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Ustaša – Croatian Revolutionary Movement

Ustaša – Hrvatski revolucionarni pokret
PoglavnikAnte Pavelić
(10 April 1941 – 8 May 1945)
FounderAnte Pavelić
Founded7 January 1929 (1929-01-07) (de jure)
1930 (de facto)
Banned8 May 1945 (1945-05-08)
Preceded byParty of Rights
Succeeded by
NewspaperHrvatski Domobran
Youth wingUstaše Youth (UM)
Paramilitary wingUstaše Militia
Membership (1941)100,000[1]
Political positionFar-right
ReligionRoman Catholicism
Colours     White,      blue,      red and      black
Slogan"Za dom spremni"
("For the home - Ready!")
Party flag
Flag of Croatia (1941–1945).svg

The Ustaša – Croatian Revolutionary Movement (Croatian: Ustaša – Hrvatski revolucionarni pokret), commonly known as Ustaše (pronounced [ûstaʃe], Croatian: Ustaše), was a Croatian fascist, ultranationalist and terrorist organization,[2] active, as one organization, between 1929 and 1945. Its members murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews,[3] and Roma as well as political dissidents in Yugoslavia during World War II.[4][5][6] They were known for their particularly brutal and sadistic methods of execution, which often included torture and dismemberment.[7]

Much of the ideology of the Ustaše was based on Nazi racial theory. Like the Nazis, the Ustaše deemed Jews, Romani, and Slavs to be sub-humans (Untermenschen). They endorsed the claims from German racial theorists that Croats were not Slavs but a Germanic race. Their genocides against Serbs, Jews, and Romani were thus expressions of Nazi racial ideology. However, the Ustaše viewed the Bosniaks as "Muslim Croats," not Slavs, and as a result did not persecute Muslim Bosniaks on the basis of race.[8]

In addition to Nazi racial theory, the Ustaše ideology incorporated fascism, Roman Catholicism and Croatian nationalism.[4] The Ustaše supported the creation of a Greater Croatia that would span the Drina River and extend to the border of Belgrade.[9] The movement emphasized the need for a racially "pure" Croatia and promoted genocide against Serbs, Jews and Romani people, and persecution of anti-fascist or dissident Croats and Bosniaks.

They are variously known in English as the Ustaše, Ustashe, Ustashi, Ustahis, or Ustashas; with the associated adjective sometimes being Ustashe or Ustasha, apart from Ustaše. This variance stems from the fact that Ustaše is the plural form of Ustaša in the Serbo-Croatian language.

Fiercely Roman Catholic, the Ustaše espoused Roman Catholicism and Islam as the religions of the Croats and Bosniaks and condemned Orthodox Christianity, which was the main religion of the Serbs. Roman Catholicism was identified with Croatian nationalism,[10] while Islam, which had a large following in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was praised by the Ustaše as the religion that "keeps true the blood of Croats."[11]

When it was founded in 1930,[12] it was a nationalist organization that sought to create an independent Croatian state. When the Ustaše came to power in the NDH, a quasi-protectorate established by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during World War II, its military wings became the Army of the Independent State of Croatia and the Ustaše militia (Croatian: Ustaška vojnica).[4] However the Ustashe never received massive support from ordinary Croats.[13] The Ustashe regime was backed by parts of the Croatian population that during the interwar period had felt oppressed in the Serbian-led Yugoslavia. Most of the support it had initially gained by creating a Croat national state was lost because of the brutal practices it used.[14]

The movement functioned as a terrorist organization before World War II[4] but in April 1941, they were appointed to rule a part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia as the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which has been described as both an Italian-German quasi-protectorate,[15] and as a puppet state[16][17][18] of Nazi Germany.[17][19][20]


The word ustaša (plural: ustaše) is derived from the intransitive verb ustati (Croatian for rise up). "Pučki-ustaša" (German: Landsturm) was a military rank in the Imperial Croatian Home Guard (1868–1918). The same term was the name of Croatian third-class infantry regiments (German: Landsturm regiments) during World War One 1914–1918.[21] Another variation of the word ustati is ustanik (plural: ustanici) which means an insurgent, or a rebel. The name ustaša did not have fascist connotations during the early years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as the term "ustat" was itself used in Herzegovina to denote the insurgents from the Herzegovinian rebellion of 1875. The full original name of the organization appeared in April 1931 as the Ustaša – Hrvatska revolucionarna organizacija or UHRO (Ustaša – Croatian Revolutionary Organization); in 1933 it was renamed the Ustaša – Hrvatski revolucionarni pokret (Ustaša – Croatian Revolutionary Movement), a name it kept until World War II.[4] In English, Ustasha, Ustashe, Ustashas and Ustashi are used for the movement or its members.


Ideological roots

Poglavnik Ante Pavelić and Italy's Duce Benito Mussolini on 18 May 1941 in Rome. The Ustaše were heavily influenced by Italian Fascism and politically supported by Fascist Italy.
Germany's Führer Adolf Hitler with Pavelić at the Berghof outside Berchtesgaden, Germany. The Ustaše increasingly came under the influence of Nazism after the founding of the NDH in 1941.

One of the major ideological influences on the Croatian nationalism of the Ustaše was 19th century Croatian activist Ante Starčević,[8] an advocate of Croatian unity and independence, who was both anti-Habsburg and anti-Serbian in outlook.[8]

He envisioned the creation of a Greater Croatia that would include territories inhabited by Bosniaks, Serbs, and Slovenes, considering Bosniaks and Serbs to be Croats who had been converted to Islam and Orthodox Christianity, while considering the Slovenes to be "mountain Croats".[8] Starčević argued that the large Serb presence in territories claimed by a Greater Croatia was the result of recent settlement, encouraged by Habsburg rulers, and the influx of groups like Vlachs who took up Orthodox Christianity and identified themselves as Serbs. Starčević admired Bosniaks because in his view they were Croats who had adopted Islam in order to preserve the economic and political autonomy of Bosnia and Croatia under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.[8]

The Ustaše used Starčević's theories to promote the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia and recognized Croatia as having two major ethnocultural components: Catholics and Muslims.[8] The Ustaše sought to represent Starčević as being connected to their views.[22]

The Ustaše promoted the theories of Dr Milan Šufflay, who is believed to have claimed that Croatia had been "one of the strongest ramparts of Western civilization for many centuries", which he claimed had been lost through its union with Serbia when the nation of Yugoslavia was formed in 1918.[23] Šufflay was killed in Zagreb in 1931 by government supporters.[24][25][26]

The Ustaše accepted the 1935 thesis by a Franciscan friar, Father Krunoslav Draganović, who claimed that many Catholics in southern Herzegovina had been converted to Orthodox Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to justify a policy of forcible conversion of Orthodox Christians in the area to Catholicism.[27]

The Ustaše were heavily influenced by Nazism and fascism. Pavelić's position of Poglavnik was based on the similar positions of Duce held by Benito Mussolini and Führer held by Adolf Hitler.[8] The Ustaše, like fascists, promoted a corporatist economy.[28] Pavelić and the Ustaše were allowed sanctuary in Italy by Mussolini after being exiled from Yugoslavia. Pavelić had been in negotiations with Fascist Italy since 1927 that included advocating a territory-for-sovereignty swap in which he would tolerate Italy annexing its claimed territory in Dalmatia in exchange for Italy supporting the sovereignty of an independent Croatia.[8]

Mussolini's support of the Ustaše was based on pragmatic considerations, such as maximizing Italian influence in the Balkans and the Adriatic. After 1937, with the weakening of French influence in Europe following Germany's remilitarization of the Rhineland and with the rise of a quasi-fascist government in Yugoslavia under Milan Stojadinović, Mussolini abandoned support for the Ustaše from 1937–39 and sought to improve relations with Yugoslavia, fearing that continued hostility towards Yugoslavia would result in Yugoslavia entering Germany's sphere of influence.[29]

Anti-Serbian and anti-communist Ustashe poster

The collapse of the quasi-fascist Stojadinović regime resulted in Italy restoring its support for the Ustaše, whose aim was to create an independent Croatia in personal union with Italy.[29] However, distrust of the Ustaše grew. Mussolini's son-in-law and Italian foreign minister Count Galeazzo Ciano noted in his diary that "The Duce is indignant with Pavelić, because he claims that the Croats are descendants of the Goths. This will have the effect of bringing them into the German orbit".[30]

Hungary strongly supported the Ustaše for two aims. One, in order to weaken Yugoslavia, Little Entente, in order to ultimately regain some of its lost territories. The other, Hungary also wished to establish later in the future a strong alliance with the Independent State of Croatia and possibly enter a personal union.[31]

Nazi Germany initially didn't support an independent Croatia, nor did it support the Ustaše, with Hitler stressing the importance of a "strong and united Yugoslavia".[29] Nazi officials, including Hermann Göring, wanted Yugoslavia stable and officially neutral during the war so Germany could continue to securely gain Yugoslavia's raw material exports.[29] The Nazis grew aggravated with the Ustaše, among them Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, who was dissatisfied with the lack of full compliance by the NDH to the Nazis' agenda of extermination of the Jews, as the Ustaše permitted Jews who converted to Catholicism to be recognized as "honorary Croats", thus putatively exempt from persecution.[8]

Political programme and main agendas

In 1932, an editorial in the first issue of the Ustaše newspaper, signed by the Ustaše leader Ante Pavelić, proclaimed that violence and terror would be the main means for the Ustaše to attain their goals:

The KNIFE, REVOLVER, MACHINE GUN and TIME BOMB; these are the idols, these are bells that will announce the dawning and THE RESURRECTION OF THE INDEPENDENT STATE OF CROATIA.[32]

In 1933, the Ustaše presented "The Seventeen Principles" that formed the official ideology of the movement. The Principles stated the uniqueness of the Croatian nation, promoted collective rights over individual rights and declared that people who were not Croat by "blood" would be excluded from political life.[8]

Those considered "undesirables" were subjected to mass murder.[33] These principles called for the creation of a new economic system that would be neither capitalist nor communist[8] and which emphasized the importance of the Roman Catholic Church and the patriarchial family as means to maintain social order and morality.[8] (The name given by modern historian to this particular aspect of Ustaše ideology varies; "national Catholicism",[34] "political Catholicism" and "Catholic Croatism"[35] have been proposed among others.) In power, the Ustaše banned contraception and tightened laws against blasphemy.[36]

The Ustaše accepted that Croats are part of the Dinaric race,[37] but rejected the idea that Croats are primarily Slavic, claiming they are primarily descended from Germanic roots with the Goths.[38] The Ustaše believed that a government must naturally be strong and authoritarian. The movement opposed parliamentary democracy for being "corrupt" and Marxism and Bolshevism for interfering in family life and the economy and for their materialism. The Ustaše considered competing political parties and elected parliaments to be harmful to its own interests.[28]

The Ustaše recognized both Roman Catholicism and Islam as national religions of the Croatian people but initially rejected Orthodox Christianity as being incompatible with their objectives.[23] Although the Ustaše emphasized religious themes, it stressed that duty to the nation took precedence over religious custom.[39]

In power, the Ustaše banned the use of the term "Serbian Orthodox faith", requiring "Greek-Eastern faith" in its place.[33] The Ustaše forcefully converted many Orthodox to Catholicism, murdered and expelled 85% of Orthodox priests,[40] and plundered and burnt many Orthodox Christian churches.[40] The Ustaše also persecuted Old Catholics who did not recognize papal infallibility.[33] On 2 July 1942 the Croatian Orthodox Church was founded, as a further means to destroy the Serbian Orthodox Church, but this new Church gained very few followers.[41]

The Ustaše attached conditions to the Croatian citizenship of Muslims, such as asserting that a Muslim who supported Yugoslavia would not be considered a Croat nor a citizen but would instead be considered a "Muslim Serb" who could be denied property and imprisoned. The Ustaše claimed that such "Muslim Serbs" had to earn Croat status.


While initial focus was against Serbs, as the Ustase grew closer to the Nazis they adopted antisemitism.[42] In 1936, in "The Croat Question", Ante Pavelić placed Jews third among "the Enemies of the Croats" (after Serbs and Freemasons, but before Communists): writing:

″Today, practically all finance and nearly all commerce in Croatia is in Jewish hands. This became possible only through the support of the state, which thereby seeks, on one hand, to strengthen the pro-Serbian Jews, and on the other, to weaken Croat national strength. The Jews celebrated the establishment of the so-called Yugoslav state with great joy, because a national Croatia could never be as useful to them as a multi-national Yugoslavia; for in national chaos lies the power of the Jews... In fact, as the Jews had foreseen, Yugoslavia became, in consequence of the corruption of official life in Serbia, a true Eldorado of Jewry."[43]

Once in power, the Ustaše immediately introduced a series of Nazi-style Racial Laws. On April 30, 1941, the Ustaše proclaimed the "Legal Decree on Racial Origins" the "Legal Decree on the Protection of Aryan Blood and the Honor of the Croatian People", and the "Legal Provision on Citizenship".[44] These decrees defined who was a Jew, and took away the citizenship rights of all non-Aryans, i.e. Jews and Roma. By the end of April 1941, months before the Nazis implemented similar measures in Germany, however over a year after being implemented in occupied Poland, the Ustaše required all Jews to wear insignia, typically a yellow Star of David.[45] The Ustaše declared the "Legal Provision on the Nationalization of the Property of Jews and Jewish Companies", on 10 October 1941, and with it they confiscated all Jewish property.[46]

Already on their first day, 10–11 April 1941, Ustaše arrested a group of prominent Zagreb Jews and held them for ransom. On 13 April the same was done in Osijek, where Ustaše and Volksdeutscher mobs also destroyed the synagogue and Jewish graveyard.[47] This process was repeated multiple times in 1941 with groups of Jews. Simultaneously, the Ustaše initiated extensive antisemitic propaganda, with Ustaše papers writing that Croatians must "be more alert than any other ethnic group to protect their racial purity, ... We need to keep our blood clean of the Jews". They also wrote that Jews are synonymous with "treachery, cheating, greed, immorality and foreigness", and therefore "wide swaths of the Croatian people always despised the Jews and felt towards them natural revulsion".[48]

The Ustaše sent most Jews to Ustaše and Nazi concentration camps – including the notorious, Ustaše-run, Jasenovac – where all told nearly, 32.000, or 80% of the Jews in the Independent State of Croatia, were exterminated.[49] The Ustaše persecuted Jews who practiced Judaism but authorized Jewish converts to Catholicism to be recognized as Croatian citizens and be given honorary Aryan citizenship that allowed them to be reinstated at the jobs from which they had previously been separated.[39] After they stripped Jews of their citizenship rights, the Ustaše allowed some to apply for Aryan rights via bribes and/or through connections to prominent Ustaše. The whole process was highly arbitrary. Only 2% of Zagreb's Jews were granted Aryan rights, for example. Also, Aryan rights did not guarantee permanent protection from being sent to concentration camps or other persecution.[50]

Other measures

Economically, the Ustaše supported the creation of a corporatist economy.[28][36][51] The movement believed that natural rights existed to private property and ownership over small-scale means of production free from state control. Armed struggle, revenge and terrorism were glorified by the Ustaše.[28]

The Ustaše introduced widespread measures, to which many Croats themselves fell victim. Jozo Tomasevich in his book War and Revolution in Yugoslavia: 1941-1945, states that "never before in history had Croats been exposed to such legalized administrative, police and judicial brutality and abuse as during the Ustaša regime." Decrees enacted by the regime formed the basis that allowed it to get rid of all unwanted employees in state and local government and in state enterprises, the "unwanted" being all Jews, Serbs and Yugoslav-oriented Croats who were all thrown out except for some deemed specifically needed by the government. This would leave a multitude of jobs to be filled by Ustašas and pro-Ustaša adherents, and would lead to government jobs being filled by people with no professional qualifications.[52]

Map of a Greater Croatia in a 26 October 1939 article of the Ustaše Hrvatski Domobran newspaper associated with the Ustaše organization of the same name, Hrvatski Domobran, which sought recruitment of Croatian diaspora emigrants in Argentina and elsewhere. The article rejected the Cvetković–Maček Agreement and the borders it provided to Croatia as insufficient.


Before World War II

In October 1928, after the assassination of leading Croatian politician Stjepan Radić, Croatian Peasant Party President in the Yugoslav Assembly by radical Montenegrin politician Puniša Račić, a youth group named the Croat Youth Movement was founded by Branimir Jelić at the University of Zagreb. A year later Ante Pavelić was invited by the 21-year-old Jelić into the organization as a junior member. A related movement, the Domobranski Pokret—which had been the name of the legal Croatian army in Austria-Hungary—began publication of Hrvatski Domobran, a newspaper dedicated to Croatian national matters. The Ustaše sent Hrvatski Domobran to the United States to garner support for them from Croatian-Americans.[53] The organization around the Domobran tried to engage with and radicalize moderate Croats, using Radić's assassination to stir up emotions within the divided country. By 1929 two divergent Croatian political streams had formed: those who supported Pavelić's view that only violence could secure Croatia's national interests, and the Croatian Peasant Party, led then by Vladko Maček, successor to Stjepan Radić, which had much greater support among Croats.[28]

Various members of the Croatian Party of Rights contributed to the writing of the Domobran, until around Christmas 1928 when the newspaper was banned by authorities of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In January 1929 the king banned all national parties,[54] and the radical wing of the Party of Rights was exiled, including Pavelić, Jelić and Gustav Perčec. This group was later joined by several other Croatian exiles. On 22 March 1941 Zvonimir Pospišil and Mijo Babić murdered Toni Šlegel, the chief editor of newspaper Novosti from Zagreb and president of Jugoštampa, which was the beginning of the terrorist actions of Ustaše.[55] On 20 April 1929 Pavelić and others co-signed a declaration in Sofia, Bulgaria, with members of the Macedonian National Committee, asserting that they would pursue "their legal activities for the establishment of human and national rights, political freedom and complete independence for both Croatia and Macedonia".[citation needed] The Court for the Preservation of the State in Belgrade sentenced Pavelić and Perčec to death on 17 July 1929.

The exiles started organizing support for their cause among the Croatian diaspora in Europe, as well as North and South America. In January 1932 they named their revolutionary organization "Ustaša". The Ustaše carried out terrorist acts, to cause as much damage as possible to Yugoslavia. From their training camps in fascist Italy and Hungary, they planted time bombs on international trains bound for Yugoslavia, causing deaths and material damage.[56] In November 1932 ten Ustaše, led by Andrija Artuković and supported by four local sympathizers, attacked a gendarme outpost at Brušani in the Lika/Velebit area, in an apparent attempt to intimidate the Yugoslav authorities. The incident has sometimes been termed the "Velebit uprising".[citation needed]

Assassination of King Alexander I

Universal Newsreel's film about the assassination of Alexander I.

The Ustaše's most famous terrorist act was carried out on 9 October 1934, when working with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), they assassinated King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. The perpetrator, a Bulgarian revolutionary, Vlado Chernozemski, was killed by French police.[57] Three Ustaše members who had been waiting at different locations for the king – Mijo Kralj, Zvonimir Pospišil and Milan Rajić – were captured and sentenced to life imprisonment by a French court.[56]

Ante Pavelić, along with Eugen Kvaternik and Ivan Perčević, were subsequently sentenced to death in absentia by a French court, as the real organizers of the deed. The Ustaše believed that the assassination of King Alexander had effectively "broken the backbone of Yugoslavia" and that it was their "most important achievement."[57]

Soon after the assassination, all organizations related to the Ustaše as well as the Hrvatski Domobran, which continued as a civil organization, were banned throughout Europe. Under pressure from France, the Italian police arrested Pavelić and several Ustaše emigrants in October 1934. Pavelić was imprisoned in Turin and released in March 1936. After he met with Eugen Dido Kvaternik, he stated that assassination was "the only language Serbs understand". While in prison, Pavelić was informed of the 1935 election in Yugoslavia, when the coalition led by Croat Vladko Maček won. He stated that his victory was aided by the activity of Ustaše.[58] By the mid-1930s, graffiti with the initials ŽAP meaning "Long live Ante Pavelić" (Croatian: Živio Ante Pavelić) had begun to appear on the streets of Zagreb.[59] During the 1930s, a split developed between the "home" Ustaše members who stayed behind in Croatia and Bosnia to struggle against Yugoslavia and the "emigre" Ustaše who went abroad.[60] The "emigre" Ustaše who had a much lower educational level were viewed as violent, ignorant and fanatical by the "home" Ustaše while the "home" Ustaše were dismissed as "soft" by the "emigres" who saw themselves as a "warrior-elite".[60]      

After March 1937, when Italy and Yugoslavia signed a pact of friendship, Ustaše and their activities were banned, which attracted the attention of young Croats, especially university students, who would become sympathizers or members. In 1936, the Yugoslav government offered amnesty to those Ustaše abroad provided they promised to renounce violence; many of the "emigres" accepted the amnesty and returned home to continue the struggle.[61]  In the late 1930s, the Ustaše started to infiltrate the para-military organizations of the Croat Peasant Party, the Croatian Defense Force and the Peasant Civil Party.[62] At the University of Zagreb, an Ustaše-linked student group become the largest single student group by 1939.[62] In February 1939 two returnees from detention, Mile Budak and Ivan Oršanić, became editors of Hrvatski narod, known in English as The Croatian Nation, a pro-Ustaše journal.

World War II

The Axis Powers invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941. Vladko Maček, the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), which was the most influential party in Croatia at the time, rejected German offers to lead the new government. On 10 April the most senior home-based Ustaše, Slavko Kvaternik, took control of the police in Zagreb and in a radio broadcast that day proclaimed the formation of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH). The name of the state was an attempt to capitalise on the Croat struggle for independence. Maček issued a statement that day, calling on all Croatians to cooperate with the new authorities.[63]

A unit of Ustaše in Sarajevo

Meanwhile Pavelić and several hundred Ustaše left their camps in Italy for Zagreb, where he declared a new government on 16 April 1941.[8] He accorded himself the title of "Poglavnik"—a Croatian approximation to "Führer". The Independent State of Croatia was declared on Croatian "ethnic and historical territory",[64] what is today Republic of Croatia (without Istria), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Syrmia and the Bay of Kotor. However, a few days after the declaration of independence, the Ustaše were forced[8] to sign the Treaty of Rome where they surrendered part of Dalmatia and Krk, Rab, Korčula, Biograd, Šibenik, Split, Čiovo, Šolta, Mljet and part of Konavle and the Bay of Kotor to Italy. De facto control over this territory varied for the majority of the war, as the Partisans grew more successful, while the Germans and Italians increasingly exercised direct control over areas of interest. The Germans and Italians split the NDH into two zones of influence, one in the southwest controlled by the Italians and the other in the northeast controlled by the Germans. As a result, the NDH has been described as "an Italian-German quasi-protectorate". In September 1943, after Italian capitulation, the NDH annexed the whole territory which was annexed by Italy according to Treaty of Rome.[65]

Ustaše Militia

Meeting in Bosnia between representatives of the Chetniks and Independent State of Croatia officers (including the Ustaše militia and the Croatian Home Guard)

The Army of the Independent State of Croatia was composed of enlistees who did not participate in Ustaše activities. The Ustaše Militia was organised in 1941 into five (later 15) 700-man battalions, two railway security battalions and the elite Black Legion and Poglavnik Bodyguard Battalion (later Brigade).[66] They were predominantly recruited among uneducated population and working class.[67]

On 27 April 1941 a newly formed unit of the Ustaše army killed members of the largely Serbian community of Gudovac, near Bjelovar. Eventually all who opposed and/or threatened the Ustaše were outlawed. The HSS was banned on 11 June 1941, in an attempt by the Ustaše to take their place as the primary representative of the Croatian peasantry. Vladko Maček was sent to the Jasenovac concentration camp, but later released to serve a house arrest sentence due to his popularity among the people. Maček was later again called upon by foreigners to take a stand and oppose the Pavelić government, but refused. In early 1941 Jews and Serbs were ordered to leave certain areas of Zagreb.[68][69]

It is to be noted that in the months after Independent State of Croatia has been established, most of Ustashe groups were not under centralized control: besides 4,500 regular Ustasha Corps troops, there was some 25,000-30,0000 "Wild Ustasha" (hrv. "divlje ustaše"), boosted by government-controlled press as "peasant Ustashe" "begging" to be sent to fight enemies of the regime. After mass crimes against Serb populace committed during the Summer months of 1941, the regime decided to blame all the atrocities to the irregular Ustashe - thoroughly undisciplined an paid for the service only with the booty; authorities even sentenced to death and executed publicly in August and September 1941 many of them for unauthorized use of extreme violence against Serbs and Gypsies. To put an end to Wild Ustasha uncontrolled looting and killing, the central government used some 6,000 gendarmes and some 45.000 newly recruited members of regular "Domobranstvo" forces.[70]

Pavelić first met with Adolf Hitler on 6 June 1941. Mile Budak, then a minister in Pavelić's government, publicly proclaimed the violent racial policy of the state on 22 July 1941. Vjekoslav "Maks" Luburić, a chief of the secret police, started building concentration camps in the summer of the same year. Ustaše activities in villages across the Dinaric Alps led the Italians and the Germans to express their disquiet. According to writer/historian Srđa Trifković, as early as 10 July 1941 Wehrmacht Gen. Edmund Glaise von Horstenau reported the following to the German High Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW):

Our troops have to be mute witnesses of such events; it does not reflect well on their otherwise high reputation . . . I am frequently told that German occupation troops would finally have to intervene against Ustaše crimes. This may happen eventually. Right now, with the available forces, I could not ask for such action. Ad hoc intervention in individual cases could make the German Army look responsible for countless crimes which it could not prevent in the past.[71][72]

Historian Jonathan Steinberg describes Ustaše crimes against Serbian and Jewish civilians: "Serbian and Jewish men, women and children were literally hacked to death". Reflecting on the photos of Ustaše crimes taken by Italians, Steinberg writes: "There are photographs of Serbian women with breasts hacked off by pocket knives, men with eyes gouged out, emasculated and mutilated".[73]

A Gestapo report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated 17 February 1942, stated:

Increased activity of the bands [of rebels] is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.[74]

In September 1942 an Ustaše Defensive Brigade was formed, and during 1943 the Ustaše battalions were re-organised into eight four-battalion brigades (1st to 8th).[66] In 1943 the Germans suffered major losses on the Eastern Front and the Italians signed an armistice with the Allies, leaving behind significant caches of arms which the Partisans would use.

An Ustaše disguised as a woman, captured by Partisans of the 6th Krajina Brigade

By 1944 Pavelić was almost totally reliant on Ustaše units, now 100,000 strong, formed in Brigades 1 to 20, Recruit Training Brigades 21 to 24, three divisions, two railway brigades, one defensive brigade and the new Mobile Brigade. In November 1944 the army was effectively put under Ustaše control when the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia were combined with the units of the Ustaše to form 18 divisions, comprising 13 infantry, two mountain and two assault divisions and one replacement division, each with its own organic artillery and other support units. There were several armored units.[66]

Fighting continued for a short while after the formal surrender of German Army Group E on 9 May 1945, as Pavelić ordered the NDH forces to attempt to escape to Austria, together with a large number of civilians. The Battle of Poljana, between a mixed German and Ustaše column and a Partisan force, was the last battle of World War II on European soil.[dubious ] Most of those fleeing, including both Ustaše and civilians, were handed over to the Partisans at Bleiburg and elsewhere on the Austrian border. Pavelić hid in Austria and Rome, with the help of Catholic clergy, later fleeing to Argentina.[75]

After the war

After World War II, many of the Ustaše went underground or fled to countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany and some countries in South America, notably Argentina, with the assistance of Roman Catholic churches and their own grassroots supporters.[76][76][77]

For several years some Ustaše tried to organize a resistance group called the Crusaders, but their efforts were largely foiled by the Yugoslav authorities.[4] With the defeat of the Independent State of Croatia, the active movement went dormant. Infighting fragmented the surviving Ustaše. Pavelić formed the Croatian Liberation Movement, which drew in several of the former state's leaders. Vjekoslav Vrančić founded a reformed Croatian Liberation Movement and was its leader. Maks Luburić formed the Croatian National Resistance. Branimir Jelić founded the Croatian National Committee. Also see the Croatian Revolutionary Brotherhood.

Blagoje Jovović, a Montenegrin, shot Pavelić near Buenos Aires on 9 April 1957; Pavelić later died of his injuries.[78]

An entire Serb family lies slaughtered in their home following a raid by the Ustaše militia, 1941.

Ethnic and religious persecution

The Ustaše intended to create an ethnically "pure" Croatia, and they viewed those Serbs then living in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina as the biggest obstacle to this goal. Ustaše ministers Mile Budak, Mirko Puk and Milovan Žanić declared in May 1941 that the goal of the new Ustaše policy was an ethnically pure Croatia. The strategy to achieve their goal was:[79][80]

  1. One-third of the Serbs were to be killed
  2. One-third of the Serbs were to be expelled
  3. One-third of the Serbs were to be forcibly converted to Catholicism

The NDH government cooperated with Nazi Germany in the Holocaust and exercised their own version of the genocide against Serbs, Jews and Roma (aka "gypsies") inside its borders. State policy towards Serbs had first been declared in the words of Milovan Žanić, a minister of the NDH Legislative council, on 2 May 1941:

Ustaše soldiers sawing off the head of Branko Jungić, an ethnic Serb, near Bosanska Gradiška.

This country can only be a Croatian country, and there is no method we would hesitate to use in order to make it truly Croatian and cleanse it of Serbs, who have for centuries endangered us and who will endanger us again if they are given the opportunity.[81]

The Ustaše enacted race laws patterned after those of the Third Reich, which persecuted Jews, Romani and Serbs, who were collectively declared to be enemies of the Croatian people.[8] Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian and Bosniak dissidents, including Communists, were interned in concentration camps, the largest of which was Jasenovac. By the end of the war the Ustaše, under Pavelić's leadership, had exterminated an estimated 30,000 Jews and 26-29,000 Roma,[82][83] while the number of Serb victims ranges as low as 200,000 to as high as 500,000[84] with historians generally listing between 300,000–350,000 deaths.[85][86][87][88]

The history textbooks in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia cited 700,000 as the total number of victims at Jasenovac. This was promulgated from a 1946 calculation of the demographic loss of population (the difference between the actual number of people after the war and the number that would have been, had the pre-war growth trend continued). After that, it was used by Edvard Kardelj and Moša Pijade in the Yugoslav war reparations claim sent to Germany. In its entry on Jasenovac, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says:

Determining the number of victims is highly problematic, due to the destruction of many relevant documents, the long-term inaccessibility to independent scholars of those documents that survived, and the ideological agendas of postwar partisan scholarship and journalism, which has been and remains influenced by ethnic tension, religious prejudice, and ideological conflict. The Croat authorities murdered between 320,000 and 340,000 ethnic Serb residents of Croatia and Bosnia during the period of Ustaša rule; more than 30,000 Croatian Jews were killed either in Croatia or at Auschwitz-Birkenau.[89]

The USHMM notes that estimates on the number of Serb victims, the Ustaše's primary victims, vary tremendously and that "the most reliable figures place the number between 330,000 and 390,000, with 45,000 to 52,000 Serbs murdered in Jasenovac."[90]

Serb civilians forced to convert to Catholicism by the Ustaše in Glina

The Jasenovac Memorial Area maintains a list of 83,145 names of Jasenovac victims that was gathered by government officials in Belgrade in 1964, as well as names and biographical data for the victims identified in recent inquiries.[91] As the gathering process was imperfect, they estimated that the list represented between 60%–75% of the total victims, putting the number of killed in that complex at between roughly 80,000–100,000. The previous head of the Memorial Area Simo Brdar estimated at least 365,000 dead at Jasenovac. The analyses of statisticians Vladimir Žerjavić and Bogoljub Kočović were similar to those of the Memorial Area. In all of Yugoslavia, the estimated number of Serb deaths was 487,000 according to Kočović, and 530,000 according to Žerjavić, out of a total of 1,014,000 or 1,027,000 deaths (respectively). Žerjavić further stated there were 197,000 Serb civilians killed in NDH (78,000 as prisoners in Jasenovac and elsewhere) as well as 125,000 Serb combatants.

The Belgrade Museum of Holocaust compiled a list of over 77,000 names of Jasenovac victims. It was previously headed by Milan Bulajić, who supported the claim of a total of 700,000 victims. The current administration of the Museum has further expanded the list to include a bit over 80,000 names. During World War II various German military commanders and civilian authorities gave different figures for the number of Serbs, Jews and others killed inside the territory of the Independent State of Croatia. Historian Prof. Jozo Tomasevich has posited that some of these figures may have been a "deliberate exaggeration" fostered to create further hostility between Serbs and Croats so that they would not unite in resisting the Axis.[92] These figures included 400,000 Serbs (Alexander Löhr);[93] 500,000 Serbs (Lothar Rendulic);[94] 250,000 to March 1943 (Edmund Glaise von Horstenau);[92] more than "3/4 of a million Serbs" (Hermann Neubacher) in 1943;[95] 600,000–700,000 in concentration camps until March 1944 (Ernst Fick);[92] 700,000 (Massenbach).[96]

Concentration camps

Ustaše militia execute prisoners near the Jasenovac concentration camp.
A knife nicknamed "Srbosjek" or "Serbcutter", strapped to the hand, which was used by the Ustaše militia for the speedy killing of inmates in Jasenovac.

The first group of camps was formed in the spring of 1941. These included:

These camps were closed by October 1942. The Jasenovac complex was built between August 1941 and February 1942. The first two camps, Krapje and Bročica, were closed in November 1941. The three newer camps continued to function until the end of the war:

There were also other camps in:

Numbers of prisoners:

  • between 300,000–350,000 up to 700,000 in Jasenovac (disputed)
  • around 35,000 in Gospić
  • around 8,500 in Pag
  • around 3,000 in Đakovo
  • 1,018 in Jastrebarsko
  • around 1,000 in Lepoglava


Beyond mass killings in concentration camps, the Ustaše perpetrated many massacres of civilians in the field. The first mass killing of Serbs was carried out on April 30,1941, when the Ustaše rounded up and killed 196 Serbs at Gudovac. Many other massacres soon followed, including at Blagaj, Glina, Korita, Nevesinje, Prebilovci, Metkovic, Otočac, Vočin, Šargovac, etc. Here is how the Croatian Catholic Bishop of Mostar, Alojzije Mišić, described the mass killings of Serb civilians just in one small area of Herzegovina, just during the first 6 months of the war:[98]

People were captured like beasts. Slaughtered, killed, thrown live into the abyss. Women, mothers with children, young women, girls and boys were thrown into pits. The vice-mayor of Mostar, Mr. Baljić, a Mohammedan, publicly states, although as an official he should be silent and not talk, that in Ljubinje alone 700 schismatics [i.e. Serb Orthodox Christians] were thrown into one pit. Six full train carriages of women, mothers and girls, children under age 10, were taken from Mostar and Čapljina to the Šurmanci station, where they were unloaded and taken into the hills, with live mothers and their children tossed down the cliffs. Everyone was tossed and killed. In the Klepci parish, from the surrounding villages, 3,700 schismatics were killed. Poor souls, they were calm. I will not enumerate further. I would go too far. In the city of Mostar, hundreds were tied up, taken outside the city and killed like animals.

Religious persecution

The Ustaše not only conducted forcible conversions of Serbs to Catholicism, but on occasion they used the prospect of conversion as a means to gather Serbs together so they could kill them, which is what occurred at Glina. On 18 May 1943, Archbishop Stepinac wrote a letter to the pope, in which he estimated 240.000 conversions to date[99]. The Ustaše killed 157 Orthodox priests, among them 3 Serb Orthodox bishops (cutting the throat of the bishop of Banja Luka and killing the archbishop of Sarajevo),[100] while they jailed and tortured the Orthodox archbishop of Zagreb. The Ustaše expelled to Serbia 327 Orthodox priests and one bishop, while 2 other bishops and 12 priests left on their own.[40] Thus 85% of the Orthodox priests in the Independent State of Croatia were either killed or expelled by the Ustaše, in order to "leave the Orthodox population without spiritual leadership so the Ustašas’ policy of forced or fear-induced conversions to Catholicism would be easier to carry out" [40]

The Ustaše destroyed and desecrated numerous Orthodox Churches,[40] forbade the Cyrillic script and Julian calendar (both used in the Orthodox Church), even prohibited the term "Serbian Orthodox Church". Orthodox schools were shut down,[101] and the Church was prohibited from collecting contributions from believers, robbing it of income.[101] Orthodox Church properties were confiscated by the Ustaše,[101] some turned over to the Croatian Catholic Church. Finally, to destroy the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Ustaše tried to create its own, alternative Croatian Orthodox Church, with an imported Russian priest. but failed to gain adherents.[102]

Despite these many actions by the Ustaše to destroy the Serbian Orthodox Church, Tomasevich found no condemnations of these crimes, public or private, by Catholic Archbishop Stepinac or any other members of the Croatian Catholic Church. On the contrary, he states that this massive Ustaše attack on the Serbian Orthodox Church "was approved and supported by many Croatian Catholic priests",[101] and that the Croatian Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and the Vatican "regarded Ustaše policies against the Serbs and Serbian Orthodox Church as advantageous to Roman Catholicism".[103]

Connections with the Catholic Church

During 23 years of the existance of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1941), the Catholic Clergy was deeply dissatisfied with the regime: "... a massive press campaing was launched to mobilize Croatia's nearly three million Catholics against the central goverment's measures penalizing Saint Peter's apostolate. First of all it's unequality in treatment was denounced: 'the budget for religion totals 141 million dinars, 70 of which go to the Serbian Church, and 34 to the Catholic one.(...) Pašić's government is kind in Serbia, where each citizen pays 55 dinars in yearly taxes, while it is cruel in Croatia and Slovenia, largely Catholic districts, where each citizen pays 165 dinars in taxes.'"[104]

The Ustaše policies against Eastern Orthodoxy are incorrectly associated with "Uniatism" in some Eastern Orthodox circles. This term has not been used by the Roman Catholic Church except for Vatican condemnation of the idea in 1990.[105] The Ustaše represented an extreme example of "Uniatism" which was based on nationalism rather than on religion. They supported violent aggression or force to convert Serbo-Croatian speaking Orthodox believers to Roman Catholicism. The Ustaše held the position that Eastern Orthodoxy, as a symbol of Serbian nationalism, was their greatest foe and never recognized the existence of a Serb people on the territories of Croatia or Bosnia – they recognized only "Croats of the Eastern faith".

Ustashe called Bosniaks "Croats of the Islamic faith", but altogether tolerated Muslims, which community in turn did not demonstrate some greater hostility against the Ustashe government.[106] An important number of Muslim conscripts served in the armed forces of Independent State of Croatia, or in its police forces; only a very small number of Muslims served in ranks of the communist Partisans until the closing days of the war.[107]

Marko Došen (far left, giving Nazi salute) and Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (far right)

On April 28, 1941, the head of the Catholic Church in Croatia, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, issued a public letter in support of the new Independent State of Croatia (under Ustaše-led government), and asked the clergy to pray for its Leader, Ante Pavelić. [108] This despite the fact that the Ustaše had already proclaimed measures prohibiting Serbs, Jews and Gipsies to serve as policemen, judges and soldiers, and making easy for the state officials to fire members of those ethnic/religious groups from the public administration,[109] and he knew they were preparing Nazi-style Racial Laws, which Pavelić signed only 2 days after.[110] While Stepinac later objected to certain Ustaše policies and helped some Jews and Serbs, he continued to publicly support the survival of Independent State of Croatia until its very end, served as the state's War Vicar, and in 1944 received a medal from Pavelić.[111] (for more on Stepinac's wartime activities, see Alojzije Stepinac – World War II) During the ongoing war, Stepinac publicly objected Ustaše policies - in fact, as regards for the relations with head of the Ustasha regime Ante Pavelić, "it is generally agreed that they thoroughly hated each other... archbishop also opposed Fascist and Nazi ideologies, especially Nazi racist ideology, and many Ustasha policies", unlike some other members of the Croatian Catholic clergy.[112]

The vast majority of the Catholic clergy in Croatia supported the Ustaše at the moment they succeeded in forming Independent State of Croatia; but later, the Catholic hierarchy tried to distance the Church from the regime which involved itself in various abuses and war crimes.[113]

Some priests, mostly Franciscans, particularly in, but not limited to, Herzegovina and Bosnia, took part in the atrocities themselves. Priests like Ivan Guberina served as Pavelić's bodyguards, while Dionizije Juričev, responsible for the forced conversion of Serbs in the Ustaše government, wrote that it was no longer a crime to kill seven-year-olds if they stood in the way of the Ustaše movement.[114] In his diocesan newspaper, the Archbishop of Sarajevo, Ivan Šarić, published that the "liberation of the world from the Jews is a movement for the renewal of humanity".[115] In Bosnia the Ustaše largely ruled through the Catholic clergy, with the priest Božidar Bralo serving as a chief Ustaše delegate for Bosnia.[116]

Miroslav Filipović was a Franciscan friar (from the Petrićevac monastery) who allegedly joined the Ustaše as chaplain and, on 7 February 1942, joined in the massacre of roughly 2730 Serbs of the nearby villages, including some 500 children. He was allegedly subsequently dismissed from his order and defrocked, although he wore his clerical garb when he was hanged for war crimes. He became Chief Guard of Jasenovac concentration camp where he was nicknamed "Fra Sotona" (Father Satan) by fellow Croats. Mladen Lorković, the Croat minister of foreign affairs, formulated it like this: "In Croatia, we can find few real Serbs. The majority of Pravoslavs are as a matter of fact Croats who were forced by foreign invaders to accept the infidel faith. Now it's our duty to bring them back into the Roman Catholic fold."[117]

For the duration of the war, "in accordance with Vatican's long-term diplomatic practice of not recognizing new states in wartime before they were legitimazed by peace treaties, the pope did not send a nuncio or diplomat to Croatia as requested, but an apostolic visitor, the abbot Giuseppe Marcone, who was to represent the Vatican to Croatian Catholic Church, not to the government. The government ignored this nuance, bestowing a prominent place for Marcone at all official functions".[118] After World War II ended, the Ustaše who had managed to escape from Yugoslav territory (including Pavelić) were smuggled to South America.[75] This was largely done through rat lines operated by Catholic priests who had previously secured positions at the Vatican. Some of the more infamous members of the Illyrian College of San Girolamo in Rome involved in this were Franciscan friars Krunoslav Draganović and Dominik Mandić, and a third friar surnamed Petranović (first name unknown).[119]

The Ustaše regime had deposited large amounts of gold - including the gold plundered from Serbs and Jews during World War II into - Swiss bank accounts . It seems a substantial quantity of gold was additionally transported by Ustaše to Austria at the end of the WWII. Out of a total of - by some estimates - 350 million Swiss francs, an intelligence report estimated 200 million (ca. $47 million) reached the Vatican.[120] The question remains unclarified.[121] [119]

Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, Archbishop of Zagreb was accused after the end of World War II by Yugoslav communist authorities of supporting the Ustaše and of exonerating those in the clergy who collaborated with them and were hence complicit in forced conversions. Stepinac stated on 28 March 1941, noting early attempts to unite Croatians and Serbs:

"All in all, Croats and Serbs are of two worlds, northpole and southpole, never will they be able to get together unless by a miracle of God. The schism (between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy) is the greatest curse in Europe, almost greater than Protestantism. There is no moral, no principles, no truth, no justice, no honesty."[122]

On 22 July 2016, the Zagreb County Court annulled his post-war conviction due to "gross violations of current and former fundamental principles of substantive and procedural criminal law". [123]

In 1998 Stepinac was beatified by Pope John Paul II. On 22 June 2003 John Paul II visited Banja Luka. During the visit he held a Mass at the aforementioned Petrićevac monastery. This caused public uproar due to the connection of the monastery with Filipović. At the same location the Pope proclaimed the beatification of a Roman Catholic layman Ivan Merz (1896–1928), who was the founder of the "Association of Croatian Eagles" in 1923, which some view as a precursor to the Ustaše. Roman Catholic apologists defend the Pope's actions by stating the convent at Petrićevac was one of the places that went up in flames, causing the death of 80-year-old Friar Alojzije Atlija. Further, it was claimed by the apologists that the war had produced "a total exodus of the Catholic population from this region"; that the few who remained were "predominantly elderly"; and that the church in Bosnia then allegedly risked "total extinction" due to the war.[citation needed]


At the top of the command was the Poglavnik (meaning "head") Ante Pavelić. Pavelić was appointed the office as Head of State of Croatia after Adolf Hitler had accepted Benito Mussolini's proposal of Pavelić, on 10 April 1941. The Croatian Home Guard was the armed forces of Croatia, it subsequently merged into the Croatian Armed Forces.[1]


Symbol used in the Independent State of Croatia

The symbol of the Ustaše was a capital blue letter "U" with an exploding grenade emblem within it.[124][125]

The flag of the Independent State of Croatia was a red-white-blue horizontal tricolor with the shield of the Coat of Arms or Croatia in the middle and the U in the upper left. Its currency was the NDH kuna.

The Ustaše greeting was "Za dom – spremni!":

Salute: Za dom! For home(land)!
Reply: Spremni! (We are) ready!

This was used instead of the Nazi greeting Heil Hitler by the Ustaše. Today it is nominally associated with Ustaše sympathisers by Serbs or non-Ustaše conservatives associated with the Croatian Party of Rights. However, some Croats see it as a patriotic salute, emphasising defending one's home and country. On the internet, it is sometimes abbreviated as ZDS.[citation needed]


Young boy wearing a shirt with a Black Legion, Ustaše Militia sign at a Thompson concert

Use by Serbian nationalists

Since the end of World War II, Serbian historians have used the Ustaše to promote that Serbs resisted the Axis, while Croats and Bosniaks widely supported them. However, the Ustashe never received massive support from ordinary Croats.[13] The Ustashe regime was backed by parts of the Croatian population that during the interwar period had felt oppressed in the Serbian-led Yugoslavia. Most of the support it had initially gained by creating a Croat national state was lost because of the brutal practices it used.[14] In the 1980s, Serbian historians produced many works about the forced conversion during World War Two of Serbs to Catholicism in Ustaše Croatia.[126] These debates between historians openly became nationalistic and also entered the wider media.[127] Historians in Belgrade during the 1980s who had close government connections often went on television during the evenings to discuss invented or real details about the Ustaše genocide against Serbs during World War Two.[128] Serb clergy and nationalists blamed all Croats for crimes committed by the Ustaše, and for planning a genocide against Serb people. These propagandistic activities were aimed at justifying planned crimes and ethno-demographic engineering in Croatia.[129][128]

Modern usage of the term "Ustaše"

After World War II, the Ustaše movement was split into several organizations and there is presently no political or paramilitary movement that claims its legacy as their "successor". The term "ustaše" is today used as a derogatory term for Croatian ultranationalism. The term "Ustaše" is sometimes used among Serbs to describe Serbophobia or more generally to defame political opponents. When Slobodan Milošević's rule was approaching its end, some protesters called him an "Ustaša".[130]

In popular culture

The Ustaše plays an important role in Harry Turtledove's short alternate history story, Ready for the Fatherland. It plays a brief background role in In the Presence of Mine Enemies, an unrelated work by the same author. In both these works, the regime founded by Pavelić lasted several decades beyond the 1940s.

Croatian singer Thompson used WWII Ustashe salute Za dom spremni at the beginning of his wartime song Bojna Čavoglave[131] and in the song Golubovi bijeli.[132] The chant is often heard among fans in his concerts.[133]

See also



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