A FOOTNOTE TO YALTA
Chapter from the book Od Bleiburga do Naših Dana
YALTA AND THE BLEIBURG TRAGEDY
University of San Francisco, California USA
Od Bleiburga do Naših Dana
Jozo Marovic, Editor
Zagreb: Školska Kniga, 1995
Presented at the International Symposium for Investigation of the
Bleiburg Tragedy Zagreb, Croatia and Bleiburg, Austria
We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference which shaped the post-war world and forever changed the history of Croatia and a dozen other nations. In February of 1995 we will have had a half century to reflect on the tragedy of the so-called "Great Powers" dividing up the world and forcing hundreds of thousands seeking freedom to be returned to their captive nations against their will. And yet, in this half century, what have we really learned and how have we gone about the study of forced repatriation?
The subject of forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands of human beings at the end of the Second World War is so multifaceted that it presents an array of problems for those who would study it. Unlike the study of the Jewish Holocaust, now considered a single interdisciplinary field, post-war repatriation is still seen primarily in the limited context of the nations involved. There is no field of "Repatriation Studies" and each exploration must rely on a single discipline, such as History or Political Science, to explore a single aspect without really considering the whole. While a multi-disciplinary approach is warranted, History can perhaps best focus on cause and effect. Forced repatriation did not "just happen." While there were many causes, the instrument of implementation, indeed of legalization, was the Yalta Agreement. The effects of repatriation were likewise many and varied, but this brief overview seeks to explore a single effect of the whole: The forced repatriation of Croatians to Yugoslavia in and around the village of Bleiburg, Austria and the events that followed over the next two years.
Next Spring will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. It is perhaps of interest to look back a decade at how the fortieth anniversary was marked in 1985 to observe how much things have changed in a decade and how some things never change. The Soviet Union noted the fortieth anniversary of World War II as the great victory over Fascism in the "Great Patriotic War" which "liberated" half of Europe into the Communist fold. A decade later, the Soviet Union no longer exists and Communism is on its death bed. The Western Allies remembered those who fell in battle and who served their country and they will do so again next year. But NATO, the true successor to the wartime Western Alliance, will no longer have as its primary mission the containment of Communism. West Germany remembered her dead a decade ago and the horror of Hitlerism never to be repeated while East Germany honored the Soviets for their liberation while claiming that Hitlerism still lived in the West. Next year a united Germany will grapple with how to mark this anniversary as a member of NATO and with rising nationalism and Fascism arising primarily from the former Communist east. Japan remembered her dead in 1985, especially those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unwilling ushers into the nuclear age. But Japan did so unbowed. In the past decade, the Japanese government has formally apologized to many of the victims, both people and states, of Japanese aggression. Finally, throughout the world ten years ago, Jews and Gentiles alike painfully noted the liberation of the concentration camps and vowed that such a Holocaust would never happen again. Next year we will again remember these victims but with the knowledge that "ethnic cleansing" has again taken place in the heart of Europe while the so-called "Great Powers" stood silent.
Much of what shaped the post-War world is directly linked to a single word: Yalta. The word first entered the world's common vocabulary on February 13, 1945, when it was reported that a historic meeting had taken place in the Crimea from the fourth through the eleventh of that month at a place called Yalta. At the time it was called the Crimea conference and it is perhaps best to refer to the conference itself by that name since today Yalta has come to mean much more than a place where Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met with their foreign ministers and chiefs-of-staff. Yalta has come to mean the partitioning of Germany, the Nuernberg Trials and the division of Europe between democracy and totalitarianism. Yalta meant the partition of Poland despite the fact that it was supposed to be the partitioning of Poland that started the Second World War. Yalta sacrificed the proud nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and the agreement ratified the Soviet annexation of Rumanian, Slovak and Finnish lands.
By signing the Yalta Agreement, Roosevelt and Churchill became co-signatories of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. Yalta became synonymous with great power politics and colonialism: three kings dividing up the world without regard to the wishes of the peoples of every nation. The cavalier manner with which the future of nations was decided was best described by Winston Churchill in his book The Second World War: Triumph & Tragedy: "Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans...how would it do for you to have 90% predominance in Rumania, for us to have 90% in Greece, and go 50/50 in Yugoslavia?" He then wrote the equation on a half sheet of paper and handed it to Stalin.
Churchill pushed the list to Stalin who made a large check-mark on it with a blue pencil. Churchill then said "Might it not be thought cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper."
The Atlantic Charter, for which hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen had died was thus disposed of at Yalta. The words of the Atlantic Charter promised that "All peoples have a right to choose their own forms of government; those forcibly deprived of the right should have it restored." Such lofty words were not to apply to any of the captive nations of the USSR or eastern Europe. These millions of people could not have known, nor would they have believed, that their ancient nations and homelands were dispatched with the flick of a blue pencil.
In a half century it would seem that every aspect of this tragedy would have been explored in detail by historians, political scientists and politicians. Surely, after a half century, there could be no questions unanswered and no factual data unexplored. And indeed there has been some very good scholarly research into this earth changing event.
Some of the blame has been laid at the feet of Stalin, although only in passing. He perhaps deserves the least blame if only because he was open and honest in his motives and did most for his own political interests. We now know that Roosevelt was nearly on his death bed at Yalta, but history tends to forgive those who die in power, as it seldom does for those who die in exile or shame. Roosevelt remains a hero to much of America. Winston Churchill will forever be protected by history as the bulldog who saved Britain. Each of the three had his advisors and aids at his side. Howard MacMillan was hired by Britain to re-shape the Mediterranean in the imperial mold, but stayed on to run the shop. Alger Hiss, Roosevelt's own in-house communist, became something of a folk hero to America's liberal elite. And Brea, Stalin's Chief of Secret Police has taken the ups and downs of historical revisionism with the political mood in Russia.
History has been written and the blame has been put at any number of deserving feet. Yet through it all, one aspect of Yalta has been given little attention by scholarly and popular writers alike. The subject is the planned, pre-ordained murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in the months and years after World War II. The victims of Yalta died at the hands of Stalin and his surrogates, but only with the cooperation and active participation of the Western Allies: the United States and Great Britain.
Each nation has its own name for this holocaust. For Croatia the name is the Bleiburg Tragedy after the small Austrian village from which thousands began their long march back into a new Communist Yugoslavia. The American military code-named it Operation Keelhaul from the ancient punishment of keelhauling wayward sailors who were dragged under the keel of a moving ship at the end a rope. By whatever name, this was without question one of the most shameful episodes of the Second World War if only because it occurred after the War ended. The Bleiburg tragedy was murder which began when the legal killing called warfare ended.
In 1945 there was some international law on the subject of forced repatriation. In brief, the concept was not acceptable under any international guidelines. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 treat it only by exclusion and by making it clear that prisoners-of-war must be treated humanely. The Geneva Accords of 1929 also did not recognize the concept of forced repatriation. The 1949 Geneva Accords prohibit forced repatriations "during hostilities." Still the wording is vague. Dozens of treaties between the USSR and neighboring states did explicitly prohibit the forced return of any individual against his or her will.
The "Yalta Agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States," later Britain and France, "Concerning Liberated Prisoners of War and Civilians" was signed on February 11, 1945 by U.S. Major General John R. Dene and Soviet Lt. General Gryzlov. This agreement called upon the United States and the Soviet Union to take joint action regarding Soviet and American nationals in the war zone. There were, of course, few American nationals, civilian or military, in Eastern Europe in the final days of World War II. In part, the Agreement read:
"All Soviet citizens liberated by forces operating under United States command ...will, without delay after their liberation, be separated from enemy prisoners of war and will be maintained separately from them in concentration camps until they have been handed over to the Soviet authorities..."1
The Agreement also provided for Soviet control of the camps and "...the right to appoint the internal administration and set-up the internal discipline and management in accordance with the military prosecute the laws of their country."
Still, there was no reference to "forced" repatriation in the Agreement although it was implied. The entire agreement was designed to meet Soviet needs and the method of repatriation was left up to the Soviet Union. But the Yalta Agreement did not invent forced repatriation, it simply formalized existing policy. Documents from September 1944 on set a clear direction of action against "...any national of the United Nations who is believed to have committed offenses against his national law in support of the German war effort." Since the act of surrender was a criminal act in the USSR, all prisoners-of-war were criminals subject to the death penalty. These words also applied to any person living on the territory of Yugoslavia who did not support the Partisans during the War. On September 16, 1944, U.S. Political Officer Alexander Kirk sent a cable to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull which noted that an agreement had been reached between the Soviets and the British for repatriation of Soviet citizens held as prisoners-of-war "...irrespective of whether the individuals desire to return to Russia or not. Statements will not be taken from Soviet nationals in the future as to their willingness to return to their native country." Kirk further noted that "MacMillan is apparently receiving instructions to this effect from the (British) Foreign Office."
Unable to believe this obvious violation of international law, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman wired Hull on September 24, 1944 demanding an explanation how the British government reached its decision. Kirk then met with MacMillan who justified the action by noting that "Since these men will no longer be treated as prisoners, the Geneva Conventions will no longer apply."
All such conversations were "top secret" at the time. Even the text of the Yalta Agree-ment on Repatriation was not released until March 1946. The fact that the agreements were reached only with the Soviets means little. They were equally enforced by each of Stalin's proteges, including Josip Tito before the Tito-Stalin split.
The results of this policy of the West, giving Stalin all he demanded while asking virtually nothing in return, are of such magnitude that they defy comprehension. Nine hundred thousand to one million followers of Russian Liberation Army General Andrei Vlasov were among the first to be forcibly returned. The leadership was executed and the others were sent into the vast system of hard labor camps made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the "Gulag Archipelago." The next victims were over three thousand Cossack officers at Lienz. Then tens of thousand of officers and men from every nation in Europe who had served their country in wartime. Finally, millions of civilian refugees fleeing the promise of a new Workers' Paradise under Stalin, Tito, Hoxha and a dozen others, were also victims of Yalta.
To Croatians, the tragedy began at the small village of Bleiburg in Southern Carenthia, Austria. Bleiburg is a model for all the forced repatriations in post-war Europe. These post-war massacres of Croatians are almost unknown outside the Croatian com-munity despite the fact that the Bleiburg-Maribor massacres have been documented in such works as Operation Slaughterhouse by John Prcela and Stanko Guldescu, In Tito's Death Marches and Extermination Camps by Joseph He˙imovi˙, Operation Keelhaul by Julius Epstein, Bleiburg by Vinko Nikoli˙, and perhaps best known, The Minister and the Massacres by Count Nikolai Tolstoy. That these massacres occurred is irrefutable. Only the number of deaths and the depth of American and British duplicity are in question.
The story of Bleiburg began in early 1945 as it became clear that Germany would lose the War. As the German Army retreated toward the Austrian border, the Red Army advanced, and the Partisans began their consolidation of power, anarchy prevailed in what was Yugoslavia. A dozen or more nationalist movements and ethnic militias attempted to salvage various parts of Yugoslavia. Most nationalists, Croatian, Slovenian and Serbian alike, were anti-Communist and all had visions of the Western Allies welcoming them into the coming battle against Communism. Croatians especially cherished the totally unsupported notion that Anglo-American intervention would save an independent Croatian state.
As in every other part of eastern Europe, armies, governments, and civilian populations began moving toward the Western lines. Some were pushed before the retreating Ger-mans, others followed in their wake. Many traveled in small bands, armed or unarmed, while others were well organized into mass movements of people and equipment. Along the trek north they fought the Partisans and ˙etniks. Many surrendered, others fought to the death.
The retreating Germans, usually without bothering to inform their erstwhile allies, took with them much of the material support needed by the Croatian armed forces. Despite conditions, several Croatian generals wanted to defend the city of Zagreb from the Partisan advance and fight to the finish if necessary. The Partisans made it clear that the city, swollen to twice its size with refugees, would be destroyed if they met resistance. A final meeting of the Croatian government was held on April 30, 1945 at which the decision was made to abandon Zagreb and retreat into Austria.
Still quite naive concerning Allied intentions, many Croatian officers hoped that the still sizable Croatian Army would be allowed to surrender to the British to fight again against the Russians. Since both Croatia and Britain were signatories to the Geneva Conventions, it was felt that at worst the Croatians would be treated as prisoners of war.
The exodus from Zagreb began on May 1st. Some 200,000 civilians were flanked by almost as many soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Croatian armed forces. The Arch-bishop-Metropolitan Aloysius Stepinac took charge of the government for the few hours between the departure of Croatian officials and the arrival of the Partisan Army. State Minister Vran˙i˙ was dispatched to Italy as a peace emissary to the Allies and several high-ranking English-speaking officers headed the main column toward Austria.
The retreat was well ordered and the protecting flank armies insured that all of the civilians arrived safely at the Austrian border by May 7. A number of military units remained behind to fight delaying actions as late as May 12. Still other units, known as Crusaders fled into the hills and fought sporadic guerilla actions until 1948.
The huge column finally came to rest in a small valley near the Austrian village of Bleiburg, where they arrived on May 14th and 15th. Believing in the sense of fair play and justice for which the British had made themselves known, the Croatians surrendered to the British with the promise that they would not be forced back into Yugoslavia.
The leaders had no way of knowing that their peace emissary, Dr. Vran˙i˙, had traveled as far as Forli, Italy by plane and car under a white flag only to be stopped short of his goal. At Forli, Vran˙i˙ and Naval Captain Vrkljan, who spoke fluent English, were detained by one Captain Douglas of British Field Security who was more interested in their diplomatic grade Mercedes-Benz automobile than their mission to see Field Marshal Alexander in Caserta. He held the emissaries incommunicado until May 20 when he had them thrown into a prisoner of war camp and confiscated the automobile.
In the belief that their envoys had made some arrangement with the British, the multitude of humanity set up camp in the valley to await the outcome of negotiations. One of the first groups to arrive at British head-quarters was a contingent of 130 members of the Croatian government headed by President Nikola Mandi˙. All were told that they would be transferred to Italy as soon as possible by British Military Police. All were then loaded into a train and returned to the Partisans. It was the intent of the British to turn over all Croatians, as well as Serbs and Slovenes, to the Communists from whom they had fled.
When the Croatian military leaders realized that they had led hundreds of thousands into a trap, some committed suicide on the spot. The British extradited at first hundreds, then thousands of Croatians. Some were shot at the border, while others joined the infamous "Death Marches" which took them deeper into the new People's Republic for liquidation. They were forced back, some in trains, some on foot, to the waiting arms of Tito's Partisans. On May 16, 1945, the killing began. It would not end for two years.
The survivors of the initial atrocities were organized into forced marches by the 7th Brigade of the 17th Partisan Division. The Croatians called them the "Death Marches." Tens of thousands of men, women and children were marched, hands tied with wire, through the villages and towns of southern Austria and Slovenia. On their southward trek toward the camps, they were starved, beaten, raped and ridiculed. Those who did not march were shot and dumped into shallow graves or caves. Wounded and ill Croatian soldiers and civilians in hospitals and field camps were loaded onto wagons and sent toward the camps with the southbound sea of humanity. Many would not survive. Those who did live would spend as much as a decade in concentration camps, labor battalions and prisons. Finally, the government of Yugoslavia plowed over Croatian military cemeteries and attempted to erase all traces of the Bleiburg massacres. As late as 1974 graves were removed to block investigation of the tragedy. 2 The total number of people liquidated may never be known. Despite the scholarship and masses of documents proving the contrary, the Yugoslav government denied that the Bleiburg-Maribor massacres or any subsequent liquidation of anti-Communists occurred. As late as 1976 special teams were active in Slovenia and southern Austria covering up evidence of the crimes. The American and British governments, implicated in the forced repatriation that led to the slaughter, also sought to cover-up or at least ignore the crimes.
Unlike Lidece, or Hiroshima, or Dresden, the tragedy of Bleiburg was not a single event, but hundreds of events over a long period of time. And, unlike Hiroshima or Dresden, Bleiburg was not an act of war. It was an act of post-war retribution. The initial killings near the Austro-Yugoslav border were followed by the execution of members of the Croatian government. There were massacres at other sites. Some, like Kamnik involved a few thousand deaths. Others, like Maribor, saw over 40,000 die.
To debate whether the suffering of the Croatians at Bleiburg and beyond surpassed that of the Cossacks, Russians, Ukrainians or the millions of others of all nations during and after World War II, or to attempt to quantify whether the collective fate of the victims of Bleiburg was worse than that of the citizens of Hiroshima or Dresden, serves neither an academic or humanistic purpose. One half century after the fact, continuing to lay blame, access guilt or call for vengeance serves no purpose.
What is clearly needed is further study. Serious, unemotional, study by historians, political scientists, legal scholars, sociologists, psychologists, forensic criminologists and others. The study must be separated from political or ethnic considerations. The task at hand is to learn the true impact of Bleiburg on post-War Croatia, the psyche and self-image of the Croatian nation. The mere recognition that Bleiburg did occur, that questions exist, and that in all things there are causes, actions, and effects, is a giant first step toward understanding the tragedy and healing the wounds still felt by so many.
6. - 15.V.1945 Massive numbers of Croatian soldiers and civilians withdraw from Croatia and march towards southern Austria to surrender to the Western Allies. They arrive in the small village of Bleiburg where the British hand them over to Tito's Partisans. The infamous "Death Marches" result in the most horrible slaughters in the history of Croatia.Yu
MYTH: "THERE WAS NO RETRIBUTION AGAINST THE CROATIANS AFTER WORLD WAR II"
Myth: Because Tito was a Croatian, no retribution was taken against Croatian officials, soldiers or civilians after World War II by the victorious Partisans.
Reality: Thousands of Croatians were slaughtered immediately after the War, tens of thousands more were sent to prisons, government officials were executed and those who escaped were tracked down and murdered in foreign lands well into the 1960s.
That there was no retribution against the Croatians after World War II is not so much a myth as an outright attempt to falsify history. As is the case with several other myths, the Serbian apologists Nora Beloff and David Martin gave new currency to this story in the world press during the Croatian war for independence.
The post-war massacres of Croatians are almost unknown outside the Croatian community. To Croatians, the single word "Bleiburg" summarizes the pain endured by an entire nation. The Bleiburg-Maribor massacres have been documented in such works as Operation Slaughterhouse by John Prcela and Stanko Guldescu, In Tito's Death Marches and Extermination Camps by Joseph Hecimovic, Operation Keelhaul by Julius Epstein, Bleiburg by Vinko Nikolic, and perhaps best known, The Minister and the Massacres by Count Nikolai Tolstoy. That these massacres occurred is irrefutable. Only the number of deaths and the depth of American and British duplicity are in question. The story of Bleiburg began in early 1945 as it became clear that Germany would lose the War. As the German Army retreated toward the Austrian border, the Red Army advanced and the Partisans began their consolidation of power, anarchy prevailed in what was Yugoslavia. A dozen or more nationalist movements and ethnic militias attempted to salvage various parts of Yugoslavia. Most nationalists, Croatian, Slovenian and Serbian alike, were anti-Communist and all had visions of the Western Allies welcoming them into the coming battle against Communism. Croatians especially cherished the totally unsupported notion that Anglo-American intervention would save an independent Croatian state. As in every other part of eastern Europe, armies, governments and civilian populations began moving toward the Western lines. Some were pushed before the retreating Germans, others followed in their wake. Many traveled in small bands, armed or unarmed, while others were well organized into mass movements of people and equipment. Along the trek north they fought the Partisans and each other. Many surrendered, others fought to the death.
Retreat from Zagreb
The retreating Germans, usually without bothering to inform their erstwhile allies, took with them much of the material support for the Croatian armed forces. Despite conditions, several Croatian generals wanted to defend the city of Zagreb from the Partisan advance and fight to the finish if necessary. The Partisans made it clear that the city, swollen to twice its size with refugees, would be destroyed if they met resistance. A final meeting of the Croatian government was held on April 30, 1945 at which the decision was made to abandon Zagreb and retreat into Austria.
Still quite naive concerning Allied intentions, many Croatian officers hoped that the still sizable Croatian Army would be allowed to surrender to the British to fight again against the Russians. Since both Croatia and Britain were signatories to the Geneva Conventions, it was felt that at worst the Croatians would be treated as prisoners of war.
The exodus from Zagreb began on May 1st. Some 200,000 civilians were flanked by 200,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Croatian armed forces. The Archbishop-Metropolitan Aloysius Stepinac took charge of the government for the few hours between the departure of Croatian officials and the arrival of the Partisan Liberation Army. State Minister Vrancic was dispatched to Italy as a peace emissary to the Allies and several high-ranking English speaking officers headed the main column toward Austria. The retreat was well ordered and the protecting flank armies insured that all of the civilians arrived safely at the Austrian border by May 7. A number of military units remained behind to fight delaying actions as late as May 12. Still other units, known as "Crusaders" fled into the hills and fought sporadic guerilla actions until 1948. The huge column, numbering perhaps as many as one-half million soldiers and civilians, including Slovenes, Serbs and even Cetnik units, finally came to rest in a small valley near the Austrian village of Bleiburg.
The leaders had no way of knowing that their peace emissary, Dr. Vrancic had traveled as far as Forli, Italy by plane and car under a white flag only to be stopped short of his goal. At Forli, Vrancic and Naval Captain Vrkljan, who spoke fluent English, were detained by one Captain Douglas of British Field Security who was more interested in their diplomatic grade Mercedes-Benz automobile than their mission to see Field Marshal Alexander in Caserta. He held the emissaries incommunicado until May 20 when he had them thrown into a POW camp and confiscated the automobile.
Deception and Betrayal
In the belief that their envoys had made some arrangement with the British, the multitude of humanity set up camp in the valley to await the outcome of negotiations. One of the first groups to arrive at British headquarters was a contingent of 130 members of the Croatian government headed by President Nikola Mandic. All were told that they would be transferred to Italy as soon as possible by British Military Police. All were then loaded into a train and returned to the Partisans for execution. It was the intent of the British to turn over all Croatians, as well as Serbs and Slovenes, to the Communists from whom they had fled.
When the Croatian military leaders realized that they had led hundreds of thousands into a trap, many committed suicide on the spot. The British extradited at first hundreds, then thousands of Croatians. Some were shot at the border, while others joined the infamous "Death Marches" which took them deeper into the new People's Republic for liquidation. Realizing the importance of the clergy to the Croatian people, most church leaders were arrested. Although Archbishop Stepinac was sentenced to death, he was saved by a massive outcry of world public opinion and died under house arrest in 1960. Two bishops, three hundred priests, twenty-nine seminarians and four lay brothers were less fortunate and were executed. The number of Muslim religious leaders executed has never been determined, although the figure is thought to be in excess of six hundred. Churches and mosques were closed or destroyed throughout Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. The new government dynamited the minarets around the mosque of Zagreb, turned the building into a museum glorifying the Partisan victory and renamed the square in which it stood "Victims of Fascism Square." One of the first acts of the Croatian government in 1991 was to rename the plaza. Almost every government official from the President to local postmasters, every military officer above the rank of major and virtually every Ustasse officer, regardless of rank, was found guilty of "crimes against the people." Many were executed. Enlisted members of the Ustase were often found guilty en masse and sent to concentration camps where many died. All top ranking members of the government were executed. Chief-of-state Ante Pavelic managed to flee only to be gunned down by a would-be assassin in 1957. He later died of complications.
Denial and Discovery
The total number of people liquidated may never be known, but figures of 100 to 180 thousand have been voiced by some, up to one-quarter of a million by others. Despite the scholarship and masses of documents proving the contrary, the Yugoslav government denied that the Bleiburg-Maribor massacres or any subsequent liquidation of anti-Communists occurred. As late as 1976 special teams were active in Slovenia and southern Austria covering up evidence of the crimes. The American and British governments, implicated in the forced repatriation that led to the slaughter also sought to cover-up or at least ignore the crimes.
Finally, in July of 1990 with the departure of the Communist regime, the truth began to come to light. In underground caverns in Slovenia and northern Croatia, researchers using spelunker's equipment descended into the mass graves long before sealed by the authorities. They found layer upon layer of human bones, crutches, rope and wire. Many of the skulls had a single bullet hole in the back. Estimates ranged from 5,000 victims in one cave to as many as 40,000 in another. When news was made public, people from throughout Croatia and Slovenia reported other mass grave sites that had been known to them for years. For obvious reasons none had ever spoken publicly of them before.
In 1990 the Croatian Parliament formed a commission which included foreign experts to determine, for the first time, the full extent of the post-war massacres. Determining how many perished will be a difficult undertaking that will require years of grizzly exploration and detailed research. Whatever the final result, it will never again be said that Croatia did not suffer in post-war Yugoslavia.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediach
The Bleiburg massacre occurred near to the end of World War II, during May 1945. It is named after the village of Bleiburg on the Austrian-Slovenian border, near where the massacre began. It involved mass murder of Croatian soldiers and civilians who were fleeing from the defeated Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of the Nazi regime in Germany. The atrocities were a reprisal against the real or alleged members or collaborators of the fascist regime, by the communist Yugoslav partisan army, presumably with the full knowledge of their supreme commander Josip Broz Tito, who was himself half-Croatian.
Although a still undefined number of Croatian soldiers died during a series of battles and skirmishes, it is generally accepted that the vast portion of violent deaths were the result of executions that lasted at least two weeks after the cessation of hostilities. The victims were Croatian soldiers and civilians, executed without trial as an act of vengeance for the crimes committed by the Ustaše regime in Croatian-controlled territories during World War II — frequently in overtly gruesome manner (mass rape and subsequent killing by stoning of women; beheading of disarmed Croatian soldiers). Murder continued in nearby Slovenia, and it is hard to estimate the number of victims in Bleiburg field, compared to those later found in the trenches in the Maribor area and other numerous pits in Slovenia. Many captives were sent on a death march further into Yugoslav territory.
Croatian political émigrés, as well as other sources related to the Cossacks, had published numerous testimonies on the atrocities and British involvement in the affair (interestingly enough, British archives on the Operation Keelhaul tragedy are still sealed), but their publications have received little attention, supposedly since communist Yugoslavia was the West's protégé and the buffer zone to the Soviets in the post-war period.
Number of victims
The number of those who met their death in the Bleiburg massacre is almost impossible to ascertain. Generally, there are three schools that have tried to do this:
1. The school based mainly on historiographic and demographic investigations of scientists:
Which of these figures is closest to the reality is still hard to decide.
2. Another school operates with big numbers, and their contention is that over 250,000 Croats had been executed in Bleiburg, Slovenia and northern Croatia. This theory has gained some publicity in recent years, when Slovene authorities have estimated, in 1999 and 2000, that mass excavations in wider Maribor area have found circa 180,000 human corpses, mostly Croats (judging from the remnants of military insignia). As reported elsewhere:
3. The third school operated with small numbers. Petar S. Brajovic, a Yugoslav general who participated in the battles around Bleiburg and is, along with other senior Yugoslav officers like Albert Nad and Dušan Basta, frequently accused as having organized the Bleiburg massacre, claims in his book "Konacno oslobodenje" ("Final liberation") published in 1983, that Ustaše had no big victims in Bleiburg and that artillery was not used. In the local cemetery there were only 16 their soldiers buried. In the same book is written that Third Army of Jugoslav Army captured 30000 soldiers (6000 of them were Chetniks) and 20000 refugees.
However, the investigation was stalled, so no definite conclusion can be drawn.Bleiburg massacre - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
From IMPRIMIS, December 1988
[Count Nikolai Tolstoy, heir to the senior line of the world-famous literary family, is the author of a number of books, including The Minister and the Massacres , Victims of Yalta, Stalin's Secret War , The Tolstoys: Twenty Four Generations of Russian History, the Quest for Merlin, and, The Coming of the King: The First Book of Merlin. He is president of the Association for a Free Russia and the Soviet Prisoners in Afghanistan Rescue Committee. Inquiries regarding the forced reparation defense case mentioned in this essay may be directed to Messrs. Rubenstein Callingham, Z, Raymond Building, Gray's Inn, London, WC1R 5BZ, England.]
Editor's Preview: At the end of World War II, two million Russians -- including White Russians, Cossacks, Slovenians, Croats and Serbs who were POWs or simply living in exile -- were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union. Men, women and children were turned over to the Russian secret police at gunpoint. Non-Soviet citizens were supposedly exempt, but historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy charges that they were secretly betrayed by a few key military officials, a future British prime minister among them. This tragedy, although nearly a half-century old, ought not be forgotten. What happened in 1944-47 was more than a sinsister episode. Even in this era of ``glasnost,'' the Soviet Union still denies freedom of emigration, one of the most fundamental human rights, to its people. Our thanks to the U.S. Business and Industrial Council who co-sponsored this Shavano Institute for National Leadership lecture of the Hillsdale campus in the fall of 1987. The last world war was a long time ago, and for many of us, even those with first-hand experience, it does indeed seem to have become a distant memory. Yet some images remain vivid. Only a child at the time, I remember the London bombing raids as if they happened yesterday. But the particular experience which has occupied much of my adult concern, oddly enough, involved a story which I understood very little of in the 1940s or for many years afterward. I had heard people talking about it in the Russian church where emigres and refugees gathered in London, but the rest, for me, came later. Though the story is over forty years old and may not be widely known, it is one which continues to gain in significance -- and tragedy.
PRISONERS OF WAR In 1941, after the demise of the brief cynical alliance between Hitler and Stalin, Germany invaded Russia and advanced very swiftly. The German forces took several million prisoners in the first three months of their offensive. Mistakenly, many of these prisoners and the inhabitants of the invaded regions regarded the Germans as liberators who were expected to overthrow the hated Stalin and restore their freedom. Some surrendered Russian Army units marched to meet their supposed liberators with bands playing, and Nazi propaganda films depict Russian peasants cheering as the German troops paraded through their villages in flower-strewn glory. What happened to the Russian POWs after that, however, was far from glorious. They were thrown into wired camps on the open steppe. During the cruel winter of 1941-42, without shelter or proper food, millions died. This is a Nazi war crime, undeniably, but it is not one which should be laid exclusively at Hitler's door. During World War I, Russian prisoners received the same treatment as the British, French and American troops; they were all signatories of the Hague Convention. Ironically, it was not Imperial Russia under Czar Nicholas II [1868-1918; r. 1894-1917] which refused to be bound by the Hague agreement but the new Soviet regime which supplanted it in 1917. Twelve years later, the world powers reached a more detailed agreement, the Geneva Convention, but the Soviets remained aloof. Throughout World War II, Russian POWs were completely unprotected. Except on a few rare occasions, the Red Cross was forbidden to enter the camps and Stalin refused to discuss the issue even though Germany urged Red Cross intervention. Often with nothing but a barbed wire fence to separate them, the beleaguered Russians were forced to watch their British, French and American counterparts receive food parcels, clothing and letters from home. Still on record in the British Foreign Office are documents discussing requests from White Russian immigrants in Britain who pleaded for permission to help their countrymen. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden [1895-1977] said, in effect, ``Well, for some reason which we know nothing about, Stalin is determined that nothing should be done for the Russian prisoners'' and nothing indeed was done. It is significant to note that Stalin did not oppose humanitarian aid for other Allied POWs; only for Russians. For those who recalled his brutal methods of subjugation in the Ukraine, the message is clear. Thousands of Russians were drawn into the Third Reich willingly or unwillingly. Many, of course, had opposed the communist revolution of 1917 and desired autonomy, so they did not consider it treasonable to work for the Nazis. Men, women and children were also abducted from occupied zones by the hundreds to work as forced labor in Germany. Great numbers of refugees fled eastward for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was to get out of the line of fire during the German retreat. Consequently, at the war's end, some six million Soviet citizens were located in Central Europe. The Allies were completely unable to comprehend the scale of such a problem. They had no way of assessing how many Russians were inside Germany or anywhere else, for that matter, but huge numbers of them showed up in North Africa, Persia, Normandy, and Italy too. During the D-Day invasion in June 1944, British and American military authorities estimated that one out of every ten German soldiers captured was in reality a Soviet citizen. Of all the nations in Europe, the USSR was to only one to witness nearly a million of its subjects enlisting in the enemy army. Many of the Russian prisoners were transported to Britain and were held in training camps originally used for British troops. Of politics, most of these men knew nothing. All their lives they had been harried hither and tither in the name of confused ideologies by commanders whose languages more often than not they could not understand. Among the more educated, knowledge of their precarious situation only contributed to a typically fatalistic attitude. Soon the British authorities received their first glimpse of what it meant to be faced with the possibility of compulsory return to the world's first Marxist state: Russian POW suicides began in July of 1944. The matter was brought before the British Cabinet (the Americans were only marginally involved at this time because they had been delivering all captured Russians into British hands), but already the decision had been made: All Russian POWs would be returned to the Soviet Union, whatever the fate in store for them. One member of the government who spoke up for the unfortunate prisoners was Lord Selborne, then Minister of Economic Warfare, who was also responsible for occupied Europe's sabotage and espionage operations under the Special Operations Executive. Russian-speaking officers under his direction recorded dozens of appalling stories of suffering from the POWs. Common to all of them was an absolute dread of returning to the Soviet Union. They were certain that they would be killed or, at the very least, sentenced to the unspeakable horrors of the labor camps. Selborne wrote to Winston Churchill [1874-1965], who promised to consider the matter again. But at a second cabinet meeting, Selborne, not being a Cabinet Minister, was barred from presenting his evidence and Anthony Eden was able to convince the Prime Minister that all Russian POWs must be repatriated, forcibly if necessary.
RETURN TO THE USSR In December of 1944, the first shipload of Soviet soldiers sailed around the North Cape of Murmansk by the White Sea. Nothingly overtly terrible was witnessed on this occasion, but rumors of the fate that awaited the Russians abounded and were verified later by first-hand and other reliable accounts of mass executions in abandoned quayside warehouses and factories. The prisoners were marched to these after disembarking and divesting themselves of the clothes and possessions the Allies had given them. Many were allowed to live, and were sent to ``educational'' camps. Regarding the other group, however, here is one British observer's account: The disembarkation started at 1830 hrs. and continued for 4 1/2 hrs. The Soviet authorities refused to accept any of the stretcher cases as such and even the patients who were dying were made to walk off the ship carrying their own baggage. Two people only were carried off, one man with his right leg amputated and left one broken, and the other unconscious. The prisoner who had attempted suicide was very roughly handled and his wound opened up and was allowed to bleed. He was taken off the ship and marched behind a packing case on the docks; a shot was then heard, but nothing more was seen. The other 32 prisoners were marched or dragged into a warehouse 50 yards from the ship and after a lapse of 15 minutes, automatic fire was heard coming from the warehouse; twenty minutes later a covered lorry drove out of the warehouse and headed towards the town. Later I had a chance to glance into the warehouse when no one was around and found the cobbled floor stained dark in several places around the sides and the walls badly chipped for about five feet up. These were not the only victims in this incident. Altogether, about 150 Russians were separated from the rest and marched behind sheds on the quayside. There they were massacred by executioners, many of whom appeared to be youths aged between 14 and 16.
REPATRIATION POLICY It must be remembered that the early debate over the Russian prisoners had been won on Eden's insistence (1) that it was vital to placate the Soviet government if British POWs liberated in Russian-controlled zones were to be safely returned and (2) that Stalin would not help them win the war unless his demands were met. What is surely suspicious, however, is the fact that Eden's detailed plan for forcible repatriation was formulated before Stalin or any other Soviet official had raised the issue. When Churchill and Eden traveled to Moscow in October 1944 to meet with Stalin, the Foreign Secretary offered the unconditional return of all Russian POWs. To Vyacheslav Molotov's [1890-] suggestion that Soviet citizens should be returned regardless of their personal wishes, Eden replied that he had no objection. At Yalta in February of 1945, however, the Americans balked. All prisoners captured in German uniforms were considered protected by the provisions of the Geneva convention. U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull [1871-1955; Sec. State, 1933-44] telegraphed a message to Ambassador Averell Harriman [1891-; amb. to USSR, 1943-46] in Moscow the previous September to state unequivocally what had been American policy since December of 1943: No Russian POW could be returned by force. After the Yalta Conference it was agreed, however, that those designated as Soviet citizens would be forcibly repatriated. [Footnote: Only one country stood firm against Stalin's demands: tiny Liechtenstein, with an entire population of less than 13,000 people, most of them farmers, no army, and a police force of eleven men. No refugees, Soviet citizens or otherwise, would be sent back to Russia by force, the government of Liechtenstein courageously declared to the Soviet delegation which came to claim them in 1945.] With the surrender of the Nazis in May of 1945, the logistics of repatriation became much easier. The Russians liberated in Germany were simply handed over to Soviet troops on the spot. Altogether, some two and three quarters of a million people were repatriated. Most did not have to be physically forced -- all their lives they had been used to following the orders of the state, and Stalin had, after all, broadcast a general ``amnesty.'' But many brutal scenes did take place. A particularly grim experience for American soldiers involved the notorious extermination camp, Dachau. After the Nazis were defeated, the Americans used it for an internment center. When they handed the Russian POWs over to the Soviet authorities, they discovered to their horror that a number hand hung themselves from their bunks in the barracks. In another camp, soldiers were ordered to break up a religious service; they dragged Russians out of a church and threw them into trucks. A rare American Army film showed a POW stabbing himself 56 times to avoid being taken into custody by SMERSH officers. In the British zone, as in the American-controlled territory, SMERSH operatives were allowed to roam freely and on frequent occasions they resorted to kidnaping and murder. Their blatant violence, combined with the obvious injustice and illegality of their actions, eventually led military commanders Eisenhower, Montgomery and Alexander to unilaterally issue orders outlawing forced repatriation. This placed the British and American governments in an awkward position. Individual soldiers refusing to carry out orders was embarrassing enough, but this amounted to a mass revolt at the highest level of command, and was further complicated by the fact that if the unpleasant details of the Russian repatriation effort were made known to the public, there would certainly be a huge uproar. But under strong pressure from the British Foreign Office, the U.S. State Department reluctantly agreed to pursue the policy. American resistance was sufficient only to severely limit the categories of repatriation candidates. Previously, mere Soviet citizenship, regardless of age, sex, career, or war record, meant mandatory repatriation, but now in late 1945, stipulations were made that only citizens who had actually lent aid and comfort or wore a German uniform were to be returned. The trouble was, almost all who fit these categories had either been repatriated already or had escaped, often with the help of sympathetic Allied soldiers, including officers, who provided them with false papers or simply looked the other way at the right moment. In 1946 and 1947, the policy known in Italy as Operation Keelhaul was typical. Unlike earlier repatriation efforts carried out in the chaotic final days of the war, Operation Keelhaul was very carefully executed. The officers who actually conducted the screening felt privately that it was up to them to shield as many Russians as possible. But it was made clear to them that they were to fill their ``quota,'' else the SMERSH agents would take things into their own hands. In May of 1947, Operation East Wind handed over its final contingent of repatriates, bringing the long sad story of forced repatriation to a close, for the moment. Ironically enough, another simultaneous operation in the British Army, code named Highland Fling, was assisting Soviet soldiers to defect as the Cold War Commenced.
FORCED NON-SOVIET REPATRIATION Over thirty years later, I wrote a book on the history of forced repatriation called Victims of Yalta, which appeared in the U.S. as The Secret Betrayal. At the time, I thought that my research, based on numerous documents and eyewitness accounts, had also drawn to a close. I never dreamed that within a decade, I would be publishing an even longer book on a single repatriation operation. The new book, The Minister and the Massacres (1986), describes the fate of some 40,000 Cossacks, White Russians, Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, including many women and children, who were interned in Austria after the British military authorities accepted their surrender in 1945. One group, the Fifteenth Cossack Cavalry Corps, had been fighting in Yugoslavia against Tito [1892-1980; pres. Yugosl., 1953-1980]. Large numbers within this group and others were not Soviet citizens. They had escaped Russia during or before the Revolution, rescued in British and French warships. They had taken new citizenship or possessed League of Nations passports attesting to their stateless status. Throughout the repatriation campaign, both British and American authorities had adhered to an extremely legalistic view of their obligations. Even the British Foreign Office stated after the Yalta Conference that only Soviet citizens, i.e[.], residents of the Soviet Union after September 1, 1939, were to be compelled to return. This order was echoed in writing by the Supreme Allied Headquarters. Field Marshall Alexander accordingly issued stringent orders against the use of force. But in May of 1945 the British Army in Austria handed over thousands of non-Soviet citizens, men, women and children, by the most brutal means imaginable. How did it happen? Was it an accident -- a case of mislaid orders and fouled up communications -- or was it a deliberate act, covered up these past forty years? After examining the relevant evidence and talking to the soldiers involved, I came to the conclusion that the ``accident'' theory was untenable. First, it was clear that the presence and status of the non-Soviet Cossacks was well known to all levels within the British Fifth Corps, the unit to which they had surrendered at the close of hostilities. Second, all orders relating to the handover of the Cossacks emphasized that non-Soviet citizens were to be screened and retained in accordance with policy laid down by the British government. Given these indisputable facts, how could the surrender of Tsarist exiles be attributed to an oversight?
DECEPTION AND BETRAYAL Among the Cossack officers were many famous heroes who had lead the White Russian Army in alliance with the British, French and Americans during the Russian civil war. One, General Andrei Shkuro, had been honored for gallantry by King George V with the Companionship of the Bath, whose cross he still wore on his uniform alongside others awarded by King George's cousin, Emperor Nicholas II. SMERSH operatives, significantly, had detailed lists of all former White Russian officers on which they checked off the names as the British relinquished custody of them. These same operatives arranged to have Shkuro detained in secret by the British before he was forcibly repatriated. When he was handed over, the General tore the cross from his chest and threw it at the feet of the attending British officer. He and the Ataman of the Don Cossacks, Peter Nikolaevich Krasnov, one of the most famous Russian leaders of all, were hung together in the Lefortovo prison courtyard. Beyond a brief notice in Pravda, their passing went unnoticed. Their helpless compatriots lie buried in mass unmarked graved in Gulag forced labor camps. It seemed that two versions of the event existed. According to the official record, preserved among War Office files, the non-Soviet Cossacks were screened and retained in British custody, and nothing in the files suggests that any thing but this took place. In reality some two or three thousand Tsarist emigres, holding foreign or League of Nations passports and for the most part dressed in flamboyant Tsarist uniforms, were deceived into traveling to the Soviet lines at Judenburg. We seem to be inhabiting two different worlds: one fiction and one tragic reality. Further research revealed that elaborate precautions had been taken to ensure that the Soviets regained this particular group of their most inveterate enemies, and that equally skillful measures had been adopted to prevent this aspect of the operation from becoming known outside the Fifth Corps. In short, the evidence suggests strongly that the tragedy resulted not from the muddle or oversight that one could so readily envisage in the chaotic circumstances of the time, but was planned and implemented throughout with great care and forethought in deliberate contravention of orders from above. But if this view were correct, who could have been responsible for flouting undeviatingly clear government instructions in order to perpetrate an atrocity greatly beneficial to the Soviet government, but of no perceptible advantage to British interests? What was the motive for such action? These were questions which I was unable to answer in Victims of Yalta, and I was compelled to conclude my investigation with the admission that, ``whether we shall ever know the full story is questionable.'' For the time being matters were left in this unsatisfactory state. Some years later I discovered that Winston Churchill himself, with all the resources of the Cabinet and War Office at his disposal, had been similarly unable to penetrate the secret. In the spring of 1953, disturbed by allegations received from an emigre Cossack general, he ordered a full enquiry. After an exhaustive search among the files, Brigadier Latham of the Cabinet Office was obliged to confess that ``though we know most of the details of what happened we are at present unable to say why these events took place.'' On first launching into research for Victims of Yalta, I addressed appeals for information to all the surviving protagonists. The response was fruitful, with one remarkable exception. As Minister Resident in the Mediterranean in 1945, Harold Macmillan bore responsibility for providing political advice and decisions in British occupied Italy and Austria. In view of his high authority in a region where many thousands of Russians fell into British hands and were subsequently repatriated, he was an obvious person to consult. At the same time I had no reason to believe that he had been directly involved in the business with which I was concerned, since the decision to repatriate Soviet citizens had been made at the Cabinet level. His task, on the face of it, had merely been to transmit and explain that decision to the Supreme Allied Commander, Field-Marshall Alexander. It was with some surprise, therefore, that in April 1974 I received a curt reply from Mr. Macmillan, informing me simply that, ``I am sorry that I cannot be of help to you.'' Though he was clearly under no obligation to assist every historian approaching him, this refusal appeared perplexing and, as I was later to learn, unusual. My suspicions were aroused, and his name moved to the forefront of my concern. At the time of the public outcry which greeted the appearance of Victims of Yalta, I was approached on different occasions by Yugoslav emigres, who urged me to write about the parallel plight of thousands of their compatriots handed over to be slaughtered by Tito at the time of the Cossack tragedy. I was strongly sympathetic to their cause, but had to reply that as the Yugoslavs did not come under the Yalta agreement, and as my field of study lay largely if not exclusively in Russian affairs, I felt their story should be told by a Yugoslav specialist. But then it happened that my friend David Floyd wrote an important article on the subject at the end of 1979, published in the magazine Now. I read it with detached interest until I came across this quotation from a report by a Foreign Office Official: ``The handing over of Slovenes and others by the Eighth Army in Austria to Tito's forces at the end of May was, of course, a ghastly mistake which was rectified as soon as it was reported to headquarters.'' It was the phrase ``a ghastly mistake'' which attracted my attention. Two ``ghastly mistakes'' occurring at the same time and place appeared an improbable coincidence. I saw at once that the Yugoslav tragedy represented not only a subject in itself worthy of study, but one which might open up fresh avenues in an investigation which for some time seemed to have reached a dead end. Examination of the relevant Foreign Office and War Office files revealed anomalies even greater than those attending the Cossack handovers. The Cossacks were divided into two categories, Soviet and non-Soviet, repartriable and non-repartriable, which might (but for the evidence I uncovered) suggest a source of confusion. In the case of the Yugoslavs, however, there existed no ambivalence of any sort. The British and American governments had throughout maintained a consistent policy that no Yugoslav citizens falling into British hands were to be returned against their will. Despite this, thousand had been surreptitiously handed over. Something was very wrong, and it looked as if the twin operations might represent aspects of a single covert exercise. So at least I reasoned. Gradually, the evidence began to accumulate. It soon began to look as if some hand had been at work, altering and removing documents, with the apparent purpose of implicating Field-Marshall Alexander. By this stage, however, the existence of what could only be a deliberate false trail merely provided further evidence of the extraordinary thoroughness with which the real culprit had covered his tracks. Slightly unnerving was the discovery that a crucial public document which I had actually handled had some time after been removed or destroyed. Then came the moment in a hotel room in Toronto when my friend, The Croatian scholar Dr. Jerome Jareb, handed me a copy of Alexander Kirk's revealing report of May 14, 1945. Now I felt I knew who my man was! But the manner in which he deceived not only his Cossack and Yugoslav victims but not his own colleagues, at Fifth Corps Headquarters in Austria and Allied Force Headquarters in Naples, the Foreign Office and the Cabinet, was so complex and ingenious that it was still no easy task to unravel the skein of events. Patiently I built up a circumstantial case which proved, to my satisfaction at least, that Harold Macmillan (later, Lord Stockton and Prime Minister of Great Britain) had himself largely engineered the whole affair. I published the fresh evidence, such as it was, concerning the Cossacks in Stalin's Secret War (1981), and on the Yugoslavs in an article in Encounter (May 1983). The case I presented was admittedly circumstantial and speculative, leaving considerable room for differing interpretation even if the salient points appeared clear enough. It also included a number of errors of commission and omission. I would regret what proved to be a jejunely premature venture more than I do, were it not that publication stimulated anew public interest in the matter. As a result I began to receive a fresh flow of information, some of it implicating Toby Low, at the time Brigadier-General of the Fifth Corps: the man who signed the orders arranging the handovers of Cossacks and Yugoslavs. Today, Toby Low is Lord Aldington. Harold Macmillan died several years ago without answering the charges leveled against him in The Minister and the Massacres. Reluctantly, Toby Low has been pressured into a court case to which I am a party. The full facts will, I hope, come to light in the near future. Whatever vindication come for the victims of forced repatriation, it comes too late.
[Reprinted from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College, featuring presentations at Hillsdale's Center for Constructive Alternatives and at its Shavano Institute for National Leadership.]
* * *
THE YALTA BETRAYAL
THE BLEIBURG MASSACRES
The Other Holocausts of World War 2
July 18, 2010
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