Whitewashing the Holocaust

Jasenovac and the Politics of Genocide

On April 22, 1945, a group of surviving inmates broke out of Jasenovac, Nazi-allied Croatia’s main death camp. Sixty years later, their memories – and the grisly history of Jasenovac – have become prey to politics, propaganda, and historical revisionism more concerned with the 1990s Yugoslav wars than with the truth about "Independent Croatia" and its factory of death.

Holocaust’s First Chapter

On April 10, 1941, four days after armies of the Nazi Reich and their allies attacked the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Croat nationalists (Ustasha) allied with Hitler and Mussolini declared the "Independent State of Croatia" (NDH), comprising most of today’s country by that name, present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina, and parts of northern Serbia. Some 2 million Serbs lived in that territory, and one of the first goals of the Ustasha state was to change that – permanently.

Historian Srdja Trifkovic of the Rockford Institute wrote in April 2000:

"The most salient feature of Ustasha ideology and state was the morbid hatred of the Serb. To a Nazi, the Jew was a necessary political, social, and psychological concept. To an Ustasha Croat, the Serb was much more: an integral part of his Croatness. Without him it could not be defined, let alone practiced."

Racial laws targeting Serbs and Jews appeared as early as April 18, 1941. By July of that year, estimated Italian sources, over 350,000 Serbs and Jews had already been killed. It is important to note that deliberate, organized mass murder in the NDH predated the Holocaust by six to eight months; not until January 1942 did the Nazis organize a meeting at Wannsee to discuss the extermination of Jews:

"[W]artime Croatia is absent from many scholarly discussions of the Holocaust. … It is an odd omission considering the fact that if one defines the Holocaust from the first mass murders of civilians, then the Holocaust itself began in Croatia with the first murders of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. … It is like a book whose first chapter is torn out." (Lituchy, 1998)

Forgotten Commemorations

At the hub of Ustasha genocidal activities was Jasenovac, a camp named after the ash trees (jasen) that grew alongside the Sava, near the present-day border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the largest death camp in the NDH, and the third-largest in Nazi-occupied Europe.

In April 1945, as the NDH crumbled under the advance of the communist National Liberation Army (NOV) and its Soviet allies, the Ustasha tried to kill the last of the Jasenovac inmates and destroy the evidence. The 760 women at the adjacent camp of Stara Gradiska had already been massacred. Of the 1,000-plus surviving men, 700 chose to risk a breakout. Only 80 of them succeeded.

On April 17, the breakout was marked by a ceremony in Donja Gradina, part of the Jasenovac complex in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, specifically the Serb Republic. It was scheduled specifically to avoid the overlap with Passover festivities, out of consideration for the Jewish participants. Serb Republic president Dragan Cavic and Serbian president Boris Tadic attended the ceremony, along with some 3,000 others.

Yet the mainstream Western media mentioned not a word about it. As Chris Deliso of Balkanalysis.com pointed out, only the Russian Itar-Tass, Greek Kathimerini, and Chinese Xinhua picked up the story. Even greater silence accompanied the commemoration in New York, organized by the Jasenovac Research Institute, when a memorial was unveiled at the Holocaust Memorial Park in Brooklyn. It was as if the first genocide of WWII never happened.

Spinning the NDH

However, the April 23 commemoration organized by the Croatian government and attended by some 2,000 people received widespread coverage. Everyone mentioned the speech by Croat PM Ivo Sanader about the evils of fascism and the importance of remembering, but no one mentioned the role of Sanader’s predecessor Franjo Tudjman in resurrecting NDH symbols and values, or Tudjman’s denials of the Holocaust and Ustasha crimes.

Not surprisingly, in a month marked by the death of one Pope and election of another, no one mentioned the role of the Catholic Church in the Ustasha state – and yes, in the genocide as well – or that the Jews and Romany were secondary targets after the "Eastern schismatics." The ban on entering parks and public transportation in Ustasha-run Zagreb during WWII listed in very deliberate order: "Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and dogs."

But the very worst part came when everyone, from BBC to AP and Reuters, spoke of "independent historians" or "most estimates" that put the number of Jasenovac dead at 100,000; anything above that was dismissed as claims of "Serb nationalists."

"Independent" Numbers

Since when are the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Yad Vashem "Serb nationalists"? The Wiesenthal center Web site speaks of "600,000" killed, while Yad Vashem refers to "hundreds of thousands," obviously suggesting more than just one. Yes, Serbian researchers are citing numbers of up to 750,000; but as Nazi envoy Dr. Hermann Neubacher noted in his memoir, the Ustasha themselves boasted of killing a million Serbs altogether, and he thought 750,000 was a more likely number. Granted, not all were killed in Jasenovac.

But how does claiming this number make Serbian genocide researchers "nationalists," while Croatian and other revisionists are described as "independent"? Independent of what, the truth?

There is no doubt that genocide took place in the NDH, nor that the Ustasha had clear genocidal intent. In 1941, there were 2 million Serbs in territories claimed by the NDH. In 1991, there were just about as many in the territories claimed by Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yet the overall population of Yugoslavia had grown from just over 15 million in 1948 (after the war and genocide) to 23.5 million in 1991. Facts speak for themselves.

The Politics of Genocide

Contrast the dismissive tone of reports about Jasenovac with reports on Srebrenica, where the deaths of several thousand Bosnian Muslim men (claims range from 7,000 to 10,000) have been termed "genocide" by everyone from the press to the Hague Inquisition. Any attempt to question this judgment, based on numerous factual problems with both the allegations and the evidence offered, is denounced as "genocide denial." But the denial of a real, documented genocide in Croatia is not a problem!

To understand this paradox, it is necessary to understand that "genocide" has become above all a political notion. The mass murder of Jews at the hands of Hitler’s Reich has been appropriated by the Empire as an argument in favor of "humanitarian intervention" worldwide (e.g., Bosnia, Kosovo). The mass murder of Serbs at the hands of the Ustasha, with the active involvement of the Catholic Church, does not fit into Empire’s carefully crafted and nurtured image of Serbs as evil murderers, and Croats, "Bosnians," and Albanians as their innocent victims. Politically, it is worse than useless: it is harmful.

This is why this year’s commemoration of Auschwitz – while appropriate and necessary – was also turned into a political spectacle, while the Serb commemoration of Jasenovac has been shoved down the Memory Hole. This is why one should expect a media circus this July, on the 10th anniversary of the "genocide" in Srebrenica. As readily as 20th century rulers committed mass murder, 21st century politicians cry "genocide" to describe the suffering of officially designated victims, while actual genocides perpetrated against those out of grace – our out of sight – remain unacknowledged.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.