Croatian Leaders vs. WWII Revisionism
By Igor Ilic and Matt Robinson
ZAGREB/NASICE, Croatia (Reuters) - An international exhibition about Anne Frank had already toured over 20 schools across Croatia when it ran into trouble last month in the coastal city of Sibenik, spotlighting the nation's struggle to resolve its dark World War Two past.
The story of the Holocaust diarist and her death at age 15 in a German concentration camp had been well received in a country that during the war was run by a Nazi puppet regime.
So the exhibition coordinator, Maja Nenadovic, was "flabbergasted" when the headmaster of Sibenik's Technical School decided to remove six of the exhibition panels that focused on Croatia's former fascist Ustashe era.
"He basically had a problem with the Ustashe being painted negatively," said Nenadovic. "It kind of left me speechless."
Historians say the Ustashe systematically persecuted and murdered Jews, Serbs and Roma. But the Sibenik headmaster objected that the six panels had nothing to do with Anne Frank and ignored killings of Croats by wartime anti-Nazi Partisans.
The organizers packed up the entire installation and moved it out of Sibenik, which sits in an historically conservative of Croatia, to another school in the eastern town of Nasice.
The response of Croatia's conservative government was muted. It played down the matter, reflecting what critics say is a growing tolerance in the European Union's newest member state for those who would try to sanitize its World War Two record.
Concerns about the risks of revisionism have risen since the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which led Croatia to independence from Yugoslavia through a 1991-95 war, took power again in 2015 on pledges to revive its flagging economy and promote conservative values based on family and faith.
Critics say the phenomenon is disturbing for hopes of lasting stability and development in the Balkan region, and reflective of a revival of nationalist sentiment across Europe.
"The HDZ is pursuing a two-faced policy," Ivo Josipovic, the Social Democratic president of Croatia from 2010 to 2015, told the Serbian daily Politika this month.
"When they speak in Israel or in European institutions, they are big anti-fascists. However, at home they turn a blind eye to 'Ustasha-philia', which is increasingly apparent."
Croatia has never fully confronted the crimes of the Ustashe fascists between 1941 and 1945, many historians say.
Many Croats, too, fought on the side of communist Partisans under Josip Broz Tito, who emerged victorious and brought Croatia into a Yugoslav federation that linked Serbs, Croats and Muslims under the mantra "Brotherhood and Unity".
Fifty years later, mainly Catholic Croatia seceded from Serbian-dominated federal Yugoslavia in a war against Orthodox Croatian Serb rebels armed from Belgrade. At the time, Croatian nationalists began casting the Ustashe in a more favorable light as patriots and precursors of the modern Croatian state, a revisionist approach that continued after the war ended.
GHOSTS OF WWII PAST
Serbia, too, has flirted with rewriting history.