Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Blanka Matkovic - On Jasenovac

Blanka Matkovic
Warwick University - Faculty Social Sciences Politics and International Studies

Public engagement and media coverage - On Jasenovac

The eminent American historian James M. McPherson said that 'that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue, between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning.
The unending quest of historians for understanding the past — that is, revisionism — is what makes history vital and meaningful...Without revisionist historians, who have done research in new sources and asked new and nuanced questions, we would remain mired in one or another of these stereotypes.'
However, not everywhere in the world was such a quest for new knowledge allowed.
Stathis Kalyvas stated that any study of violence must consider the thorny problem of data: most available indicators of political violence tend to be unreliable and inconsistent across nations and over time, and the available data are overly aggregate. Therefore, data on violence can be wildly distorted; meaning victim numbers could be overestimated or underestimated. Many distortions result from the political process, and they do not only affect the information on the total number of fatalities but also each side’s share. (1) Timothy Snyder argues that by repeating exaggerated numbers, Europeans release into their culture ‘millions of ghosts of people who never lived’. That means that once history is removed, the numbers go upward and memories go inward. (2) These authors highlight the problem of demographic losses in circumstances when they can be manipulated. This should be especially taken into account when researching demographic losses and war crimes in those countries where totalitarian regimes took power when the war ended. After all, history is written by the victors.
In the Soviet sphere of influence and in Yugoslavia, investigating war and post-war crimes committed by communist regimes, as well as a revision of the 'official history' about the events that took place during the Second World War, was not possible until 1990, after the democratic changes in Eastern Europe. Resolution 1481/2006 of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly strongly condemned human rights violations committed by totalitarian communist regimes and the 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism stated that these crimes were comparable with Nazi crimes but, very few people have been tried for committing such crimes. Moreover, 26 years later, in former Yugoslav republics this topic is still a matter of political and scientific debates, and those who dare to ask 'new and nuanced questions' are often labeled as the revisionists who should be treated by medical specialists.
I started my own research project in spring 2006 with the aim of asking 'new' questions and searching for new evidence. I was conducting it on my own until autumn 2007 when Stipo Pilic joined me. Together we have been researching in all archives in Croatia and Slovenia and our findings have been published in numerous academic papers and books. Our paper 'Postwar Concentration camp Jasenovac: Witness Testimonies and Newer Archival Sources', published by the Institute for Historical Sciences of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zadar in December 2014, raised particular interest. Several authors previously concluded that this camp continued to exist after the end of the Second World War, but their conclusions were based on testimonies and they were often not taken seriously. Documents found in the State Archive in Sisak and published for the first time in our paper finally proved that this camp did indeed exist between 1945 and 1948, and possibly longer. (3) Our findings also indicate that many postwar concentration camps had been set up by local police, with Soviet advice and guidance of some kind, such as the one in Jasenovac where the commander of the POW camp in 1946 was Anatolij Avramov, probably of Russian origin.(4)
According to the 'official history' and the Memorial Site Jasenovac, there are no documents or witnesses who can confirm that POWs were indeed kept in the Jasenovac camp. The buildings of the former Ustasha camp were in ruins, rendering them completely unusable for prisoner accommodation. The group of about 600 prisoners, known as the ‘Sisak Forced Labour Institution - Jasenovac Detail’, was brought from the ‘Sisak Forced Labour Institution’ to Jasenovac and kept there from the autumn 1945 until the autumn 1947. There were no killings in Jasenovac and the columns of prisoners-of-war returning from Bleiburg did not pass through or stay in Jasenovac. (5) However, all the documents found in the State Archive in Sisak, supported by the documents from the Croatian State Archives in Zagreb, confirm just the opposite. (6) What is important to mention here is the problem of the victims of post-war camp Jasenovac. According to the documents of the State Commission for the Determination of Crimes Committed by Occupiers and their Collaborators, somewhere between 6 May 1945 and 31 May 1946 two police officers of the former NDH - Josip Batarelo and Marko Radić - were executed in Jasenovac. (7) Both names are listed as the ‘victims of fascist terror’. A source for the first one was a book published in Yugoslavia in 1974 and for the second one the list of victims from 1964. (8) This was not the only case when serious mistakes had been made (for further reading see first half of my MPhil thesis Case studies chapter). Not only were the archival sources not used as evidence, but the Jasenovac Memorial Site keeps ignoring them once documents like these are presented to the public. If the victims of the post-war camp Jasenovac are continued to be added to the list of those killed in that camp before May 1945, it is not possible to say how many of them actually died in Jasenovac during the Second World War.
Moreover, in the last several years it has been discovered that many victims who allegedly died in Jasenovac during the Second World War had been killed elsewhere. For example, according to Yad Vashem database Bencion Kaveson from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovuina, died on 12 May 1945 in Valetta, Malta, while Fric Oppenheimer from Vrsac, Serbia, was killed in the concentration camp Sajmiste, Serbia, in 1941. However, according to the Memorial Site Jasenovac website they were both killed in Jasenovac in 1942.



In January 2015 we wrote to the Memorial Site Jasenovac and Croatian Ministry of Culture asking them to update their 'official history' with new evidence. In May 2015 we also wrote to the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic whose adviser is the director of the Memorial Site Jasenovac. We repeated our request in October 2015. In January 2016 we wrote to the new minister of culture Zlatko Hasanbegovic. Nobody has ever replied and 'official history' has never been updated.
This example demonstrates how far Croatian society, including official politics, is from coming to terms with the past, particularly crimes committed by the Communist regime. Silence of the institutions responsible for researching this topic opens more space for further manipulations.
'Without revisionist historians, who have done research in new sources and asked new and nuanced questions, we would remain mired in one or another of these stereotypes.'

1) Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 48-49.
2) Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin (London, 2011), p. 406.
3) Stipo Pilic and Blanka Matkovic, ‘Poslijeratni zarobljenicki logor Jasenovac prema svjedocanstvima i novim arhivskim izvorima’, Radovi, No. 56 (2014), pp. 323-408.
4) Državni arhiv u Sisku (State Archive in Sisak), f. 321, Mjesni narodni odbor Jasenovac, u. z. za 1946., 777. DASK, f. 019, NOK Novska, kut. 3, Kotarski gradjevinski aktiv, Zapisnici – Zapisnik od 1. VIII. 1946.
5) Memorial Site Jasenovac – FAQ. Available at (15 May 2015).
6) Pilic and Matkovic, ‘Poslijeratni zarobljenicki logor Jasenovac’, pp. 323-408.
7) Hrvatski Drzavni Arhiv, Zagreb (Croatian State Archives), f. 306, ZKRZ, kut. 379, series Zh 28326 and 28327.
8) Marinko Peric, Sinj i Cetinska krajina u borbi za slobodu (Sinj, 1974), p. 136. Jelka Smreka and Djordje Mihovilovic, Poimenicni popis zrtava koncentracijskoga logora Jasenovac 1941 – 1945 (Jasenovac, 2007), pp. 175, 1361.

Co-author Stipo Pilic talking about our paper "Postwar Concentration Camp Jasenovac"
Co-authors Stipo Pilic and Igor Vukic talking about the book "Jasenovac camps-Research"

Interview with Stipo Pilic, Hrvatski list, 20 January 2015
Stipo Pilic: Camp Jasenovac continued to operate after the Second World War, Vijenac, Matica hrvatska, No.546, February 2015
Interview with the co-author Josip Dukic, Slobodna Dalmacija, 29 June 2011
Interview with the co-author Josip Dukic, Slobodna Dalmacija, 8 March 2011
In my work I strongly support the right of every family to know where and how their loved ones died. This is why I also support the work of other individuals and organisations whose research is driven by the same goal.
An Italian association studying the History of Venezia Giulia and Dalmatia between 1943 and 1945 is currently researching on a soldier's story who probably died in Zavala, Herzegovina, killed by commmunist partisans in October 1944. During the massacre, it is told that the partisans drowned in the river some captured soldiers from the 49th Italian legion of San Marco. If you have any information about this event, please contact me orAssociazione "Comitato 10 Febbraio" (
Department of Politics and International Studies
Social Sciences Building, The University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL, United Kingdom

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