Vol. XXXVIII, 1/2020, pp. 203–222
There is no more thankless task for a historian than to try to determine the number of victims of any single episode of mass murder in which the 20th century was abundant. All over the world we encounter the sanctification of numbers unsupported by scientific evidence and the misuse of the term “genocide” for political purposes.
The issue of the number of Serbs who were murdered by the Ustaša regime in the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH) under the 1941–45 Axis occupation is also still contentious, even though there is broad agreement on the figures among expert historians of the period.
Ever since the Ustaša movement was founded in the 1930’s, anti-Serb genocidal intent had been immanent to its ideology. After the fall of Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Ustaša regime applied its exterminationist agenda with murderous gusto. After the first wave of genocidal terror, however, it was not able to complete its design against the Serbs – Ustašas’ primary foes – for four key reasons. First, after the initial shock in July 1941, the Serbs rose to arms all over the NDH; Secondly, the Italian Army tried to restrain Ustaša killers in its zone of occupation, and failing that extended it to the western half of the NDH in September 1941, expelling all Ustaša death squads; Thirdly, in late 1942 the Wehrmacht imposed strict controls over the Ustaša militia down to the company level, thus restraining their murderous sorties until the second half of 1944; and Fourthly, the methods used by Ustaša killers were savage: one-on-one sadistic murders, using mostly clubs and knives; but they were unable to produce the number of victims needed for the task.
Methodologically unimpeachable research indicates that the number of Yugoslav citizens killed in 1941-45 was around 1.1 million, out of 17 million. The Ustaša regime murdered some 300,000 Serb civilians. The Jasenovac camp system accounted for around 130,000 victims, two-thirds of them Serbs. The Ustaša wanted to do better, but they were restrained by the four limiting factors listed above.
Some Serb laymen find these figures too low. This creates an opportunity for quasihistorians unburdened by the canon of scientific discovery. Their compilations claim, with no proof, that 700-800,000 were murdered in Jasenovac alone, and over a million in the NDH. Such falsehoods need to be discredited. The truth about the Ustaša terror is awful enough. Inflated numbers should not morph into myths which, in the final instance, always hurt the most those who invent them.
KEYWORDS: Ustaša, Ideology, Victims, Genocide, Jasenovac, Croatia, Serbs, Jews, Nazism
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