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In Serbia, locals protest planned monument to WWII war criminals

In Serbia, locals protest planned monument to WWII war criminals

Freedom introduces its new column from our Serbian correspondent:

In the city of Novi Sad, Serbia, the pedestal to a planned monument to victims of World War II violence stands bare and surrounded by wooden pallets. The site was intended to commemorate the “innocent victims” of violence in 1944 and ‘45, when communist Yugoslav partisans took back control of the city from Axis power Hungary.

No-one disputes there were indeed innocent victims of communist violence in Serbia’s second-largest city, which lies close to Serbia’s northern border with Hungary and is still home to a sizeable Hungarian minority. But local activists have identified numerous war criminals and fascist collaborators on the list of locals to be commemorated on the monument, and accuse the Viktor Orbán-linked association sponsoring the monument of working to cover up fascist atrocities in the city.

Through protests and a media campaign, they have succeeded in bringing at least a temporary halt to the erection of the monument. But local antifascists say the affair illustrates the way in which both Orbán’s Hungary and Vučić’s Serbia are whitewashing the fascist past to provide cover for their present hard-right policies.

In Novi Sad Freedom News meets with Luka (name changed), a representative of the local Anti-Fascist Front 23 October which first raised questions over the intent behind the monument. “There were innocent victims [in the communist reprisals],” he says. “We don’t deny it. Nobody does. But we requested a list of people commemorated on the monument and shared it with historians, who found 20 war criminals and collaborators, including the mayor at that time, who threw people into the Danube. A war criminal cannot be an ‘innocent victim’.”

Indeed, local residents have decorated the site of the planned monument with images of killings conducted during the infamous 1942 Novi Sad raid, when Hungarian fascist forces first took control of the city and conducted a pogrom against the local population. In a statement to press, Novi Sad’s AFA explain: “the armed forces of the fascist Hungary implemented a systematic and planned terror campaign against non-Hungarian population (Serbs, Jews and Roma) as well as their political opponents. Even though the exact number of the victims of this terror has never been established, it has been assessed that, in January 1942 on the territory of Bačka, more than 3800 persons were executed.”

A monument to the victims of this fascist violence already exists and is not contested by any local organisations, Luka adds. He also emphasises that no-one is calling for the new monument to be obstructed altogether, only for known war criminals to be struck off from the list of names.

Besides the aforementioned mayor, Nagy Miklós, the list for the new monument includes key figures in the Hungarian occupation such as chief of the occupation police administration Zombori Gyula, other soldiers and officials convicted of torture and personally bayoneting children to death, plus active members of the fascist Croat Ustasha administration.

The monument is sponsored by the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM), which claim to be representing the interests of local Hungarians. But emphasises that many members of the minority oppose the statue and have joined the campaign to reassess the list of ‘victims’.

Serbia, a state which might well pride itself on its partisan origins and antifascist past, is thus seen as complicit in the whitewashing of crimes committed against Serbs – all the more so since the Ustasha also committed pogroms seen by many as amounting to genocide against the Serbs, killing hundreds of thousands of people during their own reign of terror in neighbouring regions to those occupied by the Hungarian fascists.

But as Luka explains, “The Hungarian and Serbian governments work together. Vučić and Orbán scratch one another’s backs.” War crimes committed by fascists against the Slavic population they viewed as subhuman are an inconvenient truth for the two hard-right authoritarian administrations. Despite their states’ historic conflicts, Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) now enjoys warm relations with Orbán’s Fidesz, which in turn has close links to the SVM. “What the Serbian Progressive party and Fidesz also have in common is the ideology of rightist extremism and anti-communism,” the AFF state.

The affair represents part of a broader movement to whitewash the region’s fascist past, where the anti-fascist tradition represented by the Yugoslav federation is being obliterated to provide cover for contemporary authoritarianism. Across the border in Bosnia, a graveyard and monument to 800 anti-fascist partisans was this summer totally desecrated by Croat fascists. Here in Novi Sad, a woman working in the left-wing bar where I meet Luka was recently assaulted by the local far right, while, as he points out, you do not have to walk any distance at all to find streets covered in swastikas.

The contract for the monument has now been cancelled, but the City of Novi Sad is still looking for alternative contractors to complete the project. The local AFF state: “Any kind of help is welcome, from direct expressions of protest sent to Novi Sad Mayor’s e-mail address and the address of Novi Sad City Council to raising awareness of potential erection of monuments to fascist criminals in your own countries.”

The active and currently successful campaign has brought together disparate activist and political groups in Novi Sad with ordinary locals like one grandmother Luka mentions, who herself lost relatives to fascist violence and turned out to protest the monument. But the present-day authoritarians remain, and will doubtless continue seeking ways to eradicate both the memory of fascist atrocities and the region’s proud antifascist past.

Matt Matthews

Image: Milica Buha, CC BY-SA 4.0 Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Novi Sad

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