Round-trip to Europe and back

Most of the time, the title of an article will draw my attention because it refers to an issue or topic that I am interested in, because it is humorous, or intriguing. And then once in a blue moon, a title will pop out at me from my computer screen that provokes a negative reaction before I have even had time to see what the story is all about. So today I was immediately irritated when I saw the following title “Croatian PM pays tribute to controversial war victims in my Euractiv Daily Update.

“…controversial war victims”… Did the author use this oxymoron on purpose? Was he/she aware that it was an oxymoron? Did he/she wish to express an opinion, or a personal judgment through it? Whatever the reason for the choice of words, I find it unacceptable.

Victims, victims of violent crime in general and more specifically of war crimes, from the moment they become victims, are just and only that. Whatever the victim might have been or done during his or her life does not justify his/her assassination. This is why laws, and courts, and trials, and defense lawyers were invented. Why conventions on the rights of war prisoners and refugees were signed.

While the desire, the urge for revenge is a natural feeling, acting on that urge is something that very few societies have allowed or condoned for thousands of years now. And while we will all agree that during armed conflicts, and in their aftermath, crimes do happen, we should never accept that as inevitable, nor excuse them because today’s victim was yesterday’s criminal. One of the most important principles of civilisation, if not the most important one, is that one is considered innocent until proven guilty, and that no one can be punished without being tried.

I doubt the author was really thinking about what the title of the article implies in terms of ethics. He/she should have. If not the author, the editor should have pointed out the unacceptable juxtaposition of terms. What the author probably did want to suggest with this title was the opinion that in this case, the victims…well, maybe deserved what happened to them, an opinion still being spread by those nostalgic of the communist regime or bent on presenting Croatians as historically inclined towards fascism. Indeed, the article itself begins with this wonderfully unqualified statement: “A Croatian government delegation headed by Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor visited the Austrian town of Bleiburg on Monday (10 May) to pay tribute to pro-Nazi Croatian soldiers and civilians killed there by Tito’s partisans at the end of the Second World War.” Such an affirmative qualification of 1945 Croatian war crimes victims demands, for History’s sake, a clarification.

Although the total number of victims in this case has not yet – and may never be – established, scientific estimates today evaluate their number to be close to 200 000. It is also estimated that about one-third were civilians, including a large number of women, children and elderly.

If the Croatian Prime Minister had paid tribute to a mass grave containing only the remains of members of the Oustasha (Croatian pro-nazi militia and soldiers), that could be indeed interpreted as a controversial gesture. Their execution should also be considered as controversial. Even the highest Nazi officials had after all been entitled to a trial before some were condemned to the death penalty. And even German soldiers executed in the Soviet Union had been granted a burial by Stalin. In the case of these Croatian soldiers or militia, they were just executed and thrown into mass graves, many of which have still not been inventoried.

Among these “controversial” victims were also members of the regular Croatian army, young men completing their military service. Many (the majority?) had no sympathy whatsoever for the quisling regime, nor were guilty of war crimes themselves. But no convention regarding the treatment of war prisoners was applied to them. They surrendered to Allied forces precisely in the hope of getting the minimum humane treatment that such conventions promise. Instead, the British forces simply sent them back to be dealt with by Tito’s Partisans. What seems controversial in this particular instance is certainly the total disregard of internal law by the representatives of the victorious democratic allies.

Finally, among our “controversial” victims was a large number of civilians. Some were probably supporters of the Oustasha regime. If being supportive of one or the other quisling regime around Europe from 1939 until 1945 had justified being summarily executed, how many millions of Europeans would have disappeared at the end of the War? The thought is mind boggling. But the majority of families who fled towards the Austrian border did so not because they were supporters of the Oustashas, nor did they in any way participate in any crimes, nor did they sabotage the resistance to Germany. No, they were just simple people (the powerful Oustasha supporters found much safer ways to flee the country) who were frightened of the communist partisans. People who opposed the Communist party. People who did not wish to go from one dictatorship to another.

The mass executions to which the town of Bleiburg bore witness were not an act of revenge. They were part of the “political cleansing” policy that characterised Tito’s regime in the years following WWII. It was an easy way to rapidly get rid of a large number of those who represented a possible threat to his regime, those who disagreed. And it also served as a powerful deterrent for all those who would later think of opposing the Communists.

So maybe it is not so much the victims who are controversial but the way they are so labeled, those people who were never allowed a trial, let alone a fair one.

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