Croatia Should Apologize for World War II Genocide

By James Bissett
Thursday, 8 Apr 2010

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recent Christian Science Monitor article by the LBF Chairman has caused quite a stir in the Balkans. Croatia is nearing the finish line of a multiyear race to join the European Union, Ambassador Bissett notes, but it has some unfinished business to attend to.

Its accession has been pushed along by traditional ally Germany, and by the United States, which has encouraged the EU’s southwest expansion to include all of the Balkans and even Turkey. Croatia has complied with most of the formal entry requirements and is expected to join in 2012.

However, there is another – moral – requirement Croatia should have to meet for its own sake before being admitted.

It should fully and publicly acknowledge its role in World War II as a loyal ally of the Nazi cause, and its ardent participation in genocide against its Serbian, Jewish, and Gypsy (Roma) populations. The scattered, vague, and half-hearted denials masking as apologies that Croatia has used to improve its image in recent years don’t count. The country should come to grips with its genocidal role in the same way Germany has come to grips with its Nazi past.

Last March the Serbian parliament apologized for its role in the infamous Srebrenica massacre of 1995 that killed some 7,000 Bosnian Muslims. Such an apology was considered unthinkable even a few years ago, yet the pressures of joining the EU helped nudge that nation to account for this war crime.

It’s time Croatia did the same. Croatia has more than its share of apologies to make for crimes it committed during the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, but it can start with the massive killings it unleashed during World War II. Although estimates vary, between 300,000 and 700,000 victims were murdered by Croatian fascists during the war.

When Hitler’s forces invaded Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941, Croatian right-wing extremists, under the leadership of Ante Pavelić and his fascist “Ustashi” movement, were given control of Croatia. Pavelić aligned the country enthusiastically to the Nazi cause and immediately launched a horrific onslaught against the Serbian minority. The official policy was popularly expressed as: Kill one-third of the Serbs, convert another third to Roman Catholicism, and expel the remaining third from Croatia.

The Roman Catholic Church insists it condemned the atrocities, but the record suggests a mix of official responses, ranging from weak condemnations to tacit support. While the killing was under way, the Croatian archbishop, Aloysius Stepinac, blessed the new regime and Pavelić was granted an audience with Pope Pius XII. A number of Franciscan monks participated in the killing. After the war ended, the Vatican helped Ustashi criminals evade capture and flee to South America.

During the war, Serbian Orthodox churches were burned and many Serbian communities wiped out. Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies were interned in concentration camps, where thousands of victims were slaughtered like animals. The carnage was so horrific that senior ranking German officers in Croatia, including SS-Obergruppenführer Artur Phleps, sickened by the slaughter and worried that it was driving Serbians and anti-Ustashi Croats into the ranks of resistance groups, urged Berlin to demand a stop to the slaughter. These protests were in vain and the genocide continued. Senior Italian officers also were appalled at the killing and are on record as not only complaining but frequently offering protection to fleeing victims.

When the war ended and Josip Broz Tito’s communists took command of Yugoslavia, they had no desire to renounce these dreadful events. Yugoslavia’s slogan was “Brotherhood and Unity.” Every effort was made to bury the past and, because Yugoslavia did not align itself with the Soviet Union, Western democracies had little interest in exposing the genocide.

Unlike Germans, who recognized the moral obligation to acknowledge their crimes committed under the Nazi regime, citizens of Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Croat state felt no such obligation. Consequently, the slaughtered victims and their surviving family members still await justice. Even today, Pavelić is looked upon by many Croatians as a national hero, as are some of the most vicious Ustashi criminals.

In 2001, Croatian President Stepjan Mesić apologized to Jews in an address delivered at the Israeli Knesset. In 2003, he joined Serbia’s president in a mutual apology for “all the evils” each side had brought during the Balkan conflict. Such carefully worded official apologies are a step in the right direction, but authentic repudiation of the past should be demonstrated by Croatians themselves.

Evidence suggests they still have a long way to go. Crowds at Croatian soccer games and concerts flout Ustashi and Nazi symbols and sing old fascist chants and songs. Croatians indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia are also hailed as defenders of the nation.

Croatia needs to purge itself of its dark past. Its prolonged denial of outrageous crimes committed in the 20th century has created what the Croatian exiled writer Dubravka Ugrešić has described as a “culture of lies.” Until Croatia can learn to tell the truth about its history, there should be no place for it in the European Union.

James Bissett is the former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia (1990-92) and Chairman of The Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies