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Public Opinion On Nazi Collaborators Gets Revision In Balkans

Chetnik leader Draza Mihajlovic was executed by Tito's Partisans in 1946*.
Chetnik leader Draza Mihajlovic was executed by Tito's Partisans in 1946*.
In communist-era Yugoslavia, antifascism was very much embedded in the local ideology.

History lessons for schoolchildren warned about the evils of the so-called "fascist-monarchist alliance." Families would speak with pride about a relative who fought as a Partisan against the Nazis, but hide family ties to Croatia's pro-Nazi Ustashe regime or the Serbian nationalist Chetnik paramilitary group.

Nowadays, as Serbia and Croatia move further from their communist past, such tendencies appear to be undergoing a transformation. As the Balkan countries join Europe in marking 65 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, many people there now appear to be rejecting ex-Yugoslavia's history of antifascism.

In modern-day Belgrade, it is acceptable -- even socially advantageous -- for people to speak openly about a Chetnik grandfather. Conversely, there is growing reluctance to discuss elderly relatives who were Partisan fighters.

Impact Of Ultranationalists

Historians and sociologists say the trend began with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, when ultranationalist leaders fanned the flames of nationalism in order to bolster their own hold on political power. Although the region has remained largely peaceful for the past decade, nationalist sentiment remains a powerful social force, and is seen by many as feeding a new generation of neo-Nazi and xenophobic movements in the region.

Some observers say Balkan history is being rewritten not only by selective family memory, but on a larger social scale as well.

Indeed, Serbia has been undergoing a constant internal dispute in recent years over the issue of whether a rising generation of fascist organizations and gatherings should be banned. The parliament in Belgrade has, so far, failed to pass legislation aimed at banning fascist organizations.

Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic says that there also are symbols of Serbia's fascist World War II regime remaining in government buildings.

"I personally think the government of Serbia is unable to successfully fight fascism as long as, in our government buildings, we have a photograph of Milan Nedic, who was prime minister during Hitler's time -- not an elected prime minister, but one who was appointed by Hitler," Dacic says.

"It would be more honest to put a picture of the government that was in exile during World War II. Police have to go after fascists in the streets. But politicians don't differentiate between fascists and antifascists."

Meanwhile, Serbia's nationalist-dominated parliament recently passed a law giving Chetnik veterans of World War II the same pension rights and social benefits as Partisans who fought against the Nazis.

In 2005, when Moscow marked the 60th anniversary of the Victory in Europe against fascism, Serbia did not send a representative to the event. Belgrade also declined to send a representative to ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland.

Last year, when delegates from 46 countries signed an international declaration at the Terezin Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic -- pledging to return property that was seized from Jewish families during World War II -- Belgrade opted not to sign the document.

At that time, the bigger priority for Serbia was to find the grave of Chetnik leader Draza Mihajlovic -- who was sentenced to death and executed by Tito's Partisans in 1945 for collaborating with the Nazi regime. Still, the anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade by the Soviet Red Army is an event that continues to be celebrated in Serbia.
Nationalists are still a powerful force in the Balkans

Jovan Byford, a lecturer on social psychology at the Open University in the United Kingdom who has done extensive research into "social remembering" and historical revisionism in Serbia, says that "when it comes to World War II, what we have today [in Serbia] are just bits and pieces out of context. We have broken pictures without critical analysis and we have different narrations without logic."

Rehabilitating History

Byford has studied the historical rehabilitation in Serbia of figures who were decried as fascists by Tito's regime. One case study by Byford focuses on how Serbs' views have changed during the past two decades about Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic -- a controversial Serbian Orthodox Christian theologian who died in 1956 and had been vilified by communist Yugoslav authorities as a fascist and anti-Semite who supported the Holocaust.

Since 1990, Velimirovic has come to be regarded within postcommunist Serbian Orthodox culture as the most important religious figure since medieval times.

Byford documented this transition by exploring the changing representations of Velimirovic in Serbian media and in commemorative speeches. Byford also has analyzed interviews with public figures in Serbia who have actively campaigned for the rehabilitation of the bishop's image during the past two decades.

Mladen Lazic, a professor at Belgrade University, says he thinks the majority of Serbs today are antifascists. But he says their voices are being drowned out by more aggressive revisionists.

"Of these two factions, the faction that supports fascism by rehabilitating its collaborators has been on the offensive for some years now. Meanwhile, [antifascists] are not a minority, but rather a majority of Serbian society," Lazic says. "Yet they are on the defensive. They are not trying to win public opinion. That is why this majority is being marginalized."

In Croatia, too, views about history are changing, with many people viewing the wars of the 1990s as an extension of World War II and its disputes in the Balkans.

Zorica Stipetic, a leader of Croatia's Social Democratic Party, says the legacy of World War II is still keenly felt in her country. "The fall of communism, the civil war, and the aggression that all came together in Croatia -- caused a brutal historical revision of World War II. It happened in all spheres of our society, though mostly at the level of ideology," Stipetic says.

Even 65 years after the end of the war, strong divisions remain between supporters of the Partisans and the Ustashe regime, in spite of calls by former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the country's first post-independence leader, for all Croats to come together and bridge their differences.

Ustashe symbols are far less prevalent in Croatian cities today than they were in the early 1990s, when Croatia was fighting its war for independence and the Ustashe were equated more with Croatian nationalism than fascism.

Still, critics say Croatia's government is not doing all it can to completely remove the historical symbols of the Ustashe era.

* Due to an error during editing, the caption accompanying the photograph of Draza Mihajlovic mistakenly put his execution in 1945. In fact, it was July 1946.

written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with contributions from RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents in Belgrade and Zagreb