Bleiburg massacre

Bleiburg massacre

The Bleiburg massacre [ [ "Yalta and the Bleiburg Tragedy"] ] is a term encompassing events that took place during May 1945, three and a half months before the formal end of World War II in Europe (September 2, 1945), but at a time when hostilities on the Yugoslav front were ending. It is named after the Carinthian town of Bleiburg on the Austrian-Slovenian (then German-Yugoslav) border, near where the events began. The number of casualties has proven difficult to ascertain, with exact numbers being a subject of much debate.

Shortly after midnight on 13 May 1945 the British 5th Corps Headquarters in Austria estimated that there were "approximately 30,000 POWs, surrendered personnel, and refugees in Corps area. A further 60,000 reported moving north to Austria from Yugoslavia" [ [ "Southeastern Europe, 1918-1995"] , Croatian Heritage Foundation & Croatian Information Centre, 2000, ISBN 9536525054] of people who had fled to southern Austria ahead of the advance of the Yugoslav Partisans hoping to surrender to and gain the protection of the British were forcibly returned south by the British. Most of these were subjected to forced marches under inhumane conditions over long distances. [ [ "Memories of a Croatian Soldier: Zvonko's Story"] , "Autobiographic annotations prepared by Zvonko Springer (ZS)", Anif (Salzburg), 1999] Many were also executed on suspicion of being members or supporters of collaborationist forces, or for suspected collaboration with or active involvement in the Wehrmacht. Fact|date=October 2007 In particular these included those who had supported the defeated Independent State of Croatia ("Nezavisna Država Hrvatska", NDH), a puppet state of the Nazi regime in Germany, controlled by the Ustaše party. [ [ Independent State of Croatia, or NDH (historical nation (1941-45), Europe) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia ] ]


The main fighting force against the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia (1941-45), in terms of numbers involved and campaigns undertaken, was the Partisan movement. The Axis-appointed Ustaše government in Zagreb headed the Nazi puppet state [ [ Independent State of Croatia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia ] ] [ [ USHMM about Independent State of Croatia] ] the Independent State of Croatia and had its own lethal agenda for Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croats. ["For the rest - Serbs, Jews and Gypsies - we have three million bullets. We will kill one part of the Serbs, the other part we will resettle, and the remaining ones we will convert to the Catholic faith, and thus make Croats of them.", Mile Budak, Minister of Education of Croatia, July 22, 1941, "The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican", Vladimar Dedijer, Anriman-Verlag, Freiburg, Germany, p. 130]

This was manifested in the atrocities at Jasenovac concentration camp and elsewhere, the scale of which even shocked German and Italian occupying forces. As early as July 10, 1941, Wehrmacht General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau reported the following to the German High Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW):

The Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated February 17, 1942, states that:

The Yugoslav Partisan movement grew rapidly from these atrocities, as it was the only faction in occupied Yugoslavia genuinely promoting pan-Yugoslav tolerance and ideals. Eventually, units of the Ustaše military began defecting to the Partisans. By 1945, the Yugoslav Partisans numbered over 800,000 men organized into four field armies, and were in pursuit of the remnant of the defeated German and Ustaše forces. [ [] clarifymeVerify credibility|date=August 2008 ]


A large-scale exodus of people took place. On May 6 1945, Croatia's Ustaše collaborationist government fled Zagreb, as the Wehrmacht was in retreat and about to surrender [ [ Croatian Axis Forces in WWII] ] The Croatian Armed Forces, the military of the NDH (not to be confused with the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia, an unaffiliated modern military), began to withdraw to the Austrian border on May 12, traveling to Bleiburg where the 38th British Infantry Brigade was stationed. The retreating columns consisted of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes.Fact|date=March 2008 The majority were soldiers of the Croatian Armed Forces which, much like the German Army, consisted of the regular conscript Croatian Home Guard ("Domobrani") and the military wing of the ruling fascist Ustaše party, the Ustaša Militia. Among the remnants of these forces were numerous Ustaše dignitaries along with the ruling fascist elite, but also a number of civilians, inextricably mixed with the others in the confusion of the retreat. To the pursuing Partisans, the appearance was that the civilians within the retreating column were for the most part collaborationists, as they abandoned their homes and businesses to flee with Ustaše leaders. Retreating alongside the Ustaše and the Croatian Home Guard were the remaining units of Serbian Chetniks and the Slovene Home Guard (collaborationist militias).

The main column traveled through Celje, Šoštanj, and Slovenj Gradec on its way to Dravograd, before turning southwestwards towards Bleiburg. [ [ Bleiburg tragedy] ] They began surrendering to the British on May 15, and this continued until the May 17, making these remnants of the NDH military the last Axis force in Europe to surrender. During this time Ustaše generals Ivo Herenčić of the V. Corps, and Vjekoslav Servatzy as well as a translator, Professor Danijel Crljen, began surrender negotiations with the British and the Partisans, represented by Milan Basta. In accordance with previous Allied agreements, the British forces refused to accept the surrender of the fascist forces, and came to an agreement with the Partisans.

According to the Hague Convention's Article 20, "After the conclusion of peace, the repatriation of prisoners of war shall be carried out as quickly as possible". General Robertson gave British troops the order, "All surrendered personnel of established Yugoslav nationality who were serving in German Forces should be disarmed and handed over to Yugoslav forces".

Although a large, still undefined number of Ustaša and Chetnik soldiers died during a series of battles and skirmishes after the end of the war, it is alleged that the majority of violent deaths were the result of executions that lasted at least two weeks after the cessation of hostilities. Fact|date=March 2008 The victims were executed in revenge for the horrendous crimes committed by the Ustaše regime in NDH-controlled territories during World War II. Killings continued in nearby Slovenia, and it is hard to estimate the number of victims on Bleiburg field, compared to those later found in the trenches in the Maribor area and other numerous pits in Slovenia, mostly because these pits could just as easily contain casualties from other engagements.

In 1990, Partisan Simo Dubajić claimed that he commanded Partisan forces at Kočevski Rog, and received orders to kill surrendered troops and civilians there. [ [ Communist anti-fascism] ]

During the retreat across Slovenia and in their time in Austria, the military conflicts between the Partisans and the retreating collaborationist forces continued. Of these, the biggest confrontation was the Battle of Poljana. The vast majority of the refugees were returned to Yugoslavia and were repatriated as Yugoslav citizens via forced marches under inhumane conditions over long distances. [ [ "Bleiburg tragedy"] ]

Number of victims

The exact number of those who met their death in Bleiburg is almost impossible to ascertain. Generally, there are essentially three schools that have tried to do this:

First school

The first school whose estimates are based mainly on the historiographic and demographic investigations of scientists:

Historians made estimates, based mainly on the historiographic and demographic investigations:

* Croatian historian Vladimir Žerjavić estimates the numbers of Croats and Bosniaks who were killed during Bleiburg massacre at between 45,000 and 55,000. [ Yugoslavia, Manipulations with the Number of Second World War Victims] - Vladimir Zerjavic]
* British journalist Misha Glenny and other investigators or publicists have come up with the figure of 50,000 executed disarmed soldiers and 30,000 civilians.
* The first Croatian president, the late Franjo Tuđman come up roughly between 35,000 and 40,000 victims.Fact|date=April 2008
* Croatian publicist on the Holocaust in Croatia Slavko Goldstein claims a total of 20,000, and that the vast majority of them were members of the Crna Legija (Black Legion), depicting also the occasion as a battle in which they offered armed resistanceFact|date=April 2008
* Nikolai Tolstoi published in his book in 1990 a detailed number that the Allies handed over a total of 26,339 Ustashas, Slovenian Nazi collaborators, Ljotićevs, Nedićevs, Četniks and Croatian Home Guard. 12,196 were ethnic Croats, 8,263 Slovenes and 5,880 Serbs.Fact|date=April 2008

econd school

The second school based its findings on accumulated eyewitness accounts.
*Juraj Hrženjak in his book, "Bleiburg i Križni put 1945" ("Bleiburg and the way of the cross 1945") affirms that the majority of the victims in Bleiburg were killed by various means at the hands of Ustaše execution squads from elite formations like the Black Legion, who were treating all soldiers attempting to surrender as traitors and deserters for not fighting to the last. According to this research, a figure of between 12,000 and 14,000 people were shot after returning to Yugoslavia. Additionally, 20 individuals committed suicide and at least 1,500 concentration camp guards were shot near Maribor.
*Petar S. Brajović, a Yugoslav general who participated in the battles around Bleiburg, claims in his book "Konačno oslobođenje" ("Final liberation") published in 1983, that the Ustaše did not suffer serious casualties during capture, adding that artillery was not used. The work affirms that a grand total of 16 soldiers were buried in the local cemetery. It is also estimated that a figure of 30,000 soldiers (6,000 of them Chetniks) and 20,000 civilians were captured by the Partisan 3rd Army.
*According to Milovan Đilas, about 15,000 prisoners handed over by the British were executed on Austrian territory and later in Yugoslavia. [ [ Matthew Mestrovic, "Slavic Review", Vol. 30, No. 2 (Jun., 1971), pp. 413-415 ] ]

Third school

This school bases its estimates on archeological evidence mostly consisting of mass graves found in Slovenia. Investigations are, however, at an early stage and therefore cannot be definitively linked with these incidents. The total number of potential locations that the Slovenian Commission on Concealed Mass Graves now intends to investigate is around 570. cite web |url=|title=Historian Says Maribor Mass Grave Definitely One of Biggest] [ [,1,7114009.story Wartime heroes, sinful secrets] ] The first excavations in a trench in Tezno Woods at Maribor uncovered 1,179 skeletons, believed to be of Croatians. [ [ "U deželi grob do groba"] ] The trench is 1 kilometer long, 4 to 6 meters wide and the layer of human remains in the section excavated so far measures 1.5 to 2 meters deep.

Mass graves in Slovenia

The Slovenian Commission on Concealed Mass Graves is responsible for leading investigations into places where there may be bodies from the period of and after the Second World War. It currently has a list of around 570 potential mass grave sites, based on evidence on the ground and reports from local people. Not all of these refer to killings (alleged or proven) in 1945. [ [ "Historian Says Maribor Mass Grave Definitely One of Biggest"] ]

The full list of sites in question - some of which involve more than one location, and do not necessarily refer to people returned to Yugoslavia from Bleiburg - that have been fully or partially excavated, or await investigation in Slovenia is:
*Teharje; Huda cave & Barbarin pit near Laško [ [ JUSTWATCH-L archives] ]
*Karst caves and pits at 11 locations in Kočevski rog forest (88 bodies found in Konfin pothole; total numbers of bodies unknown) [ [ Enajst grobišč uredili -] ] [ [ "Remains Found in Konfin Mass Grave Already Identified"] ]
*Two locations near Škofja loka: Lovrenska grapa (27 bodies found, believed to be of 20 Slovenian domobranci and 7 German POWs [ [] ]
*Žolšče near Puštal pri Škofji Loki" [ [,35,246032&src=rp "Blizu Škofje Loke odkrili še 11 žrtev povojnih pobojev"] ]
*Lesce (33 bodies found during motorway construction work) [ [ JUSTWATCH-L archives, December 2006] ]
*Anti-tank trench near Bistrica ob Sotli (relating to former camp at Šempeter pod Svetimi Gorami)
*Anti-tank trench at Tezno, Maribor (1179 bodies found in 1999 on the route of the Slivnica-Pesnica highway; the trench is 1 kilometer long, 4 to 6 meters wide and the layer of human remains in the section excavated so far measures 1.5 to 2 meters deep; new excavations started in August 2007) [ [ WORLD NEWS DIGEST: August 2007] ]
*Hrastovec, near Lenart
*Two locations under investigation on Pohorje - at Areh (189 bodies found so far, believed by excavation leader Draško Josipovič to be Germans, Croatian Ustaše and Serbian Četniks [ [,35,251022 "Na Arehu izkopali 189 žrtev pobojev"] ] and above Hoče. [ [ "Na Pohorju prekopavajo"] ]
*Ravnica pri Lancovem, near Radovljica (several bodies discovered in excavations in autumn 2007) [ [ "Novo povojno grobišče"] ]
*Kidričevo (relating to former camp at Strnišče)
*Anti-aircraft shelter at Zgornja Bistrica (around 231 ossified bodies found)
*Tepanje, near Oplotnica
*Foibe potholes and Karst pits (Logatec)
*Brezar abyss near Podutik, Ljubljana
*Žančani, near Slovenj Gradec
*Hrastnik hill

After the war, many grave sites were destroyed by explosions or were covered in waste. Some sites were also built over.

Bleiburg commemoration

May 15 is annually marked by many as the "Memorial Day for the victims of Bleiburg and the Way of the Cross". [ [ Polančec at the commemoration of May 15 as the Memorial Day for the victims of Bleiburg and the victims of the Way of the Cross at Bleiburg] ] This date was officially marked by the Republic of Croatia, by an act of the Croatian Parliament in 1995.Vukušić, Božo. "Bleiburg Memento", Udruga Hrvatski Križni Put, Zagreb 2005.]

The first Croats to return to the fields of Bleiburg came in secret in 1952, while regular annual visits began in the early 1960s. The first Croatian religious leader to come to the site was Cardinal Franjo Šeper, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who paid a visit in 1977.

Many top-ranking politicians and Catholic and Muslim clerics visit the site annually. Prime Ministers Ivica Račan and Ivo Sanader visited the site in 2002 and 2004, respectively. [ [ Račan apologizes to those who suffered because of Bleiburg] ] [ [ Premier Sanader visited Burgenland and Bleiburg] ] For the 60th anniversary commemorations in 2005 a large crowd was in attendance, with speeches by Croatian parliamentary speaker Vladimir Šeks and head of the Muslim Community of Croatia, Mufti Ševko Omerbašić. [ [ 60th anniversary of Bleiburg commemorated] ] In 2006, the site was attended by Croatian government officials Đurđa Adlešić and Damir Polančec and Bosnian Croat politician Martin Raguž. [ Memorial Day for the victims of Bleiburg and the Way of the Cross] ] Catholic mass was led by bishop Josip Mrzljak, while imam Idriz Bešić represented the Islamic Community of Croatia. In 2007 a new altar was installed at the site. [ [,5,8,zagreb_bleiburg,73533.jl Bozanić's mass at Bleiburg with record number of pilgrims] ] Cardinal Josip Bozanić inaugurated the altar at the 2007 commemorations which drew 10,000 people. [ [ Bozanić: Communism systematically committed crimes] ]

In 2008 the commemmoration was attended by over 10,000 people. [ Be brave and tell where the pits are] , Večernji list] Mass was held by the bishop of Hvar Slobodan Štambuk, while the Croatian Islamic community was represented by Idriz Bešić. The Croatian Parliament was represented by the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party Josip Friščić, while the Croatian Government was represented by minister Berislav Rončević [ [,5,17,,119897.jl More people in black] ] The Croatian and Slovenian governments reached an agreement at this time of cooperation on organizing military cemeteries, similar to earlier agreements Slovenia reached with Italy and Germany. [ [ Croatia and Slovenia signed agreement on organizing military cemeteries] ]

According to the Slovenian government, the mass grave site in Tezno is being planned as a memorial park and cemetery. [ [ Memorial park in Tezno planned] ]

Bleiburg in culture

The Bleiburg massacre was the subject of a 1999 film, Četverored.

Croatian-American painter Charles Billich has painted a series of works on the event. [ [ Croatian art] ] The massacre has also been the subject of paintings by Ivan Lacković Croata and Kristian Kreković. [ [ Project of Building Croatian Military Cemetery on Bleiburg Field] ]

ee also

*Allied war crimes during World War II
*Yugoslav People's Liberation War
*Jasenovac concentration camp



*Martin, David. "Ally Betrayed: The Uncensored Story of Tito and Mihailovich", New York: Prentice Hall, 1946, p. 34.

External links

* [ Samvak]
* []
* [ Bleiburg tragedy]
* [ World War II mass graves open a wound in Slovenia]
* [ The Catholic Church's role in Axis-dominated Yugoslavia]
* [ Yalta and the Bleiburg tragedy]
* [ Franci Strle: Veliki Finale na Koroškem "(Grand Finale in Carinthia)" (2nd edition, 1977) (in Slovene)]
* [ The Bleiburg Massacres] - by Count Nikolai Tolstoy
* [ The Bleiburg Tragedy on Croatian World Network]
* [ Bleiburg - testimony of father Drago Kolimbatovic about role of Britain's soldiers (in Croatian)]

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