Apparently there are some 550 inter- and post-WWII graves in Slovenia. Some are invidiual and some are more-or-less mass graves. One of them was uncovered, following a long excavation, in the vicinity of Huda Jama in the middle of last week. Located in Laško municipality (yes, the beer), Huda Jama was a mining hamlet which was long abandoned. Until last week only a handful of people knew that the mine holds things much more horrid than coal.
Mass grave at Huda Jama (source)
As more avid visitors to this blog know, Slovenes are unable to bury our dead. There are numerous reasons for that, including (but probably not limited to) the fact that mass murders were a more or less closely guarded secret under socialism and people only spoke about it in closed circles, but also due to the fact that the losing side, the Home Guard, which – for one reason or another – collaborated with Nazi and Fascist occupators is trying to use the post-war mass murders as justification for collaboration, conveniently omitting the fact collaboration came first and summary executions followed.
But if it were really that simple, it would be more or less a closed case of Slovenian winners taking it out on Slovenian losers, with the latter crying foul 65 years later. Obviously it is not that simple. It never is. As more and more graves and surrounding facts are uncovered, the picture grows ever more complex and unpleasant for everyone.
It is generally accepted fact that World War II ended on May 9, when Nazi Germany surrendered to Soviet Russia (following a surrender to Allies a day earlier). That may be true for most of Europe, but in Slovenia the fighting continued until May 15 1945 as German troops and their collaborators from the Balkans and the Caucasus were trying to make a dash for British-controlled part of Austria, trying to evade capture by either Yugoslav or Soviet army (the latter generally avoided Slovenia entered it briefly only in Prekmurje, at the very north-east end of the country). Retreating German army was closely followed by its various collaborators from all over the Balkans. Chetniks, Ustasha, Home Guard and various others knew that their collaboration with the enemy will not go unpunished. Some collaborationist units made it across the border and some didn’t. And even those who did, were returned to Yugoslavia, where they met their demise, usually without due process. Not that due process was a luxury they could hope to have been extended. The Second World War, one of the most dehumanizing experiences in modern history was over and what little of humanity there was left, it fell prey to revenge of the victors who prevailed against all odds, themselves mostly sentenced to extinction by the occupators and happily persecuted by the collaborators. And while the debate in Slovenia is raging mostly between Partisans and Home Guard (domobranci, the collaborators), the nationality of vicitims of these summary executions is varied. As was – it seems – the nationality of the executors.
Namely, as of late the debate is focusing on finding the people responsible for the executions, which is no easy task after six-and-a-half decades. Given the fact that in Slovenia the issue is highly politicised, has completely permeated the political discourse (ha! My studies weren’t in vain after all!) and has a habit of occasionally hijacking it entirely, every debate tends to be explosive even after 65 years and makes one think that if 80-year-olds can be at each others’ throats after all these years, the level of hatred during and after the was must have been incredible.
WHO DID IT?
And so every discovery of a mass grave is used by the losing side, usually associated with the political right wing, to try to prove the fact that it was the victorious side who were actually the bad guys, whereas they were only defending Slovenia. This is immediately followed by all hell breaking loose with the victorious side, usually associated with the political left wing, pointing out (in my opinion rightfully) that it was them (partisans) who fought against the Germans and Italians and that collaboration is a really strange way of defending a country doomed to be erased from the map.
As a result inter-war and post-war graves tend to get mixed up in the debate, which is sad, because during the war both sides committed atrocities, often outdoing one another. Cynical as it may sound, this is “normal” during a war and it was especially normal during WWII, even more so in the Balkans where centuries-old grievances tend to surface during any blood-letting. But if inter-war massacres can be discarded for a moment, this leaves us with post-war massacres, like the one at Huda Jama, committed in the months immediately after the war.
By the final stages of the war various Yugoslav Partisan units (including Slovenian) were already transformed into a regular army under centralised command. And as the Germans and their collaborationist units were retreating, they were closely followed by Yugoslav 3rd army under the command of General Kosta Nađ. This went on from Srem in Vojvodina (north of Serbia) to Slovene-Austrian border, with some elements of his army going over the border and liberating Celovec/Klagenfurt and Pliberk/Bleiburg, among other areas. Nađ’s 3rd Army was apparently comprised of units of all Yugoslav nationalities and it is safe to assume that units under his command were tasked with executions. Furthermore, similar operations by other belligerents in WWII suggest that this was done by a small number of specially motivated units and not by the regular battle-weary forces.
POLITICAL FALLOUT and DEFAMATION OF HISTORY
But rather than looking for people responsible in that general direction and giving proper burial to the victims, the debate in Slovenia is again shifting to attempts to decriminalise collaboration and shift the blame to both sides, saying that “everybody is to blame”. Indeed the latter sentiment has become dangerously familiar in the last few years, because it equals collaboration with post-war massacres. Which is of course a defamation of history. As a result, Slovenian parliament was repeatedly unable to pass a law on victims of inter-war and post-war violence which would hopefully close at least one (political) chapter in this debate and allow this nation to come to terms with its own history.
To illustrate just how volatile the atmosphere surrounding this issue is, take the Prez who on Sunday – when asked to comment on it – said that he will not talk comment on second-class issues. When he was additionally asked whether post-war executions are a second class issue, he answered that this goes for political manipulations of the subejct. This was enough to cause an uproar with SLS demanding his apology or immediate resignation. Yesterday the President had to clarify his position saying that post-was executions were not a second-class issue, but that political manipulations are a second-class issue.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT?
It is time to bury our dead. It is high time to find out who is responsible for post-was deaths. It is also high time to stop demands that victors of WWII apologize to wining the war. But it seems that reconciliation of a nation divided is impossible. Nobody illustrates that more than Janez Stanovnik and his cousin Justin Stanovnik. The former is leader of the Partisans’ Veteran Organisation, while the former is one of the more prominent spokesperson for Home Guard Veterans. Cousins, who – together with four other people – appeared in yesterday’s programme on state television and would not refer to each other by first names.
But perhaps sad chapter in Slovenian history can be closed with the help of victims of another sad chapter of our history. The first person to enter the Huda Jama mass grave last week was Mehmedalija Alić, also a guest on the programme, a mining expert who was one of the 25.000 of the Erased and who lost most of his family either in WWII or in the Srebrenica massacre. The symbolism of the moment could not be more telling. A man whose family was erased from physical existence by warfare in the Balkans and who – by no fault of his own – was erased from bureaucratic existence by a country which claims to be heaven on Earth is now bringing that same country to terms with its own history. You can only do that if you’ve come to terms with your own personal history. The legendary Boris Dežulović has a brilliant piece on this man (via dr. filomena, Croatian only)
HOW TO GO ABOUT IT?
Surprising as it may seem, I completely agree with Bernad Nežmah, a right-wing columnist who said that the mass grave should be left exactly as it is. As a reminder of the past, present and future, when the word “traitor” overshadowed the concept of human rights