Sorry about your Dad: a gesture Britain owes to the Slovenes
When Tony Blair welcomed Slovene Prime Minister Janez Janša at Downing Street in December, seeking support for Britain’s EU budget policies, it would have been awkward if he had asked the Slovene how his family was.
The truth is that Janša’s father has for 60 years been feeling bitter about the British. In May 1945, the British Army in Austria tricked this teenage soldier into climbing aboard a train, and sent him back with 12,000 others to Slovenia (then Yugoslavia). Janša senior was one of a handful who escaped execution on his return because he was too young. The avenging Partisans, to whom the British delivered their enemies, disarmed and locked into cattle trucks, slaughtered all the rest. In this blackest moment of Slovenia’s history, one per cent of the nation was put to death.
So it is no thanks to the British that today’s Slovene Prime Minister came to be born. The British knew his father and all the rest were likely to be killed. As liaison officers with Tito, British officers had witnessed the Communist-led Partisans fighting a ruthless civil war with anti-Communist Slovene Catholics, who fled to Austria in 1945.
Does this matter, 60 years afterwards? Does Mr Blair therefore owe something to the head of a government which nowadays often sides with Britain in EU debates?
Nobody doubts any more that handing over the surrendered Slovene soldiers was wrong. It contravened Geneva conventions on treatment of prisoners of war. The Yalta agreement between the wartime Allies called for repatriations, but only of Soviet citizens. The British respected these commitments towards German soldiers, as well as other anti-Tito forces such as the Chetniks. But the Slovenes were forced back to their deaths.
Many British soldiers involved were sickened at their orders. Tony Crosland, later a Labour Foreign Secretary, described it as “one of the most nauseating and cold-blooded acts of war I have ever taken part in.” Nigel Nicolson, author, publisher and Tory MP, considered it “one of the most disgraceful operations British soldiers have ever been ordered to undertake.” Rank-and-file soldiers were said by their chaplain to be closer to mutiny than ever before during the war.
So why does no British authority acknowledge a wrong that was obvious to the common British soldier at the time? In response to enquiries after the war, the British government denied the repatriations of Slovenes ever took place, and has never said otherwise since. The Slovene Prime Minister’s father knows what happened, but not apparently the British government.
John Corsellis and Marcus Ferrar, authors of the recently-published book Slovenia 1945, wrote to Mr Blair asking him to make a gesture of regret: an honourable admission to a friendly nation that the British, who had much to be proud of in the war, were also capable of making a lethal mistake. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford and the Labour head of the British-Slovene Parliamentary group have written to the PM in support.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw replied to the authors that he well understood “the pain that so many must feel, sixty years on,” adding “it is right, as Europe recalls the suffering endured by all nations during that time, that we too remember the tragedy that befell the Slovene people.”
Kind words, but did the tragedy just befall the Slovene nation? This continues to evade the truth that the British sent the soldiers back. Present generations do not need to take responsibility for mistakes of men long dead, but we should show what values we now stand for – especially towards a nation which today shares the same open, democratic values as Britain within the EU.
Mr Straw acted honourably in Srebrenica last July, acknowledging the failure of the international community to prevent the 1995 massacre, declaring: “I bitterly regret this and I am deeply sorry for it.”
So, Mr Blair, next time you meet Mr Janša, please do say “sorry about your Dad,” and make it public. You know what the British did to him. And you should now treat these people as friends.