As nations across the globe switched to social distancing mode, Croatian nationalists in Bosnia came up with a novel idea: to comemmorate WWII-era fascists in the heart of the territory where those same fascists committed genocide.
On 29 April 2020, the Bleiburg Honorary Guard published this year's 75th anniversary commemoration program for the "Bleiburg tragedy." This is an event organized by the Croatian state authorities and the Croatian Catholic Church to commemorate the massacre in the Austrian village of Bleiburg of local Nazi collaborators at the end of WWII, primarily the Croatian "Ustasha" and "Home Guard" by victorious Communist partisans. A number of non-combatants were also killed.
Commemorations of the event intensified after the fall of Communism. But the legacy of Bleiburg reached a new level in the 1990s, when it played a large role in Croatia’s ethnic mobilization and nation-building. These commemorations were held in Bleiburg and were attended by high-ranking Croat politicians. In recent years the authorities in Austria banned the event since it had became a hub for neo-fascist Ustasha sympathizers and other assorted neo-Nazis: indeed, it attracted the title of Europe’s "most significant neo-fascist ‘holiday.’"
The so-called Independent Croatian State was established in parts of occupied Yugoslavia by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in 1941, and was controlled by the Croatian ultra-nationalist Ustasha movement. The Ustasha were virulently anti-Semitic; Serbs, Roma and anti-fascists were equally objects of their lethal hate.
The Ustasha soon applied Nazi racial laws and set up concentration camps including Jasenovac, in which 20,000 Jews were killed. Only 25 percent of the area’s Jewish population was left alive by the end of the war. Under the rule of the Independent Croatian State, an estimated 320,000–340,000 Serbs and 30,000 Roma were killed.
Last week, however, the Bleiburg Honorary Guard caused outrage, with the announcement of an even grander event than usual: a mass at the Sarajevo Cathedral, to be led by a Catholic Archbishop, Vinko Pulji, scheduled for 16 May. This would be part of a larger commemoration organized in Zagreb.
The announcement triggered public outrage. The Sarajevo City authorities were quick to respond, with the mayor condemning the "revitalization of fascist slogans," as was the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Presidency and major Bosniak political parties.
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This was to be expected; in Sarajevo during World War Two, the outbursts of Ustasha terror led by Vjekoslav "Maks" Luburic are still part of the city’s collective trauma.
The Jewish Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina responded strongly, stating that the event was a "church mass for criminals, including Maks Luburic, Jure Francetic and not to mention others, that commemorates the executioners of our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, our compatriots and all other innocent victims of the fascists of the parastate – Independent Croatian State (NDH)."
The World Jewish Congress had an equally fiery response, noting how "horrifying" it was to see "how fascists who had tried to cleanse Croatia of its Jewish and ethnic Serb population…earn respect" as having "contributed to the freedom and independence of the modern Croatian state.. whose Constitution is based on anti-fascist struggle and the fight against the Nazi regime and its associates."
The Israeli Embassy in Tirana, which houses the non-resident ambassador for Bosnia and Herzegovina, issued a statement supporting the Jewish community, and noting that opposition to the Bleiberg commemoration was widespread among "the highly esteemed citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, most of which can be proud of their families’ contribution to the anti-fascist legacy and the war against Nazism and their collaborators."
Although a local imam is scheduled to take part in the Zagreb commemoration, the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina quickly rejected the event’s legitimacy, stating that "it is not and will not take part in commemorating events in Bleiburg."
The United States Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina tweeted to "those organizing the Bleiburg commemoration in BiH to refrain from historical revisionism and retrograde rhetoric."
The response from the leading Bosnian Croat nationalist party, the HDZ, led by Dragan Čovic and its proxy, the Croatian National Assembly, was predictable. They cried false tears that this was an attack on Croats and the Catholic Church.
Then there was a surprising response from Serb nationalist leader and Čovic ally, Milorad Dodik, and the Serb Orthodox Church. Dodik stated that "without wishing to dispute the right of any church or religious community to serve" he was "deeply disturbed" by the proposed mass.
The denunciations didn’t stop there. Hrizostom Jevic, Metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox exarchate of Dabar and Bosnia, declared he felt "betrayed” adding: "Distorted values! Can this be possible in a Church?...We hoped that we could begin the path of togetherness. But how can we go together?" and announced the Church would cut all ties with Bosnia’s Catholic Church.
Almost a decade ago, the Catholic Church in Bosnia and Herzegovina managed to quietly return the remains of Ustasha collaborator and anti-Semite Archbishop Ivan Šaric to Sarajevo from Madrid. Šaric had spent the war publishing anti-Jewish and anti-Serb hate speech, including this eulogy for Ustasha head Ante Pavelic:
"For God himself was at thy side..So that thou mightest perform thy deeds for the Homeland...And against the Jews, who had all the money…Who wanted to sell our souls…the miserable traitors."
After the war, Šaric fled, with the Catholic Church’s help, escaping potential war crimes charges). After securing his reburial in Sarajevo, scene of Ustasha atrocities, the Church even organized an academic conference on his life and in his honor.
The Bleiburg commemoration planned at the Cathedral in Sarajevo is a significant ramping up of these continuing attempts by the Croatian state and the Catholic Church to rehabilitate the murderous Ustasha regime. But, paradoxically, Western diplomats have hailed supporters of historical revisionism in Bosnia as "champions of European integration," as the head of the EU Delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina described Bosnian Croat strongman Dragan Covic and his crew just a month ago.
While it is heartening to see an unprecedentedly diverse coalition arrayed against these attempts, movements to whitewash appalling crimes and deny genocide are only accelerating in the Balkans.
The depth of the problem is illustrated by the response of Bosnia's Franciscans who denounced the "witchhunt" over the Bleiburg Mass and expressed their "resolute rejection" of "slanderous attacks…on the Catholic Church and the Croat people" in Bosnia, a "country is dominated by "so-called ‘anti-fascists.’"
Dr. Hikmet Karčic is a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is a researcher at the Institute for Islamic Tradition of Bosniaks in Sarajevo and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington D.C. He was the 2017 Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation–Keene State College Global Fellow. Twitter: @hikmet_karcic