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On April 10, 1941, Slavko Kvaternik, the deputy leader of the Croatian World War II-era fascist Ustasa movement, proclaimed on Zagreb Radio the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia, NDH.
The NDH, a fascist puppet state supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, existed from April 1941 to May 1945 and passed racial laws targeting Serbs, Jews and Roma and ran a system of concentration camps.
But although the NDH is the biggest stain on Croatia’s history, there are still signs of the glorification of the Ustasa regime in the public arena, such as streets named after its officials or public figures who were close to it.
Croatian historian Hrvoje Klasic, who was involved in research into street names, with the support of World Jewish Congress, an international organisation representing Jewish communities, has discovered that over 30 streets in Croatian cities and municipalities are, or were until recently, named after some 25 people who were directly or indirectly connected with the NDH.
“These are mostly certain intellectuals, writers and priests who gave support to the Independent State of Croatia and the Ustasa regime,” Klasic told BIRN.
He said that maybe some of them did not completely agree with the Ustasa movement, but he argued that people who did not express their views about the regime more clearly or who tolerated it in any way should not have streets named after them.
‘Cowardly’ glorification of the Ustasa
Klasic explained that the majority of the streets dedicated to NDH officials and sympathisers got their names in the early 1990s, after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Many streets which under Yugoslav rule were named after anti-fascist and Partisan fighters “began to be named after people who began to be called and perceived as Croatian patriots”, he explained. The street names were mostly changed in places where the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, was in power, he added.
Various Ustasa symbols were revived during the war years of the early 1990s as Croatian nationalists sought to break with the Yugoslav past. For example, a battalion of the wartime paramilitary Croatian Defence Forces was formed on April 10, 1991, the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the NDH, and named after well-known Ustasa commander Rafael Boban.
President Franjo Tudjman often accused the Croatian Defence Forces and the party it initially served, the Croatian Party of Rights, of damaging Croatia’s image with their neo-fascist symbols. But Tudjman also sometimes expressed sympathies towards NDH in order to gain the sympathy of right-wingers and hardline Croatian émigrés.
In more recent years, the Croatian government has often been accused of tolerating historical revisionism about World War II crimes and ignoring the rehabilitation of the Ustasa. Many observers have noted that the movement’s symbols and slogans have become widespread in the country and that legislation is not effectively curbing their use.
Klasic said that it was never officially announced in the 1990s that streets were being named after someone because he was an Ustasa official or a high-ranking member of the NDH government, but the intention was quite clear – to revive respect for the Ustasa movement and present it as something “patriotic”.
In September last year, Dragana Jeckov, an MP from Independent Democratic Serb Party, SDSS, made a speech about the controversial street names in the Croatian parliament in which she pointed out that they were “not named because of the merits of these people in other fields… No, it was done only to rehabilitate the Ustasa regime.”
A heated debate ensued as right-wing lawmakers asked Jeckov about streets in Serbia named after people who committed war crimes against Croats in the 1990s. Jeckov replied that she is a member of the Croatian parliament and that Serbian MPs should be asked about that issue.
Jeckov meanwhile noted that Bjelovar, a town in central Croatia, has a street named after its former mayor Julije Makanec, who was also a high-ranking Ustasa member and was appointed the senior official in charge of the ‘spiritual development’ of Ustasa youth in early 1942 and as the NDH’s education minister in late 1943.
The Croatian capital Zagreb has some similar examples. There is a street named after Franjo Nevistic, who worked as a secretary in the NDH minister of justice’s office, and in early 1945 was appointed editor-in-chief of the Ustasa movement weekly Spremnost. In the same Zagreb district, Crnomerec, there are also streets named after Ivan Orsanic and Branko Klaric, both Ustasa associates.
BIRN sent inquiries to 18 cities and municipalities in Croatia that, according to the national cadastral register, still have streets named after people associated with the Ustasa regime, asking them to comment. Only a few responded.
Around ten of those – including streets in towns such as Vinkovci, Slavonski Brod, Pleternica and three in the Pakostane municipality – are named after Mile Budak, who was one of the ideologists of the Ustasa movement but is publicly celebrated by contemporary right-wingers as a writer.
Budak was the NDH’s minister of education and faith between 1941 and 1943, its ambassador to Germany and finally its foreign minister. But the authorities in his birthplace, Sveti Rok, in the Lika region, see no problem in the fact that a street bears his name.
“In the place where a Croatian writer was born, we do not see anything questionable about a street being named after him,” Ivan Miletic, the mayor of the Lovinac municipality, where Sveti Rok is located, told BIRN.
“The life of every human consists of ups and downs, good and bad decisions and choices. The street was not named after Mile Budak, an Ustasa official, but after Mile Budak, a Croatian writer born in that place,” Miletic added.
He said that Budak’s “literary works are still read today and no one can dispute their value”.
But Klasic argued that such an argument is not about the separation of Budak’s literary work from his political career, but just a “cowardly” way of glorifying Ustasas.
“When we talk about a certain Mile Budak, about whom there is really no consensus that he is an excellent writer, and we know that he was the pre-war leader of the Ustasa movement, that he was a minister in Ante Pavelic’s [NDH] government and a co-signatory of racial laws, I think there is no justification, even if this was a case of the highest quality literature,” Klasic said.
He drew a parallel with the controversial annual Bleiburg commemoration, which memorialises the killings of Croatian Nazi collaboration troops and civilians at the end of World War II.
“Hiding behind the commemoration of victims is, in my opinion, another expression of cowardice because [Bleiburg] is mostly about commemorating the creation [of the NDH] and [its] failed regime, and much less about commemorating specific victims,” he said.
What does April 10th mean?
One of the streets with an obvious allusion to the Ustasa past was April 10th Street in the village of Slatinski Drenovac in the Slavonia region.
In October 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that naming the street after the date of the establishment of the NDH was unconstitutional, emphasising that it is a “well-known historical truth” that the NDH was a Nazi and fascist creation, and that modern Croatia is not its successor in any way.
But MP Jeckov mentioned in her speech to parliament last year that the court decision has not yet been implemented. Jutarnji list newspaper also reported in September that the April 10th Street signs had been removed in Slatinski Drenovac, but that the street has not yet formally been renamed yet.
BIRN asked the local authorities about this but Mirko Malis, the mayor of Cacinci municipality, where Slatinski Drenovac is located, did not give a clear answer.
“According to the judgment of the Constitutional Court… the April 10th [street] name is inadmissible,” Malis told BIRN, but did not want to give the new name of the street.
“The municipality of Cacinci acted in accordance with the decision of the Constitutional Court… Logically, the name that existed before the decision was made was restored,” he said.
But in the national online cadastral register, the April 10th Street name still stands.
Although the street got its controversial name in 1997, and Malis has only been mayor since 2005, he has defended the renaming in the past.
“What does April 10th mean anyway? Why it should evoke the founding date of the NDH?” he told local media in 2013, adding that on that date, a famous Croatian poet called Vesna Parun was born, among other people.
However, the Constitutional Court concluded that the disputed name could only be linked to the date of the founding of the Independent State of Croatia.
The court said that its stance on the naming of streets and the use of Ustasa symbols reflected its position that the NDH was “a negation of the fundamental values of the constitutional order of the Republic of Croatia”.
In her speech to parliament, Jeckov called on MPs to “finally start respecting our own Constitutional Court and enforcing its decisions”.
“I’m inviting all of us, together, to do what is necessary so that our country stops being embarrassed in this way,” she urged.
Klasic said however believes that it is difficult to change the situation on the national level at the moment “because we do not have clearly specified laws [which say] what is forbidden in Croatia”.
“I do not expect that much can be done about streets when we do not really [have] a clear [official] stance that people who participated in that regime in any way – intellectually, militarily, politically – were actually harming Croatian society and all the citizens of Croatia,” he concluded.