Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Croatian Tale of Two Cities

WW2 in Croatia is usually described with two words – Jasenovac and Bleiburg. While Jasenovac is somewhat more familiar to the outside world, thanks to these people, Bleiburg is strictly Croatian affair. It is a small town in Austria that entered history books on May 15th 1945.

Seven days after the capitulation of Nazi Germany, column made out of 200,000-300,000 soldiers belonging to various quisling formations from the territory of former Yugoslavia plus few hundred thousand civilians made their final push towards the territory controlled by British. Majority of those people were Croatians. Their aim was to escape the wrath of victorious Yugoslav Partisans. British, partly because of the logistical limitation and partly because they didn't want to complicate relations with their war-time allies, had most of them turned over to Partisans. In weeks and months that followed between 40,000 and 100,000 people were murdered on the death marches.

After the war Bleiburg became pilgrimage site for the survivors and for Croatian nationalist émigrés. Each year the anniversary of that event was marked by thousands of people proudly carrying war-time flags, Ustasha insignia and pictures of Ante Pavelić (Ante Pavelic). Since 1990 those events became state-sanctioned and visited by state dignitaries (although not Tudjman, who still remembered the side he had been on in 1945). Post-Tudjman government continued with the practice and last year Prime Minister Ivica Račan (Ivica Racan) apologised for the role his party (now transformed into reformed Social-Democrats) had during those events.

This year great deal was made about Bleiburg memorial being cleansed from all "problematic" insignia. Austrian police had allegedly warned the participants not to wear Ustasha signs because that would violate Austria's tough anti-Nazi laws. But the insignia nevertheless appeared with Austrian police failing to act.

Another interesting thing about this year's Bleiburg memorial was the absence of anyone who could be closely associated with Račan's (Racan's) government. After last year's obviously unsuccessful attempt to win the hearts and minds of Croatian far right, Račan (Racan) decided not to risk his core base of left-wing voters any further and wisely stayed away. State dignitaries attending were Sabor officials, judges and other personalities well-known for their right-wing views, followed by the traditional delegation of Croatian right-wing parties.

By coincidence, the very same Sunday was used as the opportunity to mark the anniversary of the victory over Fascism. The memorial was held at Jasenovac and was, just like Bleiburg, aired live on state television. That was the first time Croatian television treated those two events equally. On the other hand, those watching the two events could have noticed absence of state dignitaries in Jasenovac. President Stipe Mesić (Stipe Mesic) was accompanied by Račan's (Racan's) minister of culture Antun Vujić (Antun Vujic) together with official delegations from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia-Montenegro (whose citizens had been among the victims of the camp).

However, the mere fact that Croatian state television (and government) recognised the fact that Jasenovac had existed represents the huge step forward in Croatia's attempts to finally put its troubled WW2 past behind. On the other hand, some images from Bleiburg show that this path is going to be much harder – many people carrying Ustasha insignia weren't the half-senile octageniarns permanently stuck in 1941-45 mental frame; their ranks were filled by children and teenagers obviously willing to perpetuate Croatian WW2 divisions into 21st Century.


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