CROATIA: MYTH AND REALITY
C. Michael McAdams
C. Michael McAdams
MYTH: "THE FASCIST FINDERS"
Reality: Like every country emerging from communism, Croatia has thrown off Marxist symbols and place names and replaced them with symbols representing Croatia's history and culture. There are no fascist symbols on Croatia's streets. No attempt was made to destroy Holocaust records. Fascism was not glorified in Croatia.
Looking for fascism in Croatia - A Journalistic Pastime
For years the leftists of the world warned of the resurgence of fascism, but only after the fall of the Berlin wall did that threat become a reality. In the mid-1990s, neo-Nazis were running rampant in every part of Germany, especially in the formerly communist east. The Italian Parliament had a number of born- again Fascists and six served in the government. A member of the Mussolini family was again a serious political power to be reckoned with and the Fascist Italian Social Movement - Movement Sociale Italiano was growing throughout the country. In April 1996 elections the right-wing "Tricolor Flame" movement took twenty-three seats in the Italian Senate and thirty-four in the Chamber of Deputies.
French President Francois Mitterrand revealed that he was an ardent supporter of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II led by Marshal Pétain, who was still honored by many in France. In 1994 and 1995 elections, right wing candidates gained throughout Western Europe, especially in Belgium and Austria. A right wing candidate who praised the work ethic of Nazi Germany, won twentythree per cent of the vote in Austria.
With such activity in Germany, Austria, and Italy, where Fascism was born and flourished, it perhaps seemed odd that so many in the Western press were in a feeding frenzy looking for fascism in tiny Croatia. It seemed especially odd given the fact that Croatia's president and many of his supporters fought against the fascists during World War II. The reason for unrelenting fascist finding in Croatia could be found in the Serbian propaganda of the previous fifty years.
At the end of World War II, the Serbian Cetniks who had by-and-large collaborated with the German and Italian forces, went over to the Partizans en masse, effectively taking control of the army and government by 1945. The legends initiated by the royal Yugoslav government in 1942 grew under the communists in the post-War period. With every monument, every street name, every book, and every film, the heroic role of the "Serbian" Partizans was extolled, the hated role of the Croatian Ustase decried, and the role of the Cetniks ignored.
Based upon the limited information accessible from tbe Serbian capital of Belgrade, most Western writers and historians, and even some Croatians, took up the myths and spread them throughout the world. Outside communist Yugoslavia in much of the West, the very word "Croatian" came to become associated with Nazis, evil, and terrorism. In 1974, an American journalist wrote: "Those who call themselves "Croatians" are all Yugoslavs who collaborated with the Nazis." In Croatia, displaying the ancient Croatian coat of arms without the obligatory red star above it, or the very singing of the national anthem, written in the 1830s, became serious crimes punishable by imprisonment. The notorious prison on Goli Otak (the Naked Island) came to be known as the "singers" prison."
When Croatia regained its independence in 1991, it removed the hated red star from its coat-of arms and replaced it on its flag with the traditional chessboard shield used for centuries, the Western press went wild with indignation. One columnist described the streets of Zagreb as being awash in "the Fascist coat-of arms and other trinkets." But in fact, the Fascist coat of arms, the Fasces, was nowhere to be found in Croatia. It was, however, the symbol of the United States Senate. Those who called the ancient twenty-five field chessboard a fascist symbol, were seemingly unaware that it had been used by the previous Serbian regimes, both royal and communist. It apparently became fascist only when the red star was removed.
If it were not bad enough that the streets were awash in fascist symbols, other writers found the very streets themselves to be offensive. Foreign Policy editor Charles Maynes, writing in the New York Times, wrote that streets were renamed to honor "the memory of war criminals" which was equal to naming "public squares for Adolf Hitler." When pressed for specifics, Maynes could only site an effort to name a school and a street after Mile Budak, a writer, intellectual, and briefly (from April 10, 1941, through October 6, 1942) war-time minister of education. Maynes misidentified him as the war-time Minister of Justice who played "a leading role" in the Ustase government.
In fact, a proposal was put forth by a private citizen to the city of Zagreb in 1992 to name a street for Budak. It was rejected because of Budak's war-time status as well as the fact that there was already a Budak Street named after an unrelated Partizan general that had been there for years. Yet Western reporters continued to point to that Budak Street as proof of creeping fascism. A school was also briefly named for Mile Budak. That too was a local decision that was overturned by the very government was accused of doing the naming.
In France, Marshal Pétain was still honored. Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Axis Field Marshal who, soldier for soldier, inflicted some of the greatest casualties on any World War II Allied power, remained a national hero in Finland. He was also the subject of a U.S. postage stamp. Yet a schoolhouse named after Mile Budak was equal to "Adolf Hitler Square" in the eyes of some in the media.
It is a fact that many streets were renamed in Croatia and in formerly communist countries the world over for obvious reasons. The Avenija bratstva i jedinstva (Avenue of Brotherhood and Unity) celebrating the unity of Serbs and Croatians seemed somehow out of place as Serbian shells rained on Croatian cities. It was changed to Slavonska honoring, Slavonia or eastern most Croatia, much which was Serbian occupied. For the same reasons, few Croatians wanted to live on Belgradska Avenija (Belgrade venue). Leningradska (Leningrad), which even the Russians could not live with, Lenjinov trg (Lenin Square), Moskovska (Moscow), Trg Oktobar revolucije (Square of he October Revolution in the Serbian language, not Croatian), and Socijalisticke revolucije (Socialist Revolution) were all renamed.
After the experiences of 1991-1995, few Croatians wanted to honor the "Yugoslav People's Army," which had wiped entire cities from the face of the earth. Changed were such street names as Prilaz JNA (Yugoslav People's Army), Proleterskih brigade (Proletariat Brigade), XII Proleterskih brigade, 1 Moslav brigade, Trg 10 Zagreb korpusa (Square of the 10th Zagreb Corps), 13. Prolitariate Brigade, 34 Divizije, and 8 Maja 1945, the date, again in Serbian not Croatian, of the communist victory in World War II.
Trg Republike honoring the Yugoslav Republic was returned to its pre-communist name Trg Ban Jelacic honoring a 19th century Viceroy and military hero of the 1848 Revolution who abolished serfdom or tenant farming. An equestsian statue of the Viceroy was removed by the communists after World War II, and the square was renamed for the Yugoslav Republic. Although thought to have been destroyed, the Croatians recovered the disassembled statue ancl replaced it in the square in 1991.
Square of the Victims of Fascism
It was the renaming of Trg Zrtavu fasizma (Square of the victims of fascism) that brought the greatest outcry from, the Western press and which actually started the myth that Croatia was renaming streets for fascists. Before World War II this square, which is in fact the center of a traffic circle or circus, was known only as "N" Square. During World War II it was known as "the mosque" for the mosque dedicated by the government in the middle of the circle. In 1945, the communists blew-up the minarets, jailed the imams, turned the mosque into a museum honoring the Liberation War and renamed the square. Most citizens of Zagreb continued to call it "N". After independence in 1991, it was renamed Trg Hrvatskih Velikana (Square of Great Croatians) since most of the streets that intersect at the circle are named for famous Croatian historical figures such as King Zvonimir. None of the streets were named for fascists.
With all of the outcry in the Western press over the dumping of communist street names, some place names in Zagreb were overlooked by the fascist finders. One of the main streets in Zagreb, and fiome to the U.S. embassy, is Andrije Hebranga, named for the founder and leader of the Croatian World War II Partizan state that fought against the Axis. In fact, contrary to the fascist finding press, Zagreb continued to have streets honoring communists and Yugoslavs. Among them were Ljudevit Gaj, 19th century advocate of the Yugoslav idea and of a single "Illyrian" language of Serbo-Croatian. Another was Bishop Strossmayer, 19th century advocate of a single Yugoslav state.
Other street names that remain unchanged and thus went unnoticed by fascist finders honored Western nations and leaders such as Britanski trg (British Square), Francuske republice (French Republic), Kennedy trg, and Roosvelt trg. Nor did they point out a street named for Nikola Tesla, the famed Croatian- born Serbian-American inventor. Obviously pointing out these names did nothing to bolster the fascist finders' case. Since few in the Western press tnew anything about Croatia, they did not point to Starcevic trg after Ante Starcevic, considered "Father of his country" or Kvaternikov, named Eugene Kvaternik cofounders of 19th century Croatian nationalist "Party of Right" that gave birth to modern Croatian nationalism.
The fiction about Croatia's "Nazi past" began to feed upon itself, growing with each retelling as one reporter cited another unnamed reporter as a source. In September 1994, Forward, a respected Jewish journal published in Washington D.C. breathlessly reported that the Croatian Government was destroying files that could be used to track down World War II war criminals.
Cited as the source of the article was an official report by the Australian Attorney General's office. The article did not mention that the research for the report was conducted between 1987 and early 1990, before Croatia declared independence and before there was a Croatian government. In fact, the report specifically stated that it was the communist Yugoslav Federal Secretariat of Justice in Belgrade, Serbia, that denied access to materials. The article also failed to note that the report, compiled by the Australian Special Investigations Unit (SIU), was written by a single individual after the SIU was disbanded.
Despite statements by a number of scholars, Jewish, Gentile, Croatian, and American, the claim that Croatians destroyed Holocaust records continued to circulate. Finally, in December of 1994, the author of the report, Graham T. Blewitt, then Deputy Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, wrote the editor of Forward demanding a retraction and stating that he had experienced superb cooperation from the Croatian government. Even the Vice Chairman of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, wrote to defend the Croatian government and to condemn Belgrade authorities where he received "a lot of promises but no action."
With each new layer of myth, some journalists sought not only to link the young Croatian state to fascism, but to drive a wedge between Christian and Jewish Croatians. Even when the Croatian government made extraordinary efforts to strengthen ties with Croatia's Jewish communits fascist finders sought to sabotage such endeavors.
On March 25, 1994, the Oscar-winning film Schindler's List opened in Zagreb. The film, which chronicled the deliverance of 1,100 Jews from Nazi extermination camps during World War II by Oskar Schindler, had more than a few Croatian connections. The Oscar- winning co-producer, Branko Lustig, was a Croatian Jew who had survived the death camps, and much of the postproduction work was done in Croatia. For reasons of historical accuracy, actual filming was done by Croatian crews in Krakow, Poland. Of the production work by numerous Croatian artists Lustig said: "Since I couldn't film in Zagreb, I brought Zagreb to me" referring to the numerous film makers from Croatia who worked on the film. The gala opening night was sponsored by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman who invited Lustig, the entire diplomatic corps, representatives of the United Nations, the leadership of the Red Cross, the European Union and the leaders of Croatia's Jewish communities. Tudjman was the only head of state to personally initiate the opening of the film and to attend its premier.
After the showing, a somber Tudjman, with Lustig and Ljubica Stefan, a Croatian recipient of the Medal of Righteous Among Nations awarded by Yad Vashem, at his side, said:
Schindler's List is the strongest work of art I have ever seen on the subject of the war and evil - the evil which we had to live through and that I myself fought against in the four-year war against Nazi-Fascism, with the aim that we would never again have to experience something like this.
Unfortunately, we are witnessing similar events in our time, not in the same form but nevertheless the same. This testimony of the Holocaust should be seen by every person so that it will never happen again, in any form.
Steven Spielberg, the co-producer of the film, lauded the cooperation of the Croatian government and people in making the film. Spielberg commented "I felt everyone showed a great understanding and a wish to use the film and its message to oppose a new holocaust which...is happening today in Bosnia." The following day Tudjman presented Lustig the Croatian Order of Prince Trpimir.
Most of the American press, including the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun and the Voice of America reported the event accurately and quoted both Lustig and Tudjman. Additionally, the event was broadcast by satellite throughout North America and seen by tens of thousands on television.
Enter John Pomfret and the Washington Post on March 26. Mr. Pomfret had developed a reputation as a leading fascist finder in Croatia and as one not above producing outright fiction to smear Tudjman and the Croatian government. Pomfret's article dwelled on resurgent fascism in Croatia and intentionally mislead his readers about Branko Lustig's comments which compared the Serbian brutality at the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991 to the Nazis in Warsaw. The article went on to repeat the myriad myths of Nazi street names and noted: "On Zagreb's streets, and in cities and towns throughout the republic, newsstands hawk Ustashe paraphernalia --- swastikas, the Fascist coat-of-arms and other trinkets."
At that time in the United States, swastika graffiti could be found throughout the country. Nazi memorabilia md books were hawked at "militaria" shows and gun shows weekly. Young "skinhead" neo-Nazis and motorcycle gangs all proudly displayed Nazi insignia. Interestingly, neither this author or any of the assembled diplomats, officials, or leaders of the Jewish community, saw any such objects in Zagreb.
Finally, resorting to outright invention, Pomfret wrote: "The 70-year old president [Tudjman] left the movie theater without commenting." Despite the fact that thoudands saw and heard Tudjman's speech and it was quoted dozens of newspapers, the Washington Post saw no need to withdraw the story. Branko Lustig later wrote:
Though denied any recognition for my achievements by the regime in the former Yugoslavia, the current government headed by President Tudjman has taken an active role in publicizing and commending my work, and personally initiated a premier of Schindler's List in Zagreb and made firm and moving statements afterwards.
Noting that Tudjman had been praised by the President of the Zagreb Jewish Community, the Anti-Difamation League, the Chief Rabbi of the Aish HaTorah College, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commitee, Lustig commented on the fascist finders:
The dissemmation of this kind of misinformation will only erode the growing positive relations between the Croatian government and Croatia's Jewish population. I believe that is more important to investigate who is behind these accusations and allegations, and to uncover their motivations to arrest and destroy the existing collaborative efforts between the Croatian government and its Jewish community.
There was no need to investigate who was behind the myth making. Fascist finding and myth making had become a journalistic past time for some reporters. Their motivations were known only to themselves.
Author's Preface to the Third Edition
Croatia and the Croatians
Myth: "Croatians asked to join Yugoslavia
Myth: "Croatian Assassinated King Alexander
Myth: "All Croatians were Fascists
Myth: "The Basket of Human Eyeballs"
Myth: "Two Million Serbs Died"
Myth: "Croatians Executed American Airmen"
Myth: "No Retribution Against Croatia"
Myth: "Borders were Drawn to Benefit Croatia"
Myth: "The Serbo-Croatian Language"
Myth: "Tudjman and Milosevic were Late Converts"
Myth: "Serbs had no Guaranteed Rights in Croatia"
Myth: "The Fascist Finders"
Myth: "The Croatian Coat of Arms is Fascist"
Myth: "The Fascist Ferret"