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Bleiburg repatriations (see terminology) is a term encompassing events that took place after the end of World War II in Europe, when tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians associated with the Axis fleeing Yugoslavia were repatriated to that country. Thousands of them were then murdered, and most were subjected to abuse and long marches to forced labor camps. The events are named after the Carinthian border town of Bleiburg from which the main repatriation was conducted.
On 3 May 1945, the government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a fascist puppet state established in the Croatian and Bosnian parts of occupied Yugoslavia, decided to flee to Austria and have the remnants of the Croatian Armed Forces (HOS) move there as soon as possible in order to surrender to the British Army. Subsequently the Poglavnik (leader) of the NDH ordered the armed forces not to surrender to the Partisans but retreat to Austria over the former border of the Third Reich. The day after this order was issued, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers, marking the formal end of World War II in Europe. In the week after the surrender, Axis forces in Yugoslavia repeatedly refused to surrender and even attacked Partisan positions in order to avoid encirclement and keep escape routes open. When one of the columns of fleeing HOS troops intermingled with civilians approached near the town of Bleiburg, the British refused to accept the surrender of the HOS troops and directed them to surrender to the Partisans.
The various columns were, for the most part, made up of remnants of the military of the NDH, but also some remnants of the Chetnik movement and the Slovene Home Guard. The columns also included civilians. The number of casualties that occurred at the time of the repatriations and in the weeks that followed has proven difficult to ascertain, with exact numbers being a subject of much debate, however, it is clear that Yugoslav Partisan troops killed most of the collaborationist troops they captured at the end of the war in an "act of mass terror and brutal political surgery" comparable to that carried out by the Ustaše and Chetniks earlier in the war. The aftermath of the Bleiburg repatriations was a taboo topic in Yugoslavia, and the public and official commemoration of the victims would only begin several decades after the events.
Generic terms such as Bleiburg tragedy, Bleiburg crime, Bleiburg case and also simply Bleiburg are used in Croatia in reference to the entirety of the events. A massacre at Bleiburg itself, the Bleiburg massacre, is particularly discussed in context of the Operation Keelhaul.[not in citation given] The term Way of the Cross (Croatian: Križni put) is also common, for the events after the repatriation itself. The latter are also often described as "death marches".
Following the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, the Axis-appointed Ustaše government in Zagreb headed the Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). The NDH had a racist persecution policy for the Serbs, Jews, Roma:
For the rest - Serbs, Jews and Gypsies - we have three million bullets. We will kill one part of the Serbs, the other part we will resettle, and the remaining ones we will convert to the Catholic faith, and thus make Croats of them.
This was manifested in the atrocities at Jasenovac concentration camp and elsewhere. They similarly targeted anti-fascist Croats and others. The Ustashe regime was responsible for the egregious crimes committed against the civilian population, particularly the systematically targeted Serbs and Jews. The scale of the atrocities shocked even German and Italian occupying forces, noted in the reports of Wehrmacht General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau and the Gestapo to their superiors.
The communist-led Partisan movement grew rapidly, partly as a result of these atrocities. They became the main fighting force against the Axis occupation in terms of numbers involved and campaigns undertaken.
The Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia (HOS) were reorganized in November 1944 to combine the units of the Ustaše and Croatian Home Guard.
By 1945, the Yugoslav Partisans had become the Yugoslav People's Army, numbering over 800,000 men organized into five field armies, and were in pursuit of the remnant of the defeated German and NDH forces.
By the end of March 1945, it was obvious to the HOS command that, although the front remained intact, they would eventually be defeated by sheer lack of ammunition. For this reason, the decision was made to start a retreat. They would retreat into Austria in order to surrender to the British forces advancing north from Italy. A large-scale exodus of people was planned and organized by the authorities of the NDH despite the fact there was no strategic benefit to it: there simply was no viable destination for all the population to move to.
Among the remnants of the HOS were numerous Ustaše dignitaries along with the ruling fascist elite, but also a number of civilians, inextricably mixed with the others in the confusion of the retreat. To the pursuing Partisans, the appearance was that the civilians within the retreating column were for the most part collaborationists, as they abandoned their homes and businesses to flee with Ustaše leaders. While the NDH leadership may have organized a civilian retreat in order to bolster their claim of how the Yugoslav Communists were after innocent civilian victims, the sheer number of civilians slowed down the retreat, made the surrender unfeasible to the Allies, and ultimately led to the belief that they were nothing more than a human shield to the Ustashe.
On 6 May 1945, the collaborationist government of the Independent State of Croatia fled Zagreb, and arrived to a location near Klagenfurt, Austria on 7 May. Ante Pavelić, the Poglavnik (de facto prime minister and leader) of the NDH, and the military leadership left Zaprešić on the evening of 7 May, intending to join the rest of his regime in Austria.
On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers, marking the formal end of World War II in Europe. The German Instrument of Surrender applied to German Wehrmacht forces in Yugoslavia as well as those armed forces under German command such as the armed forces of the puppet Independent State of Croatia. This would ordinarily have meant that they too had to cease their activities on 8 May and stay where they found themselves. The Ustaše military, however, came under the command of Ante Pavelić, because as they were about to surrender, General Alexander Löhr, Commander-in-Chief of Army Group E handed command of the Croatian forces to Pavelić on 8 May.
Pavelić issued an order from Rogaška Slatina for his troops not to surrender to the Partisans, but to escape to Austria, in order to implement the Croatian government's decision of 3 May to flee to Austria.
On 8 May, Zagreb was liberated by the Partisan 1st and 2nd Army, with relatively few skirmishes and casualties: the 1st Army reported to the General Staff how they killed 10,901 enemy soldiers and captured 15,892 in the taking of Zagreb. The same day, the headquarters of the 51st Vojvodina Division of the Yugoslav 3rd Army issued a dispatch ordering its units to consider all enemy officers and soldiers who continue resistance after midnight that day, and who are not part of units who had an organized surrender, as persons who do not have the status of prisoners of war, and to treat them as bandits.
The German surrender obstructed the progress of the columns fleeing Croatia northwards. In addition, as soon as 9 May, Partisan forces had moved into Maribor which eliminated that escape route. They also took control of Celje on 10 May, but with a force insufficient to halt the columns that were escaping towards Dravograd.
On 11–12 May, generals Vjekoslav Servatzy and Vladimir Metikoš entered discussions with Bulgarian generals to allow the Croatian column to pass into Austria. The discussions were inconclusive, but the Bulgarians suggested they head in the direction of Prevalje and Bleiburg, which the column did. Bleiburg was located some four kilometres northwest of the border of Nazi Germany and Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, today the border of Austria and Slovenia. Parts of the columns were captured by the Partisans - on 12 May, Politika carried Yugoslav Army reports of 15,700 prisoners of war in the areas of Maribor, Zidani Most, Bled, Jesenice and elsewhere. On 13 May, they reported over 40,000 prisoners taken near Rogaška Slatina, Celje, Velenje, Šoštanj, Dravograd, and elsewhere.
The Russian Cossacks of XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, stationed in Yugoslavia since 1943, were also part of the column, and they are estimated to have numbered in thousands. Tolstoy quotes a General Alexander telegram, sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, noting "50,000 Cossacks including 11,000 women, children and old men".
Shortly after midnight on 13 May 1945 the British V Corps Headquarters in Austria estimated that there were "approximately 30,000 POWs, surrendered personnel, and refugees in the Corps area. A further 60,000 reported moving north to Austria from Yugoslavia".[dubious ]
As late as 14 May 1945, a week after the war in Europe had ended, military conflicts between the Partisans and the retreating collaborationist forces continued across Slovenia and in their time in Austria. Of these, the biggest confrontation was the Battle of Poljana on 14 May, which ended in a Partisan victory and caused the retreating column to change direction, at a cost of several hundred casualties.
The NDH troops began surrendering to the British on 15 May. The British negotiator was Brigadier Patrick T. D. Scott of the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade. Ustaše infantry generals Ivo Herenčić of the V Ustasha Corps, and a translator, Professor/Colonel Danijel Crljen of the Ustasha propaganda office, were involved in the surrender negotiations. In the afternoon of the same day, the Croatian forces started raising white flags in surrender. The Partisan representatives included Major-General Milan Basta, the political commissar of the 51st Vojvodina Division, and Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Kovačič Efenka of the 14th Attack Division.
NDH military representatives attempted to negotiate a surrender to the British, but were directed to surrender to the Yugoslav military, in accordance with Article 20 of the Hague Convention: After the conclusion of peace, the repatriation of prisoners of war shall be carried out as quickly as possible. General Brian Robertson gave British troops the order, "All surrendered personnel of established Yugoslav nationality who were serving in German Forces should be disarmed and handed over to Yugoslav forces".
The Independent State of Croatia had joined the Geneva Convention on 20 January 1943, and was recognised by it as a "belligerent", which nominally guaranteed the Yugoslav Axis soldiers prisoner of war status upon their surrender and repatriation, as opposed to that of civilians.
Historians examining the events at the Bleiburg field have had to rely only on a handful of witness accounts, most of which were not published until many decades after the events:
The Partisan forces of the 51st Vojvodina Brigade of the Yugoslav 3rd Army and the 12th Proletarian (Slavonian) Division had established tactical control over the field of Bleiburg. Milan Basta set an ultimatum to the NDH negotiators - unconditional surrender within one hour, or else they would attack them and not uphold the norms of the international conventions of the Red Cross. Basta's ultimatum was extended for another fifteen minutes, after which point a general surrender started.
The exact events after the expiry of the ultimatum are the source of the original controversy regarding the repatriations. Teodor Pavić wrote that the Partisan forces started strafing the crowd in the Bleiburg field with machine guns and shooting them individually. Petar S. Brajović described a fifteen- to twenty-minute machine gun and mortar fire on the column. Franci Strle wrote that the 3rd Battalion of the 11th "Zidanšek" Brigade and the 3rd Battalion of the 1st "Tomšič" Brigade were involved in the fire, and their records noted at least 16 deaths, mainly from the machine gun fire. Zvonimir Zorić also wrote of a massacre in the Bleiburg field.
The notion of a massacre at the Bleiburg field was promoted by the leftovers of the Ustasha in exile. Croatian-American historian Jozo Tomasevich dismisses the notion as part of this propaganda. Croatian historian Martina Grahek Ravančić who is known for her research of the topic of Bleiburg wrote that the complete extent of the casualties sustained by the NDH column at Bleiburg on the day of the surrender was not described in any available sources, but she is certain that a short Yugoslav Army attack on the column had happened and that there were casualties, but their number is unknown.
In addition, Franci Strle and Milan Basta claimed that as the Ustasha forces tried to make a breakthrough at the north side of the valley, three British tanks were engaged to stop them, reportedly causing numerous casualties as well. On the other hand, only three Croatian testimonies supported the notion that there were British tanks in the proximity of the column, but without any mention of such a grave incident. These kinds of unconfirmed reports of British military involvement, coupled with the actually legitimate act of repatriation, were subsequently exaggerated by Ustasha supporters in a variety of biased published works to accuse the British of war crimes.
Later on the same day, NDH generals Slavko Štancer, Vjekoslav Servatzy and Vladimir Metikoš oversaw the surrender to the Partisans. British army reports say Štancer had previously been captured by the Partisans when they strayed from the column, seeking the British.
The surrender continued for several days and at various locations; it took until 21 May for Tito to order the Partisans to withdraw from Carinthia.
Several isolated armed incidents and repatriations happened at and after this time elsewhere in Carinthia.
The Yugoslav intelligence officer Simo Dubajić negotiated with the British forces about the organization of surrender and repatriation elsewhere along the Yugoslav-Austrian border. At a separate location near the Carinthian village of Rosenbach, several thousand prisoners were daily repatriated to Yugoslavia, including a lot of members of the Slovene Home Guard. These repatriations covered some 32,000 people and were ceased by the British on 1 June.
On the evening of 20 May, a group of NDH troops appeared near Ferlach, located approximately 40 km (25 mi) west of Bleiburg, and attempted to set terms for their passage west. "As the Ustaše did not want to surrender" reads the operational diary of the 2nd Battalion of the Partisan 11th Dalmatian Assault Brigade, "we attacked them at 21:00hrs. On this occasion we took 24 Ustaše soldiers and one officer".
After the immediate repatriation of the soldiers at Bleiburg was complete, the Yugoslav 3rd Army received new orders from Josip Broz Tito on 17–18 May, while the rear Yugoslav forces were left in charge in transporting the prisoners back. Some of the NDH troops escaped capture at Bleiburg, but a large amount of prisoners were sent on a forced march back through Slovenia, where some of them were immediately subjected to a number of summary executions, and were disposed of either in former tank trenches or in natural pits. Most captives survived, but were harassed and sent to labor camps, and after a while released, but stripped of human rights.
Captured military personnel in the columns were subjected to forced marches over long distances, through Croatia and Serbia, under inhumane conditions.
The repatriated from the Rosenbach location were transferred from the Austrian border to an internment camp at Šentvid, Ljubljana, and then moved to the area of Kočevje. Some of the interned at Šentvid also died at Kucja Valley. Slovenian historian Mitja Ferenc wrote that these repatriations started on 17 May, and liquidations of Croatians lasted until 26 May. After that, the Serbs were shot, and then the Slovenes, in a process that lasted up to 5 June. In 2006, Dubajić published a book where he talked about the massacre of Croatian soldiers at Kočevski Rog.
In 2007, the Commission on Concealed Mass Graves in Slovenia analyzed the Tezno trench and found human remains at a length of 740 metres; the exact number of victims could not be determined, but Mitja Ferenc estimated a minimum of 15,000 casualties. In 2009, the Barbara Pit was uncovered in Slovenia, holding 726 human remains. The same year, more pits were uncovered on two locations near the Croatian-Slovenian border, one near the village of Harmica and the other near Gornji Hrašćan, estimated to hold a total of around 4,500 bodies.
Regarding Partisan treatment of Ustaše prisoners, Croatian historian Jozo Tomasevich notes:
Considering the nature of the struggle among the various competing forces during the Second World War in Yugoslavia, the Ustaša atrocities against the Serbian population in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia and against all pro-Partisan Croats, the fact that the Ustaše adhered to the Nazis to the bitter end, and finally the fact that the Ustaša leadership wanted to put its troops at the disposal of the Western Allies for possible use against Yugoslav and other Communists, no mercy on the part of the Yugoslav Partisans toward these troops could have been expected.
Throughout the war, the status of prisoners from the regular army of the NDH, the Croatian Home Guard (domobrani), was relatively benign – Partisans would have merely ridiculed the captured domobran soldiers and then released them to their homes if they didn't want to join the uprising. However, on 13 January 1945 Ante Pavelić ordered for the domobrani to be merged with the Ustaša military, which put the entire force of est. 280,000 men at risk of death if captured.
The bulk of the NDH leadership escaped as early as 8 May, fleeing to Western Europe and Latin America, including Ante Pavelić, and the Yugoslav Partisans were only able to capture a small part of the senior military officers.
The Yugoslav Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, repeatedly issued calls for surrender to the retreating columns. Following the surrender on 8 May of all German forces and their subordinate commands (which legally included all military formations of the NDH), Tito issued an address via Radio Belgrade on 9 May calling upon all armed collaborators to surrender, threatening "merciless response" from the people and the army should they refuse to do so. On 14 May Tito dispatched a telegram to the supreme headquarters Slovene Partisan Army prohibiting "in the sternest language" the execution of prisoners of war and commanding the transfer of the possible suspects to a military court.
You are to undertake the most energetic measures to prevent at all costs any killing of prisoners of war and of those arrested by military units, state organs or individuals. If there are persons among the prisoners and arrestees who should answer for war crimes, they are to be handed over immediately to military courts pending due process.
Tito's actual intentions and responsibility for the actions of the Partisans at the end of the war are brought in question by his detractors, pointing to the fact that his direct subordinates included Kosta Nađ, the commander of the Yugoslav 3rd Army that spearheaded the liberation of the Yugoslav northwest, as well as Aleksandar Ranković who led OZNA, the Yugoslav secret police that organized mass executions of enemy combatants and internment as well as forced labor camps. In 1944, Tito had also founded an army unit called KNOJ, Korpus narodne odbrane Jugoslavije (People's Defence Force of Yugoslavia), whose explicit assignment was to "liquidate Chetnik, Ustaša, White Guard and other anti-people gangs".
Unlike many other operations of the Yugoslav Partisans, which have been described in the minutest detail, very little has been written on operations in Slovenia near the Austrian border during the week of 7–15 May 1945.
The events of the Bleiburg tragedy, much like other information about the Independent State of Croatia, were censored in Yugoslavia. The location of Bleiburg (outside of Yugoslav borders) became the main location where the victims of the entire process could commemorate their losses. The first Croats to return to the fields of Bleiburg came in secret in 1952, while regular annual visits began in the early 1960s.
The first Croatian religious leader to come to the site was Cardinal Franjo Šeper, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who paid a visit in 1977.
The leftovers of the Ustaše in the Croatian diaspora used Bleiburg as their central myth and the focus of collective resentment. The number of victims were artificially inflated, just like those at Jasenovac in Yugoslavia, both of which contributed to an extreme polarization and promotion of hateful rhetoric devoid of historiographic value. Bleiburg was used as a tool for historical revisionism. David Bruce MacDonald wrote:
Inflating the numbers of dead at Bleiburg had several layers of significance. Firstly, it gave the Croats their own massacre at the hands of Serbs and/or Communists, which allowed them to counter the Serbs' Jasenovac genocide with one of their own. Secondly, it allowed Croats to distance themselves from the Serbs and the Communist regime that had carried out the massacres. They could portray Croatia as an unwilling participant in the SFRY, more a prisoner than a constituent nation. Thirdly, by suffering such a massacre, the Croats underwent their own 'way of Cross', as it was frequently dubbed in Croatian writings.
The 1986 book The Minister and the Massacres by Nikolai Tolstoy further publicized the issue, but it made various dubious claims about the repatriations that were roundly criticized by various historians and authors, although it also brought more attention to the more general matters of the persistent distortion of the story, and to the issue of historians trusting contemporary records and purported eyewitness.
The modern-day consensus is that the number of deaths of the forced marches and in death camps rose to tens of thousands, and that it also included civilians. The exact number of those who met their death in Bleiburg is impossible to ascertain accurately. Generally, there are three approaches to the number of victims:
The historiographic investigations of scientists include:
By contrast with Jasenovac, however, most impartial historians converged on much lower number of dead, suggesting that Bleiburg was by no means as significant as the largest death-camp in Yugoslavia. ... Jasper Ridley attempts a more precise figure, although there is no way of knowing for sure. ... Of these, he noted that the Allies agreed to surrender 23,000 to the Partisans between 24 and 29 May - a mixture of Slovenians, Serbians, and Croatians. Reports from the time according to Ridley, indicate that not all the 23,000 were killed.
Estimates are also made based on archeological evidence from mass graves found in Slovenia. Investigations in potential mass grave locations that the Slovenian Commission on Concealed Mass Graves is investigating is around 581, as of October 2009[update].
Various authors base their claims on demographic calculations, accumulated eyewitness accounts, etc.:
With the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, the interest in revealing information about the Bleiburg repatriations grew, and it continued to be abused for revisionist purposes in the Croatian mainstream. In May 1994, an International Symposium for Investigation of the Bleiburg Tragedy was held in Zagreb, Croatia and Bleiburg, Austria, where several authors discussed the deaths at Bleiburg and estimated them to be in the tens of thousands. This was later published by Školska knjiga as Od Bleiburga do naših dana. The Republic of Croatia, by an act of the Croatian Parliament in 1995, started to officially commemorate the victims at Bleiburg, at a time when Franjo Tuđman and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) were in power.
More recently, as commemorative events became less of a political event, the radicals were largely marginalized and the focus of the commemoration turned to the actual victims of the repatriations. Many top-ranking politicians and Catholic and Muslim clerics visit the Bleiburg site annually. Prime Minister Ivica Račan visited the site in 2002. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader visited the site in 2004. For the 60th anniversary commemorations in 2005 a large crowd was in attendance, with speeches by Croatian parliamentary speaker Vladimir Šeks and head of the Muslim Community of Croatia, Mufti Ševko Omerbašić. In 2007, a new altar was installed at the site and was inaugurated by Cardinal Josip Bozanić before some 10,000 people.
In 2007, the Slovene government announced plans to make the mass grave site in Tezno a memorial park and cemetery. In 2008, the Croatian and Slovenian governments reached an agreement of cooperation on organizing military cemeteries, similar to earlier agreements Slovenia reached with Italy and Germany.
The current Prime Minister of Croatia, Zoran Milanović, visited Bleiburg in September 2008. He stated that all victims had the right for a fair trial, and that his motive was human, not political. In 2009, Croatian President Stjepan Mesić criticized the Parliament's representatives who did not react to people in the crowd displaying Ustaše markings, which are illegal in Croatia, at a state-sponsored event. In 2010, Croatian president Ivo Josipović said that he wouldn't attend the yearly May commemoration as long as Ustaše iconography was present, although he did make a separate visit to the Bleiburg memorial in June of that year, in addition to his visit to the Tezno memorial.
In 2012, the Croatian Parliament decided to revoke its funding for the May commemoration in Bleiburg. Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanović said the government won't fund what they see is a political event in Bleiburg that concentrates on the NDH rather than the victims. In 2012, the Croatian leadership laid wreaths only at the monument in Tezno.
The surrender at Bleiburg was the subject of a 1999 film Četverored, based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Ivan Aralica. Croatian-Australian painter Charles Billich has painted a series of works on the event.
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