Bleiburg repatriations

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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. They were subjected to forced marches together with captured columns in Yugoslavia. Tens of thousands were murdered or taken 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.[1] 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.[2]

The various columns were, for the most part, made up of remnants of the military of the NDH, but also included units of the Wehrmacht, the Slovene Home Guard and some remnants of the Chetnik movement, as well as 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.[3][4] The aftermath of the repatriations was a taboo topic in Yugoslavia,[5][6] and the public and official commemoration of the victims, whose numbers remain unconfirmed and vary wildly depending on the ideology of the reviewer,[7][8] would only begin several decades after the events.[6][9]


Commonly used terms such as Bleiburg massacre, Bleiburg tragedy, Bleiburg crime, Bleiburg case, and also simply Bleiburg are used in Croatia in reference to the events in question.[10][11][12]

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.[10] The latter have been described as "death marches".[13][14]


The Independent State of Croatia conducted a systematic campaign of mass murder of minorities. This May 1945 picture shows bodies thrown into the Sava River, near Sisak.

Following the surrender of Yugoslavia in 1941, the Axis-sponsored Ustasa government created the Independent State of Croatia, which included the annexation of Bosnia.[15]

The Ustasa instituted a reign of terror in the country, although they needed the help of German and Italian troops to control the rural areas. They are estimated to have killed over 300,000 ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, as well as large numbers of Jews and Roma.[15]

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.

— Mile Budak, Minister of Education of Croatia, 22 July 1941[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19]

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).[20] 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.[17][21] 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.[22][23]

Axis retreat[edit]

Front lines in Europe on 1 May 1945
Slovene Home Guards and Germans retreating through the town of Tržič
Slovene Home Guards and civilians on the Tržič-Ljubelj road near Austria
Slovene refugees heading to Austria

By the end of March 1945, the front remained intact, but the HOS command realised that they would eventually be defeated by sheer lack of ammunition.[24] The collapse of the Syrmian front in April 1945 accelerated the withdrawal of German forces, that were in retreat from the Balkans since October 1944.[25] Like other Axis troops, forces of the NDH did not want to surrender to the Red Army or the Yugoslav Partisans and began retreating through Slovenia towards the Yugoslav-Austrian border, in order to surrender to the British forces advancing north from Italy.[26] 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.[17] On 3 May, the Slovene leadership also decided to retreat to Austria.[27]

Some in the NDH and Slovene political and military leadership believed that the Western Allies will use them as anti-Communist forces and thus enable them to return to Yugoslavia and restore power with their support. Slovenian Bishop Gregorij Rožman made an appeal to the Allies to occupy Slovenia and prevent the Communists from taking power.[26] The NDH leadership abolished racial laws and on 6 May sent a request for collaboration with the Allies,[28] but all of these efforts failed.[26] 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.[17] However, the majority of the civilian refugees consisted of those that had anti-Communist views or feared reprisals.[29]

Divisions of three Yugoslav armies were pursuing Axis forces.[25] Some units of the Yugoslav 4th Army managed to reach Carinthia before or at the same time as the retreating columns. Additional divisions of the 3rd and 4th Army were sent to the area in order to capture southern Carinthia and stop the retreating columns. The 1st and the 2nd Army were halted near Celje, while the 3rd Army advanced further in pursuit of the retreating columns.[30]

On 6 May 1945, the collaborationist government of the NDH fled Zagreb, and arrived to a location near Klagenfurt, Austria on 7 May.[31] Pavelić and the military leadership left Zaprešić on the evening of 7 May, intending to join the rest of his regime in Austria.[32] The bulk of the NDH leadership, including Pavelić, escaped in early May, fleeing to Western Europe and Latin America; Partisans were therefore only able to capture a small number of senior military NDH officers.[33]

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 Yugoslav 1st Army 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.[34]

Besides the HOS, the Slovene Home Guard and the German Army Group E, there were also other military formations that were retreating.[35] The remnants of the Serbian State Guard, two regiments of the Serbian Volunteer Corps and a group of Chetniks surrendered to the British near the Italian-Yugoslav border on 5 May. These units were not repatriated to Yugoslavia.[36] The Montenegrin National Army, formed in April 1945 by Sekula Drljević with the support of the NDH government, in order to gather Montenegrins from NDH in the unit, were retreating together with Croatian forces.[37] Thousands of Russian Cossacks of the XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, stationed in Yugoslavia since 1943, were also retreating to Austria.[38] 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".[39] 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".[40][dubious ]

On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers, marking the practical end of World War II in Europe.[1] The German Instrument of Surrender applied to German Wehrmacht forces in Yugoslavia as well as those armed forces under German command such as the Croatian Armed Forces. 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,[1][41] 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.[33] 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.[33]

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.[38] 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.[38] 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.[42]

Escape route to Klagenfurt-Viktring[edit]

The Slovene Home Guard and Slovene civilians primarily used the route across the Loibl Pass.[26] Around 30,000 soldiers, including 10,000 to 12,000 Slovene Home Guards, 10,000 Germans, 4,000 Serbs, 4,000 members of the Russian Corps, and 6,000 Slovene civilians, were withdrawing to Austria.[43] The road to Loibl (Ljubelj) was congested with loaded cars, trucks, wagons and horse carts. Battles with the Partisans also slowed down the retreat.[30] After passing the Loibl Pass, the columns were headed to the Drava Bridge at Hollenburg. The British were located north of the bridge. The bridge was guarded by German soldiers and was attacked by the Partisans on 7 May. Partisan reinforcements arrived on the following day and they set a barrier between Ferlach and Hollenburg, while units of the 4th Motorized Division and the 26th Division of the 4th Army were approaching Ferlach from the west. The Axis troops and civilians were surrounded and tried to fight their way through the blockades, but some German troops surrendered to the Partisans in the Rosental Valley.[44]

On 10 May, the main breakthrough attempt took place. The assault was carried out by the Slovene Home Guard, led by Vuk Rupnik, and the 7th SS Division "Prinz Eugen" and SS police units.[45] A radio contact was established with the British who were ready to accept them if they managed to cross the Drava. The British did not attack the Axis units fighting the Partisans. The Home Guard and SS troops launched an infantry attack on the town of Ferlach and took control of it on the evening. The remaining Partisan units in the vicinity were repelled on 11 May and the column of troops and refugees began crossing the Drava River. They were taken by the British to the Viktring camp near Klagenfurt. By 14 May, all units of the Slovene Home Guard surrendered to the British.[46]

Escape route to Bleiburg[edit]

A column of refugees near the city of Celje

Croat troops and civilians mostly used espace routs towards Mežica and Bleiburg, and across the Kamnik Alps towards the Juan Valley in Austria.[26] The main Croatian column moved through the towns of Zidani Most, Celje, Štošanj, and Slovenj Gradec. On 11 May, the vanguard of the column reached Dravograd. However, the bridges across the Drava River were barricaded by Bulgarian units that reached the area on 9 May.[47] On 11–12 May, generals Vjekoslav Servatzy and Vladimir Metikoš entered discussions with Bulgarian generals to allow the Croatian column to pass into Austria.[48] The discussions were inconclusive, but the Bulgarians suggested they head in the direction of Prevalje and Bleiburg, which the column did.[49] Bleiburg was located some four kilometres northwest of the border of Austria and Yugoslavia. Parts of the columns that had weak or no protection were attacked 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.[50]

The main column was encircled in the Dravograd pocket. The Croatian Armed Forces had artillery positions in a five kilometers linear distance from Dravograd to the south and used howitzers to fire on positions of the Yugoslav Army. On the night of 13 May, the elite HOS infantry units, commanded by General Rafael Boban, managed to break through the Partisan blockade and the column moved west through Ravne na Koroškem and Poljana towards Bleiburg.[51][52] A large number of Croat soldiers and civilians reached the field at Bleiburg on 14 May.[53] The 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade headquarters were set up in Bleiburg,[54] having occupied the town on 12 May,[53] while the rest of the V Corps was stationed in Klagenfurt.[54] By 14 May, the British accepted thousands of retreating troops and civilians.[55]

Surrender at Bleiburg[edit]

The retreating column of the Croatian Armed Forces approaching the town of Bleiburg in May 1945

The main group of HOS troops and Croat civilians reached the Bleiburg field on 15 May. They were the head of the 45-65 kilometres long columns, numbering around 25,000 to 30,000 people.[56][35] The group included various branches of the NDH army, including the Air Force, Croatian Home Guard and Ustaše Militia, and civilian refugees. Most of them camped near the local railroad embankment. The Montenegrin National Army was placed east of the embankment.[57] Around 175,000 people were still on Yugoslav territory and moving towards Bleiburg.[56] Negotiations between representatives of the HOS, the Yugoslav Army and the British were held on the same day in the Bleiburg Castle.[58] The British negotiator was Brigadier Patrick T. D. Scott of the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade.[59] Ustaša infantry general Ivo Herenčić of the V Ustaša Corps, and a translator, Colonel Danijel Crljen, were involved in the surrender negotiations.[60][61]

In the afternoon of the same day, the Croatian forces started raising white flags in surrender.[62] 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.[49][60] NDH military representatives attempted to negotiate a surrender to the British, but were directed to surrender to the Yugoslav military.[60] The Independent State of Croatia had joined the Geneva Convention on 20 January 1943, and was recognised by it as a "belligerent".[24]

The Partisan forces of the 51st Vojvodina Brigade of the Yugoslav 3rd Army and the 14th Slovenian Division had established tactical control over the field of Bleiburg.[54] 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.[60][63] Basta's ultimatum was extended for another fifteen minutes, after which point a general surrender started.[60]

NDH POWs at Bleiburg on 15 May 1945, after the surrender

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.[63] Petar Brajović, a Yugoslav officer, described a fifteen- to twenty-minute machine gun and mortar fire on the column.[64] 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.[64] A Croatian soldier who survived, Zvonimir Zorić, wrote of a massacre at Bleiburg.[64]

The notion of a massacre at the Bleiburg field was promoted by the remnants of the Ustaša in exile.[65] 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.[66] Croatian historian Martina Grahek Ravančić [67] 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.[68]

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.[64] 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.[65]

Later the same day, NDH generals Slavko Štancer, Vjekoslav Servatzy and Vladimir Metikoš oversaw the surrender to the Partisans.[68] British army reports say Štancer had previously been captured by the Partisans when they strayed from the column, seeking the British.[60] 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.[69]

Other Carinthian repatriations[edit]

Known repatriation locations on the map of Austria

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.[21] The extradition of Croat internees of the Viktring and Krumpendorf prisoner-of-war camps, located north of the Drava River, began on 18 May. The prisoners were assured that they were being transported to Italy. The repatriation took place in the village of Rosenbach and the town of Eberndorf. The transports continued on 19 May when Rosenbach and Lavamünd, northeast of Bleiburg, were used as extradition places, while some were transported to Bleiburg. Internees of the Grafenstein camp were also transported. Thousands more were handed over in the following days, mostly in Rosenbach and the Bleiburg railway station. The last transport was on 23 May when 800 Croat prisoners from Grafenstein were taken by rail to Bleiburg. British war diary records note that the extraditions of Croats ended on 24 May.[70]

The transports of Serbs and Montenegrins followed on 24 May, with three regiments of the Serbian Volunteer Corps. The first repatriation of larger groups of Slovene prisoners took place on 27 May, together with the remaining Serbs and Montenegrins. The repatriation of Slovenes also took place in Rosenbach or Bleiburg, except for the severely wounded that were accommodated in a hospital in Klagenfurt.[71] The Slovenes were also told by the British that they will be transported to camps in Italy.[56] The last Slovene group was handed over on 31 May. On 1 June, 2,700 Slovene civilians were scheduled to be transported to the border, but the transport was stopped by the British due to reports of massacres in Yugoslavia. All repatriations were canceled and a decision was made that only those who wanted to return to Yugoslavia will be transported.[72] According to an estimate of the British 5th Corps, a total of 26,339 people were extradited from the camps by 30 May, including 12,196 Croats, 8,263 Slovenes, 5,480 Serbs, and 400 Montenegrins.[71][73]

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".[74] British forces repatriated around 40,000 Cossacks to the Soviet Union's SMERSH, near Graz.[75] A smaller repatriation of Cossacks to the Soviet Union occurred on 28 May near Lienz.[citation needed]

The march back[edit]

POWs in Maribor on a forced march
Several thousand POWs of the Croatian Armed Forces and the Slovene Home Guard were executed in the Barbara Pit massacre
Thousands of prisoners were thrown into caves and pits in the Kočevski Rog massacre

Representatives of the HOS of NDH accepted the surrender on 15 May at 16:00 hours. After the immediate repatriation of the soldiers at Bleiburg was complete, the Yugoslav forces began disarming them and started preparations for transporting the prisoners back.[76] A large number of columns of prisoners were formed in rows of four that were sent on a forced march through Slovenia. Due to the presence of the British Army, the initial treatment of prisoners was correct.[77] However, it got worse as the columns moved away from the border. The prisoners were given no food or water and were looted of valuables. Those who lagged behind were shot.[78] Individual killings and executions of smaller groups of men soon began. The columns were in Dravograd directed to Maribor or Slovenj Gradec and Celje.[79] On 17 May, the British started the repatriation of Croat internees of the Viktring camp, mostly members of the HOS.[80]

The columns marching towards Maribor, where transit camps were set, were moving along the Drava River.[78] During the march, bodies could be seen floating in the Drava and on the banks of the river.[81] The first prisoners arrived in Maribor on 17 May and were placed in transit camps. Other larger columns arrived in the following two days. At the camps, prisoners were sorted based on their unit and year of enlistment.[82] A part of the prisoners were sent on further marches or transported with trains to Celje and Zagreb. The rest were brought by trucks to anti-tank trenches in Tezno near Maribor, with their hands tied with wire, where they were lined up and killed. The killings lasted for several days until the trenches were filled with dead bodies.[78] It is estimated that around 15,000 people were killed in the Tezno massacre, mostly members of the HOS.[83]

Prisoners directed from Bleiburg to the town of Slovenj Gradec were joined by a large number of refugees that were stuck on the Dravograd-Slovenj Gradec road. Several transit camps were set in the town where prisoners were placed and sorted. Around 1,500 were killed in the nearby village of Žančani. The prisoners were only briefly held in Slovenj Gradec, mostly a day, before they continued their way to Celje. Anyone who stepped out of the column to take a rest or drink water was shot. Those that were too exhausted to continue the march were also shot. In Celje, most of the prisoners were placed in a football yard on the outskirts of the city. The command of the 11th Krajina Division of the 1st Army reported on 17 May that they received 30,000 prisoners. Anti-tank trenches near the Sava River and in the area of Bukovžlak were used for executions.[84] Prisoners were killed in various ways, in one occasion around 100-200 were locked in an enclosed water reservoir. Water was then slowly released until all of them drowned.[85][86]

A column of 40,000 people, consisting primarily of Croat soldiers, moved from Celje to Zidani Most on 18 May. A part of the captives were separated there, led to the nearby forests and killed.[87] The column reached Samobor on 20 May.[88] They were not given food during the trip, but locals left them food and water by the road. Prisoners were placed in several smaller camps and prisons in the town, where selections were made again. Most of the prisoners were from Samobor sent to Zagreb and led through the city by foot. Trains with prisoners from other locations, mostly from Maribor, were also coming to Zagreb. The city's transit camps were not suitable for the accommodation of a large number of people, so many prisoners were placed in yards. The camps were surrounded with wire fences, behind which citizens gathered, bringing food or seeking relatives and friends.[89] One of the largest camps in the area was in Prečko. Prisoners were given food there, albeit not regularly. Around 50 died of hunger and illness.[90] Aleksandar Ranković, the chief of OZNA, was dissatisfied with the pace of executions in Zagreb and sent a letter to the Croatian branch of the OZNA, demanding greater resoluteness.[91] An increased number of arrests of Zagreb's citizens followed during June and July 1945.[88]

The repatriation of Slovene and Serb internees from Viktring began on 24 May.[92] The transports of around 11,000 Slovene Home Guards and 600 Slovene civilians were done in two directions: from Rosenbach in Austria to Jesenice, who were then imprisoned in internment camps in Kranj, Škofja Loka or Šentvid, and from Bleiburg to Celje, where the Teharje camp was located. The prisoners were beaten and many were killed on the way. The transport and liquidations were carried out by the Corps of People’s Defence of Yugoslavia (KNOJ) and the Department for People's Protection (OZNA).[93] Internees of the Šentvid camp were taken to the Kočevje region, where thousands were killed and disposed of in caves, pits and ravines in the Kočevski Rog massacre. Internees of the Teharje camp were killed in its vicinity and in the surrounding caves and mines, including the Barbara Pit coal mine.[94] Out of 5,000 Slovene Home Guards brought to Teharje, almost all were dead by August 1945.[95] 800 Slovene Home Guards and civilians were executed at Podutik near Ljubljana.[96] The decomposing bodies at the location contaminated Ljubljana's water supply, so a group of German POWs were ordered to relocate the bodies to a new mass grave.[97]

On 25 June, Deputy Prime Minister of Yugoslavia Edvard Kardelj sent a dispatch to Slovenian Prime Minister Boris Kidrič, requesting him to speed up the liquidations as a general amnesty will soon be passed.[98] The decree "on general amnesty and pardon" for Chetniks, the Serbian State Guard, Croatian and Slovene Home Guard, and Albanian and Muslim militia, was adopted on 3 August. It is estimated that around 5,000 persons benefited from this amnesty.[99]

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.[100]

Coverage and aftermath in Yugoslavia[edit]

Yugoslav Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief Marshal Josip Broz Tito repeatedly issued calls for surrender to the retreating columns.[10] 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.[42] On 13 May, Tito allegedly dispatched a handwritten telegram to the supreme headquarters of the Slovene Partisan Army that arrived on 14 May, prohibiting "in the sternest language" the execution of prisoners of war and commanding the transfer of possible suspects to a military court. The authenticity of this telegram is disputed as it was not published in any collection of documents of the Yugoslav Army and did not have Tito's signature. Historian Nikolai Tolstoy called it "a clear forgery".[101]

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.[102] 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".[102] 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.[14]

The events at Bleiburg were censored in Yugoslavia.[103] The location of Bleiburg (outside of Yugoslav borders) became the main location where the victims of the entire process could commemorate their losses.[104] 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.[105]

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.[106] Bleiburg was used as a tool for historical revisionism.[104]

David Bruce MacDonald wrote:[107]

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,[39] further publicized the issue, but it made various dubious claims about the repatriations that were roundly criticized by various historians and authors,[108][109][110][111] although it brought attention, more generally, to the persistent distortion of the story,[110] and to the issue of historians trusting contemporary records and purported eyewitness.[112][113]

Investigations of mass graves[edit]

Discussions about the post-war massacres were forbidden in Yugoslavia, so the investigations of mass grave locations began only in the 1990s, after the fall of communism.[114] In 1992, 1163 bodies were excavated from 23 mass graves in the forests of Macelj, leaving around 130 possible mass grave locations unexplored.[115] In 2002, the Slovenian government established the Governmental Committee for Settlement of Questions on Secret Mass Graves, with the assignment of "recording of data about the number and locations of mass graves" after the end of World War II.[114]

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.[116] In 2009, the Barbara Pit was uncovered in Slovenia, holding 726 human remains.[117] 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.[118]

Number of victims[edit]

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.[119] The number of casualties, provided by the literature dealing with the Bleiburg repatriations and its aftermath, mostly ranges from about 50,000 to 200,000-250,000. Based on statistical calculations, a minimum of 70,000 to 80,000 people were killed.[120] However, the exact number of those who met their death after the end of the war is impossible to ascertain accurately.[121] Generally, there are three approaches to the number of victims:

The historiographic investigations of scientists include:

  • Croatian-American historian Jozo Tomasevich uses Žerjavić's estimates in his 2001 book and accepts the number of 70,000 killed in the events connected with Bleiburg and Viktring, including around 50,000 Croats and Bosniaks.[14]
  • 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,[55] Milko Mikola, indicating that the victims were executed en masse without a trial,[122] 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."[123]
  • 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.[124]
  • 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.[125]
  • British political scientist David B. MacDonald wrote a comprehensive root cause analysis of the inflated numbers in his 2003 book:[107]

    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,[126] 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.[127]

Various authors base their claims on demographic calculations, accumulated eyewitness accounts, etc.:

  • Croatian demographer Vladimir Žerjavić, in 1992, estimated that around 70,000 people were killed at Bleiburg and during the death marches in 1945, including between 45,000 and 55,000 Croats and Bosniaks, 8,000 to 10,000 Slovenes and around 2,000 Serbs and Montenegrins.[120][13][14]
  • 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."[128]
  • 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.[129]
  • 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,[130] 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[citation needed] and at least 1,500 concentration camp guards were shot near Maribor.[citation needed]

Commemorations since the end of Yugoslavia[edit]

Josip Leko, then-Speaker of the Croatian Parliament, lays a wreath at the Tezno Memorial in May 2015

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.[103][104] 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.[11]

The Republic of Croatia, by an act of the Croatian Parliament in 1995, started to officially commemorate the victims at Bleiburg,[105] 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.[104] Many top-ranking politicians and Catholic and Muslim clerics visit the Bleiburg site annually. Prime Minister Ivica Račan visited the site in 2002.[131] Prime Minister Ivo Sanader visited the site in 2004.[132]

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.[133] In 2007, a new altar was installed at the site and was inaugurated by Cardinal Josip Bozanić before some 10,000 people.[134][135]

In 2007, Slovenia's government announced plans to make the Tezno trench a memorial park and cemetery.[136] 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.[137]

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.[138]

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.[139]

In 2010, Croatian president Ivo Josipović said he would not attend the year's May Bleiburg commemoration as long as Ustaše iconography was present,[140] although he did make a separate visit to the Bleiburg memorial in June in addition to his visit to the Tezno memorial.[141]

In 2012, Croatia's parliament decided to revoke funding for the annual Bleiburg commemoration.[142] 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.[143] In 2012, the Croatian leadership laid wreaths only at the monument in Tezno.[144]

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.[145]

Memorial sites[edit]

Memorial sites
Memorial in Bleiburg, Austria 
Memorial at Tezno mass grave site, Slovenia 
A plaque in Bistrica ob Sotli, Slovenia 

In popular culture[edit]

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.[146]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]