The announcement of a controversial gathering and a religious Mass in Sarajevo in honour of tens of thousands of Nazi-allied Ustasa troops and civilians whom Yugoslav Partisans killed in 1945 outraged anti-fascists and officials while activists announced a protest during the Mass.
Critics slammed Bosnia’s Catholic Archbishop Vinko Puljic for agreeing to lead the Mass while city authorities were urged to sanction those who are “trying to revise history.”
Amid a Yugoslav army offensive aimed at defeating pro-Nazi and anti-communist forces, tens of thousands of mostly pro-fascist Croat soldiers and their families fled in 1945 toward Austria to seek help from the British army, only to be turned back by the Brits right into the hands of anti-fascists.
In and around the Austrian town of Bleiburg, thousands of the so-called Ustashas were killed.
The Yugoslav forces saw the slaughter they committed as punishment for the tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma and anti-fascists killed by the Ustasha during WWII.
After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Croatia began commemorating the Bleiburg victims with a large gathering near the Austrian town every year.
Croatian nationalists perceive the controversial annual event as a symbol of their suffering under communism.
Austrians, however, see it as a glorification of Nazism and have banned Ustasha flags and insignia at the gathering. The Catholic Church in Carinthia rejected last year a request from Croatia’s Bishops’ Conference to hold a Mass during the event, labelling it as a promotion of nationalist ideas.
The event in Bleiburg was cancelled this year due to the pandemic and the organisers of the event, the Honorary Bleiburg Platoon, said it will be held in different cities instead, among them in Sarajevo.
The program will include a Mass at the city’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on May 16, led by Bosnia’s Archbishop Vinko Puljic, who stated that he had “gladly accepted” the task.
The announcement of the event shocked many Sarajevans who view themselves as anti-fascists.
“It is obvious that Bleiburg is primarily being used for an attempt to rehabilitate the Ustasha ideology at a time when all of Europe is marking the victory against fascism. I see no connection between Sarajevo and Bleiburg,” said Sefik Dzaferovic, the Chairman of Bosnia’s Presidency.
“If there is anyone who needs to be prayed for in Sarajevo in the context of World War II, then those are the thousands of innocent victims of Maks Luburic and the Ustasha regime,” he said, adding that he expects Puljic to reconsider whether the Mass should take place.
Maks Luburic was a WWII Ustasha commander famous for his brutality and tortures that took place in his villa in downtown Sarajevo.
“We can not interfere in the work of the Church nor ban the Mass, but the Church is obliged to take into consideration what kind of messages it is sending with these actions,” he said.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP), which prides itself as the heir of the anti-fascist ideology of ex-Yugoslavia, strongly condemned the announced event, calling it one of the final acts in attempts to revise the history of WWII.
The party reminded that Austria has banned the event organised by the Honorary Bleiburg Platoon several times and detained some of the participants for promoting symbols of fascism and the WWII Independent State of Croatia (NDH).
It that those who fell in Bleiburg were Ustasha officers and “their brethren in war,” the Chetniks who were “members of military formations of traitors,” reminding of all the crimes committed by those forces, including Nazi-style concentration camps.
“Sarajevo lost 10,000 lives during WWII which included especially brutal murders, torture and mass graves at Dariva and the hanging of 55 honourable heroes of the city at Marijin Dvor before the liberation of Sarajevo,” the party said.
“Interestingly, nobody thought of holding a Mass for the innocent Sarajevans who were killed, as well as for all the victims of the Ustasha terror during the time of the NDH,” it added.
The party promised it would “always fight against such pathetic attempts to falsify history at any given chance.”
“We will not fall for the attempts to hide clear crimes committed by the Ustasha state apparatus behind religion,” it said.
“We believe that the time has finally come for religious institutions to distance themselves and confront the aggressive neofascism which members of their religious communities are promoting, and not to contribute to the relativisation of the historic significance of the anti-fascist battle and the victory against fascist regimes,” the SDP said.
The party called upon “all antifascists to raise our voices and prevent Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sarajevo from being classified contrary to the antifascist Europe which celebrates the victory day against fascism as Europe Day.”
It also announced that if the Mass does take place, it will call upon antifascists to protest while it is being held to “oppose the revision of the history and glorification of fascism” and thus “show the democratic world that anti-fascism lives in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
“Death to fascism, freedom to the people," the statement concluded.
Bosnia’s Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) saying it was sad that a religious institution was marking the collapse of fascist forces this way under the auspices of the Parliament of Croatia, a country that now presides over the European Union.
“We are sad about the official Church organising this in our city,” it said, calling upon the Church to refrain from organising gatherings which “do not spread messages of peace and love from Jesus Christ.”
The Bosnian Croat member of the tripartite Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, suggested that “since he has decided to serve a Mass for those killed in Bleiburg in Sarajevo, among which were many war criminals,” Puljic should also do the same for their victims.
“He should remember the crimes of the Black Legion of Jure Francetic, the crimes of Maks Luburic in Sarajevo, and he should pray for the souls of the thousands of innocent civilians, including children, who were killed in the most brutal ways in Jasenovac and Donja Gradina,” he said referring to two Ustasha-run concentration camps.
“If he doesn’t want to do that, he should at least read about those criminals and their crimes and accept the fact that those he wants to pray for in the Sarajevo Cathedral have committed crimes which even terrified their Nazi masters,” he said.
The head of the Association of Anti-fascists and WWII Veterans (SABNOR), Sead Djulic, said all of those who “are taking us back and reminding us of ideas that were defeated long ago” should be sanctioned by authorities for “spreading nationalist hate and intolerance."
“This is a political gathering under the auspices of the Church,” Djulic said, labelling the event also as a “slap in the face of all of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” and announced protests in front of the cathedral.
However, the Croat National Assembly (HNS), an organisation made up of Bosnian Croat parties, sees the announcement differently and fired back at those criticising Puljic, saying that their criticism is “part of the systematic attacks on the Catholic Church and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The HNS expressed “full support” for Cardinal Puljic and a Mass that would commemorate the “innocent lives of the victims of Bleiburg.”
“The HNS warns that holy Mass events are neither the place nor a tool for scoring personal political points and reminds political officials and organisations which are persistently trying to violate fundamental human, political and democratic principles and they can not pretend to represent the moral high ground of a society which is threatened by their own irresponsible behaviour and continuous political intolerance and instability,” it said in a statement.