“When human beings are silent, the inhuman are free to take lives!”

I always welcome invitations to professional conferences. They are always an opportunity to hear and learn something new, to exchange ideas and views with colleagues. The focus of my interest is the study of the Holocaust – a subject that, for some, still belongs to sensitive historic subjects. For me, the further away a conference is from home, the better my feelings about participating; the closer it is to the Homeland (with a capital ‘H’), the worse the knot in my stomach. Why? Because in Croatia, sensitive subjects are slowly being transformed into taboo subjects.

Apart from the usual labels of being a Yugo-nostalgic, Freemason, Jew, Serb, foreign mercenary etc., speaking publicly about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism has secured me overt death threats, just as has speaking publicly about Antifascism. That is why I find it hard to explain to my colleagues from the U.S. or the Netherlands why I am so excited about organizing an online quiz entitled „70 years since victory was won“. What’s the big deal? The big deal is the fact that, in 2015, someone would call you an „Antifascist“, meant as an offense.

History is a humanist and social science that engages in the reconstruction of historic facts. Historians are charged with the accumulation and analysis of historic sources and treat them objectively, almost passively. Historians analyse historic sources, but unlike the natural sciences, the subjects of historians’ study cannot easily be measured or weighed. When chemists study the chemical composition of water, they can determine exactly what elements and in what ratios make up a water molecule and the chemical composition of water is the same whether studied by chemists from Croatia or Serbia.

Historians, on the other hand, interpret historic sources. Their interpretation is, of course, scientific, but the influence of education and ideology of the historians themselves cannot be avoided either. After all, what is education? Education is a transfer of knowledge, skills and values. In informal learning, it is often tantamount to familial socialization, leading to interpretations of history along the lines of „my grandmother told me“, or „my grandfather was there“. Oral history is a valuable historic source, but needs to be evaluated very critically. When studying oral history, the person studying certain subjects must have a large knowledge about it from verified sources and literature in order to be able to evaluate familial discourses about the subject.

The chemistry of history – formal formulae

Formal education is determined by specific rules like curricula and learning outcomes. The textbooks used by our children’s generations did not make it to their desks by chance, but have been harmonized with the state curriculum according to which they were written, edited and approved by expert committees for elementary and secondary school textbooks. The committees approved the textbooks access to schools, with the teachers themselves ultimately choosing which ones they would like to use.

The textbooks currently in use have been aligned with the curriculum that was part of the Croatian National Educational Standard from 2006 and with the National Framework Curriculum from 2010,

From the Croatian National Educational Standard:


6. Second World War

Key concepts: appeasement politics, Tripartite Pact, Blitzkrieg, Holocaust, genocide, concentration camps, Antifascist Coalition, total war, casualties and mass executions in Croatia

Educational outcomes:

  • Describe the events of the second half of the 1930s;
  • Observe and explain the reasons/cause and describe the course of the Second World War, especially in Yugoslavia; evaluate Allied Conferences and political agreements and the impact of total war on civilian populations: especially atrocities committed for ideological, political, religious, race and national reasons, as well as the everyday life of people in the war (devastation, violence by occupying forces, food shortages) on examples from the national history;
  • Describe and exemplify events of the Holocaust;
  • Evaluate collaboration and resistance movements in Europe;
  • Describe the conditions and mode of creation of the Independent State of Croatia;
  • Evaluate the Ustaša regime and condemn its politics of terror against citizens (especially Jews, Serbs and Roma), racist laws and concentration camps – Jasenovac;
  • Describe the creation of the Federal State of Croatia within the Democratic Federative Yugoslavia;
  • Evaluate the role of the State Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia and its resolutions;
  • Describe the participation of Croats in the National Liberation (Partisan) Movement and explain the significance of the Antifascist struggle for Croatia and the integration of Istria, Zadar and Croatian islands into the Croatian territory;
  • Describe and condemn the mass executions of civilian populations at the end and after WWII (Bleiburg and the “Way of the Cross” of Croats and population exoduses), including the atrocities committed against the German and Italian national minorities;
  • Exemplify cultural achievements of the wartime.

Some sociologists who have dealt with the functions of education believe that schools are the most efficient way of transferring official state ideology. One of the functions of ideology, along that of legitimizing the political system, is to foster cohesion in the form of creating a “us vs. them” distinction. My colleagues Snježana Koren and Ana Tomljanović have written in recent years about how official politics in former Yugoslavia and today’s Croatia have used precisely history as a school subject as a means of nation-making and establishing a distance towards the Others. More famously, Nazi Germany had introduced its race ideology into all pores of society, including education. The most famous example is the book Der Giftpilz, where Jews are rendered literally as a poison to society. The same publisher had printed the journal Der Stürmer – the main printed medium of anti-Semitic propaganda – as early as 1924.

Shaping narratives “objectively”

Although textbooks adhere to the objectivity of the curriculum, the question remains how the narratives of Croatian-Serbian relations, the role of the Ustaša regime and the Antifascist movement are shaped. The narrative insisted upon for the period since 1991 is the proving of Croatian statehood since the Middle Ages, the “Bulwark of Christianity” in the times of the greatest Ottoman danger, Croatia’s belonging to the European cultural circle etc. In favouring this narrative, it was easy to oversee the omissions in historic sources or wrong interpretations of events. A recent example of this is the commemoration of the Zrinski and Frankopan noble families, where politicians used a conspiracy of Croatian and Hungarian noblemen against their ruler to support the narrative of rescuing Croatian independence. When representing the relations of Croats and Serbs, the narrative insisted upon is one of a history of conflicts and demanding justice for all inflicted wrongs.

History textbooks in Croatia have come a long way in the last 20 years in terms of both content and didactic methods. In my 1998 secondary school textbook, right about the time that the peaceful reintegration of the last occupied regions of Croatia was nearing its end, the Independent State of Croatia was presented as being “not so bad”, since it was allegedly an expression of the Croatian desire for independence. I do not recall having remembered a rationalization for the Ustaša crimes in the Jasenovac concentration camp and I was unable to find the textbook for this occasion. But, I clearly remember a photograph of “some people” at Bleiburg being on a left-hand page. Today’s textbooks cover everything that has been prescribed by the curriculum and mention Ustaša politics and crimes. They elaborate on Antifascism and the Liberation War. The problem part remains how these ideologies are included in the narratives of specific textbooks; I would dare to say that it is possible to arrange textbooks by Croatian publishers on an ideological scale, ranging from the liberal to the conservative.

Textbook examples

To exemplify, I will only need to use two examples of history textbooks for the 4th grade of Gymnasiums, comparing the parts on the Ustaša and the Antifascist movements.

The first example comes from the Koraci kroz vrijeme textbook, authored by Krešimir Erdelja and Igor Stojaković, published by Školska knjiga. When discussing the creation of the Independent State of Croatia, the authors elucidate the difference between a puppet state and an independent state and why it was important for the occupiers to have domestic collaborators. Then the totalitarian regime and dictatorship of Ante Pavelić are explained, as well as the structure of the Ustaša rule, the subordination of the regime to the occupiers and the loss of Croatian territory to the Treaties of Rome. The photograph of Alojzije Stepinac is followed with a critical reflection on his role during the war. The Ustaša terror is described and illustrated in two pages. Racial laws and the persecution of Serbs, Jews and Roma are explained, multiple concentration camps are mentioned, finishing with the problem of manipulations with the numbers of Jasenovac victims, mentioning both the attempts of Serb historians to enlarge the number of deaths and those of Croatian historians to reduce the number or deny the killings altogether.

Going on chronologically, we arrive to four detailed pages of information on “the resistance of the Antifascist Croatia”. This chapter explains the development of Antifascism reaching back to the Spanish Civil War, the role of the Communist underground, the foundation of Partisan detachments, guerrilla actions, territorial liberation and conflicts with the Četniks. It is stated explicitly that most fighters of the Partisan movement were not Communists, but that most of the commanding officers were and that it would be wrong to equate Partisans with Communists. It is also mentioned that the Communists had purposely avoided the major ideological subjects of toppling the bourgeoisie or effecting a socialist revolution in order to ensure a broader support and establish the Antifascist movement on the ideas of the renewal of Yugoslavia, but as an egalitarian and federal state. The biography of Josip Broz Tito is presented ranging from WWI to the single-party system modelled after the USSR.

Developing the subject further, the following chapter brings forth the subjects of organizing a political rule from the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia to the State Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia and the gradual domination of Communism within the National Liberation movement. It is commendable that the authors had used the opportunity to point out the emancipation of women through the example of the Women’s Antifascist Front and naming Kata Pejnović, the first woman representative in Croatia. At the end of the subject, Bleiburg is elaborated, mentioning the rage of the winners manifesting itself against those less responsible or innocent, but with a significant measure of critical analysis of the events. In the last sentence, it is mentioned that the liquidations of an undetermined number of “class enemies” had continued for years after the war.

The other example comes from the History 4 textbook, authored by Miroslav Akmadža, Mario Jareb and Zdenko Radelić, published by Alfa. The genesis of the Independent State of Croatia is described similarly to the previous example, but in less space. The character of the Ustaša rule is described in negative terms, with a smaller amount of space allotted to the mention of totalitarianism. The loss of Croatian territory is only mentioned in the caption following the photograph of Ante Pavelić and in a sentence on the Treaties of Rome. Among the materials following the text, there is the original text of Kvaternik’s announcement of the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia. The announcement ends with the salute Za dom spremni (“For home – ready!”), but the authors had neglected to comment on the salute’s actuality today.

Unlike the first example, here much more space is allotted to a map of the territory of the Independent State of Croatia and its state symbols – flag and coat of arms (checkerboard with first field white and the letter U). The dependence of the Independent State of Croatia on Germany and Italy is correctly commented upon. The terror of the Ustaša regime is described in two pages, out of which one half page is notably dedicated to the later Communist manipulations with the number of victims in Jasenovac. A comment is made on the “unbelievable number of 500,000 to 600,000 victims while later lists established the number of victims to be 59,000 (1964)”.

The efforts of historian Franjo Tuđman are especially mentioned, as he had tried to inform the public on the true figures, facing persecution by the Communist regime. More objective later researches into the figures are mentioned, but the numbers are not. The number is in the text itself and refers to “just over 72,000 people”. It is correctly stated that the Ustaša authorities had established Serbs as the main national enemies in 1941, but also that the regime had “continued to persecute many Serbs after that time as well, although to a lesser extent…”.

The (un)righteous – red fears

I find an additional problem of the title “The Ustaša terror” to be located in the final paragraph of the text, where the significance of the 106 Croatian Righteous Among Nations is explained. A Catholic priest is used as an individual example and Alojzije Stepinac is singled out in bold as one of the most important opponents of the Ustaša regime. His sermon condemning racism is mentioned, as well as his condemnation of Jasenovac as a shame of the Croatian people. An example of the clergy’s sacrifice is also mentioned later, when discussing the Holocaust in Europe. The organization of the Antifascist movement in Croatia is approached in a similar fashion as with the previous example.

Also notable is a specific chapter entitled “The character and goals of the Partisan movement”. Here, in the first several lines of text, a word stands out. In the sentence “They have also advocated atheism and harshly attacked religion and the Church, going so far as to murder priests and desecrate and destroy churches.” – the word atheism is not only set in bold, but also in red. It is the only red word in all the 41 pages used to cover the subject of WWII. The introduction to the lesson also mentions that the Communists had desired a bourgeois revolution and a purge of “domestic traitors”, but also that these plans had been laid by the wayside temporarily.

The authors go on to write that many Croats had joined the Partisan movement because it had promoted the idea of the establishment of a free Croatian state within the new federal Yugoslavia. Although the chapter is entitled “The resistance of Antifascist Croatia”, one and a half pages point out the leading role of Communists in Partisan warfare. Antifascism as a concept is left almost completely unmentioned all the way until the end of the lesson. This textbook dedicates more attention to the work of the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia and the State Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia, stating the importance of Vladimir Nazor and later Andrija Hebrang, also pointing t a source that mentions the borders of Croatia extending to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.

It is worth pointing out a special chapter entitled “A war marked with terrible crimes”, where the most space is dedicated to the Holocaust, but ending in something of a counter-thesis, a paragraph on the Allied crimes mentioning the bombing of Dresden, atomic bombings of Japan and numerous atrocities committed by the Red Army, concluding with the sentence: “Many of those affected were people with no ties to Germany or its crimes, but were considered a danger to the transformation of those countries into Communist states subjected to the USSR”.

The subject of war in Yugoslavia finishes with several poignant titles:

  • Croats late in the Second World War – from one totalitarianism to another;
  • The international recognition of Tito’s Yugoslavia;
  • The real intents of the Communists – announcement of reckoning with all “enemies of the people”;
  • The Lorković-Vokić plot – an attempt to salvage the Independent State of Croatia;
  • The dark side of victory – end of the war in Croatia and Yugoslavia and Partisan crimes.

Unused potential of Civic Education

We should turn our attention to linguistic choices and the emotions they invoke, for example the “Way of the Cross” and “the Holocaust”. The term “holocaust” comes from Greek holokauston meaning ‘burned entirely’, and considering the fact that it refers in both the Greek and the Roman mythology to a burnt offering to the gods, detractors of the term find it to be inappropriate because Jews were not sacrificed for a greater good. Another term used is Sho’ah, denoting in Hebrew a complete waste or catastrophe. Many Holocaust educators warn that we need to take heed of terms when teaching about the Holocaust so as not to revert to terms used by the Nazis, such as “the Final Solution”, “the Jewish Question” and the like. When a new term such as the Holocaust is introduced in the 8th grade of elementary school, it is a foreign word, an unknown to be learned which does not yet cause any changes in the Several lessons later, we come to the subject of the end of the war in Croatia and the Bleiburg episode of the Ustaša and other quislings. When casualties are mentioned in this lesson, the phrase “Way of the Cross” is always used. What kinds of emotions does this evoke in a country that is 87 per cent Catholic, according to the 2011 census? Criminals had killed an innocent and righteous Jesus Christ – or in this case, have the criminals killed innocent Croatian soldiers who wouldn’t have fought the war anymore? Who were the criminals? The Antifascists? The term “Way of the Cross” is used in the state curriculum and all textbooks.

When discussing the Holocaust and Antifascism, it is worth mentioning the new curriculum of Civic education. Civic education has been introduced into the educational system this year, albeit in a bureaucratic fashion, with the implementation itself remaining highly dubious or almost non-existent. The curriculum discusses in general terms intolerance, chauvinism and other human rights dimensions, but does not stress the values of Antifascism. Antifascism is merely mentioned as an important concept among two pages of other important concepts in the correlation of History and Civic education.

There is also an opportunity to link Antifascism and the active resistance of Jews in WWII, since 26 Jews had received the “Partisan Commemorative medal of 1941”. Adolf Steinberger, Pavle Pap, Robert Domani and Ilija Engel Andžić were declared People’s Heroes. And even though race laws in the independent State of Croatia made it extremely hard for them to cross over to the Partisan side, units of the National Liberation movement had also included 1,737 Jews, out of which 325 were killed.

Here, I must set forth a question on the moral and social responsibility of history teachers. Is a history teacher allowed to have an attitude? Are we allowed to hide beneath the cover of “objectivity”? Considering the rhetoric present in the Croatian public space recently and the growing presence of historical revisionism, the objectivity of historians is tantamount to silence. And it was precisely silence that was the greatest problem throughout the history of crime. When human beings are silent, the inhuman are free to take lives!

In conclusion, I too will reach for a quote by the clergy. Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This article was published thanks to co-funding from the Europe for Citizens Programme.