(A review of Ustaša: Croatian Fascism and European Politics, 1929-1945 by Srdja Trifkovic, published in the January issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture)
The new edition of Trifkovic’s work on the genocidal Ustaša–Croatian Revolutionary Movement is a pivotal contribution to modern Balkan studies.
This is an area regrettably mired in deception, half-truths, and outright lies served up with a noxious dosage of outright Serbophobia. Trifkovic's work is a painstakingly detailed study of the bloodthirsty Croatian Nazis and their leader, the Poglavnik (Führer) Ante Pavelić. The Ustaše were responsible for the deaths of at least 400,000 Serbs, 30,000 Jews, and 25,000 Gypsies in Croatia and Bosnia. While the Ustaše were mostly Croatian Catholics, many Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) joined their ranks. The roots of the Balkan wars of the 1990’s lie directly in the Ustaša campaign of murder. The Bosnian and Krajina Serbs’ secession took place in response to the rise of Serb-hating Ustaša sympathizers, including Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tuđman, and Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegović.
Two Serb boys were growing up in the communist Yugoslavia of the 1950’s and 60’s. (This was the time when Ustaša crimes were swept under the rug by Tito’s regime in the name of “brotherhood and unity.” Any forthright mention of Serb suffering was discouraged, if not punished. The Croatians’ exuberant support for the Ustaše and the Bosniaks’ collaboration with Hitler and Pavelić was concealed.) The older boy was from a tiny Serb village southeast of Sarajevo. His village had been taken over by the Ustaše, who massacred the inhabitants. The boy’s father joined the Partisans and was killed in combat. The younger boy was from a mixed Serb-Croat village in Dalmatia. When this boy’s father was himself a child, the local Ustaše came to his house to murder his family. Not finding anyone at home, one of the Croatians slashed the mulberry tree outside with his trademark curved knife, the “Serb cutter.” As the boy grew up, his father took him outside and showed him the scarred tree.
The younger boy from Dalmatia became a small-town dentist and later the first president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, which broke away from the neo-Ustaša regime of Franjo Tuđman. Arrested by NATO forces and broken down by his Eurocrat jailers, he confessed to their accusations and allegedly hanged himself in his Dutch cell. His name was Milan Babić.
The older boy from Bosnia went on to make a stellar career in the Yugoslav and then Bosnian Serb armies, ultimately becoming the latter’s commander. He is now awaiting trial at the Hague Tribunal. His name is Ratko Mladić.
Trifkovic traces the genocidal Serbophobia of the Ustaše to the 17th and 18th centuries, when large numbers of Serbs lived in the military-frontier (Krajina, “borderland”) region of Habsburg-ruled Croatia. The Croatian nobility deeply resented the privileges granted to the Krajina Serbs as well as their “schismatic” Orthodox Faith. From then on, murderous hatred of the Serbs (pejoratively called Vlachs) became one of the key tenets of strident Croatian nationalism. As early as 1700, the Croatian supervisor of the Zagreb diocese’s landholdings called for the slaughter of the “Vlachs.”
Ante Starčević, a 19th-century publicist and political agitator, was the father of extreme Croat nationalism. He denied that the Serbs were a distinct nation; rather, he denigrated them as a “‘breed’ of slaves, a mongrel melange of Vlach and Gypsy blood… unworthy of human designation” that must be wiped out. Starčević also harbored a vehement hatred for the Jews, who were “without any morality” and must be excluded from public life—an eerie foreshadowing of Hitler’s views. On the other hand, Starčević had an effusive admiration for the Bosniaks—the descendants of Serb converts to Islam whom he characterized as the “purest of all Croats.” Pavelić later echoed his namesake by calling the Bosniaks “the flower of the Croat nation” and vigorously campaigning to include them in his Ustaša movement.
In one of history’s bitter paradoxes, the heir of the virulently antisemitic Starčević and the forefather of the Ustaša movement was Josip Frank—a Croatian Jew from a German-speaking family who converted to Catholicism and reinvented himself as a Croat. His street-thug followers, known as the Frankists, instigated violent anti-Serb riots in Habsburg-ruled Zagreb; the most deadly pogrom occurred when Austria- Hungary was about to declare war on Serbia in 1914. The Frankists’ favorite rhyme was “Srbe na vrbe” (“Hang the Serb on the willow tree”), which they loudly chanted when looting Serb stores and attacking Serbs.
Overall, the Ustaše preferred to ignore their forefather Josip Frank because of his inconvenient ethnicity. However, Frank’s daughter Olga married Slavko Kvaternik – one of Pavelić’s oldest comrades and one-time Ustaša minister of defense. Their son, Eugen-Dido Kvaternik, was the head of the Ustaša Internal Security Service and an eager participant in the genocide of Serbs and Jews. Ante Pavelić’s wife had a Jewish mother, which did not prevent Mara Pavelić from being “rabidly anti-Semitic.” Her husband’s regime wiped out three quarters of the Jews in Croatia and Bosnia.
The sinister figure of Ante Pavelić appears on the Balkan scene in the early days of the first monarchical Yugoslavia of the interwar years. A small-time lawyer, he was one of the two extreme Croat-nationalist deputies in the Yugoslav legislature. From the beginning, Pavelić and his Ustaša movement were addicted to violence. The Ustaša terrorist campaign started out with bombings, assassinations, and shooting attacks against pro-Yugoslav Croat intellectuals and Yugoslav police, and culminated in the assassination of the Yugoslav King Alexander and the French foreign minister Louis Barthou in 1934 during the king’s visit to France. The Ustaše became close allies with pro-Bulgarian Macedonian terrorists who provided the trigger-man for the king’s assassination.
Pavelić had already emigrated to Italy by that time. During his long sojourn he cultivated extensive links with Italian, Bulgarian, Kosovo Albanian, Hungarian, and German opponents of Yugoslavia. Far from being a dedicated Croatian patriot, Pavelić agreed to give away Dalmatia to Italy and make wide-ranging con- cessions to Hungary in exchange for those countries’ support. After being raised to power by German and Italian bayonets in 1941, the poglavnik confirmed these concessions and, as World War II progressed, made even more extensive concessions to Hitler—in effect, turning his “Independent State of Croatia” (NDH) into a flimsy satellite of the collapsing Reich.
Ante Pavelić’s Ustaša state came to life on the smoldering ruins of the first Yugoslavia. The bloodthirsty, genocidal nature of the NDH was immediately apparent from the time of its inception in April 1941. One of Pavelić’s first laws mandated the death penalty—to be carried out within two hours after sentence—for persons who in any way “threatened” the regime or “offended the honor and vital interests of the Croat people.” This law was made retroactive; therefore, someone could be guilty of “threatening” the NDH decades before it was founded.
Another early Ustaša law prescribed the confiscation of Jewish-owned property and the institution of anti-Jewish ordinances “more stringent than the Nuremberg Laws.” Jews and Serbs were made to wear identifying armbands—the Jews, a yellow one with the letter Z (for Zidov, “Jew”); the Serbs, a blue one with the letter P (for Pravoslavni, “Orthodox”).
From the beginning, the explicit aim of the Ustaša was a Croatia with no Serbs. Early on, they determined to “convert one third, deport one third, and kill one third.” Srdja Trifkovic’s own grandparents were seized by the Ustaše and deported to German-occupied Serbia. They were two of the lucky ones.
Most of the Serbs in Ustaša territory were brutally murdered, often with daggers, mallets, axes, and clubs. In the central Croatian village of Glina, the Ustaše lured the local Serbs into a church and proceeded to kill some 1,200 of them with clubs and knives. In the Ustaša death camp of Jasenovac, Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies were taken to the Sava River, where they were bludgeoned to death with mallets, axes, and sledgehammers and dumped into the water. Jasenovac also had the infamous “Bell Warehouse”—a barrack where inmates were slowly starved to death. This barrack had a glass door so the Ustaša guards could watch and jeer at their tormented victims.
The sheer brutality of the Ustaše appalled even the Germans. The representatives of the Wehrmacht blamed the Ustaše murders for sparking a broad Serb revolt. The Italians did not content themselves with criticism and took an active role in occupying NDH territory and saving Serbs and Jews from the Ustaše.
While the Ustaša regime is often characterized as fascist, Trifkovic shows it was closer in its genocidal brutality to the Nazis. In the author’s words, the Ustaša ideology “was a clumsy mix of Nazi brutality and quasi-racism, fascist irrationality, and above all ‘oriental’ primitivism.”
The savage nature of the regime does not prevent it from being celebrated in modern-day Croatia. Franjo Tuđman adopted the symbolism and anti-Serb ideology of the NDH and publicly crowed that he is happy his wife is “neither a Serb nor a Jew.” He also engaged in holocaust revisionism by minimizing the number of Ustaša victims and accusing the Jews of running the dreadful Jasenovac death camp. Thompson, the most popular band in today’s Croatia, sings songs that laud the Ustaša genocide, and its concerts are attended by fans decked out in Ustaša insignia.
Srdja Trifkovic’s book is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the Balkan wars of the 1990’s. Unlike other modern Balkan history books, Trifkovic’s work is balanced and intellectually honest. While the book is best suited for a reader with at least some knowledge of Balkan and World War II history, it is written in a highly accessible and easy to follow style. The importance of Dr. Trifkovic’s crucial book cannot be overstated.
Eugene Girin is a New York-based law student and foreign-affairs commentator.