In Croatia, the catch-all word ‘antifascism’ is back in vogue to defend the indefensible: the appalling record of Communist rule in Yugoslavia
Progressive opinion affects to take symbols lightly. Thus public acceptance of blasphemous plays and obscene exhibitions, the burning of a national flag, and insults to heads of state are all supposed to be evidence of intellectual liberation. Particularly in former Communist countries, where symbolism has altered in ways that disorientate the new as well as the old Left, the cry quickly goes up that any concern for symbols is an “obsession” or a “distraction”.
In Eastern and Central Europe, though, the Left’s indifference to symbols is an affectation. The modern leftist turns in a flash into a snarling neo-Communist — lacking only a Party membership card and Kalashnikov to revert to the older variety — when his own myths are challenged. Moreover, his assumed indifference to tradition quickly becomes intolerance of “extremism”, if any unwholesome, or ambiguous, symbol emerges from shadows on the Right.
On Friday September 1, Zagreb City Council voted to change the name of one of the most prominent squares from “Marshal Tito Square” to the “Square of the Republic of Croatia”. The decision was greeted by some solemn shaking of heads in the Western media, where it was depicted as an assertion of reactionary nationalism. Credibility was lent to this by the fact that the campaign to change the name was spearheaded by Dr Zlatko Hasanbegović, the former Croatian culture minister, who fell foul, when in office, of agitation from George Soros-backed NGOs, whose tax-financed budgets he was minded to cut. Hasanbegović is a nationalist historian with a taste for controversy and what, for politicians in Croatia, is an unnerving willingness to argue intellectual positions. He is not, however, a fascist, anti-Semite, or racist (he is a Muslim, and so has received his fair share of Islamophobic abuse). In any case, the majority for the change was provided by the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the centre-left party grouping attached to Zagreb’s mayor, Milan Bandić.
The square’s name change was historically significant. It clearly symbolised a break with the country’s past. But it became involved with another dispute about symbols, which has, despite the sound and fury, no historical significance at all. Near the Jasenovac concentration camp, where a large number of Serbs, Jews and political opponents of the quisling Independent State of Croatia (NDH) were killed by the Ustasha authorities, a private memorial was raised a year ago to members of the HOS (Croatian Defence Forces — a rightist paramilitary force) who died fighting in the war for Croatian independence in the early 1990s. On the memorial was inscribed the Ustasha salute “Za Dom Spremni” (“Ready for the Homeland”). The salute was apparently used by many HOS fighters — though who knows with what understanding of its true significance? The memorial plaque has since been moved a few miles away. What to do generally about totalitarian symbols — including the Communist five-pointed Red Star (“Petokraka”) positioned near the sites of mass graves of Communist Party victims — is now the thankless task of a government-appointed commission. Meanwhile, a well-funded, internationally-supported “antifascist” movement currently seeks to link cases of real or imagined nostalgia for the Ustasha regime — which collapsed 70 years ago — with the movement to cleanse Croatia of the remains of the Communist regime — which have a disconcerting degree of life in them still.
But what is this “antifascism”? There the historical evidence is clear. Antifascism is not a catch-all category of democrats. It is a Communist construct. It is, indeed, meaningless without reference to Communist ideology. Its exponents quickly manifest this even today by their willing defence of the record of Communism, their espousal of a recognisable (anti-Western) Communist world view, and their unshakeable conviction that the only threat to civilisation comes from the Right, not the Left.
Until the recent upsurge of leftist anarchism in America, there was, significantly, no antifascism in the US or Britain. Yet these countries were the key components of the Western alliance against the Axis powers in the Second World War. The absence of any antifascist movement in the US and the UK is not just because there was no significant indigenous Anglo-Saxon fascism (Mosley quickly fizzled out); more importantly, it is because there was no significant indigenous Communism — whose creation antifascism is.
Antifascism was a propagandist device to broaden support for Communist Party aims among non-Communists. It was a tactic to gain power, at which point power would be wielded exclusively by the Party itself. The intermittent emergence of antifascism was just a sign of the Communist Party’s temporary weakness. Between the two world wars the promotion of antifascist “Popular Fronts”, most successfully in France, encompassing the democratic Left but serving the Party, was authorised by Moscow. In 1939, however, Stalin opted for the alternative strategy — alliance with Hitler — and antifascism was immediately discarded.
The Yugoslav Party under Tito, like other European Communist parties, obediently followed the new line. The much-trumpeted “rising” of the Communist partisans was not in response to Ustasha atrocities — the NDH had been formed on April 10, 1941. It was an authorised response to Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union — on June 22. With energetic prompting from Moscow, the Yugoslav Party now took up antifascism as a device to rally opposition to the Axis occupiers and the quisling regimes in Zagreb and Belgrade, but with a view to imposing a classic Marxist-Leninist revolution. The term “antifascist” was meanwhile used to legitimise what were presented as non-Party institutions of an alternative government — as with AVNOJ, the Antifascist Council of the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia. Once the Communists attained power and squeezed out or liquidated non-Communist elements, under way by 1944, antifascism was relegated from its prominence in the Party’s ideological arsenal. Only in 1990, when the Communists knew that they were facing a reckoning with real democracy, did the Party revive antifascism. So, for example, while the Party changed its name from the League of Communists of Croatia (SKH) to the less threatening Party of Democratic Change, and then the Social Democratic Party, the Communist veterans’ organisation, SUBNOR (Alliance of Associations of Fighters in the People’s Liberation War), was retitled the Alliance of Antifascist Fighters. In short, antifascism never existed independently of the Communist Party, and though millions of genuine democrats have fought oppressors who may, at a pinch, be described as “fascist”, those freedom fighters had nothing in common with the ideological artefact of antifascism, except occasionally as useful dupes.
This, then, answers the question: what is antifascism? And what is its link with Communism? But the further question is: What is Tito’s role in it?
The old plaque on Tito Square, now intended for the Zagreb historical museum, makes a large claim. It reads: “Marshal Tito Square. Josip Broz Tito, politician, leader of the antifascist movement, President of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, 1945-1980, 1892-1980.” (Emphasis added.) An array of campaign groups turned out — in only modest numbers, despite the media attention — to protest against dethroning their hero from his square. The television pictures told the story of their identity and their marginalisation. Everywhere big red flags bearing the hammer and sickle were waved. The only Croatian flags present were those of the old socialist “People’s Republic”. Some protesters wore items of Yugoslav army uniform — the same worn by the Serbian/Yugoslav army forces which in 1991 attacked Croatia.
The leaders of Croatia’s antifascist movement repeatedly identified themselves with Tito. They offered no apologies for Tito’s methods and the Communist Party’s crimes.
But a glance at the list of groups supporting the protest suggests that some very special apologies were in order. Were the “Women’s Network” aware, one wonders, that Tito initiated sexual relations with his first wife when she was just 14? That he later denounced her, and his second wife — and a host of other Party “comrades” — to the NKVD when he was in Moscow in the 1930s? Did the homosexual activists know — as a forthcoming book by a Croatian historian will shortly detail — that at the Goli Otok concentration camp, to which Tito despatched his political enemies, the authorities publicly humiliated and beat homosexuals, whom they considered “bourgeois decadents”?
The Jewish community, represented at the protest, has, of course, reason to detest the behaviour towards them of the wartime Ustasha, who fully collaborated in the Holocaust decreed by the Reich. But should Croatian Jews be grateful to Tito and the Party? In 1945 well-known Jewish businessmen were killed and their businesses seized by the Communists. When the Communists arrived, Jewish properties confiscated by the Ustasha were not returned, but were again seized and enjoyed — and are often still enjoyed — by the Communist elite and their privileged, cosseted progeny — the so-called “red bourgeoisie” who provide the bulk of the ruling class of “post-Communist” Croatia.
As for the Croatian Serbs, whose leaders were prominent in the protests — whatever privileged positions they disproportionately occupied under the Party, notably in the repressive apparatus, they would be well advised to reflect on the long-term cost of those benefits. That cynical Communist policy of divide and rule meant that in 1990, when democracy arrived in Croatia, Serbs were both distrustful and distrusted and as such automatically seen as hostile to the new state — which the Serb rebellion prompted by Belgrade (still then led by Communists) confirmed. If Tito’s Yugoslavia left hatreds so raw and wounds so deep, who can seriously conclude that Communism offered a cure or even a palliative for atavistic nationalism, as its apologists still claim?
Tito’s persona still, however, evidently holds a certain attraction. It is of more than historical interest to understand why. The answer seems to be that Tito, though an orthodox Communist — his quarrel with Stalin was caused by ambition, not doctrine — was also something else, and this “something else” turns out to be that he was a heroic “antifascist”.
Tito, in fact, behaved as Communists do, promoting revolution by the mass liquidation of potential opponents, by subverting every independent institution, and by bringing all power within the Party’s control. He authorised the killing of tens of thousands of people, many without trial, others with staged trials — soldiers, conscripted Home Guard members, unpolitical civilians, Catholic priests, monks and nuns, doctors, nurses, teachers, journalists, businessmen, women and children. The mass graves, where people were thrown in alive to be slowly suffocated by the weight of those who followed, are still gradually being excavated. For fear of annoying influential Communist cadres, who had joined anti-Communists to create the fledgling Croatian state in 1991, these horrible crimes were for many years left unmentioned. Until recently, most Party and secret police archives were similarly inaccessible. There was no lustration of Party members. Not a single trial within Croatia has been held of a Communist official: only in Munich, after Germany managed to secure their extradition, were two high-ranking Yugoslav secret police officials given life sentences for a politically authorised murder on German soil in 1983.
The new Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, apparently admired Tito; but Tudjman never dreamed of imitating Tito’s personality cult, whose effects must still be remembered when assessing the Marshal’s reputation. Leafing through the snapshots portraying Tito’s gaudy, greedy, self-indulgent, spendthrift, pointless political life, it requires an exercise of imagination to take the performance seriously. Yugoslavia solved nothing internally. It achieved nothing externally. But heroic myths, imposed by expert media control over 35 years, so brainwashed its population that they became a heaving, wailing, neurotic, human wreck when the dictator’s death was finally announced. Only a system in which all hold on reality had been lost could have solemnly announced as its watchword for the country’s future that lapidary slogan: “After Tito — Tito!”
Tito’s achievements, such as they were, have largely been forgotten, along with most of his crimes; only his antifascist credentials are still burnished. Yet antifascism, like the smile on the Cheshire Cat, reminds us, in a disembodied form, of what Communism was, what the Communists did, and what their successors would like to do, if they had the chance. It should go the way of Tito’s plaque.