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A 'Nazi Collaborator's' Former Home Raises Uncomfortable Questions In Kosovo

A joint project to renovate and reopen the "House of Xhafer Deva" in his native Mitrovica in Kosovo has sparked outrage in some quarters.

PRISTINA -- By all accounts, Xhafer Deva, a founding member of an Albanian government installed by Germany in 1943, made himself useful to the Nazis. And by many accounts, as that wartime government's interior minister in charge of troops, he was a Nazi collaborator and an enabler, or worse, in the murder of innocent Jews, Roma, Serbs, and Albanians.

So it's unsurprising that the late Albanian nationalist's legacy in one of the Balkans' most bitterly divided cities stirs passions.

The bigger surprise might be that UN and EU representatives ever waded into such a controversy in the first place.

But this week, confronted with international pressure over a joint project to renovate and reopen the three-story "House of Xhafer Deva" in his native Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the European Union suspended their participation in the project. After "closely listening to concerns," they acknowledged that the refurbishment and conversion of the 1930s building to a cultural center was not the best way to "bring communities together and contribute to social cohesion."

Kosovar Culture, Youth, and Sports Minister Hajrulla Ceku responded that while "we understand the concerns of our international partners.... We think that the work started with our international partners should continue, and I invite everyone to reflect rationally."

Kosovar officials have cited Deva's former home as a valuable example of prewar Austrian architecture, and noted that the dilapidated, state-owned building has housed numerous projects in the seven decades since World War II.

But Pristina's insistence on continuing the project struck a defiant note for a small country still scrambling diplomatically for full UN status and signaled rare discord between ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and those in neighboring Albania.

Paskal Milo, a historian and former Albanian foreign minister, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that he didn't want to "contribute to the increase of political tension in Kosovo regarding this issue."

He described Deva, however, as a "typical collaborationist figure of German Nazism," and discouraged actions by Pristina that could be seen as trying to celebrate his legacy.

"It does not do honor to Kosovo or the government of [Prime Minister] Albin Kurti," Milo said. "A collaborationist should be put in the negative background of history and stay there."

Tirana has long fostered a special relationship with Kosovo, a mostly ethnic Albanian country of 1.9 million people that broke away from Serbia in 2008, and Kurti routinely describes himself as an Albanian nationalist.

Edon Qesari, a researcher at the Tirana-based Institute of History, attributed differing views of historical figures like Deva to the respective "sensitivity" among their publics despite the extent of their shared culture.

"While in Pristina, such characters are best-known for their nationalist and anti-Slavic identities, in Tirana they are known as characters who have obeyed an occupying country, such as Germany," Qesari said.

Serbian And German Outrage

The outcry over the Deva project erupted onto the international scene after public appeals by Serbian and German officials.

Serbian Culture Minister Maja Gojkovic, whose government still does not recognize Kosovar independence, complained in a letter to European Commissioner Maria Gabriel and the UNDP's executive director, Akim Steiner, called for the "contested project" to be stopped.

The UNDP and EU responded that its renovation of the former Deva house would eventually host "a space for cultural and community events...[and a] Regional Center for Cultural Heritage" that "will serve as a hub for local communities to come together, explore ideas, promote interculturalism, tolerance, and connectivity."

It acknowledged that "The EU, UNDP and MCYS (Kosovo's Culture, Youth, and Sports Ministry) take into account with concern the controversy connecting the building's past and are currently working on alternatives for the future benefit of the local community and intercommunity dialogue."

The town of MItrovica, where the "House of Xhafer Deva" is located, is bitterly divided between Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs.
The town of MItrovica, where the "House of Xhafer Deva" is located, is bitterly divided between Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs.

Then Berlin's envoy to Kosovo warned this week that it was "memory culture the wrong way." Ambassador Joern Rohde tweeted that he was "very concerned about restauration plans for Xhafer Deva's house, a known Nazi collaborator/protagonist of infamous SS Skanderbeg [Division]. No history whitewashing! Don't distort the truth about the Holocaust or war crimes committed by the Nazis and local collaborators #ProtectTheFacts."

He cited the need to "deal with the past in an open, truthful way," a mantra that Germany has embraced since Adolf Hitler marched the German people and the world toward war and genocide against Jews and other minorities in the 1930s.

The ethnically fueled Balkan wars of the 1990s amid the breakup of Yugoslavia killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. They included the starkest examples of "ethnic cleansing" on the European continent since World War II, among other atrocities.

Serb-dominated forces of the rump Yugoslavia withdrew from Kosovo after a U.S.-led NATO intervention in 1999 that Washington and others defended as a desperate measure to prevent atrocities against ethnic Albanian Kosovars.

Holocaust Remembrance

Some Kosovars have compared ethnic Albanians' plight in the former Yugoslavia to that of the Jews during World War II.

"We share the same fate. The same images of genocide: victims of hatred, saddened refugees and mass deportations by train -- that are the embodiment of our common pain. #NeverAgain," former Kosovar Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla tweeted on January 27, which is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

She included the hashtags #HolocaustMemorialDay, #WeRemember, #Kosovo, and #Israel.

The same day, Kosovo's defense minister, Armand Mehaj, posted a similar message on Facebook, citing "survival despite the efforts of our enemies to exterminate us.

But some bristle at the comparison.

"I plan to write a strong protest letter to the EU ambassador to Israel and Katerina von Schnurbein, the EU ambassador in charge of the fight against anti-Semitism," Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, told a Kosovar Serb news outlet after Haradinaj-Stublla's and Mehaj's statements.

Kosovar historian Yusuf Buxhovi told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that it was a mistake to tie Deva to the Holocaust, which took 6 million Jewish lives. "I was surprised by that [statement by] the German ambassador," Buxhovi said. "Xhafer Deva was only a representative of an independent Albanian state at that time, an independent government."

Xhafer Deva (1904-1978)
Xhafer Deva (1904-1978)

Buxhovi argued that given the United States' harsh scrutiny of former Nazis or their collaborators in Holocaust crimes, Deva is unlikely to have been linked directly to such atrocities.

But the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is renowned for its remembrance efforts and its tracking of Nazi war criminals, later agreed that the European Union should cancel the Deva project.

Votim Demiri, president of the Jewish Community of Kosovo, in a statement to RFE/RL's Balkan Service on February 11, declined to say whether his organization thought the building should be restored or not.

He said he had met the previous day with German Ambassador Rohde and expected a final decision in the coming months.

Demiri said the Kosovar public deserved to know "what was done, how it was done, and how it happened."

More Than Just A Name

Deva joined a provisional Albanian government with Nazi support as interior minister after Germany's Axis ally, Italy, capitulated to the Allies in 1943.

His fierce anti-communism and desire to lead ethnic Albanians out of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia have been cited as prime motivators in his decision.

"The point for many Kosovars was that this was the first government they had since Ottoman times with which they could at least partly identify -- the others stemmed from Serbian military occupation," Patrick Moore, RFE/RL's chief Balkan political analyst from 1977 to 2008, said.

The government and forces under Deva's authority were accused of atrocities against civilians before the government fell apart in 1944 and Deva fled to Austria, then the Middle East, and eventually the United States, where he died in 1978.

Mladen Lisanin, a research associate in international relations at the Institute for Political Studies in Belgrade, publicly accused the UNDP on Twitter of "endorsing the legacy of a Nazi war criminal (and subsequent CIA collaborator)" with their Mitrovica project. (Documents unearthed after his death suggested Deva was recruited by U.S. intelligence officers while living in the United States.)

"Whether it was done knowingly or out of ignorance (and I suspect it was a little bit of both) is irrelevant," Lisanin told RFE/RL by e-mail. "In a sensitive environment like this one, [the] UN and EU should steer clear of such controversies, especially since [the] two largest ethnic communities have what seem to be irreconcilably different views of World War II in Kosovo."

Nora Weller, a doctoral student at Cambridge University who focuses on atrocity heritage, tweeted that it was "very concerning" that the German statements suggested Kosovar society was "anti-Semitic for restoring a building in which a German collaborator lived."

In comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Weller suggested the most problematic part of the Mitrovica project was that the building carried Deva's name, but said it did not appear to be the site of any atrocities.

"The treatment of racist architecture is not glorified in any part of Europe," Weller said, comparing it to rebuilding in Berlin, for example. "It focuses more on the [places] where a major Holocaust crime took place."

Written by Andy Heil in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Bekim Bislimi and Shkelqim Hyusenaj in Pristina.
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    Bekim Bislimi

    Bekim Bislimi is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Shkelqim Hysenaj

    Shkelqim Hysenaj is a social media producer for RFE/RL's Balkan Service. 

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.