Two noteworthy events took place in Croatia during the past month that reflect in a very significant way on the phenomenon of Holocaust distortion, which is so rampant in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
One of the events was attended by at least 200,000 people and viewed all over the world by millions of others on television and the Internet, while the other was attended by a small select group of prominent guests, was closed to the public and was hardly mentioned in the media. Both, however, are important, if we seek to understand the threat posed by the attempts to rewrite the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust in the region, and why the efforts to combat this plague have hitherto not been particularly successful.
The first was the public reception for the Croatia national soccer team held on July 16 upon its triumphant return to Zagreb following its surprising second-place finish in the recent World Cup competition held in Russia.
Although Croatia has an excellent tradition in many sports, no one expected its team to go as far as it did, knocking off highly favored Argentina and England in the process. The string of upset victories aroused tremendous support in the Balkan nation of only 4.2 million people, and an estimated 200,000 supporters showed up in Jelecic Square in the middle of Zagreb to greet their heroes.
Hoping to avoid any controversy, the organizers of the reception announced beforehand that no politicians or performers would appear, but that is not what happened.
Marko Perkovic, probably the most popular singer in Croatia, and better known by his nickname of “Thompson” (for the British machine gun he carried as a Croatian soldier in the wars of the nineties), went to Zagreb Airport to greet the players personally, and they asked him to accompany them and later sing two of his songs at the reception, which cast the entire event in a totally different light.
Thompson is notorious for his ultranationalist lyrics and his glorification of Croatia’s notorious genocidal World War II Ustasha regime, often opening his concerts with the Ustasha salute “Za dom spremni” (For the homeland ready). Thus, instead of being an uplifting celebration of Croatia’s magnificent World Cup performance, it became a neo-fascist extravaganza, with the players singing all the lyrics along with him by heart. No one openly protested his performance, and those criticizing it in the media and social networks, myself included, were subjected to derision and the usual nasty messages. And if anyone thought that Thompson’s popularity was primarily among the marginal elements of Croatian society, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic herself has said openly that he was her favorite performer.
None of this is particularly surprising, since the failure to sincerely and honestly confront Ustasha crimes has plagued Croatia since it obtained independence. From the very beginning, president Franjo Tudjman adopted the ultranationalist narrative, and although his successor Stjepan Mesic was a staunch anti-fascist who unequivocally denounced the Ustasha regime, the ultranationalists continued to have power and influence, and the school system never took the measures necessary to effectively educate the younger generations about the horrific crimes committed by the Croatian regime against Serbs, Jews, Roma and its political opponents during World War II.
Even the museum at Jasenovac, the largest of the Ustasha concentration camps and the symbol of Ustasha cruelty and mass murder, presents a sanitized version of the events, does not have a single photo of any of its five commanders, all mass murderers, or any mention of the 1999 trial and conviction by democratic Croatia of Dinko Sakic, one of the commanders and a fanatic Ustasha.
All of these phenomenon hardly attracted any attention or criticism, with the exception of Serbia and some of the Jewish world.
In Israel, for example, Croatia was never taken to task for its serious failures in this regard, which is hardly surprising, since – at least for the last two decades, until the controversy over the recent Polish Holocaust bill – Israel never sought to combat Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe in a serious manner.
THAT IS, until last week, when President Reuven Rivlin visited Jasenovac and delivered what most probably was the most important speech of his life on a Holocaust-related issue. In his words:
“The Ustasha regime, one of the terrible regimes which collaborated with the Nazis, emerged here in Croatia. We know that there were also others, but they were a minority. The [Ustasha] regime were active partners in the murders. There are those who prefer to repress their past and consider it a “black hole” which does not require examination or soul-searching. There are those who think, especially today... that the fact that they were under Nazi occupation frees them from any moral, personal or national responsibility for the atrocities which took place in their country....
“We expect to see the efforts of the Republic of Croatia to ensure that these historical black pages will not be forgotten. Confronting the crimes of the past is a long journey, which must be pursued with perseverance despite all the difficulties, with determination and courage. Croatia’s ability to deal with its past and not ignore the impact of the past constitutes a moral debt of every just society, and will be an important element in the friendship between Croatia and the State of Israel.”
In conclusion, Rivlin emphasized: “We are all obligated to make every effort to respect the memory of those murdered, and not to promote any legislation or blow or attempt to silence historical research about crimes by the Nazis and the regimes which were their allies. Only by honestly and courageously confronting the past and educating younger generations will we be able to promise in this terrible place that ‘Never Again.’” (Croatia recently passed a law closing personal files for longer periods of time, which might make research on individuals who committed crimes during World War II more difficult.)
For the first time in years, an Israeli leader makes the issue of historical truth an important element that will affect the bilateral relations with an Eastern European country whose nationals actively participated in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, however, little notice was made in Israel of this wonderful speech. In fact, it was not reported in any of the major media, with one or two exceptions, and reverberated only in Serbia (Rivlin’s next stop), where it was warmly welcomed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and given extensive coverage in all the media, which is par for the course.
Apparently, for Israeli politicians, Croatia doesn’t count like Poland, and until that changes, we will unfortunately be forced to live with the dangerous phenomenon of rampant Holocaust distortion throughout Eastern Europe, and the shameful silence of our political leaders.
The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His latest book, with Ruta Vanagaite, is Masa im ha-Oyev (Journey with the Enemy), which chronicles Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and the efforts of Lithuanian governments to hide the scope of local complicity.