Thousands of people have gathered in southern Austria to commemorate Croatian fascists and civilians who were killed at the tail end of World War II.
Held annually for more than three decades, Saturday’s event in Bleiburg was held to mourn the killing of civilians and members of the Croatian Ustasa, a fascist group that controlled the Nazi-aligned Independent Croatian State (NDH), and others in May 1945 by Yugoslav Partisans.
Estimates of the total number of people killed vary widely, with some reaching the tens of thousands.
The memorial, which included a religious ceremony and political speeches, was attended by Croatian politicians and clergymen as well as Bosnian Croat political figures, according to German-language and Croatian media reports.
Upwards of 100 people staged a counter-protest against the event. Police were deployed in large numbers.
In a statement provided to Al Jazeera by email, the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DOW), a group that monitors fascist and neo-fascist activity, described the Bleiburg commemoration as the “biggest annual neo-fascist reunion in Europe”.
Having drawn as many as 30,000 participants in the past, Rudolf Edlinger, president of the DOW, said: “The Bleiburg commemoration glorifies the Croatian Nazi-collaborationist regime.”
Edlinger added: “It goes without saying that we have no objection to a peaceful memorial for the dead. However, the event in [Bleiburg] has turned into a fascist gathering of huge dimensions.”
Vjeran Pavlakovic, a professor at the University of Rijeka, explained that the Bleiburg commemorations started during the communist rule of Josip Broz Tito in former Yugoslavia.
“Bleiburg was for many years the gathering place of diaspora Croats who were opposed to the Tito regime,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It was an attempt to draw attention to the situation of Croats in communist Yugoslavia,” he said, adding that former Ustasa organised the relatively small event with “efforts to justify and whitewash [the] fascist collaborationist state”.
Under the NDH, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Roma, Jews and anti-fascists were killed by Ustasa. In the Jasenovac concentration camp alone, more than 80,000 people perished.
Since Croatia declared its independence in 1991, the event has grown in both size and scope, gradually obtaining a veneer of mainstream legitimacy owing to the Croatian parliament’s sponsorship of the commemoration in 1995.
Although parliament revoked its sponsorship of the event in 2012, it was reinstated in 2016.
In the past, the commemoration, which has grown to bring out tens of thousands of people, drew attention over participants’ use of fascist slogans and symbols, Pavlakovic said.
He explained that the event has “layers”, explaining that it includes an official religious mass and relatively moderate right-wing political speeches and is attended by participants who make the journey for religious or familial reasons, as well as “radical right-wing supporters or pro-Ustasa groups”.
In the lead-up to the Bleiburg commemoration this year, controversy erupted in Austria, with critics arguing that it should not be permitted to take place.
The criticism has also overlapped with anger about the makeup of Austria’s current government, which includes the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) as a junior coalition partner.
Austrian legislators and members of the European Parliament, including some from the ruling Austrian People’s Party (OVP), decried the commemoration.
In a Twitter post, Othmar Karas, an OVP member of the European Parliament (MEP), described the event as the “misuse of remembrance”.
The Social Democratic Party of Austria’s MEP Josef Weidenholzer also spoke out on Twitter. “No to the celebration of Croatian fascist Ustasa on Austrian soil. It harms the reputation of Austria and Europe,” he wrote.
Photos posted on social media showed that some attendees wore pro-Ustasa insignia.
— Valerie Hopkins (@VALERIEin140) May 12, 2018
Good morning from Unter Loibach graveyard. The official #Bleiburg commemoration is about to begin. There are pilgrims, a heavy police & private security presence, plus a chopper flying overhead. MPs from Croatia & Bosnia are here. Some 159-200 gathering for ounterprotest 3km away pic.twitter.com/SFvKehGMYX
— Valerie Hopkins (@VALERIEin140) May 12, 2018
Writing on Twitter in German, one reporter noted the presence of several badges and symbols of the Croatian Defence Forces (HOS), the far-right paramilitary group that fought in Croatia and Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars.
HOS-Abzeichen auf der Veranstaltung allgegenwärtig, obwohl eigentlich nicht zugelassen. pic.twitter.com/tknQgQ5knb
— Danijel Majić (@DanijelMajic) May 12, 2018
Speaking to Al Jazeera by email ahead of Saturday’s Bleiburg commemoration, Austrian government spokesperson Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal said authorities were not legally authorised to block the event.
He added that authorities would monitor it closely for potential violations of the law, which prohibits Nazi symbols and salutes.
“As stated [previously] by the Austrian government, the clerical event is organised by a private association on private premises and can therefore not be prohibited by the government,” Launsky-Tieffenthal said.