During WWII the Independent State of Croatia was established – a puppet state of the Nazi regime, ruled by the racist, fascist “Ustaša” party. The Ustaša established a number of concentration and extermination camps, in which over 500,000 Serbians were murdered, along with tens of thousands of Jews and Roma (Gypsies).
During the aftermath of World War I in the 1920s, there was a great deal of tension among various Yugoslavian nations, and particularly between the Serbs and Croats. The Croats demanded that the state be structured as a federation in which they would have significant autonomy, while the Serbs, the largest national group in Yugoslavia at the time, which controlled the government, wanted to maintain their hold on power. After the assassination of Croatian delegates to Parliament, the conflict peaked in 1928, and in 1929 King Alexander established his dictatorship. Extremist Croatian groups established the Ustaše in 1930 under the leadership of Ante Pavelić, because they believed the only solution was the establishment of an independent Croatian state.
In 1923 Pavelić said, “The knife, the gun, and explosives are the tools with which the Croatian will regain the fruits of his labor.” The nationalist Croatian separatist Ustaše focused on terrorism. The murder of King Alexander in 1934 during a visit to France was considered their biggest success. The ideology of the Ustaše mainly drew from Italian Fascism and the supremacy of the leader and the state. The planned-for Croatian state was supposed to function according to the model of Italian Fascism; All public and private activities, was to be subject to the state. This lay the foundation for a violent regime.
During its reign the leaders of the Ustaše continuously sought the support of other strong countries. Until 1941 they were under the auspices of Italy, and the mid-1930s, the Ustaše opened talks with Germany, but were met with disapproval from the Germans for many years.. Pavelić was not deterred by this and continued to court the Germans by adopting parts of Nazi ideology, especially in relation to Jews. Utilizing this connection, in 1941 Hitler decided to create a state in part of Yugoslavia, which was subject to German control and Ustaše was put into power. Political opponents were outlawed and in Ustaše’s attempt to be the sole representative of Croatia’s farmers and workers, the Croatian Farmers’ Party was banned in the. During the four years of this oppressive regime, the Ustaše would conduct mass atrocities, including genocide against the Serbs.
In May 1941, the Ustaše Organisation declared their three goals:
1) A third of the Serbian population in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) were to be forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism.
2) A third of the Serbian population in Croatia were to be deported.
3) A third of the Serbian population in Croatia were to be killed.
The atrocities began on April 27, 1941, when a unit in the Ustaše army committed a mass murder near Gudovac, in northeast Croatia. Then, in May the Ustaše massacred thousands of Serbs in Veljun and in Glina. In the new Croatian territory during 1941-42, a number of concentration camps were set up, the largest being Jasenovac, which, supposedly held between 100,000 and 700,000, mostly Serb and Jewish prisoners.
The Ustaše used several methods to carry out the massacre. At first, they killed by hand, using hammers, axes, knives, etc. On the night of August 29th, 1942, the Jasenovac guards took bets as to who could kill the most prisoners. According to testimony, one of the guards, Petar Brzica, slit the throats of 1,360 prisoners that same night. According to another source, the guards bound the prisoners with barbed wire and took them to a ramp near to the Sava River, where they put weights on the wires that were wrapped around the prisoners, slashed their throats and stomachs, and then threw their bodies into the river. The Ustaše moved on to starvation and gas vans as means of killing, and later used gas, under the inspiration of the Nazis. In certain instances people were burned alive, especially the sick, women, and children, who could not resist. Additionally, many people died as a consequence of diseases such as typhus and typhoid. In the Gradina camp, or “soap factories,” bone marrow fat was boiled in an attempt to transform it into soap. According to certain testimonies, there were live prisoners found in these “cauldrons.” Most of the camps were closed by the end of 1942, but the Jasenovac camp continued to operate. The Ustaše destroyed entire villages in the area surrounding the Alps, and during a certain phase even the Italians and Germans disapproved of their actions.
At the same time, a number of underground partisan organizations arose in Yugoslavia. On July 7, 1941, an uprising erupted, organized by the Communist Party led by Marshal Tito, who later governed Yugoslavia for 35 years. The uprising also spread to Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Towards the end of 1942 the situation began to change. In the battle of the Croatian public, rumors had spread about the Ustaše atrocities, and many people escaped from Ustaše-controlled territory to join the partisans. In 1943, the Germans suffered heavy losses on the eastern front, and German and Italian forces began to desert, leaving behind massive quantities of ammunition that assisted the rebels in their fight against the Ustaše. The Partisans, led by Tito, became the main rebel force in the streets of Yugoslavia and therefore, received significant assistance from the Allies.
On July 4, 1944, the Yugoslavian nation’s war of independence erupted under the leadership of Tito. The Red Army and the Partisans freed Yugoslavia and the Ustaše were defeated. They continued to fight even after the German surrendered in 1945, but soon they too were defeated. According to estimates, 30,000 Jews, 40,000 Roma (Gypsies), and 300,000-700,000 Serbs were killed in Croatia during the Ustaše regime.
After the Genocide:
Ustaše members, as well as many civilians, attempted to flee to Austria and Italy in late May 1945, but were handed over to authorities by the Partisans at the Austrian border. Some of them were killed on the spot, and others were sent on death marches back towards Croatia, an event known as the Bleiburg Massacre. Ante Pavelić managed to flee and hid in Austria and Rome for a period of time, eventually escaping to Argentina. After the Second World War, the remainder of the Ustaše fled underground or escaped to foreign countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany, or South America, where they received assistance from local Catholic churches.
Some Ustaše members persisted in their crusade against Yugoslavia. Members of the organization participated in more than 24 terrorist acts after the war, including attacks in the United States. Most of their actions were not successful, partly due to a severe lack of popular support, and partly due to their pursuit by the Yugoslavian intelligence agencies.
For many years after the war ended, Yugoslavia was ruled by a Communist government led by Tito, which succeeded in stabilizing the country during his reign. But tensions between different ethnic groups did not disappear. After Tito’s death in 1980, these tensions began anew and eventually led to the war that broke out in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.