It wouldn’t be wrong to say: the siege and fall of Vukovar represent the final act in the death of Yugoslavia. Final because Yugoslavia was already sentenced to death in 1972 at the latest, when the bearers of the neoconservative (structurally neostalinist) reaction triumphed, and the consequences could be seen in the complete removal of sense or meaning from the dominant proclamations and slogans (socialist self-management, brotherhood and unity, etc). The space vacated by the communist and socialist ideas was taken over by a spectre called Nation – rendering the breakup inevitable, which was revealed in the so-called anti-bureaucratic revolution, the introduction to the realization of the bloody scenario to which, sadly, the tragedy of Vukovar was not the culmination, because similar events would continue to occur for years afterwards in Croatia, then in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and finally in Kosovo.
The fall of Vukovar, erstwhile birthplace of the Communist party of Yugoslavia, also represents – symbolically – the utter defeat of the Bolshevik project, and not just in the sense of the country that died there, but globally as well; what remained of that project after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Vukovar (China, North Korea) preserved only the totalitarian structure of state and society from the original project.
The crimes committed during the siege and fall (“liberation”, as the Serbian radicals and national-socialists would say) of Vukovar were precursors to the series of atrocities carried out across the former federation. Crimes were committed by all the conflicted parties, but – it must be said – not to an equal degree. If we stuck to the idea that everyone killed, raped, and looted, we would open the doors to the relativization of crimes and establish a climate of an overall lack of responsibility. So when, in conversations about Vukovar, we hear the topic of Jasenovac brought up, or the crimes committed during Operation Storm (“And what about what they did to us?”), this actually represents a sort of amnesty for “our” criminals and, in the end, even the identification of a whole nation with the criminals and evildoers among their ranks, but also – and this is even more devastating – acceptance and justification for all crimes committed in that nation’s name – of course, without admitting responsibility or fault for any atrocity. The end result of this is the interpretation according to which some boy from Futog (or Veternik) killed a crab in Vukovar, which had previously pinched him, and an entire nation was accused of genocide. The current status of the Vukovar butcher Veselin Šljivančanin in Serbia (and he isn’t the only one of his kind) confirms that this tasteless joke about the killing of a crab has lived on as a basis for a perverse dealing with the past.
It must needs be said: a society that cannot or will not deal with the dark parts of its past and distance itself from war criminals among their own ranks – has no future! Is there a cure? There is! All those who once threw flowers on the tanks of the YNA, many of them naively believing that those tanks were saving Yugoslavia (or socialism, or both), still have a chance to feel ashamed, because shame is the first step towards purification of the self, without which there is no getting out of the muck of dishonor.
Vukovar deserves to be treated with piety, not just for the victims but for all those who were in any way involved in what happened there that dark autumn of 1991. All other places of mass suffering and death deserve the same. All those who committed atrocities deserve moral (if not every other kind of) condemnation – as do all those who stood by and watched what was happening. The latter is about self-condemnation, which is a necessary part of the above-mentioned purification. The brave deserters from Krusevac, Valjevo, Gornji Milanovac, Arandjelovac, Kragujevac, Senta and other cities made that step early, in 1991, by refusing to fight in a war for someone else’s interests. Here we must mention Miroslav Milenkovic, the forgotten hero of the Vukovar epic: as a mobilized reservist at a cattle market in Sid he was faced with a choice between a row of “traitors” who refused to go to the Vukovar battlefield and a row of “patriots” who accepted the call to go to Vukovar. Miroslav Milenkovic proved his patriotism and his humanity by taking his own life. Once there are streets in Serbia carrying his name, it will be a sure sign that the country has a future.
We should be careful not to fall into the trap of the victimist approach to crimes. Such an approach opens a path to the instrumentalization of suffering in order to achieve national homogenization, which as a rule is based on the mythologizing of one’s own ethnic group, and this principle leads to the establishment of authoritarian (ultimately totalitarian) patterns of structuring the state and society. As a rule, such homogenization is marked by the Francoist reconciliation of all elements of the national body, primarily the members of the Quisling formations from World War II and their followers in the wars of the 1990s. And nations that undergo this type of homogenization have no future: they are doomed to extinction.
When it comes to the specific case of the Vukovar tragedy, Boris Dezulovic recently – by all means using inappropriate language (but there are people who only understand vulgarities) – pointed out the abuse of the commemoration of Vukovar for the purpose of establishing an authoritarian atmosphere. Reactions to this provocation (ranging from extremist condemnations to reasonable judgments such as those given by Bojan Glavasevic and Boris Pavelic, among others) point to a deep division of the Croatian public, but also offer indications of the possibility of overcoming the victimist-instrumentalist approach to the recent past. And overcoming that would open a perspective future for Croatia (instead of the current slow but inevitable dying out, which is perhaps most clearly visible in Vukovar).
Let’s repeat again and emphasize: the Vukovar victim deserves piety! But that piety cannot be followed by calling the man who killed captured and unarmed Serbian soldiers at the Karlovac bridge a hero that young generations of Croatian youth should look up to. Which is exactly what is being done by some false patriots who use the Vukovar tragedy for their own schemes, which in the end come down to the legalization of (as a rule: someone else’s) fortune acquired during the war and post-war plunder. If they prevail – Croatia has no future!
Lino Veljak (Rijeka, 1950) was a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb until 2020. Recent books: Introduction to Ontology, Breza, Zagreb 2019 and Challenges of Our Time, HFD, Zagreb 2020.
Translated by Luna Djordjevic