The persecution of Jews in Croatia during World War II wasn’t simply imposed by the fascist Ustasa regime – some civilians also demanded tougher repression, research shows.
The Holocaust in the Independent State of Croatia was, for a long time, seen as an event in which Nazis played the dominant role. According to this narrative, the Ustasa were nothing more than executioners of their will while fascism and anti-Semitism were foreign ideas without any real roots in Croatia.
To an extent, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito and the leadership of socialist Yugoslavia laid the foundation for this narrative during the immediate post-war period. In their attempt to ensure stability in a multi-ethnic state ravaged by war and genocide, it was expedient to put the onus of blame on the German and Italian ‘occupiers’ while questions about the true extent of popular support for domestic fascist regimes were largely glossed over.
Though not intentional, a consequence of this essentially populist narrative was that it absolved the local community from responsibility for war crimes. In socialist Yugoslavia and beyond, the involvement of the public in World War II was mainly interpreted through the paradigm of resistance.
The Yugoslav Partisans were deemed the ‘true’ representatives of ‘the people’. Any involvement of ‘ordinary’ men and women in the Ustasa regime’s actions was seen as a deviation instead of an integral part of the history of societies involved in genocide.
While recent studies of the Holocaust and genocide in the Independent State of Croatia are increasingly sceptical about the notion of the Ustasas as mere ‘puppets’ subserviently implementing the plans of their Nazi ‘masters’, the scholarship is still pervaded by top-down interpretations.
While we know much about the Ustasa elites who were the architects of the genocide, little is known about Ustasa perpetrators in mid- and lower-ranking positions.
When the Ustasas took power in the Independent State of Croatia in April 1941, they had a few thousand members. Yet their numbers swelled to 150,000 by the end of the year. The men and women who joined the Ustasa movement during this brief period formed the backbone of the genocidal apparatus in Croatia. Without these people on the ground ready to transform policies into concrete actions, the Ustasa elite would not have been able to implement its radical ideas.
In fact, some of the Ustasa perpetrators themselves acknowledged this after the war. When questioned by the Yugoslav security police in 1952, Luka Azdajic, who was deputy head of a regional administration with its seat in the Croatian city of Vukovar, pointed out that the entire public and state apparatus, everyone who belonged to the realm of political, educational, or cultural sphere of life carries the responsibility for the crimes committed in Croatia.
All of this was a part of one big machine within which an individual was just a tiny cog. However, without the functioning of that small cog, nothing would have happened on such a scale and in such a form.
Azdajic’s testimony problematises the question of perpetration and responsibility of broader segments of society, which are usually not the focus of studies of the Holocaust in Croatia. It indicates culpability was not confined to higher levels of government but encompassed broader elements of society.
One of the pioneers of Holocaust studies, Raul Hilberg, distinguished between perpetrators, bystanders and victims. Recently, these categories have been questioned for being too static. In particular, they fail to address a range of roles that bystanders played in the context of mass political violence.
These nuances raise the question: can civilians truly be ‘neutral’, ‘passive’, or completely ‘unengaged’ while genocide is taking place? And is inaction also a choice that has consequences and has an impact on both the victims and perpetrators?
Civilians in Croatia had a variety of responses to the Holocaust. These included resistance, rescue and sympathy for the victims, but they also encompassed denunciations, betrayal, incitement to violence and demands for a more radical approach to the ‘Jewish question’. These processes from below actively shaped the Holocaust in Croatia. Yet the historiography largely overlooks them.
Once anti-Semitism was elevated to the level of state-sanctioned ideology in the Independent State of Croatia, citizens began to respond to the ‘Jewish question’ in different ways. Seeking to exempt individual Jews from persecution, many wrote petitions. Others, however, complimented the antisemitic policies of the regime.
One Croatian citizen wrote to the authorities in May 1941 to say that Jews were responsible for the persecution of Croats during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. “Hopefully, now the time has come for ordinary people to feel the rays of the sun,” he said, implying that the solution of the ‘Jewish question’ would resolve all the political, economic and social problems of the Croatian nation.
When various measures were introduced to isolate Jews from the rest of society, some Croatian citizens wrote reports denouncing Jews who did not wear the ‘Jewish sign’, broke the curfew or continued to bathe on public beaches together with ‘Aryans’. The exclusion of and discrimination against Jews could never have been as effective if ordinary people were not there to assist the authorities in their effort to police and inform on their fellow Jewish citizens.
Guided by greed, jealousy and other economic motives, some Croats participated in ‘Aryanisation’, a coded word for robbing and looting the property of the Jewish community. Properties and businesses were usually expropriated through state institutions, but there were many cases of theft of other valuables, and even clothing.
Others even complained that they had expected to receive Jewish property but were disappointed that nothing was left to take. For example, a sister of one Ustasa perpetrator complained in the winter of 1942 that she lacked warm clothing and wrote to her brother: “I have to admit that I haven’t thought that after all those Jews were deported from the entire city of Osijek, not even two coats and two pair of shoes would be left [for me].”
Archival evidence suggests that antisemitic policies and laws were not only embraced by segments of the population, but also perceived as not going far enough. In May 1942, a Croatian civilian sent an unsigned letter to one of the ministries of the Ustasa regime criticising the government’s antisemitic policies.
At this point, the majority of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia had either been imprisoned or murdered in the Ustasa death camps. However, the author of this anonymous letter was not protesting against the antisemitic zeal of the Ustasa movement. Quite the contrary, he argued that the persecution of Jews was proceeding too slowly and asked the regime to “liquidate the Jews immediately”. The author even offered to “write multiple reports” about the remaining Jews in his home region to expedite deportations.
In the city of Osijek, there were several antisemitic demonstrations during the spring and summer of 1941. All segments of society participated – Croats, Germans, Hungarians and others. Strikingly, participation in these demonstrations cut across generational and gender lines. Photographs show women and children carrying antisemitic caricatures and banners with the inscriptions “We demand forced labour for the guilty ones – the Jews!” and “Jews, Communists and Freemasons must be hanged!”
While these demonstrations can be seen as support for the Ustasa regime’s policies, they also suggest popular demands for further radicalisation and the rapid deportations and murder of Jews. They show that some Croats actively sought to remind the Ustasa regime of its promise to ‘cleanse’ the Independent State of Croatia of its Jewish population.
Such cases of civilian involvement in the regime’s genocidal policies force us to question what actions constituted perpetration during the Holocaust in Croatia. While it would be a mistake to equate these civilians’ actions with those of direct killers, they did play an important role.
Civilian participation in acts such as denunciations and the incitement of antisemitic persecution were interpreted by the regime as an affirmation of its antisemitic zeal. Therefore, the Holocaust in the Croatia was not simply imposed by a small group of Ustasa elites, was a result of a complex and dynamic interaction between the state and society. Croatia was hardly unique in this regard. In the Independent State of Croatia, civilian involvement in the Holocaust did not reflect a unique national character or a specific Croatian proclivity for bigotry and xenophobia.
Throughout Europe, the Holocaust could not have been implemented as effectively as it was without the active assistance of civilians, who for different reasons collaborated with the Nazis or domestic fascist regimes. It is first during the last few decades that the actions and agency of ordinary people on the ground has started to receive sustained scholarly attention.