• RSS icon
  • Share icon
  • Printer friendly format

Ante Pavelic

Last modified 11 September 2011.

First published 24 December 2002. Updated 9 January 2006

AKA 'Butcher of the Balkans', AKA 'Poglavnik' (Chieftain), AKA Anton Pavelitch, AKA Ante Pavelitch, AKA Pedro Gonner.

Country: Croatia.

Kill tally: 300,000 to one million, including up to 30,000 Jews, up to 29,000 Gipsies, and between 300,000 and 600,000 Serbs.

Background: The southern Slavic states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia begin to emerge as a unified state following the First World War. But the legacy of a 400-year occupation by the Islamic Ottoman Empire and traditional tension between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians frustrate attempts for unity.

The pre-existing rifts are deepened during the Second World War when varying ethnic and political groups use the cloak of the war to brutally pursue rivalries.

Mini biography: Born on 14 July 1889 in Bradina, about 35 km southwest of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He attends primary school at Travnik in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After completing his secondary education at a Jesuit seminary in Senj, Croatia, he studies law at the University of Zagreb. Following his graduation he establishes a small law practice in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.

In his youth Pavelic joins the Croat Party of Rights (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, HSP), an extreme, right-wing nationalist political group advocating Croat separatism.

When the HSP breaks up in 1908 Pavelic joins a splinter faction lead by Josip Frank. The faction, often called frankovci (frankist) after its leader, considers itself to be the "pure" Party of Rights. Pavelic is made interim secretary on 1 March 1919.

Pavelic believes in "a free and independent Croat state comprising the entire historical and ethnic territory of the Croat people." He believes that the enemies of the Croat liberation movement include the Serbian Government, international Freemasonry, Jews, and communism.

1918 - The 'Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes' is formed on 1 December and recognised by the Paris Peace Conference in May 1919. The kingdom encompasses most of the Austrian Slovenian lands, Croatia, Slavonia, most of Dalmatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina, Kosovo, the Serbian-controlled parts of Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is to be ruled by Serbian prince regent Aleksandar Karadjordjevicis.

As well as the ethnic Slav majority, the kingdom is home to Germans, Albanians, Hungarians, Romanians, Turks, Italians, Greeks, Czechoslovaks, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Russians, Poles, Bulgars, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, and Gipsies. It includes people of the Christian Orthodox faith, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Protestants.

The political mix of the kingdom reflects this multicultural base, with no single party ever gaining a majority. The Serbian Radical Party (SRP), lead by Nikola Pasic, and the Croatian Republican Peasant Party (CRPP), lead by Stjepan Radic, dominate but hold almost diametrically opposed views, with the Serbs advocating strong central control and the Croats favouring regional autonomy.

1920 - Following a general election where it wins the majority of Croatian seats, the CRPP boycotts the parliament, a position it will maintain until 1924. The boycott allows the SRP to take power by default and pursue its centralist policies.

1925 - The CRPP and SRP strike a compromise and form a coalition government. Under the agreement the CRPP recognises the monarchy, accepts the constitution and changes its name to the Croatian Peasant Party (CPP). However, the coalition is shortlived, lasting only until 1926, after which the parliament degenerates.

1927 - Pavelic is elected to the Zagreb City Council as a representative for the frankovci faction of the HSP. At national elections, the Croatian block that includes the frankovci faction wins 45,000 votes in the Zagreb region and is allocated two seats in the Yugoslav Parliament, one of which is given to Pavelic. He is later elected vice president of the HSP-frankovci.

1928 - Radic is shot and mortally wounded on the floor of parliament on 20 June. When he dies on 28 August representatives from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina walk out of the parliament, demanding a federal state and refusing to acknowledge the authority of the king.

1929 - On 6 January, in an attempt to hold the federation together, the king suspends the constitution and declares a temporary 'Royal Dictatorship'. The parliament is dissolved, political parties are banned, civil liberties are cancelled, local self-government is abolished and laws are decreed against sedition, terrorism, and propagation of communism. A Serb is made premier, and the name of the country is officially changed to the 'Kingdom of Yugoslavia'.

However, it is soon evident that rather than cementing unity the king's plan is creating greater division. Croatian opposition to a Serb-controlled centralist system grows, while the Serbian political movement is fractured. Leaders of both groups flee the country, as does Pavelic, who is sentenced to death in absentia for his part in anti-Serb demonstrations organised by Bulgarian and Macedonian terrorists.

Pavelic travels to Vienna, the capital of Austria, arriving in February. While in the city he takes the leadership of the Croat Youth Movement, a nationalist group dedicated to resisting the royal dictatorship. Pavelic also makes contact with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VRMO), whose leader provides him with an introduction to Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy.

1931 - The royal dictatorship in Yugoslavia is ended and limited democracy reintroduced, although the political landscape remains tumultuous and divisive. Croatian discontent builds when the new leader of the CPP is arrested and jailed for terrorist activities.

1932 - Pavelic accepts an offer from Mussolini to relocate to Italy, where be begins to refashion the Croat Youth Movement into the terrorist group that will come to be known as the Ustase (Insurrection).

Provisioned with training camps, protection and financial support by Mussolini, and receiving further support from the government of Hungry and, later, from Nazi Germany, the Ustase begin a campaign of bombings within Yugoslavia.

In the so-called 'Lika Uprising' the Ustase attempt an armed invasion of Yugoslavia. About one dozen Ustase operatives covertly cross the Adriatic in motorboats, travelling from Italy to Zadar on the Croatian coast, which is then under Italian rule. From Zadar they travel overland to the Velebit Mountains. After attacking a police station and killing 17 police they are forced into a hasty retreat with a number of local Ustase who joined them during the action.

The base for Ustase terrorist operations then moves to Hungary.

1934 - On 14 October a Ustase agent assassinates King Aleksandar while he is visiting Marseille in France. Pavelic is thought to have bribed a high French official to ensure that security around the king was lax, even though the Ustase had made a previous attempt on his life.

Following the assassination, a three-man regency is appointed to rule in the king's place. The CPP leader is released from jail and, in 1935, elections are held. The resulting government eases political oppression but fails to restore full democracy or to address the Croatian separatist movement, which refuses to compromise.

Italy, meanwhile, arrests Pavelic and other leaders of the Ustase following the assassination of the king but refuses to extradite them to face the death sentences passed in absentia in France. Several months later they are released.

1939 - On 26 August, with the outbreak of the Second World War imminent, the Yugoslav Government signs an agreement, the 'Sporazum' (Understanding), with the CPP granting limited autonomy to Croatia. Six days later Germany invades Poland and the war begins.

Yugoslavia attempts to remain neutral but comes under mounting pressure from Germany to fall in with the other Balkan states and sign the 'Tripartite Pact', aligning the country with the 'Axis' powers - Germany, Italy and Japan.

1941 - The Yugoslav Government gives into the German pressure on 24 March, signing a protocol of adherence to the Tripartite Pact. Two days later, on 26 March, junior officers from the Yugoslav air force stage a coup d'état and overthrow the government, unleashing a wave of anti-German demonstrations across Belgrade, the national capital. Germany responds on 6 April, bombing the capital in a 'blitzkrieg' (lightning war) that kills thousands (sources estimate the number killed to be between 12,000 and 17,000). Axis forces then invade.

Pavelic seizes the opportunity. Broadcasting from Italy, he calls on Croatian soldiers to mutiny. "Use your weapons against the Serbian soldiers and officers," he says, "We are fighting shoulder to shoulder with our German and Italian allies."

Overwhelmed by the Axis invasion force, the Yugoslav Army collapses and the government flees.

On 10 April German troops occupy Zagreb. The same day, Slavko Kvaternik, a retired Austro-Hungarian colonel who is the Ustase leader in Croatia, Pavelic's deputy, and commander of the armed forces, proclaims the 'Independent State of Croatia' (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, NDH), which incorporates Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Syrmia.

Pavelic arrives in Zagreb at 5 a.m. on Tuesday 15 April, ending his 12 years of exile.

By 17 April all Yugoslav resistance to the Axis forces has been crushed. On 18 April the Yugoslav Army officially surrenders. The invaders now begin to carve up the spoils.

The Germans recognise the NDH, occupy most of Serbia and annex northern Slovenia. Italy takes southern Slovenia, and much of Dalmatia, joins Kosovo with its Albanian puppet state, and occupies Montenegro. Hungary occupies part of Vojvodina and Slovenian and Croatian border regions. Bulgaria takes Macedonia and a part of southern Serbia.

On the urging of Mussolini, the Germans agree to make Pavelic Poglavnik (Chieftain) of the NDH. Almost immediately he declares that the primary aim of his government will be the "purification" of Croatia and the elimination of "alien elements." The "ethnic cleansing" of two million Serbs, Jews, and Gipsies in the NDH now begins.

Pavelic's Ustase storm troopers employ forced religious conversion, deportation and murder to achieve their goal of an ethnically pure Croatia. Their credo is "kill a third, expel a third, and convert a third." Serbs will be required to wear armbands bearing the letter P (for Pravoslavac, or Orthodox Christian), while Jews will have to wear armbands with the letter Z (for Zidov).

The Ustase will be supported by elements of the Croatian Catholic Church, including the Archbishop of Sarajevo, Ivan Saric. Some Franciscan priests will enlist in the Ustase and participate in the violence.

The massacres begin at the Serbian village of Gudovac in Bosnia-Herzegovina on 27 April. They will continue unabated until the end of the war and result in the genocide of tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gipsies. Thousands more will flee to the relative safety of Serbia. Orthodox priests will also be targeted, with 131 out of the total of 577 practicing in the region being killed. Execution methods favoured by the Ustase included knifing and bludgeoning to death, throwing live victims from cliffs, as well as shooting.

The brutality of the Ustase violence of appals many high-ranking officers in the occupying forces. General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, the German commander of the NDH, reports to Berlin that "according to reliable reports from countless German military and civilian observers ... the Ustasha have gone raging mad." Later he states that the "Croat revolution was by far the bloodiest and most awful among all I have seen firsthand or from afar in Europe since 1917."

The German commander of southeastern Europe calls the Ustase onslaught "a Croatian crusade of destruction." Italian commanders begin to provide civilians with protection against the Ustase, with some going so far as to ignore orders to cease the practice.

On 6 June Pavelic meets German dictator Adolf Hitler, who agrees to Pavelic's plan to expel much of the Serbian population of the NDH and replace them with Croats and Slovenes from lands annexed by the Germans. Pavelic will meet with Hitler again in November 1942.

In September 1941 an Ustase-run concentration camp is opened at Jasenovac, on the Bosnia-Herzegovina border about 90 km southeast of Zagreb. Up to 200,000 Serbs, Jews, Gipsies and political prisoners are killed at Jasenovac, which is the largest in the 26 camps established in the Balkans. Along with the Ustase, Catholic clergy staff the camp and participate in the executions.

Meanwhile, the Yugoslav resistance movement begins to coalesce around the nationalist 'Chetnik' groups and the communist-led 'Partisan' guerrillas.

Yugoslav Army Colonel Dragoljub 'Draza' Mihailovic becomes the best know of the Chetnik commanders, and in October 1941 is recognised by Britain as the leader of the Yugoslav resistance movement. In 1942 the Yugoslav government-in-exile promotes him to commander of its armed forces. Mihailovic's strategy is to avoid clashes with Axis forces and prepare for a general uprising to coincide with an invasion of the Balkans by the Allied forces of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Josip Broz Tito, the secretary-general of the Yugoslavian Communist Party, leads the Partisans. Their slogan is "Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People." Tito favours direct action, and in July 1941 launches uprisings that win the Partisans control of much of the Yugoslav countryside. However, thousands of civilians are killed in Ustase reprisals.

In September 1941 Germany also hits back, warning that 100 Serb civilians will be executed for every German soldier killed by the resistance. In October about 7,000 Serbian men and boys are executed at Kragujevac in Serbia after a squadron of Germans is wiped out in an ambush. A further 1,700 are executed at Kraljevo.

Tito ignores the reprisals and continues with the Partisans' campaign, extending their attacks to the Chetnik forces, which are largely anti-communist. Mihailovic in turn targets the Partisans as the main enemy of the Chetniks. The Chetniks also begin to cooperate with the Germans and Italians to prevent a communist victory.

1942 - On 16 April Pavelic announces that a scorched earth policy will be used to combat the resistance. Under the policy, anyone in those regions of the NDH subject to resistance activity can be summarily executed.

1943 - In December British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agree to give their full support to the Partisans, effectively marginalising the Chetniks. The Partisans' position is further strengthened in September 1944 when the exiled king calls on all Yugoslavs to back them.

1944 - The advancing Soviet Army crosses the Yugoslav border on 1 October, joining with the Partisans to liberate Belgrade on 20 October. The Red Army then moves on toward Germany, leaving the Partisans and the Western Allies to mop up the remaining Germans, Ustase, and Chetniks. The bloodiest fighting breaks out when the Partisans advance into Croatia.

1945 - The Partisans capture Sarajevo on 6 April. Ustase leaders and collaborators flee to Austria, along with regular Croatian and Slovenian troops and some Chetniks, leaving the Partisans in control of all of Yugoslavia.

On 7 May Germany surrenders unconditionally. The war in Yugoslavia ends on 15 May. It has claimed between one million and 1.7 million Yugoslav lives, or up to 11% of the pre-war population. The majority of the dead have been killed by their fellow countrymen.

The Ustase is estimated to have murdered up to 30,000 Jews, up to 29,000 Gipsies, and between 300,000 and 600,000 Serbs.

The Partisans are estimated to have killed up to 300,000 Croat refugees turned back from Austria at the start of May. The massacre of the Croats takes place near the Austrian border village of Bleiburg and during the so-called 'Way of the Cross' death marches back to Croatia that follow.

Pavelic evades the Partisans. Fleeing Zagreb on 15 April, he travels overland to Austria, and then on to Rome. He is reported to be living in the city under the protection of the Catholic Church and with the knowledge of the Allied occupational forces, who fail to arrest him even though they are provided with credible information on his whereabouts.

On 12 September 1947 the American Counterintelligence Corps office in Roman reports that "Pavelic's contacts are so high, and his present position is so compromising to the Vatican, that any extradition of Subject would deal a staggering blow to the Roman Catholic Church."

Early in 1948 Pavelic moves to a monastery near Castel Gandolfo, 25 km southeast of Rome, where he lives disguised as a priest. Later the same year Vatican operatives smuggle him to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where he revives the Ustase movement (now called Hrvatska Drzavotvorna Stranka) and acts as a security adviser to Argentine President Juan Perón. About 7,250 other members of the Ustase find refuge in Argentina between 1946 and 1948.

Meanwhile in Yugoslavia, the communists, backed by the Soviet Union, take control of the government. The Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia is proclaimed on 29 November. It comprises the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. An ethnically mixed Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and a mostly Albanian Autonomous Region of Kosovo are created within Serbia. Tito heads the Communist Party, the government and the armed forces.

Retribution against wartime collaborators begins. Ustase members, Croatian and Slovenian collaborators and innocent refugees who had fled to Austria are captured and returned to Yugoslavia, where thousands are summarily executed by the Partisans. Thousands of Chetniks are jailed. Mihailovic and other Chetnik leaders are executed for collaboration after a show trial in 1946.

Over 200 priests and nuns charged with participating in Ustase atrocities are also executed.

In September 1946 the head of the Croatian Catholic Church, Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, is sentenced to 16 years jail for complicity with the Pavelic government. He serves five years before being released.

1957 - The Yugoslav secret police catch up with Pavelic in Argentina, organising an assassination attempt that is implemented on 9 April. Pavelic survives but is badly wounded. He subsequently flees to Spain, which is ruled by the fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

1959 - Pavelic dies in Madrid on 28 December from injuries sustained in the assassination attempt. It is later revealed that his body is secured at a secret location in Madrid waiting for the time when it can be returned to the "homeland" to lie in state in Zagreb.

Postscript

1999 - Former Chetnik Blagoje Jovovic claims that it was he who fired the shots that eventually led to the death of Pavelic. Jovovic, originally from Montenegro, had emigrated to Argentina following the war.

2003 - Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro move towards reconciliation on 10 September when the presidents of both countries apologise to one another for "all the evils" done by their countries in wars. In an earlier trip to Israel the Croatian president had apologised for crimes committed by the Ustase during the Second World War.

Comment: The horror of events in the Balkans during the Second World War has been displaced in recent memory by further horrors committed there at the end of the century. But it could be argued that the genocide allegedly committed by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic pales in comparison to that of Ante Pavelic and his fascist regime. One thing is certain - the suffering of the Serbs at the hands of the Ustase during the Second World War was and continues to be a key factor in the paranoia that informs much of their national chauvinism.

And there is legitimate cause for their concern. Pavelic has gone but the Ustase lives on. Since Pavelic's death, the movement has been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. Between 1962 and 1966, three Yugoslav diplomats were murdered by the Ustase. In 1968 a bombing attack on a theatre in Belgrade killed one person and wounded 85. The Yugoslav ambassador to Sweden was assassinated in Stockholm in 1971. The following year Ustase terrorists hijacked a Swedish airliner and successfully demanded that the ambassador's assassin be freed. The Ustase also claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Yugoslav JAT airliner flying from Denmark to Croatia in 1972. The attack killed 26.

An explosion in a storage locker at New York's La Guardia airport in December 1975 that killed 11 people and injured 75 may have been set by the Ustase. In September 1976 four Ustase agents hijacked an American TWA plane, resulting in the death of one police officer. The same year the Yugoslav embassy in Washington was bombed. In 1980 the Ustase detonated a bomb in the Statue of Liberty in New York.

More worrying still, there are many within contemporary Croatia who continue to view Pavelic as a national hero and long for a time when his goal of an ethnically pure "homeland" is finally realised. The founding of the NDH on 10 April 1941 is still openly commemorated in parts of the country, and renegade priests still give eulogies to Pavelic.