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.