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He Understood Evil

1941: Godina koja se vraća [1941: The Year That Keeps Returning]

by Slavko Goldstein
Zagreb: Novi Liber, 494 pp., HRK180.00
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Ranko Šuvar/Cropix
Slavko Goldstein in his office at the publishing company Novi Liber, Zagreb, Croatia, 2006

I came across this remarkable book, which has not yet been translated into English, while writing recently about the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It deserves attention, because it explains, perhaps better than any book I know of, how different ethnic groups, who lived side by side in peace for centuries, were made to turn against one another and become each other’s executioners in that unhappy country. Written by the distinguished Croatian journalist and publisher Slavko Goldstein, whose father was killed by the Ustashas, the pro-fascist nationalists who were brought to power in Croatia by the Nazis when they occupied Yugoslavia in 1941, the book is a memoir of that fateful year, a meticulous historical recreation, and the cautionary account of the events that led to the deaths of some 32,000 Jews, 40,000 Gypsies, and 350,000 Serbs between 1941 and 1945.

The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,” Shelley wrote in A Defense of Poetry. Unlike many intellectuals who tend to rationalize and minimize the disagreeable chapters in their nation’s history, Goldstein not only wishes to tell the truth, but to put himself in the shoes of various victims and even a few of their executioners. That makes 1941 a most unusual book, a story of one family’s tragedy that is also a careful work of history that, because of its interest in many individual human beings and their parallel stories, often reads like a novel.

The tale Goldstein tells starts in April 1941, after an uprising on March 27 in Belgrade led to a military coup. The army overthrew the Yugoslav coalition government that had been forced to join the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers two days earlier; and the new government, consisting of Serbian officers, aware that the Nazis were making preparations to invade the country, tried to make itself more representative by also including some Croatian politicians. It was too late. Hitler declared that the uprising in Yugoslavia had drastically changed the entire political situation. Originally, he wanted to leave Yugoslavia alone, so that he could attack Russia. Now, he said, Yugoslavia must be regarded as an enemy and dismembered as quickly as possible.

The Germans encouraged Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria, which had long-standing claims on Yugoslav territory, to participate in the invasion by extending to them the opportunity of annexing the Adriatic coast, Banat, and Macedonia respectively. Likewise, a promise of political independence was extended to the Croats. Days later, on April 6, Yugoslavia was attacked by Germany without a declaration of war, Belgrade was bombed, and the country was quickly occupied and partitioned. Croatia proclaimed its independence on April 10 and German troops were greeted as liberators when they entered Zagreb, the Croatian capital. For the Croats, after more than eight centuries of subordination to other powers, having their own state for the first time was a happy occasion.

Goldstein, born in 1928, was thirteen years old and living with his father, mother, and younger brother in Karlovac, a beautiful old city situated some fifty miles southwest of Zagreb, where his father owned a bookstore known as a meeting place of socialists, Communists, liberals, union workers, and other antifascists. There they bought, or borrowed from a lending library, books by such progressive writers as Gorky, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Thomas Mann, and Berthold Brecht. Goldstein recalls the day his childhood ended. On April 13, Catholic Easter, with the city already occupied by the Nazis, he recalls telling his father that he was going out to play with a friend. The father seemed surprised. There were German tanks and soldiers in the streets. After a bit of wavering, he gave his permission.

When the son came home for lunch, his father was gone, never to return again. He was rounded up with some twenty other well-known local Serbs, Communists, and Yugoslav sympathizers, the very day the future leader of the Independent State of Croatia, Ante Pavelić, returned from exile in Italy and passed through Karlovac on his way to Zagreb with two hundred Ustasha immigrants in Italian uniforms, many of whom had been interned for six years in various camps in Sicily, Sardinia, and the Lipari islands, and who were on their way to serve as the ruling elite of the new Nazi puppet state.

Most of the men arrested with Goldstein’s father were soon released, but for reasons that are not clear to this day, he was kept in custody with a few other “unreliables,” most likely because he was a known leftist. The new regime at the time didn’t yet have a clear Jewish policy. The main enemies of the Ustasha movement were the Serbs and the Belgrade regime. Furthermore, many of the nationalist leaders of the earlier generation in Croatia, the so-called Frankists, were Jewish. It was only in the 1930s, under the influence of Hitler’s ideas, that the Ustasha ideology, a blend of fascist and Nazi doctrines, became more and more anti-Semitic. Of course, anyone who was Jewish and had seen what had happened in Germany had to be worried.

What they did not know, and could not possibly imagine, is that it would be the local nationalists, rather than the Nazis, who would be their executioners. So they waited, expecting that the state would not harm peaceful citizens. This was true of local Serbs too. Not many of them were aware that Dr. Mladen Lorković, one of the future Ustasha ministers, had said that the

Croatian state cannot exist if 1,800,000 Serbs live in it, if at the same time we have a strong Serbian state behind our backs…. We, therefore, must strive to make the Serbs vanish from our midst.

Supposedly, even Himmler was horrified when he heard from one of Pavelić’s emissaries in 1941 that they intended to kill two million Serbs.

The most disheartening aspect of the early chapters of Goldstein’s book is how much time it takes for future victims under such a regime to realize that they are doomed, and how quickly others, who may have barely given them a thought a week before, become their eager persecutors. Since many of those in Karlovac who participated in the atrocities were either Goldstein’s neighbors, school friends, or known to him as prominent citizens, he’s able to tell us in considerable detail how they behaved during and after the war.

It’s a story made even more depressing by its close resemblance to the events in Croatia and Bosnia not long ago. A plan concocted by a small group of extreme nationalist intellectuals to undo the ethnic and religious mix of the population, which the wars with the Ottoman Empire and expulsions of peoples over the centuries had produced, was swiftly enacted. One day you were a citizen of Yugoslavia with full rights, a nd the next day you were told that unless you were a member of the Croatian nation by origin and blood, you did not exist legally. When it comes to this kind of evil, most human beings are innocents. Who can possibly believe that the prospect of having complete power over someone who has none would be such an enticement to people from all walks of life? Who can accept the idea that their school friends will turn into killers the first chance they get?

Goldstein describes the first political killings in Karlovac, of three prominent Serbian citizens who were taken from their homes on May 5, 1941, by five young men and shot in a nearby forest. The secret order came from Zagreb and was directed to officials in various towns whose job was to select the killers and their victims. This demonstration, of what Goldstein calls “synchronized violence,” on St. George’s Day, the Serbian religious holiday, was to show both Serbs and Croats that from now on blood would flow. The five who participated were known to Goldstein, one or two quite well. They were the usual small-town types from different social backgrounds, one a young lawyer, one a gifted high school student with a bright future, and the rest apprentices in various trades. As fanatical nationalists, all they needed was for some opportunist, who had rushed to embrace the new regime, to whisper in their ear whom to liquidate that day.

In the meantime, Goldstein’s father had been transferred from Karlovac to a prison in Zagreb, despite his mother’s frantic effort to have him released. In such situations, women can usually smell trouble better than men. Before he was arrested, both his wife and their house servant, a young woman from a nearby village, urged him to go and hide in the countryside. His son, who has made it his life’s mission to hunt down everyone who knew his father in prison, has a fair amount of information on how he spent his time there. For a while, he and his mother were able to visit him and bring parcels of food to him in Zagreb and at the camp called Danica (Morning Star), to which he was next sent. Although it was not yet clear what the Ustashas intended to do with the Serbs and Jews they had rounded up, the signs were ominous.

One day while visiting the father in Zagreb, his wife noticed that he had bruises and that his face was swollen in places. In the Danica camp it was even worse. Torture is one of the perks of any regime that uses terror as a political instrument. Sadists get to have their fun and to be thought of as patriots. One of the camp officers even brought his sixteen-year-old son to participate in beatings. Goldstein has learned who some of these brutal characters were and what happened to them afterward. One of the worst among them, for instance, later switched sides, joined the resistance, and fought heroically against the Ustashas. After the war, a woman who had been an inmate recognized him and he was hanged in public on the site of the old camp.

The mass slaughter of Serbs began in late April 1941, less than three weeks after the proclamation of the new state, and continued throughout the war. The killing was done by special Ustasha units that would descend upon a village or town, round up all the Serb men they could find at home, and, after locking them up and mistreating them, take them out to a nearby forest and execute them. A few hundred people were killed on a typical night. The intention at first was to slay every man in the community; later, they didn’t spare women, children, and old people either.

The local Croatian population did not directly participate in the killings. They dug mass graves and covered them and were told to keep their mouths shut. In the town of Glina, several hundred men were tricked into coming into the Orthodox church to be converted to Catholicism; they were slaughtered and the church set on fire. On another occasion, the Ustashas made the condemned roast suckling pigs and baby lambs and then dig their own graves while being forced to sing. As in Bosnia in the 1990s, the butchery was accompanied by pillage. The killers took everything that had any value, even clothes and shoes.

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