When you hear about World War II concentration camps, your mind likely goes straight to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka, and the other major extermination and labor camps located throughout Germany and Poland. Most of these camps were not only located in Nazi-controlled territory, but were run primarily by Nazi forces, typically the SS. However, one of the deadliest camps in Europe was run entirely by non-Nazi forces and was located far from Germany or Poland, in the Nazi puppet state of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH).
After World War I and the creation of Yugoslavia, tensions rose as the various ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Slovenes, etc. – sought to either maintain or increase their power in the new government. Serbs were the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia at the time and held the most power, something the Croats sought to overturn. Fast forward to World War II and the Nazi occupation.
The Axis Powers led by Nazi Germany invaded in 1941 and began to break up Yugoslavia, quickly declaring Croatia to be the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) led by Ante Pavelic's fascist separatist Ustaše organization. The Ustaše set up several camps and sought to persecute their ethnic, religious, and political enemies. The targets of this campaign were primarily Serbs, along with Jews and Roma. In May 1941, The Ustaše outlined their plan for the Serbian population of Croatia, which was to be split evenly across these three outcomes:
- Forcible conversion to Roman Catholicism
- Deportation from Croatian territory
Estimates of the number of people killed throughout the Holocaust range widely, but it is estimated that between 300,000 and 750,000 Serbs, Jews, and Roma were murdered at the hands of the Ustaše. Between 77,000 and 99,000 of these were killed at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia before its dissolution in April 1945.
According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, Jasenovac was actually a string of five camps on the Sava River about 60 miles southeast of Zagreb, the first two of which were closed shortly after their opening. The camps were run by Croatian political police and members of the Ustaše militia. Serbs, Jews, Roma, and political enemies of the Ustaše were sent from around the NDH to Jasenovac. Like other camps throughout Europe, prisoners were worked to the brink of death and many who didn’t have useful skills – doctors, carpenters, tailors, etc. – were summarily executed. On two occasions, the camp’s surviving Jewish prisoners were sent to Auschwitz as part of an agreement with Nazi Germany.
The Ustaše in general were particularly brutal, so much so that even elements of the occupying Nazi forces were shocked by their tactics. (You know these people are crazy when Hitler’s SS is like ‘hey take it easy, guys.’) Ustaše forces occasionally swept through Serb villages and executed anyone they could find, usually in the most brutal ways possible. Their methods were even more horrific inside Jasenovac. According to the Combat Genocide Association:
At first, they killed by hand, using hammers, axes, knives, etc. On the night of August 29th, 1942, the Jasenovac guards took bets as to who could kill the most prisoners. According to testimony, one of the guards, Petar Brzica, slit the throats of 1,360 prisoners that same night. According to another source, the guards bound the prisoners with barbed wire and took them to a ramp near to the Sava River, where they put weights on the wires that were wrapped around the prisoners, slashed their throats and stomachs, and then threw their bodies into the river.
Later, the Ustaše used starvation and gas under inspiration from Nazi camps elsewhere in Europe. In some cases, the sick, women, and children were burned alive.
In 1942 and 1943, rumors began to spread of the Ustaše atrocities throughout Croatia and Serbia and opposition momentum gathered. With the tide of the war turning against the Axis powers, the Ustaše forces found themselves increasingly isolated against rebel Partisan forces, led by Josip Broz Tito, who would go on to be the President of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. Ultimately, the Partisan forces overran the Ustaše in 1944 and liberated Jasenovac, but many prisoners were executed before the Ustaše retreat.
Enabled by the fascist element that was spreading rapidly throughout Europe, the small Ustaše organization of Yugoslavia rose to power and carried out a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign that paralleled the brutality, though not the scale, of Hitler’s Final Solution. Jasenovac is another manifestation of fascism during World War II, and one that is often overshadowed by the scale of Nazi atrocities.