Bleiburg: a graveyard of historical realities

During the decades following World War II the so-called ‘Bleiburg massacres’ have entered Croatian national myth despite utter lack of historical evidence of them ever taking place. In modern Croatia, the event has been embraced by the state, and the commemoration had been receiving public funding until it was banned by the Austrian authorities.

It is always contentious to talk about topics regarding the closing stages of WWII. The historic defeat of national socialism is hard to swallow at face value, with abundance of conspiracy theories trying to rationalize the idea that such a `great nation` as Germany could be defeated by puny democratic forces and barbaric Eastern hordes of godless Reds, thus implicitly accepting the Nazi narrative of national greatness. It is, however, false to assume that this historic revisionism is only contained within fringe conspiratorial groups and individuals. In the east, the Japanese state has never faced the reality of their own crimes committed during the war. In the west, the Americans still believe in their utilitarian mythologies that the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians both in firebombed Germany and in irradiated Japan were necessary to ensure quicker and less painful military victories rather than both scaring the Soviets and matching their territorial advancements. In Europe itself the trauma of the war has become a foundational building block of contemporary varieties of national mythologies and the identities built upon them.

Croatia is no exception to this rule, with new national mythologies emerging from the wartime period –

a mainstream one centred on Partisan antifascist struggle, and a fringe one centred on the Fascist forces and their allies that represented a long Croatian struggle for independence. The second mythology has been made mainstream in modern Croatia, following its independence from Yugoslavia and the devastating war that followed it. This mythology was largely based on the idea of Croatia as a victim of communist and Serbian terror, starting with the closing stages of WWII and culminating in Milošević’s invasion of 1991. The foundation to this myth can be found in the Bleiburg repatriations of 1945, known in Croatia as ‘The way of the Cross’ and ‘The Bleiburg tragedy’.

As the myth goes, in the spring of 1945, after the capitulation of Germany, a column of Croats and a smaller number of other Axis aligned forces from all over Yugoslavia started to flee northwest towards the Yugoslav border with allied-occupied Austria. They were followed by vengeful Partisans who sought to destroy any semblance of the Croatian state. On May 15th the column reached the border, where they hoped to surrender to the occupying Allied troops but were turned back and surrounded by the pursuing Partisan army. They were then captured and executed en-masse, either – as the myth says – directly at the site, the Loibacher field near Bleiburg/Pliberk, or further inland in Yugoslavia, where they were buried in mass graves at various sites located mostly in Slovenia. Croatian sources estimate the number of victims at up to 600 000, but usually at around 60 000 to 200 000, consisting both of soldiers and civilians including children.

However, critical studies have thoroughly debunked this version of events.

There’s little physical evidence of mass executions having ever been found at the Loibacher field. The mass graves discoverd elsewhere, most notably Huda Jama site in Slovenia, contai almost exclusively military-aged men’s remains numbering in hundreds rather than thousands. Around 5 percent of the discovered bodies belonged to women, and virtually no children’s remains have been found. So how did this myth appear and how does it persist if it has so little to do with material reality?

The mythical story was constructed through testimonies of Ustaša survivors and their relatives, who emigrated overseas, mostly to South America, and was propagated by various post-Ustaša political organizations like Hrvatski oslobodilački pokret – Croatian Liberation Movement, founded by the former Ustaša leader Ante Pavelić in 1956.  Since 1955, a commemoration of the alleged Bleiburg ‘massacre’ was being held annually up until 2019 at the Loibacher site by the organization Bleiburški počasni vod (Bleiburg Honorary Guard), also founded by former Ustaše, alleged survivors of the Loibacher field. The Bleiburg myth was subsequently imported to Croatia through illicit press and population exchange between diaspora and the home country and was adopted by some dissident groups opposing Yugoslavism and the Communist party in power but remained largely unknown to the population at large. All of this started to change following the Croatian Spring of 1974 and Josip Broz Tito’s death in 1980.

While the Yugoslav state was showing significant instability, certain groups within Croatia began the construction of a new nationalist narrative with which to restart the mass movement for Croatian independence and the reestablishment of the capitalist system within the country. It was during the 80s that the ‘Bleiburg massacre’ commemoration at the Loibacher field started gaining Croatian media attention, with most attendees still arriving from the diaspora.

After taking power in Croatia in 1990 the nationalist HDZ government provided the Loibacher commemoration event with state sponsorship, and President Franjo Tuđman himself started attending. It was at this time that the story of the ‘Bleiburg tragedy’ was served to mass Croatian audiences as part of an anti-Serbian propaganda campaign, where the communist partisans were reinvented in the national narrative as the ‘serbocommunist aggressors’ comparable to the contemporary invasion of Slobodan Milošević’s ‘socialist’ Serb forces, thus completely disregarding Croats who participated in the Partisan movement. The story was retold as part of a centuries-long Croatian quest for independence that culminated with the ‘Homeland War’ that was being fought in the 90s, and Croatian victims of the Partisans were compared to Jews in the Holocaust, while their suffering on their march from Austria back into Yugoslavia was compared to the Passion of Christ at Golgotha, the event being named Way of the Cross. 

By the late 90s, the Bleiburg myth had become an integral part of modern Croatian national identity and was accepted as a historical fact both by nationalist historiography and educational institutions.

It is however important to mention that the Ustaše narrative in question was not the replacement of the previous Partisan narrative, but rather existed in addition to it, with both myths finding a place in contemporary Croatian mythology. Despite the two myths being incompatible, together they form the basis for the contemporary Croatian political system, much of which hinges on given individual’s preferred interpretation of history. Tuđman himself did his best to try and inherit both the Partisan-antifascist legacy and the revisionist Croatian narrative, perhaps finding it hard to evade his own history as a prominent member of the Partisan movement, but also in order not to create too much of social division while trying to remake the public perception of their own history.

After Tuđman’s death in 1999 and the liberal-social democratic victory at the 2000 elections an era of political ‘thaw’ took effect in Croatia, with much of nationalistic political rhetoric softening and mythologies being less rigidly interpreted. Even so, both Prime Ministers Ivica Račan of the SDP and his successor Ivo Sanader of the reformed HDZ took part in maintaining the two-faceted national mythology by continuing the commemorations of both the revisionist Bleiburg myth and the Fascist’s killings, especially in concentration camps like Jasenovac. This led to a sense of false equivalence between the events and between victims of fascism and the perpetrators of fascist atrocities. The Bleiburg commemoration events themselves grew in pomp and attendance, with a shrine being built at the site beside the already extent monument to the events of Loibacher field. Only in 2012 did the Croatian government cease to support the commemoration, following a decisive SDP victory in the wake of Ivo Sanader’s resignation in the aftermath of a corruption scandal. Even so, 2015 saw a HDZ victory in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, and once again a restoration of governmental support for the Bleiburg commemoration was established in 2016. The events continued to grow in spite of temporary governmental boycott, reaching over 30 000 attendees in 2015. Governmental officials again started attending the ceremonies yearly, seemingly ignoring the largely fascist character of events and their attendants, the prominent display of Ustaša symbols and glorification of Ustaša personalities and their ideological heirs.

Throughout the years, the Bleiburg commemorations started drawing in not just Croats from their homeland and the diaspora, but also neo-fascist and anti-communist elements of other countries, most notably the host country of Austria.

This drew attention of various local antifascist organizations, who were appalled at the existence of such a prominent reactionary event in their own backyard, prompting them to start drawing the attention of the public and the media, with hopes of pressuring the government into taking action. The organizers of the Bleiburg commemoration have for years been successful in evading governmental veto by claiming to be a church event, but in 2020 a governmental workgroup with a mission to examine the events and determine the appropriate course of action was finally founded, and by 2021 they had determined the event to be both political in nature and used to glorify fascist personas and ideological positions. The event was thus deemed illegal under Austrian law, and the 2019 Loibacher field commemoration was the last to be held on-site, since both the 2020 and 2021 events could not be held due to the corona pandemic. The Loibacher field was succeeded by modest commemorations at a local church and various events in Croatia designed to maintain the same nationalistic narrative. Still, Austrians remain largely unaware of the existence of the Bleiburg myth and of the Croatian ultranationalist commemoration that was taking place in their country.

Nowadays, the Bleiburg narrative is showing some signs of losing potency as the main commemoration events stopped.

Upon visiting the commemoration site at the Loibacher field, it is evident that while there are still traces of recent ultranationalist activity, most notably candles at the shrine, the shrine and the memorial have fallen into disrepair.

While Ustaše symbols were removed by the Austrian authorities, the site has suffered significant damage in other areas. Most of the gold nuggets imbedded in the central shrine’s altar have been removed, and various letters at the memorial plaque are missing, as is the Moslem star-and-crescent symbol that used to be placed opposite the Ustaše Croatian checkerboard. All the benches are missing save for one, ironically displaying the signs ‘reserved’ and ‘Medved’, almost certainly referring to Croatian minister of the same name who attended the last commemoration in 2019. Back in Croatia, the successor commemoration events saw mediocre attendance, with less than one thousand participants per event.

It is still hard to determine if the Bleiburg myth is fading, having long been ingrained in Croatian collective memory, even if a false one, and school curriculums and historiographic consensus still tell largely the same stories as they have since the 90s. But, perhaps, deradicalization of the narrative and loss of public interest that seem to be taking place are steps in the right direction – a direction towards deconstruction of a faulty national myth. 

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