At Bleiburg

The words that make up this post were initially written in more or less one go, but ended up far longer than anyone would to spend staring at a computer screen. So I’ve taken the material that initially went into the post and broken it into several pieces. Each one deals with some different bits of what I’ve learned about Slovenia and Austria on my trip. The next post will get onto Geoff’s (my grandpa’s) story, but first I’m going to try and set the scene for what was happening in the area where he was held.

In the last post, I wrote about  Carinthia, where my grandfather spent most of the Second World War as a prisoner of war. I’ve often wondered what impression this left on him; his parents came from Devon and he was born on the New Kent Road and grew up there and in Tooting. So far as I know, he did not leave Britain before the war; to have travelled around the world and ended up in this sleepy, mountainous corner of Austria must have seemed very strange. He visited Klagenfurt again, in the 1960s, but as far as I know, this was his only return visit. He felt a much closer connection, largely because of his friend Ida and her family, with the place which, when I was small, was called Yugoslavia, and which now is called Slovenia.

For someone of my generation, ‘Yugoslavia’ means ‘the former Yugoslavia’. The wars which, through the 1990s, tore through Slovenia (which got off fairly lightly), Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo happened just as I was beginning to be conscious of such things. My grandparents holidayed in Slovenia in the 1980s, and showed me some Yugoslav dinar banknotes when they came back. I remember them seeming outlandish to my eyes at the time – the inflated numbers just seemed so large. I remember one with a miner on the back, which a quick internet search now tells me was a 20,000 dinar. I can also remember being fascinated by the Cyrillic script, which is used by Serbia. The break-up of Yugoslavia was shocking, and I can remember the sense of helplessness conveyed by TV news bulletins from Sarajevo and elsewhere – captured by Steve Bell’s bitter Guardian cartoon from 1993, which shows a family pinned to their sofa by horrific images, and wondering why someone doesn’t DO something. This sense of helplessness, I now realise, had something of the same quality that now exists in reports from far-flung wars in Africa or elsewhere in the world: bereft of context, the West looked on, convinced that some kind of atavistic ethnic hatred was driving these people to slaughter one another.

Copyright, Steve Bell, 1993.

As I discovered in Slovenia, recent history was behind some of what happened in the 1990s. I’ll write more about what I saw there in 2013 in a future post, but for now I want to concentrate on the 1940s. Given what happened then, the surprise becomes not that Yugoslavia disintegrated, but that it stayed together as long as it did. And given what was happening there, my grandfather Geoff can only count himself very lucky that he was in Austria.

No such country as Yugoslavia had existed before 1914; there was an independent, and very assertive, newish kingdom called Serbia, and the rest belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the war, when that empire collapsed, a new kingdom called Yugoslavia brought together the different nationalities, but did so under an authoritarian Serbian monarchy which led to nationalist movements among Croats and Slovenes who wanted their own states.

The Yugoslav monarchy became very unpopular, especially among the non-Serb nations of the kingdom. When Germany, Italy and their allies Bulgaria and Hungary invaded in 1941, the king’s regime completely collapsed. Yugoslavia fell in a matter of weeks. Wanting to concentrate their forces on the forthcoming invasion of the USSR, the Germans and their allies set up a puppet state in Croatia and divided the rest of Yugoslavia among themselves.

Axis occupation of Yugoslavia 1941-43 legend

Most Yugoslavs wanted to kick their occupiers out, but equally, some did not want to be Yugoslavs at all, seeing the chance to kick out the Germans and set up a state for themselves – a Serb nation, a Croatian nation, a Slovene nation, and so on.

So a complicated picture emerged – a civil war and a struggle against foreign occupation, in which many different factions and bodies fought, sometimes collaborating with each other but never trusting each other. The German puppet regime in Croatia, run by Croatian ultra-nationalists called the Ustaša, were hardline fascists who collaborated with the Germans, seized Bosnia-Herzegovina, and killed hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavian citizens, especially Serbs and Jews, in extermination camps. Serb nationalists (called Chetniks) made temporary alliances with the occupiers and tried both to fight the Communists and ensure that the lands they occupied contained only Serbs. In parts of Slovenia, the so-called Slovene Home Guard collaborated with their Nazi occupiers to fight Partisans, who were the only faction operating throughout all of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Partisans, drawing their support from all over these different areas, wanted to unite all of Yugoslavia under Communism. Led by Jozef Broz Tito, the Partisans were at some stage fighting each one of these different forces, as well as the Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Bulgarians who had invaded.

So all the while that Geoff was in Carinthia, Yugoslavia was tearing itself apart through civil war, and being torn apart by occupation. As in any civil war, the impact on communities was dreadful, with neighbours and families splitting to join different factions. In some cases brother killed brother, families splitting down political lines. The trauma of the war echoed down the years and to some extent played a part in the politics of the 1990s.

By 1945, though, the Partisans were on the verge of victory. That spring, they advanced northwards, driving vast columns of their enemies before them, towards the Karavanke mountains and Austria. These enemies were reluctant to fall into the Partisans’ hands. This was understandable – some of them had been guilty of atrocities, and they feared reprisals. In April and May 1945, tens of thousands of refugees fled over Loibl and the various passes in the Karavanke, and poured down into Carinthia. They hoped that the British, who by now were the occupying power in that part of Austria, would offer them protection. The Partisans followed them over, hoping to catch their enemies but also opportunistically hoping that they might grab land from defeated Austria.

Running parallel to the Karavanke on the Austrian side is a river called the Drau (in Slovene, the Drava). It is the farthest extent of the Partisan advance; the refugees crossed it and surrendered to the British, who disarmed them in a field not far from where Jörg Haider drove off the road. For a while the refugees were sent to camp at a village called Viktring, near Klagenfurt. But after less than a month their worst fears came true: the British decided not to shelter them, but to pass them back to the Partisans. They were taken back to towns near the border, handed over to the Partisans and ordered to surrender. In the most famous example, many thousands of refugees were handed over at a town called Bleiburg, in the foothills of the Karavanke mountains. The first reprisals were immediate, with the very few eyewitness reports that survive suggesting that the Partisans simply machine-gunned and mortared the crowds indiscriminately. The surviving prisoners at Bleiburg and elsewhere were led back over the Karavanke. What happened to them next is obscure in detail, but clear in general: they were massacred, atrocities that were kept secret for years afterwards. These events have become known, as the Bleiburg Repatriations.

The field at Bleiburg.
Tito playing chess, 1944. Photo via Read, Seen, Heard.

While Tito was certainly willing to commemorate Nazi crimes at Loibl, he could not afford for these events to be discussed. He knew that any attempt to untangle what happened would involve accusations and would likely stoke hatred between the different nations of Yugoslavia, which the Partisans had tried hard to unite under the single banner of Communism. And so there was an official silence on what have become known as ‘the Bleiburg repatriations’. And in the silence, all that was left of these events was rumour, exaggeration, claim and counter-claim.

Tito died in 1980, and Yugoslavia started to disintegrate just as the Austro-Hungarian empire had done. As Communism failed, it was unable to find an ideology to wrap together its different nations. The national rivalries and separatism that Tito worked so hard to suppress came to the fore again, with the Serb nationalism of Slobodan Miloševic being prominent. Since the 1990s and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the history of the Bleiburg repatriations has been vehemently contested, with historians sympathetic to the different nations involved making the most of their nation’s victimhood. Officially-sanctioned research into events such as Bleiburg only started after the wars of the 1990s, and mass graves have started to be excavated. Historians of different loyalties and nationalities present different interpretations of the evidence. Estimates of the numbers killed in the Bleiburg repatriations range between 15,000 and as many as 100,000, depending on who you read. Estimates of their national composition are even more wildly variant.

Common enemies and common grievances unite people. The victims of Bleiburg became a means of showing the perfidy of the other nations. While Tito and the Partisans allowed commemoration of the crimes of their enemies at Loibl, discussion of their own crimes at Bleiburg was taboo.

Next to all of this, as the next post will make clear, life for POWs in Klagenfurt seems in retrospect like good fortune.

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