The Independent State of Croatia

Soldiers of the Black Legion at Koševo, Sarajevo.

The Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was created from the territory of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. After the attempt failed to get the popular peasant leader Vladko Maček to take over the reins of government under German protection, the SS-Standartenführer Edmund Veesenmayer put the fascist Ustasha movement in power. By this time he had already arranged the annexation of Austria and the independence of Slovakia. Ante Pavelić returned to Zagreb from his years-long exile to become Poglavnik (leader) with dictatorial authority. Croatia was organized as a leader state (Führerstaat) without any separation of powers, and the persecution of oppositional forces was legalized with the enactment of the Law for the Protection of the People and the State on 17 April 1941. The Ustasha government invoked the idea of a “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft), which it defined as “Aryan” like the German model. Also in April, Pavelić zealously enacted the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. The pillars of support for his reign of violence were the militias, army, secret police, special courts, and more than twenty concentration camps.

Croatia’s long-sought sovereignty soon proved to be a chimera. Both Hitler and Mussolini treated the country as an occupied region and drew a demarcation line through its territory. Berlin used its immense diplomatic corps and the Plenipotentiary German General to exert great political influence on racial, economic, and military policy. In the Roman Protocols, Pavelić also had to surrender a wide strip of Dalmatian coastline and the Bay of Kotor to Italy on 18 May 1941, thus turning the decades-old collective nightmare of the Croats into reality.

In the wake of the German-Italian occupation, the Ustasha movement saw a historically unique opportunity to implement its original agenda, the creation of an ethnically homogeneous Greater Croatia. For decades, it had been preaching for the resurrection of medieval Croatia covering its “entire ethnic and historic territory.” The 6.3 million population of the Independent State of Croatia was extremely heterogeneous. Only a bare majority of 3.3 million were Croats. The rest of the populace was made up of about two million Serbs, 700,000 Muslims, and 150,000 ethnic Germans and other minorities. The Croat fascists now launched a systematic campaign against their alleged archenemy, the Orthodox Christian population. Hundreds of thousands were disenfranchised, dispossessed, driven out, herded into internment camps, or murdered in vicious attacks. The centralist government of Greater Croatia also did not permit Muslims to hold any special status, even though a number of them sympathized with the Ustasha government. The government struck all references to “Bosnia-Herzegovina” from official language and declared the Muslims to be “Croats of Islamic Faith.” For this reason, the profascist Committee of National Rescue, based in Sarajevo, petitioned Hitler in November 1942 to bestow autonomy on Bosnia-Herzegovina under direct patronage of the Third Reich. Berlin turned down the request promptly.

Support for the new regime remained sparse. Neither in domestic nor foreign policy did the government exercise full sovereignty. Approval came from the right wing of the Peasants’ Party, from parts of the Catholic Church, and from nationalist-thinking intellectuals and students, who celebrated the “resurrection” of Croatia and indulged in a missionary and chauvinist sense of purpose. Yet it only took a couple of months following the assumption of power before the already rather heterogeneous base of support for the Ustasha movement began to crack apart.9 Very few people identified unconditionally with the ideology and aims of the Croatian leadership, and whoever cooperated with it often acted out of pure opportunism. It “appears to prove little that houses in the villages hang flags and that a relatively large number of people participate” in Sunday rallies, warned a German informant in mid-1941. He sensed that the prevailing “indifference of broad segments of the population” could change “into active resistance.”

In mid-February 1942, the plenipotentiary German general in Agram, Edmund von Glaise Horstenau, reported: “Hatred against it [Ustasha] is hard to beat anymore. Representatives of the movement make themselves unpopular time and again through their arrogance, despotism, greediness, and corruption. Furthermore, misdeeds, theft, and murder continue unabated. No week goes by in which some ‘cleansing action’ is not carried out in which entire villages including women and children bite the dust.” In early February 1943, German supreme commander of the southeast Alexander Löhr complained: “Government and bureaucracy have lost all support through mismanagement and the Ustasha course, not only among the Pravoslavs [the Serbs], but also among their own Croat population.”

“Ethnic Cleansing”

As this first Yugoslavia perished, so too did the ideology of an integrated South Slavic state. In its place arose separate ethnic and sometimes even racist concepts of identity that resorted to the idea of the cultural nation—a community linked by origin, history, language, and religion. In all parts of the country, nationalists implemented ruthless policies of assimilation, resettlement, and in some cases annihilation in order to remove those population groups they deemed undesirable. Since the early nineteenth century and certainly after the two Balkan Wars in 1912/1913, ethnically heterogeneous regions were “cleansed” of minority populations when empires broke apart or institutions failed, as was now occurring in occupied Yugoslavia. Creating ethnically exclusive nation states also aimed at destroying potential opponents—a typical motive also in later “ethnic cleansing.” Millions of people now discovered that their fate was dependent solely on the purely accidental ascription of the “right” or the “wrong” nationality.

The Croat Ustasha government was driven by a complex mélange of anti-Serb sentiments and fascist ideology, old cravings for revenge and new enemy images, coupled with specific military, economic, and political interests.18 Their overriding obsession was to drive the Serbs out of the regions northwest of the Drina and Sava rivers, those regions that the Turks had conquered in the fifteenth century. Only as a result of missionary work and religious conversion as well as the colonization policy of the Habsburgs in the eighteenth century had Serb settlements of any importance emerged in Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. The objective of the Croat fascists was to restore the original ethnic state as they presumed it had existed in the period prior to the Ottoman conquest.

The Ustasha regime did not have a strong following, charismatic leadership, or any other form of legitimacy to govern. Against this background, their radical anti-Serb sentiment became their “raison d’être and ceterum censeo,” as one of their protagonists, Slavko Kvaternik, wrote. There were three reasons for this. First, the strong Serb presence contradicted their utopia of a homogeneous Greater Croatian nation state. Second, revenge needed to be taken for the years of Serb hegemony, which was to be prevented from ever occurring again. Third, the elimination of the “eternal enemy” helped the Croat fascists justify their own rule and implement it locally. In a speech he gave on 2 May 1941, Minister Milovan Žanić declared: “This must be the land of the Croats, and no one else. No means exists that we, the Ustasha, will not use to make this land truly Croatian and to cleanse it of Serbs, who have long threatened us for centuries.”

In order to homogenize the Greater Croatian state, the authorities implemented ruthless policies of assimilation, displacement, and annihilation. They banned Serb organizations and the Cyrillic alphabet and “cleaned up” the Croatian language. Immediately after assuming power, they started mass expulsions. The first to be deported were the Serb colonists, who had received land in the course of the agrarian reform in 1919 that they now had to give up without any compensation. They were forced to leave for Serbia. The next ordered to leave were politically active individuals and clergy. Police woke up these people in the middle of the night, took away their house keys and valuables, and put them on a train headed for Serbia. Out of fear of reprisals, thousands of people then fled the country by foot and empty-handed, without cash or provisions. By the end of September 1941, nearly 120,000 Serbs had left the country, and a year later the number had risen to 200,000.

Besides discrimination and segregation, Serbs were the victim also of physical annihilation. The larger massacres of Serbs since April 1941 are documented as having taken place in Bosnian Krajina, in Bihać, Cazin, Bosanska Krupa, Prijedor, Sanski Most, and Ključ, then also in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example in Zvornik, Višegrad, Bijeljina, Sarajevo, Foča, and Goražde. It was quite obvious that the aim was to create homogeneous Croat areas in the regions bordering Serbia and Montenegro. From up to 330,000 Serbs killed in the four years of the war, 217,000 fell victim to the systematic persecution during killing sprees in villages, cities, and throughout the countryside, as well as in prisons and camps.

The events of 1941 in western and central Bosnia illustrate the way in which the spiral of violence and counterviolence began. Following the Ustasha movement’s seizure of power, measures to disenfranchise and persecute Serbs were implemented in rapid succession: on 17 April, a ban of the Cyrillic alphabet; 23 April, the expulsion of all those born in Serbia and Montenegro; 25 April, the annulment of mixed marriages; 4 May, hostage taking and the first killing sprees, plundering, and terror. The fear of further attacks prompted Serbs to organize local militias. On 7 May near Sanski Most, a group of about 1,000 peasants armed with hayforks and shovels drove off a troop of Croatian and German soldiers. In reprisal, the Wehrmacht advanced with heavy artillery, shelled the nest of resistance to smithereens, and shot numerous hostages. On 27 May, Serbs and Jews were prohibited from using public transportation and baths. On 5 June came the order to gather all those fit for work in camps, and on 10 and 11 June the order to deport entire families on a massive scale to Serbia. The growing resistance at the local level, inspired by Tito’s beacon of hope regarding the people’s liberation, is what finally broke the dam: on 23 July, all remaining Serbs were required to be registered, and thousands were brutally murdered with axes, knives, clubs, and other archaic methods of killing.

Under Ustasha rule, the extreme right—similar to what occurred in Spain—entered an unholy alliance with Catholicism. Serbs and Croats spoke the same dialects, so that religion was the only remaining objective marker of distinction and paramount ethnic identification. Therefore, the representatives of the Orthodox Church, meaning the bishops, metropolitans, monks, and priests, were subject to particular fury. The Ustasha forces had hundreds of churches deliberately destroyed, monasteries plundered and sacked to their foundations, and church property expropriated. The Serbian Orthodox religion was renamed “Greek Eastern.” Approximately 250,000 Orthodox were forced to convert to Catholicism. In order to cut the spiritual, emotional, and nationalist ties to Serbia, the Croatian government established a new, state-supervised Croatian Orthodox Church in April 1942; however, with little success.

Even today, the role of the Catholic Church and its leader, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, is highly controversial. Nationalist-oriented clergy sympathized or even cooperated with the Ustasha regime, because they lauded the Croat nation and fought the communists. Stepinac was probably not a committed fascist, but he was certainly also not a decisive opponent of the new regime. In honor of the Independent State of Croatia, he had a Te Deum read in all churches in early May 1941 and had himself appointed to the post of head military vicar in Croatia. The state was the fulfilment of a “centuries-old and ardently desired dream”; it was “no longer the tongue … but the blood” that was speaking, he announced in a circular memorandum in April 1941.25 The Vatican, which was informed about what was happening in Croatia, withheld its criticism. The Catholic press praised the Ustasha, and far more than a few clerics welcomed and supported the policy of forced conversion to Catholicism. One of them was Frater Vlado Bilobrk from Metković, who said in a sermon: “Everyone must convert to the Catholic faith because no other religion has a justified existence and no one will remain alive who has not accepted the Catholic faith.”

Just as the Ustasha regime propagated an ethnically “pure” Greater Croatia, the Serb Chetniks boasted about Greater Serbia. Draža Mihailović relied on Stevan Moljević’s memorandum of June 1941 titled “Homogeneous Serbia,” which he claimed included northern Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and large sections of Croatia. Had this absurd plan been implemented, more than four million people would have been resettled and expelled. With the political program they presented in September 1941, the Chetniks announced preparations in the “Serb countries” to ensure “that only the Serb population remains in them.” To do this it would be necessary “to have an eye particularly on the rapid and radical cleansing of the cities … [and] to develop a plan to cleanse and deport the rural population.” Moreover, it was also time “to solve the question of the Muslims as much as possible in this phase.” Mihailović was even clearer about what he meant on 20 December 1941: he issued the directive “to cleanse [the national territory] of all national minorities and anational elements.” Muslims and Croats were also to be removed from Sandžak, Bosnia, and Croatia (up to the Karlovac-Knin-Šibenik line).

“Ethnic cleansing” was also undertaken by the Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Albanians, and Bulgarians for the purpose of better incorporating annexed territory. The most extensive plans were drawn up by Hitler, who intended to transform all of Europe along racial lines. In a speech given in the Reichstag on 6 October 1939, he had announced the “ethnic consolidation” (völkische Flurbereinigung) of East and Southeast Europe; as the Reich commissar responsible for “German Nationhood,” Heinrich Himmler had designed a comprehensive European “master settlement plan” (Gesamtsiedlungsplanung). The Balkan countries were also to provide several pieces to the overall mosaic of the “Greater Germanic Reich” that was to be created by systematically murdering Jews and gypsies, “Germanizing” annexed territory, and resettling millions of ethnic Germans.

Much like the Poles living under the General Government in the German zone of occupation, the Slovenes in the annexed regions of Lower Styria, southern Carinthia, and Upper Carniola were viewed “basically as enemies of the state.” The entire population was racially profiled and “Germanized.” More than 220,000 Slovenes, primarily representatives of the clergy, intelligentsia, and economic elite, were to be “deported” and their property confiscated. Slovene organizations, press, and schools were forbidden. As early as 1941, authorities deported about 40,000 men and women to Croatia and Serbia, and another 33,000 were taken to camps as part of the campaign to “re-Germanize” the area. Ethnic Germans were then “appointed” to their farms. Within the framework of the “master settlement plan” for all of Europe designed in May and June of 1942, the SS sent another 43,000 ethnic Germans from Bosnia, Syrmia, and Slavonia into the Reich, put them through the official “sluicing” procedure (Durchschleusung), and later resettled them in Poland and Galicia.

In Trieste, Gorizia, and Istria—those areas that Italy had acquired in 1920—a strict policy of assimilation had existed already before the war. Mussolini considered the Slavic population to be an “inferior, barbaric race” that should be cast out of the region. Slovene and Croat personal names and city names were Italianized, while libraries, press publications, and societies were closed. It was forbidden to speak “Slavic” on the street. In the 1920s and 1930s, fascist authorities had already developed plans for the “ethnic cleansing” (bonifica nazionale) of the border regions. They now put these plans into practice “with great rigor,” in part by organizing mass deportations. Authorities interned 30,000 men, women, and children under inhumane conditions in concentration camps, such as those in Gonars and on the island of Rab. Ownership of their homes and landholdings was then transferred to the families of Italian soldiers. In occupied Dalmatia and in Montenegro, the Italian army played a rather ambivalent role in that, on the one hand, it furthered the Italianità, while on the other, it offered protection at the same time to thousands of Serbs escaping Ustasha units running amok and in some cases even took military steps to put the Croat militias in their place.

The southern regions of the former Yugoslavia also witnessed “ethnic cleansing.” In Italian-controlled Kosovo and in western Macedonia, Albanians drove out the indigenous Serbs and Montenegrins, burned down their houses, and destroyed historically important churches and monasteries. After King Vittorio Emmanuele decreed the annexation of these areas to Albania, of which he had also been king since 1939, a policy of Albaniazation and colonization was methodically carried out. For its part, eastern Macedonia was subject to a radical policy of Bulgarianization. More than 110,000 Serbs were forced to leave the country, and their property was confiscated. Bulgarian authorities closed schools and libraries, and destroyed cultural facilities, archives, cemeteries, and churches. Everything Serbian and Macedonian had to disappear, be it names, language, or national symbols; repression and despotism prevailed.

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