Bleiburg repatriations (see terminology) is a term encompassing events that took place after the end of World War II in Europe, when tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians associated with the Axis fleeing Yugoslavia were repatriated to that country. Thousands were murdered or subjected to forced labor camps. The events are named for the Carinthian border town of Bleiburg, where the initial repatriation was conducted.
On 3 May 1945, the government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a fascist puppet state established in the Croatian and Bosnian parts of occupied Yugoslavia, decided to flee to Austria and have the remnants of the Croatian Armed Forces (HOS) move there as soon as possible in order to surrender to the British Army. Subsequently, the Poglavnik (Leader) of the NDH, Ante Pavelić, ordered the armed forces not to surrender to the Partisans but retreat to Austria over the former border of the Third Reich. The day after this order was issued, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers, marking the formal end of World War II in Europe. In the week after the surrender, Axis forces in Yugoslavia repeatedly refused to surrender and even attacked Partisan positions to avoid encirclement and keep escape routes open. When one of the columns of fleeing HOS troops intermingled with civilians approached the town of Bleiburg, the British refused to accept the surrender of the HOS troops and directed them to surrender to the Partisans.
The various columns were, for the most part, made up of remnants of the military of the NDH, but also some remnants of the Chetnik movement and the Slovene Home Guard. The columns also included civilians. The number of casualties that occurred at the time of the repatriations and in the weeks that followed has proven difficult to ascertain, with exact numbers being a subject of much debate. The aftermath of the repatriations was a taboo topic in Yugoslavia, and the public and official commemoration of the victims, whose numbers remain unconfirmed and vary wildly depending on the ideology of the reviewer, would only begin several decades after the events.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 Background
- 3 Axis retreat
- 4 Surrender at Bleiburg
- 5 Other Carinthian repatriations
- 6 The march back
- 7 Coverage and aftermath in Yugoslavia
- 8 Number of victims
- 9 Commemorations since the end of Yugoslavia
- 10 Memorial sites
- 11 In popular culture
- 12 See also
- 13 Notes
- 14 Bibliography
- 15 Further reading
The term Way of the Cross (Croatian: Križni put) is a common subjective term, used mostly by Croatians, regarding the events after the repatriation itself. The latter have been described as "death marches".
Following the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, the Axis-appointed Ustaše government in Zagreb headed the Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). The NDH had a racist persecution policy towards the Serbs, Jews and Roma:
For the rest - Serbs, Jews and Gypsies - we have three million bullets. We will kill one part of the Serbs, the other part we will resettle, and the remaining ones we will convert to the Catholic faith, and thus make Croats of them.
This was manifested in the atrocities at Jasenovac concentration camp and elsewhere. They similarly targeted anti-fascist Croats and others. The Ustaše was responsible for egregious crimes against Serbs, Jews, and Romani. The scale of the atrocities shocked even German and Italian occupying forces, as noted in the reports of Wehrmacht General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau and the Gestapo to their superiors.
On 30 August 1944, the supreme commander of the Partisan forces, Josip Broz Tito, offered amnesty to members of Croatian Home Guard, Slovene Home Guard and Chetniks if they chose to defect to the Partisan side by 15 September. Anyone associated with the Ustaše as well as Serbian Volunteer Corps, Russian Corps and others who had committed serious crimes were excluded from this proposal. After 15 September, all who had not defected were to be brought to "people's courts". This appeal had great impact among collaborationist forces, especially the Croatian Home Guard (domobrani), who deserted in large numbers.
The Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia (HOS) were reorganized in November 1944 to combine the units of the Ustaše and Croatian Home Guard (domobrani). Throughout the war, the treatment of prisoners from the Croatian Home Guard (domobrani), was relatively benign – Partisans would merely ridicule the captured domobran soldiers and then send them home if they didn't want to join the uprising. However, on 13 January 1945, Pavelić ordered the domobrani to merge with the Ustaša military, which put the entire force, estimated at 280,000, at risk of death if captured. By 1945, the Yugoslav Partisans were known as the Yugoslav People's Army, numbering more than 800,000 men organized into five field armies, and were in pursuit of the remnant of the defeated German and NDH forces.
By the end of March 1945, it was obvious to the HOS command that, although the front remained intact, they would eventually be defeated by sheer lack of ammunition. For this reason, the decision was made to begin to retreat. They would retreat into Austria in order to surrender to the British forces advancing north from Italy. A large-scale exodus of people was planned and organized by the authorities of the NDH despite the fact there was no strategic benefit to it: there simply was no viable destination for all the population to move to.
While the NDH leadership may have organized a civilian retreat to bolster their claims that the Yugoslav Communists were after innocent civilian victims, the sheer number of civilians slowed down the retreat, made surrender to the Allies unfeasible, and ultimately led to the belief that they were nothing more than a human shield to the Ustaša. Retreating alongside the HOS forces were some Chetniks and the remaining units of the Slovene Home Guard (a collaborationist militia).
On 6 May 1945, the collaborationist government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) fled Zagreb, and arrived to a location near Klagenfurt, Austria on 7 May. Pavelić and the military leadership left Zaprešić on the evening of 7 May, intending to join the rest of his regime in Austria.
On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers, marking the formal end of World War II in Europe. The German Instrument of Surrender applied to German Wehrmacht forces in Yugoslavia as well as those armed forces under German command such as the armed forces of the puppet Independent State of Croatia. This would ordinarily have meant that they too had to cease their activities on 8 May and stay where they found themselves. The Ustaše military, however, came under the command of Pavelić, because as they were about to surrender, General Alexander Löhr, Commander-in-Chief of Army Group E handed command of the Croatian forces to Pavelić on 8 May. Pavelić issued an order from Rogaška Slatina for his troops not to surrender to the Partisans, but to escape to Austria, to implement the Croatian government's decision of 3 May to flee to Austria.
In early May, Zagreb was defended by parts of the 1st Division of the Army of NDH and the 41st and 181st German Divisions, deployed along the unfinished fortified "Zvonimir line" between Sveti Ivan Žabno and Ivanić-Grad. The fierce battle with the 1st Army (of Socialist Yugoslavia) lasted from 5-8 May. The 7 May was the single bloodiest day in the 1,240-day long history of the 1st Proletarian Brigade, with 158 killed and 358 wounded in the fighting for Vrbovec.
On 8 May, Zagreb was liberated by the Partisan 1st and 2nd Army, with relatively few skirmishes and casualties in the city itself: the 1st Army reported to the General Staff that 10,901 enemy soldiers had been killed and 15,892 captured in taking Zagreb. That same day, the headquarters of the 51st Vojvodina Division of the Yugoslav 3rd Army issued a dispatch ordering its units to consider all enemy officers and soldiers who continue resistance after midnight that day, and who are not part of units who had an organized surrender, as persons who do not have the status of prisoners of war, and to treat them as bandits. The German surrender obstructed the progress of the columns fleeing Croatia northwards. By 9 May, Partisan forces had moved into Maribor which eliminated that escape route. They also took control of Celje on 10 May, but with a force insufficient to halt the columns that were escaping towards Dravograd.
On 11–12 May, generals Vjekoslav Servatzy and Vladimir Metikoš entered discussions with Bulgarian generals to allow the Croatian column to pass into Austria. The discussions were inconclusive, but the Bulgarians suggested they head in the direction of Prevalje and Bleiburg, which the column did. Bleiburg was located some four kilometres northwest of the border of Nazi Germany and Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, today the border of Austria and Slovenia. Parts of the columns were captured by the Partisans - on 12 May, Politika carried Yugoslav Army reports of 15,700 prisoners of war in Maribor, Zidani Most, Bled, Jesenice and elsewhere. On 13 May, they reported over 40,000 prisoners taken near Rogaška Slatina, Celje, Velenje, Šoštanj, Dravograd, and elsewhere.
The 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade headquarters were set up in Bleiburg, having occupied the town on 12 May, while the rest of the V Corps was stationed in Klagenfurt. Thousands of Russian Cossacks of the XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, stationed in Yugoslavia since 1943, were part of the column. Tolstoy quotes a General Alexander telegram, sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, noting "50,000 Cossacks including 11,000 women, children and old men". Shortly after midnight on 13 May 1945 the British V Corps Headquarters in Austria estimated that there were "approximately 30,000 POWs, surrendered personnel, and refugees in the Corps area. A further 60,000 reported moving north to Austria from Yugoslavia".[dubious ]
On 14 May 1945, a week after the war in the European theatre had ended, military conflicts between the Partisans and the retreating collaborationist forces were continuing across Slovenia, and later, Austria. Of these, the biggest was the Battle of Poljana on 14 May, which ended in a Partisan victory and caused the retreating column to change direction, at a cost of several hundred casualties.
Surrender at Bleiburg
The NDH troops began surrendering to the British on 15 May. The British negotiator was Brigadier Patrick T. D. Scott of the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade. Ustaša infantry general Ivo Herenčić of the V Ustasha Corps, and a translator, Prof. Colonel Danijel Crljen of the Ustasha propaganda office, were involved in the surrender negotiations.
In the afternoon of the same day, the Croatian forces started raising white flags in surrender. The Partisan representatives included Major-General Milan Basta, the political commissar of the 51st Vojvodina Division, and Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Kovačič Efenka of the 14th Attack Division. NDH military representatives attempted to negotiate a surrender to the British, but were directed to surrender to the Yugoslav military. The Independent State of Croatia had joined the Geneva Convention on 20 January 1943, and was recognised by it as a "belligerent". Historians examining the events at the Bleiburg field have had to rely only on a handful of witness accounts, most of which were not published until many decades after the events:
- Ustaša propagandist Danijel Crljen, who also served as translator for Croatian general Ivo Herenčić, published articles about Bleiburg in 1996 in Paris in Hrvatska revija.
- British Army reports, compiled by Lord Nicholas Bethell in his 1974 book, The Last Secret, published in London.
- A Yugoslav officer, Petar Brajović, wrote about it in his 1983 book Konačno oslobođenje (Sjećanja i obrade), published in Zagreb.
- Partisan Milan Basta (political commissar of the 51st Vojvodina Division) wrote a book, Rat je završio 7 dana kasnije (The war ended 7 days later), which was published in Belgrade in 1986.
- Testimony by Teodor Pavić, described as a Croatian "diplomatic courier", was cited in Nikolai Tolstoy's 1986 book.
- A Slovene soldier, Franci Strle, wrote about it in Otvoreni dossier: Bleiburg, published in 1990 in Zagreb.
- The testimony of a Croatian survivor, Zvonimir Zorić, was recorded in Od Bleiburga do naših dana (1994), published in Zagreb.
The Partisan forces of the 51st Vojvodina Brigade of the Yugoslav 3rd Army and the 12th Proletarian (Slavonian) Division had established tactical control over the field of Bleiburg. Milan Basta set an ultimatum to the NDH negotiators - unconditional surrender within one hour, or else they would attack them and not uphold the norms of the international conventions of the Red Cross. Basta's ultimatum was extended for another fifteen minutes, after which point a general surrender started.
The exact events after the expiry of the ultimatum are the source of the original controversy regarding the repatriations. Teodor Pavić, described as a NDH "courier", wrote that the Partisan forces began strafing the crowd in the Bleiburg field with machine guns and shooting them individually. Petar Brajović, a Yugoslav officer, described a fifteen- to twenty-minute machine gun and mortar fire on the column. Strle wrote that the 3rd Battalion of the 11th "Zidanšek" Brigade and the 3rd Battalion of the 1st "Tomšič" Brigade were involved in the fire, and their records noted at least 16 deaths, mainly from the machine gun fire. A Croatian survivor, Zvonimir Zorić, wrote of a massacre at Bleiburg.
The notion of a massacre at the Bleiburg field was promoted by the remnants of the Ustaša in exile. Croatian-American historian Jozo Tomasevich notes that it would have been physically impossible to assemble all the Croatian refugees in Bleiburg itself, so German and Croatian troops who are said to have surrendered "in Bleiburg" must have done so in various localities, including Bleiburg, and certainly not all in Bleiburg itself. He considers it impossible to establish the exact number of troops and civilians who tried to flee to Austria and were forced to surrender to the Partisans, and stresses that the number of victims has been inflated by pro-Ustaša sources for propaganda purposes, while communist sources have been diminishing it for similar reasons. Croatian historian Martina Grahek Ravančić  wrote that the complete extent of the casualties sustained by the NDH column at Bleiburg on the day of the surrender was not described in any available sources. She described a short Yugoslav Army attack on the column as a certainty, likewise that there were casualties, but the number is unknown.
Strle and Milan Basta claimed that as Ustaša forces tried to make a breakthrough at the north side of the valley, three British tanks were engaged to stop them, reportedly resulting in numerous casualties as well. However, only three Croatians provided testimony which supported the notion that there were British tanks in the proximity of the column, but with no mention of such a grave incident. These kinds of unconfirmed reports of British military involvement, coupled with the actually legitimate acts of repatriation, were subsequently exaggerated by Ustaša supporters, particularly in the Croatian diaspora, in biased published works to accuse the British of war crimes.
Later the same day, NDH generals Slavko Štancer, Vjekoslav Servatzy and Vladimir Metikoš oversaw the surrender to the Partisans. British army reports say Štancer had previously been captured by the Partisans when they strayed from the column, seeking the British. The surrender continued for several days and at various locations; it took until 21 May for Tito to order the Partisans to withdraw from Carinthia.
Other Carinthian repatriations
Several other incidents and repatriations happened at and after this time elsewhere in Carinthia. Yugoslav intelligence officer Simo Dubajić negotiated with the British forces about the organization of surrender and repatriation elsewhere along the Yugoslav-Austrian border. At a separate location near the Carinthian village of Rosenbach, several thousand prisoners were daily repatriated to Yugoslavia, including a lot of members of the Slovene Home Guard. These repatriations covered some 32,000 people and were ceased by the British on 1 June. Repatriations also took place just northeast of Bleiburg at Lavamünd.
On the evening of 20 May, a group of NDH troops appeared near Ferlach, located approximately 40 km (25 mi) west of Bleiburg, and attempted to set terms for their passage west. "As the Ustaše did not want to surrender" reads the operational diary of the 2nd Battalion of the Partisan 11th Dalmatian Assault Brigade, "we attacked them at 21:00hrs. On this occasion we took 24 Ustaše soldiers and one officer". British forces repatriated around 40,000 Cossacks to the Soviet Union's SMERSH, near Graz. A smaller repatriation of Cossacks to the Soviet Union occurred on 28 May near Lienz.
The march back
After the immediate repatriation of the soldiers at Bleiburg was complete, the Yugoslav 3rd Army received new orders from Tito on 17–18 May, while the rear Yugoslav forces were left in charge in transporting the prisoners back. Some NDH troops escaped capture at Bleiburg, but a large number of prisoners were sent on a forced march back through Slovenia, where some were immediately subjected to summary executions and disposed of either in former tank trenches or in natural pits. Most captives survived, but were reportedly sent to labor camps. Captured military personnel in the columns were subjected to forced marches over long distances, through Croatia and Serbia.
Those repatriated from the Rosenbach location were transferred from the Austrian border to an internment camp at Šentvid, Ljubljana, and then moved to the area of Kočevje. Some of the interned at Šentvid died at Kucja Valley. Slovenian historian Mitja Ferenc wrote that these repatriations started on 17 May, and the liquidations of Croatians lasted until 26 May. After that, the Serbs were shot, and then the Slovenes, in a process that lasted until 5 June.
In 2006, Dubajić published a book discussing the Kočevski Rog massacre. In 1992, 1163 bodies were excavated from 23 mass graves in the forests of Macelj, leaving around 130 possible mass grave locations unexplored.
In 2007, the Commission on Concealed Mass Graves in Slovenia analyzed the Tezno trench and found human remains at a length of 740 metres; the exact number of victims could not be determined, but Mitja Ferenc estimated a minimum of 15,000 casualties. In 2009, the Barbara Pit was uncovered in Slovenia, holding 726 human remains. The same year, more pits were uncovered on two locations near the Croatian-Slovenian border, one near the village of Harmica and the other near Gornji Hrašćan, estimated to hold, together, around 4,500 bodies.
Regarding Partisan treatment of Ustaše prisoners, Croatian historian Jozo Tomasevich notes:
Considering the nature of the struggle among the various competing forces during the Second World War in Yugoslavia, atrocities against the Serbian population in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia and pro-Partisan or dissident Croats, the fact that the Ustaše adhered to the Nazis to the bitter end, and finally the fact that the Ustaša leadership wanted to put its troops at the disposal of the Western Allies for possible use against Yugoslav and other Communists, no mercy on the part of the Yugoslav Partisans toward these troops could have been expected.
The bulk of the NDH leadership, including Ante Pavelić, escaped as early as 8 May, fleeing to Western Europe and Latin America with the help of ratlines maintained by Catholic priests; Partisans were therefore only able to capture a small number of senior military NDH officers.
Coverage and aftermath in Yugoslavia
Yugoslav Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief Marshal Josip Broz Tito repeatedly issued calls for surrender to the retreating columns. Following the surrender on 8 May of all German forces and their subordinate commands (which legally included all military formations of the NDH), Tito issued an address via Radio Belgrade on 9 May calling upon all armed collaborators to surrender, threatening "merciless response" from the people and the army should they refuse to do so. On 14 May, Tito dispatched a telegram to the supreme headquarters of the Slovene Partisan Army prohibiting "in the sternest language" the execution of prisoners of war and commanding the transfer of possible suspects to a military court.
You are to undertake the most energetic measures to prevent at all costs any killing of prisoners of war and of those arrested by military units, state organs or individuals. If there are persons among the prisoners and arrestees who should answer for war crimes, they are to be handed over immediately to military courts pending due process.
Tito's actual intentions and responsibility for the actions of the Partisans at the end of the war have been brought into question by detractors, who point to the fact that his direct subordinates included Kosta Nađ, commander of the Yugoslav 3rd Army that spearheaded the liberation of the Yugoslav northwest, as well as Aleksandar Ranković who led OZNA, the Yugoslav secret police who organized mass executions of enemy combatants and internment as well as forced labor camps. In 1944, Tito founded an army unit called KNOJ, Korpus narodne odbrane Jugoslavije (People's Defence Force of Yugoslavia), whose explicit assignment was to "liquidate Chetnik, Ustaša, White Guard and other anti-people gangs". Unlike many other operations of the Partisans, which have been described in detail, little has been written on operations in Slovenia near the Austrian border during the week of 7–15 May 1945.
The events at Bleiburg were censored in Yugoslavia. The location of Bleiburg (outside of Yugoslav borders) became the main location where the victims of the entire process could commemorate their losses. The first Croats to return to the fields of Bleiburg came in secret in 1952, while regular annual visits began in the early 1960s. The first Croatian religious leader to come to the site was Cardinal Franjo Šeper, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who paid a visit in 1977.
The remainder of the Ustaše, and their supporters in the Croatian diaspora, used Bleiburg as their central myth and the focus of collective resentment. The number of victims were artificially inflated. Bleiburg was used as a tool for historical revisionism.
Inflating the numbers of dead at Bleiburg had several layers of significance. Firstly, it gave the Croats their own massacre at the hands of Serbs and/or Communists, which allowed them to counter the Serbs' Jasenovac genocide with one of their own. Secondly, it allowed Croats to distance themselves from the Serbs and the Communist regime that had carried out the massacres. They could portray Croatia as an unwilling participant in the SFRY, more a prisoner than a constituent nation. Thirdly, by suffering such a massacre, the Croats underwent their own 'way of Cross', as dubbed by most Croatians.
The Minister and the Massacres, a 1986 book by Nikolai Tolstoy, further publicized the issue, but it made various dubious claims about the repatriations that were roundly criticized by various historians and authors, although it brought attention, more generally, to the persistent distortion of the story, and to the issue of historians trusting contemporary records and purported eyewitness.
Number of victims
The modern-day consensus is that the number of deaths of the forced marches and in death camps rose to tens of thousands, and included civilians. The exact number of those who met their death in Bleiburg is impossible to ascertain accurately. Generally, there are three approaches to the number of victims:
The historiographic investigations of scientists include:
- Croatian-American historian Jozo Tomasevich concluded in his 2001 book that about 50,000 Croats and Bosniaks were killed by the Partisans.
- In April 2008, the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union organized the European Public Hearing on Crimes Committed by Totalitarian Regimes, and the resulting document included various research including that of Mitja Ferenc, noting official data on 3,986 known wartime graves and mass graves in Slovenia from World War II, Milko Mikola, indicating that the victims were executed en masse without a trial, and Jerca Vodušek Starič who wrote about purported mass killings following liberation of Slovenia and Croatia in May 1945: "It is impossible to find out the exact number of those liquidated. Today the number reaches 14,531 Slovenes and an estimate [of] 65,000 to 100,000 Croats (mainly the Croat Home-guard, which was the regular army and not ustasha forces). Among them were also civilians."
- In 2011, Ferenc, in charge of uncovering post-war graves in Slovenia, publicly estimated the total number of all the killed in "the tens of thousands", certainly less than 100,000. He also stated that of the Slovene victims, 93% were soldiers, collaborators with Nazi occupying forces.
- Croatian historian Ivo Goldstein, in the chapter Raspad i slom NDH, Bleiburg i križni put of his book Hrvatska 1918. - 2008. (Croatia 1918-2008), has posited that contemporary documentation supports the existence of up to 116,000 NDH soldiers and up to 60,000 Croatian civilians in the main columns through Slovenia. In addition, on a separate route there were around 17,000 members of the Slovene Home Guard, the Serbian Volunteer Corps, Chetniks and some smaller NDH army units, together with around 10,000 Slovenian civilians. No precise assessment is made about the number of victims out of those totals.
- British political scientist David B. MacDonald wrote a comprehensive root cause analysis of the inflated numbers in his 2003 book:
By contrast with Jasenovac, however, most impartial historians converged on much lower number of dead, suggesting that Bleiburg was by no means as significant as the largest death-camp in Yugoslavia. ... Jasper Ridley attempts a more precise figure, although there is no way of knowing for sure. ... Of these, he noted that the Allies agreed to surrender 23,000 to the Partisans between 24 and 29 May - a mixture of Slovenians, Serbians, and Croatians. Reports from the time according to Ridley, indicate that not all 23,000 were killed.
Estimates have also been based on archeological evidence from mass graves found in Slovenia. There were 581 grave sites being investigated by the Slovenian Commission on Concealed Mass Graves, as of October 2009[update].
Various authors base their claims on demographic calculations, accumulated eyewitness accounts, etc.:
- Croatian journalist Vladimir Žerjavić, in 1992, estimated the number of Croats and Bosniaks killed at Bleiburg and during the death marches in 1945 at between 45,000 and 55,000.
- British journalist Misha Glenny wrote in his 1999 book, The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804–1999, "As German troops streamed out of Yugoslavia the Croat fascist leader Ante Pavelić and 100-200,000 Ustaša troops and civilians set off for the Austrian border on 7 May 1945, with Partisan forces in hot pursuit. They got as far as Bleiburg, a small Austrian border town, before being surrounded by British troops to the north and Partisans to the south. With RAF Spitfires buzzing overhead, about 30-40,000 soldiers, including Pavelić, managed to disappear into the surrounding woods and then deep into Austria. But the remainder were taken prisoner by Partisan forces amid scenes of carnage. Some 30,000 Ustaše were killed on the four-day march towards the Slovene town of Maribor. On 20 May, in the Tezno trench, 50,000 Croat soldiers and about 30,000 refugees, mainly women and children, were executed over a five-day period."
- Former Yugoslav diplomat Cvijeto Job, wrote in his 2002 book, Yugoslavia's Ruin: The Bloody Lessons of Nationalism, a Patriot's Warning, that during the 1990s, reports in the independent press in Croatia [clarification needed] cited the actual figures of killed at Bleiburg at between 12,000 and 15,000.
- In 2007, the association of Croatian Partisans published Bleiburg i Križni put 1945 (Bleiburg and the Way of the Cross 1945), edited by Juraj Hrženjak, which claimed the majority of victims at Bleiburg were killed by various means at the hands of Ustaše execution squads from elite formations such as the Crna Legija (Black Legion), which treated all soldiers attempting to surrender as traitors and deserters. According to this research, a figure of between 12,000 and 14,000 people were shot after returning to Yugoslavia. Additionally, 20 individuals committed suicide and at least 1,500 concentration camp guards were shot near Maribor.
Commemorations since the end of Yugoslavia
With the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, the interest in revealing information about the Bleiburg repatriations grew, and it continued to be abused for revisionist purposes in the Croatian mainstream. In May 1994, an International Symposium for Investigation of the Bleiburg Tragedy was held in both Zagreb and Bleiburg, where several authors discussed the deaths at Bleiburg and estimated them to be in the tens of thousands. This was later published by Školska knjiga as Od Bleiburga do naših dana.
The Republic of Croatia, by an act of the Croatian Parliament in 1995, started to officially commemorate the victims at Bleiburg, at a time when Franjo Tuđman and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) were in power.
More recently, as commemorative events became less of a political event, the radicals were largely marginalized and the focus of the commemoration turned to the actual victims of the repatriations. Many top-ranking politicians and Catholic and Muslim clerics visit the Bleiburg site annually. Prime Minister Ivica Račan visited the site in 2002. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader visited the site in 2004.
For the 60th anniversary commemorations in 2005 a large crowd was in attendance, with speeches by Croatian parliamentary speaker Vladimir Šeks and head of the Muslim Community of Croatia, Mufti Ševko Omerbašić. In 2007, a new altar was installed at the site and was inaugurated by Cardinal Josip Bozanić before some 10,000 people.
In 2007, Slovenia's government announced plans to make the Tezno trench a memorial park and cemetery. In 2008, the Croatian and Slovenian governments reached an agreement of cooperation on organizing military cemeteries, similar to earlier agreements which Slovenia reached with Italy and Germany.
Croatia's Prime Minister, Zoran Milanović, visited Bleiburg in September 2008. He stated that all victims had the right to a fair trial, [clarification needed] and that his motive was not political.
In 2009, Croatian President Stjepan Mesić criticized the Parliament's representatives who did not react to people in the crowd displaying Ustaše iconography, which is ostensibly illegal in Croatia, at a state-sponsored event.
In 2010, Croatian president Ivo Josipović said he would not attend the year's May Bleiburg commemoration as long as Ustaše iconography was present, although he did make a separate visit to the Bleiburg memorial in June in addition to his visit to the Tezno memorial.
In 2012, Croatia's parliament decided to revoke funding for the annual Bleiburg commemoration. The reason given by Milanović was that the government would not fund what had become a politically partisan event concentrating on the NDH, rather than mourning the victims. In 2012, the Croatian leadership laid wreaths only at the monument in Tezno.
As Croatian academician Vjeran Pavlaković, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Rijeka writes in Deifying the Defeated Commemorating Bleiburg since 1990,
"The blurring of the past and the present is an integral part of the Bleiburg commemorations; not only do the participants dress in Ustasa uniforms, display Ustasa insignia and iconography, and sell paraphernalia associated with the NDH and its leaders, but there is an active discourse about the Croatian War of Independence accompanied by images of heroes (as well as individuals guilty of war crimes) from the conflict in the 1990s."
Pavlaković concludes that
"[T]he effectiveness of Bleiburg to act as a site of memory can be attributed to the fact that it represents both a traumatic past, as well as a moment of rupture, or historical discontinuity. Both of these factors give the commemorations at Bleiburg emotional weight and political significance, especially at a point when Croatia was going through another historical transition in the 1990s. It also meant that the Bleiburg myth was easily manipulated; the victims of the Bleiburg tragedy were actively invoked not only to distort the Ustasa past, but to justify the resurgence of extreme nationalist political options. The Bleiburg myth became one of many historical moments that symbolized Croatian martyrdom, due to the prevailing narrative of victimization by Greater Serbian aggression during the 1990s. The martyrium myth is one of the most common archetypes in the taxonomy of myths... The danger of presenting the victims of Bleiburg exclusively as martyrs for the Croatian state, however, is that the reality of the NDH regime and the crimes it committed are ignored in the new, revised narrative of World War Two.
In popular culture
The surrender at Bleiburg was the subject of a 1999 film, Četverored, based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Ivan Aralica. Croatian-Australian painter Charles Billich painted a series of works on the event.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bleiburg repatriations.|
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