USTAŠA: Croatian Fascism and European Politics, 1929-1945

By The Lord Byron Foundation
Sunday, 24 Jul 2011

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New, revised and expanded second edition of Dr. Srdja Trifkovic's seminal study has just been published. 412 pp, 175 illustrations, 16 maps, with a Foreword by Dr. Thomas Fleming, $29.95 inc. postage. The only comprehensive history of the Ustaša movement in any language. To order go to

Chapter XIII: Conclusion (pp. 388-394)

The range of moral and political issues raised by the Ustaša movement and the regime it established in the Independent State of Croatia is akin to that facing a student of the Third Reich. In both cases, a political group, organized into a regime, exceeded the bounds of previously conventional morality by devoting extraordinary resources to mass murder based on the victims’ race, creed or ethnicity. In both cases most ordinary Germans and ordinary Croats – those not directly affiliated with the regime, or overtly supportive of its goals and methods – opted for passive acquiescence, ranging from apathy to Schadenfreude. Many of them subsequently claimed an ignorance of the magnitude of the crimes, regardless of the wealth of evidence to inform the curious. In both cases only a small minority was directly involved in the killing. The members of that minority had reason to believe that many ordinary people shared their eliminationist attitudes yet lacked the stomach for doing what needed to be done. In both cases the perpetrators understood why it had to be done; the mass murder made sense to them.

There are intriguing differences. The Nazis subjected ordinary Germans to relentless anti-Semitic indoctrination for almost a decade prior to the final, exterminationist phase of 1942-45. The anti-Serb propaganda campaign conducted by the Ustaša regime preceded the beginning of its own exterminationist campaign by weeks rather than months. In both cases modern racial myths were blended with a mix of pre-existing myths, stereotypes and prejudices, thus preparing ordinary people to internalize the dehumanization and subsequent liquidation of the victims. In Croatia, however, the collective indoctrination preceding the mass murder could be so much shorter because the soil was more receptive to the seed. 

The Ustaša movement had its roots in the political tradition based on <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Croatia’s state rights, which included the key claim that no inhabitants of Croatia were exempt from the jurisdiction of its political and legal institutions. For the upholders of this view, the Serbs of the Military Border were unwelcome aliens for as long as they insisted on retaining their distinct name, their autonomous legal status vis-à-vis Civil Croatia, and their Orthodox faith. An obsessive aristocratic resentment at Grenzer priviliges was passed on from one generation to another, and became democratized after the collapse of feudalism in 1848. <?xml:namespace prefix = o />

At the historical root of the Ustaša bloodbath lay a centuries-old striving of the Croatian elite to impose legal and religious homogeneity and to re-establish political obedience. A culturally homogeneous nation-state could not be created from the diversity of nationalities without ethnic cleansing, however. The notion of a racially distinct national community with an exclusive claim to its land was the necessary ingredient to make such a project not only possible but emotionally and culturally legitimate. That notion was eventually articulated in the aftermath of 1848, in the period of rapid modernization, with the Serb as the essential ‘other’ at its center. The old distaste for the Vlach of the Croatian Estates was re-defined in surprisingly modern terms by the “father of the nation,” Ante Starčević.  He articulated eliminationist anti-Serbism and thus created the necessary political culture for the Ustaša project of exterminationist Serbophobia.

Unlike Fascism and Nazism, which were dynamic, Ante Pavelić aimed for a stable situation: his project entailed the creation of a nationally homogeneous, Serb-free, Croat state. His movement’s ideology was meant to serve that project, not to give it meaning. Its task was to justify and celebrate, rather than explain and develop. That ideologyt had never amounted to much more than a half-baked mix of historical and racial myths peppered with rudimentary geopolitics and sweeping ethno-cultural generalizations. It was produced ad-hoc (mainly in the aftermath of April 10) by some two-dozen men of dubious credentials motivated by nationalist fixations. It was neither interesting nor original.

What also set the Ustašas apart from both Nazis and Fascists was the degree to which their anti‑Serb animus defined their emotional as well as cultural self­ perception, their very Croatness. This set the movement apart from all other political forces in Croatia, and notably the HSS. The Ustašas postulated a demonic concept of the Serb which made any compromise impossible. Limited sovereignty and amputation of territory was preferable. Pavelić’s perception of Croatia’s interests was consistent with his basic assumptions, eventually turning him into Mussolini’s “Balkan pawn” in the latter’s own words.

The NDH was an Axis creation but it possessed certain attributes of de facto statehood. It was an actor. Although the scope and quality of its statehood kept diminishing as the war progressed, it was nevertheless more than a mere extension of the policy dictated in Berlin or Rome. The existence of rivalries and divergent interests between the Axis powers enhanced the scope for autonomous action. Pavelić needed that scope to pursue his project, if possible unhindered by German or Italian meddling. His mix of genocidal brutality, racism and despotism was hardly an “ideology.” The raw power of the mélange was nevertheless able to remove the old restraints of civility and turn the NDH into a pandemonium of bloody anarchy. Up to half a million civilians were murdered. About four-fifths of them were Serbs; the balance, in almost equal thirds, was made up of Croatia’s Jews, Gypsies, and politically unreliable Aryans.

The system of occupation in the Yugoslav lands was an improvisation, hastily conceived and weakened by intra‑Axis differences. A destabilizing factor was Hitler’s desire to impose a Carthaginian peace on the Serb nation, but without allocating sufficient resources for the purpose. The fuse was lit, west of the Drina, by a wave of terror for which Pavelić felt authorized by Hitler in June 1941. Most German authorities in the Balkans were horrified by the massacres and became antagonistic to the Pavelić regime. The Italian army was even more hostile, and by virtue of its greater political autonomy it succeeded in having the zone of Italian occupation successively extended to the demarcation line with Germany.

Hitler’s unwillingness to get rid of Pavelić was initially inspired by the desire to maintain an institutionalized chaos, which the Ustašas duly provided. Later on there was no alternative. The HSS was unwilling to compromise itself in the eyes of the Allies, especially when it became clear that Germany would lose the war. After September 1943 even such limited degree of Ustaša policy‑making, which had been made possible by the intra‑Axis rivalry, was no longer allowed. As Ribbentrop put it, “the Croats are not to make even their wishes known to us.”

In the final year of the war the Ustaša regime revived its anti-Serb zeal, confirming that all along it was fighting an anti-Serb, rather than a pro-German war. With the outcome of the war no longer in doubt, in that final year the number of Croats in the ranks of Communist resistance finally exceeded the number of the western Serbs. They saw what the would-be conspirators of the summer of 1944 could not accept: that the NDH was as doomed as Mgr. Tiso’s Slovakia. It expired with a whimper at Bleiburg in May 1945. There was no last stand, no Siege of Sziget, as Pavelić’s leaderless soldiers were disarmed and unceremoniously marched back to an uncertain and often tragic fate.

His power secure and absolute, Tito tried to force all “Yugoslavs” to invest their memories of the war into the common bank of the National Liberation Struggle (NOB) and Fascist Terror as equal shareholders, and to draw the common dividend of brotherhood and unity. Tito’s edifice thus came to be built on three fictions:

1.      The myth of the constituent nations’ equal contribution to the Partisan victory in the ‘National Liberation Struggle.’

2.       The myth of all ethnic groups’ equal suffering under the ‘occupiers and their domestic servants.’

3.       The equating of the Četniks with Pavelić’s Ustašas as politically and morally equivalent.

The Serbs were not allowed to be personalized as victims and the Ustašas were seldom named as perpetrators. Countless markers and monuments in Lika, Kordun, Banija, or Bosnia and Herzegovina memorialized the “victims of the terror by occupiers and their domestic servants,” followed by long columns of Serbian names. The state narrative could not prevent or outweigh the impact of personal and family ones, however, which for the Serbs became part of an underground national narrative.

While politically expedient for the Communist dictator, this policy assured that there would be no atonement and no internal reconciliation. It curtailed public discussion and scholarly discourse on the Ustaša legacy; “The West, meanwhile, bankrolled prominent Ustaše reborn as anti-communist agents, while America’s popular consciousness all but forgot about the Balkans until Yugoslavia imploded.”[1] The new communist regime was not, of course, officially anti-Serb; but its principle of ‘brotherhood and unity’ had as its chief practical consequence a massive official coverup of Ustaša crimes in the name of ideological Gleichschaltung. The anti-Serb tenor of the Comintern’s pre-war slogans about royal Yugoslavia was reflected in the assumptions on which the second, Communist Yugoslavia was based. Two provinces, Kosovo-Metohija and Vojvodina, were granted autonomy within Serbia, but the Serbs of the old Military Border did not get anything approaching autonomy within Croatia.

Tito’s Yugoslavia was built not on the principle of a-nationality or supra-nationality, but on arbitrary territorial adjudications which would have been impossible at any point between 1918 and 1941. The Serbs of western Yugoslavia, who had provided the core fighting force of the Partisan movement, were assured that those arrangements did not matter since the Yugoslav state remained in place. The Serbs in the Croatian Communist Party, indoctrinated in Partisan ranks, provided the middle-ranking apparat but they were not present at the top. They were in the forefront of enforcing ideological rigidity among their own people, by imposing collectivization of agriculture and preventing the rebuilding of Orthodox churches. In the name of brotherhood and unity they even opposed the exhumation of the bodies of Ustaša victims from mass graves and mountain pits for proper funeral. De-Nazification never took place in Croatia.

The Serb-Croat conflict of the 1990s grew from elements which should now be familiar. The Communist apparat in Croatia and the police force were disproportionately Serb. This was resented by Croats, just as Serb privileges had been resented before 1881. As the Croatian Communist Party became more nationalistic, this became consequential; and when Communism failed, nationalism detonated. The Serbs were identified as the bearers of the Communist revolution itself.

In 1990-91 it was hardly imaginable that the Serbs should not take up arms against a regime in Zagreb which was reviving the symbols, slogans, and atmosphere of the Ustaša state. Their fears were kindled by the government of Franjo Tudjman which came to power in April 1990 after the first multiparty election since 1938. It was composed of nationalists whose stated goal was to reconcile the legacy of the Croatian Partisans and their Ustaša opponents. Tudjman’s successor as president, Stjepan Mesić, thus declared that Croatia had scored a victory twice in the Second World War, first in 1941 and then again in 1945.[2] Tudjman readily affirmed that the NDH reflected the legitimate, centuries-old aspirations of the Croat people.[3]

The war which broke out in August 1991 had the traumatic collective memory of the NDH as its key cause. Its final act came on August 4, 1995, when Operation Storm was launched by the Croatian army and police. Its political objectives became evident over a decade later, when the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague released a transcript of Tudjman’s meeting with his top military commanders and civilian aides at the Adriatic island of Brioni on July 31, 1995. “We have to inflict such blows,” Tudjman announced, “that the Serbs will to all practical purposes disappear.” It is important that those civilians set out, he went on, “and then the army will follow them, and when the columns set out they will have a psychological impact on each other … This means giving them a way out, while pretending to guarantee civil rights etcetera.”[4] This strategic design was firmly rooted in 1941. The result was the biggest act of ethnic cleansing in post-1945 Europe. An area the size of New Jersey, inhabited by over half a million people a century ago, was literally depopulated. Of those left behind, “many have been shot in the back of the head or had throats slit, others have been mutilated... Serb lands continue to be torched and looted.”[5] Virtually all Serb villages had been destroyed and many corpses left unburied.[6]

To most Croats this was but the final act of a war of Serbian aggression and Croatian Defense of the Motherland. The power of this narrative became evident in April 2011, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the conviction of two Croatian generals by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.[7] A rational verdict on the crimes against the Serbs remains as unlikely in today’s Croatia as it was seven decades ago.[8] The collective refusal to judge immoral acts as such, separate from some alleged context, does not bode well either for Croatia or for its neighbors.

Tudjman’s vision behind the Storm, a Serb-free Croatia, indicated that the legacy of 1941 was alive. A week after it was all over, at a rally in Knin, Tudjman announced, “There can be no return to the past, to the times when [Serbs] were spreading cancer in the heart of Croatia, a cancer that was destroying the Croatian national being.” Those same words could have been uttered at a rally in the spring of 1941. Tudjman gloated in the “ignominious disappearance” of the Krajina Serbs, “as if they have never lived here.” His predecessors of 1941-45 would have approved.

What happens in the Balkans is seldom due to the Balkans alone. The interests, preferences and strategic designs of the great powers matter as greatly in our own time as they did during the Second World War or during the Seven-Year War. Tudjman felt authorized from Washington and Bonn to proceed with his final solution in the Krajina no less than Pavelić had felt authorized to pursue fifty years of intolerance after visiting Hitler in June 1941[9] Tudjman’s goals were recapitulated with precision on August 23, 1995, in the aftermath of the Storm: “Military force can be a most effective means for solving the internal needs of the state… It is necessary for military command precisely to become one of the most efficient components of our state policies in solving the demographic situation of Croatia.”[10]

The Ustaša legacy is a Serbenfrei Croatia. It is kept alive not only by the skinhead fringe at Thompson’s concerts and the Black Legion lookalikes at Bad Blue Boys’ soccer rallies, but also by the political, academic, ecclesiastical, cultrual and media establishments. They, too, have internalized a host of similar assumptions and preferences, but they no longer require explicit symbolism and terminology of seven decades ago. Steadily reduced from a quarter of Croatia’s population before 1914 to a sixth after 1945 and a seventh in 1991, the Serbs today account for fewer than five percent.

Europe may have moved beyond blood-and-soil atavism, west of the Oder at least, but in the Balkans the old heart of darkness keeps beating. After the decline of higher cynicism in the name of Human Progress, benevolent tolerance by the “international community” of that legacy reflects the ascent of higher cynicism in the name of Human Rights. Some important Westerners may prefer to look forward, to forget, minimize, or even deny, the fruits of the Croatian Holocaust of 1941-45 and its revived legacy of 1995.[11] The endeavor is flawed. Sins unatoned for will continue coming back to haunt us. To paraphrase a warning about another ghost from Europe’s not too distant past,[12] we are not yet finished with Pavelić.  

[1] Michele Frucht Levy, op. cit.

[2] “In the Second World War, the Croats won twice and we have no reason to apologise to anyone. What they ask of the Croats the whole time, ‘Go kneel in Jasenovac...’ - we don’t have to kneel in front of anyone for anything! We won twice and all the others only once. We won on 10 April when the Axis Powers recognized Croatia as a state and we won for the second time because we sat after the war, again with the winners, at the victors’ table.” (Croatian news agency HINA in English, BBC Monitoring Europe, December 10, 2006) Five days later the Speaker of the Croatian parliament said on TV that he and then-president Mesić might have “possibly sung songs celebrating notorious Ustaša commanders Jure [Francetić] and [Rafael] Boban” during the 1990s. (HINA in English, BBC Monitoring Europe, December 15, 2006) It would have been unthinkable for a German politician, in the first decade of the 21st century, to be suspected of a similar transgression and yet to remain in office.

[3] Speech at the First HDZ Convention, February 26, 1990.

[4] ICTY Case No. IT-02-54-T, Exhibit No. PC11A of June 26, 2003.

[5] “Croats Burn and Kill with a Vengeance.” Robert Fisk, The Independent, 4 September 1995.

[6] “Helsinki Committee Reports on Krajina Operations.” Hartmut Fiedler, Österreich 1 Rundfunk, 21 August 1995.

[7] Especially problematic is the Tribunal’s use of the concept of Joint Criminal Enterprise – a blunt legal tool with Kafkaesque implications.

[8] The Croatian Army chief chaplain, Bishop Juraj Jezerinac, compared the predicament of generals Gotovina and Markač to the suffering of Jesus Christ.

[9] Former U.S. Ambassador in Zagreb Peter Galbraith, testifying at The Hague, dismissed claims that Croatia had engaged in ethnic cleansing, “because most of the population had already fled when the Croatian army and police arrived.”

[10] Feral Tribune, Split, July 18, 2003.

[11] The U.S. Department of State human rights report on Croatia (March 11, 2010) thus states matter-of-factly that Jasenovac was “the site of the largest concentration camp in Croatia during World War II, where thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma were killed” [emphasis added]. This claim is the exact moral and factual equivalent of asserting that “tens of thousands” of Jews and others were killed in Auschwitz or Treblinka.

[12] Wir sind mit Hitler noch lange nicht fertig. John Lukacs, The Hitler of History. New York: Vintage Books, 1998, p. 1.





by Thomas Fleming                                   5


Preface                                                   9


I    The Legacy of Premodernity           13

The Military Border15

The Illyrians 23

Starčević 29

The Serb Question 35


II   The Yugoslav Experiment              38

The Great War 38

Unification 41

An Unconsolidated Kingdom 45

International Environment 52


III   An Émigré Conspiracy                  56

Pavelić’s Early Italian Contacts 56

Pavelić Goes Abroad 60

Codification of Ustaša Principles 65

The “Military Nucleus” 67

The Ustaša Movement and Fascism 72


IV   Serbs, Croats, and the Axis          78

Aftermath of Marseilles 78

The Rome-Belgrade Axis 81

Hitler’s Yugoslav Policy 85

Maček and Italy 91

The Agreement Cvetković-Maček 97


V   The Fall of Yugoslavia                    102

Precarious Neutrality 102

Pavelić Reactivated 105

German Pressure 111

Disagreements over the Agreement 115

The Pact, the Coup, the War 119

Germans Seek Croat Allies 127

Tenth of April 136


VI   Croatia in Hitler’s New Europe    142

Pavelic’s Return from Italy 142

Karlovac: First Signs of Axis Rivalry 146

A Newcomer to “New Europe” 151

Hitler’s Croatian Strategy 159

Decision on Dalmatia 165

The Rome Agreements 172


VII   The Ustaša Holocaust                  179

 Ustašism Unleashed 179

“The Last Bullet for the Last Serb” 184

Pavelić at the Berghof 189

“Intolerance” at Work 193

The Role of the Catholic Church 200

The Ustaša and the Holocaust 208


VIII The Uprising                                218

Causes and Characteristics 218

Italian Response 223

German Response 234

The Dangić Affair239

German-Italian Discord 243

The Četnik Dilemma 254


IX   Germany Takes the Initiative     257

German Economic Dominance 257

German Generals vs. Pavelić 264

The Wehrmacht Takes Command 275

Weiss and Schwarz 278


X   Accomplices in Coat-Tails             290

Pavelić’s Foreign Ministry 290

The Gaffes 294

Areas of Activity 301

Croatian-Hungarian Dispute 304

Partners in the Holocaust 314


XI   The Turning Point                        319

German-Partisan Contacts 319

The SS and the NDH 326

Bosnian Muslims and the SS 330

Italian Armistice 338

Neubacher’s Mission 347


XII  Decline and Fall                          351

Zone of Operations Adriatic 351

Another Croatian Policy Review 356

The “Affair” Lorković-Vokić 363

Glaise Defeated 369

The Last Ally 374

In Search of a Miracle 382


XIII Conclusion                                   388

Appendixes                                          395

Sources and Bibliography                     403