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The Ustaše (often anglicized as Ustashas), literally meaning insurgents, came into being with the creation of the Croatian Liberation Movement in 1930 by their leader Ante Pavelić as a response to the anti-Croatian measures of the Serbian-dominated interwar Yugoslav government, which culminated in the assassination of Croatian leaders in the Yugoslav Parliament in 1928, including the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stjepan Radić, who died a couple of months later as a result of his wounds.

Pavelić, a lawyer by profession was vice president of the small Croatian Party of Right and a member of the Yugoslav parliament between September 1927 and January 1929. After the declaration of the royal dictatorship of King Alexander I (r. 1922–1934) on 6 January 1929, Pavelić fled the country and became the leader of Croatian political émigrés. The aim of his movement was to fight for an independent Croatian state using all possible measures, including terrorism, with the help of any foreign power that offered support, whatever the price. Even before his emigration, Pavelić had signed a memorandum with the Italians in 1927, which promised them much of the Adriatic coast in return for their recognition of an independent Croatia. Pavelić also reached an agreement with the outlawed Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) to cooperate against the Yugoslav state. For his subversive activities, Pavelić was tried in absentia, found guilty, and sentenced to death in July 1929.

Pavelić's Ustaša movement was modeled after IMRO, and with the financial backing mainly of the Italian government, he established training camps in Italy and Hungary, most prominently at Janka Puszta, which attracted recruits from émigré circles. The Ustaše engaged in subversive activity against the Yugoslav state, including the planting of bombs on trains headed to Yugoslavia and the fomenting of armed rebellion, most notably in Lika in northwestern Croatia in 1932. Their most famous act was the assassination of King Alexander I and the French foreign minister Louis Barthou in Marseille on 9 October 1934, with the cooperation of IMRO members. The assassination created embarrassment for the Italian government, which placed Pavelić and another prominent Ustaša leader, Eugen-Dido Kvaternik, under arrest and disarmed all Ustaše and interned them in camps on the Lipari Islands, which were led by Mile Budak, the second most important Ustaša, and later minister of foreign affairs in the Independent State of Croatia. Even after Italy and Yugoslavia signed a friendship treaty in 1937, the Ustaše continued their battle through propaganda, which they smuggled into Yugoslavia. Until the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, the Ustaše had been a minority movement with limited influence among Croatians, and would not have come to power had it not been for the support of Germany. Membership did rise after they came to power, because there was broad support for an independent Croatian state. On 10 April 1941, under Nazi guidance, Slavko Kvaternik, who was pro-German and the most popular domestic Ustaša, proclaimed the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state.


An interim government was created under the chairmanship of Mile Budak. Pavelić returned from Italy and assumed leadership of the new Ustaša state on 15 April 1941, the same day on which it was formally recognized by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). The new state included Bosnia and Herzegovina within its territory. The non-Croatian population was composed of Orthodox Serbs (30 percent), Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina (15 percent), Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans; 2.5 percent), and Jews and Gypsies (less than 1 percent). Bosnian Muslims were considered an integral part of the Croatian nation, but the other non-Croatian nationalities were placed outside of the law and measures were taken to eliminate them from the Croatian body politic.

The Ustaša program, elements of which Pavelić had developed in 1933, combined extreme Frankist Croatian nationalism, Nazism, and fascism, Catholic clericalist authoritarianism, and ideas from the Croatian Peasant Party. It consisted of the Seventeen Principles of the Ustaše Movement, which in addition to defining the Croatian nation and unity of its lands, claimed the myth of uninterrupted statehood since Croats first came to their present homeland and asserted Croatian sovereignty. It proclaimed that no one "who is not by origin and blood a member of the Croatian nation" (quoted in Tomasevich, p. 337) could participate in political life. It also articulated the primacy of the nation over the individual, provided for the collectivization of property (except agricultural) and the corporative state, and advocated the centrality of religious life of the family as the moral power of the nation. These seventeen principles were the de facto constitution of the Independent State.

The Ustaša regime followed the examples of Nazism and fascism in developing an elaborate party organization, establishing the Ustaša Surveillance Service to suppress anti-regime activities, and founding the Ustaša Youth Organization. It imposed a one-party system, outlawing all other political parties, including the Croatian Peasant Party, which had been the voice of the Croatian people during the interwar period but met its end under the Ustaše. Especially targeted was the Independent Democratic Party, which was the main political party of Serbs in Croatia or Yugoslav-oriented Croats and Slovenes. The regime shared many traits characteristic of fascist and totalitarian regimes, including the cult of personality of a charismatic leader in the figure of Pavelić, who was known as Poglavnik (Leader), anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, and the use of terror as an instrument of political control.


The main obstacle to the Ustaša's aim of creating a state of one nationality (Croatian) and two religions (Roman Catholicism and Islam) was the Serbian Orthodox population, which did not belong in a Croatia that the Ustaše considered to be a bulwark of Western against Eastern civilization. Upon coming to power, the Ustaše issued a series of law decrees that provided a legal basis for the persecution of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and any anti-Ustaša Croats. The aim and effect of these decrees was to define the citizens of Croatia as pro-Ustaša Croats of Aryan origin, to ban anyone outside of this limited definition from government and political positions and public life, and to destroy their economic foundations.

The Ustaše passed explicitly anti-Jewish laws on 4 June 1941, which required Jews to register with the authorities, to report regularly, and to wear identification signs; barred Jews from professional and social interactions with the regime; and prohibited them from intermarrying or having sexual relations with non-Jews. Some Jews, who had personal or professional relations with the regime or had converted to Catholicism, were exempted from these policies and were dubbed "honorary Aryans." For instance, Pavelić himself was married to a half-Jewish woman, and the regime's need for physicians led them to retain Jewish doctors. There was no decree that explicitly imposed similar measures on Serbs, although the policies were extended to them.

Toward the Serbs, the Ustaša regime pursued a policy of expulsion, extermination, and conversion, which was facilitated by the context of war and the support of the Nazis. When coerced conversion failed, the Ustaše established a separate Croatian Orthodox Church. The killing of Serbs occurred through rampages in villages and small towns, and also in concentration camps, of which there were twenty large and midsize ones. The largest camp was Jasenovac, which was infamous for its barbarity and high number of victims. There were also assembly camps where Serbs were gathered prior to being expelled. Many of these activities were carried out by "wild" Ustaša units and drew protests from Germans who feared they could compromise peace and order in Croatia, from public opinion, and also direct protest from Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac to Pavelić regarding killings at Jasenovac, particularly those of refugee Slovenian priests who had been accused of working against the state.

The Ustaše had found natural allies among many Catholic clergy and clericalist-oriented intellectuals, who shared their nationalist and authoritarian stance. The Catholic hierarchy supported the regime because the Ustaše supported many interests of the Catholic Church in Croatia, and saw the regime as a means for strengthening the position of the church in Croatia. The Ustaše particularly enjoyed the support of the Franciscan friars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and southern Dalmatia who had been members of the movement prior to April 1941. As the terror of the regime mounted, the Catholic hierarchy began to criticize some actions of the Ustaše and to distance itself from the regime, but did not publicly oppose the regime. In response to these various protests, Pavelić issued orders prohibiting extreme terror. However, these activities persisted and were encouraged by inflammatory language and accusations at the highest levels of the Ustaša regime.

The number of victims of the Ustaša regime remains one of the most controversial issues in the history of the Second World War in Yugoslavia, as there has been a tendency to exaggerate figures on one's side and to reduce the figures of opposing sides. Furthermore, these figures have served the propaganda purposes of the postwar communist government, as well as both domestic and émigré Serbian and Croatian organizations. Ultimately, Ustaša terror tactics did not have their intended result, and instead led to the swelling of the communist partisan ranks by Serbs from Croatia, thus unintentionally strengthening the resistance force to the Ustaša regime.


At the end of April 1945 the German army began retreating from Yugoslavia. The Ustaše joined the German forces in order to escape the partisans, whom they rightly feared would retaliate in a manner commensurate with the wartime terror of the Nazi and Ustaša regimes. The Ustaša regime planned to withdraw to Austria and surrender to the British, hoping for Western backing in the fight against communism. Members of the regime left Zagreb between 4 and 6 May 1945, inducing civilian refugees to join them by spreading panic about the advancing partisans.

Upon reaching Austria, Ustaša government leaders were captured by Yugoslav partisan officers and handed over to the Yugoslav government. Furthermore, in mid-May 1945, Croatian soldiers and civilian refugees were forced to surrender to the partisans in the village of Bleiburg on the Slovenian-Austrian border and were subsequently massacred. While it is impossible to ascertain the exact figure of disarmed soldiers and civilians killed, the most reliable estimates of scholars have been around eighty thousand. Pavelić had traveled separately from other Ustaše, and managed to escape capture by the partisans, fleeing via Austria and Italy to Argentina.

After the war, the communist regime tried and convicted many leading Ustaša figures and Catholic priests who had not managed to escape. The Communists also tried and imprisoned Archbishop Stepinac, ultimately releasing him because of poor health in 1951 and placing him under house arrest in his native village, where he remained until his death. In 1957 an attempt was made on Pavelić's life in Argentina, after which he moved to Spain, where he died in 1959.

See alsoFascism; Occupation, Military; Pavelić, Ante; Yugoslavia.


Alexander, Stella. Triple Myth: A Life of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. Boulder, Colo., 1987.

Tomasevich, Jozo. War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration. Stanford, Calif., 2001.

Jovana L. KneŽeviĆ