Copyright © Reuters 1998
May 1, 1998
Fascist's return will force Croatia to examine past
ZAGREB, - A Croatian pensioner candidly tells of his wartime exploits in a television interview half a world away from Croatia.
Within weeks, his testimony looks set to reverberate through his homeland as it forces the young country to finally re-examine and evaluate its attitude towards its own history.
In an interview on Argentine television in early April, 76-year-old Dinko Sakic told of his time at the helm of one of the most notorious World War Two death camps -- Jasenovac, which came to be known as the ``Auschwitz of the Balkans.''
Sakic was then only 20 and his country was the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), run by the Nazi-backed Ustashe regime which persecuted and killed tens of thousands of Jews, Gypsies, Serbs and anti-fascist Croats.
Jasenovac closed in 1945 when the NDH collapsed and Sakic has since led a quiet life in Argentina.
But present-day Croatia, which has basked in nationalist sentiment ever since gaining independence from communist Yugoslavia in 1991, is now demanding Sakic's extradition to try him for war crimes.
His sudden re-emergence could have a shocking effect, forcing the country to come to terms with its past and end its tightrope walk between its Nazi and anti-fascist World War Two legacies.
``This country has been tampering with history for the past eight years. And once that starts, it's hard to come clean from such a mire,'' history professor Ivo Goldstein told Reuters.
``In the name of a feigned reconciliation of divided Croat-hood, the government tried to promote reconciliation between Ustashe and (anti-fascist) partisan fighters and their descendants. But you can't reconcile two different ideologies,'' he said.
After centuries of foreign rule, Croatia came closest to being an independent state between 1941 and 1945 under the fascist Ustashe regime.
Yet at the same time many Croatians joined the anti-fascist partisan movement led by the Communist Party and Marshal Josip Broz Tito, a Croat who later ruled communist Yugoslavia for more than 30 years.
Franjo Tudjman, who came to power in Croatia just before it seceded in 1991, was one of Tito's youngest generals. Despite his own anti-fascist background, Tudjman himself has fuelled a virulent debate about Croatia's history.
Although condemning Ustashe crimes several times, the 75-year-old president at least once referred to them as the precursors of modern-day Croatia.
``One should realise that the NDH was not just a quisling creation but an expression of the Croatian people's wish to have their own independent and sovereign state,'' Tudjman said in a 1996 interview with Croatian media.
When cracks in the Yugoslav federation started to show, many Ustashe who fled abroad after 1945 and their descendants came back to feature prominently in Tudjman's 1990 presidential campaign.
Several hardliners returned to fight for the dream of Croatian statehood and won high places in the regime.
The opposition of the minority Serb community to the idea of Croatian independence was only strengthened by the nationalist rhetoric, and the fear of a resurgence of the Ustashe was the driving force behind its rebellion.
Although the Ustashe regime was never reinstated, the government often turned a blind eye to the reintroduction of Ustashe symbols.
The kuna currency, first used as paper money under the fascist regime, was reintroduced. Rightist parties started to raise hands in Ustashe salutes during rallies.
A Catholic priest held a mass for Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic, whose pictures crept back into bars and restaurants. The priest was criticised by church officials but remained in orders.
At the same time the government advocated, or tacitly approved, the wiping away of many signs of Croatia's partisan past, despite claiming it was proud of its contribution to the Yugoslav anti-fascist movement in World War Two.
It renamed the ``Square of the Victims of Fascism'' in Zagreb the ``Square of Great Croatian People.'' The same fate befell many streets and schools named after communist leaders. Many partisan monuments were blown up.
``Our authorities have a hypocritical attitude toward our anti-fascist past. They are anti-fascists when the need arises but, when they want to fawn upon the other side, then they are not,'' Goldstein said.
``The reconciliation project was aimed at striking a balance between Ustashe and partisan crimes, in an effort to cast doubt on the gravity of the Ustashe crimes. The consequence of this has been the reappearance of some Ustashe symbols,'' he added.
The project culminated in Tudjman's proposal to re-bury Ustasha and partisan victims, as well as Croats killed in the 1991 war with minority Serbs, side by side in Jasenovac, which would turn the site into a symbol of all-Croat reconciliation.
According to independent Croatian estimates which Croatian Jews regard as most accurate, some 85,000 Serbs, Jews, gypsies and anti-fascist Croats perished in Jasenovac. Serbs and some international Jewish groups put the toll at 600,000.
The return of the former Jasenovac commander is now polarising the Croatian public. While nationalists see it as yet more Western pressure, others think the time has come for Croatia to finally shake off its historical burden.
It took a first step last August when it formally apologised to the Jewish people for crimes committed during World War Two, enabling full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Unlike Germany, which has had 50 years to try and come to terms with its Nazi past, Croatia under communism never had that opportunity. But, seven years after independence, many believe it is high time the debate was held and resolved.
``The truth about Sakic and the NDH must be told and accepted as a precondition for Croatia becoming part of Europe. Because of such fumbling with fascism and anti-fascism, Croatia has lost its anti-fascist identity,'' Goldstein said.
Ivo Banac, a history professor at Yale University and a human rights activist, agrees.
``It is not evil in itself to have fascists in your past -- most European states had them at one point in time or other. But it is a pity if you relate to them benevolently,'' he said.
``It is bad when the state gets involved on the side of those who want to change history.''