In order to understand what happened in Yugoslavia during WW2 , we need to step back a few decades to see what happened during WW1.
The Roman Catholic Archbishops and Bishops organised the slaughter of Serbian Orthodox population in all the places of Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbians were blamed for the assassinations of Austro-Hungarian Crowned Prince Ferdinand. On the very same day when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, 75 leading Serbs were killed in Dubrovnik; at Foca all the male Serbs above the age of 14 were killed; at Split more than 300 Serbs were killed. After the Serbian army defeated the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the Balkan front during the WW1, the victorious Serbian were united under Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes ruled by a Serbian king, despite the fact that Catholic population fought on Austro-Hungarian side. The Catholic population in Croatia who demanded the autonomy and greater power brought unrest and tension amongst the Kingdom.
In 1930, the leader of the Party of Rights in Croatia, a lawyer called Ante Pavelic, fled the country from persecution and settled in Italy. He formed a movement called “Ustasha” with primary aim of destroying the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Ustasha movement was part funded by the Mussolini regime.
Tensions in Yugoslavia peaked in 1934 when King Aleksandar was assassinated in Marseille, France, which was considered one of the greatest achievements of the Ustasha movement.
The Independent State of Croatia was proclaimed on 10th April 1941, seven days before the Kingdom of Yugoslavia capitulated. The leader of this state was Ante Pavelic, founder of Ustasha movement. This new country comprised of modern day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also included part of today’s Serbia.
The rest of the Kingdom was split between Nazi Germans and Fascist Italians.
Within days of proclaiming the ISC, the Ustasha started forming concentration camps for the extermination of the Serbian, Jewish and Roma population.
Sporadic massacres of the entire villages started immediately, but the mass liquidation commenced from 27th April 1941 when Gospic – Jadovno – Pag (Slana and Metjana) concentration camp began to swallow the first victims. During the total of 132 days of its existence, Catholic Ustasha brutally killed 40,123 people. Most of the victims brutally murdered in these concentration camps were thrown in gorges, narrow pits up to 90 meters deep, typical for that region.
The Italian forces largely disapproved of the barbaric atrocities commited by the Ustasha on the innocent population, while in some places, the Fascists were even obliged to intervene and there are multiple accounts of Mussolinis troops helping Serbian and Jewish survivors with food and shelter. Eventually, the Italian army expelled Croatian Ustasha forces closing their extermination camps at Pag, Velebit and rest of Dalmatia.
Racial laws were immediately passed through the Croatian Parliament declaring Orthodox Serbian, Jewish and Roma – the autochthonous population of their native land to be of “lower race than Croatian Catholics”. The Roman Catholic leader of Croatia, the Archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac and other Roman Catholic bishops who were the members of the Croatian Parliament voted for these notorious racist laws by which Serbian and Jewish people were forbidden to live in certain parts of the towns. They were required to walk in the middle of streets lika a cattle and were prohibited to walk on the pavement, and were obliged to wear armband identifying their “race”. They lost their jobs, and notices appeared in public places reading “Serbs and dogs not allowed in“. In May 1941, the Ustasha further devised the plan specifically designed for the Orthodox Serbian population as follows:
- A third of the Serbian Orthodox population in the ISC were to be forcibly converted to the Roman Catholicism
- A third of the Serbian Orthodox population to be deported from the territory of ISC
- And a third to be exterminated
Concentration camps for the extermination of Serbian, Jewish and Roma population grew in numbers as the war progressed, and most of them closed within the first year of operation.
The longest running camp for the extermination of Serbian, Jewish and Roma people was the Jasenovac system of Croatian Concentration Camps.The Ustasha justified the founding of this camp to the public by explaining that the area needed improvement and that a large work-force would be needed to do so.
Towards the end of the war, Croatian guards withdrew from the Jasenovac camps and the week later it was “liberated” by Communist forces. The Croatian Communist party never allowed any attempt to liberate Jasenovac and stop the killings of Serbian, Jew and Roma people.
The question of which country should take responsibility for Serbocide, Romicide and Holocaust in Independent State of Croatia remains open.