There he goes again. While the Australian prime minister fantasises of a network of free trade alliances that do far more for bigger powers than they do for Australia, Tony Abbott has been lax with the historical record. This latest play with history may be idiosyncratic, the lapse one expects from the ill-considered. Or it might well be schoolboy ignorance, eyes fluttering in the hope of keeping votes in the bag. The political universe can be a mean spirited one.
The occasion was a speech given by a representative of Abbott, Craig Kelly MP. Being in Japan, Abbott had delegated the task of congratulating members of the Australian Croatian community in Sydney on Croatian independence attained in April 10. This was more than a bit awkward, given that April 10 was the date of the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) after the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ceased to exist under Axis rule in 1941. If ever you wanted to back some unsavoury company, you couldn’t do much better than officials and sympathisers of the NDH.
Speaking at the Croatian Club in Sydney on April 13, Kelly’s words were noted in the Australian Croatian weekly Boca KroPress: “On behalf of the Prime Minister, who is in Japan, I’m conveying his greetings and good wishes on the occasion of the celebration of the 10th of April to you and all Croats in Australia, and those in Croatia.” The report also notes the presence of 200 Croats, various Australian politicians and a Ukrainian diplomat.
Other dates might well have been considered. For instance, in the entry by Ilja Sutalo in James Jupp’s encyclopaedia, The Australian People (2001) on Croatians in Australia, a section featuring “Croatian celebration” makes a rather bland reference to the January 15, 1992 date as one when Croatian independence was recognised “after a long struggle to defend its borders.” Its federal identity in Yugoslavia, and its crucial role in breaking up Yugoslavia, is not mentioned. Rather, “This recent establishment of Croatia as a sovereign state was an important turning point in Croatian history.”
Such a sanitised version ignores that crucial date of April 10, 1941, when the NDH was spawned. That infamous fascist state of the Ustaše dedicated itself to a greater Croatia purged of Jewish, Roma and Serbian elements. Anti-fascist Croats were also prominent targets. Established after the invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on April 4, 1941 by the grace of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany’s blessing, it also had a focus on removing Muslim influence, though the authorities were not averse to collaborating with Muslim militants in pursuing goals against other minorities.
Its brief but bloody existence as an annex of Axis power, overseen by Poglavnik Ante Pavelić, saw the deaths of some 800,000 Yugoslavian subjects. Figures to this day remain conservatively patchy, but an estimate suggests that 750,000 Serbs, 60,000 Jews and 26,000 Roma perished. A good portion of the victims, just under a third, perished in the lethally efficient death camp of Jasenovać, described by the Juretić Report of 1942 as “a real slaughterhouse” which exceeded anything the Soviet or Nazi services had inflicted.1 Some of the Axis sponsors came to regret their sponsorship, the savagery of the NDH’s actions proving so extreme efforts had to be made to restrain their blood lust.
What, then, of Abbott’s curious move? The thesis on his school boy ignorance may seem plausible at first blush – one violent movement for independence looks much like any other in the optics of Australian politics, especially waged in the Balkans, but this view should not be wholeheartedly embraced. Australian politicians have shown a weakness of turning up to April 10 gatherings, providing that awkward, sometimes unwitting endorsement for the NDH.
In April 2007, the Australian Jewish News noted the anger of Jewish and Croatian officials at the attendance by John Howard’s Communications Minister Helen Coonan, Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and NSW Upper House MP David Clarke at a commemoration of the April 10 date. “The Howard Government has been embarrassed by the appearance of a cabinet minister at a Croatian independence function linked to a murderous neo-Nazi regime.”
Anti-racism campaigner Cam Smith let Coonan and Fierravanti-Wells off the hook in his Crikey (Apr 27, 2007) contribution – their attendance must have been done in bumbling ignorance. Not so Clarke, who had been involved since the 1970s with elements connected with Ustaše sympathisers. He had been caught out in 2005 celebrating the same date with similar company, though on that occasion he “feigned surprise”. Useful idiocy can be a stock defence.
Which brings us, rather pertinently, to the right wing heavies who populated, as they still do, a faction of the Liberal Party Abbott is well versed with. The “Uglies” was a term minted for a right faction in a part of the NSW Liberal Party which featured the machinations of various rightists. During the 1950s, the “open church” that was to characterise Liberal Party politics involved the addition of various European Nazi collaborators and those suspected of war crimes. Some scholars have tried to distinguish the idea of “extreme right” and “extremist right”, but this is more a matter of form than substance.
The “Uglies”, now fashioned as the “Talibans”, were characterised by the work of such individuals as the late Lyenko Urbančič, a power-broker who spent time operating as a Nazi propagandist for the Slovenian quisling administration of Leon Rupnik during the last half of World War II. He escaped the noose – almost certain execution in Tito’s Yugoslavian government and any government in the west – finding himself, instead, on a selected list of individuals for Australia which, in Mark Aarons’ words, “bleached” his record (Sydney Morning Herald, Mar 4, 2006).
It was in Sydney’s inner west, notably the Liberal Party’s Five Dock branch, and Waverley, where his rightist influences developed. As Aarons notes, in the 1960s, as president of the Kings Cross Liberal Party branch and operator of the 50 Club in Darlinghurst, he facilitated meetings between Australian rightists and eastern European fascists. From there, he became a supremo of branch stacking in Sydney’s inner-wester, eastern, outer-north-western and south-western suburbs.
Abbott had himself a long involvement, as the sitting member for Warringah, in the Liberal right. His involvement with the Mainstream Committee of his party in Sydney in the 1990s signalled a pressing desire to quash moderate elements of the party, notionally termed The Group (Green Left Weekly, Aug 27, 1997). Given Urbančič’s leveraging behind the closed doors of the party, Abbott’s links with “bleached” fascists must have proven enlightening.
Australia’s relationship with Yugoslavia during the Cold War, notably over anti-communists, was a prickly one. This was particularly the case regarding the European ethnic communities in Australia, whose nationalism became useful to an Australian state straining to keep an eye on communist aspirations. ASIO made it its business recruiting displaced persons and immigrants with solid anti-communist credentials. Croatian and Serb nationalists were high on the list.
In 1951, a request to extradite collaborationist Serbs was rejected – anti-communist credit trumped war crimes exploits. In 1963, Tito’s government complained about captured Australian Ustaše individuals purportedly planning violent acts against the Yugoslav Federation. As the Canberra Times (Sep 6, 1963) noted, the Yugoslav Interior Ministry arrested nine accused men who “had been paid by Croatian organisations in Australia and Europe” for undertaking “terrorist activity” in Yugoslavia. They had crossed into the state illegally with explosives, detonators, transistor radios, pistols, daggers and maps.
The Australian segment of the crew had been trained at Queen Street, Wollahra in Sydney, after being recruited by such ostensibly charitable societies as the Croatian Home and Australia-Croatia society. Prime Minister Robert Menzies retorted by celebrating heroic anti-Communist acts, while others simply treated it as an “internal” matter between Yugoslav citizens. Prominent Melbourne Croatian personality, Rev. Fr. Josip Kasić, preferred a different label: the captured nine were “patriots” who would most likely be shot.2 Croatian fascism was well and truly bleached.
As Denis Freney notes, individual groups such as the HNO (Croatian National Resistance), represented by Nicola Stedul in Australia between 1966-1971, were connected with an assortment of bombings in Australia and Europe.3 The cabinet papers of the McMahon period show that, between 1970 and 1972, there were some 60 terrorist attacks in Australia alone, many attributed to Balkans activity. One of the most prominent attacks took place against the Yugoslav General Trade Agency in Sydney in 1972.
The reaction by the Liberal governments of the day was tepid, even dithering, while the succeeding Labor Government of Gough Whitlam proved overly zealous in attempting to root out Croatian nationalists. No one demonstrated this more than the Labor Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, who instigated searches of various Croatians suspected of keeping weaponry in addition to the infamous raid on ASIO’s offices.4 What tends to be ignored in the ASIO raid debacle of March 1973 was that Murphy was clearing the ground for the visit by Yugoslavian Prime Minister Džemal Bijedić on invitation from Deputy Prime Minister Jack McEwen. Given ASIO’s lacklustre record against Croatian militant activity, unsurprising given the presence of individuals such as Srećko Rover on its payroll, Murphy’s distrust got the better of him.
When HNO became incarnated into the HDP (Croatian Movement for Statehood), it sought to cultivate elements of the left, notably in the Australian Socialist Worker’s Party. This came as no surprise, given the high number of workers of Croatian background, and the belief by such individuals as SWP’s leader David Holmes that collaboration between the groups was fundamental to establishing an effective anti-capitalist movement.
The political spread of the Balkans has a habit of addling the brain, with its murky, bloodied intersects, mismatched loyalties and tribal divergences. History, not being the strong suit of Australia’s elected officials, tends to get garbled along the way at the best of times. But it would be a sad state of affairs to find that the current prime minister of Australia has taken a commemorative line, however lightly, that has been repudiated by Croatia’s current leadership. Celebrating the founding date of a fascist state sits uncomfortably with the pretences of a liberal democratic society. And few have even bothered to mention it.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org