Academic journal article The Historian

German Counterinsurgency Policy in Independent Croatia, 1941-1944

Academic journal article The Historian

German Counterinsurgency Policy in Independent Croatia, 1941-1944

Article excerpt

With the recent wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the word "Balkan" has become a byword for ethnic extremism. Many who conflate the Balkans and ethnic extremism maintain that conflicts in the region emanate from age-old hatreds existing from time immemorial. Yet in historical fact, the extreme violence of inter-ethnic conflict in the Balkans has been limited largely to the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of this century's most violent ethnic Balkan conflicts took place from 1941 to 1944 in the newly created Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, hereafter Independent Croatia or NDH), as the Nazi-supported government, under the leadership of the fascist Ustasa party, systematically attempted to destroy its minority Serbian population.

For the people of the rugged countryside of Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Dalmatia, the conflict brought great violence and destruction; estimates of the number killed range from 700,000 to as many as 1.7 million. Charged with eliminating opposition to the Axis Powers--primarily by the Partisans, a communist guerrilla group under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito--German occupational forces did little to stop the genocide. German combat commanders were themselves exceptionally brutal toward suspected Partisan sympathizers, killing civilians almost indiscriminately, including women and children. Such ruthlessness by both Ustasa and German units stimulated popular support for the Partisans, ironically undermining Nazi efforts against them.

While a number of high-ranking Nazi officials recognized that extreme aggression against Serbs and other civilians was counterproductive and attempted to limit it, they were unsuccessful. Using a structuralist historical approach, this paper argues that Hitler's refusal to intervene in internal Croatian affairs, combined with strong opposition from Independent Croatia against outside interference in its Serbian policies, allowed the Ustasa state to retain a degree of autonomy and continue its efforts to exterminate the Serbs in Independent Croatia. Further, lack of clear lines of authority among competing German agencies, including the Foreign Ministry, SS, and Wehrmacht, left lower-ranking Nazi combat commanders free to follow their own repressive policies against civilians even though such policies ran counter to long-term Nazi aims.

The Ustasa, led by Ante Pavelic, came to power in 1941 following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia. In March of that year the pro-Axis Yugoslavian government of Prince Paul had fallen in a bloodless military coup, whose leaders then declared neutrality. In April, Germany, assisted by Italy and other Axis allies, invaded Yugoslavia. Facing little organized resistance, the invaders created the new state of Independent Croatia, comprised of Croatia proper, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and parts of Dalmatia. Serbia was reduced to its pre-1912 borders and placed under a formal German military occupation with a titular Serbian leader, Milan Nedic. Germany and Italy divided Independent Croatia into different spheres of influence, Italy controlling the western half of the country and Germany the eastern half, with Pavelic the head of the Croatian government.

The Ustasa were a small group of extremist Croatian nationalists that came into existence in 1930. They were strongly in favor of political independence for Croatia and implacably opposed to the Serb-dominated Yugoslav state. Many of the Ustasa, including Pavelic, spent most of the 1930s and early 1940s in exile in Mussolini's Italy. Because of their absence, the Ustasa party had only a minuscule political base within Croatia when they came to power in 1941.

Ideologically, the Ustasa were most influenced by the nineteenth-century Croatian nationalist Ante Starcevic, who described the Serbs as a "race of slaves, beasts worse than any."(1) In addition, Ustasa ideology was imbued with a frontier Roman Catholicism that further marked off the Catholic Croatians from the Orthodox Christian Serbs. …

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