History of Croatia - World War II (1941–1945)

World War II (1941–1945)

The Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941 allowed the Croatian radical right Ustaše to come into power, forming the "Independent State of Croatia", led by Ante Pavelić, who assumed the role of Poglavnik ("Head-man") Nezavisne Drzave Hrvatske ("Leader of the Independent State of Croatia"). Following the pattern of other fascist regimes in Europe, the Ustashi enacted racial laws, formed eight concentration camps targeting minority Serbs, Romas and Jewish populations, as well as Croatian partisans. The biggest concentration camp was Jasenovac in Croatia. The NDH had a program, formulated by Mile Budak, to purge Croatia of Serbs, by "killing one third, expelling the other third and assimilating the remaining third". The main targets for persecution, however, were the Serbs, approximately 330,000 of Serbs were killed.

The anti-fascist communist-led Partisan movement, based on pan-Yugoslav ideology, emerged in early 1941, under the command of Croatian-born Josip Broz Tito, spreading quickly into many parts of Yugoslavia. The 1st Sisak Partisan Detachment, often hailed as the first armed anti-fascist resistance unit in occupied Europe, was formed in Croatia, in the Brezovica forest near the town of Sisak. As the movement began to gain popularity, the Partisans gained strength from Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, Slovenes, and Macedonians who believed in a unified, but federal, Yugoslav state.

By 1943, the Partisan resistance movement had gained the upper hand, against the odds, and in 1945, with help from the Soviet Red Army (passing only through small parts such as Vojvodina), expelled the Axis forces and local supporters. The ZAVNOH, state anti-fascist council of people's liberation of Croatia, functioned since 1944 and formed an interim civil government. NDH's ministers of War and Internal Security Mladen Lorković and Ante Vokić tried to switch to Allied side. Pavelić was in the beginning supporting them but when he found that he would need to leave his position he imprisoned them in Lepoglava prison where they were executed.

Following the defeat of the Independent State of Croatia at the end of the war, a large number of Ustaše, and civilians supporting them (ranging from sympathisers, young conscripts, anti-communists, and ordinary serfs who were allegedly motivated by Partisan crimes) attempted to flee in the direction of Austria hoping to surrender to British forces and to be given refuge. They were instead interned by British forces and then returned to the Partisans. A large number of these persons were killed in what has come to be called the Bleiburg tragedy.

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