Croatia continues to have difficulty coming to terms with its wartime zeal in persecuting Jews and other opponents under a fascist, Nazi collaborationist government.
“Here there is no culture of remembrance, just one of commemoration” – Aneta Lalić, sociologist.
Holocaust memory in Croatia is troubled. Croatian fascists allied themselves with Hitler during the war and sent most of the country’s Jews – and many Serbs - to their death. During the 1990s Serbo-Croat war, the Croatian Defence Forces adopted the salute of the wartime fascist Ustaša. At football games, rallies, protests and commemorations alike, many Croats continue flash this infamous salute.
Croatia suffers from a lack of consensus about the country’s main wartime concentration
camp at Jasenovac. For the past three years, Jewish, Serbian and Roma communities have boycotted the official Jasenovac commemoration.
Alongside this lingering fondness for the Ustaša, Croatia displays almost no sensitivity to its Jewish victims. Little restitution has been made to the Jewish community. No Holocaust
The Holocaust in Croatia
When the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed after World War I, Croatia became part of
Yugoslavia. It was an uncomfortable marriage. A far-right terror group, the Ustaša, emerged in 1929, dedicating itself to Croatian independence. The Ustaša leader was Ante Pavelić. In 1934, an Ustaša assassin killed King Alexander I of Yugoslavia.
During the first few years of World War II, Yugoslavia remained neutral. When the
government allied with Germany and Italy in 1941, a coup d’etat put new leaders in charge.
The Axis invaded Yugoslavia, and on April 10, 1941, an Ustaša-ruled Independent State of
Croatia was born. The slogan for the Ustaša was “Za dom spremni” (For the Homeland,
Ready). This became a nation-wide Sieg Heil.
The Ustaša opened the Jadovno concentration camp in April 1941. Soon after Jadovno, they established the Jasenovac concentration camp. The Ustaša ran these camps by
themselves, without any Nazi assistance and remained loyal to fascism until the end of the
war, and much of its leadership fled to the West to escape Tito’s partisan forces and the
Soviet Red Army.
More than 300,000 Serbs, 30,000 Jews and a similar number of Roma perished. Around
9,000 Jews survived, and many made aliyah to Israel afterward. Today it is estimated that
between 500 and 1,500 Jews remain in Croatia, a large majority of them secular.
- 22 July 1941: Serb uprising
- May 1945: Bleiburg repatriations
- 1945: War ends
- 29 November 1945: Yugoslav Socialist Republic
- 1948-1952: Aliyah of more than half of the Jews who had returned to Croatia
- 1952: Monument to the Jewish Victims of the Holocaust in Mirogoj Cemetery
- 1961: Removal of around 1000 Jewish graves from Mirogoj Cemetery and
subsequent interment in a mass grave
- 1966: Stone flower unveiled at Jasenovac
- 1968: Opening of Jasenovac Memorial Camp
- 4 May 1980: Death of Tito
- 1989: Release of Tuđman’s ‘Horrors of War: Historical Reality and Philosophy’
- April – May 1990: First democratic elections in Croatia
- 1990-1991: Dissolution of Yugoslav Socialist Republic
- 1991-1995: Serbo-Croatian War
- 30 May 1994: Introduction of Croatian Kuna
- 1 January 1997: The Law on Compensation comes into effect
- 21 August 1997: Croatia apologizes for Ustaša crimes against Jews
- October 1998: Dinko Šakić found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity
- 1998: State Administration Ministry registered The Association of HOS Volunteers in
the City of Zagreb
- 2002: Amendment on the Law of Compensation
- 2004: Removal of a memorial plaque dedicated to Ustaša Commander Jure
- 2006: Founding of Bet Israel Community
- 27 April 2015: Appeal of Triple Camp Jasenovac Society and subsequent registration
by the City of Zagreb
- 4 April 2016: Jakov Sedlar’s Jasenovac film opening night
- 5 November 2016: Installation of plaque in Jasenovac municipality with HOS (and
- 1 March 2017: Establishment of Council for Dealing with Consequences of the Rule
of Non-Democratic Regimes
- September 2017: Moving of memorial plaque to nearby town of Novska
“My position on the “Za dom spremni” salute is clear. It is the old Croatian salute, but
unfortunately it was compromised during the Ustaša days.” - President Kolinda Grabar-
Kitarović, 4 September 2017
After independence in 1991, the ruling HDZ party flirted with rehabilitating the Ustaša. Its
ally, the HSP (Croatian Party of Rights) openly deployed Ustaša iconography. While the
HDZ never went that far, it reintroduced the Ustaša-era kuna as the currency and renamed
the Square of the Victims of Fascism to the Croatian Nobles Square. In contrast, it destroyed monuments honoring the Partisans.
Croatia’s first President, Franjo Tuđjman, inflamed the subject. In a 1989 book called
“Wasteland of History,” later published as “Horrors of War” in English. Tudjman minimized
the Ustaša crimes. In a translation of his book provided by the American Jewish Congress,
he alleged that the estimate "of six million dead is based to the greatest extent on
emotionally biased testimonies as well as on one-sided and exaggerated data on postwar
calculations of war crimes and on the settling of accounts with the defeated perpetrators of
Tudjman and Croatia only apologised for Ustaša crimes in 1997, as part of an arrangement
establishing the ties with Israel. "New, free and democratic Croatia completely condemns
Nazi crimes of the Holocaust and genocide over Jewish people in many European states,
including Croatia," said a statement.
Extreme sensitivity continues around the numbers of those murdered at the Jasenovac
Concentration Camp. Serbs estimate 700,000 victims. More recent and objective findings,
however, such as those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, puts the number between 77,000 and 100,000.
The issue remains unresolved. In 2017, Croatia’s coalition government, led by the Croatian
Democratic Union, almost broke up over the installation a plaque at Jasenovac with the
Ustaša slogan ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Home(land)’).
Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic seems schizophrenic on the issue. While she
condemned the Ustasha’s role during the Holocaust during a 2015 visit to Israel, she posed with a group of Croatian émigrés holding a flag bearing the Ustasha symbol. Even President Grabar-Kitarovic’s reference to the Ustasha as a collaborationist regime falls far short of the mark. The Ustasha initiated the brutality and mass killing of Serbs, Jews and Roma on their own initiative, for their own ideological reasons.
In Croatian high schools, the Holocaust is taught as part of the mandatory curriculum, as
centralised by the Ministry of Education. Croatia hosts a seminar for teachers on teaching
the Holocaust, which around 20 teachers, not just historians, attend annually.
At college level, Zagreb University has a Judaic Studies department and classes are
available in the history department. A special online program on Holocaust memory is
offered in conjunction with Yad Vashem. The Holocaust is dealt with in other lectures, such
as Croatian History in the 20 th century.
Croatian textbooks condemn the Ustaša as fascists. No attempts are made at rehabilitation.
As part of Yugoslavia before the 1990s, Zagreb hosted National Liberation and Revolution
Museum. After independence, it was closed. Temporary exhibits sometimes address the
Holocaust. The Zagreb History Museum recently featured a show on 1945. The Jasenovac
Memorial Museum is both public and free, offering programs for schools. Only about ten
schools visited, last year, according to numerous interviewees.
Holocaust Memorial Day has proved a point of contention. The Jewish community has not
joined the January commemoration since 2015, claiming the government failing to combat
Ustaša revisionism. Serb and Roma communities have joined them in this protest.
Croatian authorities hold a ceremony at Mirogoj Cemetery to mark January 26. Croatia’s
own main ceremony is on April 22 at Jasenovac, commemorating the escape of prisoners on that day in 1945.
Few commemoration sites exist. A small synagogue-cum-museum in Dubrovnik is dedicated to the Jewish community, with a single room on the Holocaust. Jasenovac and Jadovno remain open to the public, and Mirogoj cemetery has a monument dedicated to the Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust, the placement of which holds a certain unfortunate irony.
A soon-to-be-unveiled museum, the Museum of Tolerance, is scheduled to open in Zagreb.
It will be located in the centre of Zagreb, in a former oil factory. Before World War II, the
building was owned by a Jewish family.museum to Zagreb. Little is known yet about the
Croatia’s treatment of the main Jasenovac camp remains controversial. The camp’s
museum reopened in November 2006 with an exhibition designed by Croatian architect
Helena Paver Njirić. It features a field of glass panels inscribed with the names of the
victims. Critics point to the removal of all Ustaše killing instruments from the display and a
lack of explanation of the ideology that led to the crimes committed there in the name of the Croatian people.
In 2016, Croatian filmmaker Jakov Sedlar released a documentary titled “Jasenovac—The
Truth.” This film contended that Jasenovac had not been a concentration camp where the
Ustasha had committed genocide, but rather a benign labor camp and that the number of
victims is exaggerated. Jewish, Serbian, left-wing and anti-Nazi groups, as well as Israeli
diplomats, reacted with dismay.
Although Croatia has a law banning fascist symbols, the question remains on what
constitutes a fascist symbol, and it seems in the hands of the courts and various commissions to interpret.
Wartime archives are open, and the procedure to access the archives is straight-forward. A
book lists archival collections in Croatia, and a website equivalent and then there is a small
yearly fee of 100 kuna, or a smaller fee for a shorter access window . The provincial archives are less streamlined, but equally open.
Post-war communist secret police archives are also under special regulation, and permission is required before using them. The archives are state organised, their director appointed by parliament, and every archivist is paid by the state as public servants with a responsibility towards the public to grant access.
Some academics interviewed complain that many of the archives useful in understanding the Holocaust are in Serbia and difficult or impossible to access.
“In Croatian law, there is an invisible clause which says ‘try not to restitute as much as
possible’” – Zlatko Hasanbegović, historian and politician Croatia resists restitution, not only for Jewish property, but other private property sequested in the fascist and communist eras.
On January 1 1997, Croatia issued the Law on Restitution/Compensation of Property
Appropriated During Yugoslav Communist Rule . It fails to cover property prior to May 15
1945. Members of the Ustaša can claim full restitution of their property, but members of the
Jewish community, most of whose property had been seized before the end of World War II, enjoy no similar claim. No payment is provided for demolished buildings, and so Jewish
property destroyed by the Ustaša received no compensation.
The government has offered to donate the former Ministry of Justice building in Zagreb to
the Jewish community. In return, it demanded relinquishing claims on other property across
Croatia. The Jewish community refused.
Many restitution procedures extending decades, during which time many claimants had
passed away. Many stolen works of art have not been returned, despite the Ministry of
Culture possessing an archive with lists of works of art plundered by the Ustaša and
In April 2016, the US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Nicholas Dean, came to Croatia
for the explicit purpose of discussing restitution, while in March 2018 the World Jewish
Restitution Organisation visited Zagreb to discuss the same matter.
Controversy swirls over the wartime role of the Roman Catholic Church. The Archbishop of
Zagreb Aloysius Stepinac welcomed the Ustaša, yet also saved thousands of Serbs and
Jews through conversion. The Church beatified him in 1998.
The current Croatian Church has “asked for forgiveness” for the victims of the Holocaust. At the same time, individual priests, such as Stjepan Razum, have been known for revisionist peddling. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Zagreb has, hosted rehabilitative memorial services on the day of Pavelić’s death.
Other elements of Croatian civil society continue to support the Ustaša. An NGO called
Triple Camp Jasenovac Society claims that communist camps after the war were worse than this Ustaša facility. In 2016, members of this Triple Camp Jasenovac Society laid a wreath with the inscription “for those who perished in Jasenovac camp in 1941–1951.”
Much of the issues in the media revolve around Jasenovac and often reflect problematic
revisionist thinking. After film director Jakov Sedlar created a revisionist documentary on
Jasenovac in April 4, 2016, Croatian state television HRT hosted Sedlar and did not
challenge his claims.
“No other minority has this existential problem to cope with.” – Aleksander Srećković,
Croatian Jewish community leader.
Between 500 and 1500 Jews continue to live in Croatia. Although technically recognised as
a national minority and aware given a seat in the Sabor, the seat. Their seat is shared with
11 other minority groups.
-Author: Caderyn Owen-Jones