On the night of January 26, 5732/1972, a Yugoslavian jet flying 33,330 feet high over Czechoslovakia suddenly exploded and plunged to the ground. All the passengers perished except one survivor, flight attendant Vesna Vulovic, who was strapped in her seat in the tail section. Miraculously, she survived the highest drop with no parachute in recorded history. Responsibility for this horrific crime was claimed by the Ustashe organization.
Forgotten by most people, this group was responsible for some of the worst atrocities of World War II and a few of its demented members still dream of an independent, ethnically pure Croatia free of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies (known today as Roma).
Their story begins just after World War I, when Croats, Serbs and Slovenians were forcibly fused into one state under the rule of King Alexander, enraging the Croats who had enjoyed independence until then. In 5688/1929 the Croats founded a national movement after the assassination of their leader Stjepan Radic, and a year later Ante Pavelic joined its ranks – the man who would become a major war criminal. Pavelic felt that the royal road to Croatian rights was bloodshed and violence, and that same year he was sentenced to death for treason after publicly asserting that his party and others would pursue “their legal activities for the establishment of human and national rights, political freedom and complete independence of both Croatia and Macedonia.”
Safely in exile, he survived to fulfill his dreams when the Nazis marched into Yugoslavia in April 5701/1941 and installed him as Poglavnik, or Führer. By the 19th of that month, Jewish property was already “Aryanized,” a euphism for confiscation. Pavelic met Hitler in June and started laying out barbed wire fences and wooden shacks of concentration camps that eventually snaked throughout Croatia and Bosnia; the largest one was in Jasenovic. Hitler backed him to the hilt, stating, “A nationally intolerant policy must be pursued for fifty years, because too much tolerance on such issues can only do harm.” Typical of his rationalization of the most horrific crimes, Hitler explained to him that “momentarily painful” measures were preferable to “permanent suffering.”
The situation was highly ironic, because although Pavelic’s racist notions fitted in with the Nazis’ way of thinking, the Croats were actually Slavs, long regarded by the Nazis as the lowest underdog man of the racial totem pole. To circumvent the problem, the Ustashe cooked up a new geneology – officially designating themselves as descended not from the despised Slavs, but from the magnificent Goths, forefathers of the German Master Race itself.
On their part, the Nazis were willing to overlook this minor picadello so long as the Croats helped them win their war. However, even some Germans were shocked when Ustashe death squads began their work. Although their main victims were Serbs, this was only because there were so many of them. The less numerous Jews and Gypsies were secondary, but no less hated, targets.
As Minister of Education, Mile Budak, put it: “For the rest, Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, we have three million bullets. We shall kill one third of all Serbs. We shall deport another third, and the rest of them will be forced to become Roman Catholic!”
The Jews were not offered the last two options and it is estimated that only about 20% of Croatia’s approximately 39,000 Jews survived.
To distinguish their two major enemies, Croats legislated that Jews wear armbands with a Magen Dovid and the letter Z, standing for Zidov, Jew, while Serbs had to wear blue armbands with the letter P standing for Pravoslavni, Greek Orthodox.
The Vatican in Rome was strangely (or perhaps not so strangely) noncommittal about this Holocaust committed in the name of its religion, and preserved diplomatic contact with the murderous state for the entire war. Its highest representative, Pope Pius XII, even granted Pavelic a private audience in Rome for which a British Foreign Office memo described him as, “the greatest moral coward of our time.”
In Croatia itself, some churchmen were ardent supporters of the new regime. The bishop of Sarajevo, Ivan Saric, praised the country’s racist laws, stating that “there exists limits to love,” and that it would be “stupid and unworthy of Christ’s disciples to think that the struggle against evil could be waged in a noble way and with gloves on.”
Christianity reverted to the days of the Crusades. As the Catholic paper, Katolicki Tjednik, put it: “Now G-d has decided to use other means. He will set up missions, European missions, world missions. They will be upheld not by priests, but by army commanders led by Hitler. The sermons will be heard with the help of cannons, tanks and bombers. The language of these sermons will be international.”
Not all Germans were delighted at the atrocities because to them there was little difference between Croats and Serbs, who could also help their war effort. In addition, they found the Croatian methods a little crude, because unlike Nazis who preferred to commit war crimes out of town or behind barbed wire, the Croats did what they pleased in public. Not only army commanders complained; even Himmler’s agents wrote to their boss complaining that the Ustashe acted “in a bestial manner not only against males of conscription age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croatians have liquidated… is about 300,000.”
To their credit, many Croatians were so disgusted with their leaders that they fled to the mountains and forests and joined the partisans.
To appease Croatia’s numerous Moslems, Education and Culture Minister, Mile Budak, announced,
“The Croatian State is Christian. It is also a Moslem State where our people are of the Mohammedan religion,” and to cement this understanding, Pavelic built them a new Mosque.
Nevertheless, many Moslems were persecuted and Moslem clerics roundly condemned discrimination against Jews and Serbs on three occasions with special religious declarations (fatawas).
To counter the clerics’ influence, the Nazis sent in a special representative, none other than Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the exiled Mufti of Yerushalayim. His job was to persuade Moslems to join an SS fighting unit. Once again the Nazis had an ideological problem recruiting Moslems into the SS which was officially reserved for people of purest Aryan blood, and once again a myth was invented that they were actually descended from the finest Gothic stock.
About 20,000 young Moslems were recruited into the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (scimitar), their heads covered with red (parade) or grey (active service) fezzes adorned with the SS death’s head and eagle. Since most Croatian Jews were dead or incarcerated in camps by this time, it is unlikely that this division contributed significantly towards the Holocaust, although the division was involved in a few atrocities. While training in France in 5703/1943, the Moslems had the distinction of being the only SS division to revolt when Communist infiltrators persuaded some of them to rise up and kill their officers.
The Ustashe weakened after 5703/1943 when Germany began losing and finally crumbled soon after the German surrender in May 5705/1945. Pavelic and his henchmen fled to Austria with the flood of refugees escaping Soviet domination, and many of them managed to find refuge in Argentina, a major destination of war criminals in those days. The Allies were reluctant to arrest Pavelic for political reasons while he was in Europe.
As a 5707/1947 report explained, “Numbers of Croatian guerrillas in Yugoslavia” were “fighting and dying in his name” against Tito, the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, “in the eyes of the Vatican, Pavelic is a militant Catholic, a man who erred, but who erred fighting for Catholicism.
It is for this reason that subject now enjoys Vatican protection… Pavelic is known to be in contact with the Vatican which sees in him the militant Catholic who yesterday fought the (Greek) Orthodox Church and today is fighting Communist Atheism…
“For the reasons given above, he is receiving the protection of the Vatican whose view of the entire Pavelic question is that since the Croat State does not exist and since the Tito regime cannot be expected to give anybody a fair trial, the subject should not be turned over to the present Yugoslav regime… Pavelic’s crimes cannot be forgotten, but he can only be tried by Croats representing a Christian and Democratic government.”
The involvement of the Catholic Church in the overseas escape of the Ustashe and other Nazis is too extensive to be discussed here. For decades, Argentine President, Juan Peron, refused to extradite even one of these criminals.
After a spurt of terrorism, the Ustashe quieted down, but remnants remain. A doddering grey head in Argentina or closet rebel in Europe will still greet his fellow conspirator with the salutation dating back to the Nineteenth Century: “Za dom!” (For homeland), and receive the reply: “Spremni!” (We are ready).
(Partial source: The Real Odessa, by Uki Goni, Granta Publications, 2/3 Hanover Yard, London, 2002)