THE YEAR OF POLITICAL ASSASSINATIONSOne day some time in 1933 an Austrian railwayman, having casually made a discovery which he thought might be of interest, was getting ready to inform his Union when he was approached by a functionary of the Austrian Government. What was the price for his silence? If he was willing to forget all about certain goods in certain carriages, a large sum would be put at his immediate disposal. The railwayman spurned the offer, passed the information to his Union, who handed it over to the Press.
Overnight an obscure occurrence became an international sensation, and what the Catholic Austrian Government had until then carried on in the utmost secrecy was promptly made known to the world. The Foreign Offices of Europe began to hum with unusual activity as the threads of a vast international plot, enmeshing half a dozen countries, gradually came to light.
What the railway trade unionist had discovered was that Austria was blatantly dealing in arms, with the connivance of Catholic Dictator Dollfuss. At this period Austria, in
common with other defeated countries, was supposed neither to buy nor sell arms, nor indeed have anything to do with parties connected with arms production. The discovery disclosed to Europe that an armaments factory at Hinterberg, in Lower Austria, was in full production. More, that the Austrian factory was manufacturing rifles, not for the Austrian army, but for semi-Fascist Hungary. Highly placed officials of the Austrian Government, an extraordinary percentage of whom proved to be fervent Catholics, semi-Fascists, or, indeed, fanatical Fascists, were implicated in the smuggling.
The affair created a political furor. But more was yet to come. The rifles it was eventually discovered, were not for Hungary; they were being sent there solely as a temporary depot. The weapons in reality were intended for Fascist Italy. Had that been the end of the story, the Austrian discovery would have caused sufficiently serious international repercussions. But that was by no means all. Further investigations proved that the ultimate destination of the weapons was with certain separatists who, in accord with Mussolini, were planning an armed rising, to detach themselves from their central Government. The separatists: certain Catholic Nationalists of Croatia. The central government they wanted to fight: that of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The association of such extremists with an aggressive great Power had thus transformed a purely regional affair into an international plot. This raised awkward international complications, not merely of a diplomatic and political nature, but of a racial and religious character as well, which, by trespassing national barriers, affected the domestic and foreign policies of various countries, of which Fascist Italy was one. Mussolini had developed a grand expansionistic design of his own in connection with the Balkans. One of the first steppingstones to its fruition was the partial or, if possible, the total dismemberment of Yugoslavia. This would have implied not only the disappearance of a stumbling-block to Fascist Balkanic ambitions, but also the incorporation into Fascist Italy of former Yugoslav provinces, the most coveted of which was Dalmatia.
Italian-Yugoslav relations at this period became so strained that Mussolini began to toy with the idea of accelerating the political disintegration of the Yugoslav Kingdom by force of arms. This could result in war. Mussolini's aggressive plans were welcomed by none more than by certain Separatists (in Croatia). This for the obvious reason that a Fascist dismemberment of Yugoslavia would have given them the unique opportunity they dreamed of to set up an "independent Croatia." Mussolini, the most powerful Fascist dictator at that period, being in a position to bring about such changes, became therefore the main hope of all those who backed his anti-Yugoslav policy. These, realizing that their interests ran parallel with his, soon banked upon his active help. The understanding was of a concrete nature, thanks mainly to the fact that Mussolini had become the protector of various terrorist bands operating throughout the Balkans, the chief aims of such bodies being the destruction of the Balkan status quo, which conformed with Fascist Italy's expansionist designs.
In Bulgaria one of these bands was run by members of the GRIM or VRMO (Organization Revolutionnaire Interieure Macedonienne). Among other things, it was violently anti-Yugoslav. Because of this, one of its leaders, Ivan Mihailoff, nicknamed Vantcha, was subventioned by Mussolini with millions of lire. In April, 1929, Vantcha met Ante Pavelic, the Ustashi leader, near Sofia. Pavelic had recently fled from Yugoslavia into Catholic Austria, King Alexander having set up a special tribunal (January, 1929) for the protection of the State against the subversive Separatist activities of the Ustashi extremists, of whom Pavelic was the chief. The purpose of the meeting was to join forces against Yugoslavia, and to put the Bulgarian and Pavelic's terrorist organizations under the joint protection of Fascist Italy. In that year ORIM was granted 44 million lire. Pavelic visited Mussolini, and asked for financial help. He got 25 million lire, plus the promise of further financial aid and political protection to come.
On July 17, 1929, the Yugoslav Government condemned Ante Pavelic to death in absentia. Pavelic, invigorated by the Duce's money and blessing, went from Rome to Vienna to organize, with ORIM and Italian Fascist agents, nothing less than a plot for the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia. The plan of the assassination had been studied in all its details by Mussolini, who, to help Pavelic's work, granted him every facility. Pavelic organized his terrorist bands or Ustashi. At first a villa at Pessario was put at his disposal; then, when his bands grew, they were installed at the Fascist camp of Borgotaro, near Bologna, where they were reinforced by a brigade of the Fascist Secret Police, the OVRA. Pavelic was further supplied with a false passport, arms, and counterfeit Yugoslav money. All this with a view to achieving the first Mussolini-Vantcha-Pavelic objective: the assassination of King Alexander. A sum of 500,000 lire was promised by Mussolini to the Ustashi who would execute the King. The attempt took place in Zagreb in 1933. It was made by Peter Oreb, a terrorist, but failed completely. Mussolini's anger knew no bounds. To make sure that the next attempt should not misfire, he charged his son-in-law, Count Ciano, with the task of organizing a second coup. Senator Bocini, Chief of OVRA, and Antonio Cortese, head of the Political Department of the Fascist Foreign Office, were put at Ciano's disposal.
King Alexander had gone to seek French support against the terroristic activities of Mussolini and of Ante Pavelie, whose headquarters were in Fascist Italy. Pavelic, and with him the Catholic Hierarchy, wanted the collapse of Yugoslavia so as to set up an Independent self-ruling Croatia.
The plotters were all Catholic Ustashi. On October 6, 1934 they met in Paris. On October 9 King Alexander landed at the old port of Marseilles. An Ustashi approached the royal coach, and, to the cry of "Long Live the King!", fired his revolver, killing the King and the French Minister Barthou. The assassin was killed on the spot by the police. His accomplices were imprisoned for life. Ante Pavelic was condemned to death by France, but managed to escape.
In order to avoid such risks, therefore, at the next meeting which took place at the Hotel Continental in Rome, it was finally decided to kill King Alexander in France. Following this, Pavelic would stir up trouble in Croatia, while the followers of Mihailoff rebelled in Macedonia. Mussolini would intervene to ensure their success, and thus, by setting a foot in the Balkans, carry out his expansionist scheme in those regions. Once these plans had been agreed, Mussolini met the plotters in his Villa Torlonia. These were Vlada Georgief Cernozemski, a Bulgarian, who had already killed two members of the Bulgarian Parliament in Sofia; Eugene Kvaternik, later head of the police of Zagreb in the Independent State of Croatia; and three more Catholic Ustashi, Kralj, Pospisil, and Raitch.
On October 6, 1934, the plotters met in Paris. On October 9 King Alexander landed at the old port of Marseilles. As soon as the procession began, Cernozemski approached the royal coach in which King
Monsieur Barthou, who was driving in the same coach as King Alexander, was also purposely killed by the Ustashi for his support of the King's policy. His death suited not only Mussolini but also Hitler.
Hitler had wanted to get rid of Dictator Dolfuss, of Austria, who had prevented him from incorporating Austria into Germany. On July 25, 1934, three months before the murder of King Alexander, a group of Nazis had entered the Austrian Chancellory and assassinated Dolfuss. The triple murders set the pace of Fascist, Ustashi and Nazi terror throughout Europe leading to the outbreak, in 1939, of the Second World War.
Pavelic was supported in turn by Mussolini and Hitler. But always tacitly by the Vatican, which intermittently dealt with all three to further the interests of anyone ready to further the interests of the Church.
But if the first part of the Mussolini-Pavelic plot had succeeded, the second, the Pavelic revolt in Yugoslavia, was a complete failure: nothing happened. Pavelic and Kvaternik fled to Italy. The French Government asked for their extradition, but Mussolini refused, going so far as to declare that if Yugoslavia pressed for Pavelic's extradition he would consider the request a casus belli. Yugoslavia appealed to the League of Nations. The League, being, like the United Nations, its successor, a pawn of the Great Powers, ignored the case and did nothing. The assassination created turmoil throughout Europe. In Berlin the reaction was ominous: Nazi Germany accelerated the promotion of her Drang nach Osten policy. At the sudden elongation of the Hitlerian shadow over the Central European landscape, Mussolini became cautious. Hesitation and, above all, the growing power of Hitler weakened his resolution, and soon the Duce-Pavelic adventure, having become unwholesomely risky, was shelved, pending better times.
Hitler, meanwhile, had not been idle. He had been plotting on his own, going so far as to develop a plan in Central Europe opposed to that of Mussolini, viz. the incorporation of Austria into Nazi Germany. This was being promoted at the very time when Mussolini and Pavelic were hatching their plot against Yugoslavia. Indeed, Hitler had decided on the assassination of the Catholic Dictator, Dollfuss, prior to Mussolini and Pavelic having carried out their plans against King Alexander. On July 25, 1934, in fact, a group of Nazis entered the Austrian Chancellory in Vienna, murdered Dollfuss, and attempted to seize the Government. Mussolini promptly dispatched two divisions to the Brenner Pass to impede Hitler from upsetting the Balkan equilibrium and thus throwing out of gear the schemes of Italian Imperialism in those regions. Hitler repaid Mussolini by cold-shouldering him after the killing of King Alexander. The two assassinations, however, awoke Europe to reality.
Mussolini and Hitler decided to forget their pride and reach a tacit agreement. Mussolini left Austria to Hitler, and Hitler supported Mussolini in his seizure of Abyssinia. From then onward Fascist-Nazi terror filled with ever-increasing echoes the political corridors of Europe and even of Asia: the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss and of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in 1934, the Fascist war on Abyssinia in 1935, Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, Japan's attack upon China in 1937, Hitler's incorporation of Austria in the spring of 1938, Munich in the autumn of that same year, Hitler's dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Hitler's attack on Poland in the autumn of 1939.
While all these ominous events followed one another, Pavelic, directly in touch with Catholic and Fascist authorities, presided over sundry plottings and intrigues, turning now to Mussolini and now to Hitler, according to which of the ambitions of the two dictators seemed to have the greater chance of success. Pavelic's strategy consisted of submitting plans to both Mussolini and Hitler for waging a terrorist campaign throughout Yugoslavia in order to force the Central Government to grant autonomy to Croatia. With the approaching storm of the Second World War, however, Hitler, having fitted Yugoslavia into a vaster scheme of his own, reoriented his policy and promoted one aimed at neutralizing Yugoslavia—indeed, at making her an ally. To avoid antagonizing the Yugoslav Government, Pavelic's activities were greatly reduced and officially discouraged.
Hitler's policy paid him handsome dividends. When the Second World War broke out, Yugoslavia remained stubbornly neutral. Indeed, on March 24, 1941, she entered the Nazi camp, signing a pact with Germany. Pavelic's dream seemed to have been flung into the dim future. Yet he continued to wait, in the hope that the day when destiny would call on him to implement his life's work was, perhaps, not far off.
1. For more details of the Vatican's plan, see the author's Catholic Imperialism and World Freedom.[Back]
2. The chief of OVRA gave them all false passports and false names. Cernozemski was given two passports, one Czechoslovakian under the name of Suck, the other Hungarian under the name of Kalemen. Kralj became Silny and Mulny; Kvaternik became Kramer; Pospisil became Nowack, while Raitch became Benes, in order to embarrass Benes, the President of the Czech Republic.[Back]
3. To be eventually liberated by the Nazis in 1940.[Back]