Croatia’s parliament passed legislation last month barring public access to archive materials on individuals aged 100 and over, living and deceased.
Critics say the legislation, which was presented to lawmakers in Zagreb as aimed at protecting the privacy of the deceased, in effect serves to silence research into Croatia’s wartime government’s collaboration with the Nazis.
Former Croatian Culture Minister and historian Zlatko Hasanbegovic called the legislation “cowardly and underhanded,” and said it aimed to “prevent access to archives and silence research.”
While the government in Zagreb denies the law will harm freedom of research, more than 80,000 files, including those pertaining to the fascist Ustashe movement, will be closed to the public.
Croatia would have good reason to try to sweep its past under the rug.
Wartime leader Ante Pavelic’s dictatorial regime not only collaborated with the Nazis, but willingly aided the Nazis in their efforts to wipe out the Jews, operating a number of concentration camps on Croatian soil.
The regime’s vision of a Croatia free of Serbs and Jews quickly turned into a genocidal fever that saw 30,000 of Croatia’s 40,000 Jews murdered in the camps and at the hands of Ustashe goons.
While opposition members railed at the legislation, the government has argued the law was meant to defend the “victims of communism” and said critics of the law were purely motivated by opportunism.
According to Orel Beilinson, a historian who specializes in the Balkans, “the Ustashe was a very dark nationalist regime during the World War II era, which legend has it, Hitler himself was shocked by the cruelty of their actions.”
He noted that while the law does not specifically prohibit access to the Ustashe files, discussions as to what wording in the law allows for the “protection” of the files in effect denies public access to them were ongoing.
“In the transition from socialist Yugoslavia to independent Croatia, a lot of people became criminals and a lot of people who were considered [political] criminals in the past became leaders.
“This is the great importance [in the decision] in opening or shutting the archive — and the focus on the personal files is particularly worrying, because ‘victims of communism’ is a particularly wide definition that could include all kinds of things,” he said.
Danny Orbach, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lamented that “although every Holocaust and World War II scholar is well-aware of Croatia’s dark record, it has never taken a serious place in the discourse.”
He said that a “distorted perception” had been created regarding Poland, which fought the Nazis and is widely perceived as a sort of Nazi collaborator.
Meanwhile, he added, countries that actually collaborated with the Nazis are not negatively perceived in popular public opinion, and are almost never criticized. JN