Comment 21 Apr 17

Dishonour for Zagreb Over ‘Alternative Facts’ About Holocaust

The Zagreb authorities have showed their disrespect for World War II victims by honouring a film-maker whose documentary downplays the crimes committed at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Jakov Sedlar. Photo: Beta.

“Never, not in a single film or public appearance of mine, have I ever incited hatred or tried to deny any crime; never in any thoughts did I say anything positive about fascism. Fascism, like communism, is an evil that only a sick man can support and promote,” controversial film director Jakov Sedlar wrote in an open letter on Tuesday.

Sedlar was trying to respond to allegations that his documentary Jasenovac - The Truth “downplayed and degraded the victims” of the WWII concentration camp run by the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement at Jasenovac and “denied the Holocaust and genocide committed by the Ustasa regime”.

The claims were made by organisations representing the ethnic groups that were the primary victims of the camp.

Sedlar addressed his response to Zagreb’s city assembly, as it prepared to honour him on Wednesday with the Award of the City of Zagreb for his contribution to film and theatre.

Its decision to give him the award showed huge irresponsibility towards the victims of fascism and Nazism around the world, to their families and to those who have respect for them.

In the new ‘post-truth’ era, it is hard to keep track of and tackle all the conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ that pass through the media, social networks or even academia.

However, the number of such ‘alternative facts’ that Sedlar squeezed into less than an hour of his documentary is unbelievable and shocking, as they dispute what has been scientifically proven.

But firstly the background of the issue needs to be explained. For those who still do not know, in 1941, the Ustasa – under the auspices of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy – established their puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, NDH.

Using classic fascist ideology, the NDH ran on terror, targeting Serbs, Jews and Roma with the help of racial laws modelled upon Nazi ones.

The persecution of Jews and Roma took place under orders from the Ustasa’s mentors in Berlin – which were quickly and brutally carried out – but the persecution of Serbs was an original idea of the Ustasa, who rebelled against Serbian domination of the pre-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The central memorial at the Jasenovac site. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Bern Bartsch.

In line with these racial laws, the Ustasa took part in the Holocaust, as well as massive crimes against Serbs and Roma (often referred to as Porajmos, Roma for ‘destruction’).

According to a scientifically-verified name-by-name list, created over years of research at the Jasenovac Memorial Site, at the biggest Ustasa-ran camp – sometimes referred to as ‘Auschwitz of the Balkans’ – 83,145 people were killed or died between August 1941 and April 1945.

That number included 47,627 Serbs, 16,173 Roma, 13,116 Jews, 4,225 Croats (as anti-fascists and as real or presumed enemies of the regime) and others.

Bearing in mind all of this, it is hard to pick where to start with Sedlar’s film, which allegedly wanted to shed a light on the “overblown” death toll at the Jasenovac camp, which was, according to the director, created by Yugoslav and Serbian nationalist propaganda.

In the end, he ended up by listing numerous statements that can be described as pure ‘alternative facts’, some of which have already been highlighted by journalist Nikola Bajto in Croatian weekly Novosti.

At the beginning of the film, the narrator sets the tone by referring to Jasenovac as a “collection and labour camp”, a tactic often used by Croatia’s far right for downplaying the character of the institution.

Although the camp partly functioned as a labour camp, numerous documents and some survivors have described how hard labour was used for the purpose of killing people – in a similar way to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

In all relevant scientific research – in both history and genocide studies – Jasenovac is referred to as a concentration camp, while some even label it as an extermination or death camp, due to the fact that a number of victims were taken there to be directly eliminated.

The film continues by mentioning estimated death toll figures of over a million victims, which actually come from Yugoslav and Serbian nationalist sources, and which do not correspond to reality, according to reliable data on demographic losses during WWII.

In Yugoslav times, the death toll was often set between 500,000 and 700,000, which some saw as an attempt to put label Croats as ‘genocidal’.

The film disputes these exaggerated figures as well as the official, scientifically-produced Jasenovac death toll of 83,145 victims, saying they are all “unreliable”.

The official Jasenovac figures however fall inside a range of other estimates made by the Belgrade Museum of Genocide Victims (80,022), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (between 77,000 and 99,000), the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (85,000), as well as the ones offered by the Croatian demographer Vladimir Zerjavic (between 80,000 and 90,000).

In the film, Sedlar tries to prove that the camp’s death toll was probably much lower, and also tries to suggest that there were more Croats held at the camp than other types of inmates – an assertion which is not supported by the facts cited in the vast majority of scientific research.

The film almost completely ignores the camp’s Serb and Roma victims, while telling the story of a strong “Serbian hate towards everything seen as Croatian” during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and portraying the Ustasa as “an anti-Serbian movement that wanted to protect Croatian interests”.

The Anti-Fascist League of Croatia has accused Sedlar of inciting negative feelings towards Serbs by making unsupported claims that Serbs from the region around Jasenovac committed crimes against Croats before and after WWII, and by showing a photo of an alleged Chetnik (Serbian WWII nationalist) unit which is actually clearly from Slovenia, as the slogan “Freedom or Death” is written in Slovenian in the picture.

The photo-montaged front page of Vjesnik newspaper that was used in the film. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

When it comes to Jewish suffering, Sedlar’s film whitewashes the Ustasa’s laws against Jews by claiming that Kingdom of Yugoslavia also had anti-Semitic legislation.

The truth of the matter however is that the laws adopted by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia concerned quotas for the admittance of Jews to high schools and universities, which cannot be compared to the Ustasa’s Nazi-modelled racial laws.

In his film, Sedlar says that anti-Semitism was imported by the Germans, claiming that even the wife of the Ustasa leader Ante Pavelic was Jewish – an unsupported suggestion which often comes from far-right circles.

In the film, the Jews sent to German Nazi camps are highlighted, while those killed at Jasenovac are downplayed.

The film also claims that existence of an organised Jewish community in Zagreb until the end of WWII is proof of Ustasa’s lenient approach towards Jews.

However, this does not prove anything, since even the Nazis maintained Jewish Councils (German ‘Judenrate’) in Jewish ghettos across occupied Europe – a technique to ease the implementation of anti-Semitic measures and laws.

In its desire to show Ante Pavelic’s concern for Jews, the film shows the Ustasa leader’s alleged letter to the NDH’s ambassador to Germany at the time, Mile Budak, in which Pavelic asks Budak to help an alleged Jewish inmate at the Jasenovac camp.

Besides the disputed authenticity of the letter, journalist Boris Dezulovic has shown that there are discrepancies in the layout of the type between different lines in the letter, which opens up potential questions about whether it could be a montage.

Sedlar even uses obvious tricks in the film, like a fake photo-montage of a 1945 front page from the Croatian newspaper Vjesnik, in an attempt to show that the Communists, who seized power that year, falsified the facts about Jasenovac.

Last year, a journalist at the Croatian news site Lupiga, Lovro Krnic, proved this by going through all front pages of Vjesnik from the period and finding the one which was visually manipulated.

However, Sedlar then claimed that the original front page “can’t be found in the archives” and that he got it “from some thieves from Belgrade”.

The original Vjesnik front page. Photo courtesy of Lovro Krnic.

While ignoring Serb and Roma victims and downplaying Jewish ones, the film goes on to “discover” that after the Ustasa left the Jasenovac camp in April 1945, the Communist Partisans then transformed it into “place of mass execution”, mostly killing Croats.

According to the film, the Communists had a death camp at Jasenovac until 1951, and they killed more Croats than the Ustasa ever did.

This theory is also advocated by a highly controversial Croatian far-right NGO called Threefold Jasenovac (which is mentioned in the film’s credits), but it runs counter to the vast majority of scientifically-backed documents, testimonies and writings by prominent historians.

The film even includes two alleged guards from the period of the alleged Communist camp: Slovenians identified only by initials and with their faces blurred. While they cannot be identified, they do not look as if they are over 80, as they would have to be if they were guards in 1950.

Sedlar’s documentary further claims that “hundreds of thousands of Croats” were killed after the defeat of the Ustasa army in 1945 – while the vast bulk of scientists agree that the number was probably somewhere in the tens of thousands.

Finally, the film’s ending reveals some of what could be Sedlar’s intentions.

In the last three minutes, a dozen former and current Croatian officials, intellectuals, historians and journalists are named, pictured and labelled as “Yugoslav nationalists”.

They are accused of concealing the truth about “the genocide against Croats and the [Communist] Partisans’ Jasenovac camp”, while perpetuating “the exaggerated myth about the Ustasa camp Jasenovac”.

“I was really shocked when I saw their faces in the film and it opens a question about the real purpose of the film,” the Israeli ambassador to Croatia, Zina Kalay Kleitman, said in April 2016 after she saw the premiere.

With so many highly problematic, unsupported and unverified claims about Sedlar’s film, it is quite clear that such a director does not deserve to get any award for his work anywhere on the planet.

Sedlar’s problem with authenticity is best illustrated by his final statement in the open letter he wrote this week to defend his work.

“In the future, fascists will emerge from the ranks of anti-fascists,” he said in the letter, saying that he was quoting British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

But as you can already guess, Churchill never said it, according to the International Churchill Society, which is dedicated to preserving the British politician’s legacy.

Sven Milekic is a BIRN journalist based in Zagreb, Croatia. The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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