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Ultranationalists Are Seeing an Organizing Boom in Australia

At a recent anti-vaccine rally in Melbourne, observers identified supporters of the Ustaše, a Croatian fascist movement with Nazi-collaborationist roots. It’s no fluke: the radical right is attaching itself to the anti-vaccine movement everywhere.

A large crowd of protesters marched from Parliament House to Flagstaff Gardens in Melbourne, Australia, to protest against vaccination mandates. (Darrian Traynor / Getty Images)

The far right was out in force at September’s anti-vaccination rally outside the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Manufacturing and Energy Union (CFMMEU) office in Melbourne. Alongside garden-variety conspiracy theorists and fascists, however, a few rarer specimens made an appearance.

After deriding mandatory vaccinations in the construction industry, one of the speakers drew an analogy between the assembled protesters and “those boys who fought against communism” in Croatia during the Second World War. It was a thinly veiled reference to the fascist Ustaša movement, adding weight to reports that a small number of Ustaša sympathizers have infiltrated the CFMMEU.

But who exactly are the Ustaše? What influence do they hold in Australian society, and to what extent does their presence reflect a broader trend?

Yugoslavism vs. Nationalism

The Ustaše are Croatian ultranationalist fascists. During World War II, the Ustaša movement established the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi German puppet state, within occupied Yugoslavia. Led by Ante Pavelić, the NDH Ustaša regime was responsible for the genocide of Serbs, Jews, and Roma peoples living in the territory that it controlled.

Indeed, war crimes defined Pavelić’s brief but brutal rule — forces under his command murdered half a million civilians, including one hundred thousand in the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp.

The Ustaša movement emerged during the turbulent interwar period in Yugoslavia. In January 1929, following intensifying social and political polarization, King Alexander prorogued Yugoslavia’s parliament, cracked down on dissent, and declared the nation a kingdom with himself as absolute monarch. These events fueled two competing movements. Ultranationalist organizations grew among both Croats and Serbs, while the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ) grew across national and linguistic divides. The KPJ emphasized the importance of a united and equal Yugoslavia and regarded nationalism as a division to be overcome within the country’s working class.

During World War II, these two competing movements came into direct conflict. The KPJ established the National Liberation Army, more commonly known as the Yugoslav Partisans. The Partisans were a multiethnic anti-fascist resistance, sometimes characterized as Europe’s most effective liberation movement. In addition to fighting German Nazi troops, the Partisans also took on nationalist forces that recruited within different ethnic groups in the country, including the Četniks, a Serb ultranationalist and royalist paramilitary. Hoping to establish a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, the Četniks initially resisted German occupation. However, by 1943, they began openly collaborating with Nazis and the Ustaše themselves.

The Partisans slowly grew in strength. Brutal reprisals by Axis forces swelled their ranks, as did official recognition from the Allies. With the Allies’ victory, the Partisans’ hegemony was confirmed. The KJP — the political wing of the Partisans — won credit for Yugoslavia’s liberation.

In 1945, the KPJ begun transforming Yugoslavia into a socialist republic built around the maxim “brotherhood and unity.” To reconcile the area’s nationalities, the KPJ established a federal structure with a subnational republic for each major ethnic group. This was key to subduing nationalism and maintaining a united state under Marshal Josip Broz Tito. However, the conflict between Yugoslavism and nationalism would ultimately define the Yugoslav state until its collapse in the 1990s.

Australian Ustaše

Meanwhile, Ustaša fighters and sympathizers emigrated abroad, fearing prosecution in a socialist Yugoslavia. Argentina was their destination of choice, although Australia was also popular with many Ustaše. As a consequence, by the ’40s and ’50s, migrants from the Balkans arriving in Australia were increasingly likely to have some connection to Ustaša or some other nationalist ideology.

In War Criminals Welcome, Mark Aarons notes how the Australian government openly facilitated the immigration of many suspected war criminals from the Balkans. This was in part aimed at diplomatically undermining the communist regime in Yugoslavia by cultivating a Miami-esque nationalist diaspora.

Upon arriving in Australia, the Ustaše did not demobilize. Rather, they continued campaigning to destabilize the Yugoslav government, at times by resorting to terrorism. Kristy Campion traces this disturbing history of Ustaše violence in Australia from 1963 to 1973. Encouraged by “political sympathy” and “ideological alignment in a Cold War atmosphere,” the Ustaše organized upward of fifteen attacks during this time, most focusing on Yugoslav consulates or Yugoslav migrant centers. In May 1964, for example, an Ustaša militant attempted to blow up the Yugoslav consulate in Sydney using a suitcase bomb. In February 1965, an Ustaša bombed a Yugoslav Settlers Association dance in Geelong.

Maintaining the Ustaše in this way required substantial organization. Across Australia, branches of Ustaša-aligned diaspora organizations cropped up, openly recruiting within the Croatian Australian community. Prominent Ustaše émigrés led similar organizations across the world. The director of the Jasenovac concentration camp, Vjekoslav Luburić, led the Ustaše in Francoist Spain, while Pavelić himself presided over the Ustaše in Argentina.

Within Australia, the Ustaše formed nationalist front groups such as the Croatian Liberation Movement, the Croatian Revolutionary Brotherhood, and the Croatian National Resistance. They sought to infiltrate apolitical Croatian community groups in order to recruit among new Croatian migrants looking for support networks in a foreign country. Even today, ultranationalists attempt to present supporting Croatian nationalism as identical with being of Croatian descent.

Sport — especially soccer — was also crucial to these efforts. Many young Croatian men first encountered ultranationalism through groups of organized supporters (ultras) of Croatian-backed clubs such as Sydney United 58 or the Melbourne Knights. For example, the Croatian Club in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray continues to hang portraits of Pavelić in its building.

It’s not always this overt, however. Like other far-right groups, Ustaše in Australia indicate their presence with covert symbols that seem innocuous to the rest of society. For example, this is the case when the when the Croatian checkerboard is depicted with a white square in the top-left position rather than a red one. This was the design used by the fascist NDH regime during World War II, while the modern Croatian state places a red square in the top-left position.

Similarly, the abbreviation ZDS stands for “for the homeland ready,” a ubiquitous Ustaše greeting equivalent to “sieg heil.” The number 369 refers to the 369th Wehrmacht Croatian legionary brigade and is visible on this sticker, photographed on a vehicle belonging to one of the people who demonstrated outside the CFMMEU’s offices.

Nationalist Diasporas

It is important to note that most Croatian Australians are not sympathetic to Ustaša ideology. And insofar as Croatian Australians are disproportionately attracted to nationalism, this follows a pattern common among migrants from many other Southeast and East European nations.

This is to be expected given that local fascists and Nazi collaborators fled following the Allies’ victory, while leftists remained to construct new societies inspired by the USSR. Consequently, it was common for migrants to define themselves in opposition to the Communist regimes in their home countries, and in opposition to the Left in their new homes. White Australian racism against “wogs” (Southern and Eastern Europeans) also encouraged new migrants to identify with their communities on a nationalist basis, to find support in a hostile country.

The meaning of ultranationalist and fascist symbols and history can often fly under the radar, given most Australians aren’t familiar with the history of Yugoslavia during the Second World War. For example, the basketball tournament for Serbian Australian clubs is named after Draža Mihailović, the wartime leader of the Četniks. Mihailović statues can also be found in Blacktown and Canberra.

Indeed, as the Marxist historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson underlines, the experience of being isolated from one’s homeland and sense of national identity can intensify “long-distance nationalism.” This means that some diaspora communities can adopt more radical or ingrained forms of nationalism than those in their countries of origin.

For example, in the United Kingdom, Dua Lipa, a Kosovar Albanian British singer, caused a stir online when she posted a graphic on Twitter of an irredentist Albanian nationalist symbol. That a popular youth figure who supported Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2019 would see no problem with publicly supporting far-right ethnonationalism shows how ingrained these views can sometimes be.

Or take Macedonian and Greek communities in Melbourne. In 2018, the Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev governments of Greece and the Republic of North Macedonia, respectively, signed the Prespa agreement. This resolved long-standing disputes between the two nations, including over Macedonia’s name. In response, Macedonian nationalists mobilized in large numbers, with some going as far as to accuse Greece of genocide. Similarly, more Greek Australians rallied in opposition to North Macedonia’s right to its name than against the harsh austerity measures implemented by the European Union in Greece.

Importantly, possessing ultranationalist sentiment should not be viewed as congruent with belonging to a minority ethnic group in Australia. And most of the time, the presence of tiny groups of ultranationalists within diasporic communities is not an immediate threat. White Australian nationalism is, after all, far more dangerous and widespread.

Nevertheless, in the context of a growing far right, it’s crucial that the Australian left recognize more esoteric varieties of fascism. This is necessary to prevent hard-right ultranationalists from flying under the radar and posing as part of the workers’ movement. By taking the same zero-tolerance approach to the Ustaše as we would to better-known fascists, we can make it clear that support for ultranationalism is not synonymous with being Croatian.