On Saturday, thousands of far-right supporters assembled in southern Austria to commemorate the deaths of pro-Nazi citizens at the hands of communists at the end of World War II. The event, which is held annually, drew tens of thousands of supporters, most of whom were Croatian citizens. Held in the small town of Bleiburg, the event recalls the killing of thousands of members of the fascist Croatian Ustasa, which controlled Croatia during the war, along with others who perished in May of 1945 at the hands of Yugoslav communists.
Those killed in 1945 had been trying to flee the country amid the Allied advance across the continent, but were halted and barred from crossing the Austrian border by the British military. The Nazi supporting Croats were then trapped by their pro-Communist enemies, who killed them by the thousands after subjecting them to forced marches and labour camps, burying them in mass graves around the city of Bleiburg.
The fascist and racist Croatian Ustasha regime was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and political dissidents during the war. They advocated for a systematic racial purging, sending thousands to the death camps, which committed the main bulk of Axis war crimes.
At the gathering on Saturday, Croatian parliament speaker Gordan Jandrokovic remarked that “awful crimes have been committed in the Bleiburg field… Today we are paying our respect to the victims, civilians as well as soldiers.”
Many high-ranking Croatian officials also attended the event, with the official Croatian Catholic Church even holding a Mass for the dead. The Croatian media has reported that political speeches by Croatians, as well as Bosnian Croat political figures, were delivered.
A small counter-protest was held nearby, though reports claim attendance numbered barely 200. The sight of such a small counter-protest is worrying, seeing as Croatia’s government has recently been accused of ignoring rising extremism and whitewashing the wrongs of the Ustasha regime. Efraim Zuroff, a leading anti-Nazi activist, commented to the New York Times that “it’s absolutely outrageous that Austrian authorities allow an event like this to happen.”
In a statement made to Al Jazeera, the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DOW), described the Bleiburg commemoration as the “biggest annual neo-fascist reunion in Europe.” In the past, the event has drawn as many as 30,000 participants, with numbers expecting to rise in the future as extremist attitudes gain traction in the country. Criticism of the event has also grown alongside the rise in extremist attitudes, with an Austrian member of the European Parliament tweeting the event is a “misuse of remembrance.”
Austrian government officials have previously stated it is outside their power to ban the event. However, those in charge have a responsibility to understand why a high-profile event such as this can quicken the rise of hateful and extremist behaviour, the exact behaviour that has been observed to be on the rise in Austria.
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