The Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies

My part in Slovenia Massacre

Sunday Telegraph 25/6/2000

By Nigel Nicholson

It has taken most of us some time to point unerringly to Slovenia on a map of Europe and to name its capital Ljubljana. It is the jewel in the crown of former Yugoslavia, the piece in the jigsaw nearest to Austria, a haven of civility between Milosevic and Haider. It is the sunny side of the Alps. A typical valley of meadows rising steeply to the mountain tops ends in a lake on which I rowed last week to circumnavigate a little island on which was perched a delicate baroque church. It is a beautiful country. But I was not there for the scenery.

Two friends and I had been invited to attend an amazing ceremony at a place called Kocevski Rog. It is not a village, but a natural bowl in the forest floor, some 200 feet across and 50 feet deep. Without help it would be impossible to find, as the only access is by forest tracks and paths. No attempt has been made to widen the paths or signpost the route. Yet 10,000 people made their way there last Sunday to sit or stand around the bowl for a religious service lasting three hours. This was the site of one of the most terrible incidents of the 20th century.

Some 12,000 Yugoslav soldiers, mostly Slovenians working for the Home Guard, were brought here in May and June 1945 to be executed by Tito's communist partisans. The scene was one of unimaginable horror. The soldiers, with some women among them, were brought here by lorry, day after day, stripped naked and bound in telephone wire. Then they were forced to run the last hundred yards to the edge of the bowl, where, after being shot in the neck, they tumbled into the pit. Thousands of bodies were piled in layers in this small place, some who were not killed outright slowly dying of their wounds, or from starvation, or suffocation of the cold. Only half a dozen managed to escape, and it is to them, one of whom I met, that we owe these gruesome details. Every year since 1991, when Slovenia became an independent state, relatives and friends of these men have gathered at this remote spot to hold a service commemoration. It was the most moving ceremony I have ever attended, and for me one of special significance. For in 1945 I was one of a handful of British soldiers who were ordered to send these men to their deaths. This is how it happened.

At the very end of the Second World War a single corps of the British 8th Army entered southern Austria from Italy, and gave asylum to thousands of anti-communist soldiers and civilian refugees who begged for our protection against the Red Army and Tito's partisans. We put them and guarded them, in a vast camp near Klagenfurt. A week later we received an order to send back to Tito everyone of Yugoslav nationality, which meant for them, as we well knew, almost certain death. I have described elsewhere with what reluctance we carried out this order. It was a betrayal of the most inexcusable kind. In Ljubljana my companions and I spoke of these events at two public meetings and at many private gatherings. We were most courteously received. The Archbishop gave us what amounted to an absolution for our part in this affair. But we felt that something more was needed.

We said that in our opinion the time had come for some gesture of remorse from our Government to the people of Slovenia. We were not suggesting a formal apology, like that for the Amritsar massacre of 1919, but for some expression of compassion for the victims. We were told that even this might be taken as an intervention in Slovenian domestic politics, for the country, politically, is still deeply divided between the old communists and the new more liberal Government. It is still communist doctrine that, although it may have been "a mistake" to kill so many, these men deserved to die because they were enemies of the state. But that does not excuse our betrayal of them. It was an act of appeasement of which we should feel deeply ashamed.