CHRONICLES ONLINE, Friday, April 21, 2000
The Real Genocide in Yugoslavia

"Independent" Croatia of 1941 Revisited

by Srdja Trifkovic

"The omission of Croatia from the conventional Holocaust studies is like a book whose first chapter is torn out."

Jonathan Steinberg, Walter H. Annenberg professor of modern European history at Penn State, formerly of Trinity Hall Cambridge


It is high time to start correcting the trend in Balkan studies that seeks not to understand events but to construct a propagandistic version of old Balkan flood feuds and current animosities. All history is in some measure contemporary history, but it must not be dominated by the great-power political preferences and dislikes of the day. It is in that spirit, and armed with primary German and Italian sources, that we revisit the unpleasant issue of who did what to whom in the former Yugoslavia during World War II. The truth does exist, only lies need to be invented.

Yugoslavia was the product of the inherently unstable European system of 1919. Previous periods of relatively stable peace in Europe, such as between 1815 and 1914, bore witness to the effectiveness of a combination of physical and moral restraints, but the Versailles system of 1919 possessed neither pillar of stability. The South Slav state was the embodiment of a 19th century dream that fitted uneasily into the realities of the 20th century Europe.

Of the five pre-1914 powers Russia was bolshevized, Austria-Hungary had disintegrated, Germany was humiliated and without a stake in the new order. The only "European power" left was France, but the French, bled white in the trenches, lacked the means and the will to be the arbiter of Europe. It was the inherent instability of this Pax Gallica that created some maneuvering space for an array of European malcontents to seek a place for themselves.

Mussolini's Italy joined those malcontents after his political triumph in 1922, chiefly because Dalmatia had gone to the newly created Yugoslavia. The circumstances that turned Italy from an Entente victor into a revanchist power ultimately ensured the survival - however precarious - of the Croatian separatist movement devoted to terrorism and violence. The Ustasha ("insurgent") movement, founded in 1929, was an anti-Serb and anti-Yugoslav fit of rage rather than a coherent elaboration of the Croat national identity and "national mission." Its roots went back to the strain in its tradition that insisted on the notional continuity of Croatia's statehood since time immemorial, its "rights of state." Far from respecting the legalistic overtones of such notions, however, the Ustashas' modus operandi and outlook were "Balkan" rather than "European." They resembled the Black Hand conspirators in Serbia before 1903, the pro-Bulgarian terrorists (VMRO) in Macedonia, and other Balkan nationalist conspiracies.

The Ustasha phenomenon was the product of two sets of circumstances in the inter-war period. One was the complex internal and international situation of Yugoslavia; the other was the rise of fascism in Europe. The collapse of the parliamentary system in Yugoslavia (1929), which proved to be perennially ridden by crises springing from the unresolved Croat problem, coincided with the period of growing political radicalism throughout the continent and the beginning of a worldwide economic crisis that provided an impetus to extremism. Each of those developments was a necessary precondition, but neither was by itself sufficient, for the rise of a Croat separatist movement that was at the same time overtly authoritarian, racist, and violent.

Although ideology was secondary to the leader of the Ustashas, Zagreb lawyer Ante Pavelic and his followers, the evolution of their movement places it into the group of phenomena known as "native fascism" of Central-Eastern Europe. The salient features of such movements - in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Croatia - was their celebration of the glorious past of a particular nation, based on its alleged particular qualities and "divine mission." There was also the virulent opposition to Marxism and the reliance on the dynamism of violence, as well as the demonization of the favorite enemy group. But while fascism was a dynamic movement, the Ustashas were essentially static. They aimed for a "stable" situation: the creation of a nationally homogeneous Croat state. "Ideology" was subservient to nationalist obsessions.

What really set the Ustashas apart was the degree to which their anti-Serb animosity was the key ingredient of their self-perception, of their very "Croatness." It was their readiness to compromise even fundamental national interests in pursuit not of real independence, but of the separation from "the Serbs," that set the Ustashas completely apart from the mainstream Croatian body politic. Pre-1941 Croat political leaders, such as Stjepan Radic and Vladko Macek, had demanded all kinds of concessions from Belgrade - but nevertheless they sought reconciliation, and a place for Croatia within the Yugoslav framework, whenever they concluded that external dangers could leave Croatia vulnerable if it was on its own. They accepted the Yugoslav solution not out of conviction, but as the least of all evils. This is evidenced by the Serb-Croat Sporazum ("Agreement") of August 26, 1939, which created an autonomous Croatia that was self-governing except in defense and foreign affairs.

The Ustashas, by contrast, postulated a demonic concept of the Serb as the cornerstone of their entire outlook, and above all of their very Croatness. This made any compromise impossible by definition and every alternative possible - including limited sovereignty under Mussolini's tutelage, and amputation of territory to Italy. It was on that basis that Pavelic was offered a haven in Italy. He was "our Balkan pawn," in Mussolini's own words. Any thought of independent action was precluded, especially after Pavelic's contribution to the assassination of King Alexander in Marseilles in 1934 that embarrassed Rome. In the aftermath of the King's death Mussolini was forced to conclude that the foundations of the Yugoslav state were more solid than he had supposed. His return to a conciliatory approach to Belgrade was also linked to the rise of Hitler, whom Mussolini initially regarded as a menace to Italy's position in the Danubian basin. His misgivings of Germany's designs notwithstanding, he was soon cajoled into an alliance with the Reich by the Ethiopian crisis.


German victories in the spring of 1940 threw Mussolini off his balance and reactivated the notion of a "reckoning" with Yugoslavia. His change of posture led him to reactivate the Ustasha organization in Italy. The result was a remarkable meeting between Mussolini's Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano and Pavelic in January 1940, at which Pavelic's earlier promise of Dalmatia to Italy was given a specific form. This was to be the price of Italian support should circumstances make Yugoslavia's survival unlikely. To both sides it must have been clear that there was no natural proximity between Croat chauvinism and Italian expansionism: Mussolini needed Pavelic to deliver what no truly patriotic Croat could ever deliver.

After a period of arduous negotiations with the Germans during the winter of 1940-41, whose demands kept escalating, Yugoslavia's Prince-Regent Paul Karadjordjevic was forced to accept the Tripartite Pact, albeit with several provisos which were supposed to guard Yugoslavia's independence. But this exercise in pragmatism, however understandable under the circumstances, was too much to stomach for an easily irritable Serbian public. The military coup in Belgrade of 27 March 1941 was the culmination of an irrational, self-destructive streak in the Serb psyche, and its bitter fruits are felt to this very day.

Hitler decided to attack Yugoslavia as soon as he heard of the coup. He promised territories to Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and to Croatia an "autonomy in close liaison with Hungary." He did not contemplate a fully independent Croatia at first, and only reluctantly accepted Pavelic's Ustashas as Mussolini's preferred appointees for the Axis-sponsored government of Croatia. The "Independent State of Croatia" (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, hereafter NDH) was the product of an uneasy Italo-German compromise that both Axis partners would soon regret.

The cause of the quick defeat of Yugoslavia in April 1941 was the overwhelming military-strategic superiority of the Reich. But even had the country been united and politically consolidated, the defense would have been hopeless. In early 1941 there had been no military, economic, geo-strategic, political, or psychological foundations for a sustained defense of the Yugoslav state. The Ustasha activity was a peripheral symptom, rather than a cause, of the internal divisions that turned military defeat into an overall collapse.

Ante Pavelic lacked the charismatic personality of a Hitler or a Mussolini, but after his return to Zagreb under the mantle of the victorious Axis forces he emerged as the undisputed leader of Croatia. With a nucleus of two hundred followers returning with him from Italy, and maybe five times as many "sworn" members within the country, he proceeded to equate "Croat" and "Ustasha" in all spheres, and to promote his own variety of the Fuehrerprinzip. His glorification of peasant "natural" justice and values, rooted in the Dinaric rocky wasteland of the Dalmatian hinterland, produced a cult of unbridled aggressiveness and pure hatred. By the early summer of 1941 the Ustashas' mix of Nazi brutality, fascist irrationality and oriental despotism quickly turned the new state into a pandemonium of anarchy and genocide. The most notorious manifestation of this was Pavelic's systematic and premeditated attempted genocide of the large Serb population within the NDH -over two million people - as well as that of Jews, Gypsies, and all real or perceived enemies of the regime.

The system of occupation in the former Yugoslavia, hastily created in April 1941 and presumably temporary in nature, was weakened from the outset by intra-Axis differences and by the consequences of their decision to install the Ustashas in power. In addition Hitler wanted to impose a Carthaginian peace on the Serbs: he singled them out for special punishment after the coup of 27 March 1941, but without allocating sufficient resources to the maintenance of such a harsh order. The apparent willingness of Mussolini's reluctant clients, the Ustashas, to get drawn closer to Berlin was a poor substitute for the inherent instability of the area the Wehrmacht was preparing to leave for the East.


Pavelic had his first meeting with Hitler on 6 June 1941.[1] The key part of the conversation concerned national policy. Hitler presented plans to transfer Serbs from the NDH to Serbia, and Slovenes from the Reich into Croatia, and described them as a "momentarily painful" operation that was nevertheless preferable to "permanent suffering." Then he added the key sentence: "After all, if the Croat state wishes to be strong, a nationally intolerant policy must be pursued for fifty years, because too much tolerance on such issues can only do harm." With this statement Hitler explicitly endorsed the mass persecution of the Serb minority in the NDH that had already started, but was yet to reach its climax in subsequent months. Hitler's encouragement to Pavelic to pursue "intolerance" reflected his intention to encourage Serb-Croat conflict as "the guarantee of a permanent schism between nations which had been within one state until now." Bringing the formula of divide et impera to its final conclusions, Hitler had let the Italians make enemies of Croats; and he was now going to let the Croats make enemies of Serbs. In the event, both Mussolini and Pavelic eagerly complied.

Hitler's advocacy of "fifty years of intolerance" did not make any difference to the thousands of Serbs already slaughtered in the NDH before 6 June. The first recorded mass murder of Serbs occurred in the city of Bjelovar, 50 miles north of Zagreb, on the night of 27-28 April 1941, when some 180 unarmed civilians of all ages were shot. Such incidents were repeated in different areas throughout May.[2] But it is inconceivable that the wave of bloody terror which engulfed the Ustasha state in the summer of 1941 would have been possible had Hitler wanted to put a stop to it. His encouragement to Pavelic had major long-term impact not because it induced the Poglavnik to do something he had not intended to do in any event, but because it gave him carte blanche to go all the way in his intentions. In Berchtesgaden Hitler made Pavelic feel authorized to proceed with his attempted genocide of the Serb population.[3]

As early as 17 April Pavelic enacted a fiat called The Law on the Protection of the People and the State. It was an all-embracing piece of pseudo-legislation that literally made it possible to kill anyone the Ustashas wanted killed, and to do so "legally." Capital punishment was made mandatory for all those who "offended the honor and vital interests of the Croat people" and who "in whatever way," even if only "by attempt," threatened the NDH. There was no appeal, and each sentence had to be carried out within two hours. The "law," furthermore, had retroactive powers, so that a person could be found guilty of "offending" the state even before it came into being. "Special popular courts" and mobile court-martials were immediately established. The following day, April 18, 1941 the first racial law, on "the Aryanization of Jewish property," was enacted. It enabled the regime to expropriate Jewish businesses and real estate, and distribute the spoils among its followers. Already in April 1941 Serbs were ordered to wear blue sleeve bands with the letter "P" (Pravoslavni, Orthodox), and Jews the Star of David and the letter "Z" (Zidov, Jew). The omission of Croatia from the conventional Holocaust studies, according to the eminent Holocaust historian Jonathan Steinberg, "is like a book whose first chapter is torn out.


If the phenomenon known as the Holocaust is defined as the attempted mass murder of an entire population, then it was truly launched in Croatia and Bosnia in the spring of 1941 under the Ustasha regime. Jonathan Steinberg put it succinctly: "The omission of Croatia from the conventional Holocaust studies is like a book whose first chapter is torn out."

In late spring of 1941 dozens of towns and villages throughout the NDH were subjected to terrorist operations in which Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were either murdered on the spot or led away to concentration camps. By the beginning of July tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly Serbs, already were killed; Italian sources estimated 350,000 victims by the end of July 1941.[4] The regime introduced the methods of genocidal terror and extermination that were only later perfected by the SS Einsatzgruppen.[5] This was not incidental. It reflected a fundamental similarity between the Croat regime and the Nazis, their essential nihilism. Just as the military goals of Barbarossa were ultimately incidental to the fundamental objective of killing Jews and enslaving Slavs, so the formal enlistment of Croatia into the ranks of Axis-sponsored New Europe was incidental to the Ustashas' central purpose of eliminating Serbs.

The twentieth century has witnessed a departure in the conduct of European states away from the concept of transcendent morality that provided a salutary restraint on their behavior before 1914. The rise of totalitarian ideologies marked the end of an era that held that physical elimination of an adversary is not a legitimate way of resolving the conflict. The gradual decline and ultimate collapse of the religious impulse among Europeans, from the Atlantic to the Urals, created a gaping hole that was filled by ideologies uninhibited by religious restraints and motivated by the will to power. But until Lenin it was not mere "expediency" which had prevented states from resorting to mass extermination as a means to some end. The limitations on the behavior of states derived from an absolute moral principle, which implicitly subordinated perceived national interest to the continued membership of an international community.

It has been argued that the final break came, during World War II, only after Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union. From September 1939 until June 1941, according to this view, Germany was waging a "normal European war" (eur
opäisches Normalkrieg) against Britain and France that only turned nasty with the Barbarossa. This view overlooks the fact that well before the first German soldier stepped on Russian soil Croatia indicated the shape of things to come in the New Europe. It was the first to abandon the last remnants of traditional restraints in favor of an atavistic call of the blood and soil, and unleash uninhibited hatred. The most salient feature of Ustasha "ideology" and state was the morbid hatred of the Serb. To a Nazi, the Jew was a necessary political, social and psychological concept. To an Ustasha Croat, the Serb was much more: an integral part of his Croatness. Without him it could not be defined, let alone practiced.

The method of killing was savage: a slit throat, or a blow with a heavy club in the back of the head, were the most common. Many Serbs were taken to one of the newly established extermination camps (of which Jasenovac was only the most prominent) and killed there, or converted to Roman Catholicism by the local Franciscan friar, or packed off to Serbia. Croatia and Bosnia became, according to the Croatian historian Antun Miletic, "a land of concentration camps." From April to August 1941, a dozen collection camps were established to handle huge numbers of deportees. Some of them - Jadovno and Djakovo, for example - were death camps in their own right. Most inmates were moved on for extermination to the main camp system at Jasenovac, which became central to Croatia's final solution of the Serb and Jewish "problem."

In the many speeches by Ustasha functionaries and published propaganda articles throughout May and June 1941, preparing the ground for the pogrom, the Serbs were depicted as inferior and alien people who had come to Croatia uninvited and had always been its enemies. In their public statements Pavelic's luminaries left no doubt what was in store for the Serbs. "This land can only be Croat land and there is no method we would hesitate to apply in order to make it truly Croat and to cleanse it of all Serbs."[6] "Destroy them wherever you see them, and the blessing of the Poglavnik and myself are guaranteed."[7] In a well-publicized speech he gave in Gospic on 22 July 1941 Mile Budak, Pavelic's minister of education, stated: "For the rest - Serbs, Jews and Gypsies - we have three million bullets. We shall kill one third of all Serbs. We shall deport another third, and the rest of them will be forced to become Roman Catholic."

The application of this program meant - in the words of the leading German historian Ernest Nolte - that "Croatia became during the war a giant slaughterhouse." In the tradition of "the Father of the Nation," Ante Starcevic, even the Serbs' nationality was denied, and the term "Vlachs" or "Greek-Easterners" applied instead. And yet, paradoxically, they were also depicted as apostates and traitors who had betrayed "their country" (Croatia) to alien, i.e. Serbian interests. The implication was that they were really Croats who had converted to Orthodoxy and thus accepted the Serb name by default. In either case, Serb identity was criminalized.


The religious component of the pogrom cannot be too strongly stated. It is remarkable that the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia, far from dissociating itself from the atrocities or condemning them, became a de facto accomplice in Ustasha crimes. There was some continuity in this posture. The Croatian clergy, allied with the Hapsburg cause until 1918, experienced the creation of Yugoslavia as an unwelcome and temporary episode in the long-term struggle for the souls and territories of the Orthodox "schismatics" to the east. When the anti-Serb and anti-Jewish racial laws of April and May 1941 were enacted the official Catholic press in Croatia welcomed them as vital for "the survival and development of the Croatian nation... the protection of our honor and blood... the survival and development of the Croatian nation. With it the Poglavnik wants to prevent the dangerous worm from eating away at the tree of our Croatian national life."[8]

On the subject of those laws the Archbishop of Sarajevo Ivan Saric declared that "there exists limits to love." He ridiculed those who did not have the stomach for genocide, declaring it "stupid and unworthy of Christ's disciples to think that the struggle against evil could be waged in a noble way and with gloves on."[9] The Bishops of Banja Luka and Djakovo made public statements in the same vein. The leading NDH racial "theorist" was a Roman Catholic clergyman, Dr. Ivo Guberina, whose writings sought to reconcile religious "purification" with "racial hygiene."He readily acceded that Croatia had to be "cleansed of foreign elements" by means of physical elimination. His teachings were endorsed by the chairman of Ustasha Central Propaganda Office, also a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Grga Peinovic. Fr. Peric of the Gorica monastery participated in the massacre of 5,600 Serbs in Livno. Some members of Catholic clergy in Croatia allowed themselves to be metamorphosed - according to Carlo Falconi - "into thorough going butcher-leaders."[10] The military exploits of some, such as Fr. Ilija Tomas of Klepac, were hailed in the Croatian press.[11]

While in Germany the "final solution" was mainly carried out far away in the East, at first by a small number of special Einsatzgruppen, Ustasha terror was open, explicit. It was calculated to involve as many Croats and Muslims civilians as possible, through the distribution of Serb land and property. By making their terror public in wide areas outside Zagreb, and especially in the Dinaric regions, the Ustashas also sought to instill such fear among the remaining Serb population that their flight to Serbia or conversion to Catholicism would be facilitated. The Croatian Catholic press gloated over what was in store for the "schismatics":

Now God has decided to use other means. He will set up missions: European missions, world missions. They will be upheld not by priests, but by army commanders, led by Hitler. The sermons will be heard with the help of cannons, tanks and bombers. The language of these sermons will be international.[12]


Far from contributing to the Axis war effort, the terror unleashed by the Ustasha regime helped the enemies of both the NDH and the Third Reich. This disregard for their own survival indicated that the Ustasha and Nazi leaders considered genocide a fundamental duty that even transcended the importance of victory in war. Such fundamentalist commitment to genocide as a good-in-itself distinguishes them from other despotic regimes in history.

A distinction between Ustasha and Nazi terror should nevertheless be made: the latter adopted the "style" of a developed industrial state (complex equipment, intricate administrative network), while Ustasha terror was "primitive" and "traditional." Nazi terror included plans, orders, reports, lists of victims, statistics; Ustasha orders were mostly oral and the apparatus of terror functioned in an arbitrary manner and with a random selection of targets and methods of killing. Nazi terror was for most part depersonalized and bureaucratic, it was cold, abstract, objective - just like Nazi hatred; the Ustashas were direct, personal and "warm." Their terror was often directed against their first neighbors; it was passionate and subjective. Nazi terror (with its somberness, military discipline, bureaucratic pedantry etc) was "puritanical," while the Ustashas indulged literally in orgies of violence. Finally, Nazi terror was "modern" in its ideology and technology; the Ustashas were just terrorists, and their "fascism" undeveloped.

Some Ustasha leaders freely acknowledged their order of priorities. In late 1942, shortly before he was removed from his post as the head of Ravsigur, Eugen-Dido Kvaternik told his old classmate Branko Peselj that he allowed for the possibility that Germany could lose the war and the NDH could cease to exist. However, he added, "regardless of the outcome of the war there will be no more Serbs in Croatia." This "reality of any post-war situation" would have to be taken into account by whoever turned out to be the victor.[13] The Ustasha terror was without precedent in the history of southeast Europe until that time; it was also the first attempted total genocide in the Second World War.

One of the first reports on "the increasing anti-Serb terror by the Ustashas" reached Berlin on 2 July 1941. Edmund Veesenmayer, special representative of the German Foreign Ministry in Zagreb, stated that "authoritative representatives of the regime" looked on the Serbs in Croatia as a problem "which is under the exclusive competence of Ustasha police and court-martials."[14] But the Wehrmacht plenipotentiary representative in Zagreb, General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, was the first high-ranking German official in Croatia who became convinced that Pavelic wanted to kill or otherwise eliminate all Serbs.

From his earliest days in Zagreb Glaise started establishing an efficient and reliable intelligence network. It provided him with detailed information on Ustasha atrocities. Glaise's chief information gatherer was Captain Haeffner, his assistant, who had lived in Zagreb for many years, spoke the language, and had good contacts throughout Croatia. Haeffner's reports contained graphic eyewitness accounts of Ustasha slaughters. According to his pedantic computations, the number of Serbs "who have fallen as victims of animal instincts fanned by Ustasha leaders" exceeded 200,000 by the beginning of August 1941. As the terror grew, so did Haeffner's disdain for Pavelic. He wrote of "the strong inferiority complex of Ustasha leaders and their flock vis-a-vis the Serbs, who are more numerous and superior in terms of life energy."

Glaise collected all such reports in a separate file and missed no opportunity to raise the issue of atrocities with Pavelic and other NDH officials. On one such occasion he stated to his hosts that "the Croat revolution was by far the bloodiest and most awful among all I have seen first hand or from afar in Europe since 1917" and warned that not only Serbs, but also Croats did not feel secure any longer.[15] Typically he was given promises that were never to be carried out.[16] As an essentially decent officer of the old Austrian school, Glaise was horrified with what was going on. He was additionally alarmed when he realized that many people blamed the Germans for Ustasha crimes. In his report dated 18 July 1941 Haeffner warned Glaise that

Croats no longer think that German troops are present merely to provide peace and security, but that they are here to support the Ustasha regime [...] The Ustashas promote the impression that they act not only in agreement with German instances, but actually on their orders. [...] There is here today a deep mistrust of Germany, because it is supporting a regime that has no moral or political right to exist, which is regarded as the greatest calamity that could have happened to the Croat people. That regime is based entirely on the recognition by the Axis powers, it has no popular roots, and depends on the bayonets of robbers who do more evil in a day than the Serbian regime had done in twenty years.[17]

Heribert Troll-Obergfell, a former Austrian diplomat and counselor at the German legation in Zagreb, also reported to his ministry about anti-Serb terror. He accurately predicted that Ustasha crimes were creating "an explosive situation wherever Serbs lived" - a situation that could soon erupt into hotbeds of unrest which would be hard to quell.[18] On the same day (10 July 1941) Glaise sent his report to the OKW:

Our troops have to be mute witnesses of such events; it does not reflect well on their otherwise high reputation... I am frequently told that German occupation troops would finally have to intervene against Ustasha crimes. This may happen eventually. Right now, with the available forces, I could not ask for such action... Ad hoc intervention in individual cases could make the German Army look responsible for countless crimes which it could not prevent in the past.[19]

These two reports, together with Veesenmayer's report of 2 July, were the first official information to reach Berlin about the seriousness of Ustasha crimes. Requests for intervention to stop Ustasha massacres soon started pouring in from different German quarters: from the Military Commander South-East, General-Field Marshal Wilhelm List, as well as from the leaders of the Volksdeutsche in the NDH.[20] Until August 1941 such requests were regularly motivated by the desire to preserve the reputation of Germany, and avoid any suggestion that the atrocities were being German-inspired; by the fear that Ustasha crimes could cause instability and disorder; and by simple revulsion. But lower-ranking Germans' demands went unheeded in Zagreb: in the matter of his approach to "solving the Serb question" Pavelic displayed great determination to preserve his autonomy of action. He realized that he could afford to ignore such appeals for as long as there was no pressure from the top, from Berlin, to do otherwise.


In the first weeks after the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Serb population in the NDH displayed passivity and mute acceptance of the new order. Some perceived the new state, fatalistically, as a re-enactment of Austria-Hungary, which - while certainly not loved - was well respected. As they were to learn to their peril, in the NDH there was no rational correlation between a Serb's thoughts or deeds, and the state's attitude to him:

The Ustashas refused to acknowledge that having a Serbian national consciousness was not a political act or something one [did not] intentionally choose. This admission would have made their anti-Serbian policies look like a campaign against innocent people. They therefore insisted that being a Serb was in itself a political act and that those who 'wanted to be Serbs' and who 'insisted on being Serbs' could be justly punlished for that.[21]

Even when the bloodbath began in earnest, after the departure of German units for Russia, many Serbs were too dumbfounded to believe what was happening. Many were taken aback by the callous attitude of their Catholic and Muslim neighbors, with whom - so they imagined - they had no quarrel. By openly going beyond the pale the Ustashas also expected to create the feeling of irreversibility in Serb-Croat relations, which would make any notion of a revived Yugoslavia unthinkable.

This sense of irreversibility extended to Allied quarters. President Roosevelt expressed puzzlement how, after such experiences, the Serbs could ever be expected to live in the future in the same state with the Croats. When British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden visited the White House in March 1943 he was presented with Roosevelt's "oft-repeated opinion" that the Croats should be placed under some kind of "international trusteeship." The President expressed similar views to Secretary of State Hull in early October 1943 on the eve of Hull's departure for Moscow, where he was to attend the Foreign Ministers Conference.[22]

The Ustasha anti-Serb terror profoundly influenced all facets of life in the NDH. This "domestic" issue affected its foreign relations too, by fanning Serb uprisings - which turned into a major guerrilla war - and thus drawing Germany and Italy ever deeper into a tangled web of military and political involvement in the Balkans. It could be argued that the Serb uprising would have occurred even without the massacres; uprisings occurred in the summer of 1941 in both Serbia and Montenegro. By the end of 1941, however, both had been pacified and remained so - in the case of Serbia - for almost three years. No such pacification could be effected in the NDH, due to the constant threat of massacres. German military officials on the ground realized that "a terrible military venture of exterminating the Serbian Orthodox population had thrown the young country into a predestined civil war."[23]

The Ustashas' attempt to exterminate the Serbian peasant and small town establishment in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina - with teachers, priests, merchants and educated people always the first target - created a political vacuum. This opened the way for the Communists to gain an early foothold, and eventually grow into the strongest guerrilla army in Nazi-occupied Europe. But in the upheaval that followed the first wave of pogroms there was no ideological background to Serb resistance, which was in the early phase a struggle to preserve bare life. This was to change soon, however. The attack on the Soviet Union, on 22 June 1941, suddenly enabled the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) to present itself as a legitimate national force, able and willing to appeal to the latent Russophile sentiment of the Serbs. Its invoking the image of "Mother Russia" was a cynical ploy, of course, but it worked wonders for the small band of Party cadres hard pressed to deliver a convincing pitch to their would-be recruits.

In the months of June, July and August 1941 the Serbs in the NDH desperately looked east for deliverance. Atavistic trust in "Mother Russia" transcended all ideological reservations and offered a ray of hope in the veritable nightmare of Pavelic's Endloesung. In the initial stage the uprising was a purely Serb affair in which the CPY sought to exploit for its revolutionary ends the Calvary of the Serb population of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, by imposing itself on the leaderless peasantry and manipulating it. The Ustasha atrocities were formally condemned by the Party, but only for tactical reasons. Its top brass knew better, and some of Tito's henchmen cynically observed that the Ustashas had done the job for the Communists by liquidating the local Serbian establishment. Pavelic's Einsatzgruppen were unwittingly clearing the ground for the agents of the Comintern.

Left without traditional leaders, and long before 1941 devoid of a coherent national program - let alone a strategy for its fulfillment - the Serbs were going to pay an exorbitant price for their own incoherence. Within the insurgent movement the principle of "revolutionary realism" of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia inevitably clashed with the "existential realism" of the "nationalists," leading to a Serb-Serb civil war within the wider anti-German and anti-Ustasha struggle. By the end of 1941 various local non-Communist resistance groups - that came to be collectively known as Cetniks - realized that co-existence with the Communists was no longer possible, since it demanded endless Serb sacrifices on behalf of distant masters and revolutionary objectives. The ensuing three-cornered civil war rounded up the truly Hobbesian drama that had no precedent even in the collective tragedy of Europe in 1941.


Italian military commanders in the NDH were aware of the tension between different nationalities in the area well before the flare-up of insurrection. In early May deputations of Muslims from western Bosnia were already asking the Italians to extend their occupation zone, and Serb community leaders made similar approaches to the Sassari division.[24] As the Ustasha terror flared, resulting in the Serb uprising, the Italians faced a dilemma. They could either help their Croat "allies," or act in some other way to restore order.

In some areas, notably eastern Herzegovina, from very early days armed Serb groups made it clear to the Italians that they did not have a quarrel with them but only with the Ustashas. On several occasions in June 1941 Serb village heads approached Italian garrisons to request food and protection.[25] As Italian units moved into the area of unrest to secure the lines of communication between Dubrovnik and its hinterland they encountered no opposition from the insurgents. Both sides, Serb insurgents and Italian military commanders, soon realized that they had a common interest: restoration of order and peace. If this objective demanded the removal of the cause of unrest - the Ustasha armed bands and Pavelic's administration - the Italians had no qualms about doing so. With considerable political and diplomatic skill Italian commanders proceeded to achieve their primary objective, pacification. General Dalmazzo, the commander of the Sixth Army Corps in the region of Dubrovnik (which included the rebellious eastern Herzegovina), concluded that the Ustashas and local pro-Ustasha Muslims were guilty of causing the uprising. He supplied the Second Army headquarters with detailed reports to that effect, and was given a free hand in restoring order.[26] The Italians promptly disarmed the remaining Ustashas in Trebinje, and armed Serb rebels entered the city on 1 August 1941.[27]

While Glaise and other Wehrmacht commanders were agonizing over the dilemma posed by the Ustasha-instigated uprising, worrying about the "reputation of the German Army" and its inability to prevent the massacres, Italian officers enjoyed much greater autonomy of action in matters political. By being conciliatory with non-Communist Serb insurgents, the Italians made it more difficult for CPY agitators to advocate total war. The disdain and contempt of Italian officers and common soldiers for the Ustashas turned, by the late summer 1941, into an articulate anti-Ustasha stand of the Italian Army establishment as a whole. The Commander of the Italian Sasari division, for instance, reported to his superiors:

The horrors that the Ustashi have committed over the Serbian small girls is beyond all words. There are hundreds of photographs confirming these deeds because those of them who have survived the torture: bayonet stabs, pulling of tongues and teeth, nails and breast tips - all this after they were raped. Survivors were taken in by our officers and transported to Italian hospitals where these documents and facts were gathered.[28]

Italian generals' autonomy of action was indicative of the relative independence of the Italian army from Fascist ideology and politics. Mussolini had never brought his officer corps to heel as thoroughly as Hitler had done in the late 1930s. Much more than its German counterpart, the Italian army was a political factor in its own right, and on the issue of Croatia it acted as an autonomous pressure group with considerable decision-making power.


By the late summer of 1941 German officials on the ground were increasingly concerned by the spread of insurgency in the NDH. They realized that without some pressure from Berlin Pavelic's regime would not change its tactics. On 10 August 1941 Troll-Obergfell reported that

Croatians will say they are repelling rebels, but contrary to Croatian assertions that the fault for unrest lies exclusively with the Serbs, German military commands and sober Croatian circles are of the opinion that the uprising was essentially caused by the wild and bloody Ustasha conduct.[29]

The Nazi Party foreign arm (Auslandsorganisation) chief in the NDH, Rudolf Epting, shared this view, and in a later report to Hitler he unambiguously named the Ustashas the main culprits.[30] This was also the opinion of Walter Schellenberg of the Reich Security Service (RSHA) foreign department.[31] The RSHA had an extensive network in the NDH and was particularly thorough in its reports of Ustasha atrocities and the effect they had on the unrest. Its agents sent literally hundreds of such reports, on the basis of which the Service reached its considered opinion that the Ustashas bore the brunt of blame for the spread of Partisan movement in the NDH.

The same overall view was presented to the Reichsfuehrer SS, Heinrich Himmler, on 17 February 1942 in a detailed Gestapo report. The conclusion of this long document was explicit:

Increased activity of the bands is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustasha units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustashas committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.[32]

German foreign ministry plenipotentiary representative in Belgrade Felix Benzler joined the chorus of disapproval by reporting to Ribbentrop:

From the founding [of the NDH] until now the persecution of Serbs has not stopped, and even cautious estimates indicate that at least several hundred thousand people have been killed. The irresponsible elements have committed such atrocities that could be expected only from a rabid Bolshevik horde.[33]

The result was that, by early 1942, the occupation system established in Yugoslavia was in tatters. Most of the NDH was in a state of chaos, with the effective Ustasha authority reduced to less than half its territory. German attempts to devise a common military strategy had failed, owing to Italian unwillingness to fight a war on German terms for the sake of the Ustashas who had caused trouble in the first place.

From April 1941 until the end of the war the fanatically pro-Ustasha German minister in Zagreb, Siegfried Kasche, was alone in advocating support for the regime. He was opposed by a wide array of German generals as well as Himmler's SS and other representatives of the Nazi state, but he knew that Hitler ultimately approved of what Pavelic was doing. This dual-track policy resulted in curious situations: Pavelic's nominal sovereignty was reiterated in Berlin, but at the same time the Wehrmacht had operational and logistic control over his armed forces, and civilian authority in the zones of operations.

Hitler's unwillingness to get rid of Pavelic was initially inspired by the desire to maintain an institutionalized chaos, which the Ustashas duly provided. Later on, however, there was no alternative to Pavelic: once it became clear that Germany would lose the war, no replacement could be found. Sensing this the Ustashas, in turn, escalated their anti-Serb zeal in the last phase of the war, showing that they were fighting an anti-Serb, rather than a pro-German war.

The NDH thus lingered on after Italy's capitulation, fatally dependent for its survival on the dwindling fortunes of the Third Reich. It was as marginal to the war's outcome as Tiso's Slovakia or Szalasi's Hungary. Even its end was humiliating: the British refused to accept surrender of the NDH armed forces in Carinthia (13 May 1945) and turned them back to Tito. In London and in Washington it was a matter of common knowledge "of what was happening to the Serbs in territory under Ustasha control."[34]


The Ustasha experience added to the European scene a distinctly pre-modern rendering on the theme of chauvinism, despotism, terrorism, and crude "native Fascism" sui generis. The numbers are important in order to grasp the magnitude of that contribution. German contemporaries stated that close to one third of all Serbs under Ustasha rule were killed: "The Serbs have become slaughterhouse material... from the total of two million Orthodox population, almost 600,000 were murdered."[35] The Simon Wiesenthal Center has reached the same number for Serbs, 30,000 for Jews (75-80%), and 29,000 for Gypsies (97%). Encyclopedia of the Holocaust states that "over half a million [Serbs] were murdered, about a quarter of a million were expelled from the country, and another quarter of a million were forced to convert to Catholicism." One way or another about one half of all Serbs in the NDH were subjected to the Ustasha dictum of "kill a third, expel a third, convert a third."[36]

Croat nationalism, small, insecure, underdeveloped linguistically and ideologically, was thus brought to paroxysm by Pavelic's Ustasha movement, and turned into a caricature of itself. But the fact that the Ustasha legacy is freely acknowledged as a constitutive pillar of today's "democratic" and utterly Serbenfrei Croatia is interesting, and illustrative of the situational morality that guides our political leaders. The benevolent tolerance by "the West" of that living legacy on its fringes reflects the ascent of higher cynicism under the guise of "Human Rights." Not all Balkan genocides are the same, and the ones that did not happen - in Bosnia in 1992-1995, or in Kosovo in 1999 - are more equal than others. Pavelic and Tudjman must be having a good posthumous laugh. To paraphrase a contemporary German historian's warning about another ghost from Europe's not too distant past, "We are far from done with the Ustashas" (originally Wir sind mit Hitler noch lange nicht fertig).

There are people in the West who would like to forget, or even deny, the Croatian Holocaust, to gloss over its victims, and to demonize the victims' descendants as the devils-incarnate of our own time. This approach is not only immoral; it is also foolish. Sins unatoned have the nasty habit of coming back to haunt the culprits, and the Goetterdaemmerung of our spiritually arid, morally bankrupt, and demographically moribund civilization may come even before the last Serb disappears from the face of the Earth.


[1] DGFP, D, 12, Minutes of Hitler's talks with Pavelic, 6 June 1941.

[2] See Fikreta Jelic-Butic: HSS. Zagreb 1983, p. 47.

[3] Hory and Broszat, Der Kroatische Ustascha-Staat, 1941-1945. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1964, p. 15.

[4] On the role of the Vatican in Croatia see Carlo Falconi. The Silence of Pius XII. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970. He argues that by July 1941 350,000 people had been killed (p. 291).

[5] Jonathan Steinberg, "The Roman Catholic Church and Genocide in Croatia, 1941-1945," unpublished essay to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, January 1992.

[6] From a speech by Pavelic's minister of justice Milovan Zanic, as reported by Novi list, Zagreb, 3 June 1941.

[7] A speech by the Ustasha commander in Banja Luka Viktor Gutic quoted by "Hrvatski Narod."

[8] Hrvatska Straza, May 11, 1941

[9] Falconi, op. cit. pp. 272-273.

[10] Ibid., p. 298.

[11] Hrvatski Narod, 25 July 1941.

[12] Katolicki Tjednik, Zagreb, 31 August 1941.

[13] Branko Peselj to the author, Washington D.C., 1988.

] PA, Büro Staatssekretär, Kroatien, Bd. 1, No. 290. Veesenmayer to the Foreign Ministry, 2 July 1941.

[15] BA/MAF, No. 207/41. Glaise's report to the OKW, 19 July 1941

[16] BA/MAF, No. 192/41. Glaise's telex to the OKW, 12 July 1941.

[17] Hä
ffner's report dated 18 July 1941, ibid. p. 113.

[18] PA, Büro Staatssekretär, Kroatien, Bd.1, No.307. Troll-Obergfell to the Ministry, 10 July 1941

[19] BA/MAF, No. 178/41 (Deutscher General). Glaise to OKW/Ausland, 10 July 1941.

[20] Gert Fricke, op. cit.
pp. 39-40.

[21] Aleksa Djilas, unpublished PhD thesis, p. 245.

[22] FRUS, 1943, vol. I, p. 543. Compare: Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History. New York, 1948, p. 711.

[23] Walter Gorlit. Der Zweite Weltkrieg 1939-1945. Stuttgart, 1952. Band 11, p. 125.

[24] T-821, roll 232, frame 6: 6th Corps Command to the Second Army Command, 10 May 1941; same roll and source, frames 8-9: 11 May 1941; same roll and source, frame 27: 17 May 1941.

[25] See e.g. three reports by the Sixth Corps to the Second Army Command: T-821, roll 232, frame 78 (31 May 1941); frame 116 (9 June 1941) and frame 120 (11 June 1941).

[26] T-821. roll 232, frame 163. Sixth Corps to the Second Army Command, 19 June 1941. Same roll, frame 279: Sixth Corps to the Second Army Command, 10 July 1941.

[27] There are numerous reports to that effect from the Sixth Corps to the Second Army Command, eg. of 3, 10 and 18 August 1941. T-821, roll 232, frames 414, 454, 502.

[28] Il Tempo, September 10, 1953, on recently
released Italian military archives.

[29] PA, Büro Staatssekretär, Kroatien, Bd. 2, No. 24. Troll-Obergfell to the Foreign Ministry, Zagreb, 10 August 1941.

[30] Hory and Broszat, op. cit. pp. 129-131.

[31] ibid. p. 132.

[32] PA, Büro RAM, Kroatie
n, 1941-42, 442-449. IV/D/4 RSHA (Gestapo) to Himmler, 17 February 1942.

[33] PA, Büro Staatssekretär, Jugoslawien, Bd. 4. Benzler to Ribbentrop, Belgrade, 16 February 1942.

[34] The Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury. Report prepared by the United States Information Agency and issued by the U.S. Department of State on 2 June 1998.

[35] Karlheinz Deschner. Mit Gott und den Faschisten. Stuttgart, 1965.

[36] Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York 1990





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