By Brian Gallagher
This year marks the 75th anniversary of what is known in Croatia as the Bleiburg Tragedy. This was when thousands of Croatian troops who fought with the Nazi puppet Independent State of Croatia (NDH), who had surrendered at Bleiburg in Austria, were handed over to Communist Yugoslav forces – by the British Army no less. Subsequently they were placed on death marches, in which many thousands, including civilians, were machine gunned and thrown into pits. Knowledge of these massacres were suppressed by the communist authorities and only became widely known about in Croatia during the 1990s. Mass graves were uncovered, and continue to be.
The matter has become controversial, due to commemorations of the event each year being criticised for fascist overtones. Often such criticism seems ideological. Many people both in Croatia and outside of it, have yet to come to terms with the crimes of Yugoslav communism. Much better for them to discuss a few people with inappropriate NDH insignia at memorial events than what actually occurred in 1945, which would show Yugoslav communism – and communism itself – in a very poor light.
Coverage often seems reluctant to go into details of the massacre. One recent item, ‘Croatia’s Controversial Bleiburg Commemoration Cancelled Due to Pandemic’ from the Balkan Insight website, managed to refer only to ‘killings’ by Yugoslav forces, which may leave the casual reader perhaps thinking that they were killed in battle rather than being the victims of crimes against humanity.
In 2003, the journalist Peter Popham wrote an item for The Independent titled ‘Croatians gather to mourn victims of 1945 atrocities’ in which he said: ‘It is a story that ought also to be well known in Britain, because it was largely due to British policies that the terrible events occurred.’ The irony is that it was once much better known in the UK. Indeed, it was a minor national issue. Starting in the 1970s and going through the 1980s it was the subject of books and television documentaries. However, the focus was often on the Russian Cossacks that were handed over to Stalin. The Croats being handed over to Tito were also discussed. As indeed were others – many Slovenes perished as did a number of Serbs.
A book entitled The Last Secret by Nicholas Bethell – later Lord Bethell – was published in 1974, followed by works by Nikolai Tolstoi, the most famous being The Minister and the Massacres. Tolstoy’s book was withdrawn after a bizarre legal case which concerned a leaflet, rather than the book itself. The case was brought by Lord Aldington – British Brigadier Toby Low in 1945 – regarding allegations made in the leaflet about his responsibility. He won the case.
On television, respected journalist John Tusa in 1984 provided a segment on the BBC’s Timewatch programme entitled The Klagenfurt Affair. In 1991, the documentary maker Laurence Rees, who would later be lauded for his series The Nazis – a Warning from History, produced A British Betrayal which examined what had occurred.
An academic symposium on the issue, Forcible Repatriation After WWII, was held in 1987 in Oxford. Further, in 1986 the Yalta Memorial was built in the South Kensington in London, near the Victoria and Albert Museum, for all those who perished.
Then, as now, there was opposition to such information being made to the public. An earlier Yalta Monument built in 1982 was vandalised and replaced by the 1986 one – which still stands. The BBC received complaints about the Laurence Rees documentary. In a 2010 blog entry, Reacting to History on www.www2history.com, he said: “The film got me into a lot of trouble. There was a campaign mounted to get me sacked from the BBC and various complaint actions were launched against the film. Despite the fact that no factual error was ever uncovered in the work, I was still hugely attacked for making it.”
As the 90s drew on, the issue drifted out of public consciousness in the UK.
It is clear then, that education is the way forward. It may come as a surprise that despite commemorations of the Bleiburg Tragedy there is no centre in Croatia for people to visit to learn about it or even a website. This contributes to the current climate where little is known and makes efforts to make the topic taboo easier. Even a small centre containing a couple of rooms open to domestic and foreign visitors would make a difference. It should be set up by experts on the issue within Croatia. Copies of documents should be on display. Everything should be in three languages: Croatian, English, German. Photographs of the victims and items found should be displayed, exhibits of forensic work, maps of the locations of mass graves. It should be a grim experience. A website, which takes less resources, could follow the same blueprint. Translation should be in plain English and the German equivalent, none of the flowery, emotive text that is common from Croatian sources. Its tone must be secular and Anglo-Saxon – straight and cold.
Such projects should not in any way, shape or form attempt to downgrade the horrific crimes of the NDH or rehabilitate it. Looking to respected non-ideological experts from outside Croatia could help ensure this, as well as giving extra credibility. It is important that the centre and website aims at people of all political persuasions. It would be wrong to assume that all left-wing people in Croatia and elsewhere are somehow in favour of what happened.
Who should fund it? If not the Croatian state, then other sources. The EU may even be a source. However, resources could come from private sources in Croatia and the diaspora rather than waiting for state aid. Surely help for a website, if not more, is possible?
Croats concerned over what happened in 1945 have not had the right focus. Providing information to the public on the Bleiburg Tragedy would provide a much better focus for remembrance and reflection than the current situation.
Update: Excellent news – Nikola Knez’s English language documentary on Bleiburg has now been placed on YouTube. More details here.
Update 2: More resources have become available, including an excellent short video by lawyers Luka Misetić and Ivan Grbešić. More details here.