In 1943, a short film entitled Uz časa piva (For a Glass of Beer), performed by actors from the State Theatre in Zagreb was released by the Croatian State Film Institute, Croatia Film (Hrvatski slikopis). Possibly the only comedy film produced during the years of Ustasha rule and one of the few artefacts of popular culture to directly address the realities of everyday life, the film critic Danijel Rafaelić has called it “probably the most subversive film produced during this period.” In some ways, Rafaelić is surely correct. For example, the film opens to the tunes of jazz music as the titles appear under a sketch of two pitchers of beer. The joyous tenor of the film is also at odds with the stern seriousness of the state. Into a crowded beer hall enter four men who have just come from a meeting of a joint stock company. After a number of jokes at the expense of the company president they ask for a “cask of beer and four of your largest glasses.” The barman explains that he can only bring them beer in glasses or pitchers. When one of the male guests then asks the barman why he can’t get an “entire cask,” the waiter explains that “there are others who have asked the same question. If we gave you the entire cask then there would be fifty others who would get nothing.” This greatly disappoints one of the party and he says to the waiter that “this doesn’t concern us. We pay for and are only concerned about ourselves.” The waiter, now in hulking profile, provides them with a moral lecture about how they should be concerned with the welfare of others, not just their own individual needs: “That’s the way it is when so many of those who have money care only for themselves and don’t care about others…If we thought more about the community, we would live better, sir! The selfishness of the individual destroys all of us.” Rafaelić argues that the speech from the waiter represents a specific socialist critique of consumerism and capitalist self-centredness, looking forward to the Yugoslav era.[1] But is it?

Stripped of its jocular humour and confrontations with the reality of everyday consumer life, the film, especially its anti-capitalist message, was consistent with the ideology of the state. Between 1941 and 1945 the Croatian state, like socialist Yugoslavia, took a lively interest in economic and social questions, in its case how to reconcile the demands of consumerism with the needs of a war economy, ultranationalist ideology and the “ethical marketplace” of the national economy. This does not mean that Yugoslav socialism and the “Croatian socialism” of independent Croatia were equivalent. Most obviously, Ustasha critiques of capitalism invariably ascribed its failures and “pathologies” to particular racial and national groups – in the case of the Croatian state the Serbs and the Jews. More importantly, unlike Yugoslav socialism, Croatian socialism used anti-capitalism as a rationale for the economic destruction of the Serbs and Jews. This entailed their removal from the economy, the confiscation of their property and assets and the nationalisation of their businesses and enterprises under the guidance of state-appointed commissioners. In the case of Serbs, their overnight impoverishment was combined with a campaign of mass deportation to Serbia and in the case of Jews the compulsory wearing of the yellow star. In towns and cities across the state, the Ustasha police introduced ordinances confining both groups to ghettos and subjecting to strict curfews. Physical extermination accompanied this campaign of economic destruction. A parallel programme to deport hundreds of thousands of Serbs to Serbia was also intrinsically violent. Serbs who were forcibly deported and found themselves in one of the “resettlement” camps set up by the State Directorate for Regeneration, were not only stripped of their belongings and denied the right to return, but were exposed to hunger, disease, looting of their personal possessions and abuse en route to Serbia. Sometimes, as in the case of the Slavonska Požega resettlement camp, the inmates never reached Serbia and were liquidated in the camp. In other cases, Serbian men who had been arrested and promised travel passes and safe transit to Serbia were taken off the train at the next station by local Ustasha militias and murdered. Among not just Serbs but many ordinary Croatian citizens, the phrase “going to Serbia” quickly became a euphemism for mass murder.

That there was a binary relationship between economic destruction and physical liquidation was made clear in an interview the Ustasha party boss for Bosanska Krajina Viktor Gutić gave to the Zagreb daily newspaper Novi list in June 1941. Asked if there had been any significant changes in Banja Luka since the establishment of the state, Gutić replied, “Absolutely…Everything that is Croatian is being expressed and all the traces of foreign enslavement are being completely eradicated. The foreign rulers wanted to portray Banja Luka as an authentically Serbian city and in the centre of Banja Luka next to the Ban’s Palace they built an Orthodox church so that the male traveller who came to Banja Luka would get the impression that this place was the heart of the Serbian spirit...Now, this church is no more, nor is there any Cyrillic, all traces of the Serbian spirit have disappeared as have its expressions and curses, Serbian music has disappeared and all its characteristics, the gypsies, the musicians. Even the bells of the orthodox churches have been silenced.” Asked if there had been any changes in the economic sense because the interviewer went on, the Serbs had been appointed to play “a significant economic role,” especially in Banja Luka, Gutić exclaimed with satisfaction that the Serbs had already abandoned their property and possessions and fled “regardless.” Consequently, Croatian businessmen had their hands “full with work” and the entire economy was in the hands of “honest Croatians so it functions normally.” Inevitably, the interviewer also wanted to know about the Jews, noting that in the region there were four thousand of them who were among “the wealthiest people who have unsettled the economy of Banja Luka.” As wholesale traders they had exploited the region, especially the poorest “who did not have any money to buy goods.” Gutić agreed, noting that “everything” had been in their hands, including bank and trustholding societies with which they “suffocated” Croatian businessmen. “Right away in the first few days,” he wrote, “when I took over power I appointed commissioners and they raised the pay for their employees by up to fifty per cent.” At the same time, he boasted, local Jews had been barred entry to taverns, cafes, public baths and cinemas and as punishment for their former exploitative conduct he had sent them with shovels to carry out “manual labour.” Banja Luka, he explained, had been damaged by bombing and all buildings were repaired insofar as they could be while the rest were demolished. “So the Orthodox Church was demolished and it was demolished by Jews who were working on other damaged buildings. This was a sign. We have dealt with them as we needed to throughout the entire Krajina.”[2] Terror lay just under the surface of the programme to aryanise factories and enterprises too. On 28 April, the Ministry for the National Economy had published an order stipulating the removal of Serbs and Jews from public sector companies and organisations while on 23 May the Ministry for Social Care introduced an ordinance allowing for the dismissal of Jewish and Serbian employees from private companies with one month’s notice. Companies and enterprises were expected to act on these laws quickly, providing evidence of the steps they had taken to aryanise them. Less than a week after the law on private sector dismissals had been signed, the head of the Zagreb branch of the Assiurazioni Generali insurance company wrote to the Ministry of Social Care and Health to inform officials that it had dismissed all Serbian and Jewish employees, adding that in the case of one senior manager, this process had proved redundant. “Today we dismissed our manager for external affairs Emil Boral, Zagreb, Martićeva ulica 13 to whom a copy of the dismissal notice has been sent. I should add that the said gentleman who has been in our employ since 15 July 1937 has not been in a position to carry out his duties because he was arrested by authorities unknown to us and taken away to a place not disclosed to us. We ask you to approve our above dismissal.”[3]

The removal of Serbs and Jews from all other aspects of economic exchange whether as businessmen, employees or consumers was undoubtedly the most drastic and central aspect of the building of a national economy. The motivations behind this were clear and state planners did not attempt to hide them. First and foremost, it was assumed that the overnight impoverishment of the Serbian and Jewish elite would lay the foundations for the resolution of the Serbian and Jewish “problem” by weakening them from within and destroying their sense of cohesion. In addition, there was a social and economic rationale in that their removal, especially from expert and managerial positions would create a large number of new jobs for unemployed Croatian workers thus helping to buy social peace. Furthermore, the mass entry of Croat workers into factories and enterprises would help to build a truly national and autarchic economy by removing “obstructive” foreign elements. But another aspect of the national economy was the construction of an “ethical marketplace” which would inculcate the state’s citizens with a new economic and social ethos. In the new marketplace, consumers would shop ethically, be frugal and save wherever possible, avoiding conspicuous consumption and the burgeoning black market. For their part, businessmen and shopkeepers were to sell responsibly, adhering to the new consumer laws the Ministry for National Economy and Institute for the Planned Economy had introduced in the spring of 1941. These included strict price controls, transparent pricing and limits on the amount of goods which could be sold to each customer. Businessmen who ignored these regulations and were caught by the economic police routinely patrolling the main shopping area and open-air markets could expect, in the best case scenario, a swingeing fine; in the serious cases they risked the death penalty for “economic sabotage.”

Social solidarity was also woven into the idea of the ethical marketplace. In the summer of 1941 the Ministry of Social Care announced a raft of measures aimed at protecting the welfare of workers on the shop floor and at home and ensuring minimum living standards for those without work. By this time the Ministry of Public Works had already launched a project of housebuilding which aimed to provide model houses for workers in to build workers’ colonies and the Alliance of Croatian Workers, the trade union of the Ustasha workers’ organisation, had established a leisure and cultural organisation for workers, Odmor. Proposals were also floated among planning think tanks such as the Institute for the Planned Economy and the Social Institute for a workers’ bank and workers’ university among other ideas. The importance of these “social” aspects to the building of the national economy was stressed by officials and theorists alike. For example, in an article in the first edition of the economic journal Hrvatsko gospodarstvo, the minister for national economy Lovre Šušić laid out its core principles. “The old political-economic system of capitalism led to an unsustainable situation which on one side was characterised by a heap of enormous capital in the hands of and for the benefit of only a small group, the majority of whom were anational or foreign, while on the other side, on the side of the labour, there existed the greatest misery.” The conflict between capital and labour became “inescapable.” However, led by the principles of the Ustasha movement and “new world movement,” with its organic concepts of economic development, the entire national economy “became a state.” The national economy, he stressed, “has to serve the entire nation and neither collectively or individually should any of its branches be used to pile national property in the hands of capitalists.”[4]

At the same time that citizens were supposed to be informed by thrift, ethics and an anti-consumerist mind set in their economic exchanges, they were also expected to shop ideologically which meant nationalistically, spending their money in the national economy and buying at Croatian stores. Only in this way could a sustainable national economy be built. An editorial of 18 May 1941 in Novi list emphasised to its readers that this was an explicit duty. Henceforth, housewives would be taught to ensure their purchase was dictated not by quality, price or value but the national provenance of the goods. In words that resonate with modern concerns about ethical and sustainable consumption, Croatian consumers were being told that the ephemeral concept of “choice” was no substitute for conscience. Shopping nationally rather than materially signified that citizens had been inculcated with the new socio-economic values while adhering to moribund materialistic principles in shopping signified the opposite, if not worse:  

 

The greatest responsibility for the development and progress of our economic life lies with the Croatian consumer, the buyer, the shopper. In particular, we must emphasise that in our state, with rare exceptions, no one has until now systematically worked to ensure that the Croatian housewife and Croatian consumer has become accustomed to carrying out their duties to the Croatian artisan and Croatian salesman consciously. Until now there has prevailed a system of choice for consumers according to one’s personal preferences in satisfying one’s needs without regard to the satisfaction of the needs of the artisan or salesman. The Croat people in the Independent State of Croatia must be imbued with a Croatian economic consciousness and fortified by the notion that their economic needs are satisfied only by shopping with Croatian salesmen and Croatian artisans because only in this way will the Croatian shop and handicraft business be able to progress and satisfy the demands which are placed before the entire Croatian economy.[5]

 

If the attempt to create a centrally-planned aryanised national economy was a catastrophe for the victims, it was also disastrous for economic life itself, with consumers and producers behaving in exactly the way classical economic theory suggests they would. Predictably, businesses and shops ignored price controls and sold their goods through a burgeoning black market. This, in turn, exacerbated the shortages which were already a feature of Croatia’s wartime economy. The result was that prices skyrocketed and hyperinflation ensued. The response of the state treasury was to print more money which only deepened the severe economic trough. The effect of this was amplified by the fact that the state was already paying more than one hundred percent of its Gross Domestic Product in occupation fees to Nazi Germany and most of the production and industrial output in its factories was going towards the German war effort. As a result of a chronic shortage of housing caused by a significant spike in movement to the cities and the requisitioning of many other buildings by the military and Ustasha organisations, rents moved well beyond the reach of most ordinary employees. A cost of living crisis quickly ensued. This affected not just poorly-paid peace rate factory workers but professionals too. Meantime, the introduction of a minimum wage and a special war supplementary benefit to be paid by companies to all full-time employees crippled businesses and pushed up prices even higher as these payments stimulated consumer demand for a small number of consumer goods. How widely the cost of living crisis was felt can be gauged by complaints by even middle-ranking bureaucrats in state ministries and party offices that they could not make ends meet. For example, Janko Zanetić, a young departmental director in the party’s Bureau for Propaganda in Zagreb, wrote to his operational head in February 1942 to complain that he could not survive on his salary. “Seeing as since November I have been supporting my entire family and my pay is too little I had to borrow some money and right now I owe a sum that amounts to around 8000 kunas. In the first instance I must pay 4000 kunas for the cost of moving our possessions. Then when my family moved to Zagreb I could not find an apartment and fed myself and my family via a student canteen that used up a huge amount of money. Then when I found an apartment, I again had to borrow some money for the chopping up of fuel for wood and the monthly rent for the apartment comes to 1400 kunas.” Apart from that, he went on, there were circumstances related to the disastrous economic situation that made his salary untenable, “especially the rising cost of staple goods which certainly I cannot all afford with a salary of only 3525 kunas monthly because already the GUS accountancy office has taken off 500 kunas and the apartment costs 1400 kunas and I can’t find another apartment!” When all of this was added together, he calculated, he was losing around 1900 kunas a month and only around 1625 was left. “And understandably with this amount of money from month to month I can’t purchase even half the staple goods and then there are the other outgoings: the tram, the education of my brother, the purchase of clothes for my mother (my mother arrived from Dalmatia completely unprovided for in this respect) and so on.” Zanetić thought a promotion would get him out of his financial crisis. It would not only mean a wage increase but one which included the rent. This would enable him to reduce his debts and mean he could survive through the winter.[6]

Marijan Radulić, a student at the University of Zagreb, who applied to join the Institute for Colonisation as a trainee office worker in June 1941, was in a similarly challenging situation. A member of the Ustasha Student Centre and a refugee from Dalmatia occupied by the Italian army where, he said, he had been subject to a campaign of Italianisation, he desperately needed work. In his application to the Ministry of Social Care, he wrote that he was especially interested in working for the institute, insisting that although he was a “good and honourable Croat and have always actively collaborated in Ustasha ranks, in these “difficult economic conditions” he “urgently” needed employment.[7] Radulić’s application was successful but rather than the institute he was given a placement in the resettlement card section of the State Directorate of Regeneration (DRP) on a starting salary of 1500 kunas.[8] Like Zanetić he very quickly he found that his salary did not match either his expectations or living expenses. On 9 July he wrote directly to the director of the DRP Josip Rožanković successfully asking that his pay be equalised with other employees, pointing out that “as I am come from an occupied region I have been abandoned to my own fate and am therefore forced to ask for this increase in salary.” But he was still financially hard pressed and, following a circular sent to DRP staff on 31 July 1941 advertising new vacancies, he put in an application for a transfer citing his poor living conditions and the need for a pay rise. Like Zanetić too whose complaints about salary had also partly been motivated by the quality of work being offered to him and the level of his pay in comparison to that of the cadre of students who worked alongside him, Radulić’s application was partly driven by professional pride, job satisfaction and intellectual challenge. He pointed out that he had completed grammar school and two semesters of a university faculty but “until now, I have not been employed anywhere important. At the moment I work in the catalogue section of the department for resettlement and carry out night duty at the Sava railway station.” Still, financial concerns were paramount. “Seeing that my financial situation is very poor,” he wrote, “I ask you to issue me with a salary commensurate with my qualifications and work.”[9]

The DRP, Institute for Colonisation and the Ministry for Social Care were agencies at the centre of the programme to demographically transform Croatia’s population and economy. While the DRP led the programme of deportations, the Institute for Colonisation was in charge of settling Slovenian and Croatian colonists on the farmsteads and land of deported Serbs. The Ministry of Social Care, to whom Radulić had made his original application, for its part, led the removal of Serbs and Jews from the Croatian workplace. In his work for the DRP Radulić was not simply a cog in the machinery of the economics of mass destruction but also an employee of an organisation which had contributed to the cost of living crisis his employment there was supposed to alleviate. The hyperinflation and chronic shortages of even basic goods were not just the result of a centralised economy with rigid price control mechanisms and restrictive wage policies; they were also a direct consequence of the removal of “undesired elements” from the economy. When in May 1941 the newly-appointed commissioner of the Society of Sleeping Wagons Nikola Blažević reported to the Ministry of Social Care on the dismissal of ten members of staff, most of them Jews and Serbs, he stated he was approving them because officials had assured him that these dismissals not only would not interrupt normal business but “could only benefit Croatian society.”[10] His prediction proved to be wrong. In fact, the dismissal of large numbers of Jewish and Serbian managers, directors, technical staff and their replacement by Croatian workers who were often uneducated, incompetent, disinterested or lazy not only had a highly-disruptive impact on the factory floor but was disastrous for the economy. Overnight, an entire repository of knowledge and experience flooded out of the factories. The proceeds from the confiscation of the property, possessions and assets of the Serbs and Jews often went into the pockets of corrupt local officials and party activists rather than benefitting the planned national economy. What wasn’t pocketed was frequently pilfered. Nevertheless, there were also regular public auctions of goods, property and even sometimes businesses confiscated from Serbs, Jews and other enemies of the state which enabled ordinary people to become beneficiaries of this exercise in mass embezzlement. But auctions such as these rarely benefitted the national economy since they tended to further stimulate demand for consumer goods which could not be met by factory output or the volume of goods in shops.

This brings us back to the film Uz časa piva. In the midst of the waiter’s homilies to the social economy, the stockholders interrupt him: his job is to serve and not deliver public lectures. He is dismissed curtly. The conversation of the four continues back and forth, the beer in the pitcher getting lower and lower. Discussion turns to the conflict between the state striving to stabilise the economic situation in enterprises and the consumer only wanting to lower the price. This could clearly be seen, one says, in the vast number of shoes people have at home. “The world has been seized by a psychosis of consumption!” one of them exclaims. On the one hand, this speech from a little-seen comedy accurately described the economic dynamic which had pushed the Croatian state to the brink of collapse. On the other hand, there is clearly an air of unreality about this, not least because shoes were one of the items in shortest supply in wartime Croatia. Perhaps the film is best considered less as an accurate portrayal of everyday economic exchange (it wasn’t) or a satirical fantasy in a time of food and consumer shortages (it is this but only partly) than a metaphor for the paradox of the Croatian state’s national economy. In place of ethical and social consuming and selling there was unsustainable consumerism and a thriving black market and a process of economic cleansing which was supposed to result in universal employment and a land of plenty impoverished both victims and ostensible beneficiaries.     

 

 

 

 

Notes

[1] Danijel Rafaelić, Kinematografija u NDH (Zagreb: Ljevak, 2013), 168-70.              

[2] “Kako živi Hrvatska krajina?” Novi list, 28 June 1941.

[3] Director of the Assiurazioni Generali in Zagreb to the Ministry of Health, 29 May 1941, HDA, NDH, Ministarstvo zdravlje i uzdružbe, 2.226/unnumbered. The details of the law are in “Zakonska odredba o otkazivanju službovnog odnosa i o otpravninama privatnih namještenika,” LXXXVIII – 172 –Z . p – 1941, Narodne novine, 23 May 1941.  

[4] Lovro Sušić, “Reorganizacija gospodarskog života u duhu novog društvenog pokreta,” Hrvatsko gospodarstvo, 13 May 1941.

[5] “Ustaška načela i hrvatsko gospodarstvo,” Novi list, 18 May 1941.

[6] Janko Zanetić to Grga Pejnović, 16 February 1942, HDA, GUS, HOP, UzP, 150/42/3.249.

[7] “Molba Radulić Marijana studenta, iz Sestrunja za prijem u službu,” 10 June 1941, HDA, NDH, Ponova/SO/OS, 441.1076/unnumbered.

[8] “Marijan Radulić namještenje,” 21 June 1941, HDA, NDH, Ponova/SO/OS, 441.1076/216/1941.

[9] Petition from Marijan Radulić to Josip Rožanković, 9 July 1941, HDA, NDH, Ponova/SO/OS/441.1076/216; Radulić to the DRGP, 1 August 1941, HDA, NDH, Ponova/SO/OS/441.1076/unnumbered, prilog 5. Emphasis in original.

[10] “Nikola Blažević, povjerenik Društva spavaćih vagona postavljen odlukom Min. nar. gosp. br. 1486/28.iv.1941,” 26 May 1941, HDA, NDH, Ponova, 1882.1076/5491.

 

The author of this blog post is Dr Rory Yeomans, Research Fellow at the Wiener Wiesenthal Institut für Holocaust-Studien (VWI). E-mail: rory.yeomans[at]vwi.ac.at

March 2016