The Bleiburg massacre is a term encompassing events that took place during May 1945, three and a half months before the formal end of World War II in Europe (September 2, 1945), but at a time when hostilities on the Yugoslav front were ending. It is named after the Carinthian town of Bleiburg on the Austrian-Slovenian (then German-Yugoslav) border, near where the events began. The number of casualties has proven difficult to ascertain, with exact numbers being a subject of much debate.
Shortly after midnight on 13 May 1945 the British 5th Corps Headquarters in Austria estimated that there were "approximately 30,000 POWs, surrendered personnel, and refugees in Corps area. A further 60,000 reported moving north to Austria from Yugoslavia of people who had fled to southern Austria ahead of the advance of the Yugoslav Partisans hoping to surrender to and gain the protection of the British were forcibly returned south by the British. Most of these were subjected to forced marches under inhumane conditions over long distances. Many were also executed on suspicion of being members or supporters of collaborationist forces, or for suspected collaboration with or active involvement in the Wehrmacht. In particular these included those who had supported the defeated Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH), a puppet state of the Nazi regime in Germany, controlled by the Ustaše party.
The main fighting force against the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia (1941-45), in terms of numbers involved and campaigns undertaken, was the Partisan movement. The Axis-appointed Ustaše government in Zagreb headed the Nazi puppet state the Independent State of Croatia and had its own lethal agenda for Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croats.
This was manifested in the atrocities at Jasenovac concentration camp and elsewhere, the scale of which even shocked German and Italian occupying forces. As early as July 10, 1941, Wehrmacht General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau reported the following to the German High Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW):
Our troops have to be mute witnesses of such events; it does not reflect well on their otherwise high reputation... I am frequently told that German occupation troops would finally have to intervene against Ustaše crimes. This may happen eventually. Right now, with the available forces, I could not ask for such action. Ad hoc intervention in individual cases could make the German Army look responsible for countless crimes which it could not prevent in the past.
Increased activity of the bands is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.
The Yugoslav Partisan movement grew rapidly from these atrocities, as it was the only faction in occupied Yugoslavia genuinely promoting pan-Yugoslav tolerance and ideals. Eventually, units of the Ustaše military began defecting to the Partisans. By 1945, the Yugoslav Partisans numbered over 800,000 men organized into four field armies, and were in pursuit of the remnant of the defeated German and Ustaše forces.
The main column traveled through Celje, Šoštanj, and Slovenj Gradec on its way to Dravograd, before turning southwestwards towards Bleiburg. They began surrendering to the British on May 15, and this continued until the May 17, making these remnants of the NDH military the last Axis force in Europe to surrender. During this time Ustaše generals Ivo Herenčić of the V. Corps, and Vjekoslav Servatzy as well as a translator, Professor Danijel Crljen, began surrender negotiations with the British and the Partisans, represented by Milan Basta. In accordance with previous Allied agreements, the British forces refused to accept the surrender of the fascist forces, and came to an agreement with the Partisans.
According to the Hague Convention's Article 20, After the conclusion of peace, the repatriation of prisoners of war shall be carried out as quickly as possible. General Robertson gave British troops the order, "All surrendered personnel of established Yugoslav nationality who were serving in German Forces should be disarmed and handed over to Yugoslav forces".
Although a large, still undefined number of Ustaša and Chetnik soldiers died during a series of battles and skirmishes after the end of the war, it is alleged that the majority of violent deaths were the result of executions that lasted at least two weeks after the cessation of hostilities. The victims were executed in revenge for the horrendous crimes committed by the Ustaše regime in NDH-controlled territories during World War II. Killings continued in nearby Slovenia, and it is hard to estimate the number of victims on Bleiburg field, compared to those later found in the trenches in the Maribor area and other numerous pits in Slovenia, mostly because these pits could just as easily contain casualties from other engagements.
During the retreat across Slovenia and in their time in Austria, the military conflicts between the Partisans and the retreating collaborationist forces continued. Of these, the biggest confrontation was the Battle of Poljana. The vast majority of the refugees were returned to Yugoslavia and were repatriated as Yugoslav citizens via forced marches under inhumane conditions over long distances.
Historians made estimates, based mainly on the historiographic and demographic investigations:
The full list of sites in question - some of which involve more than one location, and do not necessarily refer to people returned to Yugoslavia from Bleiburg - that have been fully or partially excavated, or await investigation in Slovenia is:
After the war, many grave sites were destroyed by explosions or were covered in waste. Some sites were also built over.
May 15 is annually marked by many as the Memorial Day for the victims of Bleiburg and the Way of the Cross. This date was officially marked by the Republic of Croatia, by an act of the Croatian Parliament in 1995.
The first Croats to return to the fields of Bleiburg came in secret in 1952, while regular annual visits began in the early 1960s. The first Croatian religious leader to come to the site was Cardinal Franjo Šeper, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who paid a visit in 1977.
Many top-ranking politicians and Catholic and Muslim clerics visit the site annually. Prime Ministers Ivica Račan and Ivo Sanader visited the site in 2002 and 2004, respectively. For the 60th anniversary commemorations in 2005 a large crowd was in attendance, with speeches by Croatian parliamentary speaker Vladimir Šeks and head of the Muslim Community of Croatia, Mufti Ševko Omerbašić. In 2006, the site was attended by Croatian government officials Đurđa Adlešić and Damir Polančec and Bosnian Croat politician Martin Raguž. Catholic mass was led by bishop Josip Mrzljak, while imam Idriz Bešić represented the Islamic Community of Croatia. In 2007 a new altar was installed at the site. Cardinal Josip Bozanić inaugurated the altar at the 2007 commemorations which drew 10,000 people.
In 2008 the commemmoration was attended by over 10,000 people. Mass was held by the bishop of Hvar Slobodan Štambuk, while the Croatian Islamic community was represented by Idriz Bešić. The Croatian Parliament was represented by the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party Josip Friščić, while the Croatian Government was represented by minister Berislav Rončević The Croatian and Slovenian governments reached an agreement at this time of cooperation on organizing military cemeteries, similar to earlier agreements Slovenia reached with Italy and Germany.
According to the Slovenian government, the mass grave site in Tezno is being planned as a memorial park and cemetery.