In Croatia, Nazi Sympathizers Are Welcome to Join the Party
The national soccer team celebrated its strong World Cup showing alongside a singer who glorifies the country’s fascist past. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Marko Perkovic—known professionally as Thompson—is far from a household name outside of Croatia. The gristly-voiced Thompson, 51, had been cause for controversy long before Croatia’s national soccer team made its Cinderella run to the 2018 World Cup final. Thompson has long been associated by many with the Croatian Nazi-era puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, colloquially referred to as the Ustashe, the name of the fascist party behind that state. One of his songs opens with the chant “Za dom spremni!”—“Ready for the home[land],” the Croatian version of the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil.” Local outlets have even reported that he performed a song celebrating the Jasenovac concentration camp, where the Ustashe killed an estimated 83,000 people, including Serbs, Jews, and Roma.
But less than 24 hours after Croatia’s loss to France in the World Cup final—a bittersweet moment, but a silver medal that was still seen as a major accomplishment worthy of celebration for the country of 4 million people—Thompson was riding along with the players on a victory parade from Zagreb’s airport and joined them on stage in front of hundreds of thousands of fans in the center of town.
But Thompson didn’t just walk up on stage by himself. He was invited to sing a song at the insistence of team captain Luka Modric, himself a divisive figure who generates both pride and anger among Croatians. Thompson is the product of a society and a political class that has shown little desire to come to terms with the worst moments of Croatia’s past.
Thompson’s appearance at a celebration of the biggest moment in the country’s sporting history shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His presence at such an event revealed sentiments that have long festered in Croatian society. “The triumphalism uncovered something that existed before,” Zarko Puhovski, a professor at the University of Zagreb and a longtime political commentator, said.
“The explosion of nationalism is not surprising for nations that achieve such symbolic sporting victories,” he said, “except that in Croatia it is manifested in a specifically radical right-wing manner.” While he believes that support for Thompson doesn’t necessarily indicate sworn support for fascists, it shows that many Croatians don’t necessarily see the Ustashe past and its symbols as problematic.
Thompson himself celebrates those symbols. His concerts attract Ustashe supporters, who often wear unsubtle T-shirts with the capital letter “U.” While Thompson has denied again and again that he’s a fascist sympathizer—claiming he just “loves Croatia and its people”—he has never distanced himself from these hardcore fans.
Some of Thompson’s songs make it hard to take such claims seriously. He’s made references to Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus is sometimes used as a justification for Christian anti-Semitism, in his lyrics, lamenting that “our dreams are betrayed/by sons of Judas.” He sings about how “Antichrists and Masons/Communists of all sorts/Spread Satanic phrases/To defeat us”—words that sound rather similar to what Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic himself wrote in 1936 in The Croat Question, where he identified “international freemasonry,” Serbs, Communists, and Jews as enemies of Croatia.
Other songs include even more direct references to Pavelic. Thompson’s “Bitter Grass on a Bitter Wound,” the title of which is a direct reference to a speech by the Ustashe leader, urges listeners to “prepare the same shirt we used to wear/put it on the roof for me/it’ll fit my son like it fit my grandfather and me,” a direct allusion to the black shirts worn by Croatian and Italian fascists. And in “Tell Me, Brother,” Thompson predicts that “the thick fog will once again settle,” a reference to the well-known Ustashe song “A Thick Fog Has Settled [Over Zagreb].”
But, as Modric’s story shows, not all of Thompson’s fans are necessarily sympathetic to the far-right or the Ustashe. If anything, they see themselves as just ordinary Croats. In the days leading up to the World Cup final, a video surfaced of a 5-year-old Modric herding goats in the Velebit mountains along Croatia’s coast. The video produced outpourings of international attention and sympathy, showing the long and difficult path the diminutive Modric faced before finding soccer stardom. But it also showed elements of his background that most outside of his home country would have missed.
“The soccer players of the Croatian national team represent a wide segment of society that hails from small towns or rural areas in the country,” Puhovski said. Thompson channeled this sentiment at last week’s post-World Cup celebration. He sang “Geni Kameni” (“Genes of Stone”) a song celebrating religion, patriarchy, and the family values of rural Croatia.
As we witnessed firsthand at the celebration, fans of Modric aren’t necessarily fans of Thompson and his oeuvre, and they started to leave the square in large numbers when Thompson started into “Genes of Stone.” Thompson couldn’t get to the final verse. His mic was cut off by the organizers before he could finish.
Thompson’s “Genes of Stone,” in just a few lines, manages to represent the resentment felt by those Croats who fled the country after the defeat of the Nazis and the fall of Pavelic’s regime. “’45 was a bad year,” Thompson sings. “It scattered us all over the world/now new descendants grow/the swallows have returned home.”
After the victory of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans in 1945, a bevy of top Ustashe officials and supporters fled Croatia after being beaten by what became the Communist state. They went to South America, Australia, Canada, and the United States, among other places. During the 1990s, with the fall of communism, their descendants—who had grown up with a strong resentment toward the communist Yugoslavia that Croatia was a part of—returned to newly independent Croatia to contribute to the war effort and to help build a new country.
But some of them had more than just strong resentment for the Yugoslav era. As the historian Hrvoje Klasic explains, some members of the Croatian diaspora who returned had family, political, or sentimental ties to the Ustashe. “The Nazis who fled Germany in 1945 or the Italian fascists who fled the country who went to Paraguay or Argentina never even considered going back to their country of origin, let alone hold office,” Klasic said. “Yet this happened in Croatia.”
Franjo Tudjman, a former Yugoslav Army general who became the country’s first president after it declared independence in the 1990s, tried to satisfy the tastes of his base of Ustashe sympathizers by naming the Ustashe emigrant Ivo Rojnica as ambassador to Argentina. Rojnica is known for signing enforcement orders for racial laws against Jews and Serbs during the World War II Nazi puppet state run by Pavelic—crimes for which he was never prosecuted.
In 1991, as Yugoslavia started to fall apart, many in Croatia feared what they saw as potential Serb domination and thus strove for independence. “The biggest problem in the country were thought to be the Serbs,” Klasic said. Klasic explained that the last time Croatia had faced a similar situation was actually in 1941, when Croats also wanted an independent country, to leave Yugoslavia, fight against communism, and resist Serbian domination.
As a result, the Ustashe’s struggle in that era came to be “seen in a patriotic light,” Klasic said. “The story had become romanticized.” Because the situation in the 1990s mimicked, at least superficially, the struggle between the fascists and the communists in Yugoslavia during World War II, certain Croatian citizens started identifying with the Ustashe movement—and especially with their symbols.
Croatia’s current political class doesn’t seem particularly eager to deromanticize the story. President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who lists Thompson as her favorite musician, raised her international profile with a stoic post-match appearance, during which she hugged players from both teams alongside French President Emmanuel Macron in the midst of a torrential Moscow downpour—she and Macron got soaked, while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handlers sheltered him under an umbrella.
In other respects, Grabar-Kitarovic has cut a less valiant figure. She has publicly declared “there should be a debate about whether ‘Za dom spremni’ is an old Croatian greeting or not” and has happily met with the descendants of Ustashe veterans in Argentina and in Croatia. Grabar-Kitarovic set the tone for her presidency from her first day in office by inviting openly pro-Ustashe figures to her inauguration, such as right-wing TV personality Velimir Bujanec, who has been photographed wearing a swastika armband and the German Nazi uniform. Bujanec has had Thompson as a guest on his show several times and regularly promotes the singer’s concerts.
For Ivan Ergic, a Croatian Serb who was part of championship-winning soccer teams in Switzerland and Turkey, it’s no surprise that Croatia’s unresolved fascist past made an appearance around a soccer field. If anything, Ergic contends, it’s the most natural place for it to have appeared.
The “patriotic pressure” on players for Croatia’s national team and others is immense, Ergic said. Players have “minimal political sensibilities,” he added, limited largely to what he derides as a “submissiveness to populist ideas and a flirtation with the expectations of the masses.”
It’s why Ergic wasn’t at all surprised to see Thompson on stage last week. And Croatia is not alone in this respect. “All national teams in the region are similar in this aspect,” Ergic argued. “They’re mainly directing the hate towards one another, and we see the continuation of ‘war by other means.’”
This has been hard to miss on and around the soccer field in the last few years. During this year’s World Cup, two Swiss players of Kosovar-Albanian origin flashed provocative Albanian nationalist signs after scoring against Serbia, outraging Serbs. In 2014, during a match between Albania and Serbia in Belgrade, a brawl between players, team officials, and Serbian fans erupted after a drone displaying a map of Greater Albania was flown into the stadium. And in 2013, Croatian player Josip “Joe” Simunic was suspended for 10 games and missed the 2014 World Cup for leading fans in a chant of “Za dom spremni!”—a move that ended his international career.
It gives the outside world the impression that Balkan countries are “eternally squabbling little Balkan tribes,” Ergic argued. “We’ve become victims of the stereotypes others have imposed on us,” he warned. “We’re little countries with interesting folklore and good food, exotic music and film, and are kind of good at sports sometimes, but we’re never capable of being taken seriously abroad.”
Ultimately, the problem with Thompson isn’t the fact that singers like him exist; after all, similar musicians who romanticize their countries’ brutal World War II histories have emerged all over Europe, particularly in post-communist countries. The real tragedy is the disappointment so many Croatians felt when the players for whom they’d so fervently cheered invited Thompson on stage, turning what could have been an uplifting celebration of national unity into a reminder of the country’s bitter divisions and its bloody past.
Authors’ note: The titles and lyrics of Thompson’s songs have been loosely translated, due to the idiomatic nature of the lyrics and phrases in their original Croatian. Common translations of the lyrics and phrases have also been used.
Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.