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Austria officially bans memorial for executed Nazi allies

The Austrian Parliament officially adopted a resolution May 30 calling to ban commemorations of the Nazi-era Croatian Ustase regime and the WWII event known as the Bleiburg Repatriations on Austrian soil.

The move the comes after protests and declamations swept across Balkans when the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna, who oversees Catholic faithful in the eastern region of Bosnia and Herzegovina announced it would be holding a Mass for those who died at Bleiburg in Sarajevo’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on May 16th.

The Beliburg Repatriations refer to an event at the end of the second world war, when the political and military leadership of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi puppet ruled by the brutal Ustaše party, fled Zagreb to Austria, along with families members and other assorted loyalists. The Ustaše, who oversaw the machinations of the Holocaust in Croatia as well as what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, were hoping to avoid capture by the Yugoslav partisans led by Josip Broz Tito and to surrender to the British army. However, the British turned them over to the partisans who summarily executed thousands in a field at a border town called Bleiburg.

thousands of demonstrators at Sarajevo’s Eternal Flame WWII monument to protest the Catholic Church.

“I too am an anti-fascist!” reads a banner hanging over the thousands of demonstrators who showed up at Sarajevo’s Eternal Flame WWII monument to protest the Catholic Church. Image by Photo by David Ian Klein

Following the church’s announcement, the city erupted into controversy and the decision was denounced from nearly all sides, including by leaders of the local Jewish community.

“This mass is for criminals against the citizens of Sarajevo,” said a letter jointly written by Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Boris Kozemjakin, president of the Jewish Community of Sarajevo. “It commemorates the executioners of our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, our compatriots and all other innocent victims of the fascist parastate NDH.”

The Israeli embassy in Tirana, Albania, which also serves Bosnia and Herzegovina, strongly criticized the church’s decision as well

Nonetheless, the church went through with the service and while only a handful showed up at the cathedral amidst coronavirus restrictions, thousands gathered only a few blocks away at the Vjecna Vetra (eternal flame) war memorial, waving Yugoslav flags and anti-fascist banners to protest the mass.

However, the mass was only held in Sarajevo this year because the regular events held annually at Bleiburg itself in Austria were canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Those events however have long been criticized for displays of fascist symbology and for glorifying the Ustaše and Nazi regimes.

The Bundesrat, the upper house of Austria’s bicameral Parliament finally acted to put an end to that Friday, when it overwhelmingly voted in favor of a non-binding resolution prohibiting the event, which in recent years has seen upwards of 30,000 attendees.

“Since 2003 the venue in Bleiburg/Pliberk has been massively Expanded by the “Bleiburger Ehrenzug” association (stage, military cemetery). with the now greatly expanded meetings Neo-Nazi and fascist groups appearing more and more on the Bleiburger Field.” read the resolution.

“The holy mass at Bleiburger Field is part of an event which is politically instrumentalized and part of a politico-national ritual that serves one selective perception and interpretation of history,” it said. “The historical distortion, trivialization and glorification of the fascist Ustascha regime can currently be considered the central character of the event in Bleiburg / Pliberk.”

The resolution called upon the minister of the interior to prevent the event in future years, saying “In the commemorative year 2020, 75 years after the liberation of Austria, the Federal government is measured politically by whether it is responsible for the lessons of World War II and as a sign, the political will to take on the festivities.”

Though it was put forth by Austria’s Green party, the Resolution was supported by almost all political parties in the Bundesrat, with the exception of the far-right Freedom Party who voted against.

The World Jewish Congress, who has aggressively countered the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators and war criminals in eastern Europe’s post-Communist country’s lauded the Austrian parliament for their adoption of the resolution

“This bold move by the Austrian legislators sends a clear message that there is no place in Austria for such flagrant acts of historical revisionism. There can be no place in the national pantheon of any country for perpetrators of or accomplices in genocide. No society can avoid a reckoning with the unsavory chapters of its past,” said Maram Stern, Executive Vice President of the World Jewish Congress.

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