Who controls the past – controls the present. This slogan has a daily presence in Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries. Ostensibly making an effort to conform to European norms and pursue policies that are supposed to impress foreign partners as attempts at reconciliation and co-operation in the Balkans, the political elites have transferred ethnic conflicts onto the field of history. Each commemoration of an event from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s is used by all sides to revitalize conflicting memories and emotions, which is why the titular paraphrase of Clausewitz’s dictum holds true – history is a continuation of war by other means. This also applies to holidays, monuments, street naming, history teaching and textbooks, and finally (or first and foremost) official declarations and memory laws.
This paper will analyze the parallel effect of two different politics of memory and two corpuses of memory laws, primarily in Serbia and Croatia. Both these countries changed memory of the Second World War and constituted new memories of the 1990s wars, turning them both into factors of new instability in the suspended conflict of the Yugoslav peoples.
To understand the connection between the Second World War and the wars of the 1990s, a brief historical overview is in order. Yugoslavia had its own Second World War. The Axis occupation was opposed by the autochthonous communist partisan movement led by Josip Broz Tito, which had virtually by itself, with some help from the Red Army at the end of the war, liberated Yugoslavia. This victory meant three things: victory over the occupiers, victory over collaborationists, and finally, victory of communism in Yugoslavia. This grassroots revolution entailed the construction of an extremely powerful memory politics grounded in the glorification of the winners – the partisan warriors. This was to become the only sanctioned, state-monopolized and official memory which guided many generations. From Tito’s speeches at party congresses that prescribed the narrative, memory laws, history textbooks, monuments, holidays, written composition, school trips or street names, everything was monopolized by the memory of the partisan epic which “wiped out” all earlier or competing memories, which were consequently pushed into the private sphere. It also wiped out all “competing war victims,” including civilians and Holocaust victims, and it should be noted that in occupied Yugoslavia, partly due to the collaborationists’ activities, 95% of the Jewish population was exterminated.
When in the mid-1980s Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, official memory also started breaking down. “Grandpa’s war stories” that conveyed a revisionist stance toward the victors, but primarily toward the defeated, gradually produced a new form of memory. The problem was that these new interpretations of the Second World War, aimed at undermining communism and Yugoslavia, simultaneously undermined anti-fascism which was identified with the regime. With rising nationalism there emerged a new phenomenon that analysts named anti-antifascism, which increasingly meant judicial rehabilitation of movements ideologically close to fascist and Nazi forces with whom they collaborated during the war.
It turned out that earlier memory laws could not even survive the first assault of alternative memories, hitherto stored in the private sphere and other pockets of memory. This was not an exclusively Yugoslav problem after the fall of communism. But what clearly distinguished Yugoslavia from other East European countries are two facts: it had its authentic anti-fascist movement from very early in the occupation, so by employing new memory politics the earlier reality had to be completely erased and forgotten, which included approximately one million Yugoslav casualties and an almost completely annihilated Jewish population.
Another important difference between Yugoslavia and other Eastern European nations was the fact that simultaneously with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia was preparing for a war to redraw borders and achieve ethnic recomposition of a thus far multiethnic region, which necessarily involved ethnic cleansings and new mass crimes. Ideologies that laid the groundwork for the 1990s wars were very similar to those of the collaborationist forces in the Second World War. This is why the revisionist memory of World War II became the cornerstone of the new war. The new nationalist ideology found its natural allies on the losing side of the Second World War.
After the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice in The Hague began conducting war crimes trials, with belligerent nations filing genocide charges against one another. In addition to prosecuting criminals, one of the main objectives of the ICTY trials was confronting the past and facilitating transitional justice and reconciliation. A series of verdicts was passed that penalized the perpetrators and a great body of evidence was collected and published online. An important fact for today’s subject is that the International Court of Justice ruled that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide.
Along with these trials, Croatia and Serbia adopted their own declarations and laws in which they prescribed the attitude towards the 1990s wars. These memory laws sharply differed from the ICTY’s findings and verdicts. The main aim of the laws was to pronounce the 1990s wars defensive and liberating, without mentioning crimes and victims. Croatia has adopted two key declarations – Declaration on the Homeland War in 2000; and in 2006 the Declaration on Operation Storm, a military operation which defeated the Serbian forces that for the previous four years controlled a significant part of the Croatia, but which also expelled approximately 200,000 Serbs, with some 600 civilians killed for refusing to leave their homes. Both declarations were intended to prescribe a future narrative of these events as well as the manner in which this war is to be interpreted. The war was portrayed as “just and legitimate, defensive and liberating,” ignoring the ICTY findings and verdicts which talk about attempts to seize a part of Bosnia and crimes against Bosniaks and Serbs.
For its part, faced with substantial domestic and external pressures, Serbia passed a declaration on Srebrenica which expresses regret for the crime, but did not qualify it as genocide. The aim of this declaration was also to undermine the ruling of the International Court of Justice which said that this was genocide, as well as a number of ICTY’s cases in which some Serbian military commanders were tried for genocide. In this manner the two largest countries formed after the breakup of Yugoslavia, which bear the greatest responsibility for the Bosnian war – Croatia and Serbia – absolved themselves of responsibility for the greatest crimes committed on European soil after the Second World War for internal purposes.
Along with denying the crimes in the latest war, as time went by, the process of revision of the Second World War was gaining momentum. The Croatian Parliament adopted several declarations about the Second World War, but it also adopted an important law which introduced the Day of Remembrance of Croatia’s Victims in the Struggle for Freedom and Independence. The point of these legal provisions was to rehabilitate the defeated Second World War collaborationists, pronounce them the greatest victims of this war, “whitewash” their accountability for the crimes in the public’s mind and transfigure them into national liberation fighters.
In 2004 Serbia passed a law equating the rights of Partisans and Chetniks, despite the fact that historical scholarship has unambiguously proven Chetnik collaboration from the first months of the occupation of Serbia, as well as their participation in mass crimes against non-Serbian civilians. This legalized a total revision of the Second World War, which turned into changing street names, monuments, holidays, history textbooks. Judicial rehabilitation has also begun. The rehabilitation of the Chetnik leader is legally finalized, and the process of judicial rehabilitation of the Prime Minister of occupied Serbia is under way.
Now we should discuss the connection between the Second World War and the wars of the 1990s and why I have been following these two currents of memorialization, laws and declarations about the former and the latter? The connection is quite clear: since there is a fair degree of ideological continuity between the defeated side in the Second World War and the forces that led the wars of the 1990s, by rehabilitating collaborators from the Second World War you get a historical whitewashing of those who committed crimes in the 1990s, many of whom are again in power in most formed Yugoslav countries. Naturally, memory laws are exclusively concerned with current political requirements, but in this dangerous case of the former Yugoslavia there is a concern that they might also determine our new, contentious future.
I will now offer a few lessons from the Yugoslav case:
1. The Yugoslav experience has shown that memory laws fail in their intention to impose an officially memory to a society. It is true that the Yugoslav regime was not democratic, which undermined confidence in almost every law, but empathy for the victims of a World War II was sincere and strong. However, the change of the political regime was also understood as the liberation from memorial, statutory dogmas, which in the case of the Second World War created a dangerous precedent.
2. There is ample room for the abuse of memory laws. The resolution on European conscience and totalitarianism served as a useful tool in the hands of revisionist forces that are anti-Communist, but ideologically close to fascism. At one interesting discussion at the Sorbonne about the legacy of communism, there was a sharp division between the countries that supported this declaration, where communism came on the “Russian tanks”, and those countries where communists fought in the civil war, as in Spain, Greece and Yugoslavia. This debate has shown the vital role of context for understanding historical controversies, context which laws and declarations are unable to express, as well as all the necessary subtleties inherent to historical complexity.
3. The Yugoslav experience has confirmed the importance for a society to face its role in the Holocaust. Not only because this subject sensitizes a society and encourages empathy with the victims, but also because dealing with this issue facilitates a throughout critical reevaluation of its past. Had the subject of the Holocaust in Eastern bloc countries been properly dealt with, the paradigm of the Second World War could not have been so easily and quickly overturned, and the rehabilitation of forces that cooperated with occupiers and contributed to the successful implementation of the Holocaust would not have been possible. This would have also drawn a clearer line between fascism and anti-fascism.
4. It is well known that historical narratives serve the present. This particularly applies to laws that not only reflect the current system of values, but also actively participate in its formation. The Yugoslav case has demonstrated that legislating a narrative about an earlier event was aimed at the historical justification of another, more recent, politically more sensitive event. Since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were led with ideas very similar to those of the early 1940s, the rehabilitation of criminals from the 1940s simultaneously brought about the heroization of their followers responsible for ethnic cleansings, mass rapes and genocides 50 years later. This is how an older memory was used for a historical whitewashing of the newer one, turning them both into factors of new instability in the suspended conflict of the Yugoslav peoples.
5. In a situation where the first decisions on the Yugoslav wars were made by international courts, declarations and laws were passed in Croatia and Serbia that relativized these court decisions, reducing or completely rejecting those crimes. This case shows another risk with memory laws, because they can have a greater impact on a national scale than international law. This undermines the system of international justice and its institutions, and countries that take this route of self-indulgence are confining themselves to their own beliefs about what the past was like, isolating themselves from universal values and simultaneously departing from a rational connection to the past and the present.
6. It turned out that without a comprehensive confrontation with the past, especially with one’s own crimes, there is a danger of reviving frozen conflicts. A critical confrontation is not possible when there are memory laws which prescribe a desirable interpretation. The Yugoslav example has clearly shown that there will be no transitional justice and reconciliation, nor what Pablo de Grief calls the guarantees of non-recurrence, if the past is not handled extremely carefully.
7. A careful handling of the past does not mean laws. With societies being “memorially plural” legislation means that memories that are different than “legal” ones will be pushed to the sidelines, where they will wait for a new opportunity. Occasions when this new opportunity emerges are usually dramatic or revolutionary changes in a society, when there is a danger of creating room for identifying with dangerous memory contents which intensify the conflict.
What position should one take, aided by history, in regard to controversial issues of the past? A group of historians from all twelve Balkan tried to answer that question. The short answer would be that the solution is not in memory laws, but in changing the education system, especially history teaching. The new approach should be to prepare students for a critical evaluation of the past, which is the exact opposite approach to that on which memory laws are based. Last year, after years of close cooperation, this group of historians published two books of additional teaching materials relating to the Cold War period, as well as the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The basic method we applied was multiperspectivity, where sensitive and controversial events were presented from multiple perspectives, as they are seen by different participants whose interpretation of those events is now completely different and liable to foster new conflicts. History should no longer be “the only, prescribed national truth”, closer to religion than to academic discipline. It should become a dialogue of memories, different visions of past events, as well as a dialogue between conflicting sides and countries. This would reduce the scope for manipulation coming from various memory makers and agents, and the students would be better prepared to respond to “fake news from the past”. Conflicts and tensions in the society would be reduced, especially in situations where there are significant differences between “private” and “official” memory.
A multiperspective approach to traumatic past does not mean a relativization of historical truth. As the famous historian E.H. Carr once said, “It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.” A dialogue between perpetrators and victims will not erase the crime. The purpose is to open a discussion on painful subjects within institutions such as schools and to introduce to one another the sections of society that preserve their memories as seeds for new conflicts. The intergenerational dialogue is also introduced, and it can alleviate the deep social shocks which come up when children pose the famous question: “Daddy, what did you do in the war?” This alleviates the “memory war” and prevents the possible open conflict that can be fueled by historical traumas.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic
From the conference Memory laws. Criminalizing historical narratives, University of Columbia, October 2017
Latest posts by Dubravka Stojanović (see all)
- Ruske ideje i srpske replike - 20/04/2022
- Intervju - 07/02/2022
- Svakodnevni život Beograđana u vreme španske groznice 1918-1919. - 02/02/2022