Holocaust award for book on 1940s Croatian genocide
Congratulations to Dr Alexander Korb from the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies whose manuscript for his forthcoming book on a little-known aspect of World War II has picked up a second award in advance of its publication.
Alex, who is Lecturer in Modern European History in our School of Historical Studies has written In the Shadow of the World War: Mass violence by the Ustaša against Serbs, Jews and Roma in Croatia, 1941-45 which is set for publication next spring. In January, he delivered a lecture at the Wiener Library as a result of winning that organisation’s Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History.
Now another award has come his way. The Irma Rosenberg Prize is awarded by the Institute for Contemporary History of the University of Vienna for “outstanding research of the history of the Holocaust, Nazi crimes, or resistance against Nazism”. For his manuscript, Alex receives €2,000 and the opportunity to deliver another lecture, in Vienna (on 30 November).
But who exactly were the Ustaša?
Yugoslavia invaded and partitioned
In March 1941, the Axis agreement between Germany and Italy was extended to include Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, creating an extensive buffer zone that would keep the essential Romanian oilfields out of the reach of Allied bombers. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was at that time ruled by Prince Paul who gave in to Nazi pressure and agreed to also join the Axis Powers, in the face of stiff public and military opposition. Two days later he was removed by a military coup and replaced by King Peter II. This infuriated Hitler who promptly ordered a full-scale invasion of Yugoslavia, unsubtly code-named Operation Punishment.
German troops crossed the border on 6 April, followed by Italian and Hungarian forces, and the Royal Yugoslav Army unconditionally surrendered eleven days later. The former kingdom was carved up and the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska – NDH) was established, incorporating all of Bosnia and Herzegovina and part of Serbia.
The Ustaša was a fascist revolutionary movement which had been established in 1930 with the aim of creating an independent Croatia, in pursuit of which their terrorist activities had included the assassination of King Alexander I in 1934. After the collapse and partition of Yugoslavia, the Ustaša were installed as the ruling party in Croatia (although on paper the NHD was an Italian protectorate and a monarchy ruled by a cousin of the Italian King).
Ustaša genocide policies
Croatia was one of the most multi-ethnic places in Hitler’s Europe, with a population that included Croats, Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews and many other minorities. Within this diverse society the Ustaša was one of the most murderous wartime regimes, causing the deaths of nearly half a million people.
Traditionally, there have been two interpretations of the Ustaša genocide. Some historians view, the movement as a German puppet regime, with their violence the direct consequence of Nazi policies. To others the Ustaša themselves were monsters, with individuals taking great joy in persecuting Serbs and Jews. Alex challenges both interpretations, as the puppet-theory and monster-theory both stop before actually identifying the reasons why members of a nationalistic organisation would start using violence.
He examined Ustaša policies on a national and regional level, and found a very complex ethnic civil war that took place in the shade of the World War. German and Italian troops, Ustaša militias and their Serb counterparts, Tito’s partisans and other formations, all transformed Croatia into a violent space, in which internal rivalry was the order of the day.
Impact of this research
The book is an in-depth analysis of the dynamics of an ethnicised civil war, during which violence could very quickly accelerate, but also slow down, depending on regional conditions. Alex analysed expulsions, massacres and camps, and found out that it is very often the micro-regional context that played a significant role, including the local geography or even such apparently innocuous factors as whether the crops were close to being harvested or not.
Studying wartime Croatia helps to complicate the picture of the Holocaust because it shows local variations within what is all too often perceived as a monolithic event. Alex argues that the Ustaša were by no means just a German puppet regime, as they were very committed agents of their own interests, skilfully playing Germans and Italians off against each other, and gaining a large amount of independence by inflicting a civil war beyond outside control. Their aim was to use the war for the creation of an ethnically homogenised greater Croatian state, cleansed of Serbs, Jews, Roma and other minorities.
This led him to realise that the genocides committed against these groups were very much intertwined. Alex concludes:
“We cannot study the Holocaust in Eastern and Southeastern Europe without simultaneously studying the persecution of other groups. The goal of many nationalistic militias in Eastern Europe was the ethnic cleansing of their homelands, and in that respect the Jews were only one out of several target groups.”
Im Schatten des Weltkriegs
Dr Korb’s book will be published next spring by Hamburger Edition, the publishing arm of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. The German title is Im Schatten des Weltkriegs. Massengewalt der Ustaša gegen Serben, Juden und Roma in Kroatien, 1941-45.