When Croatia takes on the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency on January 1, it aims to present itself as a liberal, tolerant country. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković says that his country will attempt to pursue a “Europe that develops, Europe that connects, Europe that protects and Europe that is influential.”
If this soaring rhetoric is meant to be more than empty words, Croatia should start by coming clean about its own wartime history.
From 1941 to 1945, Croatian fascists allied themselves with the Nazis and sent most of the country’s Jews – and many Serbs – to their death. During the 1990s Serbo-Croat war, the Croatian Defence Forces adopted the salute of the wartime fascist Ustaša. At football games, rallies, protests and commemorations alike, many Croats continue to flash this infamous salute.
Most of the country’s Jews were killed at Croatia’s main wartime concentration camp at Jasenovac. Yet the Croatian government continues to minimize the horrors of the camp. Croatia’s Wikipedia page refers to Jasenovac as a “collection camp”, which is a stark difference in connotation from an accurate description of a “concentration camp.” The intergovernmental International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance sent a delegation to the camp in September 2019 and chastised government officials for what it called “an incomplete” exhibition. Since 2016, Jewish, Serbian and Roma communities have boycotted the official Jasenovac commemoration.
A new plan to erect a memorial to Holocaust victims in Zagreb is similarly flawed. It will avoid highlighting Croatia’s own role in World War II persecution, argues Sven Milekic of Balkan Transitional Justice, serving “to suggest that the Holocaust was a solely German matter, introduced and imposed across occupied Europe.” A different emphasis is required. “Instead of emphasizing the ‘six million’ figure and Third Reich, Croatia’s memorials to the Holocaust should speak about the murders committed by the domestic fascist Ustasa movement during WWII,” writes Milekic.
The present nationalist government in Zagreb often invokes their supposed defense of Europe and Croatia as a protective wall of Christendom. “Guided by its Christian roots, traditions, and culture, the Croatian people have always expressed affection and belonging to the European family,” Plenković said during his press conference outlining plans for the upcoming European presidency. In a multicultural European Union, this seems to leave little space for non-Roman Catholic Serbs, Muslims and Jews.
Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic seems undecided on how to treat her country’s past. While she condemned the Ustaša’s role during the Holocaust during a 2015 visit to Israel, she posed with a group of Croatian émigrés holding a flag bearing the Ustaša symbol. Even President Grabar-Kitarovic’s reference to the Ustaša as a collaborationist regime falls far short of the mark. The Ustaša initiated the brutality and mass killing of Serbs, Jews and Roma on their own initiative, for their own ideological reasons.
The issues are not limited to Croatian nationalists. Opposition liberals who chart a broader, more tolerant path, recognize the country’s own wartime fascism – but tend to equate or compare it with Yugoslavia’s postwar communism. The two are not equivalent. The Croatian attempt to insist on equivalency and turn themselves into victims of a totalitarian ideology.
A positive path forward is available to Croatian leaders – set up an international, independent historical commission to study and draw a definitive account of what happened during the war, at Jasenovac and elsewhere in the country. In March 2020, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance will sponsor a scientific conference taking place in both Serbia and Croatia that will deal exactly with the truth about Jasenovac, attempting to answer the vexed question about the number of victims at the camp. Serbs estimate 700,000 victims. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum puts the number between closer to 100,000. While this conference represents a potential step forward, the Croatian government is not sponsoring it or committing to accept its findings.
Romania undertook a much more extensive official exercise in 2003, with the government appointing Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Romanian Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to preside over an International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania. The Commission found Romanian civilian and military authorities responsible for the murder of up to 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 Roma. The Romanian government recognized the report’s findings.
Since then, as detailed in my Holocaust Remembrance Report, Romanians have, for the most part, come true about the dark spots in their past. The country has created alternative and unprecedented educational programs at the National College of Defense. It has instituted laws to protect against revisionism and rehabilitation of war criminals.
Proposals for Croatia to do the same have been raised – but so far, rejected. The present government should and can improve. A pledge to move ahead with an independent commission would be a welcome addition to the country’s European Union presidency.