Interview 28 Sep 16

Croatia’s WWII Revisionism ‘Terrifying’, Says Historian

British historian Rory Yeomans, who has researched the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement, says he is worried by attempts by politicians and academics to play down the crimes it committed in World War II.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Rory Yeomans. Photo:

Distinguished historian Rory Yeomans, who is currently an independent researcher financed by the British Council, told BIRN in an interview that revisionist views of the wartime Ustasa movement and the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia, NDH, have entered Croatia’s political mainstream in recent years.

“Such views used to be seen as the lunatic fringe; now they are part of the mainstream. That’s terrifying,” said Yeomans, the author of books including Visions of Annihilation: the Ustasha Regime and the Cultural Politics of Fascism, 1941-1945 and The Utopia of Terror: Life and Death in Wartime Croatia.

He also expressed concern that such views were being expressed by “would-be historians” in mainstream media in the country.

“Then you read the comments under the articles and you read that ‘Communists lied us for 70 years; there was no death camp in Jasenovac, there was no genocide; they lied about the NDH’,” he explained.

Between 1941 and 1945, Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists were killed at the Jasenovac concentration camp which was run by the Ustasa. The Jasenovac Memorial Site has managed to name 83,145 victims of the camp, while the total death toll is generally believed to be between 100,000 and 110,000.

Yeomans said that some journalists and historians in Croatia are disregarding the facts and claiming that Ustasa did not commit massive crimes against Serbs, Jews and Roma and that the NDH was “a benevolent regime”.

“If you say, I want to prove that the NDH was a cultured and civilised state, and then you go to the archives and you find all the information you can find that proves that and then you just discard everything which militates against that, that’s the bad way of writing history,” he explained.

Trends in Croatia and Serbia regarding the rewriting of WWII history are also quite similar, he suggested.

Yeomans cited the recent rehabilitation of Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovic, the Serbian nationalist Chetnik movement leader.

The Belgrade court cleared Mihailovic of his alleged WWII-era crimes, arguing that he did not get a fair trial under the Yugoslav regime, but Yeomans said that does not mean the Chetnik leader was innocent.

“Even if Mihailovic was tried today, he would be found guilty of war crimes, because, even if he wasn’t personally involved, he was the commander of the groups that committed really horrible crimes, mass killings,” he said.

Hatred of Communism

Yeomans suggested that many of the Croatian historians who are trying to rewrite the past are motivated by a “hatred towards communism and strongly dislike the socialist Yugoslavia”.

“And part of the reason why I think they are becoming more successful is that socialist Yugoslavia never dealt with the issue of Bleiburg and never dealt with post-war crimes, which there were many, not just against Croats, but as well Serbian nationalists and Slovenian nationalists, and Bosniak separatists,” he said.

After Ustasa and NDH forces - as well as other Yugoslav forces that collaborated with the fascists - surrendered to the British Army at Bleiburg in Austria, the Communist Partisans killed an unknown number of them, along with an unknown number of civilians who were accompanying them.

In Yugoslav times, victims’ families gathered at Bleiburg to commemorate the dead, but also partly to praise the fallen NDH, making it a symbolic place for Croatian right-wingers. After Croatia became independent from Yugoslavia, the state started to use the event to officially commemorate the crimes.

Croatian culture minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Damir SENCAR/DS

Revisionist historians claim that a conspiracy of silence existed among Yugoslav-era historians who sought to cover up Bleiburg and other post-war crimes. The revisionists also seek to downplay the crimes committed by the NDH.

But Yeomans emphasised that as early as April 11, 1941 – a day after taking power – the Ustasas arrested the first Jews in Zagreb.

Then in May 1941, a group of nearly 170 Jewish youths were arrested in Zagreb by the Ustasa police and transported first to the Danica concentration camp in central Croatia and then to Jadovno, near the coast, where all but three perished.

Yeomans also said the Ustasa regime started purges of state companies and institutions in May 1941 and completed them by July the same year, a process that took Nazi Germany around a decade.

“It’s very interesting listening to Croatian politicians then they say, ‘Well it was tragic, but unfortunately Croatia sided with the Nazis.’ It’s almost like they try to blame Hitler and Mussolini for what happened in Croatia, which had nothing to do with Hitler and Mussolini. Essentially, this was the decision of the people that led Croatia in 1941, although nobody voted for them and they didn’t have a popular mandate,” Yeomans said.

Tackling WWII myths

“In my opinion, from what I can see in Croatia, there are two basic myths,” Yeomans said.

“The first myth is that nobody supported the Ustasa regime and everyone was against them, apart from a few quislings, and that everyone supported the Partisans,” he explained.

The second myth, the one preferred by Serbian nationalists, is that the most Croats supported the Ustasa regime - although Yeomans cautions that it is “very hard to measure how much the general population supports the values of the regime”.

Politically in Croatia, the last government, led by the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, did not directly encourage revisionist ideas about WWII, but created an atmosphere in which they could flourish and gain legitimacy, Yeomans believes.

He cited the controversial culture minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic, “who has a problematic past when it comes to confronting the Ustasa regime and the Holocaust”, he said.

After Croatian newspaper Novosti reported that Hasanbegovic had written for a pro-fascist bulletin while he was a student, the minister responded by saying that he was never “an apologist for any criminal regime, regardless of whether it was an Ustasa or Communist regime”.

However he did not specifically apologise for the article in which he described the Ustasa as martyrs and heroes.

“These people create a certain ‘mood music’ and other factors react to that. I’ve read his interviews in different papers - Le Monde, Il Piccolo - and I think it’s very problematic when he says ‘we condemn all totalitarian movements’, actually saying that socialist Yugoslavia was equivalent to the Independent State of Croatia, and that isn’t true on any kind of level,” Yeomans explained.

“In that way, what one actually says is that the Holocaust that took place in the Independent State of Croatia is not exceptional and that it is not different to any other period of history,” he added.

He also noted that such revisionist tendencies were not seen under the previous HDZ-led governments of Ivo Sanader and Jadranka Kosor, between 2003 and 2011.

“Even under [1990s right-wing President] Franjo Tudjman, it was less extreme than now, because Tudjman in a certain way wanted to reconcile Partisans and Ustasas, bizarre as the idea was, and revisionist history reflected that,” he said.

“The new younger revisionists, by contrast, demonised the Partisan movement and sought to normalise and rehabilitate the Ustasa movement and deny their mass crimes, not just relativise them, by claiming the Partisans were the real war criminals,” he added.

“This can be seen in the way they are trying to turn Jasenovac from a concentration camp where Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists were murdered into simply a ‘labour and collection camp’ which, they claim, after the war the Partisans used deliberately to kill Croats and destroy their national consciousness.”

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