(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week I was reminded once again that history does not have to repeat itself exactly to send some very nasty reminders of the past. On May 26, 1941, shortly after the fall of Yugoslavia to the Nazis and the subsequent establishment of the "Independent State of Croatia" (NDH) under the rule of the local fascist movement, the Ustasa, hundreds of students were ordered to carry out exercises at Maksimir Stadium, the largest in Croatia and the current home of soccer powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb.
There, the Ustashe under Zdenko Blazekovic attempted to separate the Serb and Jewish students from their Croatian counterparts, as a prelude to the implementation of their genocidal program against these two minorities. Indeed, on the next day, the first group of Jewish students was deported to Ustashe concentration camps where all of them were killed.
This past week, Ustashe symbols were once again proudly displayed at Maksimir Stadium, only this time the occasion was not a roundup of Serbs and Jews, but rather a rock concert by popular Croatian singer "Thompson" (Marko Perkovic).
If Thompson's songs were odes to tolerance for minorities and calls for brotherhood among different nationalities and ethnic groups, I am certain that almost none of those attending the concert would have showed up with Ustashe uniforms, symbols, and banners, but his ultranationalist orientation is unmistakeable.
Thus, for example, he acheived notoreity two years ago by singing a song entitled "Jasenovac/Stara Gradiska," which expressed nostalgia for those two infamous Croatian concentration camps in which at least 90,000 innocent Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croatians were murdered by the Ustashe with nary a Nazi in sight.
THE LYRICS of the song leave little to the imagination: Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska That's the house of Maks' [Luburic, a notorious Ustashe murderer] butchers...
O Neretva [river] flow downhill And carry the Serbs into the blue Adriatic [Sea]....
I am Ustashe and so was my father Father left the craft to his son....
Lady Sinjska [a Slavic godess], if you can, take away [anti-fascist and current President of Croatia] Stipe [Mesic] and bring back our [ultranationalist former President] Franjo [Tudjman]....
Send our greetings to [World War II Ustashe leader] Ante Pavelic.
In other words, Thompson's concerts are the perfect occasion for a proud display of extremist Croatian nationalism, which mixes nostalgia for the Ustashe with adulation for for more recent heroes such as Croatian general Ante Gotovina, wanted in The Hague for war crimes during the 1991 war and until recently a fugitive from justice.
Add fascist salutes and cries of "Za dom spremni" (ready-for the homeland), the patriotic slogan popularized by the Ustashe, and it is clear why such scenes arouse discomfort, if not genuine fear, among Croatia's minorities, especially Serbs and Jews. Even worse, among the 60,000 people in attendance were members of parliament, government officials and numerous local celebrities. The Minister of Science, Education and Sports, Dragan Primorac, showed up for the concert on its original date which was rained out, but could not attend the rescheduled event the next day.
UNDER THESE circumstances, the question is whether the scenes last week at Maksimir Stadium reflect an urgent danger of of the return of fascism in Croatia or are perhaps the last-gasp backlash of an insignificant extremist group with little political power, still smarting from the arrest and transfer to The Hague of local right-wing hero General Gotovina and fearful of their country's future admission to the European Union?
Following the publication in the local media of a letter I sent to President Mesic to protest the widespread display of Ustashe symbols at the concert, I received numerous messages from Croatians all over the world who sought to convince me that Thompson was neither a fascist nor an anti-Semite, but rather a wholesome patriot full of love for his country.
They wrote of his support for family values, disabled veterans from Croatia's last war and other worthy causes. But what they failed to grasp is that if one equates Croatian patriotism with the Ustashe, then the message being transmitted is not noble love of homeland, but rather the blatant racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia which spawned Jasenovac and the mass murder of minorities and political opponents.
On May 26, 1941, quite a few of the Croatian students at Maksimir Stadium, led by the Communists among them, foiled the Ustashe's plan to separate the Serbs and Jews from the rest of the students by going over to stand with the members of the minority groups. In the end, that noble gesture did not save those targeted by the Ustashe for annihilation, but it does send the right signals to contemporary Croatian society.
The question is whether the tens of thousands who came to the same stadium last week to hear Thompson will ultimately appreciate and internalize that critical message.
The writer is director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel.