Last Saturday, some 10,000 people gathered in the Austrian town of Bleiburg to commemorate the deaths of 45,000 Ustasha soldiers. The Croatian fascist organization collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. In May 1945, Ustasha fighters fled from Yugoslavia into British-occupied territory. They were handed over to Josep Broz Tito's partisans and killed. At the recent gathering to mourn their deaths, Hitler salutes, Swastika tattoos and fascist Ustasha symbols were ubiquitous. As were attendees proclaiming "Za dom Spremni" ("Ready for the homeland") — Croatia's equivalent to Nazi Germany's "Sieg Heil."
Attendees claimed this was merely a "commemorative event" but critics have called its "Europe's largest Nazi get-together." The gathering was organized by the Croatian Bishops' Conference, and tolerated by Austria's Roman Catholic Diocese of Gurk. High-ranking Croatian politicians came to the event, which was officially declared a religious gathering.
Asked about the event, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz tried circumnavigating the issue or resorting to vague answers — as is his custom when asked about his conservative party's coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). His government's bigotry is plain to see. It took a tough stance on political gatherings of Turkish nationalists and far-right extremists in Austria, but then claimed its hands were tied when 10,000 Croatian Catholics got together for a huge neo-Nazi extravaganza.
Council of Europe is alarmed
The Council of Europe has expressed concern that the Ustasha gathering shows that fascim is becoming normal again in Croatia. A report by the Council's European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) says the Ustasha regime is increasingly being "glorified," which feeds into this creeping normalization of neo-fascism. The report calls on Croatia's government to fight hate speech and protect minorities from xenophobic attacks.
But it's doubtful Croatia's ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), will listen. That's because in the past, it has railed against minorities, and stirred up anti-Serbian and anti-Roma sentiments in particular. It has incited hatred of the exact same ethnic groups that were once persecuted in the Independent State of Croatia, a World War II puppet state created by Hitler.
Croatia's Jewish community has for years boycotted the national commemorative event to mark the liberation of Jasenovac death camp because they reject honoring the deceased alongside politicians who think favorably of the Ustasha regime, which persecuted Jews.
Could you imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveling to Argentina and speaking before the small German minority there, telling them it was a good thing Germans fled there after World War II? And that she welcomes mass murderers like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele having fled there?
But Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic did just that. On her visit to Argentina, she applauded compatriots who had managed to flee Tito's partisans and come to the Latin American country. But she failed to mention that said compatriots were concentration camp commanders, mass murderers and Nazi collaborators.
Croatia isn't an isolated case
Novelist Danilo Kis wrote that nationalism is a form of "paranoia" that goes hand in hand with losing one's sense of individuality and reality. This paranoia is based on the idea that one's own nation is something pure and innocent, and that anyone criticizing the nation must be a despicable enemy. Which is why right-wing Croatians glorify the Ustasha regime. Because to publicly accept that it killed hundreds of thousands of civilians would tarnish their national pride. It also helps explain why attendees at the Austrian commemorative event perceived themselves as victims, when in fact they were glorying a fascist regime.
This is a worrying trend that also becoming apparent in other Eastern European countries. Many nations are highlighting what they endured under Soviet occupation and during communist times, casting themselves as victims. At the same time, many are down playing, denying or even celebrating compatriots who collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Every year on March 16, thousands of people gather in Riga for the "Latvian Legion Day" to honor Latvians who served in the Waffen-SS. Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban praised Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy as an "exceptional statesman," despite Horthy being partly responsible for the deportation of 600,000 Jews to German death camps. And in Serbia, there are moves to exonerate Milan Nedic, who also collaborated with Nazi Germany.
If Europe is to become more integrated, this will necessitate not only a stronger European public sphere but also a common culture of remembrance, which must be decidedly anti-fascist. Europe will fail if not everyone agrees that the Nazis were despicable murderers, and if some European state leaders and governments choose to glorify Nazi collaborators.
Krsto Lazarevic was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and fled to Germany with his family as a child. Today he lives in Berlin, where he works as a journalist and commentator, writing for various German-language media outlets.