'Truth and memory [are] exceedingly fragile,’ writes Deborah Lipstadt in Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. She is my hero, a crusader against historical revisionism. In standing against holocaust denial, she provides me with the scaffolding to challenge contemporary historical revisionism in Croatia and Serbia, and the legacy of Fascist Italy in my mother’s homeland of Istria (1).
In this post I am considering three things: firstly, that Croatia’s crusade to canonize Aloysius Stepinac is a smoke screen to divert attention from the worst religious massacre in European history. Secondly, whether the Serbian General Draža Mihailović, who was well known to British soldiers in wartime Yugoslavia as a poor leader and an Axis collaborator, can justly be celebrated as a hero in Serbia today. Thirdly, why there is an endless stream of Italians denigrating Slavs on Facebook. (I won’t mention the page.) It was Fascist Italy that invaded Yugoslavia, not the other way round. 'We do not deny other countries the right of free speech, Lipstadt teaches me, but ‘opinion must be grounded in fact.’ Italy altering historical fact poses the biggest problem of the three because it involved the desire of America and Britain to recreate post-war Italy as part of the Western anti-communist block. It is not often realized how powerful communism was in Italy during the war and how near Italy itself came to being a communist country. My Australian father-in-law, who fought with the Italian Partisans and spoke fluent Italian, said that their muscle was communist and they were disappointed after the war not to have achieved the power they desired. Along with her mother, my mother-in-law from Turin worked for the anti-fascist resistance in northern Italy, among other things housing Allied soldiers. The two women were betrayed and subsequently imprisoned for two and a half months, during which time they were assaulted and tortured. After her release, my mother-in-law received further harsh treatment from the Italian Partisans who were suspicious of the interest the fascists had taken in her. In 1945, she married and left Italy, returning only once in the next 55 years of her life, hating the country so much that she never went back a second time. That there was a personal component to her distress is clear but, well before Mussolini founded the Fascist Party in 1919, the violence that was to have its full flower in fascism was part of Italian ultra-nationalistic doctrine. ‘Hatred is indeed no less necessary than love for nurturing civilization,’ wrote Luigi Federzoni, ‘a key figure in the fascist regime’ (2). That the Italian war criminals who embraced this philosophy were never punished had as much do to with preserving Italy’s traditional place in the Western imagination as it did the fear of communism. In his book Piazza Oberdan the Slovenian writer Boris Pahor wrote an eye witness account of Fascist Italian crimes against Slovenes (3). This and other stories were refused an English translation by Pahor’s American editor. The reason? ‘The collection prints an anti-Italian mindset’ and Pahor’s ‘description[s] could damage the political coexistence’. The first Prime Minister after the fall of Mussolini was General Badoglio . Although he had committed war crimes in Libya and Egypt, the British approved of him because he was anti-communist. Notable Italian war criminals were Generals Roatta (Slovenia and Dalmatia) and Graziani (Libya, Ethiopia), Giovanni Ravalli (Greece) and hundreds of others. As Britain, America and Russia argued about how to bring them to justice, ‘Italy… made it abundantly clear that it would not collaborate willingly with any attempts to extradite its citizens to face trial in Yugoslavia or any other country for that matter.’ (4) America dragged its feet until eventually Churchill shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Needless to say, the Italian government took full advantage of Allied disinterest, and modern Italians know little about their dark past. My mother came from the village of Tar in Istria, about two kilometres from the sea. She remembered Croatian-speaking people coming to Tar to buy fish in the 1920’s, which suggests that, before refrigeration, they couldn’t have lived far away from the coastal strip where the language was Venetian. It certainly supports the advice of Woodrow Wilson that, in the cause of the national self-determination of the Southern Slavs, the eastern bulk of Istria not be given to Italy in 1919, as it unfortunately was. My mother, who later gave her nationality as Yugoslavian, resented Fascist Italy for Italianising her family name from Mikatović to Di Micheli and for ruining her uncle’s and father’s careers because their professional qualifications were Austrian and not Italian. Her relative Paolo Mikatović from the next village, Dekovići, died in the notorious Jasenovac Concentration Camp run by the Croatian fascists, the Ustaša. These genocidal maniacs and their twisted relationship with the Catholic Church are the subject of my previous post in which I reviewed Balkan Essays by Hubert Butler (5). This is not an easy book to forget. Whenever I reopen its pages, I have the superstitious sense that if I show too much interest, I will contaminate myself with something sinister. Indeed, the Vatican itself spent much of 1941 and 1942 puzzling exactly what was going on in the Independent State of Croatia (Croatia and Bosnia) as that devout Catholic Ante Pavelić littered his Nazi puppet state with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews and Gypsies. In 1945, as the Ustaša leaders fled across the Atlantic, Croatians may have wanted nothing more than to put the horror behind them and get on with their lives, just as Italians had done after the fall of Mussolini (2). It was at this point that Archbishop Stepinac embraced his most important mission, protecting his church from communism. Hubert Butler, who interviewed him, described him as a brave and kind man, yet one who had made errors of judgement (6). The fact that the hagiographers are in full swing at present (and the rightness or wrongness of that) obscures the main issue, that Stepinac did not separate church and state during the reign of the Ustaša and seemed unable to perceive that this could be interpreted as collaboration. His slip was effectively exploited by the post war Yugoslav government at his trial (7). Their lengthy document outlines the relationship between the church and the Ustaša that existed before World War 2, attributing the growth of the terrorist organization to ‘too great a centralization under Serbian hegemony’ which resulted ‘among other things, in a corresponding separatist sentiment in Croatia’. As noted by others, ‘divisive feelings’ between Yugoslavs had long been fostered and exploited by European empires. Between the wars they were ‘kept alive’ by Germany and Italy for the benefit of those countries. For instance, in return for nurturing the Ustaša, Mussolini claimed the entire Dalmatian coast and Montenegro for Italy. In November 1946, Pavelić’s Minister of the interior, Andrija Artuković, who had dedicated himself to ridding the state of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, met a professor of theology from Zagreb ‘who was touring the post war [internment] camps with a Vatican passport. He had secured the release of many hundreds of Croatian priests who had fled with Pavelić.’ (6). A website of the Croatian Catholic church in Sydney (8) likewise states that its members emigrated to Australia from refugee camps in Italy and Austria. Regarding why they might have fled, Fitzroy Maclean, the British liaison officer to Tito, who was in Yugoslavia from 1943 until March 1945, wrote: ‘Owing to the sympathy which many of the Catholic clergy had shown for the Ustaša movement, there were a number of priests among those imprisoned or executed as collaborators or war criminals. Although the charges brought against individual priests were frequently unfounded or exaggerated, there was often an element of truth in them which provided a ready-made pretext for repressive measures (9)’. There are twice as many Croatians in Australia today than Serbs, even though Serbia has twice the population. Proportionally, this is a factor of four. If the Yugoslav communists persecuted Christians with vigour, why didn’t the Serbs emigrate as well? Were there simply more frightened Croatians after the war, and was this connected to Maclean’s ‘sympathy’ for the Ustaša? I wonder why the Ustaša massacres against Serbs aren’t better known, because they should be. Which, of course, brings me to Serbia. Deborah Lipstadt writes, ‘mythical thinking and the force of the irrational have a strange and compelling allure for the educated and uneducated alike.’ I don’t believe that what has been termed the ‘mystical nationalism’ of Serbia is necessarily irrational, but I suggest that it is a significant factor in its government rewriting its World War 2 history since 1985.
(I say 1985 because I was in Belgrade that year, and they were still celebrating Tito and the Partisans.)
Serbian national identity is powerful and rooted in some interesting topics. Chief among them for me are the Mediaeval Serbian Empire of Stefan Dušan, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbia’s nineteenth century success in liberating itself from the Ottoman Turks, and its brave fight against the Austrians in World War 1. But the historical revisionism I am referring to concerns the Serbian General Draža Mihailović.
Mihailović was the Yugoslav Minister of War from 1941 to 1945 and contemporary references to him are legion – British, German, Italian, even Australian – easily enough to write a character study of the man during the war. People seem to have liked him. Writes Maclean: ‘I was interested to find that some of those who knew him best, while liking him as a man, had little opinion of Mihailović as a leader (10)'. At his trial for treason and war crimes 'he spoke without oratory, without rancour towards political opponents or private enemies, lucidly and in detail (9).' Even Tito said that 'he had nothing against [him] personally' (11). The claims, however, of modern Serbian historians that Mihailović and the Četniks were victorious in the anti-fascist fight are contradicted by contemporary sources. Matteo Milazzo’s book, The Chetnik Movement and the Yugoslav Resistance, published in 1975 (12), was based on newly released German and Italian documents. They relate that early in the confusion of occupied Serbia, Mihailović appears to have played the fascist field in order to supply his troops, with the aim of retaining Serbian hegemony in post war Yugoslavia by the planned defeat of the Partisans. From German documents, we learn that ‘either at the end of May  or beginning of June, for example, Radivoje Jovanovic travelled to Chetnik headquarters to confer with their leader and was told [by Mihailović] that the strategy was to "organize, not to fight, and when the Germans begin to withdraw, then to move in and seize power"…to "preserve order in the country and to permit no brutal measures or robbery.”’
The most heinous German crimes against Serbian civilians were committed at Kragijevac and Kraljevo in October 1941 when thousands were killed, but dozens of other villages and towns were also destroyed and Serbians murdered as Nazi Germany used terror to gain control of the country. British commando Captain Christie Lawrence who fought with one group of Četniks and wrote his account in Irregular Adventure (13), reports witnessing half the sky in flames. It was the Germans systematically burning Serbian villages. The following week, Mihailović prepared to attack Partisans Headquarters at Užice. Lacking ‘sufficient guns and munitions…he turned to the Germans… offering as well ‘his services in the anti-Partisan struggle’ (12).
In December 1941, the Yugoslav Government-in-exile promoted Mihailović to General and made him Minister of War, and in April 1942, he was interviewed by Lawrence.
'That morning I met Mihailović, I was shocked at his appearance, for he looked an old man...He was small and slight with grey hair, a thin, lined face and gold-rimmed spectacles. His voice was tired and he spoke with a worried preoccupied abstraction.
'“You have heard," said Mihailović, “of the results of my revolution last autumn...I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country unless it could result in total liberation. We cannot, for the moment, maintain large illegal guerrilla companies. The misery which they cause to the peasants is too great....It is far better that my men should stay at home, work on the land, and look after their weapons if they have them. When the day comes for us to rise, we will rise." '"Then, until Germany's final collapse, you intend to do nothing more active than organize?" I asked. '"I did not say that. I said, until the Germans are too weak to deploy sufficient forces against us to retake what we shall have taken from them. In future, I do not intend to capture a town until I know that I can protect its inhabitants."' (13) In February 1943, the British Colonel Bailey witnessed Mihailović telling a church gathering that ‘the Italians remained his sole adequate source of benefit and assistance…his enemies were the Partisans, the Ustaša, the Moslems and the Croats. When he had dealt with them, he would turn to the Italians and the Germans…the Serbs were “completely friendless” and the “English were now fighting to the last Serb in Yugoslavia.”’ (14) Bailey writes that Mihailović’ was ‘willing to compromise himself in order the defeat the Partisans’ and he trusts that 'the general joy and relief at the end of the war will conceal and pardon his misdeeds.' In response, Churchill wrote, ‘His Majesty’s Government cannot ignore this outburst’… nor justify to the British public or to their other allies their continued support of a movement, the leader of which does not scruple publicly to declare that their enemies are his allies…and that his enemies are not the German and Italian invaders of his country, but his fellow Yugoslavs and chief among them men who …are giving their lives to free his country from the foreigners yoke.’ (14) The result of losing one’s temper. Colonel Bailey was the object of Mihailović’s wrath after he relayed this speech to London (14). In November 1941, Captain Bill Hudson, a British liaison officer fluent in Serbian, cancelled ‘all further consignments of arms’ to Mihailović upon observing his men fighting the Partisans (11). Mihailović was ‘furiously angry’, had to be restrained from shooting him, excluded him from meetings, and eventually abandoned him to the winter snows (11, 13). Likewise, Mihailović responded in anger to the British General Wilson's command: 'you are to advise Mihailović that he British General Headquarters in the Middle East requests that he, as an ally, stops all co-operation with the Axis and that he goes towards the east into Serbia. There he is to establish full authority and personal influence in order to continue the attacks on enemy communication lines' (14). This was just before the Allied Invasion of Sicily in July 1943, when the Allies needed the distraction of resistance effort in Yugoslavia to keep as many Germans out of Italy as possible. Helping the Allies invade Sicily was not Mihailović’s focus and he didn't appreciate being told what to do by the British. The tale of the various Četnik bands would fill another article. Rather than a fighting force against the fascist Germans, fascist Italians and fascist Ustaša, Milazzo reports, ‘The Četnik officers …schooled in a tradition which identified Serb military prowess and political hegemony with the Yugoslav idea, not only tolerated but took part in a campaign of revenge against non-Serb civilians who had nothing to do with the Partisans or the Ustasi.’ (12) Marcus Tanner reports ‘the loathing they inspired among non-Serbs’ (15). Island of Terrible Friends by Bill Strutton refers to them as ‘the hated Četniks’ (16). ‘Mihailovic … evidently did little to restrain the prevailing mood of national revenge. His own appointees, like Petar Bacovic, a former reserve officer and lawyer and then commander of the Chetniks in Herzegovina and eastern Bosnia, openly announced plans to destroy whole Muslim villages. (12)’ In Irregular Adventure, the local bands of Četniks sound like the Mafia, and a female Slovene Partisan advises Lawrence to take care which of them he supports lest in the power struggle he gets caught in the crossfire. ‘Have you seen how these petty little local leaders squabble about a man and a gun?’ (13). ‘At his trial, When Mihailović came to speak of his commanders, it was a sad tale of disorganization, disloyalty and petty ambition’ (9). Milazzo wrote, ‘The argument will be developed that the failure of the Mihailovic movement was basically internal, and that the collapse of their relations with the British was of secondary importance. (12)’ On 6th February 1946 Mihailović wrote that “Under no conceivable circumstances will I leave my country and my people.” But ‘by March 1946 [he] was left with only four companions…one evening, early in March, he crept out of his hole and went, as usual, to this house. But this time he found waiting for him, not his friends, but Tito’s police…He was led off, handcuffs on his wrists, filthy and in rags, his steel rimmed spectacles awry, his hair and beard tangled and matted, to the car which was waiting to take him to Belgrade.’ He said at his trial: ‘A merciless fate threw me into this maelstrom. I wanted much. I began much, but the gale of the world carried away me and my work (9).’ It's a sad story of Serbia contra mundum, yet, despite all this, the modern Serbian government has rewritten the history of World War 2 in which Mihailović and the Četniks are victorious against the fascist invaders. One revisionist polemic was so unscholarly as to commence with a quotation from the well-known poem The Pit by Ivan Goran Kovačić, the very poet whom the Četniks had murdered (20). My biggest beef with this aspect of modern Serbian historical revisionism is that it’s mean-spirited. When I think of all the young men and women Partisans, so many of whom were Serbian (17), who gave their lives in the anti-fascist fight, you might as well spit on their graves. ‘I am honoured and proud of these young lives,’ wrote the poet Andrija Nemit, ‘They stood up for freedom and justice. They did their courageous duty before the world for the homeland. They gave their lives for the freedom of the people.’ (18) I like the Yugoslav Partisans because they were a genuine peoples’ movement. Whatever your sex, race, or religion, in the fight against fascism there was a place for you and, as Basil Davison pointed out in Partisan Picture, they weren't interested in politics, they just wanted their land back. (21) I’m sick of the attitude that, because Tito was a communist (and because he won), therefore he was the devil incarnate – case closed – and that his nasty Bolshevik beliefs doomed poor Yugoslavia until it fell apart at the seams: which would never, ever have happened had that nice Draža Mihailović not been unfairly shot on the former gold course of Topčider. Frankly, if I had come from Tito’s poverty-stricken village of subsistence farmers, bled dry by a tithing church and blood sucking Hungarian aristocrats too mean to pay for a school (19), I’d be a communist, too.
CONCLUSION If it were merely a matter of revealing history, this article might be seen by some as unnecessary. My theme, however, is that the continual lying has created sour relations in our modern world, and that this could be fixed.
I congratulate Deborah Lipstadt for her endurance in wading through acres of puerile publications to write her landmark book. Unscholarly doesn’t begin to describe holocaust deniers. They are the most pathetic bunch of aggressive idiots I’ve ever read about, yet ‘a sober, scholarly effort’ is often their effect on a gullible public. Perhaps this is a testament to the power of print and, latterly, to the internet. Their effect on me, who can diagnose nonsense, is different from the man on the street who may relish the buzz that controversy provides. From my science background, I proceed as follows: observation, inferences, hypothesis, test the hypothesis and from it make a theory. Holocaust deniers work in the opposite direction: theory first, then look for the evidence to prove it, a common fault with historical revisionists. It is bad science.
REFERENCES 1 Cresciani, G A Clash of Civilizations? The Slovene and Italian Minorities and the problem of Trieste. Italian Historical Society Journal Volume 12 #2 2004 July/December 2 Duggan, C Fascist Voices, Vintage Books 2013 3 Pahor, B Piazza Oberdan, Kitab Vienna 2009 4 Pedaliu, EGH Britain and the 'Hand-over' of War Criminals to Yugoslavia 1945-48
5 Margaret Walker - MURDER FROM THE PULPIT?
6 Butler, H Balkan Essays, The Irish Pages Press 2016 7 Kosanović SN Yugoslav Ambassador, Washington. The Case of Archbishop Stepinac, 1947 8 HKC Summer Hill - Croatian Catholic Centres 9 Maclean, F The Heretic. The Life and Times of Josip Broz Tito. Harley and Brothers, NY 1957
10 Maclean, F Eastern Approaches, Penguin Books 1991
11 Deakin, F The Embattled Mountain, Oxford University Press 1971 12 Milazzo, M The Chetnik Movement and the Yugoslav Resistance, John Hopkins University Press, 1975
13 Lawrence, C Irregular Adventure, Faber and Faber 1947 14 Catherwood, C Churchill and Tito, Frontline 2017 15 Tanner, M Croatia, Yale University Press 1997 16 Strutton, Bill, Island of Terrible Friends, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1961 17 The BRUTAL Execution Of Lepa Radic - The Teenage Girl Executed By The Nazis - YouTube 18 Po šumama i gorama, poems of the fighters of the National liberation War, Zagreb, 1952
19 Brkljačić, M Pig's Head, Stories of Tito's Childhood,
Alltag und Ideologie im Realsozialismus 23/2005
20 Kovačić, I G The Pitt, Matica Hrvatska, 1961
21 Davidson, B Partisan Picture Bedford Books 1946