Accessibility links

'Regret' Is Not Enough In Slovenian Tragedy

  • Charles Crawford

"One particularly appalling killing site was the St. Barbara Tunnel near Huda Jama, where meticulous efforts to cover up the crime afterward were successful for over 60 years. The grim remains of hundreds of victims were uncovered only in 2008."

"One particularly appalling killing site was the St. Barbara Tunnel near Huda Jama, where meticulous efforts to cover up the crime afterward were successful for over 60 years. The grim remains of hundreds of victims were uncovered only in 2008."

This week Sir John Sawers, chief of the U.K. Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), delivered an important speech in London about the work of MI6. The first ever such speech by a serving chief, it included an important claim: "The SIS is a service that reflects our country. Integrity is the first of the service's values."

The SIS and all other British public bodies pride themselves on their integrity. Integrity is not taken for granted. Laws and regulations, training courses and professional ethics codes, operational standards, and many other procedures are all in place to help uphold integrity in practice.

This heartfelt British pride in high ethical standards makes all the more remarkable -- and difficult for the British to manage -- those episodes from history where it is shown beyond doubt that people representing the British Crown behaved in an outlandishly immoral way.

On October 29, in the very English village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, an ecumenical Mass of Reparation was held to recall one of these episodes and to honor the memory of thousands of victims of it. The service was led by the Catholic bishop of Northampton, with Archbishop Metropolitan Stres from Ljubljana and the Anglican bishop of Buckingham. Slovenian Ambassador Iztok Jarc and former Slovenian Prime Minister Lojze Peterle were among the sizeable congregation.

No one from the British government attended.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, former chief of the General Staff and General Lord Guthrie, former chief of the Defense Staff, both sent messages of support.

'Massive Wickedness'

This Mass recalled a ruinous moment in British military history in mid-1945: the British Army's forced repatriation to Slovenia of some 12,000 people who were then quickly murdered by Tito's communists. Keith Miles, chairman of the British Slovene Society, has worked for a long time to bring this calamity to wider public attention and to support those in Slovenia who are still trying to uncover the full facts about these and many other massacres from that period.

Canon Timothy Russ delivered an unflinching sermon. He described the killings as "a massive disorder, a massive wickedness, a massive sadness." He placed this example of Marxist brutality in a wider European school of banal philosophical thought that denied any Christian or natural moral order and instead insisted that people had no intrinsic worth. The result had been the mass elimination of people who thought differently, or just were in the way.

After the Mass, I met Ivan Lavric and Valentin Mohar, two elderly men who themselves had narrowly escaped being sent back to Slovenia. Lavric told me how he lost eight of his cousins in the massacres.

Slovenian historian Joze Dezman was the first chairman of the Commission on Concealed Mass Graves in Slovenia. He told me that some 600 mass graves from this period have been discovered in different parts of Slovenia. The communists had had various options for disposing of so many bodies. Throwing them into carst rock crevasses, burying them in mining tunnels or antitank trenches, or digging large pits deep in the forests.

One particularly appalling killing site was the St. Barbara Tunnel near Huda Jama, where meticulous efforts to cover up the crime afterward were successful for over 60 years. The grim remains of hundreds of victims were uncovered only in 2008.

More Than 'Regret' Needed

Nikolai Tolstoy has written extensively on the history of this period and the role of key British military personnel in these and other deportations that led to tens of thousands of people being massacred by different communist regimes. He famously was sued for libel in 1989 by Toby Aldington, by then a leading Conservative politician who in 1945 had been a senior British Army officer closely involved in these repatriation decisions.

Tolstoy told me that his subsequent researches in the Soviet archives in Moscow had amply confirmed his suspicions about the iniquitous behavior of both Aldington and Harold Macmillan, who of course went on to become British prime minister. But even now he had no clear idea of why they had acted as they did.

Keith Miles has been urging the new British government to look at these events anew. Minister for Europe David Lidington replied to him on September 30 this year: "[We] cannot put ourselves in the shoes of those making the decisions on the ground. They did not have the benefit of hindsight which we now enjoy.... [The] information relating to these events is now in the public domain and in my view there is nothing more for today's government to add.'

Is that good enough? All things considered, no.

British archives reveal a Foreign and Commonwealth Office memo written in August 1945 by J.M. Addis: "The handing over of Slovenes, etc., by the 8th Army in Austria to teach those forces was a ghastly mistake.... For about a week at the end of May these unfortunate men were passed across the frontier by British troops to be butchered by Tito's Army.... There is no doubt that this was an extensive and indiscriminate slaughter."

It accordingly is hard not to see this as one of the British Army's darkest moments, worthy of something rather more than David Lidington's oddly bland expression of a "sense of regret at the loss of life that occurred." That's the sort of language appropriate to a severe car accident, not the systematic annihilation of thousands of fellow Europeans that British power helped bring about.

The Bright Light Of Truth

More importantly, we cannot build modern Europe upon the shifting sands of deliberate historical lies. Slovenia itself is unable to come to terms with what happened. Because these massacres were on such a scale, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that almost every Slovenian now alive will have some connection through friends or family to either the victims of these massacres or those who ordered and committed them. What a psychological burden for a whole country to carry.

Since the end of the Cold War, Slovenia's political life has been largely dominated by politicians emerging from or closely associated with the former communist regime, so there has been no sustained high-level official support even for examining what happened, let alone talking about justice for the victims and their families.

Instead, Slovenia's former communists and their many prominent younger family members present themselves as respectable members of European social democracy, tip-toeing steadily away from these disagreeable issues and hoping that memory of them simply fades away.

Luckily for Europe, events like the Mass of Reparation in Great Missenden show that despite the thick fog of oblivion, confusion, and dishonesty generated over many decades by Europe's communist regimes, the bright light of truth still shines. New technology allows mass graves to be located and victims identified. More and more archives are at last being opened.

Timothy Snyder's magnificent new book "Bloodlands" has tried to explain how the twin totalitarianisms of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR combined and competed to kill millions of people in Central Europe. In some passages it reads more like a work of moral philosophy than of history, such as this passage on the victims of the Holocaust:

"But this number, like all of the others, must be seen not as 5.7 million, which is an abstraction few of us can grasp, but is 5.7 million times one. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity."

My proposal? That the British government -- led by a Conservative Party that had in its top ranks both Harold Macmillan and Toby Aldington -- finally faces the fact that "regret" is not enough. That even in these financially difficult times it finds some money, but much more importantly the moral sense of purpose, to set up with other European partners a major initiative aimed at uncovering all mass graves across Europe and identifying the hundreds of thousands of bodies.

Full, active cooperation will be expected of all European governments and political parties. A tiny fraction of the extra resources that the European Union has agreed for 2011 would go a long way to get this initiative strongly moving forward.

When Pope John Paul II visited Sarajevo in 1997, he repeated this famous spiritual insight: "The two most difficult things in the world are to forgive -- and to seek forgiveness." At the Mass of Reparation in Great Missenden this week, Canon Russ took up this theme. He addressed the cruelty of the British officers concerned who had had to resort to deception to steer these huge crowds of desperate people back to their doom, and the wickedness of those who did the killings: "Those who decided, those who lied, those who gave orders, those who did the shooting -- this Mass is for them too.... It does sinners a grave injustice to say that they cannot help what they do."

Charles Crawford served as a British diplomat in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and subsequently as ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw. He now writes about diplomatic issues at The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Show comments