Is Croatia finally confronting its brutal communist past? Recently, Croatian authorities arrested Josip Boljkovac for the mass murder of anti-communists after the end of World War II. Mr. Boljkovac, 89, is charged with committing numerous war crimes at the infamous Dubovec camp. For decades, he served in the feared secret police of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito. Mr. Boljkovac has also played a key role in the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), serving as its interior minister during the early 1990s.
Mr. Boljkovac is the first major official from Tito’s regime to be tried for human rights abuses after the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. In 1945, Tito’s victorious Partisan army erected a totalitarian police state. The half-Croatian, half-Slovene dictator was an ideological Marxist, who sought to wipe out his opponents, such as nationalist Serbs, Slovenes and Albanians.
Yet, his greatest victims were Croatians. Tito’s goal was to smash all opposition in order to consolidate his iron grip on power. This meant subjugating Croatia - the most Western, Catholic and anti-communist of the Yugoslav republics. More than 200,000 Croatians were slaughtered. Basic freedoms were abrogated. Croatia’s Catholic Church - the cradle of Croatian nationalism - was heavily persecuted. Much of its wealth was confiscated, its priests and nuns were killed and numerous parishes were shut down. Croatia’s economy was pillaged by the Titoist ruling class. The Partisans understood that Yugoslavia could be preserved only by extinguishing - and demonizing - all vestiges of Croatia’s distinct national identity.
Hence, for decades, Belgrade waged a relentless propaganda campaign, seeking to portray Croatian patriotism - and the long-suppressed popular desire for independence - as crypto-fascism. In World War II, Croatia had a Nazi regime led by the odious Ante Pavelic and his sadistic Ustashe. From 1941 to 1945, Pavelic’s henchmen sought to create an ethnically pure Greater Croatia that incorporated Bosnia-Herzegovina and parts of Serbia. The Ustashe systematically killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies (Roma) and anti-fascist Croatians, many of them at the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp. The Ustashe are a stain upon the Croatian nation. Its symbols and party are now banned.
However, during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Serbian revanchists falsely and maliciously claimed Croatia’s sovereign state was the heir of the Ustashe: Croatian nationalism was equated with the revival of fascism. This was the smoke screen used to justify Belgrade’s war of aggression. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Pavelic was not a patriot or nationalist; rather, he was a Nazi quisling and radical Croatian imperialist. His evil regime was imposed through German, Italian and Hungarian occupation armies. At its height, the Ustashe possessed a mere 16,000 members.
By contrast, modern Croatian mass nationalism has very different roots. Its primary exponent was the Croatian Peasant Party. Led by the agrarian populist, Stjepan Radic, it championed home rule, constitutional government and parliamentary democracy. Radic opposed the 1918 creation of royalist Yugoslavia, rightly arguing that it was an authoritarian, synthetic state destined to fail. His party consistently won more than 80 percent of the Croatian vote during elections in the 1920s.
Radic appealed to the historic Croatia - its unique language and Slavic culture; its Central European and Catholic heritage; its long defense of Christendom against invading Ottoman Turks; its red-and-white checkerboard flag that dates back to 1527, when Croatia sealed its union with the Hapsburg monarchy; its centuries-old tradition of parliamentary self-rule; and its adherence to God, faith and family. His soaring popularity was why he was killed in 1928 by a pro-royalist Montenegrin deputy. Still, Radic’s patriotic populism remained a potent force. Pavelic never embodied Croatia’s movement for national self-determination. Radic did - and both Pavelic and Tito despised him for it.
Moreover, almost every people in Europe at that time had vile, collaborationist regimes. For example, Serbia had a genocidal pro-Nazi government under Gen. Milan Nedic. His quisling state was the first to proclaim its territory “free of Jews,” having launched a massive extermination campaign. Contrary to myth, Serbian royalists - known as Chetniks - did not bravely wage guerrilla war against the German Wehrmacht. Rather, they were racist, right-wing extremists who, supported by Mussolini’s Italy, fought to carve out a homogenous Great Serb empire through a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They butchered tens of thousands of Croatian and Bosnian Muslim civilians. In fact, Belgrade’s recent attempt to forge a Greater Serbia relied on Chetnik ideology and symbolism.
Hence, the claim that Croatians are innately fascistic is not only false, but deep-seated bigotry. The real problem has been the nation’s communist past.
The dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was a victory for democracy and national self-determination. Yet, communism has had a crippling legacy on the region. For more than 40 years, it sought to destroy Croatia’s historical identity, international image and very existence. It has even tainted the country’s founding. The now-deceased President Franjo Tudjman, who led Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia, was a Partisan general who loyally served Tito for decades. His ruling HDZ remains dominated by former apparatchiks.
Mr. Boljkovac may now be in the dock for crimes he is said to have committed in 1946. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a senior HDZ official. His shady past was known to HDZ bosses then. The charges are nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt in a pathetic attempt to save the HDZ from its coming defeat in the Dec. 4 elections. It will not work.
The rampant cronyism, the pervasive corruption, the subservience to foreign powers like Brussels, the political culture of mendacity and bribery, widespread social amorality and the embrace of state-driven corporatism - all have marked the HDZ’s rule and threaten to bankrupt Croatia. They are the remnants of the communist system. Tito’s ghost lives on. Until it is exorcised, Croatia will remain haunted - and doomed.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.