Monday, April 11, 2005

A Missed Anniversary

Sunday was the 64th aniversary of the date when the "Indepedent state of Croatia" (NDH) was declared on the heels of the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia. Its leaders, the Ustashe, matched their Nazi sponsors in hatred and often exceeded them in brutality; and while they have killed tens of thousands of Jews and helped the Nazis kill even more, their preferred targets were Orthodox Serbs.

While allegations of Vatican's complicity in Nazi crimes have been raised but remain controversial and heavily disputed, there is no disputing the role of the Catholic Church in Ustasha crimes. The NDH was militantly Catholic, and the focus of its genocidal policy were the "Eastern Schismatics," as Catholics saw all Orthodox believers.

With the full knowledge and blessing of the Church, the Ustashe launched a policy of murder, expulsion and forced conversion of Serbs almost immediately after establishing the NDH - and long before Hitler's endloesung. The methods used by the Ustasha and the joy with which they murdered horrified even some German observers. In addition to massacring Serb civilians and hunting royalist and communist partisans, NDH units also fought for the Reich, mainly in the East.

After the war was lost, Croat clergy used its Vatican connections to smuggle notable Ustashe and Nazis out of Europe; the Allies did not interfere, as the same organization smuggled valuable Nazis into the West, where they would be enlisted for the looming standoff with the Soviets.

Alojzije Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb and the vicar to Ustasha poglavnik Ante Pavelić, was arrested and imprisoned by the Communists for his complicity in Ustasha crimes. He died under house arrest in 1960. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1998, setting off a storm of protests from Serbs and Jews.

After the war, thousands of NDH troops were captured and executed by the Yugoslav Communist forces, along with other non-Communist militias (many of which collaborated with the Germans). Their deaths are now referred to as the "Path of the Cross" (križni put).

In 1990, Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union - funded in part by Ustasha emigres - won the general elections in Croatia, and proceeded to rehabilitate the NDH, sometimes in name but more often in fact. Most criticism has focused on Tudjman's reintroduction of the checkerboard flag, but a far worse offender has been the resurrection of NDH-era vocabulary. Tudjman even introduced the "new" currency, named after the NDH currency of 1941-45. Furthermore, Tudjman resurrected the anti-Serb rhetoric of Pavelić, setting off a civil war after Croatia's secession from Yugoslavia. The war resulted in almost-complete expulsion of Serbs who lived in territories claimed by Croatia, something even Pavelić failed to accomplish. The day Croatian armies entered the capital of the rebel Serb republic is now a national holiday, "Homeland Gratitude Day."

Tudjman died in 2000, and the successive governments visibly moderated their position on Serbs under the pressure of international public opinion. But Tudjman's NDH-inspired imagery, language and holidays remain. The Catholic Church is refusing to admit wrongdoing in the NDH, and is proud of its support for Tudjman. So one should not be surprised that small groups of open NDH sympathizers celebrated Sunday's anniversary, but that there weren't more of them.

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