The Ustaše (also called Ustashas or Ustashi) was a Croatian racist, terrorist, and Nazi-like movement. It was engaged in terrorist activities before World War II.[Under the protection of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the Ustaše ruled a part of Yugoslavia, after Yugoslavia was occupied by Italy and Germany. At the end of World War II, the Ustaše were defeated and expelled by the Yugoslav Partisans.
Croatian politician Stjepan Radić was shot on October 1928 and died a month later. Alexander I, King of Yugoslavia, imposed a royal dictatorship in January 1929 and made all political parties illegal. Ante Pavelić left the country for Vienna. He and Gustav Perčec, a former Austro-Hungarian Lieutenant colonel, established contact with organization of Macedonian political emigres. These two groups agreed to coordinate their political activities for achieving full independence for Macedonia and Croatia. There and then, Pavelić secretly met with the leader of outlawed Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), Ivan Mikhailov, a declared enemy of Yugoslavia, and made agreement with him to cooperate against the Yugoslav state.
Due to these circumstances, the Court for the Preservation of the State in Belgrade sentenced Pavelić and Perčec to death on 17 July 1929.The exiles started organizing support for their cause among the Croatian emigration in Europe, North America, and South America. The Ustaše organization was small in numbers and was organized in military patterns. They fought Yugoslav statehood by means of terror.
The roots of the Ustaše ideology were in the Croatian nationalism of the nineteenth century. The Ustaše ideological system was chiefly based on the traditional pure Croatian nationalism of Ante Starčević.
The ideology of the movement was a blend of fascism, Roman Catholicism and Croatian nationalism.The Ustaše supported the creation of a Greater Croatia that would span the River Drina and extend to the border of Belgrade.The movement emphasized the need for a racially “pure” Croatia and promoted genocide against Serbs, Jews and Romani people, and persecution of anti-fascist or dissident Croatians.
The Ustaše were fiercely Catholic, identifying it with Croatian nationalism. They declared that the Catholic and Muslim faiths were the religions of the Croatian people. They claimed the Islam of the Bosniaks was a religion which “keeps true the blood of Croats”.
When it was founded in 1930, as Ustaša – Croatian Revolutionary Organization it was a nationalist organization that sought to create an independent Croatian state. When the Ustaše came to power in the NDH, a quasi-protectorate established by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during World War II, its military wings became the Army of the Independent State of Croatia and the Ustaše militia.
Starčević’s racism was further fully elaborated by Ustaša Ivo Pilar [under the pseudonym L. von Südland].His book was translated into Croatian in 1943, by Pavelić’s regime, as one of the tenets of his Ustaše and his Independent State of Croatia. At the same time, the Ustaše borrowed from traditional Croatian nationalism, the National-Socialism of Hitler, the fascism of Mussolini, and even from the program of the Croatian Peasant Party. The Ustaše aimed at an ethnically “pure” Croatia, and saw the Serbs that lived in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as their biggest obstacle.
The Ustaše persecuted the Serbs, who were Orthodox Christians. They were tolerant toward the Bosnian Muslims, claiming that the Muslims were actually ethnic Croats that converted to Islam during the Ottoman Turk occupation of Bosnia. The state even converted a former museum in Zagreb for use as a mosque. The basic principles of the movement were laid out by Pavelić in his 1929 pamphlet “Principles of the Ustaše Movement.”
The Ustaše’s problem with the Nazi ideology was that the Croats are Slavs and were considered inferior by Nazi standards. Ustaše ideology thus created a theory about a pseudo-Gothic origin of the Croats in order to raise their standing on the Aryan ladder.
At the top of the command was the Poglavnik (meaning “head”) Ante Pavelić. Pavelić was appointed the office as Head of State of Croatia after Adolf Hitler had accepted Benito Mussolini’s proposal of Pavelić, on 10 April 1941. The Croatian Home Guard was the armed forces of Croatia, it subsequently merged into the Croatian Armed Forces.
Germany and Italy invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941. On April 10, the most senior home-based Ustaša, Slavko Kvaternik, took control of the police in Zagreb and in a radio broadcast that day proclaimed the formation of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH). Maček issued a statement that day, calling on all Croatians to cooperate with the new authorities.
Meanwhile, Pavelić and several hundred Ustaše left their camps in Italy for Zagreb, where Pavelić set up his government on 17 April. He accorded himself the title of “Poglavnik”, – which was equivalent to “Führer,” or “Headman” in English. Pavelić’s “Independent State of Croatia” comprised territory of Croatia, Srem, and Bosnia-Herzegovina – except parts of the Dalmatian coast and islands, which were ceded to the Italians. De facto control over this territory varied for the majority of the war, as the Partisans grew more successful, while the Germans and Italians increasingly exercised direct control over areas of their interest.
All who opposed and/or threatened the Ustaše were outlawed. In early 1941, Jews and Serbs were ordered to leave certain areas of Zagreb.
Pavelić first met with Adolf Hitler on 6 June 1941.
Mile Budak, then a minister in Pavelić’s government, publicly proclaimed the violent racial policy of the state on 22 July 1941.Maks Luburić, one of the chiefs of the secret police, started building concentration camps in the summer of the same year. Ustaše activities in villages across the Dinaric Alps led to the Italians and the Germans expressing disquiet. As early as July 10, 1941, Wehrmacht General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau reported the following to the German High Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW):
“Our troops have to be mute witnesses of such events; it does not reflect well on their otherwise high reputation… I am frequently told that German occupation troops would finally have to intervene against Ustaše crimes. This may happen eventually. Right now, with the available forces, I could not ask for such action. Ad hoc intervention in individual cases could make the German Army look responsible for countless crimes which it could not prevent in the past”
A Gestapo report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated February 17, 1942, stated that:
“Increased activity of the bands [of rebels] is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand”
Italian troops in the field had competing territorial claims with their Ustaše allies and had cooperated from the start with Chetnik units operating in the southern areas that they controlled. Hitler tried to insist that Mussolini should have his forces work with the Ustaše, but senior Italian commanders, such as General Mario Roatta, ignored such orders
The Ustaše enacted race laws patterned after those of Nazi Germany. These laws were aimed against Jews, Roma, and Serbs, who were collectively declared enemies of the Croatian people. Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists, including communists, were interned in concentration camps, the largest of which was the Jasenovac complex, where many were killed by Ustaše militia.
The exact number of victims is not known. The number of murdered Jews is fairly reliable: around 32,000 Jews were killed during World War II on NDH territory. Gypsies (Yugoslav Roma) numbered around 40,000 fewer after the war. Of the number of Serbs who died, estimates tend to vary between 300,000 and 700,000.
The history textbooks in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia cited 700,000 as the total number of victims at Jasenovac. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center (citing the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust), “Ustasa terrorists killed 500,000 Serbs, expelled 250,000 and forced 250,000 to convert to Catholicism. They murdered thousands of Jews and Gypsies.”
The Jasenovac Memorial Area, currently headed by Slavko Goldstein, keeps a list of 59,188 names of Jasenovac victims that was gathered by government officials in Belgrade in 1964. The previous head of the Memorial Area, Simo Brdar, estimated at least 365,000 dead at Jasenovac.
The Belgrade Museum of the Holocaust compiled a list of over 77,000 names of Jasenovac victims. It was previously headed by Milan Bulajić, who supported the claim of a total of 700,000 victims. The current administration of the Museum has further expanded the list to include a bit over 80,000 names. During the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, Alexander Arnon (secretary of the Jewish Community in Zagreb) testified about the treatment of Jews in Yugoslavia during the war. Alexander Arnon’s testimony included estimates of six hundred of thousand killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp.
During World War II, various German military commanders gave different figures for the number of Serbs, Jews and others killed on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia. They circulated figures of 400,000 Serbs (Alexander Lehr); 350,000 Serbs (Lothar Rendulic); between 300,000 (Edmund Glaise von Horstenau); more than “3/4 of a million Serbs” (Hermann Neubacher) in 1943; 600-700,000 until March 1944 (Ernst Fick); 700,000 (Massenbach).
The role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust in Croatia is still a subject of great controversy. It is complicated due to several factors, such as:
- The Communists who came to power after the war sought to undermine the influence of the Church by associating them with the Ustaše. Priests and monks were often depicted as direct participants in the Holocaust.
- Some (mostly Serbian) authors sought to depict the Vatican as taking the opportunity to expand eastwards through forced conversions.
- Some (mostly Croat) authors sought to depict the Church as being entirely innocent, pointing out that certain priests, including Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac, rescued Jews and others from prosecution.
- As always, the Vatican’s Secret Archives are only open to those the Church wishes to admit.
As with most things in life, the truth is likely somewhere in between the two extremes. While some priests and monks did directly participate in the killings, including the notorious “Brother Satan” Filip Majstorović and “Serbkiller king” Petar Brzica, most were defrocked once the Vatican got word of their deeds.
Others, such as the Archbishop of Vrhbosna Ivan Šarić did not directly participate in the violence, but composed hymns of praise to the Ustaše leaders and agreed that “strong-handed” measures were required to ensure the peace of the country. The above mentioned Stepinac, the foremost church leader in the country, at first welcomed the Ustaše, but was quickly disillusioned when he heard of the massacres they committed, and managed to save some Jews and others from certain death. Still, he continued to hold communion for the Ustaše leaders, and generally failed to publicly condemn them (though he did write letters of protest to Pavelić). In contrast, clergymen such as Archbishop of Mostar Alojzije Mišić and priest Marko Oršolić publicly condemned the Ustaše yet suffered no repression.
At the end of war, Ustaše continued fighting for a short while after the formal surrender of German Army Group E on 9 May 1945, and many refugees attempted to escape to Austria. Pavelić, however, with the help of associates among the Franciscans, managed to escape and hide in Austria and Rome, later fleeing to Argentina.
The remaining Ustaše went underground or fled to South America and countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany, with the assistance of Roman Catholic churches and their grassroots supporters Some of them persisted in their crusade against Yugoslavia.
With the defeat of the Independent State of Croatia, the movement ceased to exist. Infighting over the failure to establish a Croatian state also fragmented the surviving Ustaše. Ante Pavelić formed the Croatian Liberation Movement, which drew several of the former state’s leaders. Vjekoslav Vrančić founded a reformed Croatian Liberation Movement, and was its leader.
Vjekoslav Luburić helped form a organization called the “Croatian National Resistance” (Hrvatski narodni odpor). This became the most violent of the Ustaše organizations which were born after the WWII. Luburić commanded the organization for twenty-five years from his refuge in Spain. His organization was heavily involved in racketeering, attempted murder, extortion, hijacking, terrorist bombings, and other violent crimes. After his death, his successors on the organization commanding post sought out criminal organization ties with La Cosa Nostra, the Provisional IRA, and the Croatian Mafia in San Pedro.Odpor was banned in Germany for terrorist activities and operated (in the USA and Canada) between legitimate emigre functions and a thuggish underworld. Its leaders tried to distance the organization from the acts of the so-called renegade elements that hijacked international flights and served prison sentences for extortion. Odpor embraced a radical nationalist ideology that differed only marginally from Ustaše ideology.
The Odpor’s most spectacular terrorist action was hijacking TWA Flight 355 on September 10, 1976. This terrorist action was masterminded by Zvonko Bušić, then the leader of the American branch of Odor. He and four other Croatian terrorists carried out the hijacking. Bušić also planted a bomb at Grand Central Station in New York City.
An attempt to dismantle the bomb ended in a blast which killed one police officer and injured three others. All of the terrorists surrendered, and Bušić was sentenced to life in prison. The other four terrorists were sentenced to various long-term imprisonments.
Blagoje Jovovic, a Serb, shot Ante Pavelić near Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 9th, 1957. Pavelić was injured and later died.
Another Ustaše terrorist organization, the Croatian Revolutionary Cell, Bruno Busic Department, bombed the R. S. Schullz publishing house in Percha on Lake Starnberg, Germany, on August 19, 1981. The group, which claims to be based in Paris, used one kilogram of Swiss Mark 2 dynamite. They threatened to use two more kilograms the following week if the firm published Tito’s memoirs.
fter World War II, the Ustaša movement was split into several organizations and there is presently no political or paramilitary movement that claims its legacy as their “successor”. The term “ustaše” is today used as (derogatory) term for Croatian ultranationalism. The term “Ustaše” is sometimes used among Serbs to describe Serbophobia or generally to defame political opponents. When Slobodan Milošević was at the end of his rule, the protesters called him “Ustaša”