SLOVENIA 1945: Death and Survival After World War II
Delo, Slovenia, 9 May 2006 – Continued
Several weeks after World War II finished, Slovenes and other Yugoslavs slaughtered one per cent of the Slovene nation in cold blood. These were the domobranci, whom the British sent back disarmed from Austria to be killed by Partisans who had become the new armed forces of post-war Yugoslavia. How does any nation, in particular one which has recently achieved independence, deal with such a dark cloud over its history? More than 60 years later, Slovenes give diametrically opposed answers to this question – or else repress the issue as too painful. There is no unanimity, and that leaves a big gap in this nation’s collective historical memory.
Slovenia has democracy and a market economy, and complies exemplarily with the practical obligations of its membership of the European Union. However the failure to confront the conflicts of its past means it lags behind in one of the European Union’s other important functions – achieving post-World War II reconciliation.
What do two Britons have to contribute to this process? For one, it is a personal story. My co-author, John Corsellis, a young pacifist Quaker aid worker, arrived in Austria shortly after some 18,000 Slovenes fled over the mountains in May 1945. He witnessed how the British Army accepted the surrender of the domobranci, disarmed them and repatriated them to Yugoslavia, contrary to the Geneva Conventions, tricking them into thinking they were being sent to safety in Italy.
Now over 80, John remains horrified and ashamed at what was clearly a grave British misdeed. Together with me, he wrote Slovenia 1945: Memories of Death and Survival after World War II to make some small amends for that wrong. He and other British Red Cross workers in Vetrinj in Austria protested to the British military, who at the last moment cancelled orders to send back 6,000 civilians too. John cared for these civilians in refugee camps for the next two years.
As a former Reuters correspondent reporting from Eastern Europe during the Cold War, now married to a Slovene, John invited me to write the book together with him. He and I interviewed Slovene emigrants from Argentina to the United States, Canada, Britain and Slovenia itself. One of the most stirring manifestations of Slovene culture I have seen was at the Slovene cultural centre in Buenos Aires, gathering 1,200 Slovenes in singing and dancing. It was also touching to see hundreds of Slovene children entering the Slovene school there on a Saturday morning. I interviewed two Cardinals (Ambrozic and Rode) and a government minister (Bajuk), who likewise made the journey over the Ljubelj in May 1945.
I walked down the Frank Jerman street in Bariloche, named after a Slovene who made the first ascent of a peak in the Andes now named Campanile Esloveno. I spoke to an old lady in England who abandoned her birthday tea in Ponova vas to cycle over the mountains with her fiancé, never to return. Most founded their successful later lives on the superb education they received at the Slovene grammar school operating from miserable wooden shacks in the camps. Director Marko Bajuk entered classrooms to test older pupils orally in Ancient Greek and the younger ones in Latin. They rarely failed.
One can only wonder that such an impressive segment of a small nation was cast to the winds – and that the Slovene people are still divided today by a simmering conflict over who was right and wrong. On the one hand, collaboration with the enemy occupier in order to fend off Communist dictatorship. On the other, a patriotic fight against the enemy which merged seamlessly into a ruthless Communist attempt to eliminate all political rivals. As Britons who were not invaded, we can only view the moral challenges posed to the Slovenes with compassion. If Britain had been occupied, the dilemmas would have been little different.
We decided it would serve no purpose to take sides. We sought to establish the truth as honestly and impartially as we could – as indeed our British publisher insisted. We recorded a different side of the story from Milan Kucan and old Partisan fighters.
Impartiality does not mean withholding judgment however. As Britons, it was best for us to start with the British. No British authority has ever acknowledged that the British Army repatriated the domobranci from Austria, let alone expressed any regret. British historians (Nicholas Bethell and Nikolai Tolstoy) did expose the basic facts 15 years ago. At that time, The Times newspaper condemned “the cold blindness of the British politicians and officials who took wrong decisions which were then carried out with heartless and unnecessary rigidity.” But not a word from the British government.
When Slovenia 1945 was published in Britain last October, John and I appealed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to make a gesture of regret to Slovenia. After all, one of his fellow EU Prime Ministers is Janez Jansa, whose father was one of those sent back (he was spared execution as under-age).
A few weeks later, we received a personal letter from Foreign Minister Jack Straw, who wrote: “Your work promises to contribute to our collective understanding of a terrible period of European history. The Second World War and its aftermath brought tragedy for many people in Europe, of all nationalities and political views. I well understand the pain that so many must still feel, sixty years on, particularly as new information comes to light …It is right, as Europe recalls the suffering endured by all nations during that time, that we too remember the tragedy that befell the Slovene people.”
This was sympathetically expressed. But “befell the Slovene people”? That still does not acknowledge that the British repatriated the soldiers. It was not just an accident. In July last year, Straw recognised on behalf of the EU that the international community had failed to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica, declaring: “I bitterly regret this and I am deeply sorry for it.” If he can say this to Bosnia, why can he not say it also to Slovenia, an ally of Britain in NATO and a partner in the EU?
Currently, a motion calling for an expression of British regret is being circulated for signatures among British Members of Parliament. It is sponsored by Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Welsh nationalists (EDM 1916, 28.3.2006).
So what of the Slovenes? Their task is harder since they are dealing with a major part of their recent history, not just an episode. President Drnovsek’s address at Teharje last year went a considerable way towards finding a common approach to this painful happening. But when I researched the Museum of Recent History in Ljubljana a year or so ago, I found friendly staff, but a decidedly tired collection of artefacts which largely depicted the events from the Communist point of view. Even the new Slovene Encyclopaedia devotes just 500 of its many millions of words to the slaughter of the domobranci. Like an after thought.
Contrast this with the multi-media Museum of Terror in Budapest, visited by more than a million people in the first three years of its existence, which confronts Hungary’s past with much more impact. A Soviet tank dominates the entrance hall, and much of the exhibition is devoted to the excesses of 40 years of Communism. It also features the wartime Hungarian fascists who rounded up Jews for extermination. In Hungary, Communism is readily equated with foreign military occupation, In Slovenia however, Communism is mixed up with idea of national liberation. Which no doubts explains why Slovenia, so advanced in other respects, lags in confronting the nasty truth about the certain elements of Communist rule.
To an outsider, the never-ending Slovene conflict over the sequels of World War II reminds one of the Balkans, undermining Slovenes’ claim to a place in Europe’s mainstream. Lacking a common view of national history is a luxury a small nation can scarcely afford. It begs the question: what common values do Slovenes represent? One day, Slovenes must find a common account of their history, which humiliates nobody, acknowledges the terrible dilemmas, confronts the truth frankly, and takes full responsibility for the past, good or bad. Because that is Slovenia.
Slovenes are not alone in this undertaking. No European people can hold up its head and claim to be totally blameless in World War II. In this, we are all in the same boat together. The European Union represents not just budgets, constitutions, open markets and free labour movement. The driving force of the EU at its very beginning was post-war reconciliation – between France and Germany. A desire finally to heal the ideological confrontation resulting from WWII lay also behind the decision to bring the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into the European Union in 2004. Reconciliation remains a core value of the European Union. So when Slovenia takes over the European Presidency in 2008, this also includes a responsibility to show moral leadership. Let it set its own example of post-war reconciliation at home.