Each year in April, a commemoration is held at the Jasenovac memorial - the site of a concentration camp operated by the Ustasha regime of Nazi-allied WW2-era Independent State of Croatia (NDH). An event normally attended by top state officials and representatives of the Jewish, Serb, and Roma communities in Croatia, the commemoration was plagued by controversy that peaked this year with an official boycott by representatives of the Jewish and Serb communities.
Ustaša (Ustasha): Croatian fascist movement that nominally ruled the Independent State of Croatia during World War II.
Among the reasons cited for the decision, were dissatisfaction with the permanent exhibition of the memorial complex - which downplays its true character, presenting it as a collection and labour camp, and the normalisation and relativisation of the Ustasha legacy in daily life in Croatia.
While many, including government representatives and the director of the Jasenovac memorial expressed their regret about the boycott, it appears little has been done to address the underlying issues. In order to contextualise these events, we have reached out to the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Communities in Croatia (still pending response) and the Anti-fascist Network of Zagreb (MAZ).
Bartul Čović of MAZ was kind enough to provide some insight into the history, and the mechanism, of processes of historical revisionism that is taking place in Croatia, to the decriment of not only the Jewish Community, but other minority communities, as well the antifascist legacy as a whole.
The Tuđman Legacy
Antisemitism and relativization - or even negation - of the Holocaust are constant elements of the Croatian right-wing inspired by Tuđman [former president (1990-1999)]. The first president of the Republic of Croatia established this platform already in his antisemitic pamphlets published during the time of socialist Yugoslavia. Parallel with the establishing of the nation-state the process of rewriting and falsifying the history of socialist Yugoslavia and the revolutionary partisan movement was underway. The said falsification played out predominantly through the criminalization of the National Liberation Movement as well as the relativization of the Ustasha ideology and its devastating consequences.
Specifically, an attempt was made to equate the terror against the Jewish population - as well as all other ethnic and political groups that the regime marked as “inadequate” - with the retribution against those involved with the military-political structures of the quisling regime. The aim of this was to soften the image of the Croatian version of fascism and to draw a parallel between it and communism. The simple fact that people died during wartime was being used to turn both collaborators and their victims into ‘innocent casualties’, which is a gross methodological error. Through the myth of the necessity of national consolidation, or “the reconciliation of all Croats”, all social conflicts from the past, including the one between fascism and anti-fascism, tend to be interpreted as tragic deviations from the road to the ‘sacred’ goal of all of us: the Croatian nation state such as we have today.
It was precisely president Tuđman, at the time still a historian, who gave birth to the kind of politics that provided the Ustasha ideology necessary space in everyday life in Croatia, to the detriment of Croatian anti-fascist heritage. His aims were best expressed in the attempt to put the remains of WWII Ustasha fighters next to the remains of Holocaust victims in the Jasenovac mausoleum, all in the name of “reconciliation”.
In present-day Croatia the terror against the Jewish population during World War II is largely forgotten, in the public sphere as well as in education, a fact made ever more unecceptable given its horrific scale. Namely, in no other country of occupied Europe — including Poland and Germany itself — was the Jewish population so thoroughly eradicated as it was in Yugoslavia and Croatia. The best example of that is found in Sarajevo, once home to the second largest Jewish community in the Balkans (second only to Thessaloniki) which was completely annihilated by the Ustasha, largely in the Jasenovac camp.
Today’s revisionist relationship of Croatian authorities toward the subject of Jasenovac, a relationship that thoroughly strips this suffering of any historical/political context (thereby reducing the guilt of the Ustasha) is merely the continuation of the aforementioned politics from the 1990s. All of this makes the boycott by the Jewish, Serbian and Roma representatives more than justified.
In a situation in which deviating from the concept of “no alternative” to the nation state is unacceptable, it is impossible to deal with the crimes committed in the name of this state.Nor is it possible to reestablish the emancipatory reach of the antifascist struggle, in the first place with respect to the rights of workers, women’s rights and ethnic equality, all political ideas that are prerequisites of a truly democratic society.
Image credit: Tomislav Medak (CC BY 2.0)