Perspectives | History

The Croatian state tolerates and abets historical revisionism

By - 30.04.2024

An honest assessment of the past is needed for building sustainable peace.

Historical revisionism is a term that refers to reinterpretation of historical events. In some ways, revisionism is an inevitable part of historical research, a reassessment and updated explanation of events and processes in light of new historical evidence. However, it can also involve the manipulation of historical facts, their unjustified reinterpretation, distortion and denial.

The latter, more dangerous sort of historical revisionism, finds particularly fertile ground in ideologically divided societies such as in Croatia. Croatia’s turbulent 20th century history saw frequent and violent regime changes in which people aligned themselves, intentionally or under the influence of circumstances, on one side or the other. No new regime has taken decisive steps to confront the past.

No new regime has taken decisive steps to confront the past.

With Yugoslavia’s breakup and the Republic of Croatia’s emergence as an independent state, the failure to confront the past has produced ideological confusion and selective interpretation of history. The misuse of historical facts by politicians clearly aiming to promote their own political agenda without a sense of responsibility for historical truth has led to the dissemination of a large amount of completely or partially inaccurate information in the media space about historical events, actors and processes. Responsibility for this failure could be primarily attributed to the state and its institutions, since the state has a power to teach and correct, through its educational, legislative and judicial system, but politicians, media and academia also bear responsibility. 

Historical revisionism becomes particularly problematic when it is promoted by state institutions. The state possesses legitimacy and authority, which lend importance to the ideas promoted by its representatives and institutions. 

Historical revisionism becomes particularly problematic when it is promoted by state institutions.

The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia explicitly states that the Croatian people’s right to sovereignty is manifested, among other things, in the establishment of “the foundations of state sovereignty during the course of the Second World War.” According to the constitution, this was “expressed in the decision of the Territorial Antifascist Council of the National Liberation of Croatia (1943) in opposition to proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia (1941), and then in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Croatia (1947) and in all subsequent constitutions of the Socialist Republic of Croatia (1963-1990).” 

The constitution thereby affirms anti-fascist values and emphasizes that today’s Republic of Croatia is the successor to the Socialist Republic of Croatia, not the so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which was a quisling fascist creation established under Third Reich patronage during World War II. Nonetheless, the state and state institutions often directly or indirectly participate in historical revisionism.

Revisionism in media

Croatian Radiotelevision (HRT) is Croatia’s public broadcasting company, at least legally. Although it should be free from all political and commercial pressures, in reality, it operates under strong influence of whichever political option is in power at the given moment. HRT’s status as the national broadcaster means that its content has special influence. Therefore, it is particularly troubling when revisionist ideas are promoted on its airwaves. 

One of the most problematic examples of historical revisionism on HRT was the appearance of publicist Igor Vukić on the “Good Day, Croatia” television show on May 30, 2018. Vukić was promoting his book, titled “Jasenovac Labor Camp.” The book contains a series of falsehoods about the largest Ustasha death camp, where over 83,000 people, including Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists, were killed. Unlike in the Nazi industrialized death camps, prisoners were killed individually, by hanging, knives, axes, hammers and firearms. 

Vukić’s book, however, describes Jasenovac as an internment and labor camp where there were no mass killings. He claims that a much smaller number of prisoners died in the camp than historians claim and that they died from diseases, exhaustion and old age. 

Vukić portrays Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić as the person most responsible for rescuing people from the camp rather than as the leader of a regime that committed genocide against its own citizens. In doing so, he drastically diminishes the importance of the existence of racial laws and talks about the rescue of Jews by the Ustasha. In truth, Pavelić and the Ustasha movement were directly responsible, as commanders and executors, for the extermination of more than 80% of the pre-war Jewish population in the NDH. 

Vukić does not describe Jasenovac as a place of horror and death, but as a prison where fruits, vegetables and flowers grew, where animals were raised and where there was plenty of food. He describes parties and sports events, attended by the camp choir and orchestra, music and drama sections, circus performances and operettas, as well as the camp football championship. This mockery of the victims aired in an afternoon entertainment-informational program on national television. HRT distanced itself only after a strong public reaction, while the reactions of the hosts in the studio during the appearance were completely absent.

This mockery of the victims aired in an afternoon entertainment-informational program on national television.

Jasenovac is an interesting example of multiple revisionism. While revisionists from Croatia diminish or even completely deny the crimes committed in that death camp, the policies of Serbia and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian entity of Republika Srpska insist on a narrative of at least 700,000 murdered Serbs. Both narratives are completely wrong, as has been repeatedly proven by historical and demographic research.

Revisionism in scholarship

In addition to the media, revisionism has found a place in science and education. For example, Vlatka Vukelić, a history professor at the Faculty of Croatian Studies in Zagreb, was elected by the Faculty Council to the position of dean, despite her revisionist views denying the NDH’s criminal character. To actually be appointed to the position, her election had to be confirmed by the university senate. The point of appointing Vukelić as dean was put on the agenda of the senate meeting scheduled for Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, which provoked a strong public reaction. After that, the point was removed from the agenda, placed on one of the following sessions and before again being removed before the session itself. 

In the end, Vukelić was not appointed dean, but there was no explanation from the University’s rector or distancing from her views. One of the most controversial things Vukelić spoke and wrote about was related to the children’s camp in Sisak. The existence of a children’s camp in Sisak is an established historical fact. Serbian children forcibly separated from their parents, who had been sent to forced labor in Germany and Austria, were placed in Sisak, which operated from July 1942 to January 1945. Due to very poor health and hygiene conditions, mortality in the camp was high. There was not enough food or medical care. 

However, Vukelić denies the camp’s true character, calling it a “shelter” instead. She blames Serbs who resisted the “new authorities” for the separation of children from their parents and considers the NDH responsible for caring for those children, claiming that they received appropriate medical care given the wartime conditions and that there was no intention to harm those children. She also claimed that Jews voluntarily left their property to the Church when leaving the NDH. Jewish property was confiscated by the state; there was nothing voluntary about it. 

Vukelić promotes the aforementioned publicist Vukić’s ideas, and with him, disseminates theories of the so-called triple camp Jasenovac. According to this demonstrably untrue theory, Jasenovac was only an ordinary prison for political opponents during the NDH, only becoming a communist camp after the war. The claim that the Jasenovac camp continued to exist after World War II’s end has been refuted several times, including in a photo monograph showing the area of the camp during and after World War II.

Rehabilitating a fascist slogan 

The unwillingness of the Croatian government and of Croatian institutions to confront the difficult events of the past is also evident in the lack of a ban on using the Ustasha salute “Za dom spremni” (Ready for the Homeland). This is indisputably an Ustasha salute, equivalent to and used in the same way as the Nazi “Heil Hitler.” Many revisionists have tried to portray it as an “old Croatian greeting,” but that is simply not true. There are sources that suggest this salute or phrase existed before, but Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić claimed authorship of it. 

The government’s reluctance to criminalize use of the fascist salute stems from the fact that the salute was used by Croatian paramilitary and later military units during the war in Croatia in the 1990s. This was by no means accidental; these units bore the names of Ustasha commanders from World War II, used Ustasha symbols and black uniforms, as did the notorious criminal Ustasha “Black Legion.” Disputes over the use of that salute led the government to establish the Council for Dealing with the Consequences of the Rule of Non-Democratic Regimes in 2017, whose very name can be interpreted as an attempt to equate fascist and communist regimes. This attempt is also clear from the document the council adopted. 

As for the “Ready for the Homeland” salute, the council stated that it “does not consider it unacceptable to prescribe [an] exception concerning the strictly limited legal possibility of [the] public using the greeting ‘Ready for the Homeland’ due to circumstances surrounding the Homeland War.” In other words, the fascist salute is considered permissible to use if it is related to the Croatian War of Independence. While using the salute is legally prohibited, the exceptions related to the Homeland War make the ban ineffective and subject to interpretation. Although it is quite clear that paramilitary and military units used that salute precisely because it was used during the NDH, an attempt is made to give it a meaning related only to the war in the 1990s, thereby actually legitimizing its use.

In other words, the fascist salute is considered permissible to use if it is related to the Croatian War of Independence.

The state’s uncritical attitude toward the tragic events of the past is also evident in the gathering at Bleiburg, Austria, which was held under the auspices of the Croatian Parliament from 1995 until 2011 and again since 2016. During the NDH army’s retreat in May 1945, NDH soldiers tried to surrender to the British army, but the British refused and ordered them to surrender to the Yugoslav army. The Yugoslav army killed tens of thousands of prisoners, including civilians. 

The gathering in Bleiburg is supposed to commemorate that event, but it is actually a fascist gathering, with numerous Ustasha and other fascist symbols, Ustasha uniforms and fascist slogans. The text on the monument at the Bleiburg field said “In honor and glory of the fallen Croatian army,” although according to the Croatian Constitution, the NDH army cannot be considered the Croatian army. As mentioned earlier, the Croatian Constitution clearly states that the present day Republic of Croatia is not a successor state of the so-called Independent State of Croatia, but it derives its statehood from the anti-fasisct movement. Therefore, the NDH army cannot be considered the Croatian army. Austria recognized the gathering as fascist; in 2022, the Austrian Parliament’s Committee on Internal Affairs requested an official ban on holding the gathering.

Confronting the past is very important for all, especially post-conflict societies, as it is the basis for building lasting and sustainable peace. In the process of confronting the past, the state should have a central place, especially through its judicial, educational, scientific, media and cultural institutions. Not only do the state and state institutions in Croatia not contribute to confronting the past, but by tolerating and promoting historical revisionism, they actually hinder the process. Building an inclusive and just society begins with accepting the truth about that society’s past.


Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0

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