Rewriting History Like Goebbels: Why a Resurgent Far Right Is Whitewashing Genocide in the Balkans
'Like turning Eichmann into a folk hero': How far right nationalists in the Balkans are rehabilitating war criminals and their atrocities, from the perpetrators of the Holocaust to Srebrenica genocidaires, and why
"The deniers of the Holocaust, like the deniers of the Srebrenica genocide, employ the same egregious methods – minimizing events to the outright denial and finally to the glorification of the convicted war criminals."
This was the pointed message in a letter sent this month by Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic to her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. She was informing Lapid that two Bosnian political parties representing, respectively, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, have formed an unholy alliance in the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina in an effort to decriminalize the denial of genocides and crimes against humanity in that country.
This admittedly troubling development should not come as a surprise to anyone. The fact is that genocide denial is increasingly being wielded as a tactical political cudgel, and this is the case in the Balkans beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For years now, far-right elements in both Croatia as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina have gone to great lengths to try to sanitize their respective national histories.
Croatian ultra-nationalists in both countries minimize, distort, and in some cases deny outright the Croatian role in and responsibility for a horrific aspect of the Holocaust; and in Republika Srpska, the Serb constituent entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are widespread and often coordinated endeavors to categorically repudiate established judicial and moral determinations that Bosnian Serb troops perpetrated a genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995.
These insidious initiatives need to be placed in their historical context.
In the so-called Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi-puppet state carved out in 1941 from what had been the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the fanatically nationalist and separatist Ustaša aggressively and ardently murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews, as well as many Roma and Croatian anti-fascists between 1941 and 1945.
As part of their genocidal scheme, the Ustaša established a network of concentration camps infamous for their brutality, and comparable to the barbarity of the German death camps. The most notorious of these was Jasenovac, often referred to as the "Auschwitz of the Balkans," where, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, somewhere between 77,000 and 99,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and Croat opponents of the Ustaša regime were murdered.
Fast forward to the 21st century and concerted effortsby extremist right wing Croatian elements to rehabilitate and legitimize the Ustaša by characterizing its adherents as patriots rather than as cold-blooded murderers and war criminals.
In 2016, to give but one egregious example among many, Jakov Sedlar, a controversial Croatian filmmaker, produced a documentary film entitled "Jasenovac – the Truth," which portrayed Jasenovac as a benign labor camp whose number of victims had been greatly exaggerated. After attending the film’s premiere, the Croatian Minister of Culture at the time praised it as "the best way to finally shed light on a number of controversial places in Croatian history."
Simultaneously, Croatian politicians as well as cultural and sports figures have gone to great lengths to turn the Ustaša battle cry, "Za dom spremni!" ("For the homeland: ready!") – analogous to the Nazi Sieg Heil – into a mainstream slogan so as to bestow a contemporary aura of legitimacy upon the Ustaša and their present-day far-right ideological successors.
Meanwhile, the facts regarding the Srebrenica genocide are firmly established. Over the course of several days beginning on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic murdered approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys between the ages of 12 and 77 from the Srebrenica enclave, in what U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan later called "a terrible crime – the worst on European soil since the Second World War." Republika Srpska troops also forcibly and brutally expelled around 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and elderly men from Srebrenica.
Rather than acknowledging responsibility for the carnage, ultra-nationalist Republika Srpska politicians and their acolytes have spent the past 26 years denying that what took place at Srebrenica constituted a genocide and instead are shamelessly fabricating an alternate – and false – scenario.
Thus, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has called the Srebrenica genocide a "fabricated myth," adding that Bosnian Muslims "did not have a myth, so they decided to construct one around Srebrenica." Most recently, Dodik doubled down, declaring categorically that "genocide did not happen, Serbs must never accept this."
Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin has observed that, "the Serbian people survived genociderather than committed it." And Republika Srpska President Zeljka Cvijanovic has pointedly suggested that the killing of Bosniaks by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica was retaliation for prior anti-Serb "war crimes against Serbs" purportedly committed by Bosnian Muslim forces.
In the same vein, enormous murals throughout Republika Srpska glorify Mladic, who has been convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and is serving a life sentence. This is the functional equivalent of turning Adolf Eichmann into a folk hero.
Several months ago, in July 2021, a purportedly "independent" commission appointed by the Republika Srpska authorities and headed by the Israeli Gideon Greif issued a more than 1,000-page long report that flies in the face of unambiguous and consistent findings by the International Court of Justice and numerous panels of the ICTY that a genocide was indeed perpetrated at Srebrenica.
Greif’s report instead repeatedly casts the Bosniaks as aggressors and the Bosnian Serbs as victims, in a rewriting of history reminiscent of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ justifications for Nazi German antisemitism.
Gideon Greif on Republika Srpska television after submitting his Srebrenica report
Greif, who has become a poster child for Srebrenica genocide denial, is particularly contemptible. Cloaking himself in the mantle of Jewish victimhood, he declared, shamelessly, on Republika Srpska television after submitting his Srebrenica report that "I am Jewish, I know what genocide means… Nobody can tell me what genocide is, and this event was no genocide."
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Greif Report, which I have previously critiqued in detail, is a cringe-inducing factual and jurisprudential abomination that takes genocide denial to a new level.
The grim reality is that Jasenovac and Srebrenica were among the 20th century’s most notorious manifestations of genocide, and both were perpetrated by adherents of indigenous extremist ethnonationalist ideologies. These mindsets and their proponents are still very much in evidence.
Accordingly, the ongoing brazen attempts to deny and distort these gruesome atrocities that we are witnessing in Croatia, Republika Srpska and elsewhere do not merely showcase the moral and ideological bankruptcy of genocide deniers. Far more ominously, they are a clear indication of the resilience and resurgence of the political extremism that provided fertile ground for genocide in the first place.
(c) 2021, Haaretz