A Croatian Commemoration: Bleiburg and the Mare Nostrum

A month ago, I spent the weekend attending a ceremony in the intense afternoon heat of the Bleiburg field in Austria. It was a 70th anniversary commemoration for the forced repatriations of 200,000 surrendered, disarmed ex-combatants and 500,000 civilians (figures estimated by the British Army at the time) from Croatia. A forced repatriation, by the British Army, to Tito’s partisans. In May 1945, after the end of the second world war, it was known exactly what fate awaited those people, which was one of the reasons that Churchill opposed the policy. Yet it was done under the direct advice of the later British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

The events are well recorded in Nikolai Tolstoy’s 1986 book ‘The Minister and the Massacres’, as well as many subsequent publications. The Croatians (other smaller groups such as Serbs, Hungarians, Slovenes were also attempting to flee the partisans at the time) were fleeing from the advancing partisans, who were supported by the Red Army, because the partisans’ policy had become one of killing anyone who had not supported them during the war. Tito intended to create a new political order for his philosophy across Yugoslavia – and the best way to secure that was by removing all political opponents to do so. Where ‘opponent’ translated as ‘non-supporter’…using the American Civil War parlance, ‘if you were not for us, then you are against us’.

The Croatians knew that the partisans were likely to kill anyone who had not supported them during the war, so hence the mass exodus as the partisans swept forward. They had the option of standing to fight and hold Zagreb, but with so many women and children, they knew that it would become a bloodbath, as well as the destruction of their capital. Nonetheless, with the curse of hindsight we can look back and see their decision to surrender to the British Army in Austria, through a misguided sense that the British Army would treat them honorably as prisoners of war, as fatally naive. Instead of sending them to refugee camps to await resettlement, Harold Macmillan’s officers circumvented the agreed policy arranged between the US and Churchill, and arranged for them to be sent back into the waiting hands of their pursuers.

The accounts of the treatment of the surrendered and unarmed are harrowing tales of barbarism in what was – technically – peacetime. Hands were pierced with knives so that two people could be wired together through their flesh, making it that much more difficult for them to escape before they reached the point where they would be executed. Gold fillings were removed from the living on the edge of pits and tank trenches before they were shot. The graves were then mined to cover the mountains of corpses. Furthermore, since Croatia and Slovenia again won their independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, there has been the opportunity to uncover more than 1,200 mass graves throughout those two countries, which have been identified as the direct consequences of that act of allied betrayal. For death marches commenced from Austria across the length and breadth of the country, the dying falling as they were starved and left behind, with intermittent stops wherever suitable geological features allowed for the creation of another mass grave for the unfortunates. As an example, these 1,200 sites include two pits in the forest of Kočevski Rog, that contain the skeletal remains of over 30,000 victims ‘generated’ in a mere 8 days (figures come from a partisan participant, as only a handful have ever been completely excavated to be thoroughly documented).

Although this event had had recognition from emigre Croatians in publications dating as far back as 1947, actually attending the site had been a dangerous thing, some mourners being attacked and even killed by Yugoslav state police. (The Yugoslav state police appear to have operated with some impunity throughout Europe, if the current trial in Munich of a former head of Yugoslav state police – UDBA – for the deaths of 68 Croatian emigres in Germany alone is anything to go by.) Things have changed with Croatian independence – for a start, people are allowed to discuss the fact that Bleiburg and the ensuing massacre happened now, where they could not have under Yugoslavia. According to Austrian police, 61,300 people attended the public memorial mass with me this year, at the site of where a population fleeing the advance of Tito’s partisans surrendered, before being systematically slaughtered by the very enemy that they sought to evade through surrendering to Allied Forces.

In court, some years after Tolstoy’s book was published, the only justification presented by Lord Aldington (then Brigadier Austin Low) for knowingly handing the surrendered – predominantly civilian – masses over to certain death at the hands of the partisans’ execution squads, was one of logistical problems in incarcerating and maintaining camps containing such a quantity of political refugees. During reflection on that Austrian field on the 16th May, I was struck by the resonance of this callous decision with recent pronouncements by Theresa May on the ‘Mare Nostrum’ question, where refugees were knowingly left to die in the Mediterranean, through a policy of deliberately cutting funding to the pan-European safety net, on the spurious grounds that it would ‘only encourage’ people already attempting to avoid Islamic State kidnap (and, ultimately, death) squads in order to escape through Libya. Many of those migrants of today have been displaced as a result of the US/British invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the subsequent unplanned endgames that ultimately left chaos in the wake of the departing troops. It seems that there are some shameful attitudes in British foreign policy in Europe that have changed tragically little despite the lessons of the ensuing 70 years: a humanitarian crisis is merely an administrative burden – and not a moral responsibility – that can be easily shirked.

In his final article of 2014, reviewing the last epic year in Scotland, Ian Bell argued that in his opinion the Referendum was lost “because too many of us were afraid to say why a Scot would not want to be British.” The cynicism of the British participation in the Bleiburg tragedy is certainly something that makes me profoundly ashamed to be identified in such a way – and it seems that that attitude is still alive and well with regards to the Mediterranean.


“We have an absolute moral obligation in the interests of humanity to do our share in a European effort to help people in extremity. If you look at many of the places these people are fleeing from, this country – and others – had a substantial role in the destabilization of those countries.” (Alex Salmond)

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