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)
In 1921 the new country set about eradicating the individual identities of its constituent parts. Power was centralised in Belgrade under the Serbian Radical People’s Party (SRPP). Croatians resented it greatly and boycotted it. Nevertheless, a foreign threat to the kingdom led by Italy and their allies caused the Croats to unite with the Serbs from 1925-27.
Italian ambitions had been fuelled by entering the First World War allied with Britain, France and Russia. The dictator Benito Mussolini felt that Italy had been cheated of their rightful share of the spoils and set about trying to claim them by force. A foreign threat united the constituent nations of Yugoslavia where nothing else could and once it was over the discord returned, as the Croatians resumed their boycott.
The return of Acrimony
The blatant vote-rigging by Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic – who believed that power should be centralised in Belgrade – and repression of the Hrvatska Seljačka Stranska – HSS1 – fostered simmering discontent. In 1928 it reached fever pitch when the HSS leader Stjepan Radić was attacked in the Parliament by Puniša Račić, an SRPP deputy. Radić died as a result.
Understandably, this incident enraged the Croatians, but things went from bad to worse. The country was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia by King Aleksandar who assumed dictatorial powers, which further repressed Croatians and their aspirations. Political parties were banned and the new HSS leader Vladko Maček was imprisoned.
The Emergence of the Ustaše
A new party the Ustaše emerged. Most went into exile, especially after the politically motivated murder of Toni Schlegel a pro-Yugoslav editor gave the King’s dictatorship an excuse for further repression. The mainly Serbian police retaliated to Schlegelʼs murder, becoming little more than thugs in uniform, but even in this climate the Ustaše failed to recruit support.
Ironically, one of its few successes in this period was to convince the Communist Party that it was a progressive movement. On October 9th 1934 the Bulgarian nationalist Vlado Chernozemski assassinated King Aleksandar in Paris. Chernozemski belonged to the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – IMRO – which had close ties to the Ustaše.
Chernozemski was the driver of IMRO leader Ivan Mihailov. The IMRO believed that Macedonia should be annexed to Bulgaria by terrorist means.
Consequences of Aleksandarʼs Assassination
The assassination of King Aleksandar was broadcast throughout Europe. It was the first political assassination of a monarch to be captured on film. Chernozemski was caught by the irate crowd and beaten to death. Mussolini’s government was accused by some of involvement in the assassination as well, because they secretly sponsored the IMRO.
If Mussolini or his cronies had a role in it, it was quickly hushed up as Mussolini was being courted by European governments at the time. But France was furious, especially as their foreign minister Louis Barthou was also shot dead in the attack.2 Italy deported many Ustaše members back to Yugoslavia. They even kept its leader and future war criminal Ante Pavelić in a camp in Italy.
The new government in Yugoslavia moved closer to Mussolini at France’s expense. The Croatian Parliament was restored and it secured parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Dubrovnik. At the very least the assassination of the hostile King served Croatian nationalism well.
Even this support was not sufficient for Mussolini and the Axis powers. On April 6th 1941 they took control of Yugoslavia and invited HSS leader Vladko Maček to form a government. Maček refused. Four days later the Ustaše proclaimed Croatia ‘independent.’ Pavelić and other Ustaše members left camps in Italy for Zagreb.
Pavelić claimed the title of ‘Poglavnik’.3 Pavelić’s domain included Bosnia-Herzegovina, but to the annoyance of local Ustaše members he ceded parts of Dalmatia to Italy in exchange for financial and political support. Due to the lack of military strength of the new state it was split into two spheres of influence – German and Italian.
The stage was set for atrocities as the Ustaše avenged the wrongs the Croatian people had suffered, especially on Serbs. It began at Gudovac on April 27th 1941. In an attempt to make itself the party of Croatian peasants the HSS was banned and Maček was sent to Jasenovac – the most notorious of eight concentration camps in Croatia.
Maček’s popularity saved his life. He was confined to house arrest instead and refused calls from abroad to oppose Pavelić. The Nezavisne Drzave Hrvatske (NDH) – Independent Croatian State – planned ethnic cleansing of Serbs in the country by killing a third of them, expelling another third and assimilating the remaining third.
Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed in this programme, especially at Jasenovac. The atrocities would be remembered by Serbs, who proved to have very long memories. The atrocities, especially those committed at Jasenovac were neither forgiven, nor forgotten. They would become the justification for retaliatory atrocities half a century later.
1 It translates as Croatia Peasantsʼ Party.
2 It later emerged that he was accidentally shot by a policeman.
3 It loosely translates as chief man or führer.