Just in time for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations, the state of Croatia adopted the definitions of antisemitism, Holocaust denial and anti-Roma discrimination as proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). It will now assume the presidency of the 35-state organization until 2024.*
The irony of this will not be lost on anyone familiar with contemporary Holocaust remembrance in Croatia.
In WWII, the Nazis often had supporters in the countries they invaded, but Croatia was different. It had its own ready-made Nazis – the Ustasha. With Hitler’s blessing, this fanatically Catholic movement led by Ante Pavelić (who had a special hatred for Serbs) took power in 1941, assuming control over large parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a small part of Serbia.
Massacres began immediately. Even before the Wannsee Conference, the Ustasha had already slaughtered a huge number of Serbs, Jews and Roma. Brutal enough even to disturb the SS, they created 16 camps, the most notorious of which was Jasenovac, where roughly 100,000 Serbs, Jews and Roma were killed.
The triumph of Tito’s socialist Partizans and the creation of the Republic of Yugoslavia pushed Ustasha nationalism underground and into the diaspora, but when it broke apart in the 90s, it returned. This return was exemplified by the newly independent country’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, who once remarked “thank God, my wife is neither a Serb nor a Jew.” He also published a book accusing the Jews imprisoned in Jasenovac of being the camp’s main perpetrators and cast doubt on the overall number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Croatia has blossomed since the Yugoslav wars. It is a beautiful country. Nevertheless, it struggles with Holocaust denial, which in the local context is more complex than “normal” denial. In Croatia, it means primarily the denial of the Ustasha genocide of Jews, Roma and Serbs.
Examples of this abound. In 1998, former Ustasha leader and Jasenovac commandant, Dinko Šakić, was deported from Argentina to Zagreb, where he stood trial. Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff, who came to Zagreb for the trial, recalled being surrounded on the street by local citizens chanting Sakić’s name at him and being attacked as a “Christ Killer.” During the trial, supporters of the unrepentant Sakić flashed Nazi salutes.
The Croatian Catholic Church has also played a highly negative role, leading nationalist commemorations, publishing and promoting literature denying the genocide, and until recently, holding mass for Pavelić in Zagreb’s cathedral. Croatian towns are marred by Ustasha graffiti and slogans. Following a recent football game in Split, young male fans held aloft a banner that read: “We will fuck Serb women and children.”
Sport often brings out the worst. In the hours preceding a recent Champions League match between the Croatian team Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan, around 4,000 Dinamo fans paraded through Milan, giving the Nazi salute. In the post-World Cup celebrations, defender Dejan Lovren also openly chanted slogans associated with the Ustasha.
Denial is culturally prevalent also. Recently a documentary entitled “Truth” was released to popular acclaim, which set out to revise the Ustasha legacy. Popular musician, Marko “Thompson” Perković tours Croatia, Bosnia and the diaspora, singing Ustasha songs, one of which, “Jasenovac i Gradiška Stara,” celebrates the murder of Serbs in Jasenovac. There is even an ongoing battle on Wikipedia to label Jasenovac a Nazi death camp.
Since independence, Croatia’s politicians have played a clever game. Distancing themselves from their first president’s outright Holocaust denial, they have made the routine proclamations on the relevant dates. Domestically and in the diaspora, however, they have continued to appeal to far-right voters and the Croatian Catholic church. Holocaust education in the country also remains problematic.
Due to these controversies neither the Jewish nor the Serb communities have attended the official annual commemorations in Jasenovac for several years now.
Croatia should, however, be congratulated for its adoption of the IHRA definitions. This is a positive step and those who brought it about deserve real credit. There are Croatian experts and politicians who resist denial, and many reject nationalism completely. The staff of the physically and politically isolated Jasenovac Memorial also deserve credit for withstanding enormous pressure over the years.
Croatia’s IHRA moment must not be allowed to slip by without real engagement with its issues. Real steps need to be made, rather than abstract statements. During 2023 and beyond, Croatia must deliver on three things, as a basic minimum.
First, ensure that adequate memorials are (re)erected at the WWII massacre sites that litter the country, ensuring that they state who was killed by whom, when and how.
Second, make a commitment to educate honestly on the period in its schools and universities.
Finally, politicians must be encouraged to take a strong stand against all forms of denial. In doing so they will remove one of the greatest sources of justification for Serb nationalism, which as ever, continues to destabilize the region.
It can only be hoped that Croatia will take the opportunity of its 12-month IHRA presidency to stop wandering the wastelands of its own historical mythology and choose a better path.
*Editor’s Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously implied IHRA presidencies are contingent upon whether the country has adopted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. That is not the case. The Croatian Presidency was agreed to by the IHRA Plenary in 2020, well before adoption of the working definition.