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08 Jun 17

Notes of Discord on Croatia’s Wartime Record

Tamara Opacic

History becomes a battleground for identity as nationalism rises in the EU’s youngest member state.

A page from an anonymous letter addressed to the author contains material denying that the Holocaust happened. Sent from Australia, the letter includes racist caricatures and anti-Semitic invective written in Croatian. Photo: Tamara Opacic

Marko Perkovic “Thompson” is one of Croatia’s most famous – some would say infamous – rock stars.

Nicknamed Thompson after the automatic “Tommy gun” he brandished during the country’s 1991-95 war of independence from Yugoslavia, the soldier-turned-singer gained notoriety for his folk-rock anthem “Bojna Cavoglave” [Cavoglave Battalion].

With its marching drumbeat and rasping vocals, the song contains phrases harkening back to Croatia’s pro-Nazi puppet state in World War II.

It begins with the words “Za dom spremni” [“Ready for the homeland”], a salute used by the Nazi-backed Ustasa regime that systematically murdered Jews, Serbs, Roma and anti-fascists. More than 83,000 perished in one concentration camp alone, at Jasenovac in central Croatia.

The slogan became a rallying cry for many nationalists in the 1990s when Thompson first released his song. Now in his early 50s, Thompson has performed “Bojna Cavoglave” at public and private celebrations over the past quarter-century. His concerts have been broadcast on Croatian public television.

Thompson made headlines earlier this year after his live shows were banned in Austria and Slovenia on the grounds that his music promotes far-right extremism.

Croatia’s conservative prime minister, Andrej Plenkovic, asked Slovenia to justify the reasons for the ban. President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, who calls Thompson her favourite singer, described Slovenia’s decision as “counterproductive”.

On the day Grabar Kitarovic made her statement, I visited Sanja Zoricic Tabakovic, a judge and representative of the Jewish community in Zagreb.

We discussed the rise of nationalism in the EU’s youngest member state, which is increasingly repudiating its anti-fascist past under Josip Broz Tito, the Croatian-born communist whose Partisans fought the Nazis during World War II and who ruled Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980.

In a country haunted by wartime ghosts, critics like Tabakovic say some nationalists are trying to create moral equivalency between Croatia’s Ustasa legacy and crimes committed by Tito’s Partisans against those accused of collaborating with fascists. 

"If state leadership relativises each event that upsets members of minority groups, then one cannot expect that institutions will protect us if we come under direct threat," Tabakovic said.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Tabakovic is most alarmed by voices diminishing or denying World War II atrocities – not least the slaughter of Jews, Serbs and Roma at Jasenovac.

Late last year, veterans of the 1990s Balkans conflict raised a plaque near the site of the death camp emblazoned with the “Za dom spremni” slogan kept alive by Thompson’s song.

For its part, the centre-right government announced in March it was establishing a commission to advise on how best to treat Croatia’s divisive history. 

As a journalist, I’m keen to understand what is driving historical revisionism, in Croatia and other countries of Eastern Europe.

Added impetus for exploring the subject came in the form of a letter I received last month shortly after returning from a seminar in Vienna to kick off the 2017 Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

"Everyone has had enough of Serbo-Turks and Jews, this lying brotherhood, and their big lies," the sender scrawled on a page above a racist caricature captioned with anti-Semitic epithets.

The next 17 pages, mostly photocopies of material apparently gleaned from neo-Nazi websites, were a crude attempt to convince me the Holocaust never happened.

Who sent the letter?

The only clue was the postage stamp from Australia. Most probably it came from a member of the Croatian diaspora — some of whom, according to Tabakovic, have played a key role in changing general attitudes towards history in their home country.

Tamara Opacic is an executive editor at Novosti weekly in Zagreb. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, she is investigating the rise of historical revisionism in Croatia and abroad.

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