Nazi scandal in the Balkans indirectly linked to special operation in Ukraine

Nazi scandal in the Balkans indirectly linked to special operation in Ukraine

The memorial complex at the site of the concentration camp is specially designed not to remind the nationality of the Jasenovac victims

Between Serbia and Croatia there is a grand scandal like none seen since the war. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was denied the opportunity to commemorate his grandfather, a victim of the uniquely brutal Croatian concentration camp Jasenovac. What are Croats trying to hide? And what does this have to do with the Russian Armed Forces’ special operation in Ukraine?

The idiom “fired from the Gestapo for brutality” usually describes cases where diligence beyond morality cannot be appreciated even by those who look past morality. But life always wins in the debate over metaphors: there was a case in history when Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS, creator of the Nazi death machine and the most horrible man in Hitler’s circle, chided the Allies for not humanising enough.

We are talking about the Ustashas, the Croatian nationalists. They were raised by Mussolini’s fascists, but their views and methods were closer to those of Himmler’s SS. In 1941 the Ustasci seized power in most of what is now Croatia and Bosnia, deploying their own death machine, the Jasenovac system of concentration camps, named after the largest of them.

It is not known why Himmler was so impressed that he ordered the Ustas to slow down at the meat grinder. The well-known history of Jasenovac is a kaleidoscope of horrors that would have impressed even the prisoners of Auschwitz.

The camp itself was destroyed long ago; in its place is a memorial complex with a composition “Stone Flower”, symbolising the lasting memory. This cursed place remembers many things.

It remembers the championships in the killing of Serbs with special Serbian knives, which were made in Germany on a special order from the Ustas. It remembers its winner, Petar Brzica, who received a gold watch and a roast suckling pig for slaughtering over a thousand people.

It remembers the commandant, Franciscan monk and military chaplain Miroslav Filipović, nicknamed “Devil of Jasenovac” for his cruelty and sadism.

He remembers the unique children’s ward and money bets between the guards, the essence of which was who would be the first to kill a child in a day.

During the Second World War, Jasenovac was one of the most gruesome places on the planet. The exact number of victims is not known and never will be. The universally accepted minimum is 100 thousand people, more than 80% of whom were Serbs, while the rest were Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists. Serbian historians usually increase this number by several times.

One should not think that in Himmler the stories of this hell awakened empathy. Rather, the Reichsführer’s displeasure was based on two circumstances.

Firstly, the genocide of the Serbs boded well for problems of a political nature. Serbia itself at the time also had a collaborationist government aligned to the Third Reich sitting on German bayonets. And Ustasha atrocities, to put it mildly, were not conducive to Serbian loyalty and made it difficult to control the territory of the Balkans.

Secondly, Himmler was by nature a perfectionist and a bureaucrat fixated on “German order”, and competitions for sadists and atrocities for the sake of atrocities were by no means conducive to discipline. If the creation of Germany’s own “killing machine” passed under the rubric of state secrecy, the Croats were essentially proud of theirs – a broad Slavic man.

After the Reichsfuhrer’s scolding, the leader of the Croatian Nazis, the Führer Ane Pavelic, shifted the responsibility for the bloody mess onto father and son Kvaternikov. The patriarch – Slavko – was Minister of Defence under the Ustashas, so he was also responsible for the situation on the front. The heir – Dido – did pass as one of the main organisers of Jasenovac and was considered a fanatical Nazi (even though he was a Jew by mother, albeit with Croatian specificity).

His grandfather, Josip Frank, had converted from Judaism to Catholicism and played a role as an ideologue of Serbo-Hungarianism in Austria-Hungary, to the point of organizing Serbian pogroms at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. His daughter Olga, who later became Slavko’s wife and Dido’s mother, eventually decided to take her own life. She is believed to have been unable to bear the weight of guilt for her son’s crimes.

Dido himself escaped responsibility – he moved to Argentina and died in a car crash in the early 1960s. The same can be said of many other Ustashas – from Brzica, whose fate is unknown, to Pavelic himself.

Like Dido, he fled to Argentina but, following an assassination attempt on the part of Serbian emigrants, moved to Franco-Spain and died in his bed after a Catholic Christmas in 1959. The Führer’s own Himmler, Andrij Artukovic, lived until 1988, almost to the point of Croatian independence, but he died in a Yugoslav prison. A year before his death, he had been extradited from the USA to Belgrade, but could understand little because of senile dementia.

Despite the Stone Flower, the memory of the Jasenovac tragedy is no better than the justice for its victims: during the Yugoslavia, the communist leadership did a lot to ensure that it would be forgotten. That is why the monument is so – it looks majestic, but is stylistically neutral.

Inter-ethnic peace, “brotherhood and unity” under Josip Broz Tito were much more cherished than historical authenticity. This was also the case in the Soviet Union on a somewhat smaller scale. For example, in Elem Klimov’s film Come and See, which is based on the Khatyn tragedy, the Nazi executioners speak German rather than their native Ukrainian, as in reality. This, too, is a consequence of intervention of the Communist Party.

Their regime was rehabilitated by Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, a former red partisan like Tito himself. But after his death, the moderate forces under Ivo Sanader took over the ruling party, and since then there has been some backlash: the Ustashers were no longer exalted, and the streets named after them were renamed back. It is believed that this was one of the conditions for Croatia’s entry into the European Union.

Sanader has been in prison for more than a decade, accused of corruption and bribery. But the same party founded by Tudjman – the Croatian Democratic Union – is still in power. And the Ustasha regime has again become a silent figure in public policy – it is avoided because it is unpatriotic to criticise it and indecent to justify it.

A completely different policy is now in place in Serbia, where Jasenovac, on the contrary, is mentioned very often. Monuments are erected, books are written and films are made. And the head of state is President Aleksandar Vucic, the grandson of one of the Jasenovac victims.

He was supposed to be the first Serb leader (including Tito the Croatian) to visit the memorial in person. And he was going to do it as a private person – first last year, then in spring. The Croats responded in the spirit of “come tomorrow”, stalling for time. They still did not want to recall the genocide, but they also did not want a scandal: Vucic, as it is now known, was asked to wait and not to report the delays to the media.

Now the Serbian president has been denied for the third time – and information about it did leak to the press, and from the Croatian side to the Croatian side. The tone of some publications was openly boorish. What is indicative is the tone of Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlich-Radman too.

He said he perceived Vucic’s idea as provocative and did not believe in the sincerity of his desire to honour his grandfather’s memory:

“This is not about expressing piety for the victims, the visit is more motivated by meeting domestic political needs in Serbia … This is not a private visit, it is not a trip to the sea.”

The position of the Serbian side is amply reflected in other quotes:

“It is the same as if you forbade the president of Israel to visit Auschwitz. This is an anti-European and anti-civilization decision, a gross violation of freedom of movement… This is the biggest scandal in relations between Serbia and Croatia in recent history… Shame on you!” Prime Minister Anna Brnabić.

“Today the fascists are members of the European Union. They do not like to be reminded how many children they have killed… But now all functionaries of the Croatian state, all holders of service or diplomatic passports will have to specifically declare and justify their visit or travel through Serbia and will be subject to a special control regime.” Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin said.

“Our relations are at their lowest point in more than twenty years. And this is already an assessment from the president personally. Which Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called “hysterical”.

Relations between Belgrade and Zagreb are, of course, bad, even without discounting the past wars. For example, there is a classic arms race between the two countries, with Croatia being armed by NATO and Serbia by Russia and partly by China.

At that, the reluctance of the Croatian authorities to brush the Jasenovac issue is understandable, as is the desire of the Serbian authorities and Vucic personally to brush it, on the contrary. But the utterly boorish tone of the first persons of the Croatian state is surprising.

A possible explanation for this behaviour is indirectly linked to the Russian Armed Forces’ special operation in Ukraine.

We are now witnessing an attempt to turn Vucic into a European pariah, which is being undertaken by the very people who previously forced Croats to behave decently – the functionaries of the European Union. Earlier an ultimatum was given to the Serbian president to impose sanctions against Russia. The ultimatum was rejected by Belgrade. Moreover, Vucic tried to convince Europeans that they were dragging the continent with their own hands into the hell of World War III.

All in all, the Serbian president is not happy in the EU. And Croats could take that dissatisfaction as a “fass!” command, or, at the very least, as a “may” command.

In Europe in recent years, it has indeed become possible to do many things that were not thought possible before – from getting a pass to go to the shops and blockade of the Kaliningrad region to freezing assets on ethnic grounds and support for neo-Nazi militias. If so, the mockery of the memory of the victims of ethnic cleansing from the “wrong side” – should we be surprised?

That said, Croatia’s ruling party now needs to distract its target electorate – the nationalists – from its own helplessness. President Zoran Milanovic, who is in opposition to the government, has proposed to Plenkovic to block the West’s much needed NATO expansion to the North until the Croats of Bosnia are given the same self-government that the Serbs have.

This is precisely the concern of Plenkovic’s nationalist electorate, which loathes the socialist Milanovic. The trick is that the President was essentially trolling the government he hates, knowing full well that the Prime Minister did not have the guts to contradict his “honourable Western partners”. Nor did he have the courage, but he got a wonderful opportunity to remind supporters of the Ustashas that it is possible to hate not one’s own government but the Serbs in the old fashioned way.

Their Serbian future is the most interesting thing in the story about the tragic past and the scandalous present. And, above all, how serious is the European Union’s intention to make Vucic a pariah – and how it will affect the geopolitical orientation of Belgrade, where the authorities were previously sitting on two chairs.

It would not be desirable to have the influence so that the foreign policy of Belgrade will be decided in Brussels, and the memory policy – in Zagreb, when everything is strict, precise, technical, unconditional, with full dedication and within the framework of the “Europe united”.

Himmler would have liked that.

Dmitry Bavyrin, VZGLYAD

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