Ante Pavelić, Hitler’s Friend in Croatia


Ante Pavelić (1889-1959) governed Croatia under the protection of Germany and Italy from 1941-1945.  He is best known for leading the Ustaša Party in the Independent State of Croatia and using Nazi-like ethnic cleansing tactics to exterminate Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies during World War II.

Born in Bradina (present-day Bosnia) in 1889, Pavelić graduated from Zagreb’s Faculty of Law in 1915 with a doctorate degree. In 1918 after years of foreign domination, the Serbian monarchy formed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Extreme nationalist groups formed in all of the countries in the region, and Croats quickly became as dissatisfied under Belgrade as they were under their previous Hungarian control.  In 1918, Pavelić began his political involvement with leadership roles in the Croatian Rights Party (HSP), and later represented the HSP in the Zagreb City Council.  Gaining recognition from several articles he published in the weekly Croatian Rights Party newspaper, Hrvatsko Pravo, Pavelić advocated for an independent Croatia.

When King Alexander proclaimed a royal dictatorship of Yugoslavia in 1929 in an attempt to eliminate ethnic differences, Pavelić was forced to emigrate and lived in Vienna, Sofia, and Italy.  He most likely started the Ustaša Croatian Revolutionary Organization (UHRO) at the end of 1930 while living abroad.  Pavelić declared himself leader (poglavnik) of the Ustaša organization in 1933, and published a manifesto of the movement.  Ustaša literally means ‘one who takes part in an uprising’, and Pavelić was greatly influenced by Benito Mussolini and terrorist groups in Macedonia and Albania.  The aim of the party was to overthrow the government of Yugoslavia and with the help of Italy, to create an independent Croatian state.  While abroad, Pavelić organized other Croatian émigrés into army units, training them in military camps in Italy and Hungary. Soon Pavelić helped with the assassination of King Aleksander Karađorđević, the first king of Yugoslavia, in Marseille, France in 1934, and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Italy until 1936. Pre-war, Italy and Germany used the Ustaša party to disrupt Yugoslav power, but later found the Ustaša nationalism a burden.  In 1941, Germans needed to withdrawal from Yugoslavia and address the Eastern front, or perhaps they would have crushed the Ustaša power at this time.

The Germans conquered Yugoslavia in only 11 days in the Spring of 1941 and they were enthusiastically welcomed by many Croats.  The Independent State of Croatia was established on 10 April 1941 under leadership of Pavelić and the Ustaša party.  Hitler declared Pavelić poglavnik, and so Pavelić appointed the government and assumed the roles of president until September 1943.  He also took over the duties of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The new state was enlarged, encompassing regions of Bosnia and Serbia.

Using Nazi-like terror tactics to exercise power, Pavelić led the Ustaša party’s extermination of Serbs, Jews and Roma, and persecuted Croatians harshly if they did not agree with his policies of racial purity and genocide.  Although completely inaccurate, Pavelić claimed Croats were “gothic people” and thus superior.  Pavelić also used religion to distinguish “The Other”, and many Catholic clergymen helped the Ustaša party.  The head of the Catholic Church of Croatia, Archbishop Aloys Stepinac, along with many other aides were acquitted after the war in Yugoslav courts for collaborating with Pavelić’s government.  The Ustaša massacred whole Serbian villages in Croatia and Bosnia in attempts to create a “pure Croatia.”   In 1941 and 1942, around thirty German, Italian, and Ustaša concentration camps were built in the Independent State of Croatia in order to aid in their genocide, the largest of which was the Jasenovac camp.  Due to lack of accurate documentation, the number of victims from the Jasenovac camp greatly varies between 50,000 to 600,000, with Croatia claiming the lesser figure and Serbia the greater.

With the Yugoslav Partisans advancing in 1945, Pavelić fled the country with the help of the Catholic Church in Italy, seeking safety in Argentina using a false identity. He survived an assassination attempt in 1957 and fled to Spain, where he died in 1959 in a German hospital in Madrid due to complications of the bullet in his spine.

Although Pavelić was certainly not the sole source, he became the face of Croatian nationalism during World War II.  He was one of the founders of the Ustaša movement, and the most important leader in the Independent State of Croatia.  Pavelić led a specifically Balkan holocaust against Serbs, one that many people in the West do not realize took place.  For Serbs today, the Croatian flag is a symbol of Fascism and the atrocities committed against their nation during the war.  Later Josip Broz Tito forbade discussion of the Jasenovac exterminations in an attempt to keep peace in a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.  After the death of Tito and during the wars in the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, much of the nationalism from the World War II and Pavelić era resurfaced, causing utter destruction in the region.  Many people hastily attribute the tension among the nations of the former-Yugoslavia as some kind of ancient hatred; rather, the hatred stems from only as far back as World War II.  Supporters of the Ustaša party are still present in Croatia today. Although Ante Pavelić alone cannot be blamed for nationalism and hatred in the former-Yugoslavia, his leadership during World War II created a lasting divide and the region still suffers effects today.

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