- Verwicklung. Beteiligung. Unrecht. Frauen und die Ustaša-Bewegung by Martina Bitunjac
The fascist ideologies of the Axis powers and their satellite states during World War II were aimed at total control, not just over state power but also over the private sphere. In this major contribution to the historiography, Martina Bitunjac meticulously and convincingly demonstrates that the quisling “Independent State of Croatia” (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH) and the Ustaša movement that created it were no exception. Drawing extensively on archival research, the Ustaša press, and interviews with important female members of the movement as well as female victims of the regime, Bitunjac focuses specifically on the role of women in the NDH and on the Ustaša movement’s ambitious and wide-ranging plans to regulate every aspect of women’s daily lives.
The NDH existed relatively briefly, from April 1941 until May 1945, and for much of that time its reach was severely restricted because of widespread guerrilla warfare. However, the Ustaša movement had been established in 1929. During their approximately decade-long exile from Yugoslavia, Ustaša leaders and ideologues devoted considerable thought to the role of women in their future utopia. In her first two chapters, Bitunjac charts the development of Ustaša ideology during the 1930s. Extreme nationalism, fascism, patriarchalism, antisemitism, and reactionary Catholicism combined in a potent mix. Ustaša leader Ante Pavelić and his followers completely rejected Yugoslavia, which they regarded as a repressive dystopia dominated by Serbs and Jews. As elsewhere, fascist fury at perceived oppression of “the Nation” merged seamlessly with male paranoia about the (sexual) exploitation of Croatian women by “racially foreign” elements. A number of leading female Ustaša adherents had relatives who had been killed, imprisoned or tortured during King Aleksandar’s dictatorship, grievances which solidified their anti-Yugoslav sentiments.
The exile of many male Ustaša members paradoxically strengthened the role of female family members at home in an otherwise thoroughly male-dominated movement. Women often functioned as secret couriers between exiles in Italy and their comrades in Yugoslavia. A particularly curious representation of the movement’s relationship to women appears in the novel Liepa Plavka (The Beautiful Blonde), written by Pavelić himself. Bitunjac examines this mediocre novel in which the female protagonist participates in the 1934 assassination of King Aleksandar in Marseilles. [End Page 442]
According to Bitunjac, the motives for women to join the movement did not discernibly differ from those of their male colleagues: rejection of Yugoslavia, the desire for an independent Croatian state. Significantly, once this goal had been attained, mass atrocities against Serbs, Jews, and Roma—which Bitunjac, like most other scholars, sees as a constituent feature of the “criminal Ustaša regime”—did not noticeably lessen Ustaša women’s support. On the contrary, Bitunjac profiles a number of women who directly participated in atrocities in Ustaša concentration camps.
Bitunjac shows that for the most well-educated and socially mobile, women’s life in the NDH was filled with paradoxes. On the one hand, the movement aspired to activate these women as zealous proponents of the regime. Yet Ustaša ideology dictated that women remain “guardians of Croatdom” (čuvarice hrvatstva) by devoting themselves to home and family. Female emancipation was unthinkable for the vast majority, intended to bear and raise brave warriors for the Ustaša state. The NDH usually required women who married to abandon even those limited careers open to them. Of course, no small amount of hypocrisy appeared: Pavelić’s wife Marija was particularly resented as a devious plotter vigorously promoting her husband as father of the nation. Moreover, with men absent “defending the fatherland” quite a number of married women remained professionally active— though this was presented as a temporary necessity. Although the NDH regime paid lip service to “progress,” Bitunjac shows how little was done to educate or modernize the overwhelmingly peasant population, most living in poverty, illiterate, and often in chronic ill health, with high infant and childhood mortality; nearly half of...