Branko Miletic

That one time, when fascist frenemies fell out of favour with each other

NDH / Quora

In the scorching summer of 1941, Osijek, the biggest city in eastern Croatia became the site of fascists of three different nationalities marching together seemingly indicating a triumph of transnational fascist ideals. This outward display of unity suggested a shared vision of the “New Order,” where fascists of various nationalities marched in lockstep towards their goals.

Osijek / Wikipedia Commons

However, a deeper analysis reveals a more nuanced and convoluted relationship between the Croatian Ustaša, German Nazi, and Hungarian Arrow Cross movements. This apparent unity belied the intricate dynamics at play, with each faction pursuing its own interests within the broader framework of the Axis powers.

The Croatian Ustaša, led by Dr Ante Pavelić, a lawyer who first made his name defending Zionists in Yugoslav courts, sought to establish an independent Croatian state within its furthest historical geographic borders.

While the Ustaša movement was initially philo-Semitic, growing out of the political ideas of Josip Frank, a Croatian lawyer and politician of Jewish descent who was also a vocal advocate of Croatian national independence, it gradually adopted anti-Semitism through the osmotic transfer of this hideous ideology from the Third Reich. Despite also having several Jews in its own ranks that included 28 generals and several prominent politicians, it viewed many of Croatia’s Jews as being antagonistic to its nationalist project.

Ustaša leader Dr Ante Pavelić visiting Croatian troops / The Goldman Report

Under Hitler’s regime, the Germans accepted Croatia in two main forms – from a strategic ally to a colony that was to be forcibly incorporated into the Axis sphere, which in the end included the establishment of concentration camps.

The Hungarian Arrow Cross, led by Ferenc Szálasi, who was of Armenian, Hungarian, Russian, and Slovak ancestry, shared similar ideologies with the Ustaša and the Nazis. However, their presence in Osijek added another layer of complexity to the overall situation.

Ferenc Szálasi / Quora

While on the surface, this ‘fascist love-in’ was meant to showcase a unified front of Right wing ideologies, the reality was far more tangled. Competing interests, power dynamics, and historical contexts shaped the actions of each faction, blurring the lines between collaboration, competition, leading in the end, to open conflict.

In the months following the occupation, the city’s social fabric began to fray under the pressure of emerging fascist organizations vying for control over resources and power.

The Ustaša quickly rose to prominence in the newly formed Independent State of Croatia (NDH). Their program, hostile to the multiethnic nature of the NDH, aimed at ethnic cleansing what they perceived as ‘troublesome elements, as well as pursuing their political opponents.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, though the smallest of the three fascist movements in the city, was ambitious and very active, organizing one of the first anti-Semitic demonstrations, seeking to establish a foothold for political agitation beyond Hungary’s borders.

However, tensions began to emerge between the Ustaša and the German Volksgruppe, representing ethnic Germans in Croatia, where the two groups clashed over control and influence.

Led by Branimir Altgayer, the Volksgruppe, envisioning a German-led state in south-eastern Europe, sought to assert its own dominance independently of the Ustaša. They conducted mass arrests of Jews and took over Jewish institutions, actions that often openly conflicted with Ustaša interests.

Branimir Altgayer / Wikipedia

The Volksgruppe’s emphasis on German racial superiority over the autochthonous Croats further strained relations with the Croatian majority. They positioned themselves as modernisers, claiming credit for the region’s prosperity while disparaging Croatian capabilities, while their recruitment of ethnic Serbs and collaboration with Serbian nationalists and promising them protection from Ustaša persecution, infuriated the NDH leadership, who saw it as a direct challenge or at times, as a direct threat to its authority.

These tensions usually spilled out into violence. Ustaša youth regularly attacked the Hitler Youth headquarters, and clashes erupted in villages like Kapan, where Ustaša forces resisted disarmament by the Volksgruppe. In one particularly violent incident, ethnic Germans occupied a school and refused to admit Croatian students, prompting a confrontation with armed Ustaša supporters.

For their part, the Volksgruppe, like the Arrow Cross before it, accused the Ustaša of being insufficiently antisemitic, and even claimed they were colluding with Jews, accusations that were aggravated by several circumstances where the Ustaša seemed totally disinterested or even hostile in helping implement German racial edicts and policies.

While most of the Jewish population of Osijek, around 2,000 individuals, was deported by the Germans in the first half of August 1942, a number of Jews remained in the city due to “mixed marriages”, leading the Volksgruppe leadership, led by Altgayer, to accuse the Ustaša of protecting Jews.

Stjepan Hefer / Wikipedia Commons

The regional governor Stjepan Hefer recorded numerous complaints from Croatian villagers who feared they would be the next targets after the Jews and Roma. Hefer also noted German discontent with Croatian authority, with local Germans openly expressing their disdain and outright contempt for Croatian rule.

Ethnic Germans, like their Croatian counterparts, harboured fears of deportation or assimilation. Rumours circulated that Germans would be resettled, while Ustaša leaders hinted at assimilation or deportation for both Serbs and Germans.

On one occasion, as Ustaša forces escorted Roma for deportation to work camps, tensions escalated, with Croatian citizens taunting ethnic Germans by openly exclaiming they could see a future where Germans would face similar fates.

Image: Lovro Kralj

Osijek’s German Nazis on the other hand accused the Ustaša of being insufficiently anti-Semitic or colluding or even siding with Jews, so as to undermine their authority. Similarly, the Arrow Cross leveraged its own anti-Semitism as a way to try and discredit their Croatian rivals.

In many ways, Osijek became a microcosm of the simmering tensions and power struggles that characterized Axis rule during World War II.

Ironically, this three-way struggle and attempts to neutralize each other’s rival fascist elites in the struggle for political dominance brought about unintended consequences such as significantly delaying the deportations of the Jews of Osijek, compared to other similar-sized cities in Nazi-occupied Europe.

In the end, these three movements, who were supposed to be allied, but more often than not, were antagonistic, failed to create their desired fascist Eden.

The legacy of these conflicts not only weakened any potential ‘united front’ to the encroaching communist Partisan threat, but it has left a lasting mark on the city’s history that continues to this very day.

Adapted from: A Microcosmos of Fascism in the Age of Genocide-German Nazis, Croatian Ustašas, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross in the City of Osijek (Lovro Kralj 2022).

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Journalist and editor with 25 years experience, including reporting from Bosnia, Japan and all over Australia--- focus includes IT, ethics and geopolitics.
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