. While there is a perception among conservative Croats that it is specifically the Croatian left that needs to recognise and apologise for Bleiburg, the reality is that the main Croatian centre-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) – founded by Tudjman and including many former Communists among its ranks – is just as bound up in the legacy of the Communist regime, including Bleiburg, as the left’s Social Democratic Party. Bleiburg was a crime of the Croatian state, not just of the Croatian left.

Paradoxically, the crime of Jasenovac is more readily associated with Croatian guilt than Bleiburg, even though Jasenovac was the work of a Croat-fascist puppet state that was destroyed and repudiated by the Partisans who founded the current Croatian state, which is not the legal successor of the NDH and is not legally culpable for its crimes. Croatian President Ivo Josipovic in 2010 nevertheless expressed regret for Jasenovac and other Ustasha crimes, which was the correct thing to do, given that members of his nation had perpetrated them.

There is a case for saying that the Croatian president should apologise for the Bleiburg massacre on behalf of the Croatian state. This could help to bring closure to the relatives of the victims. It could mean contemporary mainstream, liberal, anti-fascist Croatia acknowledging and taking responsibility for the crimes carried out by its predecessors. It would shatter both the right-wing narrative, that treats Croatia purely as a victim of, rather than a participant in, the actions of the Communists and Partisans, and the left-wing narrative of Partisan purity. It would affirm the fact that the contemporary Croatian state was founded on an anti-fascist basis, without glorifying or whitewashing the Communists and Partisans, instead by owning their negative side as well as their positive side. It could help to heal the rift between the two Croatias.

For all these reasons, it is doubtful that such an apology will ever happen. The left is unwilling to dwell on Partisan crimes, while the right is unwilling to acknowledge them as their own. The left is attached to a sanitised view of the Partisans, while the right is attached to a narrative of Croatia as innocent victim of Communism. There is too much bound up with these competing myths for any Croatian politician to take such a politically risky step of challenging them. Croatia will remain divided over Bleiburg, so long as its politicians want it to be.

Saturday, 16 May 2020 - Posted by | Balkans, Croatia, Fascism, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide | , , , , , , , , ,

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