NEW YORK (JTA) — During his recent visit to Croatia, Shimon Peres said he believed the Nazis directed Croatian guards at Europe’s most sadistic concentration camp complex, Jasenovac, to be brutal.
"I think they wanted them to have a demonstration of sheer sadism," Peres said.
But Croatia was uniquely entrusted to run its own concentration camps for a reason: Croatian violence needed no urging. It had no parallel in modern history, nor in modern horror cinema.
While the Nazi manner of killing emphasized sterility and efficiency, the Croatian killing (with enthusiastic assistance from Bosnian Muslims) was slow, messy and savored. The character of the violence under the Hitler-allied Ustasha regime shocked even the Nazis, who wrote protest letters to their superiors — because of revulsion, because of Serbian revolts and because the Ustashas’ conduct was souring Axis-friendly peoples on Germany. Berlin never reined in the Croats, but the Italians did disband at least one Ustasha unit.
Meanwhile, Croatian fuehrer Ante Pavelic boasted that in contrast to Hitler’s early deportation methods, "in Croatia we have almost completely solved the Jewish question." Yet exterminating 80 percent of Croatia’s Jews was mere garnish to the main dish that an alliance with Germany promised: eradicating the Serbs. "Kill a third, deport a third, and convert a third" was official policy.
Peres’ error wasn’t a mistake but politics. Israel and Croatia have been improving relations, and Peres is sensitive to Croatia’s being in the midst of European Union accession. So he put the onus of guilt on safe German shoulders. But while Germany has admitted a thousand times to its Nazi past, Croatia still has not come to terms with its World War II crimes — and with world powers continuing to whitewash them it never will.
Thus it is that Croatia tried to sue Serbia for events in a much more recent war, which Croatia itself began, without ever answering for its own incomparably bloody, more vast and less mutual crimes of WWII. Because Croatia was never made to admit, apologize or de-Nazify, it enjoyed a Nazi revival in the 1990s at which time Israel declined friendship.
News reports now finally mention Croatia’s ’90s Nazi rebirth, along with the fact that only since 2000 have Croatian governments denounced fascism. The Associated Press, for instance, in reports covering the Peres trip stated that 1990s Croatia was "sympathetic to the WWII regime and its late president, Franjo Tudjman, had downplayed the fascists’ crimes."
Leaving aside that these well-hidden ’90s facts are being presented suddenly as common knowledge by the same media that suppressed them, one must point out the irony of Peres inviting Holocaust deniers such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Jasenovac. After all, Croatia continues to downplay its own Holocaust, with the Jasenovac memorial neglecting to name a single culprit. The memorial also minimizes the number killed there to 85,000, a Tudjman-era concoction — some estimates say that as many as 700,000 were killed at the camp.
Acknowledging one’s bloody past is certainly easier when it’s on one’s own terms. Adding insult to injury, the revisionist figure is cited by world dignitaries and Holocaust museums that deign to mention the genocide of Serbs at all. Yet if one looks at the WWII timeline, the genocide in Croatia, which had the earliest functioning death camp, set a precedent. If a genocide had been carried out successfully in Catholic Croatia, with the Vatican silent, how hard was it to repeat the model in the rest of Europe?
If Peres thinks Israel will be rewarded for helping Croatia downplay its under-recorded WWII crimes, he might recall how well Croatian Jews’ loyalty to secessionist Croatia against their country of citizenship, Yugoslavia, served them in the ’90s.
From the Nov. 18, 1993 UK Guardian: "Among the most vocal campaigners for international recognition of Croatia two years ago, Jewish leaders are distressed by ‘extensive’ condonation of the Quisling Ustashe state, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. [S]treets, squares and schools dedicated to anti-fascist fighters have been renamed and a monument in memory of 1,500 Jews executed at the Jadovno concentration camp has been demolished. President Tudjman has proposed that the remains of Croats executed by the partisans should be transferred to Jasenovac. The prospect of fascists being buried side by side with their victims sickened Croatian Jews.
" ‘Our lobbying gave them moral credibility at a time when they were often depicted as anti-Semitic or neo-fascist,’ " said [Zagreb Jewish community leader Srdjan] Matic.
Despite former Croatian President Stipe Mesic’s proclamations that modern Croatia was built on anti-fascism, the open secret is that it was "liberated" under the same banner as Nazism, with help from a newly reunified Germany, the Vatican and the United States whose for-hire generals helped plan 1995’s Operation Storm, which cleansed 250,000 Serbs.
Despite Croatia’s large banners for EU consumption reading "Welcome Home, Serbs!" Operation Storm is still celebrated as a national holiday on Aug. 5.
Yet Peres suffers comparisons by Croatian leaders between Israel’s struggle for independence and Croatia’s kampf for independence. That the Jewish state would join the long list of Croatia’s enablers foretells of dark days.
A Croatia that was never made to admit its crimes nor exposed to the world public is to be the EU’s newest member. The new Europe is shaping up to look much like the old one.
(Julia Gorin specializes in Balkans issues and is an unpaid advisory board member of the American Council for Kosovo.)