Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tudjman Draws A Veil Over Jasenovac's Croatian Legacy

Zagreb's rulers are avoiding a fair and frank assessment of the role of Croatians in the murder of tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croats during World War II.
By Drago Hedl

When the elderly Dinko Sakic was extradited to Croatia last year to face charges in connection with his command of the World War II concentration camp run by the Croat fascists (Ustase) at Jasenovac, the Croatian government found itself in a tricky position.


A state that truly sought to resolve the issues raised by its darker past would have welcomed the chance to try Sakic. However his arrival from Argentina proved a first class shock for president Franjo Tudjman and his ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).


Tudjman won quick notoriety in the early days of Croatia's independence from the former Yugoslavia by repeatedly invoking the imagery and language of the Nazi puppet Croat state (NDH) set up under the German occupation forces during the war.


He flirted with bitter history and the far right throughout the first Croat multi-party elections in 1990, and began tinkering with the accepted view that the NDH was no more than a collaborationist Nazi puppet of Germany, run on racist laws.


He sought to rehabilitate the NDH by claiming that it was only an 'expression' of Croatian self-determination, sought election campaign backing from unashamed NDH supporters and notoriously once commented that he was happy to say that his wife "was neither Jewish, nor Serbian".


After he took power, celebrations of the work of NDH leader Ante Pavelic and his World War II military commanders stood in stark contrast to the efforts to erase the record of the Communist Yugoslav partisans, who fought on the other side. Statues were removed and streets and squares named after famous anti-fascists were renamed, often after the World War II Ustase minister Mile Budak.


Thus when Sakic finally faced trial, the Croatian state had two very different priorities to square: to organize a visibly free and fair trial without allowing the issue of the NDH's character to be raised during the hearings.


The international community, led by the United States, and some international Jewish groups such as B'nai B'rith, believed that by bringing Sakic to trial, Croatia had an unique historical opportunity to reassess its Nazi past and detail the true nature of the Ustase regime.


Instead the charges are framed to avoid this. The commander of the Jasenovac camp, dubbed by many as 'The Auschwitz of the Balkans', is accused of war crimes against the civilian population and crimes against humanity in the deaths of about 2,000 people. He has not been accused of genocide, which would have rendered it impossible to avoid taking evidence on the NDH regime and its Nazi inclinations.


On July 8 the court further expanded the indictment to allege that Sakic, 77, personally killed an unidentified inmate for stealing maize and took part in so-called 'manhunts', when camp guards would randomly fire on prisoners inside the camp grounds.


Sakic tends to meet such charges with an ironic smile. He ridiculed witnesses and mocked the court. "When you make such decisions" he told judge Drazen Tripalo, "you should save the state a lot of money and simply take direction from Belgrade".


In 1994 he told a Croatian journalist in Argentina that his conscience was clear, that he slept like a baby and that if called upon to do so again, he would not run the camp any differently.


The camp, which Sakic commanded between April and November 1944, has always drawn historical revisionism, especially when it comes to the number of its victims.


The Yugoslav communist government would routinely broadcast the inflated number of 700,000; nationalist and NDH-friendly historians and politicians count the dead in the 'few thousands'. The most widely cited figure sits between 70 and 80,000. Tudjman estimates the dead at 45,000.


As for Sakic, he has described the conditions in the camp as idyllic, that it was run as a work camp only, where no prisoners were maltreated and where he personally organised the football games. In comparison with the communist camp of Goli Otok, where opponents of Communist leader Josip Broz Tito were imprisoned after 1948, Sakic claimed Jasenovac was a "five star hotel".


Tudjman's cultural advisor Nedeljko Mihanovic even claimed that the prisoners of Jasenovac were even allowed to perform the operetta 'Little Floramy'.


Embarrassingly for Tudjman, he and Sakic actually met during the president's State visit to Argentina in 1994, when the former camp commander was introduced to him as one of several Croat émigrés. It was reported that the two talked for 15 minutes.


Sakic maintains that Tudjman invited him to come to Zagreb and to continue their talk there; Tudjman's office say that Sakic was just one of several émigrés at the gathering and that no special meeting was held.


But Tudjman also pointedly thanked Argentinean president Carlos Menem for his country's willingness to accept Croats - Sakic amongst them - who were escaping retribution after the Nazis and their allies were ejected and defeated in 1945.


Shortly before Sakic's trial went into recess on July 15, CNN broadcast a half-hour programme on Sakic's case, presented by Christiane Amanpour and severely critical of the attitude of the Tudjman government.


Amanpour recalled Tudjman boasting to a group of Army college cadets that he had resolved the 'Serbian question' in Croatia by cutting their numbers in half, from 12 to five percent of the population - i.e.: by forcing them out of the country.


The trial, which began on March 4 this year, is expected to reconvene on August 30. Hopes that it will lead to a frank reassessment of Croatia's fascist past remain slim.


In today's Croatia the President of the Supreme Court Josip Vukovic claims that Croats could not have committed any war crimes in the 'War for Domovina' ('the homeland') after the break up of Yugoslavia, because they were defending their own country. Meanwhile Justice Minister Miroslav Separovic, welcomed and kissed Zlatko Aleksovski, indicted for war crimes at The Hague during the Bosnia wars.


Thus it would be an illusion to expect that Tudjman and his government will be ready to condemn the perpetrators of Ustase fascism for their acts yesterday, given the kind of people they so happily flirt with today.


Drago Hedl is Home Affairs Editor of Rijeka's independent daily Novi List.