Comments on Holocaust Museum Jasenovac Exhibit

"The omission of Croatia from the conventional Holocaust studies is like
a book whose first chapter is torn out." 
Jonathan Steinberg, Walter H. Annenberg professor of modern European
history at the University of Pennsylvania, formerly of Trinity Hall

By Dr. Srdja Trifkovic 

 On November 14, 2001, The New York Times reported that the Holocaust
Museum in Washington D.C. has finally taken an interest in Jasenovac
("Documenting a Death Camp in Nazi Croatia," by Neil Lewis), a camp
"operated by the Ustasha, the Nazi puppet government":

"Peter Black, the museum's chief historian, told reporters today that
Jasenovac was crude in comparison to the industrialized Nazi
extermination camps like Auschwitz. Mr. Black said there were no gas
chambers or crematories, so prisoners were murdered one by one with
axes, guns, knives or prolonged torture. Bodies were buried or thrown
into the adjacent Sava River… Mr. Black estimated that nearly 100,000
people had been killed in Jasenovac, the largest number being Serbs,
followed by Jews and Gypsies… [A] diplomat from Croatia, Mate Maras,
objected to the assertion by museum officials that more than 300,000
Serbs had died at the hands of the Ustasha throughout Croatia in World
War II."

We may argue about the numbers, but we should wholeheartedly support the
initiative to rediscover the Croatian Holocaust for the general American
public - even though that rediscovery is half a century overdue. For a
very long time in the Western academia, infested with the frauds of Noel
Malcolm's ilk, serious study of the Balkans was giving way to slogans
and cliches. Any attempt to counter this lapse of seriousness with
scholarship was perceived as a threat by those with an axe to grind,
emotional, political, or ethnic.

Perhaps the Holocaust Museum exhibit indicates that the time has come to
start correcting the trend in Balkan studies that seeks not to
understand events but to construct a propagandistic version of old
Balkan blood feuds and current animosities. All history is in some
measure contemporary history, but it must not be dominated by the
great-power political preferences and dislikes of the day. It is in that
spirit, and armed with primary German and Italian sources, that we wish
to give our contribution to this insufficiently researched chapter of
the history of the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia during World War
II. The truth does exist, only lies need to be invented. 


Yugoslavia was the product of the inherently unstable European system of
1919. Previous periods of relatively stable peace in Europe, such as
between 1815 and 1914, bore witness to the effectiveness of a
combination of physical and moral restraints, but the Versailles system
of 1919 possessed neither pillar of stability. The South Slav state was
the embodiment of a 19th century dream that fitted uneasily into the
realities of the 20th century Europe. 

Of the five pre-1914 powers Russia was bolshevized, Austria-Hungary had
disintegrated, Germany was humiliated and without a stake in the new
order. The only "European power" left was France, but the French, bled
white in the trenches, lacked the means and the will to be the arbiter
of Europe. It was the inherent instability of this Pax Gallica that
created some maneuvering space for an array of European malcontents to
seek a place for themselves.

Mussolini's Italy joined those malcontents after his political triumph
in 1922, chiefly because Dalmatia had gone to the newly created
Yugoslavia. The circumstances that turned Italy from an Entente victor
into a revanchist power ultimately ensured the survival - however
precarious - of the Croatian separatist movement devoted to terrorism
and violence. The Ustasha
("insurgent") movement, founded in 1929, was an anti-Serb and
anti-Yugoslav fit of rage rather than a coherent elaboration of the
Croat national identity and "national mission." Its roots went back to
the strain in its tradition that insisted on the notional continuity of
Croatia's statehood since time immemorial, its "rights of state." Far
from respecting the legalistic overtones of such notions, however, the
Ustashas' modus operandi and outlook were "Balkan" rather than
"European." They resembled the Black Hand conspirators in Serbia before
1903, the pro-Bulgarian terrorists (VMRO) in Macedonia, and other Balkan
nationalist conspiracies.

The Ustasha phenomenon was the product of two sets of circumstances in
the inter-war period. One was the complex internal and international
situation of Yugoslavia; the other was the rise of fascism in Europe.
The collapse of the parliamentary system in Yugoslavia (1929), which
proved to be perennially ridden by crises springing from the unresolved
Croat problem, coincided with the period of growing political radicalism
throughout the continent and the beginning of a worldwide economic
crisis that provided an impetus to extremism. Each of those developments
was a necessary precondition, but neither was by itself sufficient, for
the rise of a Croat separatist movement that was at the same time
overtly authoritarian, racist, and violent.

Although ideology was secondary to the leader of the Ustashas, Zagreb
lawyer Ante Pavelic and his followers, the evolution of their movement
places it into the group of phenomena known as "native fascism" of
Central-Eastern Europe. The salient features of such movements - in
Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Croatia - was their celebration of the
glorious past of a particular nation, based on its alleged particular
qualities and "divine mission." There was also the virulent opposition
to Marxism and the reliance on the dynamism of violence, as well as the
demonization of the favorite enemy group. But while fascism was a
dynamic movement, the Ustashas were essentially static. They aimed for a
"stable" situation: the creation of a nationally homogeneous Croat
state. "Ideology" was subservient to nationalist obsessions. 

What really set the Ustashas apart was the degree to which their
anti-Serb animosity was the key ingredient of their self-perception, of
their very "Croatness." It was their readiness to compromise even
fundamental national interests in pursuit not of real independence, but
of the separation from "the Serbs," that set the Ustashas completely
apart from the mainstream Croatian body politic. Pre-1941 Croat
political leaders, such as Stjepan Radic and Vladko Macek, had demanded
all kinds of concessions from Belgrade
- but nevertheless they sought reconciliation, and a place for Croatia
within the Yugoslav framework, whenever they concluded that external
dangers could leave Croatia vulnerable if it was on its own. They
accepted the Yugoslav solution not out of conviction, but as the least
of all evils. This is evidenced by the Serb-Croat Sporazum ("Agreement")
of August 26, 1939, which created an autonomous Croatia that was
self-governing except in defense and foreign affairs. 

The Ustashas, by contrast, postulated a demonic concept of the Serb as
the cornerstone of their entire outlook, and above all of their very
Croatness. This made any compromise impossible by definition and every
alternative possible - including limited sovereignty under Mussolini's
tutelage, and amputation of territory to Italy. It was on that basis
that Pavelic was offered a haven in Italy. He was "our Balkan pawn," in
Mussolini's own words. Any thought of independent action was precluded,
especially after Pavelic's contribution to the assassination of King
Alexander in Marseilles in 1934 that embarrassed Rome. In the aftermath
of the King's death Mussolini was forced to conclude that the
foundations of the Yugoslav state were more solid than he had supposed.
His return to a conciliatory approach to Belgrade was also linked to the
rise of Hitler, whom Mussolini initially regarded as a menace to Italy's
position in the Danubian basin. His misgivings of Germany's designs
notwithstanding, he was soon cajoled into an alliance with the Reich by
the Ethiopian crisis.


German victories in the spring of 1940 threw Mussolini off his balance
and reactivated the notion of a "reckoning" with Yugoslavia. His change
of posture led him to reactivate the Ustasha organization in Italy. The
result was a remarkable meeting between Mussolini's Foreign Minister
Galeazzo Ciano and Pavelic in January 1940, at which Pavelic's earlier
promise of Dalmatia to Italy was given a specific form. This was to be
the price of Italian support should circumstances make Yugoslavia's
survival unlikely. To both sides it must have been clear that there was
no natural proximity between Croat chauvinism and Italian expansionism:
Mussolini needed Pavelic to deliver what no truly patriotic Croat could
ever deliver. 

After a period of arduous negotiations with the Germans during the
winter of 1940-41, whose demands kept escalating, Yugoslavia's
Prince-Regent Paul Karadjordjevic was forced to accept the Tripartite
Pact, albeit with several provisos which were supposed to guard
Yugoslavia's independence. But this exercise in pragmatism, however
understandable under the circumstances, was too much to stomach for an
easily irritable Serbian public. The military coup in Belgrade of 27
March 1941 was the culmination of an irrational, self-destructive streak
in the Serb psyche, and its bitter fruits are felt to this very day. 

Hitler decided to attack Yugoslavia as soon as he heard of the coup. He
promised territories to Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and to Croatia
an "autonomy in close liaison with Hungary." He did not contemplate a
fully independent Croatia at first, and only reluctantly accepted
Pavelic's Ustashas as Mussolini's preferred appointees for the
Axis-sponsored government of Croatia. The "Independent State of Croatia"
(Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, hereafter NDH) was the product of an uneasy
Italo-German compromise that both Axis partners would soon regret.

The cause of the quick defeat of Yugoslavia in April 1941 was the
overwhelming military-strategic superiority of the Reich. But even had
the country been united and politically consolidated, the defense would
have been hopeless. In early 1941 there had been no military, economic,
geo-strategic, political, or psychological foundations for a sustained
defense of the Yugoslav state. The Ustasha activity was a peripheral
symptom, rather than a cause, of the internal divisions that turned
military defeat into an overall collapse.

Ante Pavelic lacked the charismatic personality of a Hitler or a
Mussolini, but after his return to Zagreb under the mantle of the
victorious Axis forces he emerged as the undisputed leader of Croatia.
With a nucleus of two hundred followers returning with him from Italy,
and maybe five times as many "sworn" members within the country, he
proceeded to equate "Croat" and "Ustasha" in all spheres, and to promote
his own variety of the Fuehrerprinzip. His glorification of peasant
"natural" justice and values, rooted in the Dinaric rocky wasteland of
the Dalmatian hinterland, produced a cult of unbridled aggressiveness
and pure hatred. By the early summer of 1941 the Ustashas' mix of Nazi
brutality, fascist irrationality and oriental despotism quickly turned
the new state into a pandemonium of anarchy and genocide. The most
notorious manifestation of this was Pavelic's systematic and
premeditated attempted genocide of the large Serb population within the
NDH -over two million people - as well as that of Jews, Gypsies, and all
real or perceived enemies of the regime. 

The system of occupation in the former Yugoslavia, hastily created in
April 1941 and presumably temporary in nature, was weakened from the
outset by intra-Axis differences and by the consequences of their
decision to install the Ustashas in power. In addition Hitler wanted to
impose a Carthaginian peace on the Serbs: he singled them out for
special punishment after the coup of 27 March 1941, but without
allocating sufficient resources to the maintenance of such a harsh
order. The apparent willingness of Mussolini's reluctant clients, the
Ustashas, to get drawn closer to Berlin was a poor substitute for the
inherent instability of the area the Wehrmacht was preparing to leave
for the East.


Pavelic had his first meeting with Hitler on 6 June 1941.1 The key part
of the conversation concerned national policy. Hitler presented plans to
transfer Serbs from the NDH to Serbia, and Slovenes from the Reich into
Croatia, and described them as a "momentarily painful" operation that
was nevertheless preferable to "permanent suffering." Then he added the
sentence: "After all, if the Croat state wishes to be strong, a
nationally intolerant policy must be pursued for fifty years, because
too much tolerance on such issues can only do harm." With this statement
Hitler explicitly endorsed the mass persecution of the Serb minority in
the NDH that had already started, but was yet to reach its climax in
subsequent months. Hitler's encouragement to Pavelic to pursue
"intolerance" reflected his intention to encourage Serb-Croat conflict
as "the guarantee of a permanent schism between nations which had been
within one state until now." Bringing the formula of divide et impera to
its final conclusions, Hitler had let the Italians make enemies of
Croats; and he was now going to let the Croats make enemies of Serbs. In
the event, both Mussolini and Pavelic eagerly complied.

Hitler's advocacy of "fifty years of intolerance" did not make any
difference to the thousands of Serbs already slaughtered in the NDH
before 6 June. The first recorded mass murder of Serbs occurred in the
city of Bjelovar, 50 miles north of Zagreb, on the night of 27-28 April
1941, when some 180 unarmed civilians of all ages were shot. Such
incidents were repeated in different areas throughout May.2 But it is
inconceivable that the wave of bloody terror which engulfed the Ustasha
state in the summer of 1941 would have been possible had Hitler wanted
to put a stop to it. His encouragement to Pavelic had major long-term
impact not because it induced the Poglavnik to do something he had not
intended to do in any event, but because it gave him carte blanche to go
all the way in his intentions. In Berchtesgaden Hitler made Pavelic feel
authorized to proceed with his attempted genocide of the Serb

As early as 17 April Pavelic enacted a fiat called The Law on the
Protection of the People and the State. It was an all-embracing piece of
pseudo-legislation that literally made it possible to kill anyone the
Ustashas wanted killed, and to do so "legally." Capital punishment was
made mandatory for all those who "offended the honor and vital interests
of the Croat people" and who "in whatever way," even if only "by
attempt," threatened the NDH. There was no appeal, and each sentence had
to be carried out within two hours. The "law," furthermore, had
retroactive powers, so that a person could be found guilty of
"offending" the state even before it came into being. "Special popular
courts" and mobile court-martials were immediately established. The
following day, April 18, 1941 the first racial law, on "the Aryanization
of Jewish property," was enacted. It enabled the regime to expropriate
Jewish businesses and real estate, and distribute the spoils among its
followers. Already in April 1941 Serbs were ordered to wear blue sleeve
bands with the letter "P" (Pravoslavni, Orthodox), and Jews the Star of
David and the letter "Z" (Zidov, Jew). The omission of Croatia from the
conventional Holocaust studies, according to the eminent Holocaust
historian Jonathan Steinberg, "is like a book whose first chapter is
torn out."


If the phenomenon known as the Holocaust is defined as the attempted
mass murder of an entire population, then it was truly launched in
Croatia and Bosnia in the spring of 1941 under the Ustasha regime.
Jonathan Steinberg put it succintly: "The omission of Croatia from the
conventional Holocaust studies is like a book whose first chapter is
torn out."

In late spring of 1941 dozens of towns and villages throughout the NDH
were subjected to terrorist operations in which Serbs, Jews and Gypsies
were either murdered on the spot or led away to concentration camps. By
the beginning of July tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly Serbs,
already were killed; Italian sources estimated 350,000 victims by the
end of July 1941.4 The regime introduced the methods of genocidal terror
and extermination that were only later perfected by the SS
Einsatzgruppen.5 This was not incidental. It reflected a fundamental
similarity between the Croat regime and the Nazis, their essential
nihilism. Just as the military goals of Barbarossa were ultimately
incidental to the fundamental objective of killing Jews and enslaving
Slavs, so the formal enlistment of Croatia into the ranks of
Axis-sponsored New Europe was incidental to the Ustashas' central
purpose of eliminating Serbs.

The twentieth century has witnessed a departure in the conduct of
European states away from the concept of transcendent morality that
provided a salutary restraint on their behavior before 1914. The rise of
totalitarian ideologies marked the end of an era that held that physical
elimination of an adversary is not a legitimate way of resolving the
conflict. The gradual decline and ultimate collapse of the religious
impulse among Europeans, from the Atlantic to the Urals, created a
gaping hole that was filled by ideologies uninhibited by religious
restraints and motivated by the will to power. But until Lenin it was
not mere "expediency" which had prevented states from resorting to mass
extermination as a means to some end. The limitations on the behavior of
states derived from an absolute moral principle, which implicitly
subordinated perceived national interest to the continued membership of
an international community. 

It has been argued that the final break came, during World War II, only
after Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union. From September 1939 until
June 1941, according to this view, Germany was waging a "normal European
war" (europäisches Normalkrieg) against Britain and France that only
turned nasty with the Barbarossa. This view overlooks the fact that well
before the first German soldier stepped on Russian soil Croatia
indicated the shape of things to come in the New Europe. It was the
first to abandon the last remnants of traditional restraints in favor of
an atavistic call of the blood and soil, and unleash uninhibited hatred.
The most salient feature of Ustasha "ideology" and state was the morbid
hatred of the Serb. To a Nazi, the Jew was a necessary political, social
and psychological concept. To an Ustasha Croat, the Serb was much more:
an integral part of his Croatness. Without him it could not be defined,
let alone practiced.

The method of killing was savage: a slit throat, or a blow with a heavy
club in the back of the head, were the most common. Many Serbs were
taken to one of the newly established extermination camps (of which
Jasenovac was only the most prominent) and killed there, or converted to
Roman Catholicism by the local Franciscan friar, or packed off to
Serbia. Croatia and Bosnia became, according to the Croatian historian
Antun Miletic, "a land of concentration camps." From April to August
1941, a dozen collection camps were established to handle huge numbers
of deportees. Some of them - Jadovno and Djakovo, for example - were
death camps in their own right. Most inmates were moved on for
extermination to the main camp system at Jasenovac, which became central
to Croatia's final solution of the Serb and Jewish "problem." 

In the many speeches by Ustasha functionaries and published propaganda
articles throughout May and June 1941, preparing the ground for the
pogrom, the Serbs were depicted as inferior and alien people who had
come to Croatia uninvited and had always been its enemies. In their
public statements Pavelic's luminaries left no doubt what was in store
for the Serbs.6 "This land can only be Croat land and there is no method
we would hesitate to apply in order to make it truly Croat and to
cleanse it of all Serbs." "Destroy them wherever you see them, and the
blessing of the Poglavnik and myself are guaranteed."7 In a
well-publicized speech he gave in Gospic on 22 July 1941 Mile Budak,
Pavelic's minister of education, stated: "For the rest
- Serbs, Jews and Gypsies - we have three million bullets. We shall kill
one third of all Serbs. We shall deport another third, and the rest of
them will be forced to become Roman Catholic."

The application of this program meant - in the words of the leading
German historian Ernest Nolte - that "Croatia became during the war a
giant slaughterhouse." In the tradition of "the Father of the Nation,"
Ante Starcevic, even the Serbs' nationality was denied, and the term
"Vlachs" or "Greek-Easterners" applied instead. And yet, paradoxically,
they were also depicted as apostates and traitors who had betrayed
"their country"
(Croatia) to alien, i.e. Serbian interests. The implication was that
they were really Croats who had converted to Orthodoxy and thus accepted
the Serb name by default. In either case, Serb identity was

The story will end in our next issue


1 DGFP, D, 12, Minutes of Hitler’s talks with Pavelic, 6 June 1941.

2 See Fikreta Jelic-Butic: HSS. Zagreb 1983, p. 47.

3 Hory and Broszat, Der Kroatische Ustascha-Staat, 1941-1945. Stuttgart:
Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1964, p. 15.

4 On the role of the Vatican in Croatia see Carlo Falconi. The Silence
of Pius XII. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970. He argues that by July
1941 350,000 people had been killed (p. 291).

5 Jonathan Steinberg, “The Roman Catholic Church and Genocide in
Croatia, 1941-1945,” unpublished essay to mark the 50th anniversary of
the Wannsee Conference, January 1992.

6 From a speech by Pavelic’s minister of justice Milovan Zanic, as
reported by Novi list, Zagreb, 3 June 1941.

7 A speech by the Ustasha commander in Banja Luka Viktor Gutic quoted by
“Hrvatski Narod.”

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