As a rising tide of extremism and antisemitism sweeps across Europe, much of the focus has been on a wave of incidents that has engulfed France and Germany, two of the continent’s largest powers.
While events on the streets of Paris and Berlin, cities which have become increasingly dangerous for Jews, most certainly warrant our attention and concern, it would be a grave error to conclude that the problem is confined primarily to these two countries.
Indeed, the sad fact is that Croatia, a much smaller member of the European Union, is home to perhaps one of the largest, most pervasive and troubling revivals of neo-fascism in recent decades.
And despite the movement’s growing and vociferous presence in Croatian public life, and the threat this poses to stability in the Balkans and beyond, Western and European officials have done little to condemn this worrisome trend.
Take, for example, the shocking event that took place on May 12, when thousands of Croats gathered in the Austrian town of Bleiburg for an annual ceremony in memory of Croatian Nazi collaborators and sympathizers who were killed there at the end of World War II.
“Today,” said Gordon Jandrokovic, the speaker of Croatia’s Parliament, “we are paying our respect to the victims, civilians as well as soldiers.”
Behind that seemingly bland statement is a chilling admiration for the murderous pro-Nazi Ustashe movement, whose “soldiers” butchered tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs and others during the war.
Honoring the memory of the Ustashe’s fallen “soldiers” is an act of moral depravity, one that seeks to whitewash the crimes of a vicious wartime regime that left a legacy of brutality and bloodshed.
It is simply disgraceful that Croatian authorities, along with the Croatian Catholic Church, actively participate in this event each year, and it is no less deplorable that the Austrian government allows it to take place. As famed Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, told the Associated Press, “It’s absolutely outrageous that Austrian authorities allow an event like this to happen. In Austria, you are not allowed to brandish Nazi symbols, but they allow Ustashe symbols.”
To fully appreciate how offensive this is to historical memory, consider the following.
The Ustashe regime was established in April 1941 after Germany and the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia. Ante Pavelic, a fanatical antisemite who headed the Ustashe movement, was installed as military dictator and moved quickly to create an ethnically pure Croatia by embracing the methods of his patron, Adolf Hitler, and employing a policy of mass murder and expulsion.
Pavelic moved quickly to establish a network of death camps, the largest of which was Jasenovac, which opened in August 1941 and was staffed entirely by members of the Ustashe. Known as “the Auschwitz of the Balkans,” Jasenovac became a killing field, where tens of thousands of Croatian and Bosnian Jews were slaughtered alongside even larger numbers of Serbs.
Unlike German extermination camps, however, Jasenovac did not have the infrastructure for mass murder, such as gas chambers. Instead, inmates were stabbed to death with knives, bludgeoned with hammers, cut to pieces with axes or simply shot, making the killings far more personal.
The Croatian Ustashe also deported thousands of Jews from Jasenovac to Auschwitz, and were so eager to be rid of them that they agreed to pay Germany 30 marks per Jew to cover the cost of transporting them.
Altogether, more than 30,000 Croatian Jews, over 75% of the community, were murdered in the Holocaust, and hundreds of thousands of Serbs were massacred, exiled or forcibly converted by the Ustashe.
Nevertheless, Croatia has never come to terms with what it did during World War II, and persists in viewing itself as a victim rather than a perpetrator.
Worse yet, there has been a rising tide of nostalgia for the Ustashe in contemporary Croatia, with open expressions of neo-Nazism and fascism occurring regularly.
Indeed, last fall, Menachem Z. Rosensaft of the World Jewish Congress published a lengthy and detailed position paper in Tablet magazine blasting Croatia for “brazenly attempting to rewrite its Holocaust crimes out of history.”
He cited numerous examples of “the effective rehabilitation and glorification of the Ustashe,” ranging from pro-Ustashe chants at soccer matches to the country’s president posing for photographs with Croatian emigres holding a flag with the Ustashe symbol.
The situation has become so acute that for the third year in a row, representatives of Croatia’s Jews, Serbs and Roma communities boycotted the official memorial ceremony organized by Croatia’s government at Jasenovac last month because it downplayed Ustashe crimes.
While some Croatian leaders have publicly condemned the Ustashe, they have done little to quell the rising tide of neo-fascism in the country, nor have they taken practical steps to educate the next generation about the true nature of the nation’s behavior during the Holocaust.
It has been five years since Croatia was formally accepted as a member in the European Union. At the time, many hoped that membership would have a tranquilizing effect on the undercurrents of antisemitic and anti-Serb extremism and hatred that pervade much of Croatian public life.
But thanks in part to the silence and inaction of the EU on this issue, the fascist threat is once again rearing its ugly head in the Balkans.