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Zagreb’s anti-fascist flame: liberation celebrations and resistance

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Citizens of Zagreb meet partisans upon liberation of the city, May 8, 1945. Zagreb marked a decade of revived liberation celebrations at the weekend, as citizens gathered to reignite bonfires commemorating the end of Nazi and Ustaša occupation, the writer says. – Picture: Union of Antifascists of Croatia archives.

By Ana Vračar

On May 8, 1945, partisan troops marched into Zagreb, ending four years of brutal occupation by Nazi forces and their local allies, the Ustaša regime. This historic day, once celebrated with bonfires along the Sava River, was struck from public calendars in the late 1980s amid a sweeping revisionist campaign against Croatia’s socialist and anti-fascist legacy.

In a defiant reclaiming of history, the Network of Anti-fascist Women of Zagreb (MAZ) resurrected these bonfires in 2015, urging the city’s residents to restore the tradition. The revived event has not only continued but has expanded over the past decade, with the recent gathering on Saturday, May 4, 2024, marking one of its most significant turnouts.

The commemoration serves as a reminder of the local resistance during the occupation, where Zagreb’s citizens risked everything to oppose fascist rule. “In that most difficult time of our history, when people were killed on the road, hanged on poles, when neighbours, friends, and acquaintances disappeared by being taken to camps and to scaffolds, there was only one right decision that each person could make. That decision was resistance,” MAZ emphasised in their invitation to the bonfires.

This year’s bonfires not only honoured the acts of resistance but also mirrored current global struggles for justice. A significant moment at the event was the solidarity shown with Palestine. The organisers strongly denounced the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetuated by Israel against the Palestinians and supported the participation of members from the Free Palestine Initiative, who were invited to light the first bonfire.

A member of Free Palestine Initiative – Solidarity from Croatia, lights one of the bonfires. – Picture: FPI – Solidarity from Croatia

The resurgence of Zagreb’s anti-fascist spirit has not gone unnoticed. Since the green party Možemo! took office in 2021, city leaders, including Deputy Mayor Luka Korlaet, have become regular participants. This year, Korlaet announced that the city would finally succeed in renaming streets that had been named after Ustaša figures by previous administrations.

Moreover, MAZ is set to receive this year’s City Award, which honours individuals and organisations that have significantly contributed to upholding and promoting the foundational values upon which the city was built. The organisation’s advocacy for anti-fascism continues to face opposition from the right-wing party Homeland Movement, who have attempted to disrupt the liberation celebrations by holding press conferences at the outskirts of the event.

The Homeland Movement’s efforts have largely gone unnoticed, overshadowed by the vibrant singing and drumming of the bonfires’ supporters, which effectively drown out the revisionist narratives they aim to promote. However, this year, the appearance of the right-wing group occurred in a somewhat changed political context, given that the party is increasingly likely to play a part in the future government led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

During coalition negotiations, the Homeland Movement has insisted on policies that exclude any participation of the Serbian national minority in the formation of a parliamentary majority, raising serious concerns about the strengthening of extreme right ideologies.

Recognising the persecution of the Serbian, Jewish, and Romani communities in Croatia during World War II, the return of such narratives is a grave concern among local anti-fascists. Nevertheless, veterans of WWII resistance and their younger comrades remain resolute. “The idea of anti-fascism cannot be destroyed by anyone because it is a struggle for justice, for equality, for women’s rights, for the rights of all peoples,” stated Ivan Fumić, a member of the People’s Liberation Movement (NOB), at the event.

The bonfires represent an ongoing commitment to challenging oppression. As wars persist and the right wing strengthens, resistance once again becomes the only choice. “Resistance to terror, resistance to occupation, resistance to fascism,” pledged the people celebrating Zagreb’s liberation.

This article was published on Peoples Dispatch