Who committed this massacre in Croatia

Commemoration of the mass killings in 1945 divided southeast Europeans

No major event can take place in Bleiburg this year. Due to Covid-19, the event to commemorate the mass violence after the end of World War II, which the Yugoslav army under Tito perpetrated on the territory of today's Slovenia, is canceled. Instead, the Croatian Church and the Croatian Parliament now want to hold a memorial in the Zagreb Mirogoj Cemetery and in the Catholic Cathedral in Sarajevo.

However, there is resistance in Sarajevo to Cardinal Vinko Puljić reading a mass in memory of these dead on May 16. Because many fear that this memorial event could be instrumentalized to rehabilitate the fascist NDH state of the Ustasha.

Above all, the debate shows how polarized and politicized the commemoration of certain historical events in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is. While Croatian nationalists have used the commemoration of the mass violence by the partisans for years to cultivate a nationalist discourse on victims, other political forces refuse to recognize these crimes and to commemorate the victims. This also has to do with the fact that during the communist regime in Yugoslavia it was forbidden to talk about the crimes of the partisans who were commissioned by the Yugoslav secret service to carry out these mass murders.

Massacre without trial

The Southeastern European historian Oliver Jens Schmitt writes the following in his most recent book on the 20th century: "The mass murder (through shooting, exhaustion marches and other methods) by Yugoslav partisans of at least around 60,000 Croatian and Slovenian soldiers is present to the present day and paramilitaries, with these fleeing civilians and Cossacks who fled to Carinthia in May 1945 and were extradited there by the British army to Tito Yugoslavia.These massacres, which took place without any trial with reference to allegedly revolutionary necessity, are in the anti-communist, partly fascist culture of remembrance known under the terms Bleiburg and Kreuzweg. "

The instrumentalization by the Croatian political right has certainly made it more difficult to bring the facts to the fore. The Croatian side staged the commemoration as if the mass killings were targeted against "the Croatian people", which is historically wrong, not only because many Serbs and other victims of the mass killings, but also because it was political "Enemies" were concerned and not "ethnic" ascriptions. In any case, the debate about commemoration reveals that two opposing political camps have been waging proxy wars on this subject since the collapse of Yugoslavia - also with the help of the diaspora. And it shows how important it would be to establish a science-based discourse.

Mostly soldiers, but also civilians

In any case, Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Montenegrins, Italians and Austrians were killed in the death marches and mass shootings in 1945. Many were soldiers who had fought on the side of the Slovenian and Croatian home guards and the Croatian Ustaše units. It is unclear and unexplored how many of these soldiers had previously committed crimes under the fascist regime. One thing is certain: among the victims were civilians who had fled to Carinthia for fear of the violence of the new regime. There they had hoped that they would be protected by the British liberation forces, but they extradited them.

Schmitt recalls that in Tito-Yugoslavia in the months after the war there were also "extensive massacres of political and ideological opponents" who were called "class enemies in communist diction". This included around 70,000 people executed after rapid trials, but the total number of murders can hardly be determined. "The murders were carried out with the knowledge and approval of Tito and were carried out in a frenzy of violence against all real or supposed opponents. These excesses did not only affect members of Ustasha, Chetnik and Slovenian home guard organizations. The victims included members of the bourgeoisie and non-Slavic ethnic groups, ethnic Germans , Albanians and Italians, "said Schmitt.

Crime in Slovenia

Most of the mass crimes did not take place in Bleiburg, but in Slovenia, but because after 1945 it was not possible to commemorate the crimes in Yugoslavia, Croats living in exile in Austria began holding commemorative events in Bleiburg because the death marches had started from there.

The association of Croatians in Austria, which commemorated the crimes, was targeted by the Yugoslav secret service UDBA during the Cold War. One of the association's co-founders, then 65-year-old Nikola Martinović, was even murdered by the UDBA in Austria in a bomb attack in 1975 - so much feared the Yugoslav communists' memories of the crimes of the Yugoslav army.

Fear of rehabilitation of the Ustaše

Today, the debate about the commemorative mass in Sarajevo is usually not about these crimes at all; the focus is on the Ustaša and their previous crimes. The nationalist Bosniak party SDA, for example, emphasizes that the Ustaša killed 10,000 Sarajevo citizens and demands that the memorial mass be canceled. It is obvious that the event is not about the innocent victims, but about the rehabilitation of the Ustaše, according to the SDA.

In fact, up to the previous year, some visitors who came to Bleiburg wore Ustaša badges and showed the fascist greeting. However, last year the Austrian police announced numerous measures. And it actually worked - provocations by right-wing extremists became fewer. Because the commemoration had been instrumentalized in the years before, the Austrian Catholic Church no longer approved mass in the previous year.

Focus on Ustaše crimes

It is unclear whether Cardinal Puljić or participants in the mass in Sarajevo actually want to rehabilitate the fascist NDH state, as they are accused of. In Sarajevo, the event is received with great suspicion. The Bosnian capital has never thought of the mass killings by the Yugoslav army after the Second World War, and many people have nothing to do with them, although of course there were Bosnians who were victims at the time. In the past, not only representatives of the Croatian parliament, but also representatives of the Bosnian parliament and the Islamic religious community took part in the commemorative events in Bleiburg.

In Croatia they are now arguing that Puljić should have held mass in Bleiburg, but because this is not possible due to the pandemic, he is doing it at home - Puljić is cardinal in Sarajevo. One of the three members of the Bosnian State Presidium, Željko Komšić, condemned the announced memorial mass. He urged Puljić to pray for the souls of the victims of the Ustaša criminals.

Research in Slovenia

The Slovenian historian Mitja Ferenc has researched the mass killings beyond today's political instrumentalisation. Only after Slovenia's independence and the establishment of a liberal democratic constitutional state could the crimes be named and many of the hundreds of mass graves in Slovenia explored.

There were no legal proceedings before the mass shootings. The partisans and the new regime under Tito were concerned on the one hand with retaliation for previous crimes, especially the Ustaše, and on the other hand with the establishment of power.

Ordinance against collaborators

Members of the Home Guard, Serbian and Slovenian military and civilians tried to enter the British Zone by May 14, 1945. According to a British investigation report, however, between May 18 and 31, 12,196 Croats, 8,263 Slovenes, 5,480 Serbs and 400 Montenegrins were handed over to the Yugoslav army. Ferenc writes that there was an ordinance according to which all Yugoslavs who had collapsed with the German troops should be extradited to the Tito partisans. On the way back towards Croatia there were then mass executions.

The Croatians went behind the Serbian paramilitaries and the Montenegrin Chetniks in the march, according to Ferenc. The last in line were the Slovenian home guards, around 10,000 people. Then the civilians followed. Most of these prisoners were taken to the Šentvid camp near Ljubljana, the others to Teharje near Celje. The Slovenes were divided into three groups. Group C was immediately murdered. The victims were buried in clefts in the rock and in pits.

Secret Service OZNA

According to Ferenc, the perpetrators in the case of the Croats and Serbs and Montenegrins were members of the Yugoslav army who carried out the mass killings. The Slovenes were mainly murdered by members of the Yugoslav secret service OZNA (Department for People's Protection) and KNOJ (Defense Unit of Yugoslavia). The OZNA was founded in 1944 and was supposed to fight the "enemy within". The executive arm of the OZNA was the Army of the State Security (VDV) and later the KNOJ. They were instructed to do the so-called purges.

All this was done on the instructions of the highest political authorities. "At that time, without the support of the highest politicians and military commanders, it would have been impossible to organize the killing of a few thousand people in just a few days," writes Ferenc. The brutal treatment of prisoners of war was undoubtedly influenced by events that took place during the war: namely occupation, collaboration and civil war, as well as the tendency of the victors to settle accounts with opponents after, but also during the war.

Extremely high number of victims

"The victor's revenge on the defeated in Slovenia was unique in many ways," writes Ferenc. Because the extremely high number of victims is striking. The exact number of victims lying in secret graves will probably never be known. From the work of the Slovenian authorities we know at least that after the end of the war 13,960 Slovenes, namely 12,587 members of the Home Guard, 160 Slovenian Chetniks and 1,127 civilians were killed. Research into how many Croatians and people of other nationalities were killed in Slovenia is very difficult as there is little archive material on the murders, the mass graves or the number of victims. "The estimation or even determination of such a number could be manipulated all too quickly," explains the historian, explaining the reasons for the difficult handling of this part of history.

Beyond that, neither in Croatia nor in Bosnia-Herzegovina nor in Serbia has so far succeeded in creating an appropriate reminder of the mass violence after the Second World War without a nationalistic undertone. The selection of an adequate common place of remembrance - for example in Slovenia, where the mass killings took place - has so far not been made. (Adelheid Wölfl, May 11, 2020)