Why won’t croatia face its past?
On 5 January Zoran Milanović was elected the new president of Croatia. ‘Let’s be united in (our) differences,’ he declared in his victory speech to a cheering crowd, promising to make his country a more tolerant place. ‘I will not divide the Croatian citizens by [bringing up] the issues that hurt them.’
Milanović, a candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and a former prime minister of Croatia (2011-16), took the presidency with 52 per cent of the vote, ahead of the conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović who was supported by the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
To an outsider, Milanović’s victory speech might have appeared to be a conciliatory invitation to voters from both left and right to overcome their differences and work towards a better future. But there is a much deeper gulf that cleaves Croatian society than the traditional left-right divide.
Gaining its independence in 1991 – though the war in former Yugoslavia lasted longer, only terminated by the conflict in Kosovo in 1999 – Croatia is completely entangled in events from a more distant past. Two competing narratives of the country’s role in World War Two still stir up passions.
Today, Holocaust denial and distortion of the past are sadly not uncommon even in long-standing democracies. Historical revisionism is on the rise throughout Europe, with different governments rehabilitating World War Two collaborators while minimizing their own country’s guilt – this is a major finding of a 2019 report by the Holocaust Remembrance Project. A January 2020 update to the report found that Croatia was one of the worst countries in Europe (along with Poland, Hungary and Lithuania) when it comes to historical revisionism.
To understand why, one needs first to understand a bit of the country’s complicated history. At the onset of the Second World War, Croatia was a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. When the Axis powers invaded and partitioned the Kingdom in April 1941, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), an ally of Nazi Germany, was created. The newly founded country included the territory of today’s Croatia, but also some of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Hitler’s Holocaust politics were perpetrated by Ustasha (also spelt as Ustaša or Ustaše), the ultranationalist Croatian revolutionary movement. Ustasha was responsible for the mass extermination of Jewish, Roma and Serb inhabitants in a bid to make Croatia ‘ethnically clean’.
‘In Croatia, the extermination of the Jews was basically a sideshow to a much bigger mass murder of the Serbs,’ says Dr Efraim Zuroff, Nazi hunter, Holocaust historian and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, who has examined Holocaust distortion in Croatia for over two decades.
Although many Croats joined the anti-fascist partisan resistance, Ustasha and their allies – Italian fascists – remained in control of large swathes of Croatian territory until the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945. After the war, Croatia became one of the federal republics of socialist Yugoslavia (together with Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro) under Josip Broz Tito’s leadership. Tito had been at the forefront of the partisan resistance against the Nazis and their local allies.
Today many rightwing voters see Ustasha as a nationalist movement fighting for Croatia’s independence, not as brutal Nazi allies. They argue that, until Croatia’s still-recent independence, the only comparable period in the country’s modern history was during World War Two. In their eyes, socialist Yugoslavia was a totalitarian state where one could not express nationalist sentiments and which persecuted Croatian patriots.
‘The Auschwitz of the Balkans’
Today the use of the wartime Ustasha salute, ‘For homeland – ready!’ (the local equivalent of the Nazi ‘Sieg Heil!’) is still widespread, flashed at public gatherings – football games, rallies, protests and commemorations alike.
Moreover, the number of Serb, Roma and Jewish war victims is often downplayed. ‘In Croatia, it was understood that one cannot really deny the Holocaust as such – but the crimes against the Serbs, the Roma and the anti-fascist Croatians have always been minimized,’ according to Zuroff.
The new revisionist narrative that has emerged over recent years in Croatia extends to the horrors of the concentration camp of Jasenovac, where over 83,000 Serbs, Jews and Roma were killed. Often referred to as ‘the Auschwitz of the Balkans’, it is now a memorial site. Right-wingers claim that the number of victims is ‘overblown’.
Or they argue that it wasn’t a fascist concentration camp but was rather run by Tito’s communists after the end of the Second World War. Several alternative ‘historical books’ on the matter have been published. In 2016, Croatian filmmaker Jakov Sedlar released a documentary Jasenovac – The Truth, praised by the then minister of culture, which portrayed Jasenovac as a rather benign ‘labour camp’.
In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, Miroslav Škoro, a folk singer turned nationalist candidate, promised to dig up Jasenovac to determine the real number of victims buried there. This didn’t hurt his reputation much – he came third, winning almost 25 per cent of the vote, and almost making it to the run-offs.
The muddy mainstream
While revisionist tendencies have grown stronger in recent years, they were already a part of political discourse in the 1990s, under newly independent Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tuđman.
Tuđman has since become an emblematic figure, with numerous squares, streets, bridges and Zagreb’s airport named after him. Although he recognized the importance of the partisan resistance in the liberation of Croatia in the Second World War – he was a partisan himself – he advocated ‘national reconciliation’, a coming together of descendants of both partisans and Ustasha members for the independent Croatian cause during the 1990s war. This kind of rhetoric led to different spins on World War Two.
‘Some of Tuđman’s political associates and successors went on propagating the idea that the Ustasha were essentially good guys who fought for Croatia,’ says Ivo Goldstein, historian and professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. ‘On the other hand, in this narrative, the partisans didn’t fight for Croatia but Yugoslavia.’
After Tuđman’s death in 1999, both right- and leftwing governments kept a lid on this type of revisionism, as the country negotiated to become a member of the European Union. Upon achieving this goal, the revisionist voices became louder again.
Today, the current prime minister, Andrej Penković, is seen as a moderate, but he has not clearly denounced revisionists inside and outside of his party. Former Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has been blamed for using nationalist rhetoric and revisionism to appeal to hard-right voters. In 2016, she posed with a group of Croatian diaspora members in Canada holding a flag bearing the Ustasha symbol.
In 2018, during her visit to Argentina, she said: ‘After World War Two, many Croats found freedom in Argentina, where they could testify to their patriotism.’ Most of the Croatian post-World War Two diaspora in South America consisted of those close to the Ustasha regime.
Depicting Yugoslavia as a totalitarian state, and focusing on the crimes committed by the Yugoslavian regime while minimizing the importance of the partisan legacy, has also become a part of the political discourse.
In October 2019, Grabar-Kitarović said in a speech that she was ‘born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain’, dreaming of places ‘where people were able to speak freely’. In fact Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, and Yugoslavia was later one of the founding members of the non-aligned movement, quite open to the West as well.
‘There is a certain tendency in the Eastern European new democracies to try to establish a false equivalency between communism and Nazism,’ believes Zuroff. In the narrative equating ‘all totalitarianism’, the lines between the partisans and Ustasha’s crimes have become blurred.
This tide of historical revisionism hasn’t resulted in attacks targeting the rather small Jewish community in the country. Rather it is the Serb minority in Croatia that has been singled out as a focus for threats, hate speech and violence.
These attacks are part of the legacy of the 1990s war, which pitted the Croatian Serbs, Milošević’s Serbia and the newly created Croatian state against each other. But they are also part of the institutionalized revisionist narrative around World War Two, according to which the Serbs have been exaggerating their victimization during this war so as to impose collective guilt on Croats.
In 2019, several serious attacks against Serbs were reported. Prime minister Andrej Plenković condemned them but painted them as hate crimes committed by individuals rather than as the fruit of the anti-Serb revisionist climate in the country.
Zuroff believes a different approach is essential and that President Milanović should be clear in his stance towards the past and condemn revisionism, rather than trying to superficially smooth over divisions.
‘If Croatia doesn’t open up any wounds, nothing will be solved,’ he argues. Croatian historian Tvrtko Jakovina echoes Zuroff’s words: ‘Milanović will need (...) to take a firm position about the historical events, visit memorial sites and not succumb to bad, revisionist populism.’ The role of the president in Croatia is largely ceremonial – it is the prime minister who holds real power – but their discourse as a figurehead still influences dominant narratives in the country.
This autumn, Croatia is due to go to the polls again for parliamentary elections. It will be time for Milanović as well as the rest of the political class to define their position on the past.