Between 1941 and 1945, the Ustaše regime of Croatia carried out government-led collaboration with the Nazis, as well as extensive persecution independent of them. This resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma.
Ustaše is short for the Ustaša-Croatian Revolutionary Movement, a fascist, far right, nationalist organisation founded in 1929. On 6 April 1941, the Axis Alliance invaded, and subsequently divided, Yugoslavia. As a result of this, on 10 April 1941, the Independent State of Croatia was declared, governed by the Ustaša organisation (led by Ante Pavelić) under Nazi supervision.
The Ustaše regime was motivated to persecute minorities due to its racist beliefs about Jews, Serbs and Roma. It also wanted to strengthen political relations with Germany and repay them for helping the Ustaša rise to power. While the regime was technically under the supervision of Nazi Germany, the Ustaša government independently planned and carried out the murder of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma in Croatia.
Violent persecution of these groups began shortly after the establishment of the new Croatian state. On 30 April 1941, three key pieces of antisemitic legislation (based on the Nuremberg Laws) were passed by the Ustaše regime. These new laws removed Jews’ citizenship and legalised acts of terror, exclusion, and persecution against them.
This persecution was soon escalated to imprisonment and murder. Using the German camp system as a model, the Ustaše regime quickly founded several concentration camps in which to hold, torture and exterminate their enemies. Examples of these early camps include Koprivnica and Jadovno. The Ustaše regime used a range of methods to commit mass murder within these camps, including poisoning, gassing, shooting, beating and cremation.
In August 1941, the Ustaše authorities established the Jasenovac camp complex which consisted of five camps. Conditions inside these camps were extremely poor, and many prisoners died from starvation and disease. The Ustaše camp guards were notoriously ruthless and cruel and many of the camp inhabitants were tortured and murdered. Some 7000 Jews were also transported from Jasenovac to some of the Nazi camps, such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Although the persecution of Jews and others was a very public affair, with posters on hostages and deportations to camps, the vast majority of the citizens of Croatia did not actively come to the defence of the Jews, Serbs, or Roma.
Approximately 30,000 Jews, between 25,000 and 30,000 Roma, and over 350,000 Serbs were murdered in Croatia between 1941 and 1945.