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Spain Awakens Bosnian, Croatian Ghosts Of 1945


Adolf Hitler (2nd left) and Ante Pavelic (2nd right) listen to Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering (right) at the Berghof Obersalzburg, near Berchtesgaden, Germany, in June 1941.

The latest round in Spain's ongoing effort to cope with its own fratricidal past may inadvertently be reopening old wounds elsewhere.

The government of Spain's new prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, is proposing changes to the 2007 Historical Memory Law that backers say would fully respect "the right to truth" for victims of fascist General Francisco Franco's former regime, both during and after the Spanish Civil War.

The proposed moves include a more systematic approach to opening mass graves, but also the exhumation of the body of the late dictator himself and its removal from its mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, near the Spanish capital. The latter suggestion has elicited opposition within Spain, including from some people who are openly sympathetic to Franco and want to honor his legacy.

The Sanchez government and its supporters claim that the mausoleum and the giant 150-meter cross serve only to glorify the fascist regime, while many of Franco's victims still lie in unmarked graves around the country. A similar desire to discard the fascist legacy is behind the proposed exhumation and possible repatriation of the remains of foreign fascists who sought shelter in Franco's Spain after World War II. Near the top of this list of the unwanted dead are two well-known Croats -- Ante Pavelic and Vjekoslav "Max" Luburic, both leading Croatian Ustase who fled in 1945 and eventually settled in Spain, where both were buried.

Pavelic was the founder of the ultranationalist Ustase movement and leader of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi puppet state (1941-45) that included parts of modern Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He introduced racial laws that led to the internment and death of tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma, as well as of antifascist Croats and other political opponents.

Luburic was the commander of the notorious concentration camp Jasenovac, where more than 80,000 were killed during World War II.

After the war, Pavelic initially fled to Argentina, where he survived an assassination attempt by the Yugoslav secret service before relocating to Spain, where he felt more secure. He died in 1959 and was buried at the San Isidro Cemetery in Madrid.

Luburic went directly to Spain following his escape from Yugoslavia, settling in Carcaixent, Valencia, where he was given a new identity by the Franco regime (Vicente Perez Garcia, aka Don Vicente). He was killed in his home in 1969, either by the Yugoslav regime or by rivals within the Croatian emigre community, and was buried in Carcaixent.

Where Is 'Home'?

But if their remains were to be repatriated, where would they be sent?

Their political careers and crimes are most closely associated with the Independent State of Croatia, and some Spanish media have mentioned Croatia as their country of origin; but both Pavelic and Luburic were in fact born in what is now Bosnia. (Pavelic was born in the village of Bradina, near Konjic, some 60 kilometers south of Sarajevo; Luburic was from the small village of Humac, near Ljubuski, in southern Herzegovina.)

Dragan Markovina, a Bosnian-born Croatian historian and political activist, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that he would not welcome the reburial of Pavelic and Luburic in either Bosnia or Croatia. He predicted their gravesites would become destinations for pilgrimages by extreme nationalists.

But he said he's uncertain whether the return of Pavelic's and Luburic's remains would increase tensions in the region. "I don't think that tensions could be much higher than they are now," Markovina said.

"There are already massive divisions [in Croatian society]. This became evident during the recent soccer World Cup, when the team that reached the final and finished second in the competition was greeted at home by two Croatias: the nationalist one and the civic one."

The situation is just as bad -- or worse -- in Bosnia, according to Markovina. "The mistrust is greater than ever between all three nationalist elites in Bosnia [Muslim, Croat, and Serb] and those who vote for them, as well as between those elites and some of the leftist, antinationalist forces," he said. "I don't think that tensions would be inflamed much more than they are at present, but I do think that [reinterment] would be harmful for the education of future generations."

Markovina recalled that even in Madrid, where it was relatively out of the way, Pavelic's grave occasionally served as a symbolic site for reaffirmations of nationalist credentials.

"There was the case of the current head of the Croatian Football Association, then a famous player for Real Madrid, Davor Suker, who posed" -- in 1996, although the photo was not published until 2010 -- "with a group of people in front of Pavelic's grave in Madrid. The same is true of the current Croatian health minister, Milan Kujundzic, and various others. I think from the Spanish perspective, the decision is understandable."

Historian Hrvoje Klasic has noted that Benito Mussolini's birthplace is an annual gathering place for supporters, and that the last thing Croatia needs is another shrine for fascist sympathizers -- at a time when "Ustase salutes are being heard in soccer stadiums and in the streets." He argued that there was no reason for the remains of Pavelic or Luburic -- both of them Bosnian-born -- to be repatriated to Croatia, as they had "nothing to do" with the country.

But even Pavelic's daughter was reportedly opposed to moving her father's remains to Croatia. According to Jakov Sedlar, a Croatian director close to the political right, this was because Croatia's first postindependence president, Franjo Tudjman, did not build a state based on Pavelic's vision. That's what she told Sedlar during an interview a decade ago in Madrid. She died in 2015 and was buried next to her father and mother at the San Isidro Cemetery.

Croatian journalist Inoslav Besker said he was vehemently opposed to moving the remains. He said that modern Croatia was no place for the likes of Pavelic and Luburic and that it's up to the Spanish and Bosnian leaders to find a solution. Pavelic and Luburic are long dead, he said, but the "rattling with their bones in the media has disturbed the spirits in both Croatia and Bosnia."

Bosnia is meanwhile caught up in jockeying, ahead of October elections, that is particularly fraught with ethnic tensions.

Bosnian Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic has been making statements that critics call inflammatory and is seemingly flaunting his friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Croatian member of the Bosnian Presidency, Dragan Covic, appears determined in his pursuit of a third, ethnic Croat entity in Bosnia -- possibly in hopes of achieving in peacetime what eluded Bosnian Croat nationalists during the war. And the president of the Serbian entity, Milorad Dodik, is arming his police and threatening secession -- none of which has excluded him from running for membership of the joint Bosnian Presidency.

So while Spain seeks to shed reminders of its fascist past, including the remains of foreign fascists harbored by Franco, trends in the Balkans are arguably moving in the opposite direction. Throughout the Balkans, the region's antifascist past -- including the struggle waged by Tito's partisans against the Nazis and their domestic allies, the Croatian Ustase and Serbian Cetnici -- is being revised and in many cases rejected, while local fascists are being rehabilitated.

Last year, residents of the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja were shocked to find posters with Nazi and Ustashe symbols and a proclamation celebrating the NDH and Ante Pavelic all over their neighborhood -- including a letter signed by Max Luburic from 1968, the year before his death.

But the prospect of the return of Pavelic and Luburic, even if in remains only, could be a nightmare for a region whose plate is already full up with unconfronted history.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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    Gordana Knezevic

    Gordana Knezevic writes the Balkans Without Borders blog for RFE/RL. She was the director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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