Croatia, Independent State of

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Croatia, Independent State of

The Independent State of Croatia, generally known as the NDH (the acronym for its Croatian name, Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska), was created with the support of the Axis powers following Adolf Hitler's conquest of Yugoslavia in April 1941, and lasted until the defeat of Germany in May 1945. The NDH incorporated most of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It called for the extermination of Jews and Romani, and the elimination of Serbs through physical extermination (one-third), expulsion into Serbia (one-third), and forced conversion to Roman Catholicism (one-third). About 32,000 of 40,000 Jews living in the NDH, and almost all the Romani in the state, about 26,000, were killed. Figures on Serb victims are more controversial, as noted below, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that between 330,000 and 390,000 Serbs were killed by the Ustasha regime of the NDH.

Ethnic and Political Background

The peoples of the western Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia) speak mutually understandable dialects although they have separate literatures and some differences in their vocabularies, and Serbs and Montenegrins traditionally have preferred to use Cyrillic script while the others employ Latin letters. These groups differ mainly by religion: Serbs and Montenegrins are Orthodox Christians, Croats are Roman Catholics, and Bosniacs are Muslims. Until the end of World War I they were divided by political borders. Croatia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while Bosnia had been part of the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth century until 1878, when it came under Austro-Hungarian control. Serbia was also part of the Ottoman Empire before winning its independence in the middle of the nineteenth century. The assassination in Sarajevo that sparked World War I was carried out by a group that wanted to unify Bosnia with Serbia.

Following World War I Yugoslavia was created as a state for these South Slavic (jugoslav) peoples (along with Slovenians and Slavic Macedonians), in the belief that despite their differences in religion and history, they could form one nation on the grounds of their common language. However, by the end of the nineteenth century all the peoples involved had already developed their own separate national identities and separatist politics. Most Croats regarded inclusion in Yugoslavia, ruled by a Serbian king, as a denial of their own right to self-determination. From its founding in 1919 until the start of World War II, Yugoslavia was an unstable state, proclaimed a dictatorship in 1929 in large part to counter the demands of the leading Croatian political parties for independence.

Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks lived intermingled in parts of Croatia and Bosnia and thus no clean separation was possible. On April 6, 1941, when the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia and defeated the Yugoslav Army in less than a week, most Croats welcomed what they thought would be liberation from Serb dominance, and there was general support for the proclamation of the NDH on April 10, 1941. The leading Croatian politicians did not agree to form a puppet government dominated by Nazi Germany, so the Axis powers created a government run by the Ustasha, a fanatical group of Croatian nationalists who had been living in exile for more than a decade and who had previously been involved in terrorist actions against Yugoslavia. The Ustasha enjoyed little popular support within Croatia, but initially the local hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church strongly supported them; they also faced little opposition when they assumed power.

Ustasha Ideology

Like the Nazis who put them in power, the Ustasha placed strong emphasis on the state as the tool that the nation must use to achieve its historical destiny, seeing the nation in racial terms and as engaged in a struggle for biological survival with other nations. Within the context of this ideology, members of minority groups were perceived as inherently threatening foreign bodies in the state. Within weeks of ascending to power, the Ustasha issued racial laws defining Aryan and non-Aryan and prohibiting marriages between Jews and Croats, and adopted the legal system of Nazi Germany. Jews were required to wear yellow stars and deprived of their rights of citizenship and their property. The Cyrillic script was banned. By August 1941 the Ustasha had established concentration camps for political prisoners and so-called racially undesirable peoples: Jews, Romani, and Serbs.

Ustasha ideology, however, seems to have been less consistently racist than that of the Nazis. Jews who supported the Ustasha could become "honorary Aryans." Although Serbs were considered non-Aryan, they were not slated for mass extermination. Serbs were to be eliminated by expulsion and conversion, and when necessary murder, because otherwise, their large numbers (1.9 million, about one-third of the entire population) would prevent the NDH from becoming an exclusively Croat state. The provision for conversion was not so much a racist principle, as a recognition that what distinguished Serbs from Croats was, primarily, religion. However, the Ustasha did not try to convert the Muslims of Bosnia, claiming that they were racially pure Croats whose ancestors had converted to Islam.


What the Ustasha lacked in ideological consistency they made up in brutality. They created a number of concentration camps throughout Croatia and Bosnia, the largest of which was a series of five camps on the River Sava, collectively known as Jasenovac. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that between 56,000 and 97,000 people were murdered in Jasenovac alone, including some 45,000 to 52,000 Serbs. Estimates of the Jews killed in Jasenovac run from 8,000 to 20,000. From 8,000 to 15,000 Romani were also killed there. In addition, the Ustasha deported another 7,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

Most of the killing in the NDH, however, did not occur in camps, but rather in villages and without the use of sophisticated weapons or technology. Ustasha attacks on villages were not driven by military necessity, but propelled by the desire to drive Serbs out of Croatia by murder, rape, and terror, the same tactics that in Yugoslavia during the 1990s came to be known as "ethnic cleansing." An Ustasha attack would customarily involve the slaughter of anyone remaining in a village, including women, children, and the elderly. The purpose of such a campaign of terror was to convince other Serbs to leave, or convert to Catholicism. The extent of the violence is reflected in the high percentage of Serbs killed in the NDH. Even using the lower estimate suggested by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 330,000, about one-sixth of the Serb population residing in the NDH, were killed between 1941 and 1945, a percentage of deaths exceeded only by those of Jews and Romani during World War II in Europe.

End of the NDH

The brutality of the NDH and its failed policies produced increasing opposition among the Croats whom the state was meant to serve and covert opposition among many Roman Catholic leaders. By mid-1942 increasing numbers of Croats began to join Marshal Tito's partisans, the communist army that had as its goal the reconstitution of a Yugoslav state. With the defeat of the Third Reich, the NDH also collapsed, and Croatia became a republic in the new Yugoslavia. Most of the leaders of the NDH escaped and went into exile in Argentina, Spain, the United States, and Canada. However, the partisans did massacre somewhere between 45,000 to 55,000 NDH soldiers in May 1945.

Politics and the NDH Genocide

As communism weakened in the late 1980s, politicians in Yugoslavia found that the separate (and separatist) nationalism of each major group was an effective message for garnering the votes of members of that group. In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman led a new nationalist movement; he was a former army general who had faced political disgrace in 1971 for claiming that only sixty thousand people had been killed in NDH concentration camps. Tudjman, in fact, published a book in 1990 that referred to the "myth of Jasenovac" and attempted to minimize the genocide perpetrated by the NDH. Yet Tudjman had some legitimate points, being that there was a tendency among Serbs to inflate the numbers of those killed in the NDH, just as there had been a tendency among Croat authors to minimize them. The issue was especially divisive because Tudjman sought and received funding from Croatian émigrés (including many who viewed the NDH as having been a legitimate manifestation of the Croat nation's desire for self-determination) for his movement to gain Croatian independence from Yugoslavia, and he was elected president of Croatia in 1990. Most Serbs in Croatia felt threatened by Tudjman's nationalist project, a feeling that was shared by Serb politicians who themselves stressed the appeals that Tudjman made to supporters of the NDH. Serb resistance to Tudjman's nationalist movement led them to revolt against Croatian independence, a resistance ended militarily by the Croatian army and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in 1995, and through the expulsion of most Serbs from Croatia.

The politicization of the NDH has seen many Serbs exaggerate the crimes of the Ustasha while many Croats have sought to minimize them. In both cases this politicization has been intentionally used to provoke great hostility on either side. Thus, many in the former Yugoslavia have remembered the history of the NDH not in order to avoid tragedy, but rather to provoke it anew.

SEE ALSO Bosnia and Herzegovina; Tudjman, Franjo; Yugoslavia


Bogosavljevic, Srdjan (2000). "The Unresolved Genocide." In The Road to War in Serbia, ed. N. Popov. New York: Central European University Press.

Djilas, Aleksa (1991). The Contested Country: YugoslavUnity and Communist Revolution, 1919–1953. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Goldstein, Ivo (1999). Croatia: A History. London: C. Hurst.

Tanner, Marcus (1997). Croatia: A Nation Forged in War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Holocaust Era in Croatia 1941–1945: Jasenovac." Available from

Robert M. Hayden