By Sven Milekic
After Wednesday’s football game between Croatia and Israel in eastern city of Osijek, the Fascist chant “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Homeland”) once more echoed in the stands.
Supporters of the World War II Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, NDH – whose Ustasa death squads took part in the Nazi Holocaust and murdered tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma – made the chant infamous.
However, although Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic was present at the game, he did not respond.
The government only responded a day after in a short press release in which it condemned the use of symbols and slogans of totalitarian regimes, without clearly mentioning the game or the actual event.
The anchor of Croatia Radio-Television, HRT, which broadcasted the game, also ignored the chants.
The mainstream daily newspaper Jutarnji list headlined the report with “Slavonia [region of Osijek] Again Didn’t Disappoint” – only briefly reporting the chants.
Ognjen Kraus, president of the Jewish community in Zagreb, told BIRN that such behaviour was the “result of the politics in Croatia.”
“What especially worries me that this is happening during the game, without drawing any reaction from those who were there, headed by the organiser [the Croatian Football Association, HNS] and Prime Minister who just sat there,” he said.
Kraus added that if such things are not tackled head on, it allows “Ustaso-philia to kick-in”.
He mentioned the case in which the vice-chair of parliament and member of the governing majority, Ivan Tepes, participated in January in a 5,000-strong protest when “Za dom spremni” could be “loudly heard and no one reacted”.
Ahead of the last elections, last November, Tepes, head of the right-wing Croatian Party of Rights “Ante Starcevic”, said the chant should not been banned because some soldiers used it during the independence war of the 1990s.
Some 3,200 people petitioned President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic last August to make it the official chant of the Croatian army.
Sanja Tabakovic Zoricic, head of the Shoah Academy in the Jewish community, said this was “a trend lasting for years” and that the system’s reaction was wrong.
“Now, when we have a society in which no one hesitates to promote pro-Fascist standpoints, I really don’t see anything weird that some chant “Za dom spremni,” she said.
She said that it would have surprised her had the politicians present in Osijek left the game, “as in civilized societies”. The fact that they did not only proves that the scandal “doesn’t disturb them”.
Josip Simunic leading fans in a chant of ‘Za dom spremni’ in Zagreb in November 2013.
Only some 8,500 out of 39,000 Jews survived the Holocaust committed by Ustasa and Nazi Germany on the territory of the NDH, which included most of present-day Croatia and Bosnia.
Croatia’s new government, with the support of the controversial Culture Minister, Zlatko Hasanbegovic, meanwhile took a decision to sponsor an event commemorating retreating Ustasa killed in 1945 at Bleiburg in Austria.
“Za dom spremni” has been heard at games played the Croatian national football team before.
The last time was at the game with Norway in March 2015. FIFA later penalised the HNS with a 55,000 euros fine and ordered one game to be played without fans.
At the game without fans, played in the coastal city of Split in June, a Nazi swastika was visible on the pitch, after which the Croatian team was deducted one point, while the HNS had to pay 100,000 euro and play another two matches without fans.
Croatian football fans have provocatively used swastikas before, forming one with their bodies at a game in Livorno in Italy, for example.
At a match against Serbia in March 2013, Croatian fans chanted “Kill the Serb,” for which the HNS received a fine of 42,000 euros.
Dario Brentin, from the University of Graz in Austria, researching sport, nationalism and memory politics in Croatia, told BIRN that the incident at the match with Israel offered “proof of the process of banalisation of totalitarian symbols, expressed by chanting ‘Za dom spremni’.
“I’m not convinced all people that chant it at games are all sympathizers with the Ustasa who believe in Ustasa ideas,” he said.
“It’s a complex social process that leads to a situation in which it’s completely irrelevant what it [chant] means or doesn’t,” he added. It is “commonly seen as sign patriotic act”, he noted.
Croatian fans chant ‘Kill the Serb’ in Zagreb in March 2013.
According to Brentin, the public discourse in Croatia has created a situation in which it is seen as “completely normal part of routing in sports”.
He noted the case of the Croatian football player Josip Joe Simunic in November 2013.
Immediately after a football match with Iceland, Simunic led some 20,000 fans in chanting “Za dom spremni”.
He was not condemned by his manager or by the HNS for that, but only by a part of media, while the public divided into two groups – those who condemned and those who supported him.
The county attorney office later fined him some 3,300 euros, which the magistrates court later lowered to 660 euros, for “causing public disorder” but not for hate speech.
After a process before disciplinary bodies, FIFA gave Simunic a ten-game suspension, preventing him from attending his last World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Brentin suggested that even if the current HNS leadership urged fans not to support the team in this way, “no one would listen, nor would it change anything”, since such attitudes can “only be changed through education”.
“Especially in popular culture, Marko Perkovic Thompson [nationalistic singer who uses the chant in his songs] and supporting the national football team are two social elements that perpetuate ‘Za dom spremni’ as a patriotic chant,” he said.
Brentin concluded that both the Croatian media and the political elites clearly avoid condemning such incidents because they come from a “similar ideological family”.
Besides the failure to condemn Simunic’s chant, the HNS has a problematic relation to the NDH’s legacy. It still has an NDH football association from the 1940s listed on its website as “a Croatian Football Association” and treats game records from the 1940s as official, even though the Croatian constitution clearly states that the NDH is not the legal predecessor of the modern Croatian republic.