By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Fascism was and is a far-right, authoritarian and ultra-nationalist ideology. It is predicated moreoften than not on a belief in racist or ethnic superiority coupled with often violent xenophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry. During the Second World War, home-grown fascist movements throughout Europe joined Nazi Germany in perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity against minorities in their respective countries. The Croatian Ustaša organization was one such movement.
In the so-called Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi-puppet state carved out in 1941 from what had been the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the fanatically nationalist and separatist Ustaša, led by Ante Pavelić, aggressively and ardently murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews, as well as many Roma and Croatian anti-fascists.
For some time now, we have been witnessing a widespread attempt to rehabilitate and legitimize the Ustaša by characterizing it and its members as patriots rather than as cold-blooded murderers and war criminals. This is a falsification of history, made worse by the fact that similar scenarios are being played out across eastern and central Europe.
Still, the glorification of the Ustaša in Croatia, often with the tacit if not blatant support of authorities, stands out as the most egregious manifestation of such malignant historical revisionism. At a time when Americans are removing and tearing down monuments to men who supported slavery, it is unseemly that large segments of Croatian society seem oblivious to the horrific crimes committed in its name by the Ustaša.
In order to carry out their genocidal scheme, the Ustaša established a network of concentration camps infamous for their brutality and comparable to the barbarity of the German death camps. The most notorious of these was Jasenovac, often referred to as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans,” where, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, somewhere between 77,000 and 104,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and Croat opponents of the Ustaša regime were brutally murdered. The Jasenovac Memorial Site has identified by name 83,145 victims who perished there.
And yet, extremist right wing elements in Croatia have for years tried to sanitize the interrelated connotations of Jasenovac and the Ustaša.
In 2016, Jakov Sedlar, a controversial Croatian filmmaker, produced a documentary film entitled Jasenovac – the Truth which portrayed Jasenovac as a benign labor camp whose number of victims had been greatly exaggerated. After attending the film’s widely-publicised premiere, Zlatko Hasanbegović, the extreme-nationalist Croatian Minister of Culture, declared that, “This is the best way to finally shed light on a number of controversial places in Croatian history.”
In 2018, the journalist Milan Ivkošić grotesquely wrote in Croatia’s most-read daily, Vecernji list, that while conditions at Jasenovac may have been severe, “there was fun in the camp. There were sporting matches, especially football, concerts, theatrical performances . . .”
Fun? In Jasenovac?
In an oral history interview taken by and maintained at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, former Jasenovac prisoner Milo Despot described witnessing how a Ustaša unit took more than 100 Serb girls on a barge, ordered them to take off their clothes and then grabbed them by their hair, cut their throats, and threw their corpses into the river.
In another testimony, Mara Vejnovic said that she saw the Ustaša kill a group of children with poisonous gas in a Jasenovac barrack.
Equally troubling is the widespread use of the Ustaša slogan “Za dom spremni,” or “Ready for the Homeland,” as a euphemism for racist or xenophobic slurs that are, in theory at least, prohibited under Croatian law. “Za dom spremni” was the Ustaša equivalent of the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute, and its present-day use leaves little to the imagination. When the term is shouted by Croatian fans at a football match against an Israeli team, the crowd hears the antisemitic dog-whistle loud and clear.
A case in point is the ongoing controversy surrounding Marko Perković, the popular ultranationalist Croatian singer known as Thompson, who for years has prominently shouted and sung “Za dom spremni” during his performances with only minimal adverse consequences.
Most recently, the Court of High Misdemeanors in Zagreb ruled that Perković’s use of this fascist salute did not violate public order and breach the peace. To be sure, the Croatian Constitutional Court subsequently reiterated that “Za dom spremni” was an Ustaša greeting of the Independent State of Croatia, and that its use is inconsistent with the Croatian Constitution. The fact remains, however, that the Croatian authorities, for the most part, turn a blind eye to the reintegration of Ustaša terminology into their country’s contemporary culture, and, by extension, into the wider Croatian political mindset.
In sharp contrast, Zoran Milanović, Croatia’s president, has demonstrated tremendous courage and integrity in publicly opposing and condemning any legitimization of the Ustaša. To the fury of right-wing elements and the Croatian war veterans’ minister, he has called for the removal of a “Za dom spremni” plaque in a town near Jasenovac. President Milanović also left a ceremony commemorating a 1995 Croatian offensive against Serb separatists when several participants sported t-shirts with the Ustaša slogan.
The time has come for the international community to speak out loudly and clearly against any glorification or rehabilitation of those movements and individuals that perpetrated some of the most gruesome crimes in history. Germany has outlawed the symbols of its Nazi past. Croatia must now effectively prohibit and prosecute all evocations of the Ustaša.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.