Croatia's Willingness To Tolerate Fascist Legacy Worries Many
When Croatian member of parliament Marinko Liovic, president of the Association of Veterans of the Homeland War, commented in June that "dogs, cats, women, Serbs and Jews were barred from his cellar," Croatia seemed barely startled by the comment.
A month before, a group of anti-fascists marking May 9 - the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, once known here as The Day of the Victory Over Fascism - were attacked by neo-fascists in a Zagreb square formerly known as The Square of the Victims of Fascism.
The anti-fascists had gathered there to demand that the Square be given back its old name; the neo-fascists were there to break up their protest while the police watched.
But the decision to rename The Square of the Victims of Fascism as The Square of The Great Men of Croatia was taken by the cabinet of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. This is why efforts to slow the spread of neo-fascism, especially the renewed interest in Nazi Germany's puppet Ustashe (NDH) regime in wartime Croatia, make such little ground. For it was president Tudjman who once notoriously said that he was "happy that his wife was neither a Serb or a Jew".
Thus there was never much chance that the Croatian government would take steps to ban the publication of a Croatian translation of the pre-war ramblings of Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler in his book 'Mein Kampf'.
Famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal knew this, and bypassed Zagreb entirely in his efforts to bar the book. Instead he wrote on August 23 to Edmund Stoiber, president of Germany's state of Bavaria, requesting their support for a ban. Bavaria, which formerly held the copyright specifically for the purpose of blocking politically motivated republications, obliged.
But the protest has only served to underline the free rein presently granted extremists by Zagreb. Croatian state prosecutor Berislav Zivkovic immediately asserted that he would not seek a ban on Mein Kampf, while the publisher, Franjo Letic, welcomed the prosecutor's support. He said he was happy that "Croatia's authorities were more mature than its intellectuals, who enjoy covering themselves with ashes without pride, whenever pressure comes from abroad".
In apparent denial of the documented horrors of wartime Croatian concentration camps like Jasenovac, dubbed by some as 'The Auschwitz of the Balkans', Letic professed astonishment at Wiesenthal's request.
He even claimed that there was no extermination of Jews in Croatia during World War II, "since if that were true there would be no Jews in Croatia today". (The number who died at Jasenovac is disputed. The wartime regime's sympathisers count the dead in the 'few thousands', but the most respected figure sits between 70 and 80,000. Tudjman has previously estimated the dead at 45,000.)
Proving the existence of a ready audience for fascism in Croatia, Mein Kampf sold more than 600 copies in hardback within days at the remarkable price of 500 kuna (75 dollars each) - roughly equivalent to a week's average salary here.
The Government of Bavaria could not force a ban on the book, since the 50-year copyright has expired, but it did urge German foreign minister Joschka Fischer to press his Croatian opposite number Mate Granic to have Hitler's book banned in Croatia. Zagreb had to brace itself for stiff questioning from Fischer on why Croatia continues to take such a benevolent view of fascism in general and Mein Kampf in particular.
Proving the existence of a ready audience for fascist thought in Croatia, Mein Kampf sold more than 600 copies in hardback within days at the remarkable price of 500 kuna (75 dollars each) - roughly equivalent to a week's average salary here.
Not all Croats support the republication. In an apparent bid to mollify the Germans, Croatian Culture Minister Boza Biskupic told state TV that the publishing of Hitler's book was a 'shame'. And one of Croatia's best known independent intellectuals, Predrag Matvejevic, vice-president of the freedom of speech NGO International PEN, wrote the Speaker of the Croatian Parliament to complain that Croatia's social climate was increasingly conducive to such "scandalous and compromising acts".
Aside from the aforementioned renaming of the Square of the Victims of Fascism, he mentioned the destruction of thousands of anti-fascist monuments across the country and the holding of Catholic masses in memory of the Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic. At the political level, he cited the decision to rename the Croatian currency as the kuna - after the old Ustashe era coin - and the state's tolerance of political leaders who publicly wear black uniforms and Ustashe insignia.
And he referred to government figures such as the late defence minister Gojko Susak's public use of fascist salutes, and not least Tudjman himself, who wrote a book called Wastelands of Historical Reality, which had to be re-edited for foreign editions to remove anti-Semitic passages.
Slavko Goldstein, one of the most famous and influential Jewish intellectuals in Croatia, has often warned of the danger from newly flourishing Neo-Nazi and Neo-Ustashe groups. But he also warns that they also endanger Croatia's international standing, particularly in the wake of Zagreb's resistance to surrendering indicted war crimes suspects on its soil.
After stonewalling the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for several months, Zagreb nearly faced UN sanctions for its refusal to cooperate with the court. Goldstein draws a direct link between this increasingly entrenched neo-Ustashism, as he dubs it, and Croatia's willingness to defy the international community.
"If Croatian state policy and Croatia's political opposition had quickly and resolutely denounced this neo-Ustashism and stopped its spread, Croatia might not have had to deal with the Tribunal in The Hague," he says. If Croatia persists in these attitudes, it could lead to difficulties for Croatia's future with the European Union and NATO, as well as hinder Croatian efforts to share in EU aid and development programmes like PHARE.
But as long as the present Croatian authorities, headed by Tudjman, remain reluctant to renounce the heritage of its fascist past during World War II, deeper changes in Croatian society and its international standing will never be achieved.
Dragotin Hedl is the editor of the home news section of the independent daily Novi list in Rijeka.