and The Bleiburg Tragedy
the book Od Bleiburga do Naih Dana
YALTA AND THE BLEIBURG TRAGEDY
C Michael McAdams
/ Home Page
University of San Francisco, California USA
Condensed from the chapter with the same title in:
Od Bleiburga do Naih Dana
Jozo Marovic, Editor
Zagreb: kolska Kniga, 1995
Presented at the International
Symposium for Investigation of the Bleiburg Tragedy Zagreb, Croatia and Bleiburg, Austria
May 17 and 18, 1994
approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference which shaped the post-war
world and forever changed the history of Croatia and a dozen other nations. In February of
1995 we will have had a half century to reflect on the tragedy of the so-called
"Great Powers" dividing up the world and forcing hundreds of thousands seeking
freedom to be returned to their captive nations against their will. And yet, in this half
century, what have we really learned and how have we gone about the study of forced
The subject of forced repatriation
of hundreds of thousands of human beings at the end of the Second World War is so
multifaceted that it presents an array of problems for those who would study it. Unlike
the study of the Jewish Holocaust, now considered a single interdisciplinary field,
post-war repatriation is still seen primarily in the limited context of the nations
involved. There is no field of "Repatriation Studies" and each exploration must
rely on a single discipline, such as History or Political Science, to explore a single
aspect without really considering the whole. While a multi-disciplinary approach is
warranted, History can perhaps best focus on cause and effect. Forced repatriation did not
"just happen." While there were many causes, the instrument of implementation,
indeed of legalization, was the Yalta Agreement. The effects of repatriation were likewise
many and varied, but this brief overview seeks to explore a single effect of the whole:
The forced repatriation of Croatians to Yugoslavia in and around the village of Bleiburg,
Austria and the events that followed over the next two years.
Next Spring will mark the fiftieth
anniversary of the end of World War II. It is perhaps of interest to look back a decade at
how the fortieth anniversary was marked in 1985 to observe how much things have changed in
a decade and how some things never change. The Soviet Union noted the fortieth anniversary
of World War II as the great victory over Fascism in the "Great Patriotic War"
which "liberated" half of Europe into the Commu-nist fold. A decade later, the
Soviet Union no longer exists and Communism is on its death bed. The Western Allies
remembered those who fell in battle and who served their country and they will do so again
next year. But NATO, the true successor to the wartime Western Alliance, will no longer
have as its primary mission the containment of Commu-nism. West Germany remembered her
dead a decade ago and the horror of Hitlerism never to be repeated while East Germany
honored the Soviets for their liberation while claiming that Hitlerism still lived in the
West. Next year a united Germany will grapple with how to mark this anniversary as a
member of NATO and with rising nationalism and Fascism arising primarily from the former
Communist east. Japan remembered her dead in 1985, especially those who died at Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, the unwilling ushers into the nuclear age. But Japan did so unbowed. In the
past decade, the Japanese government has formally apologized to many of the victims, both
people and states, of Japanese aggression. Finally, throughout the world ten years ago,
Jews and Gentiles alike painfully noted the liberation of the concentration camps and
vowed that such a Holocaust would never happen again. Next year we will again remember
these victims but with the knowledge that "ethnic cleansing" has again taken
place in the heart of Europe while the so-called "Great Powers" stood silent.
Much of what shaped the post-War
world is directly linked to a single word: Yalta. The word first entered the world's
common vocabulary on February 13, 1945, when it was reported that a historic meeting had
taken place in the Crimea from the fourth through the eleventh of that month at a place
called Yalta. At the time it was called the Crimea conference and it is perhaps best to
refer to the conference itself by that name since today Yalta has come to mean much more
than a place where Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met with
their foreign ministers and chiefs-of-staff. Yalta has come to mean the partitioning of
Germany, the Nuernberg Trials and the division of Europe between democracy and
totalitarianism. Yalta meant the partition of Poland despite the fact that it was supposed
to be the partitioning of Poland that started the Second World War. Yalta sacrificed the
proud nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and the agreement ratified the Soviet
annexation of Rumanian, Slovak and Finnish lands.
By signing the Yalta Agreement,
Roosevelt and Churchill became co-signatories of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. Yalta
became synonymous with great power politics and colonialism: three kings dividing up the
world without regard to the wishes of the peoples of every nation. The cavalier manner
with which the future of nations was decided was best described by Winston Churchill in
his book The Second World War: Triumph & Tragedy: "Let us settle about our
affairs in the Balkans...how would it do for you to have 90% predominance in Rumania, for
us to have 90% in Greece, and go 50/50 in Yugo-slavia?" He then wrote the equation on
a half sheet of paper and handed it to Stalin.
Churchill pushed the list to Stalin
who made a large check-mark on it with a blue pencil. Churchill then said "Might it
not be thought cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to
millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper."
The Atlantic Charter, for which
hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen had died was thus disposed of
at Yalta. The words of the Atlantic Charter promis-ed that "All peoples have a right
to choose their own forms of government; those forcibly deprived of the right should have
it restored." Such lofty words were not to apply to any of the captive nations of the
USSR or eastern Europe. These millions of people could not have known, nor would they have
believed, that their ancient nations and homelands were dispatched with the flick of a
In a half century it would seem that
every aspect of this tragedy would have been explored in detail by historians, political
scientists and politicians. Surely, after a half century, there could be no questions
unanswered and no factual data unexplored. And indeed there has been some very good
scholarly research into this earth changing event.
Some of the blame has been laid at
the feet of Stalin, although only in passing. He perhaps deserves the least blame if only
because he was open and honest in his motives and did most for his own political
interests. We now know that Roosevelt was nearly on his death bed at Yalta, but history
tends to forgive those who die in power, as it seldom does for those who die in exile or
shame. Roosevelt remains a hero to much of America. Winston Churchill will forever be
protected by history as the bulldog who saved Britain. Each of the three had his advisors
and aids at his side. Howard MacMillan was hired by Britain to re-shape the Mediterranean
in the imperial mold, but stayed on to run the shop. Alger Hiss, Roosevelt's own in-house
communist, became something of a folk hero to America's liberal elite. And Brea, Stalin's
Chief of Secret Police has taken the ups and downs of historical revisionism with the
political mood in Russia.
History has been written and the
blame has been put at any number of deserving feet. Yet through it all, one aspect of
Yalta has been given little attention by scholarly and popular writers alike. The subject
is the planned, pre-ordained murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children
in the months and years after World War II. The victims of Yalta died at the hands of
Stalin and his surrogates, but only with the cooperation and active participation of the
Western Allies: the United States and Great Britain.
Each nation has its own name for
this holocaust. For Croatia the name is the Bleiburg Tragedy after the small Austrian
village from which thousands began their long march back into a new Communist Yugoslavia.
The American military code-named it Operation Keelhaul from the ancient punishment
of keelhauling wayward sailors who were dragged under the keel of a moving ship at
the end a rope. By whatever name, this was without question one of the most shameful
episodes of the Second World War if only because it occurred after the War ended. The
Bleiburg tragedy was murder which began when the legal killing called warfare ended.
In 1945 there was some international
law on the subject of forced repatria-tion. In brief, the concept was not acceptable under
any international guidelines. The Hague Conven-tions of 1899 and 1907 treat it only by
exclusion and by making it clear that prisoners-of-war must be treated humanely. The
Geneva Accords of 1929 also did not recognize the concept of forced repatriation. The 1949
Geneva Accords prohibit forced repatriations "during hostilities." Still the
wording is vague. Dozens of treaties between the USSR and neighboring states did
explicitly prohibit the forced return of any individual against his or her will.
The "Yalta Agreement between
the Soviet Union and the United States," later Britain and France, "Concerning
Liberated Prisoners of War and Civilians" was signed on February 11, 1945 by U.S.
Major General John R. Dene and Soviet Lt. General Gryzlov. This agreement called upon the
United States and the Soviet Union to take joint action regarding Soviet and American
nationals in the war zone. There were, of course, few American nationals, civilian or
military, in Eastern Europe in the final days of World War II. In part, the Agreement
"All Soviet citizens liberated
by forces operating under United States command ...will, without delay after their
liberation, be separated from enemy prisoners of war and will be maintained separately
from them in concentration camps until they have been handed over to the Soviet
The Agreement also provided for
Soviet control of the camps and "...the right to appoint the internal administration
and set-up the internal discipline and management in accor-dance with the military
prosecute the laws of their country."
Still, there was no reference to
"forced" repatriation in the Agreement although it was implied. The entire
agreement was designed to meet Soviet needs and the method of repatriation was left up to
the Soviet Union. But the Yalta Agreement did not invent forced repatriation, it simply
formalized existing policy. Documents from September 1944 on set a clear direction of
action against "...any national of the United Nations who is believed to have
committed offenses against his national law in support of the German war effort."
Since the act of surrender was a criminal act in the USSR, all prisoners-of-war were
criminals subject to the death penalty. These words also applied to any person living on
the territory of Yugoslavia who did not support the Partisans during the War. On September
16, 1944, U.S. Political Officer Alexander Kirk sent a cable to U.S. Secretary of State
Cordell Hull which noted that an agreement had been reached between the Soviets and the
British for repatriation of Soviet citizens held as prisoners-of-war "...irrespective
of whether the individuals desire to return to Russia or not. Statements will not be taken
from Soviet nationals in the future as to their willingness to return to their native
country." Kirk further noted that "MacMillan is apparently receiving
instruc-tions to this effect from the (British) Foreign Office."
Unable to believe this obvious
violation of international law, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman wired Hull on
September 24, 1944 demanding an explanation how the British government reached its
decision. Kirk then met with MacMillan who justified the action by noting that "Since
these men will no longer be treated as prisoners, the Geneva Conventions will no longer
All such conversations were
"top secret" at the time. Even the text of the Yalta Agree-ment on Repatriation
was not released until March 1946. The fact that the agreements were reached only with the
Soviets means little. They were equally enforced by each of Stalin's proteges, including
Josip Tito before the Tito-Stalin split.
The results of this policy of the
West, giving Stalin all he demanded while asking virtually nothing in return, are of such
magnitude that they defy comprehension. Nine hundred thousand to one million followers of
Russian Liberation Army General Andrei Vlasov were among the first to be forcibly
returned. The leadership was executed and the others were sent into the vast system of
hard labor camps made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the "Gulag
Archipelago." The next victims were over three thousand Cossack officers at Lienz.
Then tens of thousand of officers and men from every nation in Europe who had served their
country in wartime. Finally, millions of civilian refugees fleeing the promise of a new Workers'
Paradise under Stalin, Tito, Hoxha and a dozen others, were also victims of Yalta.
the tragedy began at the small village of Bleiburg in Southern Carenthia, Austria.
Bleiburg is a model for all the forced repatriations in post-war Europe. These post-war
massacres of Croatians are almost unknown outside the Croatian com-munity despite the fact
that the Bleiburg-Maribor massacres have been documented in such works as Operation
Slaughterhouse by John Prcela and Stanko Guldescu, In Tito's Death Marches and
Extermination Camps by Joseph He˙imovi˙, Operation Keelhaul by Julius
Epstein, Bleiburg by Vinko Nikoli˙, and perhaps best known, The Minister and
the Massacres by Count Nikolai Tolstoy. That these massacres occurred is irrefutable.
Only the number of deaths and the depth of American and British duplicity are in question.
The story of Bleiburg began in early
1945 as it became clear that Germany would lose the War. As the German Army retreated
toward the Austrian border, the Red Army advanced, and the Partisans began their
con-solidation of power, anarchy prevailed in what was Yugo-slavia. A dozen or more
nationalist movements and ethnic militias attempted to salvage various parts of
Yugoslavia. Most nationalists, Croatian, Slovenian and Serbian alike, were anti-Communist
and all had visions of the Western Allies welcoming them into the coming battle against
Communism. Croatians especially cherished the totally unsup-ported notion that
Anglo-American intervention would save an independent Croatian state.
As in every other part of eastern
Europe, armies, governments, and civilian populations began moving toward the Western
lines. Some were pushed before the retreating Ger-mans, others followed in their wake.
Many traveled in small bands, armed or unarmed, while others were well organized into mass
movements of people and equipment. Along the trek north they fought the Partisans and
˙etniks. Many surrendered, others fought to the death.
The retreating Germans, usually
without bothering to inform their erstwhile allies, took with them much of the material
support needed by the Croatian armed forces. Despite conditions, several Croatian generals
wanted to defend the city of Zagreb from the Partisan advance and fight to the finish if
necessary. The Partisans made it clear that the city, swollen to twice its size with
refugees, would be destroyed if they met resistance. A final meeting of the Croatian
government was held on April 30, 1945 at which the decision was made to abandon Zagreb and
retreat into Austria.
Still quite naive concerning Allied
intentions, many Croatian officers hoped that the still sizable Croatian Army would be
allowed to surrender to the British to fight again against the Russians. Since both
Croatia and Britain were signatories to the Geneva Conventions, it was felt that at worst
the Croatians would be treated as prisoners of war.
The exodus from Zagreb began on May
1st. Some 200,000 civilians were flanked by almost as many soldiers, sailors and airmen of
the Croatian armed forces. The Arch-bishop-Metropolitan Aloysius Stepinac took charge of
the govern-ment for the few hours between the departure of Croatian officials and the
arrival of the Partisan Army. State Minister Vran˙i˙ was dispatched to Italy as a peace
emissary to the Allies and several high-ranking English-speaking officers headed the main
column toward Austria.
The retreat was well ordered and the
protecting flank armies insured that all of the civilians arrived safely at the Austrian
border by May 7. A number of military units remained behind to fight delaying actions as
late as May 12. Still other units, known as Crusaders fled into the hills and
fought sporadic guerilla actions until 1948.
The huge column finally came to rest
in a small valley near the Austrian village of Bleiburg, where they arrived on May 14th
and 15th. Believing in the sense of fair play and justice for which the British had made
themselves known, the Croatians surrendered to the British with the promise that they
would not be forced back into Yugoslavia.
The leaders had no way of knowing
that their peace emissary, Dr. Vran˙i˙, had traveled as far as Forli, Italy by plane and
car under a white flag only to be stopped short of his goal. At Forli, Vran˙i˙ and Naval
Captain Vrkljan, who spoke fluent English, were detained by one Captain Douglas of British
Field Security who was more interested in their diplomatic grade Mercedes-Benz automobile
than their mission to see Field Marshal Alexander in Caserta. He held the emissaries
incommunicado until May 20 when he had them thrown into a prisoner of war camp and
confiscated the automobile.
In the belief that their envoys had
made some arrangement with the British, the multitude of humanity set up camp in the
valley to await the outcome of negotiations. One of the first groups to arrive at British
head-quarters was a contin-gent of 130 members of the Croatian government headed by
President Nikola Mandi˙. All were told that they would be transferred to Italy as soon as
possible by British Military Police. All were then loaded into a train and returned to the
Partisans. It was the intent of the British to turn over all Croatians, as well as Serbs
and Slovenes, to the Communists from whom they had fled.
When the Croatian military leaders
realized that they had led hundreds of thousands into a trap, some committed suicide on
the spot. The British extradited at first hundreds, then thousands of Croatians. Some were
shot at the border, while others joined the infamous "Death Marches" which took
them deeper into the new People's Republic for liquidation. They were forced back, some in
trains, some on foot, to the waiting arms of Tito's Partisans. On May 16, 1945, the
killing began. It would not end for two years.
The survivors of the initial
atrocities were organized into forced marches by the 7th Brigade of the 17th Partisan
Division. The Croatians called them the "Death Marches." Tens of thousands of
men, women and children were marched, hands tied with wire, through the villages and towns
of southern Austria and Slovenia. On their southward trek toward the camps, they were
starved, beaten, raped and ridiculed. Those who did not march were shot and dumped into
shallow graves or caves. Wounded and ill Croatian soldiers and civilians in hospitals and
field camps were loaded onto wagons and sent toward the camps with the southbound sea of
humanity. Many would not survive. Those who did live would spend as much as a decade in
concentration camps, labor battalions and prisons. Finally, the government of Yugoslavia
plowed over Croatian military cemeteries and attempted to erase all traces of the Bleiburg
massacres. As late as 1974 graves were removed to block investigation of the tragedy. 2
The total number of people liquidated may never be known. Despite the scholarship and
masses of documents proving the contrary, the Yugoslav government denied that the
Bleiburg-Maribor massacres or any subsequent liquidation of anti-Communists occurred. As
late as 1976 special teams were active in Slovenia and southern Austria cover-ing up
evidence of the crimes. The American and British govern-ments, implicated in the forced
repatriation that led to the slaughter, also sought to cover-up or at least ignore the
Unlike Lidece, or Hiroshima, or
Dresden, the tragedy of Bleiburg was not a single event, but hundreds of events over a
long period of time. And, unlike Hiroshima or Dresden, Bleiburg was not an act of war. It
was an act of post-war retribution. The initial killings near the Austro-Yugoslav border
were followed by the execution of members of the Croatian government. There were massacres
at other sites. Some, like Kamnik involved a few thousand deaths. Others, like Maribor,
saw over 40,000 die.
To debate whether the suffering of
the Croatians at Bleiburg and beyond surpassed that of the Cossacks, Russians, Ukrainians
or the millions of others of all nations during and after World War II, or to attempt to
quantify whether the collective fate of the victims of Bleiburg was worse than that of the
citizens of Hiroshima or Dresden, serves neither an academic or humanistic purpose. One
half century after the fact, continuing to lay blame, access guilt or call for vengeance
serves no purpose.
What is clearly needed is further
study. Serious, unemotional, study by historians, political scientists, legal scholars,
sociologists, psychologists, forensic criminologists and others. The study must be
separated from political or ethnic considerations. The task at hand is to learn the true
impact of Bleiburg on post-War Croatia, the psyche and self-image of the Croatian nation.
The mere recognition that Bleiburg did occur, that ques-tions exist, and that in all
things there are causes, actions, and effects, is a giant first step toward understanding
the tragedy and healing the wounds still felt by so many.