|Photos by Beverly Anderson|
Recent events when sculpture Črtomir and Bogomila by Ljenko Urbančič was demolished at the Slovenian Association Sydney brought to the surface different views on our fellow Slovenians and their legacy. As they pass on, what is it that we can remember them for? Who was Ljenko Urbančič?
There is no doubt that Ljenko Urbančič was a prominent and somewhat controversial figure in the community. His involvement with and the position in the Liberal Party of NSW present a man who was able to transcend the confines of our Slovenian community and make a mark on our broader environment. His books show an observant and educated man interested in details, and someone who deeply cares about the Slovenian language. His sculptures provide an insight into his creativity and the broad range of his talents. His photos show a tall elegant man who cares about handkerchiefs in the breast pocket and the colour of his tie.
His wife Beverly describes him as " a true gentleman, kind, principled, urbane and a pleasure to live with. He had many talents, played the violin, produced several sculptures and was the author of six books." And continues: "He loved Slovenia especially its literary culture and very much appreciated the writings of Prešeren. It was Prešeren’s writing, "Baptism at the Savica" that inspired Ljenko to create his imposing sandstone sculpture, "Črtomir and Bogomila".
Retired Honorary Consul General for NSW, Mr Alfred Brežnik, AM, calls Ljenko Urbančič his friend. Nevertheless, he adds: "Our friendship developed gradually. Initially we didn't care for each other. I knew about his involvement with domobranci and I didn't care for domobranci. I come from Štajerska, occupied during WWII by Germans who burnt Slovenian books, installed German teachers in schools, killed people or sent them to concentration camps, burnt down their houses, terrorised us all. How could anyone collaborate with people like that?"
This is the question many people ask. Indeed, what is the justification?
Ljenko Urbančič was born in 1922. His family could be described as lower middle class. At the beginning of WWII, he was nineteen. Urbančič as a young student held very strong opinions on nationalism and patriotism which stayed with him to his last day. He best explains his involvement with domobranci and their collaboration with Germans himself (in article In the Nest of the Slovene Falcon by Ervin Hladnik-Milharčič and Ivo Štandeker, Mladina, 8 December 1989):
"Today the decisions of yesterday seem very clear, but in 1939, 1940 or 1943 they were not so clear. I was always a nationalist. As a student I demonstrated when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. I solidarized with the Poles when the Germans attacked them. As a member of Sokol I was a fervent nationalist. In the spring of 1941 I was among the first volunteers in the Yugoslav Army when the Germans attacked us."
"You, no doubt, are asking how can such a man then cooperate with Germans, are you not? We looked from the point of view of Slovene interests. As nationalists we were anticommunists. Communists were endangering our lives. Our judgement was that the Germans are a lesser evil than the communists. And as they were prepared to give us the guns, we took them. We, in Ljubljana province, did not fight WW2 but rather a civil war against the communists. We knew the Germans would lose the war, but we did not want the communists to win."
Mark Aarons, the author of Urbančič's obituary published in Sydney Morning Herald on 4 March 2006 under an unfriendly title 'Ardent Nazi took Liberals to extremes' makes no concessions though. For him, Urbančič is an ardent Nazi and anti-Semitic extremist, full-stop.
However, the British government actually investigated Urbančič's case. Their Consul in Ljubljana sent them the following report on 21 June 1946 (extract from Background Briefing of ABC, radio 2FC, Sunday May 4, 1986, 10:10 am):
“His Majesty’s consul in Ljubljana has made both direct and indirect inquiries about Urbanchich. His information stated that he (Urbanchich) was known to be opposed to communism before the war and this seems to be the real reason why his surrender was requested.
None of them were aware that he denounced any of his fellow countrymen to the fascist execution squads or in any other way laid himself open to charge of being a war criminal. They added: If this man collaborated with the enemy it would have been by force of circumstances rather than by inclination.”
Yet the campaign against Urbančič in Australia, started in the early 80s, continued which shows that he obviously was a powerful political figure. It is ironic to see the uncompromising determination that verges on hatred with which his opponents pursued him. But in pursuing their own biased and political agendas, his opponents were quite happy to sacrifice the truth.
His wife Beverly sent me a long list of vindications of Ljenko Urbančič:
- in 1982 the State Council of the Liberal Party defeated a motion that he be expelled from the Liberal Party. This vote was taken after several months of investigations by the Liberal Party hierarchy in which he was cleared;
- The renowned war-criminal hunter Simon Weisenthal in Vienna stated that he was not interested in Urbančič;
- In 1986 the Menzies Commission report was tabled in the Senate of The Australian Federal Parliament . The report found the allegations by the ABC and Labor’s Frank Walker to be without proof;
- In 1989 Urbančič reluctantly took defamation action in the Supreme Court of Australia. He won the defamation case and was awarded damages;
- In 1991 the Communist government of Yugoslavia stated that he was not guilty of any war-related accusations;
- The government of Slovenia in 1997 invited him at their expense to attend a Slovene writers conference. On that same visit to Slovenia Ljenko was given a civic reception in the village of Logatec.
To which Beverly adds: "Ljenko had a clear conscience which sustained him. He had the support of many friends who believed in him. Even though Ljenko was vindicated by several highly respected authorities here and abroad the left wing media chose not to report it."
|Ljenko and Beverly Urbančič in 2005|
Perhaps this is a good opportunity to reflect on how we view people and our past. We are only too happy to allow predetermined ideas and assumptions to colour our views. It is easier to see people as black or white, good or evil, villains or victims. But people are not as simple as that: we are all black AND white, good AND evil, villains AND victims - there is just a difference in proportions and situations. Some people may be more one or the other, but we all have seeds of both opposites in us.
Politicians like to paint life in view of their decisions as black and white because they assume we are not smart enough to understand the nuances. Media like to follow suit because this approach makes life so much more dramatic. The victim is the truth. Our lives, however, cannot be built on extremes, lies and semi-truths.
We too, as a Slovenian community, have to learn to live with the truth and with acceptance of both sides of the story:
- Yes, domobranci did collaborate with Nazis at the end of WWII. They justify their collaboration with their anti-communist stand. Can we accept that?
- Yes, communists did slaughter tens of thousands of their perceived opponents without trial after WWII and covered up their mass graves. Can we start living with that?
Progress is only possible on the basis of truth and acceptance of truth. We have to face our fears that block our views. Someone who wrote fervent articles to please Nazis is not necessarily a war criminal. However, someone who was on the "right side" but ordered killings of people without trial perhaps is.
These questions won't go away. We'll have to face them and look at them as a nation in order to move on.