23.08.2017., Jasenovac - Ministrica kulture Nina Obuljen Korzinek povodom dana Europskog dana sjecanja na zrtve svih totalitarnih rezima polozila je vijenac i zapalila svijecu kod spomen obiljezja u Spomen podrucju. Photo: Nikola Cutuk/PIXSELL

Government of the Republic of Croatia, foremost the Ministry of Culture and Media under the leadership of Nina Obuljen Koržinek, is trying to dress up the history only to make mess of it, and expunge the fact that the Ustaša fascist regime in the Independent State of Croatia committed genocide against Serbs during the Second World War. Not long ago, the latter was undisputable even for the government of Andrija Plenković. During the mandate of Ivo Pejaković, now resigned director of the Jasenovac Memorial Site, comments on the genocide against Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia published on the official website of that institution on the occasion of various annuals were not challenged.

By: Tihomir Ponoš

But today this, as the prime minister of Croatia said, non-theme became the theme as it was apparent during the last year when Croatia held the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This organization among its recommendations also advised the Croatian government to install new informational boards for visitors with “clear and precise” facts about events in the Jasenovac camp complex. No agreement was reached, there are no definitions of the crime on informational boards, and terms “Holocaust” (for the crimes against the Jews) or “genocide” (for crimes against Serbs and Romani) were not used. In public, “Holocaust” is still used for crimes against the Jews, “genocide” for crimes against Romani, and for the crimes against Serbs the term “mass atrocities” is becoming increasingly frequent, and can be heard also from the Minister Obuljen Koržinek. In the case of the Minister, it is an improvement. Half a year ago, in her answer to the question from a reporter about IHRA’s initiative to put the Jasenovac camp complex on the UNESCO World Heritage List, she spoke about preservation of  “places of suffering, where Holocaust against the Jews, genocide against Romani and mass atrocities were committed.” Serbs were omitted, even though they constituted the largest number of victims in the Ustaša-run concentration camp Jasenovac, and mass atrocities were committed against them elsewhere in the Independent State of Croatia.

What the current government in Croatia cannot describe as genocide against Serbs was precisely designated as such by Raphael Lemkin, Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who coined the term “genocide”. Lemkin was born in 1900 in Bezwodne, a village in the Russian Empire, present-day in Belarus. As a law student fully aware of antisemitic persecution, Lemkin learned about the Ottoman Empire’s massacres of Armenians during the World War I and was deeply disturbed by the absence international provisions to charge Ottoman officeholders responsible for those crimes. In 1933, while the Public Persecutor in Warsaw, Lemkin made a presentation to the Legal Council of the League of Nations conference on “crime of barbarity as a crime against international law”. In the following year, under pressure from the Polish Foreign Minister, he resigned his position and became a private solicitor. After Nazis and Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939, he managed to emigrate in the United States, and subsequently found a job at the Duke University. Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1943 or 1944 from two words – genos (Greek: γένος, family, clan, tribe, race, stock, kin) and

-cide (Latin-cīdium, ‘killing’) – by way of analogy to terms homicide and fratricide. He led the campaign for international convention which would preclude and punish genocide. During the World War II, he sought to inform public, and particularly politicians, of crimes committed in occupied Europe. In December 1948, the United Nations approved the Genocide Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide whereby until then nonexistent term finally entered into international law, albeit in narrowed form in comparison to Lemkin’s proposal. And before that, Lemkin’s magnum opus, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, has been published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1944.

In his book, Lemkin stated that laws of occupation are an extremely valuable source of information regarding such government and its practice, and regimes were totalitarian in their method and spirit. “Every phase of life, even the most intimate, is covered by a network of laws and regulations which create the instrumentalities of a most complete administrative control and coercion.” In the beginning, he wrote about the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria). He concluded that laws formulated by occupants were very grave outrages against humanity and international law, against human rights, morality and religion. Those laws were adopted and enforced by puppet states and puppet regimes (Lemkin named Norway, the Independent State of Croatia, Slovakia, Serbia, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and to a certain extent the Vichy France, as well as laws enacted in occupied Belgium and the Netherlands).

Lemkin has divided his book in three parts. In first part, rational synthesis of techniques of occupation (with particular emphasis on Germany and its practice) was presented; in second part, regimes in each of occupied countries were analysed; and in third, the most comprehensive part, a selection of documents and regulations for each country in alphabetic order, from Albania to Yugoslavia, has been included. In the preface, the practice of extermination of nations and ethnic groups as carried out by invaders is called by the author genocide. But, according to Lemkin, genocide is perpetrated not only by killing. Namely, “genocide is effected through a synchronized attack on different aspects of life of the captive peoples: in the political field (by destroying institutions of self-government and imposing a German pattern of administration, and through colonization by Germans); in the social field (by disrupting the social cohesion of the nation involved and killing or removing elements such as the intelligentsia, which provide spiritual leadership – according to Hitler’s statement in Mein Kampf, ‘the greatest of spirits can be liquidated if its bearer is beaten to death with a rubber truncheon’); in the cultural field (by prohibiting or destroying cultural institutions and cultural activities; by substituting vocational education for education in the liberal arts, in order to prevent humanistic thinking, which the occupant considers dangerous because it promotes national thinking) ; in the economic field (by shifting the wealth to Germans and by prohibiting the exercise of trades and occupations by people who do not promote Germanism ‘without reservations’); in the biological field (by a policy of depopulation and by promoting procreation by Germans in the occupied countries); in the field of physical existence (by introducing a starvation rationing system for non-Germans and by mass killings, mainly of Jews, Poles, Slovenes, and Russians); in the religious field (by interfering with the activities of the Church, which in many countries provides not only spiritual but also national leadership); in the field of morality (by attempts to create an atmosphere of moral debasement through promoting pornographic publications and motion pictures, and the excessive consumption of alcohol).”

Lemkin claims “genocide” is a new concept, new concepts require new terms, and this new term implies the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. It does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. For Lemkin, term “genocide” is intended to signify “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups them selves.” The objectives of such a plan could be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture and language, national feelings and religion, of the economic existence of national groups, but also “the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, and dignity.” At the end, “genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”

In the book that has over seven hundred pages, for Lemkin there was no dilemma – what was committed by Ustaša regime against Serbs was genocide. In the section about the Independent State of Croatia (a part of the chapter on Yugoslavia) Lemkin said that genocide policy was directed predominantly against Jews and Serbs. Here we will focus only on what he wrote about Serbs. “The Serbian population living in Croatia is affected mainly in its political and cultural aspects. Its national pattern is being destroyed by genocide legislation. Since the main difference between the Serbian and Croatian languages consists in the use by the Croats of the Roman lettering and by the Serbs of the Cyrillic lettering, the use of the latter has been prohibited. By this prohibition the Serbs are practically obliged to use the Croatian language in writing. If one considers that the Cyrillic lettering is an essential part of the ritual of the Eastern Orthodox Church, one must conclude that the compulsion as to the use of the Roman lettering amounts to interference with religion. It is reported that the Serbian population in Croatia is being subjected to massacres and tortures. Allegedly several hundred thousand Serbs have been killed by the Ustaše.”

Conditions in which Lemkin gathered documentation for his comprehensive and hefty book, and managed to publish it at the time when those events were unfolding, when data and testimonies were comparatively scarce, are really fascinating. In the section containing statutes and decrees, he mentioned a few of them concerning genocidal politics of the Independent State of Croatia, certainly not all of them, and even not all that are the most important. But already from “law-decrees” issued by the Independent State of Croatia, and from what was done in the first weeks and months after its proclamation, Ustaša’s intentions are very clear.

Cyrillic alphabet was forbidden on April 25, 1941, fifteen days after the establishment of the NDH. The law concerning prohibition of the Cyrillic alphabet contains only two sections: the first states that use of the Cyrillic alphabet in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia shall be prohibited; and the second states that the law shall take effect on the day of promulgation in Narodne Novine, and the Minister of the Interior shall be entrusted with its execution. The executive order sets forth that any usage of the Cyrillic alphabet in private and public life shall be prohibited, and printing books in Cyrillic alphabet is suppressed under the penalty of 10.000 dinars and up to one month in prison. Five days later, the law concerning citizenship was proclaimed which defined a citizen as “a national of Aryan origin [precisely, typo in the original document; author’s comment] who has proven by his conduct that he did not engage in activities against the liberation efforts of the Croatian people and who is ready and willing to serve faithfully the Croatian nation and the Independent State of Croatia”. Between proclamations of those two laws, first massacre of Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia was committed on April 28, in the village Gudovac near Bjelovar. Property of Serbs was also under attack (belonging to individuals, and also to Serbian organisations and companies owned by Serbs). Religious conversions from the Orthodox to the Roman Catholic Confession were organized. People thought it would protect them from Ustaša terror and save their lives. Many were wrong. Indeed, from time to time religious conversions were organized in order to quickly and comparatively without much effort gather people, Serbs, in one place, but instead of the conversion slaughter followed. First Ustaša-run concentration camp, Danica near Koprivnica, has been founded already on April 15, 1941. And a few days after, first prisoners were brought: Jews, Serbs and Croats. The Orthodox Church was practically banned, and this was “legalized” by the establishment of the Croatian Orthodox Church in 1942. In the spring of 1941, the death camp Jadovno was formed in which Serbs and Jews were killed on a massive scale. Massacres of Serbian civilian population were often committed, and at the beginning of July 1941, women, children and old people were slaughtered in the village Suvaja. All this, and much more, happened before formation of the Ustaša-run concentration camp in Jasenovac, in which, according to data provided by the Jasenovac Memorial Site, during 1.337 days more than 83.000 people were killed, and among them more than 47.000 were Serbs.

Raphael Lemkin (Foto: Wikimedia Commons)

Therefore, when we speak about genocide against Serbs committed by Ustaša, the question for the Government is not, what is not clear, but why it is not clear.

Executive order of the Ministry of Interior Concerning Prohibition of the Cyrillic Alphabet.

  • 1. Any use of the Cyrillic alphabet throughout all territory of the Independent State of Croatia shall be prohibited. This applies in particular to every conduct of all state and self-governing bodies, to offices of public order, to commercial and similar books and correspondence, as well as to all public inscriptions.

Accordingly I command:

Any use of the Cyrillic alphabet throughout all territory of the Independent State of Croatia in public and in private life should be suppressed. All printing of any particular books in the Cyrillic alphabet shall be prohibited.

All public inscriptions in the Cyrillic alphabet should be immediately removed, at latest within period of three days.

  • 2. Violators of the order shall be punished in administrative regions by fine up to 10.000 dinars and by imprisonment up to one month.

Zagreb, April 25, 1941.

Minister of the Interior:

Dr. Andrija Artuković