The village of Jasenovac stands near the border between Bosnia and Croatia in an area known as Western Slavonia. From 1991 to 1995 this area was held by Serb rebels and formed part of the self-declared "Serbian Republic of Krajina."
During World War II, Jasenovac was the site of the largest death camp in Yugoslavia for Serbs as well as Jews, Gypsies, dissident Croats, and others deemed undesirable by the Croat nationalist forces known as the Ustashe. The Ustashe regime lasted from 1941 to 1944 and was kept in power through its patron, Nazi Germany. The brutality of the Ustashe was such that even some Nazis complained about it.
The role of the Catholic Church in the atrocities of the Ustashe state has been a source of deep bitterness to Serbs. The highest-ranking Catholic at the time, Bishop Stepinac, was a Croat nationalist who celebrated the coming to power of an independent government. When the depravity of the Pavelic regime began to show itself, Stepinac was slow to condemn it and
slow to condemn the role of many Catholic priests in instigating the killings and, in numerous cases, actually supervising or carrying them out. After the war, a Croat monastery in the Vatican became the center for the smuggling of Ustashe war criminals to safety. Stepinac (who had been elevated to cardinal) never really came to grips with the open participation of many Croat priests in the religious-based genocide or with his own weak response to the atrocities of the Pavelic regime. Even after the war, he failed to show empathy with the hundreds of thousands of Serbs killed, referring to the killings as "errors." In the early 1980s, Serb Orthodox clergy asked the Catholic clergy of Croatia for dialogue on this issue. The Croatian bishops refused. The Catholic Church generally has refused to fully acknowledge the Ustashe genocide.
Parallel to their construction of an alleged genocide in Kosovo, Serb nationalists began alleging the imminent repetition of the Ustashe genocide of World War II, which was all too real and all too recent. The atrocities of World War II were relived continually in the Belgrade media along with the standard use of generic blame familiar from Kosovo. Just as Kosovo Albanians were, as a group, held responsible for German collaborators in World War II, all Croats came under suspicion for Ustashe activities in World War II. Both sides manipulated numbers. Serb nationalists claimed that anywhere from 700,000 to more than a million Serbs were killed at Jasenovac. Croat nationalist and historian Franjo Tudjman started low (60,000) and kept revising downward. In such an environment, every sign becomes a symbol, every symbol becomes charged. Thus, a provocative ruling by the newly independent Croatian state limiting the official use of the Cyrillic alphabet, used by Serbs in certain areas, inflamed
Serb fears and angers. The adoption by the Croat state of a flag based upon the checkerboard pattern was, for Croat nationalists, an assertion of an ancient Croatian symbol dating back into the medieval times; for many Serbs, the checkerboard was the prime symbol of their Ustashe persecutors of World War II.
Serb clergy and Serb nationalists began to disinter the remains of Serb victims of the Ustashe in World War II. Ignoring the fact that thousands of Croats fought against the Ustashe and Nazis in World War II, Serb nationalists used this grim exercise to reiterate their charge of generic Croat responsibility for collaboration with the Nazi regime. The Croatian people were genocidal by nature, the Serb nationalists maintained, and would carry out their genocide again; indeed, they were already planning a repeat of Jasenovac. As late as 1995, Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic contended that in 1992 Croatians were prepared to repeat the World War II genocide against the Serbs.
The Bosnian Muslims were also targeted with the generic blame of Serb nationalism. During World War II, Bosnian Muslims were caught on all sides of the battle lines; some fought with the Ustashe, many with the Partisans, and many others were massacred by both Ustashe and Chetniks. Indeed, the proportion of Bosnian Muslims killed in World War II rivaled that of the Bosnian Serbs. The Nazis recruited Bosnian Muslims into two divisions of the SS. Those two divisions have been used as an emblem to identify Bosnian Muslims with Nazi atrocities of World War II, ignoring the major role played by other Bosnian Muslims in the Partisan resistance and in saving the lives of Jewish and Serb neighbors. The writings of politician Vuk Draskovic were especially important in stirring up hatred against all Croats and Muslims. Draskovic portrayed Muslims as Serbs who
betrayed their race by converting to Islam and, within the context of World War II, as sadistic monsters.
Lazar's bones were paraded around Bosnia, tying the bones of the victims of the Ustashe to the bones of the Christ-Prince. The pain and anger of living memory (most Serbs had family members who perished in World War II) combined with the pain and anger of mythic time; Jasenovac and 1389 were brought into a single moment in the present. Accompanying the procession of Lazar's relics in Bosnia was a proclamation about enemies of "long-suffering Serbs": "We will do our utmost to crush their race and descendants so completely that history will not even remember them."
Was this article helpful?