The expected extradition and war crimes trial of a Croatian World War II fascist are putting contemporary Croatia’s claim of democracy firmly on the line.
Dinko Sakic, now 76, who has lived in Argentina for half a century, was arrested last month after he reminisced on Argentine television about his years as commander of Croatia’s notorious wartime concentration camp at Jasenovac.
An estimated 500,000 people were tortured and killed at Jasenovac, the “Auschwitz of the Balkans.” The great majority were Serbs, but victims also included Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats.
But unlike most wartime camps, Jasenovac, south of Zagreb, was not run by the Nazis. It was run by homegrown Croatian fascists, called Ustashe, who ruled Croatia as a nominally independent Nazi puppet state from 1941-1945.
Sakic, who was transferred this week to a prison in Buenos Aires, is expected to be deported any day.
He has admitted to being the commander of Jasenovac, but has contended that no one died there.
Sources in Buenos Aires say Sakic’s deportation was carefully arranged through his lawyers.
“When he was exposed on local television, he knew his time was up,” a police source said. “He vanished to have time to negotiate: He wanted to go to Croatia and not Yugoslavia.”
The Argentine judge in charge of the case, Hernan Bernasconi, ordered that Sakic be deported to Croatia, citing that the “alleged crimes were committed in what is today Croatian territory.”
The Sakic case has had a searing effect on public opinion in Croatia, where President Franjo Tudjman has used a calculated ambivalence toward the wartime independent Croatia to foster Croatian nationalism.
The case has opened the door to a painful re-examination of Croatia’s past, both in light of World War II history and in light of the nationalist passions fanned over the past decade with the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.
“Trying Sakic will be a good test of Tudjman’s government to show a real anti- fascist identity, and it will be a test for Croatian democracy,” Ivo Goldstein, a professor of Croatian history at the University of Zagreb, said in a telephone interview.
“The state must show that it can organize a fair trial, based on fundamental, civic principles,” he said. “It must show that any crime, for whatever goal, must be condemned. This is a clear message that has to be sent to Croatian society and to the world itself.”
Although most Croats do not hold active neo-fascist sympathies, the country is sharply divided on the issue.
A noisy and aggressive right-wing minority brands the Sakic trial “anti- Croatian.”
The tiny Jewish community, which has taken a public stand that Sakic should be brought back for a fair trial, has been inundated by phone calls both accusing Jews of engineering Sakic’s arrest and expressing support for the process.
“Reaction shows the division between an extremist chauvinist view and one attached to liberal values,” Goldstein said.
A prominent member of the Jewish community, Goldstein this spring was the focus of an anti-Semitic media campaign that described him as “anti-Croat.”
But, demonstrating the split in society, he said, these slurs were themselves attacked by prominent non-Jewish Croatians and mainstream organizations.
Present-day Croatia, which seceded from Yugoslavia to become independent in 1991, has both a fascist and a fiercely anti-fascist political legacy.
Many Croatians — including Tudjman himself — fought as anti-fascist partisans in the communist resistance movement led by Josip Broz Tito, who ruled postwar Yugoslavia until his death in 1980.
In Tito’s communist Yugoslavia, where nationalism was often equated with fascism, Jasenovac was made a symbol of the atrocities of the Nazis and the Ustashe.
A huge monument in the shape of a flower was erected there as a national shrine.
But in his drive to win Croatian independence and to assert a specific Croatian national identity, Tudjman sacrificed the memory of Ustashe atrocities and persecutions. Instead, he invoked a positive image of the wartime Ustashe state as a brave Croatian entity struggling for nationhood.
Some aging Ustashe members who had fled the country after 1945 returned to support the drive for statehood and became part of the Tudjman regime.
The Yugoslav wars and bitter ethnic conflicts between Serbs and Croats in the 1990s exacerbated the issue.
Symbols and even personalities of the fascist state — the only other time in history Croatia has nominally been independent — were incorporated into Croatia’s political fabric.
Streets and squares were renamed and anti-fascist monuments were destroyed. Church services were held in honor of Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic, and Pavelic’s picture was hung with honor on the walls of some cafes and bars.
In fact, Croatian Jewish, Serb and other community leaders were planning to demonstrate May 9 to demand the return of the name, the “Victims of Fascism Square,” to the place from which where thousands of people were deported to Jasenovac and other death camps. The name was changed to “Square of Croatian Great Men” in 1991.
Tudjman, meanwhile, has campaigned for what he termed a “reconciliation” between fascism and anti-fascism.
He went so far as to propose that Jasenovac be turned into a memorial to victims not just of fascism, but of communism and of the 1991 Serb-Croat war.
The memorial, he said, would be “a tribute to all the victims” on Croatia’s “way to independence and sovereignty” and that it would reconcile “the dead as well as the living, their children and grandchildren.”
The Sakic trial could blow attempts to rewrite history sky-high, and the effects of the process could be far-reaching.
“How do you reconcile with the commander of a concentration camp?” asked one western source familiar with the Zagreb scene.
“Over the last eight years,” said Goldstein. “Croatia has lost its anti-fascist identity.
“The Sakic trial,” he said, “will show people that the Ustashe were not just good Croats.”
Issues raised by the trial, he said, go far beyond the attitude to the wartime state of Croatia.
They are “closely linked,” he said, “with the whole panorama of democratic values — free press, the equality of all citizens and attitudes to Jews and other minorities.”
(JTA correspondent Sergio Kiernan in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.