‘Symbols of hate’: The lingering afterlife of Croatian fascism in Australia

I have had some contact with this group. I was invited to attend a club meeting in Sydney in the late '60s of a very conservative club called the 50 Club -- with premises in Darlinghurst. It was a lunchtime meeting that I went to and the food was notably good. Most of the members were Croatians and the leading light was Lyenko Urbanchich (Ljenko Urbancic). The Ustasha was mentioned with some admiration occasionally.

But they were never more than a talk shop. Several of them joined the Liberal party in attempt to shift it rightward, with Urbanchich having some prominence in the iberal Party for a while. The Liberals eventually got wind of his antisemitism, however, and he was sidelined. A fuller history of Urbanchich and his activities is here, in an article by Mark Aarons, former head of the Communist Party of Australia


So as far as I can tell, Balkan Rightists have no influence outside of their own circles and need be of no particular concern. 

When a small group of Croatian emigres met in 1953 in a humble weatherboard house in Footscray, a world away from the strife of a destroyed Europe, they formed a soccer club that would help transform the sport and twice be champions of Australia.

But from the start, that meeting in inner Melbourne was not just about soccer.

That small group of migrants deliberately chose to start their club on April 10. In 1953, that was the 12th anniversary of the creation of a Nazi-backed puppet state in Croatia. That state, ruled by a movement called the Ustasha, on conservative estimates killed 500,000 Serbs, Jews and Romani people during the war.

At the meeting to create the club, which later became the Melbourne Knights, was Srecko Rover, a man who would play a pivotal role in the emerging Croatian community in Australia.

He was a man with a dark history. During the war, Rover was part of the Ustasha elite and, as journalist Mark Aarons later wrote, had overseen mobile execution squads.

On Hitler’s birthday in 1944, Ustasha dictator Ante Pavelic awarded Rover the prestigious Small Silver Medal for his role in battles against “renegades”. Rover denied detailed witness accounts of crimes and died in 2005.

The story of the Melbourne Knights is a microcosm of the tensions within a large migrant community, Croatian Australians, over their history.

It presents uncomfortable questions about the mainstreaming of far-right symbolism – ASIO has identified the rise of political extremism in general as a significant concern – and how to deal with the past in a multicultural country where many experience direct or intergenerational trauma from genocide.

Many of the experts interviewed for this investigation said views in sections of the Croatian diaspora in Australia were much more extreme than in modern-day Croatia, with displays of support for fascism more open and mainstream.

It is clear that a minority of Croatians in Australia still choose to celebrate Croatia’s fascist past. They range from young people performing stiff-arm salutes at the soccer, to people controlling some of the community’s most important institutions – its community centres and soccer clubs. Ustasha flags were also observed at anti-lockdown protests during the pandemic.

Flags, clothing and key rings decorated with the symbols and phrases of the Ustasha – including portraits of dictator Ante Pavelic – are being sold from Sydney, with the content shared and celebrated across social media.

The open celebration of that past is a source of tension with Serbian and Jewish Australians.

Croatia’s ambassador to Australia, Betty Pavelich, told this masthead there was no place for the “glorification of totalitarian regimes, extremism or intolerance”.

“We firmly believe that it behoves us all to ensure that disinformation, glorification and the mainstreaming of criminal, totalitarian ideologies, their symbols and movements, do not take root in modern societies,” she said.

Pavelich added it was important not to malign “law-abiding and respectful communities, based on the unacceptable views and behaviour of small groups of individuals”.

At the Knights, which hope to enter soccer’s national second division next year, there is no public disavowal that one of their founders was an accused war criminal. Rather his role is celebrated, as is the Ustasha-linked date of the club’s birth, April 10.

“It was these people that began a story, tradition and movement that we uphold today,” the club proclaimed via social media on the day in 2019. “The date was and still is a symbol of the struggle for Croatian independence and a reminder of how and why the Croatian people ended up living in the far-flung reaches of the globe.”


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