| It doesn't stop|
at the water's edge
“”"The dagger, revolver, machine-gun and time bomb; these are the bells that will announce the dawn and the resurrection of the Independent State of Croatia."
|—Ante Pavelić, who was unfortunately correct.|
The Ustaše (pronounced oo-stah-sheh; past perfect form of "ustati" (to stand up)) were a fascist terrorist organization founded on Croatian nationalism in 1929. Led by the Poglavnik Ante Pavelić, the Ustaše advocated the separation of Croatia from Yugoslavia and the creation of a "Greater Croatia", spanning to the River Drina and to the border of Belgrade. The Ustaše were not only fiercely nationalistic, they were fanatically Catholic and Islamic. . All of this would lead to one of the most egregious episodes of genocide ever recorded in Europe, which occurred concurrently with that of the Holocaust (and is often lumped together with the Holocaust due to similar targets of extermination). Somewhat ironically many government officials were Jews and some even Serbs. Pavelić's substitute was a Muslim and one of the ministers had even studied Sharia law in Algeria, and before NDH taught it in university in Zagreb. So it could have gone worse. They still have their fans amongst far-right sympathizers in Croatia.
When Serbian King Alexander ruled over Yugoslavia with an iron fist, Ante Pavelić, an ardent Croat nationalist, formed a political party against Alexanderian Yugoslav law from abroad, prompting him to be exiled in absentia. The country he was residing in was Italy, where he fostered sympathy for Croatian independence among the Italians. In 1929, he founded the Ustaše, incorporating military training and terrorist tactics into the program. Benito Mussolini, looking to demolish Yugoslavia and expand Italy through the Adriatic, supported the Ustaše via funding and training camps of their members. Pavelić incorporated and coordinated such tactics as train bombings, sabotage, instigating an uprising, and assassinations of government officials, prompting Alexander to crack down hard on political activity. This often led to impoverished Croatian peasants being brutalized by the predominately-Serbian policemen. Eventually, King Alexander himself was assassinated, which broke the back of Yugoslavia and allowed for Axis occupation after a while.
Economically speaking, the Ustaše supported the creation of a corporatist economy, feeling that natural rights existed to private property and ownership over small-scale means of production free from state control. Although almost comically tiny in terms of overall membership (100,000 by 1941), the Ustaše were supported and influenced by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: the former for their weaponry, funding, "official" ideology and even uniforms, and the latter for the horrendous policy of extermination and use of death camps (although these guys only had two, a short-lived one at Jadovno, and the more famous one at Jasenovac). They were appointed to rule part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia as the Independent State of Croatia (NDH).
As a puppet state of the Axis, the Ustaše came to rule over the "Independent State of Croatia" (or NDH), encompassing Bosnia, Syrmia, Herzegovina and the Bay of Kotor as well as Croatia. Once a terrorist leader against dictator King Alexander, Pavelić would himself become a dictator over Croatia under the title "Poglavnik", the Croatian analogue to the Führer in Germany and the Duce in Italy. He ceded several portions of Croatia to the Axis in order to keep the Nazis and Fascists happy. This had the predictable side effect of annoying Croats who were displeased with the irony of the "Independent" part of their name, leading to an "anti-fascist" sentiment that the Ustaše sought to stamp down. In addition to that, Italians also had better relations with Serbian Chetniks which made things even worse in Dalmatia. Because of this, even in 1943 with Italy's capitulation, after which Pavelić revoked most of Dalmatia from them, Croats preferred the partisans hoping that would be a better option, only to be almost back to square one with Tito's Yugoslavia. Pavelić didn't revoke Istria and Rijeka though, as they were given to Italy with the Rapallo treaty by the kingdom of Yugoslavia.
As Poglavnik, Ante Pavelić had full control over the state as well as the ultimate authority to enact legislation. This played out just about as well as you'd expect: he immediately began to curb the rights of Jews, Serbs and Roma (or "Gypsies"). This included rejecting property transactions, prohibiting the Cyrillic alphabet (which outlawed the rites of the Serbian Orthodox Church), restricting the Jews' movement and residency within the NDH, decreeing that all Jews would wear yellow identification tags, signing a law that made all Jews into non-citizens, issuing a decree that blamed Jews for activities against the NDH, ordering the transferring of Jews into concentration camps and imposing the death penalty for any actions causing harm to the honor or interests of the NDH. Without prompting from Germany, the Ustaše established a policy aimed at exterminating Serbs, Jews, Roma and "anti-fascists" of all types.
As the population grew more and more discontented with the Ustaše, pro-Yugoslav sentiment was beginning to re-emerge, along with pro-communist feelings, leading to guerrilla tactics from the Partisan resistance movement. The Chetniks (monarchist, mostly Serb rebels) were involved as well, yeah, but they quickly went under Axis control, so they don't matter. In order to pacify the rebels, the Ustaše created the Croatian Orthodox Church; Pavelić's main influence, Ante Starčević, was more accepting of Serbs if they converted to Catholicsm, which Starčević identified as part of Croatian identity. As a result, thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma, of all religions, were forcibly converted to Catholicism, often with the threat (or act) of violence, with assistance from the Vatican clergy. Four out of 10 Orthodox bishops in Croatia were tortured and killed by the Ustaše.
Horror at Jasenovac
Yes, this was so bad it needs its own entry here. The Ustaše interned, tortured and executed men, women and children in Jasenovac, most of whom were Serbs. Cremation, gassing, poisoning, dismemberment, eye-gouging, disembowelment, throat-slashing, removal of hearts, executions via sharp or blunt craftsmen tools (knives, saws, hammers), forced labor, horrific levels of sanitation and a general lack of water for inmates were among the many methods utilized by the Ustaše. Inmates suffered from impaired health leading to epidemics of typhus, typhoid, malaria, pleurisy, influenza, dysentery and diphtheria. Inmates had to relieve themselves at open latrines, which consisted of big pits dug in open fields, covered in planks. Inmates would tend to fall inside, and often died.
The brutalized corpses of the inmates were often thrown onto the nearby rivers of the death camp. The Ustaše also imprisoned numerous people of other ethnicities, including Ukrainians, Romanians and Slovenes. Around 20,000 children under the age of 15 of Serbian, Jewish and Roma ethnicities perished in Jasenovac. Children were taken from their mothers and either killed or dispersed to Catholic orphanages. Even Nazi inspectors found the conditions horrific, although they never did anything to stop it and they were more disturbed by the lack of industrialization — it was the personal, direct nature of the executions that shocked the Nazis. All in all, between 77,000 and 100,000 people were killed at Jasenovac, including 45–52,000 Serbs, 15–20,000 Roma, 12–20,000 Jews, and 5–12,000 Croats and Muslims.
So, who was in charge of all this bullshit? Feast your eyes upon Vjekoslav Luburić, nicknamed "Maks" by his colleagues. Perhaps the most bloodthirsty and brutal of the Ustaše, he not only founded the concentration camps, he personally served as the overarching administrator of the camps, mainly Jasenovac. Therefore, all of that falls squarely in his deranged mind. Furthermore, militias under his direct command committed three different massacres against Serbs at Gudovac, Veljun, and Glina — the first atrocities commenced by the Ustaše. He also commanded the Ustaše Defence Brigades, which fought in the guerrilla wars with the Chetniks and Partisans. He helped form a terrorist organization called the "Croatian National Resistance", which Luburić ran for twenty-five years from his refuge in Spain. The CNR was heavily involved in racketeering, attempted murder, extortion, hijacking, terrorist bombing, and other violent crimes. After his death, his successors in the organizational command sought out criminal organization ties with La Cosa Nostra, the Provisional IRA, and the Croatian Mafia in San Pedro.
It doesn't stop there. For a few months in 1944, Dinko Šakić took temporary charge of Jasenovac. He ordered guards to kill prisoners following the escape of an inmate named Ivan Wollner, who was captured in Hrvatska Dubica and beaten to death by the Ustaše soon after his escape. In the aftermath, Šakić personally selected twenty-five Jewish inmates from the same barracks as Wollner, took them a building called the "Zvonara", and placed them in solitary confinement, where they starved to death. When Milan Bošković and Remzija Rebac led a group of twenty internees that organized an uprising and stole corn, Šakić ordered the group executed by hanging, tortured Rebac with a flamethrower, and shot Bošković in the head because he felt Bošković "should feel honoured to have the camp's commander personally kill him." Throughout his tenure, Šakić was known for randomly shooting prisoners numerous times when they went to work in the fields surrounding Jasenovac. At one point, Marin Jurcev, the manager of the hospital in Jasenovac, aided an Ustaše defector in smuggling information about the camp to the Yugoslav partisans. When Jurcev, his wife, and three internees held in the village of Jasenovac were executed, Šakić sat down and calmly ate red beet and fried schnitzel while watching the hanged bodies dangle in the wind. During the six months he was in charge of Jasenovac, at least 2,000 inmates were killed, either from malnutrition, disease, hangings, bayonets, or firearms, and their bodies were dumped in a mass grave.
Jadovno and Stara Gradiška
There were as many as 40 concentration camps in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia (though some were run by the Germans or Italians). Most were small, purely concentration or transit camps and the number of people who died at them does not usually exceed 1,000 or so people.
However, the very first death camp at Jadovno has been largely forgotten. It is estimated that around 40,000 people perished there, with a grand total of 38,000 being Serbs. It is significant to note that the camp started working as early as 11 April 1941, i.e. immediately after the Ustaše came to power, and ceased operation in August, when the Italians placed their own troops in the area and basically forced the Ustaše out. This means that the death rate of the camp's inmates was even greater than at Jasenovac.
As with the case of Nazi Germany, one should not forget that many of the Ustaše's victims never saw the interior of a camp — massacres, mass rapes, mutilation, and plunder conducted by so-called "wild Ustaše" (mostly local militias acting on their own initiative, but with the tacit blessing of the central authorities) were commonplace, especially in 1941.
Worse still was the godawful Stara Gradiška, which was a concentration camp specifically designed for women and children of Serb, Jew, and Romani ethnicity. Many women were killed with firearms, mallets, poison gas, and knives. At the Gagro Hotel, children were locked inside without food or water, even strangled to death using piano wire. On the night of August 29, 1942, the prison guards started making bets over who could kill the most inmates. Petar Brzica, one of the guards, reportedly cut the throats of 1,360 prisoners with a butcher knife. A gold watch, a silver service, a roasted suckling pig, and wine were among his rewards. One of the worst offenders was former friar Miroslav Filipović-Majstorović, who killed scores of women and children with his bare hands.
Showing that cruelty knows no gender, several of the Stara Gradiška prison guards were female, normally sisters or wives of other guards, and they willfully participated in the wanton brutality.
Role of the Church
The role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust in Croatia is still a subject of great controversy. It is complicated due to several factors, such as:
- The Communists who came to power after the war sought to undermine the influence of the Church by associating them with the Ustaše. Priests and monks were often depicted as direct participants in the Holocaust.
- Some (mostly Serbian) authors sought to depict the Vatican as taking the opportunity to expand eastwards through forced conversions.
- Some (mostly Croat) authors sought to depict the Church as being entirely innocent, pointing out that certain priests, including Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac, rescued Jews and others from prosecution.
- As always, the Vatican's Secret Archives are only open to those the Church wishes to admit.
As with most things in life, the truth is likely somewhere in between the two extremes. While some priests and monks did directly participate in the killings, including the notorious "Brother Satan" Filip Majstorović (try saying that five times) and "Serbkiller king" Petar Brzica, most were defrocked once the Vatican got word of their deeds. Others, such as the Archbishop of Vrhbosna Ivan Šarić did not directly participate in the violence, but composed hymns of praise to the Ustaše leaders and agreed that "strong-handed" measures were required to ensure the peace of the country. The above mentioned Stepinac, the foremost church leader in the country, at first welcomed the Ustaše, but was quickly disillusioned when he heard of the massacres they committed, and managed to save some Jews and others from certain death. Still, he continued to hold communion for the Ustaše leaders, and generally failed to publicly condemn them (though he did write letters of protest to Pavelić). In contrast, clergymen such as Archbishop of Mostar Alojzije Mišić and priest Marko Oršolić publicly condemned the Ustaše yet suffered no repression.
Downfall and decline
When Italy was defeated, the Ustaše were not too far behind. Pavelić ordered the armed forces not to surrender to the Partisans, but retreat to Austria over the former border of the Third Reich. The day after this order was issued, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers. In the week after the surrender, Axis forces in Yugoslavia repeatedly refused to surrender and even attacked Partisan positions in order to avoid encirclement and keep escape routes open. When one of the columns of fleeing HOS troops intermingled with civilians approached near the town of Bleiburg, the British refused to accept the surrender of the HOS troops and directed them to surrender to the Partisans. Thousands of soldiers and civilians fleeing Yugoslavia were repatriated to that country. Some of the soldiers and civilians were then murdered, and most were subjected to abuse and long marches to forced labor camps. After a while they were released, but stripped of human rights on the authorization of Tito.
The Ustaše disbanded, fleeing underground or seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Jasenovac and much of the prime leadership of the Ustaše were assassinated or imprisoned. Vjekoslav "Maks" Luburić was shot in the head by a Croatian named Ilija Stanić, who infiltrated his terrorist Croatian National Resistance organization (and still has not been found by Interpol). Miroslav Filipović, who killed women and children with his bare hands, was convicted of war crimes by a German military court, and hanged by a Yugoslav civilian court. An intrepid reporter forced Dinko Šakić to confess on a nationally televised broadcast — Šakić died of heart problems in a hospital after serving his 20-year prison sentence. Finally, Ante Pavelić spent the final two years of his life with a bullet lodged in his spine, and died from his wounds in Spain.
The Ustaše fell into infighting and general lack of order. "Crusaders", as they were called, continued antagonizing Yugoslavia with guerrilla tactics, but were disbanded. Whatever is left of the Ustaše exists in the Croatian Liberation Movement, originally founded by Pavelić, but they're nobodies by this point.
Although their rule was short-lived, it had a profound impact on the whole of Yugoslavia. The Partisans were led by Josip Broz Tito, who united Yugoslavia under his control. After Tito's death, Yugoslavia returned to its ethnic, racial and religious tension, leading to a series of wars that broke their nation apart. The Ustaše's genocide of Serbs stoked the already-volatile ethnic tension between Croats and Serbs, to the point where Serbs in the 1990s invariably called Croatian secessionist leaders "Ustaše" in a rather eerie parallel to what we normally see from Godwin's law. The Croatian Defence Forces (Croatian: Hrvatske obrambene snage, HOS) were the military arm of the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP) from 1991 to 1992 they wore black uniforms with Ustaše symbols and slogans and their units were named after ustaše officials Rafael Boban and Jure Francetić. After the November 1991 general mobilization in Croatia and the January 1992 cease-fire, the HOS was absorbed by the Croatian Army. Croatian president Franjo Tuđman (HDZ- Croatian Democratic Union party) didn't like HOS (but mainly because the HOS commander Blaž Kraljević and many of his Croat and Bosniak/Muslim followers stayed loyal to the Bosnian government and didn't support Croat separatism) and compared them with the Nazi SS.
Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević, age 40 when Tito died, became Serbian President largely on the racist vote; he would later end up as the man responsible for causing the wars while trying to unite Yugoslavia under Serbia.
Nevertheless the Ustaše still uncommonly inspire Croatian patriotism, which was also the case in the Patriotic War of 1991 but only in a patriotic or at times nationalist (although more mild) but rarely in a fascist context. In any case they, along with Partisans and Chetniks, are also a subject of many controversies and discussions in the former Yugoslavia, excluding Slovenia. This is mostly because in that region the communists were notorious for falsifying documents in their own favor which causes divisions between people to this day as neither the left nor right seem to agree with each other consistently on who did what. This has become so common that it has become sort of a meme sparking many infamous phrases such as "Gdje si bio '91/'45?" (Where were you in '91/'45?). It is not uncommon online for people from the former Yugoslavia to argue over what happened in 1945, who was an Ustaša, Partisan or Četnik, or, exclusive to Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, who started the war. A considerable number of people also say that it has gotten so out of control that one can't avoid it even in the Pornhub comment section!
- Fischer, Bernd J. (2007). Balkan Strongmen: Dictators and Authoritarian Rulers of South-Eastern Europe. Purdue University Press.
- Lituchy, Barry M. (2006). Jasenovac and the Holocaust in Yugoslavia. New York: Jasenovac Research Institute.
- Mojzes, Paul (2011). Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the 20th Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
- Tomasevich, Jozo (2001). War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration 2. San Francisco: Stanford University Press.