The Holocaust in the Independent State of Croatia

Yugoslavia: the Ultimate Multinational State

The unification of the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia was put into action after World War I, mainly as a sign of thanks to the Serbs who had fought so valiantly against Austria-Hungary during WWI. This new multinational state was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929, and it included: the former Kingdom Serbia and Montenegro (including Serbian-held Macedonia), as well as Croatia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Austrian territory in Dalmatia and Slovenia; and Hungarian land north of the Danube River. The populations of people united in the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia after World War I did not share any history at all. The Slovenes were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Croats had briefly been independent before falling under Habsburg rule as well. The Serbs, however, had been part of the vast Ottoman empire and were given some independence in the late 1800s.  The Montenegrins had lived as an isolated state under a semi-theocratic series of bishops and kings. The Bosnians were distinct in that they had converted to Islam by the time of the Second World War.

The central conflict between the Serbs and the Croats was in whether or not the country ought to be centrally ruled (Serbs) or more localized (Croats) government.  This was decided for them in 1929; King Alexander usurped the throne as dictator and oppressed all negative opinions on the Kingdom.  Yugoslavia, however, faced many problems right from the start.  The Italians next door funded many separtist movements in an effort to hasten the demise of King Alexander – whose lands they coveted – and they even helped assist in his assasination in 1934.  This began the unraveling of the unified Slavic state and the Croatian Jews and Serbs would suffer immensely. For more information on the fate of the Jews in the other regions of Yugoslavia see The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

The political landscape at the beginning of the war can be divided into three groups:

  • Pro-Fascist/Nazi Croatians (also known as the Ustaše)
  • Pro-Western Allied Serbs (later known as Chetniks, althought Chetniks weren’t wholly Serbian in their composition)
  • Pro-Soviet Communists of all ethnicities. (Tito)

Pictured Below: A Group of Jewish Friends in Croatia, before the Holocaust

Semi-autonomous Croatia shown in red during the Kingdom days.

Prince Paul

After the assasination of King Alexander there was a vacuum of power. His son, Prince Paul II, was too young to take over and a council of three people was put into power as his regency until he could take the throne. This council, however, was dominated by by Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. Prince Paul was a much more democratically inclined ruler in comparison to King Alexander, and under his rule Croatia gained some autonomy as per the Cvetković–Maček Agreement.

Prince Paul was not in support of the Axis powers in his personal life, but he did sign an agreement of non-aggression with Germany on 25 March 1941.  This was due to the impending doom he felt being located in the Balkans, especially with Bulgaria and Romania signing on to the Axis allegiance, the King felt trapped.  In spite of his best efforts, Prince Paul was sacked and a military coup-d’etat was carried out with British support, and placed King Peter II on the throne at the age of 17.

King Peter II and the Nazi Takeover

After taking the throne and formally becoming an opposition to the Nazis, King Peter II was destined for failure. The Axis quickly overran the Kingdom less than one month later on April 16, 1941.  Yugoslavia was partitioned and the land was split amongst the various Axis nations with a new Independent State of Croatia created (Pictured above.)  The new Croatian state was headed by Ante Pavolič, who was a fascist and orchestrated the horrors of the Holocaust in Croatia.
Jews In Croatia Wearing Star Of David
Jews In Croatia Wearing Star Of David

(Pictured are photos of Croatian Jews wearing the Star of David after 1941)

Legislation Against the Jews began almost immediately after the Ustaše ascent to power.  The first law during the Holocaust in Croatia was published in the newspaper on April 30, 1941, and it detailed the stipulations surrounding Aryan marriages to Non-Aryans.  The Holocaust in Croatia is colored also by the persecution of Serbs, who were endemic to that region of the Balkans.  Many believe the massacres against the Serbs were far more brutal than those against Jews, and much evidence points to this being true.  However, the Serbs were able to convert away from their eastern Orthodoxy, but the Jews were firmly trapped in their positions.  It was also quickly legislated that all Jews over the age of 6 had to wear a Star of David with the letter “Ž” on it (from the Croatian word for ‘Jew’ – židov.)  Arrests and disenfranchisement from government positions occurred in the early days as well.  At first it was only the most prominent Jews of each community, but eventually the leader of the new state declared Jews were the collective enemy of the new Independent State of Croatia. The punishment was incarceration at local concentration points – this is when the mass arrests began.  The Holocaust in Croatia started in Varaždin, which was the first city “purged” of Jews. Only those who were able to flee the city or go into hiding managed to escape incarceration and death.

Jasenovac

In August 1941 the Ustaše established the Jasenovac concentration camp, one of the largest in Europe.  This included the sub-camp for women and children, Stara Gradiška.  This camp was considered a testament to mass extermination via manual methods; there were no gas chambers.  German soldiers are known to have written home to their families about how barbaric they considered the Croatian Ustasha to be towards their victims.  The main enemy of Ustasha ideology was anti-Serb, but the Nazi influence had taken its toll and there were over 18,000 Jewish people killed at the camps.  Jewish life in Croatia had been small, but vibrant and influenctial.  Jewish families were generally integrated in the Yugoslav Kingdom, and this showed in 1943 when Nazis commented on how roughly 6,000 Jews were still living freely due to connections and bribes.  The government promptly agreed to have the remaining Jews deported to Auschwitz, yet some highly educated and rich Jews managed to ride out the war in Zagreb.

 

(Image: Ustaše guards confiscating the property of Jewish and Serbian victims)

The Serbs; The Croats; and the German Government.
Croatians were not traditionally anti-Semitic and there were many Jews that were ultra assimilated into Croatian society. In fact, some of the main figureheads that founded the ideology behind Croatian nationalism were Jews.  The cruel treatment of Jews by Croatians – Ustaše in particular – is largely seen as collateral damage.  The Croatians killed Jews willingly, yes, but not fervently. Their real enemies were the Serbs who lived among them.  The Serbs and Croats are actually one people, split by years of subscription to a different religion; the Serbs being Eastern Orthodox and the Croats being Roman Catholic.  Soon after the capitulation of the central government (which was largely supported by Serbs) the Croatian state began its merciless, brutal murdering spree against their neighbors.  Colonel-General Lothar Rendulic was a senior military official in the German army and a reliable source for the truth behind the level of bestial cruelty exhibited by the Croats against the Serbs; he writes:

After the collapse of Yugoslavia as a result of the war with Germany in April of 1941, the political and social explosive which had accumulated in Croatia erupted. In their advance in Croatia, German soldiers met with practically no resistance but were greeted as liberators. Croatia was constituted as an independent state, the leadership of which was assumed by Ante Pavelic. While the German troops were stationed in few Croatian localities, there immediately began from the Croatian side a barbarous persecution of the Orthodox.

This shows how the real motivating force behind the Ustaše was actually anti-Serbian sentiment. The Germans became wary of their choice to support the Croatians because of the extremely disturbing excesses committed by them against the Serbs.  This had negative consequences for the Germans as it drove many Serbs into the hands of the partisans, who were ultimately very important in the fighting that occurred in the Balkans.  Many German sources from the time write home about the shocking brutality and utter incompetence of the Ustaše, even the SS units in the area were made up of only Bosniak Muslims due to the unreliability of the Croats.

The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

For more information on the other regions.