A Slaughterhouse of the Independent State of Croatia (1941-1945)

Source: A Slaughterhouse of the Independent State of Croatia (1941-1945)

by Prof. Vladislav Sotirovic

For the last several years, Serbia and Croatia are in the process of negotiations of settling all historical disputes and questions as the part of E.U.’s conditions for Serbia in order to join the Eurobloc in the recent future. In other words, Brussels expects by both sides to achieve a “historical” deal according to which the past is going to be finally “settled”, i.e., forgotten and forgiven between two nations – the Serbs and the Croats. In the following text, we would like to contribute in this “historical” agreement by lighening one but crucial episode in Croat-Serb relations: Magnum Crimen from the WWII.

Territorial destruction of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April 1941

After the April War of 6−18th, 1941, the Germans, Italians, Bulgarians and Hungarians occupied and divided the territory of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia into several parts. The Germans annexed North Slovenia and put under their direct occupation the Yugoslav part of Banat and the Central Serbia with Kosovska Mitrovica. The Italians occupied South Slovenia, established their marionette regime in Montenegro and annexed the Gulf of Boka Kotorska, parts of Konavli and Dalmatia. The Hungarians annexed Prekomurje, Baranja and Bachka. The Bulgarians occupied the East and Central Vardar Macedonia and the South-East Serbia. The Italians established their own marionette state of a Greater Albania with the East Montenegro, Kosovo (without its northern part that was occupied by the Germans for economic reasons) and the West Vardar Macedonia [B. Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije 1918−1945. Druga knjiga: Narodnooslobodilački rat i revolucija 1941−1945, Beograd: NOLIT, 1988, 25−51].

However, the most important post-April War creation on the territory of ex-Kingdom of Yugoslavia was an Independent State of Croatia that was officially proclaimed on April 10th, 1941. It was composed of Croatia, Slavonia, parts of Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and East Srem (today in Serbia). The official name of the state was Neovisna država Hrvatska (the NDH) with a capital in Zagreb. It had 6,663,157 inhabitants according to the last pre-war census and covered the territory of 102,725 sq. km [S. Srkulj, J. Lučić, Hrvatska povijest u dvadeset pet karata. Prošireno i dopunjeno izdanje, Zagreb: Hrvatski informativni centar, 1996, 105].

According to the Rome Treaties from May 1941, the NDH gave to its patron Italy Kastav and Sushak with its hinterland, the islands of Krk and Rab, the North Dalmatian and parts of the Central Dalmatian littoral, the majority of the Adriatic islands and a part of Konavle. Therefore, Italy realized all paragraphs of the secret London Treaty signed between Italy and the Entente in April 1915.

Nevertheless, after the capitulation of Italy on September 8th, 1943 the NDH tried to incorporate parts of Dalmatia but did not succeed in establishing a real state-administrative sovereignty over these territories due to the German obstruction.

The collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941 was very rapid for at least three reasons:

  • The country was not prepared for the war at all.
  • The aggressors were much stronger from all points of view.
  • The Croat treachery during the April War.

As a consequence of the military defeat, some 375,000 officers and soldiers of the Yugoslav army, exclusively of Serb origin, fell into Axis hands and became prisoners of war in Germany. Nevertheless, on the territory of the NDH fanatical Serb-hating Croat Nazi-Ustashi were on the loose, perpetrating appalling massacres which very soon led to the Serb uprising and the loss of de facto control over the large areas [T. Judah, The Serbs. History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, New Haven−London, 1997, 117].

The destruction of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, her occupation followed by the creation of a Greater Croatia (the NDH) and massacres of its Serb Orthodox, Roma and Jewish population were the historical triumph of Vatican and the Roman Catholic separatism [М. Екмечић, Дуго кретање између клања и орања. Историја Срба у Новом веку (1492−1992). Треће, допуњено издање, Београд: Евро-Ђунти, 2010, 438].

After the April War in 1941 and the occupation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as a leading pre-war Croat politician Vladimir Vladko Machek refused the Italian and German offer to become a head of the new quisling state of the NDH, the Croat Nazi-Ustashi leader, Ante Pavelic was brought back from Italy to lead this Independent State of Croatia. V. Machek himself clearly noted that the declaration of the NDH on April 10th 1941 was greeted with “a wave of enthusiasm” in Zagreb “not unlike that which had swept through the town in 1918 when the ties with Hungary were severed” [V. Maček, In the Struggle for Freedom, London, 1957, 230]. A territory of the NDH, as the rest of ex-Kingdom of Yugoslavia was divided between the German and the Italian zones of influence and administration.

When the Nazi-Ustashi Poglavnik (Führer) Ante Pavelic returned from Italy to be appointed by the Italians as the leader of the NDH he came with some 300 supporters, but it turned out soon that he got a silent massive support by the ethnic Croats in the country. The Ustashi movement, established in 1929, found their ideological roots in the mid-19 century chauvinistic Roman-Catholic and Serbophobic ideologist Ante Starchevic – a founder of nationalistic Croat Party of Rights. A. Starchevic was exactly the person who formulated within the ideological framework of a Greater Croatia the Nazi-Ustashi-committed brutal and sadistic genocide against the Serbs during the WWII on the territory of the NDH (on this issue, see more in [В. Ђ. Крестић, Геноцидом до велике Хрватске. Друго допуњено издање, Јагодина: Гамбит, 2002]).

The Italian installation of the Ustashi regime in the NDH meant nothing else than the Serbophobic Roman Catholic fanatics were now in power in a state where the law and order were framed on the pattern of the Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish law and order – in a state whose population was barely 50 per cent Croat followed by 12 per cent Muslims (today Bosniaks) and at least one-third the Serbs whose destiny was to disappear by any mean.

The Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims officially were declared by the Ustashi regime as the “flower of the Croat nation”, i.e., as the ethnic Croats of the Islamic faith and as such the Bosniaks took a full participation in the Croat-run four years of sadistic genocide against the Orthodox Serbs. During the war, the most infamous Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslim military unit was the SS Hanjar Division that was inspected by H. Himler himself. However, differently to the Muslim case in the NDH, the implacable extreme Serbophobic regime in Zagreb sought to exterminate all Serbs on the territory of the NDH according to the self-proclaimed principle by the NDH Minister of Education, Mile Budak on June 22nd, 1941: one third to kill, one third to expel and one third to convert to the Roman Catholicizm (i.e. to Croatize) (according to [Hrvatski narod – official NDH newspaper, dated on June 26th, 1941]).

The first laws in the NDH were to ban Cyrilic script and to outlaw the Serbs, who had to wear a special sign on their clothes in order to mark them as the Orthodox believers [ХД Хрватска држава геноцида, Двери српске. Часопис за националну културу и друштвена питања, год. XIII, број 47−50, Београд, 2011, 24−31]. The Serb Orthodox churches and schools were firstly closed and later destroyed. The Ustashi organized bloody massacres of the Serbs even inside the churches (for instance, in Glina in August 1941) or the schools (for example, in Prebilovci in August 1941). Deportations of the Serbs to Serbia were part of the Ustashi-designed “Final Solution” of the Serb Question in the NDH – in 1945 there were around 400,000 Serb refugees in Serbia from the NDH.

Тhe fundamental essence of the NDH is that 1) this state was the first Vatican-sponsored state in the Balkans and that 2) it was really fully independent concerning its extermination policy of the Serbs, Roma and Jews. The Roman Catholic Church in the NDH put itself at the full disposal to the new Nazi Roman Catholic Ustashi authorities and even participated directly in the massacres of the Orthodox Serbs [V. Novak, Magnum Crimen. Pola vijeka klerikalizma u Hrvatskoj, Zagreb, 1948−Beograd 1986; V. Dedijer, Vatikan i Jasenovac, Beograd: Rad, 1987; M. A. Ривели, Надбискуп геноцида. Монсињор Степинац, Ватикан и усташка диктатура у Хрватској, 1941−1945, Никшић: Јасен, 1999; Л. Лукајић, Фратри и усташе кољу. Злочинци и сведоци. Покољ Срба у селима код Бања Луке Дракулићу, Шарговцу и Мотикама 7 фебруара и Пискавици и Ивањској 5 и 12 фебруара 1942. године, Београд: Фонд за истраживање геноцида, 2005].

For the Roman Catholic clergy in the NDH one of the most controversial demands of the Ustashi authorities was the conversion of the Orthodox Serbs to Roman Catholicism. In principle, the clergy were uncomfortable with this policy of direct conversion, without the converts first accepting the Union act (recognizing the Pope as a head of the church but keeping the Slavonic liturgy).

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church in the NDH accepted a forced conversion of the Serbs under the formal pretext of saving their lives what in practice did not help them too much as even being formally the Roman Catholics they were slaughtered as being the Serbs. It is estimated that a total number of converted Orthodox Serbs in the NDH was around 300,000, but it is recorded also that many of already converted Serbs were later murdered by the Ustashi detachments anyway. In the spring of 1943 the Ustashi government created a Croatian Orthodox Church that was headed by Bishop Hermogen – a Russian Orthodox priest who escaped from the USSR.

The first organized massive massacre of the Serbs in the NDH was committed on April 28th 1941, when 187 Serbs from the village of Gudovac and its surroundings were massacred. Among the most brutal and sadistic massacres at the beginning of the NDH was in the town of Glina in Croatia on August 5th, 1941 when some 1,200 Orthodox Serbs dressed in their Sunday best were called to the local Orthodox church from surrounding villages to be converted into the Roman Catholicism. However, instead of the conversion they were locked inside the church and slaughtered with knives. In August 1941 occurred and the Prebilovci massacre of the local Serbs in the East Herzegovina including the children in the village school. A report on this event by the local Italian commander to Mussolini is very sensitive and anti-Catholic as the commander noted that, after the Prebilovci massacre, it is shameful to be a Roman Catholic.

The organized Ustashi genocide against the Serbs very soon became so rapid and efficient that, according to the U.S. official reports, up to August 1942 there were some 600,000 killed people in the NDH, the overwhelming majority of them the Serbs [Р. Л. Кнежевић, Ж. Л. Кнежевић, Слобода или смрт, Сијетл, 1981, 44].

The massacres of Croat-Muslim Ustashi forces were to such extent that even Adolf Hitler was forced to personally intervene in this case in order to restrain the Ustashi barbarism. It is also recorded that the German troops were, in some cases, in Bosnia-Herzegovina opening fire on the Ustashi solders in order to save the lives of the Serbs. It was a fact that the Serbs and the Jews were fleeing from the German to the Italian occupation zone of Yugoslavia for the very reason that the Italians protected them from the Ustashi knives [O. Talpo, Dalmazia: Una cronaca per la storia (1941), Roma, 1985]. O. Talpo’s book is of crucial importance for the reconstruction of the Croat-Muslim massacres of the Serbs as it contains a large number of the Italian military and other documents from the Italian archives (see more on this issue in [S. Avramov, Genocide in Yugoslavia, Belgrade, 1995 (original in Serbian)]).

In the attempt to finally solve the Serb Question westward the Drina River, the Ustashi government established a network of death camps (in fact slaughterhouses) among all Jasenovac (a Yugoslav Auschwitz) nearby the Sava river in Croatia but on the very border with Bosnia-Herzegovina became the most infamous in which perished around 700.000 people among them 500.000 the Serbs. The extermination techniques included a slaughtering of the prisoners by a special type of knife known as the Srbosjek (a Slaughterer of the Serbs) made in the Solingen factory in Germany under the Ustashi design or making the hand-washing soaps of alive boiled human bodies sold in the shops in Zagreb. The evidences of extermination of the Serbs were sent by the local executors to Zagreb and from Zagreb later to Vatican. The most enduring of this genocide is for sure the scene described by the Italian journalist and writer Curzio Malaparte in his book Kaputt. This book is account of his wartime experiences as a war correspondent. Therefore, several months after the NDH became proclaimed Malaparte went to make an interview with Ante Pavelic – a head of the state and a leader (poglavnik) of the Ustashi movement. On this occasion he was joined by the Italian minister in Zagreb, Raffaele Casertino. What he wrote as a witness is:

While he spoke, I gazed at a wicker basket on the Poglavnik’s desk. The lid was raised and the basket seemed to be filled with mussels, or shelled oysters – as they are occasionally displayed in the windows of Fornum and Mason in Piccadilly in London. Casertano looked at me and winked, “Would you like a nice oyster stew?” “Are they Dalmatian oysters?” I asked the Poglavnik. Ante Pavelic removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said smiling, with that tired good-natured smile of his, “It is a present from my loyal Ustashis. Forty pounds of human eyes.”[C. Malaparte, Kaputt, Evanson IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997, 266; B. J. Fišer (priredio), Balkanski diktatori. Diktatori i autoritarni vladari jugoistočne Evrope, Beograd: IPS−IP Prosveta, 2009, 229].

Killing a Serb civilian by the Croat soldiers in the Independent State of Croatia

The NDH was internationally recognized by Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Japan, Spain, National China, Finland, Denmark and Manchuria. It existed from April 10th, 1941 to May 15th, 1945. In the other words, the NDH existed a whole week after the German capitulation as the last Nazi state in Europe. After the war the new communist authorities in Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito of Croat and Slovenian origin, did everything to eliminate the evidence of the Croat-Muslim Magnum Crimen against the Serbs during the war. A most notorious case happened with the death camp of Jasenovac that was totally demolished. Very soon after the war simply nothing left as an evidence of the 9th Circle of Dante’s Hell followed by destruction of the written and other documents. After 1990 a new nationalistic and neo-Nazi-Ustashi government of Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb did everything to disgracefully whitewash the history of the NDH directly supported by the official scientific institutions in Croatia. In this context, we have to mention probably the most shameful “scientific” publication on the WWII in Yugoslavia which was even published in several languages by the Croatian Institute of History: V. Žerjavić, Population Losses in Yugoslavia 1941−1945, Zagreb: Dom i Svijet−Hrvatski institut za povijest, 1997.

Today, it is much more reliable to consult the German, Vatican and Italian sources on the NDH than the archival material from the Yugoslav archives. Therefore, the most useful reports to Berlin and Rome are written by the German and Italian embassies in Zagreb, German General Artur von Flebs, German dr. Josef Fessl, German Wilhelm Hetl, German Lothar Rendulitz, German Herman Neubacher, German dr. Josef Matl, Italian General Pitzio Biroli, Italian General Mario Roata, Italian Colonel Guisepe Angelini, Italian Enzo Cataldi or Italian historian Salvatore Loi who published an extremely valuable anthology of the Italian documents and reports on the Italian military operations in Yugoslavia in 1978.

S. Loi’s account on the NDH is probably one of the most relevant and realistic. According to him, the NDH became transformed into the lake of Serb blood until the mid-August 1941. The Croat-Muslim genocide against the Serbs was, according to the same author, the most barbaric part of the WWII, even more barbaric than the holocaust against the Jews [М. Екмечић, Дуго кретање између клања и орања. Историја Срба у Новом веку (1492−1992). Треће, допуњено издање, Београд: Евро-Ђунти, 2010, 445].

Croatia, August 1995 – Magnum Crimen 2: Expulsion of up to 250,000 Serbs from Croatia as a consequence of the US-sponsored Croatian military-police operation “Storm”

Subsequently, it is not of any surprise that the U.S. President F. D. Roosevelt said in 1944 that after the war the Croats as a nation has no any right to their own national state as they showed to be the animals during the war. For such nation as the Croats were, Roosevelt anticipated an international monitoring but not any kind of Croatia. However, after the war a Croat led the Communist Party of Yugoslavia created even bigger Croatia within Yugoslavia than it was before the war, reducing Serbia into the borders before the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913. Finally, the Croats backed by Vatican and Germany continued a policy of the NDH in 1991−1995 and in essence succeeded in the Ustashi policy of Serben Frei Kroaten as today in Croatia there are only up to 4 per cent of the Serbs in comparison to 25 per cents in 1940 or 12 per cents in 1990.

Prof. Vladislav B. Sotirovic is a Professor at Institute of Political Sciences Mykolas Romeris University, Vilnius, Lithuania and director of the NGO Kosovo-Metochia
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