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Fascist Overtones From Blithely Oblivious Rock Fans

by Nicholas Wood

ZAGREB, Croa­t­ia, June 30 — On a hot Sun­day evening in June, thou­sands of fans in a packed sta­di­um here in the Croa­t­ian cap­i­tal gave a Nazi salute as the rock star Marko Perkovic shout­ed a well-known slo­gan from World War II.

Some of the fans were wear­ing the black caps of Croatia’s infa­mous Nazi pup­pet Ustashe gov­ern­ment, which was respon­si­ble for send­ing tens of thou­sands of Serbs, Gyp­sies and Jews to their deaths in con­cen­tra­tion camps.

The exchange with the audi­ence is a rou­tine part of Mr. Perkovic’s act, and the ges­ture seemed to lack any con­scious polit­i­cal over­tones. The audi­ence — most of whom appeared to be in their teens and ear­ly 20s — just seemed to be hav­ing a good time. But Mr. Perkovic’s recent suc­cess among a new gen­er­a­tion — many of them appar­ent­ly obliv­i­ous to the his­to­ry of the Holo­caust — has prompt­ed con­cern and con­dem­na­tion from Jew­ish groups abroad and minor­i­ty groups in Croa­t­ia.

[Despite those objec­tions, the con­cert — his biggest ever, with an esti­mat­ed 40,000 fans in the soc­cer sta­di­um — was shown in prime time on Sun­day night on state-owned tele­vi­sion, prompt­ing fur­ther protests from Jew­ish and Ser­bian groups.]

“We don’t want to pay for some­thing that strikes fear into my chil­dren, or dis­tances them from their friends or neigh­bors,” said Milo­rad Pupo­vac, leader of the largest Ser­bian polit­i­cal par­ty in Croa­t­ia, refer­ring to the plan for the broad­cast.

What has shocked those groups more, though, is that in the ensu­ing debate, many senior politi­cians and jour­nal­ists have said that they see no prob­lem with the imagery or salutes.

“They just don’t seem to get it,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Jerusalem direc­tor of the Simon Wiesen­thal Cen­ter, who has urged Pres­i­dent Stipe Mesic to ban future con­certs and help out­law the use of extrem­ist sym­bols and slo­gans.

The Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment has been try­ing to improve its image so it can join the Euro­pean Union, and it did issue a state­ment after the con­cert crit­i­ciz­ing the open dis­play of Ustashe mem­o­ra­bil­ia and slo­gans. But much of Croatia’s polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment can­not under­stand what all the fuss is about.

“You can’t see any anti-Semi­tism here,” Dra­gan Pri­morac, Croatia’s edu­ca­tion min­is­ter, said in an inter­view. He said he had planned to attend the con­cert, before rain caused it to be post­poned by a day. Oth­ers who did get there, though, includ­ed a for­mer for­eign min­is­ter and two Croa­t­ian bas­ket­ball stars.

“At most, you could blame four to five peo­ple,” Dr. Pri­morac said, for wear­ing Ustashe regalia, or giv­ing the Nazi salute dur­ing the con­cert. He empha­sized, too, that Croa­t­ia was a good friend of Israel and point­ed to a pho­to­graph on his man­tel­piece of him­self with the Israeli elder states­man Shi­mon Peres as evi­dence.

Over the last three years the con­ser­v­a­tive prime min­is­ter, Ivo Sanad­er, has to some extent man­aged to shed the country’s image as a nation­al­ist state that once har­bored war crim­i­nals. The effort has been suc­cess­ful enough that Croa­t­ia is a favorite to join the Euro­pean Union. What was seen for much of 1990s as a war-torn nation is now wide­ly per­ceived as a prime tourist des­ti­na­tion, with 10 mil­lion tourists a year and vis­i­tors flock­ing to its Adri­at­ic coast.

Pho­tographs and mem­o­ra­bil­ia from the Ustashe peri­od are no longer sold open­ly in Zagreb’s city cen­ter. Restau­rants no longer dis­play pho­tographs of Ustashe units on their wall. But sou­venir shops do still sell key rings and base­ball caps with the Ustashe U, as well as the slo­gan used in Mr. Perkovic’s con­certs, “Za Dom: Sprem­ni!” or, “For the Home­land: Ready!”

And many Croats still dis­play an insen­si­tiv­i­ty to Holo­caust issues. Mr. Perkovic’s pub­lic affairs man­ag­er, Albi­no Ursic, has a large poster that he designed in 1994 on the wall of his office with the words “final solu­tion.” The poster shows a pack­age of cig­a­rettes marked with a large Swasti­ka and labeled “Adolf Fil­ters,” pok­ing out of a black leather jack­et. “It’s an anti­smok­ing pic­ture,” he said.

“It won an award in Lis­bon,” he added, empha­siz­ing that he viewed him­self as left of cen­ter. As for Mr. Perkovic’s per­for­mance, Mr. Ursic said, the fas­cist salute is made by soc­cer hooli­gans across Europe who have lit­tle under­stand­ing of it. “It is just teenage rebel­lion,” he said.

Mr. Perkovic’s patri­ot­ic — and some­times vio­lent­ly nation­al­is­tic — songs first became pop­u­lar here dur­ing the Balkan wars, when he fought in the Croa­t­ian Army. Most Croats know him bet­ter by his stage name, Thomp­son, giv­en to him dur­ing the war, when he car­ried the sub­ma­chine gun of the same name. He, too, has recent­ly sought to dis­tance him­self from the Ustashe asso­ci­a­tion. In an inter­view, the soft-spo­ken singer said he had nev­er raised his own arm to make a fas­cist salute. Nor, he said, did he encour­age peo­ple to wear Ustashe uni­forms. As for the Ustashe slo­gan he uses, he claims it is a tra­di­tion­al Croa­t­ian salute that pre­dates World War II.

Oth­ers are unapolo­getic. Vedran Rudan, a colum­nist with the Croa­t­ian cen­ter-right dai­ly Nacional, accused Mr. Zuroff of “extreme arro­gance” for writ­ing a let­ter to the pres­i­dent of Croa­t­ia ask­ing the gov­ern­ment to bar future Thomp­son con­certs.

She also accused him of brand­ing Croa­t­ian youths fas­cists while ignor­ing the activ­i­ties of a well-known ultra­na­tion­al­ist mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, who has close ties with Israel.

“Why do Jews for­give him every­thing, and the beard­less youth and Thomp­son do not have right to mer­cy?” Ms. Rudan wrote.

But rights groups here say there is a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem. While Croa­t­ia is now seek­ing to move away from the nation­al­ist peri­od of the 1990s, the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple has large­ly been schooled to believe that the Ustashe government’s actions were no worse than those of Com­mu­nist lead­ers in Yugoslavia dur­ing the same peri­od.

“They want to put them on an equal foot­ing,” said Dani­jel Ivin, the pres­i­dent of the Croa­t­ian Helsin­ki Com­mit­tee for Human Rights. “The edu­ca­tion about the recent his­to­ry of Croa­t­ia is not ade­quate.”

Dr. Pri­morac said that was slow­ly begin­ning to change and point­ed out that since 2004, Croa­t­ian schools had ded­i­cat­ed a day each year to study­ing the Holo­caust.

Oth­ers do not think it is chang­ing quick­ly enough. “It is an issue,” said Tomis­lav Jakic, an advis­er to Pres­i­dent Mesic. “It is far from Ustashe nos­tal­gia that was 15 years ago, when the ghost was first let out of the bot­tle. But the ghost is still here and it will be for years to come.”


One comment for “Fascist Overtones From Blithely Oblivious Rock Fans”

  1. For Croats who expe­ri­ence short-term mem­o­ry prob­lems, here is a six-part doc­u­men­tary on the Nazi Ustashe regime. Clear­ly in bed with the Catholic Church, it freight­ened even Ger­man Nazis, which gives an idea about how they were bru­tal and sadis­tic. In the orig­i­nal lan­guage with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles, you can watch it on my blog at:


    Like Dave would say, if his­to­ry teach­es us any­thing, it is that humans learn noth­ing from his­to­ry.

    Posted by Claude | November 27, 2011, 9:35 pm

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