Killing Croatian Exiles Tito's Murder Squads Operated in West Germany
Between 1970 and 1989, 22 Croatian exiles were killed in the former West Germany at the behest of the late Yugoslav leader Josip Tito and his country's communist party. Now the German federal prosecutor's office is looking into the crimes, while the interior minister is being asked to strip Tito of the German Order of Merit.
The wooden bar stands to the right of the entrance. Behind it is a shelf containing glasses arranged by size, with wine glasses on top and glasses for schnapps and water at the bottom. Next to the glasses are bottles of Slibowitz, a plum brandy from the Balkans.
For Gojko Bosnjak, a 77-year-old retiree, the bar in the basement of his house on the Croatian resort island of Krk brings back memories of his days working in a bar in Germany. There is even an old jukebox. He created the room to resemble the Karlsburg, the establishment where he used to work as a bartender in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe. The bar had the Balkan dish Cevapcici on the menu and Croatian exiles among its clientele. "It was an exciting time for Croatians in Germany," says Bosnjak, "but it wasn't exactly safe."
Particularly for him. He opens an album that contains photos of Bosnjak taken 37 years ago, when he had black hair and a muscular build. There are also photos of a pistol, a Beretta with a silencer. It is the weapon with which an informant for Yugoslav intelligence was supposed to shoot him in 1973.
Bosnjak was lucky. The hit man accidentally shot himself in the leg and Bosnjak managed to overpower him. In 1974, a jury court in Karlsruhe sentenced the would-be killer to 10 years in prison. "But the people behind the attempted murder," says Bosnjak, "were never brought to justice."
Dispatching Murderers to Germany
Most of the other cases went the same way. Between 1970 and 1989, 22 Croatian exiles were murdered in Germany alone. Hardly any of the crimes were solved, and even when a killer was brought to justice, the authorities failed to shed light on what was behind the murders. But both survivors and descendents of the victims are convinced that then Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito personally ordered the killings in the West, and that even after his death in 1980, the Communist Party in the Yugoslav republic of Croatia continued to dispatch murderers to Germany. It is a story that has not been fully dealt with to this day.
Bosnjak wants to change that by setting an example. Last week, his attorney wrote a letter to German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, requesting that Tito be posthumously stripped of the highest German honor, the Order of Merit. In 1974, then German President Gustav Heinemann, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), had conferred the medal on the Yugoslav president during a state visit to Germany. "It is the responsibility of Germany and, in particular, present-day Croatia to discover the truth and create justice for the victims," says Mijo Mari. He is the chairman of the Croatian World Congress in Germany, which supports Bosnjak's initiative.
There seems to be a good chance that de Maizière will have to seriously address the petition. To this day, the German federal prosecutor's office still lists 14 defendants in six different investigations into the wave of murders, and six of the defendants are being sought worldwide. They include two former high-ranking officers in the Croatian intelligence service, who German federal prosecutors believe were the masterminds behind the murders in Germany.
Respected Middleman Between East and West
The cases shed a new light on the policy of détente of the 1970s, particularly on the good relationship between the West German governments of the day and Tito. As a former communist partisan who had fought the Nazis in World War II and severed ties with Moscow in the 1950s, the Yugoslav leader was held in high esteem by the coalition government of Social Democrats and Free Democrats in Bonn. But the West barely noticed the problems in his Balkan state.
As the key figure in the group of non-aligned countries, Tito played the role of a respected middleman between East and West. His relationship with SPD icon Willy Brandt was based on mutual respect, and leftists within the German party were somewhat sympathetic to Tito's Balkan brand of socialism.
At the time, no one was able to -- or wanted to -- recognize that he was also ordering hits on his adversaries in other countries, including Germany. As long as Tito was still alive, "he was the only person issuing the relevant orders," according to a little-known verdict issued by the Munich Higher Regional Court in July 2008. Tito allegedly gave his personal blessing to the hit squads, with the chains of command extending from Tito to the party to the Croatian intelligence service and, finally, to the contract killers.
The Munich trial was the initial result of intensive investigations of the Tito matter by the German federal prosecutor's office, and they are still underway today. The prosecutor's office has already assembled an entire collection of documents and witness statements, all of which show how the Croatian intelligence service operated with recruited informants and killers in West Germany.
One of the men being sought under an international arrest warrant is Josip Perkovi, who managed agents in Germany beginning in the 1970s. From 1979 to 1986, he headed the "Hostile Emigration" department at the SDS intelligence service in Zagreb, which was responsible for fighting regime opponents in exile. The Yugoslav government was determined to prevent these dissidents from besmirching its reputation and that of Tito in the West. This was Perkovi's mission, and it eventually contributed to his being named head of the intelligence service in Zagreb.
Shot, then Beaten to Death
The best documentation of Perkovi's actions against Croatian exiles appears in the investigation of the death of Stjepan Durekovi, who was shot and then beaten to death in the Bavarian town of Wolfratshausen in 1983. The 2008 ruling by the Munich Higher Regional Court consists of 118 pages and contains a meticulous reconstruction of the preparations for the hit and the role of the intelligence service under Perkovi.
Durekovi, an executive with the state-owned oil company INA, had fled to Germany in April 1982, taking along book manuscripts critical of the regime, which he intended to publish in Germany. Shortly after his arrival, he established contact with leading members of the Munich exile community. They were happy to welcome him into the fold, promising him assistance with the publication of his books and offering him positions in their organizations. They hoped that the now-exiled former economic official would become a leading force in their community.
But Durekovi's new friends also included informants who reported everything back to Zagreb. Perkovi and his comrades were alarmed by what they were hearing.
According to the Munich verdict, on Dec. 14, 1982, the "Council for the Defense of the Constitutional Order" of the Republic of Croatia, a constituent republic within Yugoslavia, ordered the "liquidation" of Durekovi. The "liquidation order" was later "formally confirmed" in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade.
The court is convinced that Perkovi then ordered one of his agents to make preparations for the murder. Perkovi had recruited the man in the 1970s and deliberately placed him in the Munich emigrant community, where he had gained the trust of Durekovi.
The murder was to be committed at a print shop in Wolfratshausen. The informant had already given Perkovi the key to the shop during a meeting in Luxembourg in June 1983. The weapons to be used in the killing were also obtained ahead of time in the Balkans. A state-owned Yugoslav shipping company had transported Ceska and Beretta pistols to Munich disguised as an "unsuspicious shipment of goods."
On the night of July 27, the killers took Durekovi by surprise in the print ship, where they knew he was going to be. The first shots hit Durekovi in the right hand and upper arms. He tried to flee but was hit in the back and collapsed. He was already seriously wounded, but then one of the killers struck Durekovi on the head several times with an "item he had brought along, probably a garden slasher." Durekovi died a few minutes later, and the perpetrators disappeared without being recognized.
Some 25 years later, the Munich judges were able to come some way to clearing up the murder and even shed light on the political background. But lacking support from present-day Croatia, they were unable to call to account the people who ordered the hit. For the most part, requests to the national authorities for legal assistance came to nothing. Besides, Perkovi was not about to go to Germany to testify. Before retiring, he was an advisor to the Croatian Defense Ministry, and his son is a security advisor to the president. Zagreb seemed uninterested in any real effort to deal with the case.
But twists and turns of the sort that are perhaps possible only in the Balkans eventually led to a breakthrough. In 2007, an older man named Vinko S. contacted the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA). S., who was 64 at the time, appeared at the LKA in a dark suit and tie, spoke polished German and had a lot to say. In fact, he had so much to say and was apparently so convincing that the court treated him like a star witness -- but didn't seem overly troubled by his past. S. was like a character out of a John le Carré spy novel. Using a fake passport, he had infiltrated the Croatian exile community in Germany and passed on information to the Croatian intelligence service. His code name was "Miso" and his contact was Perkovi. Until the early 1970s, he also served as a confidential informant to the West German domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
The shadowy figure traveled a lot in Europe. He told the investigators that he had been involved in "sensitive operations." In 1988, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Scotland after a conviction for being an accessory to an attempted murder. The victim was a Croatian exile. When S. was released from prison in 1998, he went to Croatia to see his old intelligence colleague Perkovi. But the old ties were no longer as strong, and the two men had an argument about a large sum of money, reportedly $5 million (3.7 million).
S. decided to change sides and traveled to Munich to testify. According to the Munich court's verdict, his information was "particularly valuable and authentic," because he "was deeply entrenched in the security apparatus of Yugoslavia/Croatia for decades."
Since then, the German courts no longer doubt that there were political reasons for the Wolfratshausen murder and other killings. The Munich court, according to its verdict, was "convinced that political functionaries in Yugoslavia ordered contract murders that were carried out on the soil of the Federal Republic of Germany."
One of the accomplices was sentenced to life in prison. But another of the presumed murderers could not be apprehended. An international warrant was issued for his arrest, and for that of his employer Perkovi, but nothing came of it.
This prompted S. to take matters into his own hands and in 2009 he began to search for the agents himself. He finally found another suspect in the Wolfratshausen case in Sweden. S. abducted his fellow Croatian, packed him into the trunk of his car and took him to Germany. He then released the man at the Holledau rest stop near Munich and alerted the Bavarian police at the same time. The man was arrested soon afterwards.
Out of the German Police's Reach
But the effort to deal with the past in Croatian fashion -- the settling of accounts with Tito's men -- ended in failure. The alleged Wolfratshausen perpetrator was later released because the court felt that there was insufficient evidence against him. Instead of the 3,000 reward that had been offered for the capture of the Croatian, S. was served a warrant for kidnapping and extortion. His brief trial, held behind closed doors, ended in a suspended sentence.
Perkovi, one of Tito's hatchet men, the presumed mastermind behind at least two murderous attacks, is retired and apparently lives openly in a neighborhood of new houses in Zagreb, in a picturesque location on the edge of a forest. The Bavarian LKA lists his address on a website devoted to manhunts, but he remains out of the reach of the German police. Croatia, which is seeking to join the European Union, is not executing the arrest warrant.
"Croatia is protecting individuals being sought by the Bavarian LKA, and in doing so is trampling on the EU's system of values and the rule of law," says Davor Prtenjaa. He is the attorney for the would-be victim of Croatian intelligence, Bosnjak, and wrote the petition to strip Tito of the German Order of Merit.
If Germany were to revoke the Order of Merit, he says, it would "increase the pressure on Croatia to finally bring the perpetrators to justice."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan