Less than a week before this year's commemoration at Bleiburg, set for May 12, the event has attracted a lot of attention in the Austrian public and local law enforcement. For the first time in decades, counter-protests have been announced, and the public debate in Austria centres around public displays of fascist symbols.
The event, held every year in May near the town of Bleiburg in southern Austria only a few kilometres from the Slovenian border, commemorates tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians loyal to the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia (NDH) regime who fled to Austria to surrender to Allied forces in the closing days of World War II in May 1945.
However, the British army turned them over to Yugoslav Partisans, who sent them on death marches towards Yugoslavia, where many of them perished over the next few months.
Although officially sponsored by the Croatian Parliament and supported by prominent members of the Croatian Catholic clergy, the event has caused controversy in Croatia since the early 1990s, and is perceived as a gathering of right-wing and far-right Croatian groups, with some of them openly displaying World War II-era Ustashe insignia and symbols on the site, the Loibacher Feld near the town of Bleiburg.
“In the year which marks 80 years since the Anschluss – the Nazi takeover of the country and Austria’s demise – the newly elected ruling coalition of Carinthia wants to be clear in opposition to any extremists. These include the gathering of right-wing radicals, which poses as a ‘church procession’ and is held every year at Loibacher Feld,” Carinthia’s state prime minister, Peter Kaiser, of the Social Democratic Party (SPO), told Croatian state news agency Hina on Tuesday.
Kaiser added that local Carinthian authorities cannot prevent the event at Loibacher Feld, because this was under the jurisdiction of Austria’s federal government in Vienna, and the federal police. But he said that police must ensure that Austrian laws which ban public displays of symbols related to Nazism are obeyed, and react swiftly if this ban is violated.
Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had told local media in April that he too had no authority to ban the May event at Bleiburg.
“It’s an event organised by the Croatian church. This means that the decision to hold the commemoration was never made by governments of neither Austria nor Carinthia,” Kurz told reporters, and said that law enforcement authorities would react to any violations of Austrian law.
Kaiser recently asked Austria’s government to include Ustasha insignia into the law which bans fascist and Nazi symbols, as the current law only applies to symbols related to Austria’s own national-socialist past.
German journalist Norbert Mappes-Niediek, an expert on the Balkans and author of several books on Southeast Europe, said that provisions of the current Austrian law are already sufficient enough to react to any display of Ustasha symbols today.
“It all depends on the instructions given to policemen at the event. Until now, they looked the other way, but this year they will no longer do that,” Mappes-Niediek told Hina.
He said that Austria’s state attorneys could use the existing law if they want to sanction displays of Ustasha symbols.
“Some state attorneys do this, others don’t,” he said. At a court in Klagenfurt, a 69-year-old Croatian is currently on trial for using a “Hitler salute” at last year’s Bleiburg commemoration.
Mappes-Niediek said there was a palpable paradigm shift in the Austrian public and politics towards the gathering at Bleiburg.
“The main motivator of these changes and a more decisive stance towards Bleiburg is Carinthia’s Prime Minister (Peter) Kaiser. Now that the Social Democrats are no longer in power in Vienna – as they have been replaced by a coalition of the conservative People’s Party (OVP) and right-wing populists – Kaiser is free to openly pressure the federal government and ask for a stricter approach towards that event,” Mappes-Niediek told Hina.
The town of Bleiburg itself, which is about 5 kilometres away from the commemoration site, officials ignore the commemoration. On its website, the only event annouced for Saturday is a meeting of Vespa enthusiasts.
“We have nothing to do with the organisation of the meeting at Loibacher Feld. The locals have nothing against the commemoration, as long as everything there is in line with Austrian law,” Mayor of Bleiburg, Stefan Visotschnig, told Hina.
But Visotschnig, also a Social Democrat, said the political dimensions of the gathering are problematic.
“All this talk about the event have showed not only Bleiburg but also the entire Carinthia state in a bad light,” he said, adding that although there had been smaller protests over the years against the commemoration, only this year did the media increase its attention to it.
“We don’t have a problem with people coming here in memory of victims and to attend the mass. The town of Bleiburg has good relations with Croatia, we are even partners with Croatia’s town of Lovran. But what we do have a problem with is the political dimension of the gathering, which attracts sympathisers of the Ustasha regime from all over the place. Every year we see cars here with license plates from France, Spain, and god knows where else. This is the sort of tourism we do not want,” said Visotschnig.