Hitler made it clear in his orders for the invasion of Yugoslavia that an independent Croatia was to be the only nation left in its place. The rest of Yugoslav territory was to be divided among neighboring Axis-allied countries, including Germany, which had taken possession of neighboring Austria in the 1938 Anschluss. In the event, only Italy formally annexed Yugoslav territory, but Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria all took over administrative duties in areas that were assigned to them, which they presumably intended to annex. In Serbia, the Germans set up a Quisling government under a Serbian general named Milan Nedić, and in the eastern part of Vojvodina, although it remained nominally subject to the Nedić government, local power was given to ethnic Germans whose ancestors had settled there in the 18th century.

Ante Pavelić propaganda poster
The Germans were cheered as they marched into Zagreb, and even before the Yugoslav army’s surrender the deputy leader of the Ustaše proclaimed the “Independent State of Croatia.” Ante Pavelić returned in triumph, took control, and gave himself the title of Poglavnik, or ‘head-man,’ a rough semantic equivalent of Führer. In the propaganda poster at the left, he is shown with four heroes of Croatian nationalism, each with a significant date: Tomislav II, Croatia’s first king, declared to be so in 925 (prior to that he had been its Duke); Dmitar Zvonimir, Croatia’s last native king, crowned in 1075; Ante Starčević, who founded the right-wing nationalist Croatian Party of Right in 1861; and Stjepan Radić. He had been no right-winger, but the date — all but impossible to read in this small reproduction of the poster — explains his presence: it is 1928, the year Radić was murdered, becoming a martyr to the Croatian nationalist cause.

Croatia and its neighbors, 1941–1945
Croats soon learned that independence was not to be gained without a price: the new government signed over virtually all of the Adriatic coast to Italy, which got most of the islands they hadn’t already been given after World War I, and all the port cities except Dubrovnik, leaving Croatia little but an undeveloped stretch of coastline. In compensation, through a deal Pavelić had made with Mussolini while still in Italy, Bosnia-Herzegovina was added to Croatia’s territory. This province did have a sizeable Croatian population, as well as many Muslims who might have found the arrangement acceptable, but it also contained many Serbs. As the map shows, Croatia now had a much more solid look, but this was a visual phenomenon only. (The other colors on the map indicate parts taken from Yugoslavia by the invaders: green for Italy, brown for Hungary, and blue for Germany. The blue patch at the upper right represents the Banat, where an ethnic German government was installed, although under the nominal sovereignty of Quisling Serbia. Pale yellow areas along the Adriatic coast of Croatia already belonged to Italy before the war, as the result of World War I treaties.)

Starčević, whose Croatian Party of Right was in the Ustaše’s DNA, had written (according to the Wikipedia article about him) not only that the finest Croats were those of Bosnia, but also that “Bosnian Muslims are a part of the Croatian people and of the purest Croatian blood.” He didn’t bestow this blessing on the Bosnian Jews or Serbs, however, describing both peoples as lowly breeds, of whom he ranked the “Slavoserbs” the lowlier of the two. (In fairness, other members of his party denounced such extremist statements, and in response he retracted or qualified some of them.) Starčević, unlike his spiritual descendant Pavelić, had eschewed violence, at least physical violence, as a means to his political ends, but Pavelić had no such scruples, and was obsessed with “purification,” a process more recently known as ethnic cleansing.

Ustaše in the uniform of the
There is some evidence that the Germans didn’t consider it in their best interest to put the Ustaše in charge of the Croatian state. They asked Vladko Maček, who had succeeded Stjepan Radić as leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, to form a government, but he refused, and Pavelić was the only alternative. (He put Maček in a concentration camp, but protests from members of the Croatian Peasant Party embarrassed the government into changing this to house arrest.) The Wehrmacht remained in military control of much of the “Independent State,” and the Italians (until they exited the war in 1943) controlled another part of it. There was a Croatian army or “home guard,” but the Ustaše constituted an independent armed force, and they set about purifying the country in accordance with the Poglavnik’s vision. Although most Ustaše units wore tan uniforms, one regiment wore black and was called the Black Legion. Originally formed in Sarajevo of Croats and Muslims who had been victims of Serb violence when Bosnia was made a part of the Independent State, and strengthened with fiercely nationalist recruits from western Herzegovina, the legion fought Partisans in Bosnia, and (at least by some accounts) played a brutal part in persecuting the Serbs there.

The Ustaše undertook their task of purification with such zeal that officers not only of the Wehrmacht but even the Gestapo condemned it in communications with their leaders. Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo’s commander, is said to have received a report that included the following:

Increased activity of the [guerilla] bands is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.

(Like all such documents, this one tends to be accepted as truth on one side and denounced as a forgery on the other.)

Waffen-SS recruiting poster
The Independent State of Croatia didn’t devote all its military efforts to purges and deportations, however. Besides helping the occupying armies fight the Partisans, Croatian units did their bit against Communism in service on the Eastern Front. Both Catholic and Muslim regiments were organized; the Muslims’ uniform was topped off by a fez, like those worn by Bosniak units in the Austrian army in World War I. This recruiting poster (“Bosnians! Join the Waffen-SS! Protect your beautiful homeland! Protect your women and children!”) invites Bosnians of both faiths to take up arms in the Führer’s cause. The Ustaše party’s armed forces, however, found plenty to keep them occupied in their newly expanded home country.

Pavelić had declared the principal enemies of Croatia to be Communism, Freemasonry, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Under German influence, he didn’t mind adding Jews and Gypsies to the list, but the figures show how much more important he thought it was to rid the country — including what is now Bosnia — of Serbs. According to conservative estimates, the Ustaše murdered about 30,000 Jews, 29,000 Gypsies, and somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 Serbs. A statement attributed to Pavelić — variously characterized as a declaration of policy or a passing remark — described a plan to forcibly convert a third of the Serbs in Croatia to Catholicism, drive another third out of the country, and kill the rest.

Church and State in wartime Croatia
Pavelić’s original enemies’ list tied in with a strong right-wing undercurrent in the Catholic Church, and there’s no question that his program had a lot of support among the Catholic clergy, not only in Croatia but also in the Vatican. The Church had identified the anticlerical Freemasons and “godless Communism” as enemies since the respective births of these movements. Anti-Semitism was also part of the mix: many on the right characterized Communism as a Jewish conspiracy against Christendom. Conservative clerics feared Orthodox Christianity not so much because of ancient theological quarrels between Rome and Constantinople as because of more recent struggles between the Austrian Empire — which favored the political and material as well as the doctrinal and pastoral well-being of the Catholic Church — and Tsarist Russia, bulwark of Eastern Orthodoxy, whose power threatened all of the above in the parts of Europe where the two empires competed.

Tsarist Russia was certainly a dead issue by 1941, but old enmities die hard, and it’s clear that some members of the Vatican establishment felt that the Church Militant should still be standing on guard against the threat of the Orthodox faith (now championed by such menacing titans as Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece). In 1929 Pope Pius XI and Mussolini had signed an accord that ended the Vatican’s hostility to the Italian state for the first time since that state was created in 1861. In the light of this climate change, it may have seemed to some church authorities that the increase of Italian power would be a good thing for Catholicism in the Balkans. Perhaps it even seemed that domination of that region by Italy’s ally, the Third Reich, would be of benefit, insofar as it would do more to weaken Orthodoxy than Catholicism.

The whole messy issue of the relationship between the fascist state and the Church is complicated by the historical fact that Roman Catholicism is the principal defining characteristic of Croatian identity. This has consistently made it difficult for many Croats, whether clergy or laity, to distinguish between Catholicism and patriotism, to the ultimate benefit or neither Church nor State.

Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac
Arguments have raged over the degree to which the head of the Croatian Catholic Church, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, collaborated with the Ustaše regime. Like many Croats, he clearly hoped at first that the new political arrangement would, on balance, benefit his country, and he ordered the clergy to support the new regime. Only a few months later, however, he had begun protesting to Pavelić about the mistreatment of Serb deportees. It took him quite some time to realize that those directly involved were taking their orders from the Poglavnik himself. The archbishop continued to criticize the government’s actions, in increasingly stronger terms, and, (according to the Rough Guide to Croatia) “used his personal authority to save many individuals who would otherwise have faced execution.” However, he could never bring himself to recognize the communist-led resistance, and they treated him as an enemy when the war ended. Stepinac’s imprisonment by Tito generated a reaction in the worldwide Catholic Church that amounted almost to canonization by popular acclaim.

Like virtually every person, policy, and event that affected Yugoslavia during the seven decades of its existence, Stepinac is viewed one way by the Croats, who understandably see him as a patriot and martyr, and the opposite way by the Serbs, who — also understandably — see him as a collaborator in Fascist genocide. Spend just a few minutes with Google, checking out several references to virtually any event or personality in the country’s history, and you’ll quickly discover that not only the interpretation, but the facts themselves, depend entirely on who presents them and which side the presenter identifies with.

Historical evidence suggests that Stepinac was guilty at most of naiveté and perhaps timidity. But some Croatian clergy were much more deeply involved with the Ustaše regime and its “purification” campaigns. At the end of the war there was a shameful collaboration between civil and religious authorities (some of the latter being Croats based in Rome) to supply Croatian and even German fugitives fleeing prosecution as war criminals with Vatican identity papers, and to help them escape to the US, Canada, Australia, and various countries in South America. (Pavelić himself lived in Argentina until 1957, when he was shot, allegedly by a Serb nationalist. He died two years later in Spain, of complications from the wound.)

Josip Broz Tito
Croats who wanted to fight their Fascist government had only one place to go: the Communist Partisan resistance, organized by Josip Broz Tito. (Croatian on his father’s side, Slovene on his mother’s, he was named Josip Broz, and later added Tito — ‘Titus’ — as a nom de guerre.) Non-communist resistance groups existed, especially in Serbia and to some extent in Slovenia, but compared to the Communists they were poorly organized and ineffective, and in some cases their opposition to communism went so far that they collaborated with the enemy occupiers. The Germans and Italians were happy to use these groups to combat the only resistance that was causing them any real trouble. Seeing all this, the Allies decided to support the Partisans, Communists though they might be, and when the Germans were finally driven out of Yugoslavia, the Partisans were the only force strong enough to take power.