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The Bleiburg massacre is a term encompassing events that took place during mid-May 1945 near the Carinthianmarker town of Bleiburgmarker on the Austrianmarker-Slovenianmarker (then German-Yugoslavmarker) border. During that time, the Allied forces of DF Yugoslaviamarker, the Partisans, summarily executed (for treason and collaboration) an unknown number of persons from the retreating columns of Nazi collaborationist forces previously in power in parts of occupied Yugoslavia. The columns were for the most part made-up of remnants of the Ustaše party of the Independent State of Croatiamarker (NDH) (a fascist puppet state of the Nazi regime in Germanymarker, established in occupied Yugoslaviamarker) and the remnants of the Chetnik movement (a collaborating royalist force, consisting of ethnic Serbs and Montenegrins). The number of casualties has proven difficult to ascertain, with exact numbers being a subject of much debate. The events took place after the formal end of World War II in Europe, but at a time when hostilities on the Yugoslav front were still on, due to the goal of the local Axis forces to fend off the Yugoslav advance and to retreat towards the western Allies.

Shortly after midnight on 13 May 1945 the British 5th Corps Headquarters in Austria estimated that there were"approximately 30,000 POWs, surrendered personnel, and refugees in Corps area. A further 60,000 reported moving north to Austria from Yugoslavia". of people who had fled to southern Austria ahead of the advance of the Yugoslav Partisans hoping to surrender to and gain the protection of the British were forcibly returned south by the British. Most of victims were subjected to forced marches under inhumane conditions over long distances. In particular victims included those who had supported the defeated Independent State of Croatia.


Emaciated children at the Jasenovac concentration camp
The main fighting force against the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia (1941-45), in terms of numbers involved and campaigns undertaken, was the Partisan movement. The Axis-appointed Ustaše government in Zagrebmarker headed the Nazi puppet state the Independent State of Croatiamarker and had its own lethal agenda for Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croats.

This was manifested in the atrocities at Jasenovac concentration campmarker and elsewhere, the scale of which even shocked German and Italian occupying forces. As early as July 10, 1941, Wehrmacht General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau reported the following to the German High Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW):

The Geheime Staatspolizeimarker (Gestapo) report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated February 17, 1942, states that:

The Yugoslav Partisan movement grew rapidly from these atrocities. Eventually, units of the Ustaše military began defecting to the Partisans. By 1945, the Yugoslav Partisans numbered over 800,000 men organized into four field armies, and were in pursuit of the remnant of the defeated German and Ustaše forces.


A large-scale exodus of people took place. On May 6 1945, the Ustaše collaborationist government fled Zagrebmarker, as the Wehrmacht was in retreat and about to surrender The remnants of the Ustaše military and the Chetniks (a Serbian collaborating resistance movement) began to withdraw to the Austrian border on May 12, traveling to Bleiburg where the 38th British Infantry Brigade was stationed.

The Army of the Independent State of Croatiamarker was reorganized in November 1944 to combine the units of the Ustaše and Croatian Home Guard into eighteen divisions, comprising 13 infantry, two mountain, two assault and one replacement Croatian Divisions, each with its own organic artillery and other support units. There were also several armoured units. From early 1945, the Croatian Divisions were allocated to various German Corps and by March 1945 were holding the Southern Front. Securing the rear areas were some 32,000 men of the Croatian Gendarmerie (Hrvatsko Oruznistvo), organised into 5 Police Volunteer Regiments plus 15 independent battalions, equipped with standard light infantry weapons, including mortars. Among the remnants of these forces were numerous Ustaše dignitaries along with the ruling fascist elite, but also a number of civilians, inextricably mixed with the others in the confusion of the retreat. To the pursuing Partisans, the appearance was that the civilians within the retreating column were for the most part collaborationists, as they abandoned their homes and businesses to flee with Ustaše leaders. Retreating alongside the Ustaše military and the Chetniks were the remaining units of the Slovene Home Guard (a Slovene collaborationist militia).

Stipulations of unconditional German surrender also applied to the armed forces of the puppet Independent Croatia. This meant they too had to cease their activities on May 8 and stay where they found themselves. As late as 14 May 1945, however, when the war in Europe had ended, the quisling troops fought battles to keep escape routes open. The quisling troops refused to obey the stipulations of surrender and give up their arms.

By the end of March, 1945, it was obvious to the Croatian Army Command that, although the front remained intact, they would eventually be defeated by sheer lack of ammunition. For this reason, the decision was made to retreat into Austria, in order to surrender to the British forces advancing north from Italy. When Ante Pavelić left Zagreb on May 6, he intended to join his regime in Austria. The first and last order that he gave was for his troops not to surrender to the Partisans, but to escape to Austria, in order to implement the Croatian Government's decision of May 3 to flee to Austria.

The main column traveled through Celjemarker, Šoštanjmarker, and Slovenj Gradecmarker on its way to Dravogradmarker. On May 11 and 12, generals Vjekoslav Servatzy and Vladimir Metikoš entered discussions with Bulgarian generals to allow the Croatian column to pass into Austria. The discussions were inconclusive, but the Bulgarians suggested they head in the direction of Prevalje and Bleiburg which the column did. They began surrendering to the British on May 15, and this continued until the May 17, making these remnants of the NDH military the last Axis force in Europe to surrender. During this time Ustaše generals Ivo Herenčić of the V. Corps, and Vjekoslav Servatzy as well as a translator, Professor Danijel Crljen, began surrender negotiations with the Britishmarker and the Partisans, represented by Milan Basta.

The Croatians attempted to negotiate a surrender to the British under the terms of the Geneva Convention, but were ignored. The Independent State of Croatiamarker had joined that Convention on January 20, 1943, and was recognised by it as a "belligerent", that is, as a national state with armed forces in the field. All the signatories of the Convention, including Great Britainmarker and the United Statesmarker, were informed that this recognition had been given. In accordance with previous Allied agreements, the British forces refused to accept the surrender of the fascist forces, and came to an agreement with the Partisans.

According to Article 20 of the Hague Convention, After the conclusion of peace, the repatriation of prisoners of war shall be carried out as quickly as possible. General Robertson gave British troops the order, "All surrendered personnel of established Yugoslav nationality who were serving in German Forces should be disarmed and handed over to Yugoslav forces".

During the retreat across Slovenia and in their time in Austria, the military conflicts between the Partisans and the retreating collaborationist forces continued. Of these, the biggest confrontation was the Battle of Poljana. The vast majority of the refugees were returned to Yugoslavia and were repatriated as Yugoslav citizens via forced marches under inhumane conditions over long distances.

Number of victims

The exact number of those who met their death in Bleiburg is almost impossible to ascertain. Unlike many other operations of the Yugoslav Natiaonal Liberation Army, which have been described by the Yugoslav Communists in the minutest detail, very little has been written on operations in Slovenia near the Austrian Border during the week of May 7-15, 1945. This in itself would indicate that things occurred that official and pro-Communist historians consider best not discussed. Generally, there are essentially three schools that have tried to do this:

First school

The first school whose estimates are based mainly on the historiographic and demographic investigations of scientists:

Historians made estimates, based mainly on the historiographic and demographic investigations:

  • Croatian journalist Vladimir Žerjavić estimates the numbers of Croats and Bosniaks who were killed during Bleiburg massacre on the Austrian border in 1945 at 60,000.
  • Reports in the independent press state that actual figures of killed at Bleiburg were about 12,000 to 15,000

Second school

The second school based its findings on accumulated eyewitness accounts.
  • Juraj Hrženjak in his book, Bleiburg i Križni put 1945 ("Bleiburg and the way of the cross 1945") affirms that the majority of the victims in Bleiburg were killed by various means at the hands of Ustaše execution squads from elite formations like the Black Legion, who were treating all soldiers attempting to surrender as traitors and deserters for not fighting to the last. According to this research, a figure of between 12,000 and 14,000 people were shot after returning to Yugoslavia. Additionally, 20 individuals committed suicide and at least 1,500 concentration camp guards were shot near Maribormarker.
  • According to Misha Glenny, "As German troops streamed out of Yugoslavia the Croat fascist leader Ante Pavelić and 1-200,000 Ustaša troops and civilians set off for the Austrian border on 7 May 1945, with Partisan forces in hot pursuit. They got as far as Bleiburg, a small Austrian border town, before being surrounded by British troops to the north and and Partisans to the south. With RAF Spitfires buzzing overhead, about 30-40000 soldiers, including Pavelić, managed to disappear into the surrounding woods and then deep into Austria. But the remainder were taken prisoner by Partisan forces amid scenes of carnage. Some 30,000 Ustaše were killed on the four-day march towards the Slovene town of Maribor. On 20 May, near the village of Tezna, '50000 Croat soldiers and about 30000 refugees, mainly women and children, were executed over a five-day period. A macabre end to the "Independent State of Croatia".
  • Petar S. Brajović, a Yugoslav general who participated in the battles around Bleiburg, claims in his book Konačno oslobođenje ("Final liberation") published in 1983, that the Ustaše did not suffer serious casualties during capture, adding that artillery was not used. The work affirms that a grand total of 16 soldiers were buried in the local cemetery. It is also estimated that a figure of 30,000 soldiers (6,000 of them Chetniks) and 20,000 civilians were captured by the Partisan 3rd Army.

Third school

This school bases its estimates on archeological evidence mostly consisting of mass graves found in Slovenia. Investigations are, however, at an early stage and therefore cannot be definitively linked with these incidents. The total number of potential locations that the Slovenian Commission on Concealed Mass Graves now intends to investigate is around 570. The first excavations in a trench in Tezno Woods at Maribor uncovered 1,179 skeletons, believed to be of Croatians. The trench is 1 kilometer long, 4 to 6 meters wide and the layer of human remains in the section excavated so far measures 1.5 to 2 meters deep.

Criticism of the massacre claims

About the numbers of the civilian refugees handed to Tito's partisans (ethnicity not specified), British historian Christopher Booker says
Tolstoy reconstructed what happened when, on May 31, the commandant of the military camp at Viktirig, 'Lietenant Ames', reported that he had received orders for 2,700 of the civilian refugees in Major Barre's camp to be taken to Rosenbach and Bleiburg the following day, to be handed over to Tito's partisans.
A comprehensive root cause analysis of the inflated numbers is given by the British historian D. B. MacDonald
By contrast with Jasenovac, however, most impartial historians converged on much lower number of dead, suggesting that Bleiburg was by no means as significant as the largest death-camp in Yugoslavia.
Jasper Ridley attempts a more precise figure, although there is no way of knowing for sure.
Of these, he noted that the Allies agreed to surrender 23,000 to the Partisans between 24 and 29 May - a mixture of Slovenians, Serbians, and Croatians.
Reports from the time according to Ridley, indicate that not all the 23,00 were killed
Ridley, in his book Tito , which is classified as a fiction book, does not cite documents - rather remains on calling upon unspecified 'reports from the time' - if compared to Booker who referenced the documents found in the WWII British Army archives. The final MacDonald's conclusion is:
Inflating the numbers of dead at Bleiburg had several layers of significance.
Firstly, it gave the Croats their own massacre at the hands of Serbs and/or Communists, which allowed them to counter the Serbs' Jasenovac genocide with one of their own.
Secondly, it allowed Croats to distance themselves from the Serbs and the Communist regime that had carried out the massacres.
They could portray Croatia as an unwilling participant in the SFRY, more a prisoner than a constituent nation.
Thirdly, by suffering such a massacre, the Croats underwent their own 'way of Cross', as it was frequently dubbed in Croatian writings.

Further, Christopher Booker published a lengthy analysis of the Bleiburg controversy in A Looking Glass Tragedy. The Controversy Over The Repatriations From Austria In 1945 . The leading idea of this book is elaborated in the book overview [87967]:
Many "massacres" described in lurid detail never took place.
As Booker describes how the story of the repatriations came to be presented in such a distorted fashion, his book turns into a study of people's willingness to cling on to a "make believe" version of history, even when all the facts have proved it wrong.

His research is fully summarized in the Chapter 12. 2. Bleiburg: The Massacre That Never Was (page 188). The main points of his research are:
a) there are only nine documents in the British Army archives related to the Bleiburg, Austria, May 1945.

No traces of any massacre ever committed in Bleiburg or its surroundings;
b) Tolstoy's 'impartial' evidence for this massacre having taken place came from three 'eyewitnesses' whom he quoted at length from interviews conducted when he was writing his book 40 years later;
c) all 'evidence' came from narrative stories of those who claimed to be the witnesses.

Bleiburg commemoration

This date was officially marked by the Republic of Croatia, by an act of the Croatian Parliamentmarker in 1995.

The first Croats to return to the fields of Bleiburg came in secret in 1952, while regular annual visits began in the early 1960s. The first Croatian religious leader to come to the site was Cardinal Franjo Šeper, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who paid a visit in 1977.

Many top-ranking politicians and Catholic and Muslim clerics visit the site annually. Prime Minister Ivica Račan visited the site in 2002. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader visited the site in 2004. For the 60th anniversary commemorations in 2005 a large crowd was in attendance, with speeches by Croatian parliamentary speaker Vladimir Šeks and head of the Muslim Community of Croatia, Mufti Ševko Omerbašić. In 2006, the site was attended by Croatian government officials Đurđa Adlešić and Damir Polančec and Bosnian Croat politician Martin Raguž. Catholic mass was led by bishop Josip Mrzljak, while imam Idriz Bešić represented the Islamic Community of Croatia. In 2007 a new altar was installed at the site. Cardinal Josip Bozanić inaugurated the altar at the 2007 commemorations which drew 10,000 people.

In 2008, the Croatian Parliamentmarker was represented by the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party Josip Friščić, while the Croatian Government was represented by minister Berislav Rončević The Croatian and Slovenian governments reached an agreement at this time of cooperation on organizing military cemeteries, similar to earlier agreements Slovenia reached with Italy and Germany. According to the Slovene government, the mass grave site in Tezno is being planned as a memorial park and cemetery.

In 2009, Croatianmarker President Stipe Mesić made a statement declaring that the Bleiburg commemoration has turned into an Ustaše festival funded by the Parliament, whose representatives he criticized for idly standing by while people in the crowd displayed Ustaša markings (which are illegal in Croatia).

Bleiburg in culture

The Bleiburg massacre was the subject of a 1999 film, Četverored.

Croatian-American painter Charles Billich has painted a series of works on the event.

See also


  • Glenny, M., The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999 Penguin Books, New York, 1999 ISBN 0-670-85338-0
  • Shaw, L., Trial by Slander: A background to the Independent State of Croatia, Harp Books, Canberra, 1973. ISBN 0-909432-00-7
  • Thomas, N., Mikulan, K. and Pavelic, D. Axis Forces in Yugoslavia 1941-45 Osprey, London, 1995. ISBN 1 85532 473 3
  • Thomas, N., Abbot, P. and Chappell, M. Partisan Warfare 1941-45 Osprey, London, 2000. ISBN 0 85045 513 8
  • Tomasevich, J. War and Revolution in Yugoslavia 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration Stanford, Cal., Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0 8047 3615 4


  1. Yalta and the Bleiburg Tragedy
  2. Tomasevich, 2001, p. 759
  3. "Southeastern Europe, 1918-1995", Croatian Heritage Foundation & Croatian Information Centre, 2000, ISBN 9536525054
  4. "Memories of a Croatian Soldier: Zvonko's Story", Autobiographic annotations prepared by Zvonko Springer (ZS), Anif (Salzburg), 1999
  5. Independent State of Croatia, or NDH (historical nation (1941-45), Europe) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  6. Independent State of Croatia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  7. USHMM about Independent State of Croatia
  8. "For the rest - Serbs, Jews and Gypsies - we have three million bullets. We will kill one part of the Serbs, the other part we will resettle, and the remaining ones we will convert to the Catholic faith, and thus make Croats of them.", Mile Budak, Minister of Education of Croatia, July 22, 1941, The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican, Vladimar Dedijer, Anriman-Verlag, Freiburg, Germany, p. 130
  9. [1]
  10. Croatian Axis Forces in WWII
  11. Thomas, 1995, p.17
  12. Thomas, 1995, p.30
  13. Shaw, 1973, p.101
  14. Tomasevich, 2001, p. 755
  15. Bleiburg tragedy
  16. Dizdar, Zdravko, An addition to the research of the problem of Bleiburg and the Way of the Cross. (pg. 136)
  17. Bleiburg tragedy
  18. Tomasevich, 2001, p. 765
  19. Yugoslavia, Manipulations with the Number of Second World War Victims - Vladimir Zerjavic
  20. Cvijeto Job, Yugoslavia's Ruin, p.28
  21. Glenny, 1999, p. 530
  22. U deželi grob do groba
  23. A Looking-Glass Tragedy. The Controversy Over The Repatriations From Austria In 1945 by Christopher Booker; London, United Kingdom, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 1997 First Edition, Page 85
  24. Balkan holocausts?: Serbian and Croatian victim-centered propaganda and the war in Yugoslavia by David Bruce MacDonald, Manchester University Press (April 19, 2003) ISBN 0719064678, ISBN 978-0719064678 Page 170-171.
  25. Tito by Jasper Godwin Ridley, Constable, 1994, ISBN 0094712603, 9780094712607
  26. Booker: A Looking-Glass Tragedy. The Controversy Over The Repatriations From Austria In 1945
  27. The Minister and the Massacres by Nikolai Tolstoy, Hutchinson 1986 ISBN 9780091640101 ISBN 0091640105
  28. Booker, page 188
  29. Vukušić, Božo. Bleiburg Memento, Udruga Hrvatski Križni Put, Zagreb 2005.
  30. Račan apologizes to those who suffered because of Bleiburg
  31. Premier Sanader visited Burgenland and Bleiburg
  32. 60th anniversary of Bleiburg commemorated
  33. Memorial Day for the victims of Bleiburg and the Way of the Cross
  34. Bozanić's mass at Bleiburg with record number of pilgrims
  35. Bozanić: Communism systematically committed crimes
  36. More people in black
  37. Croatia and Slovenia signed agreement on organizing military cemeteries
  38. Memorial park in Tezno planned
  39. Oslobodjenje
  40. Croatian art

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