We first published this series of articles six years ago. On the eve of the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, we think it timely to publish them again. Croatia has a problem with racism that has found an outlet in football. Understanding Croatiaʼs history is crucial to combating the problem. Croatia will be entertained by Luiz Felipe Scolariʼs resurgent Brasilian side in São Paulo on June 12th. We hope Croatiaʼs fans will support their team with gusto while showing respect to their hosts as both teams and countries deserve.
by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 1st 2008)
While the Ustaše and Ante Pavelić represented the worst of Croatians, it should be remembered that Yugoslavia’s resistance was led by a Croat – Josip Broz1 – and that began early in 1941. All nationalities of the former Yugoslavia were members of Tito’s partisans. Even Franjo Tuđman who would later become Croatian President and destroy Tito’s vision of Yugoslavia was a partisan.
Hitler put a price on Tito’s head, but it failed to alter the course of the war or save the Ustaše from history’s condemnation. Ustaše atrocities reached such appalling proportions that even Nazis found impossible to ignore. On June 28th 1941 General Edmund Glaise-Horstenau wrote to Wehrmacht colleagues expressing alarm about Ustaše excesses.
German officers sometimes intervened to prevent the Ustaše committing atrocities. They even arrested Ustaše thugs and disarmed an Ustaše regiment in Bosnia-Herzegovina because of their atrocious conduct. Mussolini also didn’t want to work with the Ustaše even though he had facilitated their seizure of power. Hitler’s requests for Italian co-operation with Pavelić’s government were routinely ignored by their commanders such as General Mario Roatta.
Ignominious End of the Ustaše
By the end of 1942 the war had begun to turn against the Ustaše. News of their brutal crimes swelled the ranks of partisans. The following year made it clear that Pavelić’s government was living on borrowed time. Accounts would be settled.
The partisans took their revenge on captured Ustaše members, but many of them were conscripts who had no involvement in the atrocities. Some tried to flee towards Austria towards the end of the war. They were captured and handed over to the partisans who either executed them or forced-marched them into a massacre. There were atrocities on both sides. Never was there a more vicious circle.
The Ustaše briefly continued fighting after the Nazis surrendered. They were banned after the war. Pavelić was helped to escape to Argentina. On April 10th 1957 – the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the NDH – Pavelić was shot in Buenos Aires. A bullet lodged in his spine. Two weeks later Argentina agreed to extradite him to Yugoslavia, but he escaped.
The Break Up
Pavelić died in a Madrid hospital on December 28th 1959 from complications resulting from the assassination attempt. Croatian nationalism was suppressed under Tito. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Ustaše atrocities were used to justify the ethnic cleansing policies of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević.
Croatian nationalists continued to organise as well. It was a particularly nasty war. While Serbia and Croatia fought each other, both gorged themselves on Bosnian territory too. Both Serbs and Croats drove each other from their territory brutally. Many did not live to tell the tale. It created a legacy of bitterness that will require decades to heal if ever.
Later, the war over, the racism originally unleashed by the Ustaše found an additional outlet in football. In its proper historical context the U-symbol of the Ustaše formed by so-called Croatian fans in Sarajevo and the Swastika in Livorno are utterly offensive at best and suggests that Slaven Bilić may have over-estimated their intelligence. Nevertheless, England’s visit to Zagreb would provide a good test of how far Croatia had progressed on and off the pitch.
1 Broz later took the codename Tito. It stuck.