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 | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to apologise

Image: Croatia’s president and prime minister, Ivo Josipovic and Jadranka Kosor, paying tribute to the victims of Croatian World War II fascism at Jasenovac last month, alongside former Croatian president Stjepan Mesic.

Croatia’s new president Ivo Josipovic has in recent weeks made a series of apologies and expressions of regret for crimes carried out by Croats during the 1940s and 1990s. Last month, he apologised for Croatia’s role in the Bosnian war:  ‘(The creators of) the 1990s policies…. based on the idea that division is the solution for Bosnia-Herzegovina, have sown an evil seed here, but also in their own countries’, Josipovic said in an address to the Bosnian parliament; referring to ‘the death and mutilation of hundreds of thousands and the expulsion of millions of people [and] destroyed economies and families’, he stated categorically, ‘I am deeply sorry that the Republic of Croatia has contributed to that with its policies in the 1990s. .. that the then Croatian policy has contributed to the suffering of people and divisions which still burden us today.’ He followed this up with a visit to the village of Ahmici, where Croat forces carried out a notorious massacre of Bosniak civilians in 1993. This apology was immediately condemned by the leadership of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ); HDZ politicians such as Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and party vice-president Andrija Hebrang disgraced themselves trying to justify the former Croatian policy.

Josipovic went on to attend an event commemorating the sixty-fifth anniversary of an uprising at the Ustasha (Croatian fascist) death camp of Jasenovac in World War II, when he expressed regret for the crimes carried out by the Croatian fascists. Noting that history cannot be changed, he stated that it was not just the victories and successes that had to be accepted: ‘In every event, we must accept it also when it points to the evil that we committed against others. That can be a painful process; a process in which all those who wish our nation well must participate.’ He expressed his ‘deepest regret’ for everything that took place in Jasenovac and other Ustasha execution sites during the Second World War.’ At the time of writing, Josipovic has been visiting the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Hercegovina, paying tribute to Serbs killed by Croat forces at the north Bosnian village of Sijekovac at the start of the war in 1992.

Josipovic’s actions mark a courageous break with the usual practice of nationalist politicians, not only in the Balkans but also in Western Europe and the US, who seem to feel that it is incumbent upon them to defend ‘my country, right or wrong’. A readiness to acknowledge and apologise for the past crimes of one’s state or nation is something that places the principled patriot and democrat above the ‘patriotic’ hypocrite, who will complain endlessly about the crimes of other states or nations while defending those of their own. Such apologies form a necessary part of the reconciliation process between states that have previously been in conflict with one another, helping to cement a post-conflict democratic order. Nevertheless, the crimes which Josipovic has been acknowledging are not equivalent to one another; nor do they warrant the same kind of apology.

In the case of the Croatian attempt to partition Bosnia in the 1990s and the resulting crimes, the issue is one of a state having the moral duty to apologise to another state and its citizens. The Republic of Croatia carried out military aggression against the neighbouring state of Bosnia-Hercegovina, one that involved atrocities against its civilian population. Although Josipovic personally was not responsible for that policy, he is head of the state that was responsible, therefore, it was his outright duty to apologise on the Republic of Croatia’s behalf to the state of Bosnia-Hercegovina and to its citizens.

In the case of atrocities carried out by the Croatian Army, or by Croat militias supported by Croatia’s leadership, against Serb civilians during operations against the Serb rebels in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s, an apology from the Croatian president was also due. It is still the Croatian state that needs to apologise for its past actions, but in this instance, the apology is not owed to another state. The apology is due to the victims and to their relatives and friends, and to the Serb people in those areas, rather than to Serbia, whose citizens they were not. In the case of Croatian Serb civilians killed by Croatian forces, such as during the Medak Pocket operation in 1993 or Operation Storm in 1995, the apology is due to people who were Croatia’s own citizens – victims of the very state whose duty it was to protect them. Thus, the duty to apologise is similar to that acknowledged by Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown, when he apologised last year to the tens of thousands of British children forcibly sent to Commonwealth countries under child migrant programmes during the twentieth century, where they were widely exploited and abused.

In the case of the Ustasha genocide of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and others during World War II, an apology of a different kind is in order. Unlike the aforementioned Croatian crimes of the 1990s, in this case it was not the current Croatian state that was responsible. The Republic of Croatia is not the de jure or de facto successor state of the Ustasha-ruled ‘Independent State of Croatia’ (NDH), which was a puppet state established by the Axis powers on Yugoslav territory. The NDH was never recognised by the Allied powers, which viewed it for what it was: the expression that German and Italian rule took in that part of occupied Yugoslavia, equivalent to the General Government in Poland or to the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. According to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal established by the Allied powers after the war, ‘Whatever the form or the name given, the Croatian Government during the German wartime occupation was a satellite under the control of the occupying power. It dissolved as quickly after the withdrawal of the Germans as it had arisen upon their occupation. Under such circumstances, the acts of the Croatian Government were the acts of the occupation power… We are of the view that Croatia was at all times here involved an occupied country and that all acts performed by it were those for which the occupying power was responsible.’ (quoted in Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001, pp. 271-272). The states with a duty to apologise for the crimes of the NDH are Germany and Italy.

This was reaffirmed this month, when the European Court of Human Rights threw out the case brought by the Association of Second World War Camp Inmates of Republika Srpska against Croatia, for damages to the tune of 500 million euros for crimes carried out by the NDH. Sources suggested that this was because the judges concluded that Croatia was not the legal successor to the NDH, therefore not liable to pay damages for its crimes. Indeed, Croatia was the legal successor of Yugoslavia, and was established as a republic in the 1940s by the Partisans who destroyed the NDH. The Republic of Croatia is not liable to apologise for the NDH’s crimes, any more than the Spanish Republic would have been liable to apologise for Franco’s crimes, had it won the Spanish Civil War. Any more than the current Rwandan government is liable to apologise for the Rwandan genocide. By contrast, although the Ottoman Empire which perpetrated the Armenian genocide was overthrown by Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalist movement, nevertheless Turkey is the legal successor of the Ottoman Empire, and the latter was not simply an insurgent faction or a party to a civil war, but a legally constituted state. As the successor to this state, Turkey does have a moral duty to apologise for the genocide.

This does not mean that Josipovic was wrong to say what he did at the recent Jasenovac commemoration. He cannot – indeed did not – apologise on behalf of the Republic of Croatia, since that state was not responsible. He can however express regret in a different manner and capacity, as the democratically elected leader of the Croatian nation – the nation that produced the Ustashas. He cannot accept that the Croatian nation as a whole was guilty, but he can express regret for the fact that some members of his nation carried out those crimes; for the fact that the Croatian nation produced such monsters. Nations as a whole are not guilty for the crimes committed by some of their members, but nor can they pretend that these crimes have nothing to do with them. We could compare this with the case of an extended family, in which a wayward family member commits a crime. The head of the family might rightfully feel that the family’s honour requires an apology to the crime’s victims, even though neither the family as a whole nor its head can reasonably be blamed. Certainly, such chivalry goes down better than a callous refusal to apologise.

We can compare Josipovic’s expression of regret with the opposition of certain Polish politicians, such as Michal Kaminski, to a Polish apology for the Jedwabne massacre of July 1941 in Nazi-occupied Poland, when Poles under the leadership of Jedwabne’s mayor Marian Karolak massacred the town’s Jews. The Jedwabne massacre was, albeit on a much smaller scale, similar in character to the Ustasha massacres of Serbs and others. Kaminski was undoubtedly correct when he pointed out that the whole Polish nation was not guilty of a massacre carried out by a particular group of Poles in a particular town at a particular time. But this ignores the fact that you do not have to be guilty of something in order to say sorry; nor does an apology imply an admission of guilt. The readiness of Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski to apologise for the Jedwabne massacre suggests a much more mature sense of national responsibility than that of Kaminski.

Another point of comparison is the declaration issued in March by the Serbian parliament condemning the Srebrenica massacre, which involved also an apology. The apology, less than a sentence long, was inserted at the end of a paragraph; it was made only to the relatives of the victims rather than to the people of Srebrenica or of Bosnia as a whole. It was an apology only that ‘everything possible had not been done to prevent the tragedy’, rather than for Serbia’s role in organising, arming and financing the Bosnian Serb forces that carried out the massacre, or for the Yugoslav Army’s collusion with these forces during the massacre. It avoided using the word genocide, albeit recognising this genocide in a roundabout way, by condemning the massacre ‘in the manner established by the ruling of the International Court of Justice’. And although it avoided condemning any of the other crimes carried out by Serbs during the war, it nevertheless included an ‘expectation that the highest authorities of other states on the territory of the former Yugoslavia would also condemn the crimes committed against the members of the Serbian people in this manner, as well as extend condolences and apologies to the families of the Serbian victims’. In fairness, such a grudging and mealy-mouthed declaration was probably the most that its authors could have pushed through parliament; even in this form, it barely scraped together enough votes to pass. But it does not suggest much genuine contrition on the part of Serbia’s lawmakers.

Serbia can and has done better than this. On 15 June 2005, the Council of Ministers of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro stated: ‘Those who committed the killings in Srebrenica, as well as those who ordered and organised that massacre represented neither Serbia nor Montenegro, but an undemocratic regime of terror and death, against whom the majority of citizens of Serbia and Montenegro put up the strongest resistance. Our condemnation of crimes in Srebrenica does not end with the direct perpetrators. We demand the criminal responsibility of all who committed war crimes, organised them or ordered them, and not only in Srebrenica. Criminals must not be heroes. Any protection of the war criminals, for whatever reason, is also a crime.’ In that year, the president of Serbia and Montenegro and the president of Republika Srpska attended the tenth anniversary commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre at Potocari. More recently, however, the Republika Srpska’s leadership has been regressing; Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has been engaging in revisionism and denial in relation to Srebrenica and to other Serb war-crimes.

State apologies for past crimes will always be a sensitive manner; the politicians who make them will always be treading a fine line; the extent of an apology issued, and the reaction it receives at home, will reflect the degree of a nation’s democratic maturity. All the more reason to watch them closely; to interpret the degree of contrition that they actually represent, and to see who is for them, and who is opposed.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Monday, 31 May 2010 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Was Jasenovac worse than Auschwitz ?

In our last post, we remarked upon the activities of the Serbian revisionist author Jasa Almuli, who has for many years been attempting to whitewash the role of the Serbian quisling regime of Milan Nedic in the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. But Almuli’s revisionism is not limited to the history of the Serbian quislings. He has now gone on record to downplay the evil of even the most infamous of Nazi death camps, Auschwitz, by comparing it favourably to the Ustasha (Croat fascist) death-camp of Jasenovac. In an interview with the Serbian daily Politika earlier this week, Almuli stated:

‘I have concluded that Jasenovac in the Ustasha Independent State of Croatia was a much more terrible death camp than Auschwitz in occupied Poland, that largest Nazi execution-site.’

His argument is that the Nazis treated the Auschwitz inmates more humanely than the Ustashas treated the inmates at Jasenovac. Thus he claims that ‘the Germans in Auschwitz endeavoured that the victims, to the last moment, not discover that they will be asphyxiated in gas chambers and burned in crematoria, in order that their industrial means of killing not be disrupted. The Croatian Ustashas openly killed in the most bestial manner, with their own hands, knives, iron bars and very rarely with bullets…’. Furthermore, ‘In Auschwitz it was determined what every guard was or was not allowed to do, while in Jasenovac every Ustasha could torture and kill as they wished.’

It should not be necessary to point out the tendentious nature of Almuli’s comparison. According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, 56-97,000 people were murdered at Jasenovac, whereas 1.1 million were murdered at Auschwitz. As a killing centre, thefore, Jasenovac was simply not in the same league as Auschwitz. As for Almuli’s portrayal of Auschwitz as a place where the camp authorities protected the victims from unnecessary suffering and abuse in the interest of industrial order; he presumably has never heard of Auschwitz camp doctor Josef Mengele and his human experiments. According to one account:

‘Dr. Josef Mengele, nicknamed The Angel Of Death, and the other Nazi doctors at the death camps tortured men, women and children and did medical experiments of unspeakable horror during the Holocaust. Victims were put into pressure chambers, tested with drugs, castrated, frozen to death. Children were exposed to experimental surgeries performed without anesthesia, transfusions of blood from one to another, isolation endurance, reaction to various stimuli. The doctors made injections with lethal germs, sex change operations, removal of organs and limbs. He carried out twin-to-twin transfusions, stitched twins together, castrated or sterilized twins. Many twins had limbs and organs removed in macabre surgical procedures, performed without using an anesthetic. At Auschwitz Josef Mengele did a number of medical experiments, using twins. These twins as young as five years of age were usually murdered after the experiment was over and their bodies dissected. Mengele injected chemicals into the eyes of the children in an attempt to change their eye color.’

In the words of the Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project website, ‘We say and write “Auschwitz”, but we actually mean a torture center, a terror that we cannot possibly conceive, the essence of evil and horror.’

For Almuli, this ‘terror that we cannot possibly conceive, the essence of evil and horror’ was much less terrible than what went on in Jasenovac; for him, the suffering of Dr Mengele’s victims less terrible than that of the victims of the Ustashas at Jasenovac, killed with knives and iron bars.

Those of us who have not experienced the horror of Auschwitz or Jasenovac cannot know what it was like; we certainly cannot say that the suffering of the victims at one camp was ‘much less terrible’ than that of the victims of the other. One cannot help but think that Almuli’s favourable comparison of Auschwitz to Jasenovac has less to do with attempting an accurate historical evaluation, and more to do with scoring Serb-nationalist points against the Croats.

Hat tip: Sladjana Lazic of A Slice of Serbian Politics.

Thursday, 11 February 2010 Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Balkans, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Jews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment