The Bleiburg memorial, Croatian fascism and the Australian connection

Earlier in May this year, a gathering in the southern Austrian town of Bleiburg was held to commemorate Croatian fascists and their supporters who were killed at the end of World War Two. Repatriated by the British army, the Croatian fascist militants, known as the Ustashe, the memorial is a rallying point not only for the Croat far-right, but for neo-Nazi groups across Europe.

The Bleiburg memorial services are held annually to mourn the deaths of thousands of Croat Ustashe soldiers, who served as auxiliaries during their brief time as rulers of Croatia. The Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was a Nazi puppet state established as an outpost of Nazi and fascist control in the Balkans.

During the war, the Ustashe, a fanatically Roman Catholic and racist organisation, slaughtered thousands of ethnic Serbs, Romany, and Jews. Creating an ethnically pure Croatian state, they implemented the racial doctrines they espoused, and earned a reputation for sadism and cruelty.  The Vatican and the Croat Catholic Church fully supported the Ustashe leader, Ante Pavelic, blessing the Croat wartime regime as a bastion against Serb nationalism and Communism.

Facing a sustained offensive by the Yugoslav army in 1945, the Croatian Ustashe fled to the Austrian border, where they were housed in makeshift camps. They surrendered to the British military forces, but were forcibly repatriated to Communist Yugoslavia. There, the soldiers of the Ustashe were murdered, or sent to labour camps for their crimes.

The Bleiburg commemorations are held as a gathering point for anti-Communist Croats, and fascist activists from around Europe, to mourn the deaths of those they deem to be comrades-in-arms in the struggle against Yugoslav Communism and the regime of Marshal Tito. Since 1991, with Croatia’s independence and the breakup of Yugoslavia, the commemoration has only increased in importance. The Bleiburg repatriations are cited as evidence of British betrayal and appeasement of Yugoslav Communist deception.

Anti-fascist activists and human rights groups have condemned the Bleiburg memorial gatherings, contending that such rallies only whitewash the terrible crimes of the wartime Croat fascist group, the Ustashe, as well as falsifies the traumatic history of the Balkans in World War Two. Critically evaluating the rule of Marshal Tito and the Yugoslav Communist regime is one thing; rehabilitating Eastern European fascism is quite another.

Ronan Burtenshaw, the Europe editor for Jacobin Magazine, writes that in Eastern Europe, anti-Communist campaigns and memorials are not about building a more vibrant and pluralistic liberal democracy. They are about whitewashing the crimes of Eastern European fascism. The Bleiburg commemorations fall into this category – giving fascism a face-lift has been a preoccupation of not only European ultra-right parties, but also of the North American and Australian diaspora Croatian communities.

Exile nationalism has manifested itself as not just an anti-Communist exercise, but as a cultural and political campaign to assist the rehabilitation of 1930s fascism. It is no secret that the Croat far-right has drawn reserves of strength from the Croatian diaspora. Promoting a very supportive view of the wartime Ustashe organisation in the diaspora may seem like a purely academic exercise, but it is not. Such a view of history provides sustenance to the far-right parties back in the home country.

What does all this have to do with Australia?

In a very important way, Australia has provided support for the far-right Eastern European view of history, by giving sanctuary for Nazi-era war criminals and far-right supporters from the Balkans and Eastern European nations. Mark Aarons, Australian lawyer and commentator, has written an important book detailing how the Australian government, from the end of World War Two, provided a safe haven for Nazi collaborators, including members of the Croatian Ustashe.

This dark chapter of Australia’s postwar immigration history requires examination because the decisions taken from 1945 have had political repercussions until today. Australia likes to think of itself as a staunch promoter and defender of human rights. We supposedly abide by the highest standards of international law, and punish those who violate those laws. After all, our participation in wars overseas, whether it be in Iraq, Afghanistan, or our joint efforts against North Korea, are framed as important military initiatives to punish those who would violate human rights and international law.

However, as Mark Aarons states in an article published in 2009, our concern for human rights has a definitive hypocritical streak:

Australia is not perfect, but it nevertheless ranks among the world’s best nations.

Except when it comes to those who violate human rights abroad but call Australia home. Then, we have a long history of indifference, even hypocrisy, extending back to our acceptance of hundreds of Nazi collaborators who had voluntarily carried out Hitler’s policies in World War II, rounding up and killing civilians whose only sin was to be Jewish, Romany or Slavic; homosexual or disabled; anti-Nazi Christians, democrats, socialists or communists.

In the boatloads of immigrants that arrived on Australia’s shores from 1945 onwards, there were displaced persons from Europe. Not the refugees displaced by the wartime activities of all the armies, but the Nazi collaborators from Eastern Europe who conformed to the Immigration Minister’s criteria – Arthur Calwell – of being white, Christian and politically conservative.

Calwell was motivated by a vision of Australia, populated and prosperous. However, the people that were included in his futuristic vision were white. He scoured Europe looking for reservoirs of white immigrants that would be acceptable to the political establishment back in Australia.

In this postwar drive to acquire willing immigrants, the criminal records of Eastern European collaborators were ‘bleached’, and many of the new arrivals transplanted their ultra-conservative, fanatically religious attitudes and cultural practices into Australia. One of the Nazi refugees who arrived in Australia was Lyenko Urbanchich, a Slovene Nazi collaborator. Urbanchich served as the Propaganda Minister for the wartime Slovene Nazi puppet government, a little Joseph Goebbels, if you will.

Urbanchich quickly became an important figure in the NSW Liberal Party, where his fanatical anti-Communism found a receptive audience. Bringing his fellow far-rightists into the party, he pioneered the art of branch-stacking, influencing a number of Liberal party branches in NSW. Forming his own faction, the ‘Uglies’. he became an intimidating and influential presence in Liberal party affairs, his wartime record notwithstanding. Slandering his opponents as Communists, or somehow Jewish-controlled, Urbanchich passed away in 2006. Nazi collaborators found a new home in Australia, all the while observed and protected by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

When senior Australian political figures, such as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, send their greetings to the Croatian community on April 10 to celebrate the emergence of an independent Croat nation, they are contributing to a very sanitised version of World War Two history. April 10 1941 is the anniversary of the foundation of the Ustashe-controlled Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi-puppet state that went on to exterminate thousands of anti-Nazi Croats, Serbs, Jews and others.

Toasting the success of April 10 is not a value-free, neutral commemoration of a distant historical event in a faraway country – it is assisting the Croat far-right in weaponising the fascist past to serve current political purposes. Extolling the success of a wartime Catholic-fascist state that went about mercilessly killing non-Croat ethnic groups speaks volumes about the character of the politicians that join that celebration.

When successive Australian governments invoke the notion of human rights to justify their actions, it is difficult to take their rationalisations at face value. We must be honest with ourselves, and repudiate the selective sympathy that we have cultivated for fascist war criminals and ultra-rightist terrorists, portraying the latter categories as humble victims fleeing Communist oppression.

The Bleiburg commemorations denounce, among other things, British betrayal of the fleeing Croatian Nazis, handing over the latter to the encroaching Yugoslav Partisan armies. By finding purported sanctuary with the British army, the Ustashe militants and their supporters were hoping to escape justice for their many crimes. We are betraying the memory of the victims of fascism’s crimes by adopting the justifications and doctrines of their killers.

The Austin bombings, domestic terrorism and the radicalisation of religion

Austin serial bomber Mark Conditt terrorised the city of Austin, Texas, over approximately 19 days in March 2018. He targeted the African American community, and posted bombs to various organisations and individuals. Eventually cornered by the police, Conditt took his own life – he blew himself up, rather than surrender. The Austin police chief, after refusing to use the ‘T’ word to describe Conditt, eventually relented and applied the appropriate description to the perpetrator – a domestic terrorist.

Conditt was described as a ‘troubled’ youth with mental health problems, and this may very well have been the case. These kinds of descriptions are usually deployed as excuses, by the corporate media, in order to minimise the culpability of a perpetrator we would otherwise characterise as a terrorist. There is some discussion of why, in such cases, we are hesitant in using the label ‘terrorist’, especially in the case of a perpetrator who is white and Christian, like Mark Conditt.

Daniel Camacho, writing in The Guardian newspaper, correctly identifies the role of white privilege in this debate regarding the motivations of terrorist suspects. In the United States, white Christian racial and religious privilege provide a buttress for those who would kill and maim, particularly when their targets are from ethnic and religious minorities. As Camacho states in his article:

If a Muslim man planted bombs in predominately white neighborhoods before blowing himself up, you could bet that the White House and various media outlets would label him a terrorist and draw some connection between his religion and his violent acts. But the case of the Austin bomber reveals an enduring double standard: white Christian terrorists continue to get a free pass.

Personal and mental health problems are provided greater coverage in the case of those domestic terrorists who are white and come from a Christian background. While it is the case that the motivations for violent terrorist acts are always complicated and multifaceted, a perpetrator of non-white background is never granted any exculpatory reasons or opinions. It took sustained community outrage before the Austin police chief admitted he was ”comfortable’ with stating that Conditt was a domestic terrorist.

When a perpetrator from an Islamic background is examined, there is no shortage of coverage about the radicalisation of religion, and in particular the Islamic faith’s purported receptiveness towards a radicalised message. Islam, so we are told by the experts, possesses a unique totalitarian political tendency conducive in producing radicalised adherents. Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the logo ‘war on terror’ has become a useful label to denote the US government’s response to radicalised Islamic groups. Indeed, since 2001 advocates for the American government have stated that the United States is at war with radical Islam.

This mindset of ‘we are at war with radical Islam’ contains a vital hypocrisy at its heart. The proponents of this view deliberately ignore the radicalisation of religion that occurs with the other monotheistic faith groups. The action of Mark Conditt and similar ultra-rightist perpetrators are dismissed as aberrations; they are sidelined as marginal figures that have misinterpreted Christian scripture. Misinterpretation may indeed be the case, but Conditt was not a marginal or atypical figure. Holy hate is as much part of the Christian tradition as it is of the Islamic.

Conditt was a member of RIOT – Righteous Invasion of Truth – a Christian survivalist group which homeschooled its members, and taught its followers gun skills along with theology. Raised on a diet of millenarian prophecy, Conditt was indoctrinated into a radicalised perspective, lashing out against marriage equality, and expressing opposition to other religious and ethnic minority groups. Conditt was not alone in his Christian supremacism. The United States has a long history of religiously-motivated terrorism, and not just the obvious example of men-in-sheets burning crosses.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) has documented the ultra-right’s radicalisation of religion. In a report called ‘Holy Hate’, the authors explain how the far-right in America have immersed themselves in the doctrines of Christian theology and end-times prophecies. The SPLC writers state that:

White supremacistssovereign citizensmilitia extremists and violent anti-abortion adherents use religious concepts and scripture to justify threats, criminal activity and violence. This discussion of religious extremism should not be confused with someone being extremely religious. It should also not be misconstrued as an assault on Christianity. Rather, it represents an exploration of the links between violent right-wing extremism and its exploitation of Christianity and other religions to gain a better understanding of how American extremists recruit, radicalize and mobilize their adherents toward violence and terrorism.

Religious conceptions stemming from the Christian faith play a vital role in the recruitment and radicalisation of ultra-rightist foot-soldiers in the United States. Christian apocalypse scenarios, the Armageddon end-times, and the ostensible inevitability of the Second Coming of Christ, are crucial concepts in the indoctrination and mobilisation of right-wing extremists. Scriptural interpretation is used to defy the law, and in many cases, change the laws of the United States to conform to Christian precepts. Hate in God’s name is not an exclusively Muslim enterprise.

Ultra-right militias and sovereign citizens groups place themselves in the Christian camp, and self-identify as Christian patriots fighting for dominion over a supposedly wayward, secular society and constitution. Patriot militia groups express their admiration for the Founding Fathers of American independence, but their veneration adopts semi-religious overtones. In fact, the concept of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values is invoked – by the ultra-right. The founding fathers were alleged to have been motivated by such beliefs and principles when drafting the constitution of the fledgling republic – in fact, there is no such thing as ‘Judeo-Christian’ beliefs.

Please do not misconstrue the above critique; we are not suggesting that Christianity is better or worse than other religions. Should we be ‘soft’ on Islamic militia groups? No, we should not. Is the above motivated by a murderous hatred of Christian persons? No, it is not. What is being suggested is that we need to have a serious discussion about the radicalisation of religion, in all its forms. Ultra-rightist groups have a history of committing terrorist acts – and they have been flying under the radar for a long time.

It is time to expose not only the crimes of domestic terrorism, but also the ideology that underlies the motivations of the ultra-right. When black American families, and their churches, are targeted by a violent ultra-rightist like Mark Conditt, it is a poor service to the victims when we find excuses for the actions of the terrorist perpetrator.