Coming To Terms With Our History

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.

hudajama Coming To Terms With Our History
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.

THE MESS

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


27 Comments to “Coming To Terms With Our History”

  1. Dr. Filomena » Martyrs Says:

    […] the hope that the dead will be left to rest in peace and the well-being of the living will take precedence over the temptation to dwell on the past and […]

  2. Davor Says:

    We are a past orientated nation and that’s a fact. We are not able to solve our problems from the past and like SLO and CRO are digging their position and not willing to make a step or two towards a solution, the Partisans and the Home Guard stick to their position to.
    I must agree with an other Mladina columnist and editor Grega Repovž who wrote that until both sides won’t admit when and where their handling was wrong their is no possibility to end this matter. On the overall level there is the fact that collaboration was a crime and there is the fact that the post war mass murders were a crime to, and that on both sides the leaders should be punished. On the personal level of small people we know its different.
    I recently made an acquisition to get the report how my grand father ended in Dachau. I got a report from the institute that Germans have. Since I was born way after WWII I have not known my grand father but I must admit that holding the report in my hands made it possible to me to make my connection to this person clear. So I fully understand that the family of the murdered has a need to know how and were they ended.
    What I don’t find OK is that every time a new grave is found this becomes the fist political issue of the week no mater what’s going on right that time. And it is strange to me that almost every time the discovery is made when Rosvita Pesek is leading Odmevi and that no media is allowed to make photos and videos at the scene but Rosvita is showing us private photos and videos taken by somebody who is privately closely connected to the same Rosvita.
    So I must fully agree with the Prez that there is a manipulation on this issue!

  3. alcessa Says:

    I think this must be one of your best posts ever… Unfortunately, the topic is the saddest one can imagine.

    I haven’t been able to THINK about it, but let me tell you it (the dead, the erased and everything else that is tragic on the sunny side) FEELS like much shit. And not all of the fans above it are issue-free, which makes it even worse. :-(

  4. Dr.ARF Says:

    As P. pointed out, the losers are on both sides and yes, of course there is political manipulation. There always will be where politicians stand to gain from something, no matter how ugly.

    On the other hand, this has been an issue that, as I understand it, was forbidden to talk about during the Tito era. A few months ago, there was a good documentary about that here on Belgian TV (actually, a docu series based on Dutch writer Geert Mak’s best seller ‘In Europe'; a must read, it’s translated!) about exactly this issue. In it, it was clearly illustrated that families on either side – in this case in rural Serbia and Croatia – lived only a few yards from each other, but still would happily kill the other because these old wounds haven’t healed. And that’s my point : as this period in history was silenced under Tito, it festered on under the surface without any outlet. So in a way, how hard it may be for all those involved and no matter how ugly it is that politicians want to gain from it, it is also a good thing that the debate is out in the open now. It will at least offer a chance for closure, painful though as it may be…

  5. Adriaan Says:

    Seems like “The sunny side of the Alps”(tm) has got a few demons it needs to excorcise, for the good of all. Perhaps a “Truth and reconciliation” committee like the one employed in South Africa might be a way forward? It might at least help disarm the political snowball fight.

  6. pengovsky Says:

    @Davor:
    The problem with Repovž’s text (if it’s the same one we’re thinking about) is that is actually subscribes to the logic that both sides erred, but fails to say when they erred.

    Acts of revenge after the war (although understandable) were a mistake and a crime. But this in not the same (and never will be) than siding with the occupator during the war and turning against your own people.

    Hence I think that Adriaan’s idea of a Slovenian version of truth & reconciliation commission would indeed be very welcome, as it would probably help to draw a clear distinction between inter- and post-war crimes.

    @alcessa:
    Thank you. And yes… it does feel like shit.

    @dr. Arf:
    Yes, but you must realise that bones are aplenty in the Balkans. Bosnian war opened WWII wounds. World War II opened WWI wounds. That in turn opened the wounds from 1912-13 Balkan wars. That opened some previous wounds… And so on ad nauseam And every time there were more and not less bones.

    @Adriaan:
    Plenty of demons here. And as I wrote couple of lines ago, such a commission would be a very good idea. All we need now is a Slovene Cardinal Tutu. But it cannot be a clergy man (the Church played a rather nasty role), not cannot it be a historian (as history on this issue has yet to be determined). Perhaps a writer or an artist? On general they are among the most politically outspoken and opinionated, so they’re out of the question. A politician? Forget it, they’re the one using this mess to their advantage.

    In short – I can think of only one person who would have enough moral authority to handle this issue, and he’s dead.

    @all: I’ve edited the post a bit and added a few links. Just to let you know.

  7. Dr.ARF Says:

    @P : In that case, isn’t it about time the skeletons come out of the closet so all of this bloody past can finally start healing? No pun intended, I assure you, even though I do use the expression intentionally.

  8. Adriaan Says:

    Perhaps a foreigner might be best for the role. But then of course you’ve got to find someone not tainted by association. Rules out Brits, Germans, Italians etc.

    Any suggestions (apart from Mr. Tutu)?

  9. pengovsky Says:

    @dr. Arf: I wish I knew how to answer that.

    @Adriaan: Martti Ahtisaari comes to mind. But apparently he already has a job trying to mediate in Slovene-Croat border dispute :D (more on that in the following days)

  10. dr. filomena Says:

    Mr. P, this is a post to bookmark as a reference to send others to when they inquire about these issues. Thank you.

    Since I don’t really believe in coincidences I find myself asking why this ‘discovery’ which with the possible exception of the truly horrendous methods used revealed nothing unexpected either in terms of location, numbers or those involved, was scheduled at this moment. Perhaps I’m looking for a conspiracy theory where there is none, but several possibilities emerge:
    1/ adoption of the act you mention;
    2/ European elections;
    3/ keeping part of the electorate loyal to the side that lost in the parliamentary elections.
    Like Davor, I, too must wonder why access to the site in question is only allowed to a chosen few in the media. All or nothing would seem a more natural choice?

    My biggest fear is that the issue will be abused in times of great economic difficulty when people welcome such distractions even more than under normal circumstances. If there is no bread, at least there will be no shortage of games, it would seem.

    Let’s stay focused on the real problems, the ones affecting our everyday lives.

    Peace.

  11. Davor Says:

    Dr. F: Being a translator obviously also includes understanding my broken English :). With 1,2,3 I would not even go at targets this high, maybe the mandate of director Dežman or Pesek’s friend will be soon over and there is need to construct a reason that a change would be seen as a political based decision.
    We all know for years now that there has been mass murders on several locations. Every new location found is not something that should be top theme in Odmevi for several days with 50% of time used. Especially when there is NO information who exactly are this people (Germans, Slovens, Croats, Serbs …), when exactly did it happen and who committed it.
    First they should investigate and then come with the answers!

  12. nemanja Says:

    Of course every death is regrettable and every crime ought to be punished. However – whenever these issues come up, I can’t shake the feeling that Partisans are being held to 21st century liberal-democratic standards of justice. It’s not as if other armies at the end of WWII behaved much better (and some much, much worse).

    It’s hard not to see this as a proxy political dispute, since one’s opinions about these events can be pretty reliably predicted from their current electoral orientation. And in that sense President Turk is completely correct, that the substance of the issue has become completely secondary to its use as a wedge issue.

  13. pengovsky Says:

    Agreed. Very much so.

  14. crni Says:

    While I agree with your post, I cannot believe you would actually defend the president in his statement. The statement was ridiculous and lacked tact, diplomacy and common sense. And this guy is supposedly a veteran diplomat? He could have said the exact same thing if only he said something along the lines of “Isn’t it horrible that so many people died?” beforehand.

  15. crni Says:

    We hold everyone to today’s standard of justice. We should. The catholic church, the nazis, the commies. Everyone’s actions in history should be evaluated by what we know now. Certainly, those were different times and wars and killings and rape and pillage and treachery and torture and rape (rape twice? I like rape) happen and it is to some degree understandable. But from today’s perspective it is also clear that many things were wrong. We should say so.

  16. pengovsky Says:

    @crni: Very good point re standards, actually. But what I think nemanja was trying to say that today we think of these things as horrid, but they were a frequent part of the WWII years, therefore being considered “normal” at the time. Insofar as one can call any war normal.

    I also believe that these things were thought of as wrong then, just as they are thought of as wrong now. The war is apparently a wholly de-humanising experience.

    But again – some people were fighting for what were ultimately good goals, and some for ultimately bad goals. Luckily, the good guys prevailed.

    Regarding the Prez: oh, he fumbled it, to be sure. No points for style. But I approve of his subsequent explanation.

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  19. Arbiter_universale Says:

    Zelo lep esej moram reči. Masterpiece. Kakšen pa naj bi bil zakon o povojnih zločinih? Kaj, če bi naslednja doktorska disertacija povedala kaj na to temo, hihi?
    Jaz bi tudi povojne zločince po tolikem času pustil pri miru in ne samo žrtve v grobovih. Nobene gonje, nobene krvi spet. Kaj res niso ljudje sposobni odpuščanja(forgiveness???)?
    Je res vedno potrebno najti KRIVCE! za vse pizdarije?
    Kaj pa bomo imeli od tega, če bomo zaprli 90 letnike?
    Mogoče bomo sprožili novo sovraštvo v njihovih potomcih?
    Dajte zaspite že enkrat komiji in naziji. Vaš čas je minil.

    Meni je jasno vse to grozno, vendar ni del mojega življenja, kot tudi Julij Cezar že dolgo ni več del nikogaršnjega življenja. Razen pravljic, legend in zaprešenih zgodovinskih bukel.

    LP, Arbi

  20. nemanja Says:

    All I meant to say is that we can’t properly assess the post-war actions of Partisans unless we understand a lot about the historical context in which they happened.

    This is precisely why it was so galling when the Italian president a few years ago decided it was “barbarity of the century”, as if Partisans just decided to one day start throwing innocent Italian nationals into fojbe.

    Look, I don’t mean to condone a single war crime, whoever it was committed by. But I am too used to seeing a pretend concern for the innocent victims of Communism used to mask a nostalgia for the regimes the Communists replaced (as well as their international patrons).

    No good will ever come from disturbing the ghosts of history for momentary political gain.

  21. Arbiter_universale Says:

    quote nemanja: “No good will ever come from disturbing the ghosts of history for momentary political gain.”

    To pa je povsem res dragi moj.

    LP, Arbi

  22. Arbiter_universale Says:

    Najhujše zločine ni delal Dolfa, ne Stalin. Najhujše zločine je delal Julij Cezar! Ja in?
    Ali res ne moremo spati zaradi tega? Boli?
    Ali se samo pretvarjamo?
    Mene je zapeklo pri srčku, ko sem zvedel za Barbarin rov. In kaj potem? Zapeklo me je pri srčku tudi, ko mi je bolezen vzela mater. In? Komu se naj maščujem za to?

    LP, Arbi

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  26. Gaz Pieprzowy Says:

    This subject is very common. Countries like Slovenia, Poland, Czech Rebublic are full of mass graves. There was a war for God’s sake. It takes a lot more to understand it than just watching some Afga on Fox News like americans do…

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