On Saturday, August 28, the people of Croatia woke to extraordinary news, with banner headlines reporting that the government of prime minister Ivo Sanader had destroyed monuments honoring two of wartime Croatia’s most notorious collaborators: author Mile Budak (1889-1945) and military leader Jure Francetic (1912-43).
It was but another manifestation of a paradoxical transition, whereby the former Yugoslavia’s perceived centers of reaction and tolerance trade places.
Budak and Francetic are among the worst figures associated with the reputation of “Nazi Croatia,” based on the domination of its people after 1941 by the pro-Axis dictatorship of the ultra-nationalist Ustasha movement.
The Ustasha are unsurpassed in Jewish collective memory for the viciousness of their hatred and violence. The Ustasha government was headed by Ante Pavelic (1889-1959), who escaped to Argentina after the triumph of Tito’s anti-Fascist partisans.
Budak was Pavelic’s minister of education and religious affairs, and supervised the Ustasha campaign against the Jews, in which at least 70 percent of Croatian Jewry was killed by the Nazis. He was also a leading participant in the attempt to rid Croatian culture of Serbian influence. He was tried and executed by the Tito authorities.
Francetic was a Croat from the region of Lika and a major in the Ustasha army, who founded the Black Legion, an elite, SS-style unit dedicated to the massacre of Bosnian Serbs and the deportation of Bosnian Jews.
As noted in the Croatian mass-circulation magazine Nacional, Francetic was “personally ‘credited’ with the murder of more than 3,000 Serb civilians in the Romanija mountains” near Sarajevo. Francetic was seriously wounded and committed suicide after his plane crashed in territory held by the Partisans.
Budak’s memorial was set up only days before on a wall that encircles a Catholic church in his birthplace, the small town of Sveti Rok. Francetic’s memorial could not be erected at his birthplace in the Croatian town of Otocac, and in 2000 was placed instead at Slunj, a highly scenic location in Croatia, where he died.
Sanader was elected prime minister late in 2003, representing the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, a centrist conservative force created by the late Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman, who remains infamous for his revisionist views of the Holocaust. But Sanader represents a reformed, more moderate HDZ, and he had been challenged by the ultra-Right in the party, which favors glorification of the Ustasha past.
In truth, the Ustasha burden on the Croats is unfair, since more than 200,000 of them joined the Tito Partisans, and Josip Broz Tito himself was half-Croat and half-Slovene.
The Yugoslav Partisan conflict, as it was fought in Croatia, was basically a civil war between the Croatian Left, which had the support of most of the peasants and nearly the whole working class, and the Ustasha, which was a small party of disaffected demi-intellectuals.
But Tudjman, although he was a Tito general, had a fantasy that he could reconcile the two sides of Croatian history. He was wrong; his consistent flattery of the Ustasha and their heritage, as well as his paranoiac, illiterate views on Jewish influence (of which I know much, having interviewed him twice), did nothing but harm Croatia as it fought for survival in the Yugoslav combat of the 1990s.
Tudjman’s Croatia established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1997. Still, a bad taste remained with most Jews, given that Ustasha propaganda and symbology remained uncontrolled in the young republic.
The destruction of the monuments to Budak and Francetic has been hailed by two of the country’s leading intellectuals, Ivo Goldstein, a member of the Croatian Jewish Community and professor of history at the University of Zagreb, and Ivo Banac, the leading American historian of the South Slavic lands and a professor at Yale, both of whom are exceedingly distinguished authors.
Goldstein told The Jerusalem Post, “the decision to destroy the memorials to Budak and Francetic came after a long debate originating with Tudjman’s Holocaust revisionism in the 1990s. It was a problem for Croatia for 15 years. Although the HDZ is Tudjman’s party, the new leaders know that if they want Croatia to join Europe they have to show no quarter to revisionism and prove that there is no debate with fascism.”
Banac commented: “The Sanader government has broken with the policy of tolerance toward the Ustasha revival, which was habitual under Tudjman, and has set a new standard in post-independence politics.”
He pointed out that 125 “so-called intellectuals” had recently called for the rehabilitation of Budak, portraying him as mainly a literary man who was forced into political actions he might not have wanted to undertake, including those against Croatian Jews. In addition, the destruction of the Budak monument at a church site implied a challenge to Catholic coddling of the Ustasha legacy, according to Banac.
The decision to obliterate the monuments was taken at a special session of the Croatian cabinet, under a law authorizing actions in defense of the constitutional order. Reaction by the HDZ ultra-Right has included demands that monuments to Tito and the partisan movement also be torn down.
The Croatian desire to finally and definitively account for pro-Nazi elements in its past, including its complicity in the Holocaust, is visible in other ways. The Zagreb City Museum includes a rather charming room with memorabilia from the Jewish community, including a model of the lovely Zagreb synagogue destroyed by the Ustasha in 1941. But not far away, the exhibits display Ustasha posters on one wall, opposed by Partisan art on the other, suggesting, as Tudjman hoped to convince his constituents, that the two sides were moral equivalents.
A better effort to account for Croatian Jewish history occurred when the gorgeous, historic city of Dubrovnik hosted the Fifth Conference on the Social and Cultural History of the Jews on the Eastern Adriatic Coast in late August. Sponsored by the University of Zagreb Center for Advanced Academic Studies, the conference mainly included work by Israeli academics, although I presented an essay on Abraham Kohen Herrera, a Kabbalist who lived in Dubrovnik in the 17th century.
Other papers included a useful study of rabbinical responsa dealing with the problems of Sephardic exiles in the Ottoman Balkans during the 16th century, by Professor Alisa Meyuhas Ginio of Tel Aviv University, and a presentation on “The Image of the Converso in Spanish Proverbs,” by Professor Tamar Alexander of Ben- Gurion University.
Ivo Goldstein offered a statistical survey of conversions in the Zagreb Jewish community from 1918 to 1945. Prof. Jacob Allerhand of the University of Vienna described the life and history of the Turkish Sephardic Congregation in Vienna, which ended with the destruction of the Turkish synagogue in 1938 and the deportation to Dachau of those unable to escape. Journalist Wolf Moskovich presented a vivid and affecting comparison of the problems of anusim (Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism), who fled the Spanish Inquisition and Russian Jews after the fall of Soviet Communism.
While Croatia evinces a new and sincere affinity to the Jews and Israel, and genuinely seeks a compact among its various religious communities, a journey through Bosnia-Herzegovina unveils signs of withdrawal from an illustrious heritage of ethnic harmony, and an embrace of an Islamism dominated by the Saudi-financed cult of Wahhabism.
The Saudi High Commission for Relief in Bosnia-Herzegovina no longer occupies a major building in downtown Sarajevo. The Saudi Commission’s offices were raided by Bosnian police after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. of September 11, 2001, and considerable documentation on al-Qaida was seized, including the crucial list of “the Golden Chain” – the roster of Saudi financiers of Osama bin Laden’s organization. A small group of Algerian Islamists was arrested in Sarajevo and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Unfortunately, however, notwithstanding the notable role of the US in saving the Bosnian Muslims from massacre at the hands of Serbs and Croats, disaffection with the Bush administration is palpable in Sarajevo. Some Bosnian Muslims seem resentful that Iraq has drawn international funds and attention away from their country, even though the record of the United Nations in achieving the reconstruction of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a poor one, to say the least. (Croatia, which rejected significant involvement in its affairs by the so-called “international community,” seems to have benefited from this policy.)
Other Bosnians may simply be expressing their emulation of Germany and Turkey, both countries that have strongly influenced Bosnian society, when they condemn the US in Iraq.
But a Bosnian Islamist journal, SAFF, bears headlines such as: “Exclusive from Iraq: Suicide Actions as A Defensive Strategy,” along with attacks on the chief Bosnian Muslim scholar, Mustafa Ceric, who is well-known for his pro-American views, and propaganda blasting the recent 10th Sarajevo Film Festival for showing a film on homosexuality. The festival, let it be noted, also included the premiere of a wonderful Albanian-French production, Dear Enemy, about an Albanian family that sheltered a Jewish refugee, and other fugitives, during World War II.
The same magazine sought to present the Algerians locked up in Guantanamo as if they were actually Bosnians, which they are not.
Evidence of rising Islamist influence in Sarajevo is also found in the increased adoption of hijab, or covering, by women, and in an extremely disturbing new phenomenon, the exclusion of non-Muslim visitors from historic mosques.
In the old Bosnia, which I first visited in 1991, non-Muslims were always welcome to visit the country’s mosques. Now, at the Governor’s Mosque in the historic center of Sarajevo, a giant security guard and his obvious supervisor question visitors and turn away non-Muslims. Until recently, this practice was only observed at the enormous, garish, King Fahd Mosque, recently built with Saudi money.
In addition, the mosque guards are strident in their propaganda. When introduced to two Spanish visitors who indicated that their country’s population is not bigoted about their history of eight centuries of Muslim rule, the guards excitedly declared that Spain would soon return to Islam, an opinion that most Bosnians would consider lunatic.
Bosnia’s Jewish community remains confident of its safety, and enjoys immense moral credit with the Bosnian people. Some of its leading members, such as the hazan (cantor) of the Sarajevo synagogue, David Kamhi, played a notable role in defending Muslims against aggression. But Bosnia is poor, and even three years after September 11, Saudi money talks.
As Croatia looks north across its border with Slovenia, which joined the EU earlier this year, for its model, Muslim Bosnia would do much better to emulate its Croatian neighbor than to continue down the slippery slope to Arab-based Islamic radicalism.