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Croatian Ghosts from the past in the EU

By Ladislav Ladislav

At some point, in the UN building in New York, a photo taken in 1942 in the Serbian city of Valjevo was exhibited, displaying the Croatian partisan Stjepan Filipović under the Nazi gallows. Just moments before he was to be hung by the occupying army, the man convicted to death defiantly thrust his clenched hands out into the air and shouted: “Death to Fascism! Freedom to the people!” This moment will echo in eternity. Stjepan Filipović became the Yugoslav; Serbian and Croatian symbol of anti-fascism and of the fight for freedom. Two monuments have been erected in his honour, the first one in Serbia – in Valjevo itself – and the second in Croatia, in his home town of Opuzen. His heroic act became the memory of a common, both Serbian and Croatian, fight against Nazism and fascism. During the Second World War, Yugoslavia had organised the largest resistance movement in occupied Europe.

On the night from the 17th to the 18th of July 1991, two months after the proclamation of Croatian independence, the monument honouring Stjepan Filipović was blown to pieces. This marked the beginning of a ‘culturecide’. Croatia was getting ready for the war against the Yugoslav People’s Army, the war against the Serbs. Under such circumstances, the Croatian political leadership thought it necessary to renounce their common anti-fascist heritage.

In the period from 1990 to 2000, at least 731 monuments to anti-fascism and 2, 233 other forms of anti-fascism memorials have been torn down. The historical markers were destroyed by unknown perpetrators, mostly during the night. The police have identified no culprits. Vandalism was supported by the ruling party through silence. Nothing reminding us of Yugoslavia and the previous union with Serbs could be left standing.

The monuments to anti-fascism were seen as relics of a defeated system. Everything that had been happening to us during the previous fifty years was seen by the Croatian society as some form of darkness. In forming our state, we have tried to bury the traces of its past. It was considered necessary to totally revise history, says Zoran Pusić, the president of the Civic Committee for Human Rights. Pusić’s NGO had been warning of culturecide during the war for independence, highly unpopular work at the time. However, nothing could turn around the process that had been started. Common anti-fascist history had to be forgotten, and an “adequate” replacement found for it.

Digging Up History

With the beginning of the war for independence, numerous actors from the authorities started to silently approve, and even incite, the positive memories of the darkest period of the Croatian past: the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which was set up by Ante Pavelić at the beginning of the Second World War with the help of fascists and Nazis. While Croatia had been presenting itself to the world as an anti-fascist state, radical nationalism was being incited at home.

During the nineties, Croatia introduced anti-fascism in its Constitution as one of the state’s founding principles. Unfortunately, this proved to be merely empty words. Its primary purpose was present a certain image of Croatia abroad, says Dean Duda, a university professor from Zagreb. At home, he emphasises, a different type of politics dominated, as promoted by Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tuđman.

At one of his party’s gatherings, Tuđman said that Pavelić’s Independent State of Croatia was not solely an entity built on war crimes, but also the expression of historical yearnings of the Croatian people for their own, independent state. Very few in Croatia were shocked by this statement at the time. It was considered by many to be a call for the rehabilitation of the Pavelić regime, Duda reminds us. In Pavelić’s state, racial legislation was in power, and at least one hundred thousand people had been killed in its concentration camps. The data of the Jasenovac memorial centre, the biggest concentration camp of the Pavelić regime, indicates that 83,145 people, mostly Croatian Serbs, were brutally killed there.

The burying of the common antifascist heritage on the one side and the celebration of a pro-Nazi regime on the other have been one of the many symptoms of serious disorder in Croatian society. During the nineties, Croatia became ill from hatred and is still recovering. During the negotiation process with the European Union, the political elites reconfirmed anti-fascism as one of the fundamental values on many occasions. At the beginning of the new century, the state forbade the celebration of the Pavelić regime as well as the official displays of the Independent State of Croatia emblems through its legislation. However, it had been impossible to return a released genie back to the bottle. Testimony to this can be seen in the streets of Croatian cities every day. On the building facades, passersby will notice a simple graffiti: the letter U. This is a symbol of Ustasha, pro-Nazi army of the Pevelić regime. In Croatian churches, on the anniversary of his death, masses are regularly served for the head of Ustasha, Ante Pavelić. On Croatian stadiums, particularly when the national team plays, tens of thousands people will cheer: “For the homeland – ready to die!” This was the official greeting during the Pavelić pro-Nazi state. A musician by the name of Thomson starts his concerts with this greeting, for example. He is definitely one of the most popular celebrities in Croatia.

Nationalism in Daily Life

Public reactions to the sympathy expressed towards the Pavelic regime, are, as a rule, notable by their absence. In the cases where journalists insisted on them, the answers from the responsible institutions were disturbing. For instance, these are the words by Damir Vrbanović, the executive director of the Croatian Football Association, commenting on the fact that thousands of supporters of the national football team were exclaiming fascist greetings “For the homeland – Ready to die!” at the stadium: “I have to say that I cannot consider this greeting as a priori negative when in its substance it means something positive. We, from the Croatian Football Association, interpret this greeting as a sign of affection for the Croatian football team and for our state. There is not a single reason why the greeting “For the homeland – ready to die!” – this leitmotif of cheering – should not be seen to connote with anything but support and a positive national sentiment.”

In Europe, it is inconceivable that twenty thousand Germans would support their national representatives in the Olympic stadium in Berlin with the greeting “Sieg Heil”! Even if this were to happen, you would never hear leading people in German football say: “We, from the German football association, consider this greeting to be a symbol of affection to the German football team and our state”? In Croatia, such a scandal can happen, and is happening, and nobody thinks it is socially inappropriate behaviour.

The amputation of the anti-fascist part of our history has been proven to be very harmful for Croatian society, concludes our interlocutor, Zoran Pusić. He is afraid that this has been a confrontation with the permanent human values which anti-fascism represents, such as tolerance, solidarity and understanding. This observation is grounded in empirical facts.

Intolerance Throughout Society

The radical nationalism of the nineties and the flirtation with the Ustasha identity have left significant marks on the Croatian society. They are visible everywhere. Croatia has brought up generations of barely politically literate citizens, who often do not understand the very concept of human rights. At the end of 2010, the Croatian public had been shocked by the research conducted among high school students by the non-governmental organisation GONG. The conclusion of the research stated that “the formal system of high school education does not prevent elements of non-democratic, authoritarian orientation and negative views towards minority social groups, national and sexual minorities.”

Almost 40% of respondents believed that Croatians in Croatia should have more rights than the members of other ethnic groups. The same percentage of respondents believed that homosexuals should not be allowed to appear publicly, because of the potential harmful influence on society. Almost half of the students who took part in the research believed that some political parties should be banned. Finally, when asked if the Independent State of Croatia was a fascist state, only 27% of students agreed with this statement.

“As a high school teacher, I completely understand the pathology of this case, as do many frustrated colleagues who never managed to transform into the desirable archetype of statehood, the limited, semi-intelligent persona, who “advocates” political, instead of humanist values”, says a prominent teacher, Mira Bi?ani?, while commenting on the results of the research. She concludes that those teachers who do not view the education of youth as an exercise in the falsification of the past, see the case in a crystal clear manner: “The responsibility lies with all the segments of a fruitless, polarised and non-civilised society, whose issues fall on the backs of those who think differently – precisely because they think, and a large part of this responsibility falls precisely on the education sector.” Mira Bikić has witnessed “chauvinist teaching staff target ethnic minority children in class, placing on their shoulders the criminal history of their people”. This was confided to her by the children themselves.

What will be the impact of EU membership?

On the 1st of July 2013, Croatia became the 28th Member State of the European Union. Croatia is expected to serve as a bridge towards the other countries of the Western Balkans.

I hope that Croatia will become recognised in the European Union as a success story and a bridge towards the countries of Southeast Europe whose accession to the EU we support, said the Croatian president Ivo Jospiović at the end of May, while visiting the British Minister of Foreign Affairs. Josipović, and other leading figures of the government, have been working on building good neighbourly relations for some time now. However, Croatian society is not managing to follow this political change. Open and public displays of hatred towards members of the Serbian national minority and other minorities are still part of everyday life in Croatia. Society has been poisoned by radical nationalism for too long and cannot rid itself of this pestilence. In order to become a bridge between Europe and the Western Balkans, to help neighbourly countries in the process of accession to the European Union, Croatia first needs to help itself.

Under current conditions, it is not difficult to imagine a Croatian turn towards extreme nationalist politics. This was clearly shown during the first elections for the European parliament, when the highest number of votes on the Christian Democratic list was won by a representative of radical nationalism, Ruža Tomaši?. She is a rising star in Croatia, and has gained popularity in the campaign with her statement that Croatia is a country for Croats, while all others are guests. Taking into consideration the extremely nationalistic politics of the nineties, the current economic crisis and the high number of unemployed Croatian citizens, it can be rightfully concluded that the Croatian society represents fertile soil for the rise of extremism and of radical right politics.

This is further confirmed by the demands for a referendum on changes to the Croatian Constitution which would introduce a definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman. This initiative is the result of a dominant homophobic attitude of the society and is supported by the Catholic Church as well as by radical right wing political groups. A petition for a referendum has so far been signed by 700,000 citizens. Furthermore, protests against the rights of the Serbian national minority in Vukovar also testify to an increase in anti-democratic, “hateful” tendencies in Croatian society.

The problem that Croatia has been facing ever since its independence is not new. It is radically present in Hungary, and a large majority of readers from old Member States will easily find it in their own backyard as well. In defence from political extremism – which implies intolerance and the domination of one man over another – Europe has a powerful weapon: anti-fascism. Antifascist cultural heritage is a reminder that ideas preached by political extremists all over Europe have already been defeated once. Every European monument related to the Second World War is a message that Europe firmly stands on antifascist values – tolerance, peace and understanding. That is why it is important that the antifascist hero Stjepan Filipović raises his fists again in Croatia, as a sign of resistance and faith in victory. In February of this year, a group of Opuzen citizens and city council members demanded the reconstruction of the monument. European Croatia should grab this opportunity and finally start undoing the damage done to Croatian society by the politics of hate and the incitement of intolerance among peoples. While reconstructing antifascist monuments, Croatia can join a fight for preserving the values on which the European Union was built. Otherwise, Croatia could become yet another European problem.

Croatian Ghosts from the past in the EU