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Late Croatian strongman courted Jews, revised history

ROME, Dec. 12 (JTA) — During his decade as president of newly independent Croatia, Franjo Tudjman tried to counter his authoritarian, ardently nationalistic policies by bending over backward to support Jewish causes.

Tudjman, a former Communist who fought in the Resistance during World War II and later became Croatia’s founding father, died late Friday at the age of 77, leaving a mixed legacy.

“He was not an anti-Semite,” said Ivo Goldstein, a member of Zagreb’s Jewish community and a leading Croatian historian. “But he was very stubborn and very nationalistic. This could be painful for Jews, but we managed to live a normal life.”

Croats elect a new Parliament on Jan. 3 and now must elect a new president soon after that. These elections will determine whether the country will follow Tudjman’s autocratic course or embrace a more liberal form of democracy and closer integration with the West.

“We need to hope now that the elections that will take place in Croatia and the new political situation will help Croatia to move in the direction of being a democratic country,” Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, told reporters.

Throughout his tenure, Tudjman’s government was accused of trying to whitewash Croatia’s fascist past through various initiatives aimed at rehabilitating the homegrown fascist Ustashe regime that ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state during World War II.

“Tudjman was a politician who was using history,” Goldstein said. “For him, all history had a political goal.”

In his drive to win Croatian independence from Yugoslavia and to assert a specific national identity, Tudjman sacrificed the memory of Ustashe atrocities. Instead, he invoked a positive image of the wartime state as a brave Croatian entity struggling for nationhood.

Symbols and personalities of the fascist state — the only other time that Croatia had nominally been independent — were incorporated into Croatia’s political fabric. Streets and squares were renamed, and anti-fascist monuments were destroyed.

In an autobiography, he made statements that were interpreted as being anti-Semitic.

Tudjman also campaigned for what he called a “reconciliation” between fascism and anti-fascism.

He attempted, for example, to turn the memorial to scores of thousands of Jews and Serbs slaughtered during World War II at the Ustashe’s infamous Jasenovac concentration camp into a memorial to victims not just of fascism, but of communism and also the 1991 Serbo-Croat war.

All this drew sharp protests from Jews as well as from former anti-fascist partisans and others inside Croatia.

“There is ‘another’ Croatia,” Goldstein said. “Croatia has both a fascist and anti-fascist history. There is an anti-fascist opposition that protests historical revisionism.”

Tudjman’s policies drew international criticism, too, and for years blocked Israel from establishing diplomatic relations.

But at the same time, Tudjman openly courted Jewish support.

Three years ago, for example, he sat in the front row of a Chanukah concert marking the 190th anniversary of the founding of the Zagreb Jewish Community.

Earlier, the government funded the reconstruction of the Zagreb Jewish Community building after it was hit by a terrorist bomb in 1991, and it also now helps fund the community’s rabbi.

Some 25,000 Jews lived in Croatia before World War II. Twenty thousand were killed by the Nazis or local Ustashe. Of the 2,000 members of Croatia’s Jewish community today, some 1,400 live in Zagreb.

Jewish leaders met regularly with Tudjman or other senior officials, and several high-ranking members of the government are Jews or of Jewish origin. These include Commerce Minister Nenad Porges, a former Jewish community president.

Israel finally agreed to establish relations with Croatia in September 1997, after Croatia formally apologized to the Jewish people in a strongly worded statement that renounced Ustashe crimes.

Except for occasional incidents — including recent sales of “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — Croatian Jews report little threat to their community from open anti-Semitism.

What worried them most was the tendency toward historical revisionism and the potential for the state to exploit the Jewish community for its own political ends.

“The Jewish community in Croatia and in other former Yugoslav republics is not endangered by anti-Semitism,” Goldstein wrote in a 1996 report to the American Jewish Committee. “Its bigger enemy is the low standard of living, insincere philo-Semitism and constant threat that the local Jewish population can be manipulated and used in propaganda goals.”

Against this background, the guilty verdict passed two months ago by a Zagreb court against Dinko Sakic, the former commander of the Jasenovac camp, was hailed as a landmark of justice.

Sakic had been extradited to Croatia from Argentina in 1998 after he gave an interview there on local television.

The six-month trial forced Croatians to confront their country’s history as a Nazi ally and participant in the Holocaust.

Sakic, who expressed no remorse and dismissed the testimony of survivors as “anti-Croat propaganda,” was found guilty of crimes against humanity and received the maximum sentence — 20 years in prison.

“We hope that this sentence, made 55 years after the events, will be a warning that all those who committed crimes in the near or distant past will not escape justice,” said Chief Justice Drazen Tripalo.

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