Thousands of far-right mourners are expected to gather in southern Austria on Saturday for a controversial commemoration of the killing of Croatian fascists and civilians by Yugoslav Partisans in 1945.
The event has been held annually in May for more than three decades to mark the killing of supporters of the Ustasa, the Croatian group that oversaw that country’s war-time fascist state, at the end of the second world war.
In previous years, the commemoration in Austria’s Bleiburg drew tens of thousands of participants, some of them wearing Ustasa insignia and engaging in anti-Serb and anti-communist hate speech.
Sven Milekic, a Zagreb-based journalist at Balkan Insight, has reported on the Bleiburg commemoration in the past.
“There are people who go there simply for emotional reasons, probably having had relatives killed there,” he told Al Jazeera. “But it was also meant to rehabilitate the [image of the] Ustasa regime.”
Organised by a Croatian organisation, the annual event is officially endorsed by the Croatian parliament. In 2012, the parliament revoked support, but it was reinstated in 2016.
Bleiburg commemorations also draw the participation of high-ranking clergymen in Croatia’s Catholic Church as well as Croatian politicians. The event includes sermons and speeches.
“Of course, since the late 1980s and early ’90s, it has been used as something to challenge the previous dominant narratives on World War II, especially about who were the victims,” Milekic said.
In Austria, however, condemnation of the event has been energised by growing anger over the newly formed government, which includes the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) as a junior coalition partner.
In December 2017, the right-wing Austrian People’s Party (OVP) struck a deal with the FPO to create a coalition.
Struggle over historical narrative
During the second world war, the Ustasa killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Roma, Jews and political opponents, placing many in concentration camps such as Croatia’s infamous Jasenovac.
In Jasenovac alone, upwards of 80,000 people are estimated to have been killed.
In May 1945, a group of civilians and soldiers from the Ustasa-controlled Independent State of Croatia’s (NDH) military reached Bleiburg and surrendered to the British Army and Yugoslav Partisans.
Serbian far-right Chetnik fighters and Nazi-allied Slovenian forces were also captured.
The captives were transported back to Yugoslavia, but many were killed in transit. Estimates of the exact number of those killed are fiercely debated and vary widely by tens of thousands.
Although the number of NDH loyalists killed pales in comparison to the number of the NDH’s victims, the incident is part of a broader struggle over the historical narrative on Croatia’s involvement in the Holocaust.
“The narrative they show is that Croats were persecuted from the 1940s until the 1990s, when they won [independence],” Milekic explained.
“It’s a narrative that’s highly disturbing and coming from a lot of politicians, not only those on the far right.”
He added: “They want to say Jasenovac and Bleiburg were the same, that everyone had victims.”
Controversy in Austria
This year’s commemoration has prompted far-reaching condemnation in Austria, including criticism levelled by members of the ruling OVP party.
Writing on Twitter, Othmar Karas, an OVP member of the European Parliament (MEP), decried the Bleiburg event as the “misuse of remembrance”.
Josef Weidenholzer, an MEP from the Social Democratic Party of Austria, joined the condemnation on Twitter, writing: “No to the celebration of Croatian fascist Ustasa on Austrian soil. It harms the reputation of Austria and Europe.”
The Austrian Catholic Church in Carinthia, the region where the site of the event is located, has also distanced itself from “all right-wing extremist and fascist rallies in the context of the Bleiburg remembrance of the dead”, it wrote on Twitter.
"The Catholic Church in Carinthia strongly and vigorously distances itself from all right-wing extremist and fascist rallies in the context of the #Bleiburg remembrance of the dead." @Kathpress_Wien https://t.co/MQcHT8SjzG
— Andreas Wiedenhoff (@AndreasWiede) April 24, 2018
Austrian Chancellor Sebastien Kurz has defended the government’s approach to the event, arguing it is not legally entitled to prevent the commemoration from taking place.
“The event taking place is an event organised by the [Croatian] Church,” Kurz recently told reporters, as noted by The Local, an English-language Austrian news outlet.
“That means it is neither the decision of the federal government nor of [Carinthia’s] state premier and his administration whether this event takes place.”
Government spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal echoed Kurz’s statements, noting authorities will monitor the event for potential legal violations.
“Should any violation of the law occur, the authorities will pursue and fully investigate them,” he told Al Jazeera, alluding to the 1947 Prohibition Act, which bars the use of Nazi propaganda, symbols or slogans.
Bernhard Weidinger, a researcher at the Documentation Archive of Austrian Resistance, described the commemoration as the merger of two events.
“One is the commemoration itself … to mourn the victims, and at the same time, it’s a political gathering that attracts Croatian fascists,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It’s one of the largest neo-fascist gatherings in Europe.”
Weidinger added: “One reason it’s so attractive for them is that they are allowed to do things here they can’t do in Croatia, such as displaying fascist symbols and performing fascist salutes.”
Explaining that members of Austria’s FPO have attended the ceremonies in the past, he concluded: “You could say there’s increased significance due to the fact that [FPO is] now in the government.”