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European history

Bleiburg 1945: the beginning of a mostly forgotten tragedy

The atrocities committed by the Independent State of Croatia during World War II are quite well-known, but what happened immediately after it collapsed in 1945 remains mostly in the dark.

The persecution of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies during World War II by the Ustasha, the political movement behind the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), founded on April 10th, 1941 on former Yugoslav territory with German and Italian assistance, is well-documented and often associated with names like Jasenovac, a Croatian concentration camp in the region of Slavonia, where in four years up to 100,000 people died.

Much less known are the tragic events that took place when the NDH collapsed at the end of the conflict, especially in May 1945. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, mostly Croatians, but also Slovenians, Cossacks and Montenegrins who had fought on the German-Italian side, were trying to evade capture by the notorious Yugoslav partisans led by Josip Broz, himself of Croat-Slovenian heritage and better known by his nickname Tito. Their plan was to surrender in Southern Austria to the British, which by then occupied parts of the country that had originally been conquered by the Soviets. On May 15th, between 25,000 and 30,000 people reached Bleiburg, a small town in Carinthia, near of what is now the Austrian-Slovenian border.

While the surrender of Slovenians and Cossacks was first accepted by the British at other locations, in a later act of betrayal they were also handed over to their Communist hangmen. With the Croatians, the British were somehow straight-forward and therefore more honest, turning them back right away. Although the British had no illusions about the fate of those on the losing side, they still expected them to surrender directly to Partisan forces known for their ruthlessness. As the Croatians had no other options left, they did so after short negotiations.

Yugoslav forces disarmed them fast, and soon they were sent on forced marches southwards. Due to the presence of the British Army, the initial treatment was rather correct. However, individual killings and the murder of smaller groups soon began. Mass executions followed, the largest taking place in Tezno, Kočevski Rog and Huda Jama. The survivors were taken to internment and forced labor camps, where many more died from harsh conditions. The exact number of this revenge justice will never be known and dozens of mass graves have been discovered only after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Following reports of massacres, the euphemistically called “repatriations” were canceled by the British on May 31. At that time, it was too late to save countless soldiers and civilians from a gruesome death.

These atrocities and other communist abuses were an absolute taboo topic in Yugoslavia, and information about those events was suppressed for decades. Large-scale public and official commemoration of the victims did not begin until after the civil war ended, which followed the country’s breakup in 1991 and cost another 135, 000 lives.

Even good friends from former Yugoslavia and other well-read people in Europe had not heard about the tragedy, the aftermath of which is known as Way of the Cross in today’s Croatia. It’s time to shed more light on this dark chapter in the history of the Balkans.

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