Following is an article appearing in Balkan Transitional Justice (http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/croatia-s-wwii-revisionism-terrifying-says-historian-09-26-2016) and my response.
Croatia’s WWII Revisionism ‘Terrifying’, Says Historian
British historian Rory Yeomans, who has researched the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement, says he is worried by attempts by politicians and academics to play down the crimes it committed in World War II.
Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Distinguished historian Rory Yeomans, who is currently an independent researcher financed by the British Council, told BIRN in an interview that revisionist views of the wartime Ustasa movement and the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia, NDH, have entered Croatia’s political mainstream in recent years.
“Such views used to be seen as the lunatic fringe; now they are part of the mainstream. That’s terrifying,” said Yeomans, the author of books including Visions of Annihilation: the Ustasha Regime and the Cultural Politics of Fascism, 1941-1945 and The Utopia of Terror: Life and Death in Wartime Croatia.
He also expressed concern that such views were being expressed by “would-be historians” in mainstream media in the country.
“Then you read the comments under the articles and you read that ‘Communists lied us for 70 years; there was no death camp in Jasenovac, there was no genocide; they lied about the NDH’,” he explained.
Between 1941 and 1945, Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists were killed at the Jasenovac concentration camp which was run by the Ustasa. The Jasenovac Memorial Site has managed to name 83,145 victims of the camp, while the total death toll is generally believed to be between 100,000 and 110,000.
Yeomans said that some journalists and historians in Croatia are disregarding the facts and claiming that Ustasa did not commit massive crimes against Serbs, Jews and Roma and that the NDH was “a benevolent regime”.
“If you say, I want to prove that the NDH was a cultured and civilised state, and then you go to the archives and you find all the information you can find that proves that and then you just discard everything which militates against that, that’s the bad way of writing history,” he explained.
Trends in Croatia and Serbia regarding the rewriting of WWII history are also quite similar, he suggested.
Yeomans cited the recent rehabilitation of Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovic, the Serbian nationalist Chetnik movement leader.
The Belgrade court cleared Mihailovic of his alleged WWII-era crimes, arguing that he did not get a fair trial under the Yugoslav regime, but Yeomans said that does not mean the Chetnik leader was innocent.
“Even if Mihailovic was tried today, he would be found guilty of war crimes, because, even if he wasn’t personally involved, he was the commander of the groups that committed really horrible crimes, mass killings,” he said.
Hatred of Communism
Yeomans suggested that many of the Croatian historians who are trying to rewrite the past are motivated by a “hatred towards communism and strongly dislike the socialist Yugoslavia”.
“And part of the reason why I think they are becoming more successful is that socialist Yugoslavia never dealt with the issue of Bleiburg and never dealt with post-war crimes, which there were many, not just against Croats, but as well Serbian nationalists and Slovenian nationalists, and Bosniak separatists,” he said.
After Ustasa and NDH forces - as well as other Yugoslav forces that collaborated with the fascists - surrendered to the British Army at Bleiburg in Austria, the Communist Partisans killed an unknown number of them, along with an unknown number of civilians who were accompanying them.
In Yugoslav times, victims’ families gathered at Bleiburg to commemorate the dead, but also partly to praise the fallen NDH, making it a symbolic place for Croatian right-wingers. After Croatia became independent from Yugoslavia, the state started to use the event to officially commemorate the crimes.
Revisionist historians claim that a conspiracy of silence existed among Yugoslav-era historians who sought to cover up Bleiburg and other post-war crimes. The revisionists also seek to downplay the crimes committed by the NDH.
But Yeomans emphasised that as early as April 11, 1941 – a day after taking power – the Ustasas arrested the first Jews in Zagreb.
Then in May 1941, a group of nearly 170 Jewish youths were arrested in Zagreb by the Ustasa police and transported first to the Danica concentration camp in central Croatia and then to Jadovno, near the coast, where all but three perished.
Yeomans also said the Ustasa regime started purges of state companies and institutions in May 1941 and completed them by July the same year, a process that took Nazi Germany around a decade.
“It’s very interesting listening to Croatian politicians then they say, ‘Well it was tragic, but unfortunately Croatia sided with the Nazis.’ It’s almost like they try to blame Hitler and Mussolini for what happened in Croatia, which had nothing to do with Hitler and Mussolini. Essentially, this was the decision of the people that led Croatia in 1941, although nobody voted for them and they didn’t have a popular mandate,” Yeomans said.
Tackling WWII myths
“In my opinion, from what I can see in Croatia, there are two basic myths,” Yeomans said.
“The first myth is that nobody supported the Ustasa regime and everyone was against them, apart from a few quislings, and that everyone supported the Partisans,” he explained.
The second myth, the one preferred by Serbian nationalists, is that the most Croats supported the Ustasa regime - although Yeomans cautions that it is “very hard to measure how much the general population supports the values of the regime”.
Politically in Croatia, the last government, led by the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, did not directly encourage revisionist ideas about WWII, but created an atmosphere in which they could flourish and gain legitimacy, Yeomans believes.
He cited the controversial culture minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic, “who has a problematic past when it comes to confronting the Ustasa regime and the Holocaust”, he said.
After Croatian newspaper Novosti reported that Hasanbegovic had written for a pro-fascist bulletin while he was a student, the minister responded by saying that he was never “an apologist for any criminal regime, regardless of whether it was an Ustasa or Communist regime”.
However he did not specifically apologise for the article in which he described the Ustasa as martyrs and heroes.
“These people create a certain ‘mood music’ and other factors react to that. I’ve read his interviews in different papers - Le Monde, Il Piccolo - and I think it’s very problematic when he says ‘we condemn all totalitarian movements’, actually saying that socialist Yugoslavia was equivalent to the Independent State of Croatia, and that isn’t true on any kind of level,” Yeomans explained.
“In that way, what one actually says is that the Holocaust that took place in the Independent State of Croatia is not exceptional and that it is not different to any other period of history,” he added.
He also noted that such revisionist tendencies were not seen under the previous HDZ-led governments of Ivo Sanader and Jadranka Kosor, between 2003 and 2011.
“Even under [1990s right-wing President] Franjo Tudjman, it was less extreme than now, because Tudjman in a certain way wanted to reconcile Partisans and Ustasas, bizarre as the idea was, and revisionist history reflected that,” he said.
“The new younger revisionists, by contrast, demonised the Partisan movement and sought to normalise and rehabilitate the Ustasa movement and deny their mass crimes, not just relativise them, by claiming the Partisans were the real war criminals,” he added.
“This can be seen in the way they are trying to turn Jasenovac from a concentration camp where Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists were murdered into simply a ‘labour and collection camp’ which, they claim, after the war the Partisans used deliberately to kill Croats and destroy their national consciousness.”
It is important that people know their history. However, history can be used as a propaganda tool to perpetuate ancient animosities. There are people today who are angry about the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. They have been taught this. This is not history it is propaganda. It is the selective presentation of facts in order to further an agenda. Every year a new film comes out about Nazi atrocities. Rarely is there a film produced about Soviet crimes. The greatest mass murderer, Mao, has escaped Hollywood’s attention entirely.
Yeoman appears to be looking at Croatia’s past from an ideologue’s perspective. Commentator Manet sees the article as “divisive and hateful,” while commentator guest saw it as “an excellent piece of scholarship that is another warning about the danger of rising fascism on Croatia.” It is normal to downplay atrocities committed by those we admire and emphasize atrocities by those we oppose. Tito and his allies in the West did not emphasize Bleiburg or a thousand other atrocities. The Katyn Forrest Massacre was denied to the bitter end. Yeomans suggests that many Croatian historians are trying to rewrite the past because of their, “hatred towards communism.” Tito’s historians wrote that history in the first place because they hated their opposition.
Unfortunately much history is based on myths. Yeoman explains, “The first myth is that nobody supported the Ustasa regime and everyone was against them, apart from a few quislings, and that everyone supported the Partisans.” You can substitute Vichy or a number of other regimes for Ustasa in that sentence. All of Europe had its share of Nazi collaborators. Yeoman is troubled by those who see socialist Yugoslavia as equivalent to the Independent State of Croatia in the crimes they committed. He views the Ustashi as more criminal than the partisans. Others see the opposite.
It is unnatural for a nation to wallow in guilt for past crimes. Germany is an exception only because of the psychological conditioning instituted following the Second World War. Do Russians feel responsible for the crimes of the Bolsheviks? The Chinese still revere Mao Zedong, the greatest mass murderer in history. It is troubling that many of the techniques used on the Germans following WWII are now being used on Americans. Americans are being bludgeoned over slavery which was practiced over a century ago by a small minority of Americans. The descendants of immigrants who arrived after the Civil War are also held responsible. If historians are truly interested in slavery they might look into FDR’s policies. Slave labor was an integral part of the Morgenthau Plan and the Yalta Agreement. However, this subject does not suit the current crop of “historians.”