Accessed 06 May 1999

Yalta and The Bleiburg Tragedy

Chapter from the book Od Bleiburga do Naših Dana


C Michael McAdams / Home Page
University of San Francisco, California USA
Condensed from the chapter with the same title in:

Od Bleiburga do Naših Dana

Jozo Marovic, Editor

Zagreb: Školska Kniga, 1995

Presented at the International Symposium for Investigation of the Bleiburg Tragedy Zagreb, Croatia and Bleiburg, Austria
May 17 and 18, 1994

We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference which shaped the post-war world and forever changed the history of Croatia and a dozen other nations. In February of 1995 we will have had a half century to reflect on the tragedy of the so-called "Great Powers" dividing up the world and forcing hundreds of thousands seeking freedom to be returned to their captive nations against their will. And yet, in this half century, what have we really learned and how have we gone about the study of forced repatria-tion?

The subject of forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands of human beings at the end of the Second World War is so multifaceted that it presents an array of problems for those who would study it. Unlike the study of the Jewish Holocaust, now considered a single interdisciplinary field, post-war repatriation is still seen primarily in the limited context of the nations involved. There is no field of "Repatriation Studies" and each exploration must rely on a single discipline, such as History or Political Science, to explore a single aspect without really considering the whole. While a multi-disciplinary approach is warranted, History can perhaps best focus on cause and effect. Forced repatriation did not "just happen." While there were many causes, the instrument of implementation, indeed of legalization, was the Yalta Agreement. The effects of repatriation were likewise many and varied, but this brief overview seeks to explore a single effect of the whole: The forced repatriation of Croatians to Yugoslavia in and around the village of Bleiburg, Austria and the events that followed over the next two years.

Next Spring will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. It is perhaps of interest to look back a decade at how the fortieth anniversary was marked in 1985 to observe how much things have changed in a decade and how some things never change. The Soviet Union noted the fortieth anniversary of World War II as the great victory over Fascism in the "Great Patriotic War" which "liberated" half of Europe into the Commu-nist fold. A decade later, the Soviet Union no longer exists and Communism is on its death bed. The Western Allies remembered those who fell in battle and who served their country and they will do so again next year. But NATO, the true successor to the wartime Western Alliance, will no longer have as its primary mission the containment of Commu-nism. West Germany remembered her dead a decade ago and the horror of Hitlerism never to be repeated while East Germany honored the Soviets for their liberation while claiming that Hitlerism still lived in the West. Next year a united Germany will grapple with how to mark this anniversary as a member of NATO and with rising nationalism and Fascism arising primarily from the former Communist east. Japan remembered her dead in 1985, especially those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unwilling ushers into the nuclear age. But Japan did so unbowed. In the past decade, the Japanese government has formally apologized to many of the victims, both people and states, of Japanese aggression. Finally, throughout the world ten years ago, Jews and Gentiles alike painfully noted the liberation of the concentration camps and vowed that such a Holocaust would never happen again. Next year we will again remember these victims but with the knowledge that "ethnic cleansing" has again taken place in the heart of Europe while the so-called "Great Powers" stood silent.

Much of what shaped the post-War world is directly linked to a single word: Yalta. The word first entered the world's common vocabulary on February 13, 1945, when it was reported that a historic meeting had taken place in the Crimea from the fourth through the eleventh of that month at a place called Yalta. At the time it was called the Crimea conference and it is perhaps best to refer to the conference itself by that name since today Yalta has come to mean much more than a place where Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met with their foreign ministers and chiefs-of-staff. Yalta has come to mean the partitioning of Germany, the Nuernberg Trials and the division of Europe between democracy and totalitarianism. Yalta meant the partition of Poland despite the fact that it was supposed to be the partitioning of Poland that started the Second World War. Yalta sacrificed the proud nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and the agreement ratified the Soviet annexation of Rumanian, Slovak and Finnish lands.

By signing the Yalta Agreement, Roosevelt and Churchill became co-signatories of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. Yalta became synonymous with great power politics and colonialism: three kings dividing up the world without regard to the wishes of the peoples of every nation. The cavalier manner with which the future of nations was decided was best described by Winston Churchill in his book The Second World War: Triumph & Tragedy: "Let us settle about our affairs in the would it do for you to have 90% predominance in Rumania, for us to have 90% in Greece, and go 50/50 in Yugo-slavia?" He then wrote the equation on a half sheet of paper and handed it to Stalin.

Churchill pushed the list to Stalin who made a large check-mark on it with a blue pencil. Churchill then said "Might it not be thought cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper."

The Atlantic Charter, for which hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen had died was thus disposed of at Yalta. The words of the Atlantic Charter promis-ed that "All peoples have a right to choose their own forms of government; those forcibly deprived of the right should have it restored." Such lofty words were not to apply to any of the captive nations of the USSR or eastern Europe. These millions of people could not have known, nor would they have believed, that their ancient nations and homelands were dispatched with the flick of a blue pencil.

In a half century it would seem that every aspect of this tragedy would have been explored in detail by historians, political scientists and politicians. Surely, after a half century, there could be no questions unanswered and no factual data unexplored. And indeed there has been some very good scholarly research into this earth changing event.

Some of the blame has been laid at the feet of Stalin, although only in passing. He perhaps deserves the least blame if only because he was open and honest in his motives and did most for his own political interests. We now know that Roosevelt was nearly on his death bed at Yalta, but history tends to forgive those who die in power, as it seldom does for those who die in exile or shame. Roosevelt remains a hero to much of America. Winston Churchill will forever be protected by history as the bulldog who saved Britain. Each of the three had his advisors and aids at his side. Howard MacMillan was hired by Britain to re-shape the Mediterranean in the imperial mold, but stayed on to run the shop. Alger Hiss, Roosevelt's own in-house communist, became something of a folk hero to America's liberal elite. And Brea, Stalin's Chief of Secret Police has taken the ups and downs of historical revisionism with the political mood in Russia.

History has been written and the blame has been put at any number of deserving feet. Yet through it all, one aspect of Yalta has been given little attention by scholarly and popular writers alike. The subject is the planned, pre-ordained murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in the months and years after World War II. The victims of Yalta died at the hands of Stalin and his surrogates, but only with the cooperation and active participation of the Western Allies: the United States and Great Britain.

Each nation has its own name for this holocaust. For Croatia the name is the Bleiburg Tragedy after the small Austrian village from which thousands began their long march back into a new Communist Yugoslavia. The American military code-named it Operation Keelhaul from the ancient punishment of keelhauling wayward sailors who were dragged under the keel of a moving ship at the end a rope. By whatever name, this was without question one of the most shameful episodes of the Second World War if only because it occurred after the War ended. The Bleiburg tragedy was murder which began when the legal killing called warfare ended.

In 1945 there was some international law on the subject of forced repatria-tion. In brief, the concept was not acceptable under any international guidelines. The Hague Conven-tions of 1899 and 1907 treat it only by exclusion and by making it clear that prisoners-of-war must be treated humanely. The Geneva Accords of 1929 also did not recognize the concept of forced repatriation. The 1949 Geneva Accords prohibit forced repatriations "during hostilities." Still the wording is vague. Dozens of treaties between the USSR and neighboring states did explicitly prohibit the forced return of any individual against his or her will.

The "Yalta Agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States," later Britain and France, "Concerning Liberated Prisoners of War and Civilians" was signed on February 11, 1945 by U.S. Major General John R. Dene and Soviet Lt. General Gryzlov. This agreement called upon the United States and the Soviet Union to take joint action regarding Soviet and American nationals in the war zone. There were, of course, few American nationals, civilian or military, in Eastern Europe in the final days of World War II. In part, the Agreement read:

"All Soviet citizens liberated by forces operating under United States command ...will, without delay after their liberation, be separated from enemy prisoners of war and will be maintained separately from them in concentration camps until they have been handed over to the Soviet authorities..."1

The Agreement also provided for Soviet control of the camps and "...the right to appoint the internal administration and set-up the internal discipline and management in accor-dance with the military prosecute the laws of their country."

Still, there was no reference to "forced" repatriation in the Agreement although it was implied. The entire agreement was designed to meet Soviet needs and the method of repatriation was left up to the Soviet Union. But the Yalta Agreement did not invent forced repatriation, it simply formalized existing policy. Documents from September 1944 on set a clear direction of action against "...any national of the United Nations who is believed to have committed offenses against his national law in support of the German war effort." Since the act of surrender was a criminal act in the USSR, all prisoners-of-war were criminals subject to the death penalty. These words also applied to any person living on the territory of Yugoslavia who did not support the Partisans during the War. On September 16, 1944, U.S. Political Officer Alexander Kirk sent a cable to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull which noted that an agreement had been reached between the Soviets and the British for repatriation of Soviet citizens held as prisoners-of-war "...irrespective of whether the individuals desire to return to Russia or not. Statements will not be taken from Soviet nationals in the future as to their willingness to return to their native country." Kirk further noted that "MacMillan is apparently receiving instruc-tions to this effect from the (British) Foreign Office."

Unable to believe this obvious violation of international law, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman wired Hull on September 24, 1944 demanding an explanation how the British government reached its decision. Kirk then met with MacMillan who justified the action by noting that "Since these men will no longer be treated as prisoners, the Geneva Conventions will no longer apply."

All such conversations were "top secret" at the time. Even the text of the Yalta Agree-ment on Repatriation was not released until March 1946. The fact that the agreements were reached only with the Soviets means little. They were equally enforced by each of Stalin's proteges, including Josip Tito before the Tito-Stalin split.

The results of this policy of the West, giving Stalin all he demanded while asking virtually nothing in return, are of such magnitude that they defy comprehension. Nine hundred thousand to one million followers of Russian Liberation Army General Andrei Vlasov were among the first to be forcibly returned. The leadership was executed and the others were sent into the vast system of hard labor camps made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the "Gulag Archipelago." The next victims were over three thousand Cossack officers at Lienz. Then tens of thousand of officers and men from every nation in Europe who had served their country in wartime. Finally, millions of civilian refugees fleeing the promise of a new Workers' Paradise under Stalin, Tito, Hoxha and a dozen others, were also victims of Yalta.

To Croatians, the tragedy began at the small village of Bleiburg in Southern Carenthia, Austria. Bleiburg is a model for all the forced repatriations in post-war Europe. These post-war massacres of Croatians are almost unknown outside the Croatian com-munity despite the fact that the Bleiburg-Maribor massacres have been documented in such works as Operation Slaughterhouse by John Prcela and Stanko Guldescu, In Tito's Death Marches and Extermination Camps by Joseph He˙imovi˙, Operation Keelhaul by Julius Epstein, Bleiburg by Vinko Nikoli˙, and perhaps best known, The Minister and the Massacres by Count Nikolai Tolstoy. That these massacres occurred is irrefutable. Only the number of deaths and the depth of American and British duplicity are in question.

The story of Bleiburg began in early 1945 as it became clear that Germany would lose the War. As the German Army retreated toward the Austrian border, the Red Army advanced, and the Partisans began their con-solidation of power, anarchy prevailed in what was Yugo-slavia. A dozen or more nationalist movements and ethnic militias attempted to salvage various parts of Yugoslavia. Most nationalists, Croatian, Slovenian and Serbian alike, were anti-Communist and all had visions of the Western Allies welcoming them into the coming battle against Communism. Croatians especially cherished the totally unsup-ported notion that Anglo-American intervention would save an independent Croatian state.

As in every other part of eastern Europe, armies, governments, and civilian populations began moving toward the Western lines. Some were pushed before the retreating Ger-mans, others followed in their wake. Many traveled in small bands, armed or unarmed, while others were well organized into mass movements of people and equipment. Along the trek north they fought the Partisans and ˙etniks. Many surrendered, others fought to the death.


The retreating Germans, usually without bothering to inform their erstwhile allies, took with them much of the material support needed by the Croatian armed forces. Despite conditions, several Croatian generals wanted to defend the city of Zagreb from the Partisan advance and fight to the finish if necessary. The Partisans made it clear that the city, swollen to twice its size with refugees, would be destroyed if they met resistance. A final meeting of the Croatian government was held on April 30, 1945 at which the decision was made to abandon Zagreb and retreat into Austria.

Still quite naive concerning Allied intentions, many Croatian officers hoped that the still sizable Croatian Army would be allowed to surrender to the British to fight again against the Russians. Since both Croatia and Britain were signatories to the Geneva Conventions, it was felt that at worst the Croatians would be treated as prisoners of war.

The exodus from Zagreb began on May 1st. Some 200,000 civilians were flanked by almost as many soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Croatian armed forces. The Arch-bishop-Metropolitan Aloysius Stepinac took charge of the govern-ment for the few hours between the departure of Croatian officials and the arrival of the Partisan Army. State Minister Vran˙i˙ was dispatched to Italy as a peace emissary to the Allies and several high-ranking English-speaking officers headed the main column toward Austria.

The retreat was well ordered and the protecting flank armies insured that all of the civilians arrived safely at the Austrian border by May 7. A number of military units remained behind to fight delaying actions as late as May 12. Still other units, known as Crusaders fled into the hills and fought sporadic guerilla actions until 1948.

The huge column finally came to rest in a small valley near the Austrian village of Bleiburg, where they arrived on May 14th and 15th. Believing in the sense of fair play and justice for which the British had made themselves known, the Croatians surrendered to the British with the promise that they would not be forced back into Yugoslavia.

The leaders had no way of knowing that their peace emissary, Dr. Vran˙i˙, had traveled as far as Forli, Italy by plane and car under a white flag only to be stopped short of his goal. At Forli, Vran˙i˙ and Naval Captain Vrkljan, who spoke fluent English, were detained by one Captain Douglas of British Field Security who was more interested in their diplomatic grade Mercedes-Benz automobile than their mission to see Field Marshal Alexander in Caserta. He held the emissaries incommunicado until May 20 when he had them thrown into a prisoner of war camp and confiscated the automobile.

In the belief that their envoys had made some arrangement with the British, the multitude of humanity set up camp in the valley to await the outcome of negotiations. One of the first groups to arrive at British head-quarters was a contin-gent of 130 members of the Croatian government headed by President Nikola Mandi˙. All were told that they would be transferred to Italy as soon as possible by British Military Police. All were then loaded into a train and returned to the Partisans. It was the intent of the British to turn over all Croatians, as well as Serbs and Slovenes, to the Communists from whom they had fled.

When the Croatian military leaders realized that they had led hundreds of thousands into a trap, some committed suicide on the spot. The British extradited at first hundreds, then thousands of Croatians. Some were shot at the border, while others joined the infamous "Death Marches" which took them deeper into the new People's Republic for liquidation. They were forced back, some in trains, some on foot, to the waiting arms of Tito's Partisans. On May 16, 1945, the killing began. It would not end for two years.

The survivors of the initial atrocities were organized into forced marches by the 7th Brigade of the 17th Partisan Division. The Croatians called them the "Death Marches." Tens of thousands of men, women and children were marched, hands tied with wire, through the villages and towns of southern Austria and Slovenia. On their southward trek toward the camps, they were starved, beaten, raped and ridiculed. Those who did not march were shot and dumped into shallow graves or caves. Wounded and ill Croatian soldiers and civilians in hospitals and field camps were loaded onto wagons and sent toward the camps with the southbound sea of humanity. Many would not survive. Those who did live would spend as much as a decade in concentration camps, labor battalions and prisons. Finally, the government of Yugoslavia plowed over Croatian military cemeteries and attempted to erase all traces of the Bleiburg massacres. As late as 1974 graves were removed to block investigation of the tragedy. 2 The total number of people liquidated may never be known. Despite the scholarship and masses of documents proving the contrary, the Yugoslav government denied that the Bleiburg-Maribor massacres or any subsequent liquidation of anti-Communists occurred. As late as 1976 special teams were active in Slovenia and southern Austria cover-ing up evidence of the crimes. The American and British govern-ments, implicated in the forced repatriation that led to the slaughter, also sought to cover-up or at least ignore the crimes.

Unlike Lidece, or Hiroshima, or Dresden, the tragedy of Bleiburg was not a single event, but hundreds of events over a long period of time. And, unlike Hiroshima or Dresden, Bleiburg was not an act of war. It was an act of post-war retribution. The initial killings near the Austro-Yugoslav border were followed by the execution of members of the Croatian government. There were massacres at other sites. Some, like Kamnik involved a few thousand deaths. Others, like Maribor, saw over 40,000 die.

To debate whether the suffering of the Croatians at Bleiburg and beyond surpassed that of the Cossacks, Russians, Ukrainians or the millions of others of all nations during and after World War II, or to attempt to quantify whether the collective fate of the victims of Bleiburg was worse than that of the citizens of Hiroshima or Dresden, serves neither an academic or humanistic purpose. One half century after the fact, continuing to lay blame, access guilt or call for vengeance serves no purpose.

What is clearly needed is further study. Serious, unemotional, study by historians, political scientists, legal scholars, sociologists, psychologists, forensic criminologists and others. The study must be separated from political or ethnic considerations. The task at hand is to learn the true impact of Bleiburg on post-War Croatia, the psyche and self-image of the Croatian nation. The mere recognition that Bleiburg did occur, that ques-tions exist, and that in all things there are causes, actions, and effects, is a giant first step toward understanding the tragedy and healing the wounds still felt by so many.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 07/05/99
©S D Stein
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