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Serbia’s and Croatia’s struggles with the past

A review of Współczesna Serbia i Chorwacja wobec własnej historii (Contemporary Serbia and Croatia facing their own past). By: Tomasz Stryjek. Publisher: Scholar, Warsaw, Poland, 2020.

November 16, 2020 - Grzegorz Skrukwa - Books and ReviewsIssue 6 2020Magazine

Serbia and Croatia are two states that are “symmetrical” and comparable in many ways, but deeply conflicted in the sphere of historical memory. This is the area where they differ greatly. Historically speaking, together with Slovenians, Croats and Serbs were the “founding nations” of the “first Yugoslavia”. This is how their state (at that time kingdom), established in 1918, came into existence. In the post-war period, during the “second (aka Tito’s) Yugoslavia”, Serbia and Croatia were the core republics.

Additional historic parallels between the two states can be traced back to their experiences during the Second World War. In the years 1941-1945 the following political groups recorded activity: 1) the collaborationists, who established fascist organisations which in Croatia took the form of the Independent State led by the Ustaša, while in Serbia that of Milan Nedić’s government with formations established by Dmitrije Ljotić; 2) the revolutionaries, which, in both states, took the form of a National Liberation Movement led by the communists and; 3) the “survival-oriented” group that included those switching between resistance, collaboration and passive waiting – in Serbia it was Draža Mihailović’s Chetniks, in Croatia it was the Croatian Peasant Party and the Catholic Church.

Return to the past

With this context in the background, Polish historian and political scientist, Tomasz Stryjek, has written a new book titled Współczesna Serbia i Chorwacja wobec własnej historii (Contemporary Serbia and Croatia facing their own past). He argues that the tensions between Serbian and Croatian memory – especially their interpretation of the Second World War – were one of the most important factors that led to the violent disintegration of the second Yugoslavia. As such, memory politics have become one of the most important aspects of these two states’ political life since the breakthrough which took place there in 1999/2000. That is to say, the historical policy determined post-Milošević Serbia and post-Tuđman Croatia.

Stryjek’s book, as mentioned before, focuses on Serbia’s and Croatia’s struggles with the past. It is addressed to the general reader, not only academics. In the first part, the author presents places of memory that have impacted Serbian and Croatian identities, especially in the 19th and 20th century, when they were becoming nations. Interestingly, Stryjek finds that these two past centuries are the source of today’s identity of political parties in both states. In the second part, he analyses concepts such as “revision of history” and “historical revisionism”. The former, in his view, is the change of perception which community should be the main subject of the historical process.

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the revision of history took a certain turn (“return”) from the perspective of the internationalist class to the national perspective. Naturally, in cases where revision is civic-oriented, and in line with inclusive understanding of the nation (and not based on ethnic and exclusive understandings), it does not lead to conflict. The term “revisionism”, as Stryjek interprets it here, is a shift towards an ethnic and exclusive definition of the nation. Consequently, the revisionist perspective treats the national community as an absolute value. It insists on a heroic and impeccable image of the nation-state and the national movement. In the area of historiography, revisionism can be biased and deceitful.

Historians and academic institutions

Stryjek analyses the crisis and decline of Yugoslavia’s socialist and federalist ideology, as they began in the 1960s. He looks at the debates in Serbian and Croatian historiography, pointing to the social roles historians and academic institutions have played in both states. He presents their positions through a typology which he divides into three groups, depending on their representatives’ attitude towards revisionism. The first group is the “official” position. Its representatives support a revision from the international to the national context, but do not opt for revisionism. The second group gathers those who are “critical”. In other words, they adhere to universal and transnational values. The third group includes those who represent a revisionist position. In Serbia, the division between the “official” and revisionist group, on one side of the spectrum, and the “critical,” on the opposite side, overlaps the socio-cultural division between the “first Serbia” ( those who are “traditionalists and nationalistic”) and the “second Serbia” (those who are “modernisers and cosmopolitans”). A similar trend can be seen in Croatia.

Stryjek examines these positions in historiography by analysing the following cases: the Serbian and Croatian narratives on Tito, the National Liberation Movement and the second Yugoslavia, the Serbian narrative on Draža Mihailović, the Chetniks (the Yugoslav Army in Homeland) and the restoration of monarchy, as well as the Croatian narrative on Ante Pavelić, the Ustaša and the Independent State. He complements this research with the parallel analysis, presented in the last chapters of the book, of memory politics in Serbia and Croatia from 1990/1991 to 2018. This period includes the presidencies of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Aleksandar Vučić.

Based on his research Stryjek concludes that in the states of Central and Eastern Europe, the revocation to history was necessary for their internal and external legitimisation, as well as their transition to democracy and obtaining membership in the European Union. In the former Yugoslavia the revision of history, from the international to the national paradigm, already occurred in the 1960s, before the communists lost power and before they transformed to socialists. Importantly, at that time there were no alternative sources of memory to those that were related to national history before 1945.

Original sin

When analysing Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević’s rule, Stryjek sees errors in their refusal to establish memory policies, pointing out that instead they abused the national dimension of the transformation. Overall, the challenges that Serbia and Croatia faced in the transformation included building a democratic and pluralist political system, which – according to the academic and journalist, Taras Kuzio – is the first dimension of the transformation; the second dimension is building a market economy and the third is building state institutions.

However, unlike in other transformation cases – such as Ukraine or Belarus, Macedonia or Bosnia – in Serbia and Croatia a coherent and wide-reaching national identity was formed long before 1991. In Stryjek’s view, during the 1990s the Croatian and Serbian ruling elite abused the fourth national dimension and revoked an ethnic concept of the nation. They did so not because they had to focus on nation-building, but because they needed political legitimacy for their rule. Also, while since the collapse of the reformist leaders in 1971-1972 (“Croatian Spring” and “Serbian liberalism”), communism became idle and ossified, and the intellectual elite in both republics “returned” to the national concept of history. Milošević and Tuđman followed them in believing that national history is a useful source to legitimise political power.

In this regard, one of the main tools they could use was to stimulate competition between Serbia and Croatia for the status of the most heroic, most impeccable and most suffering nation in the years 1941-1945. This led to a division in “official” and “critical” streams in their historiographies, where representatives of the former also opened doors for revisionist ideas in the public discourse. In Stryjek’s view, this was the “the original sin” of transformation in these two states. Even when their governments have turned towards European values since the turn of the millennium, they could not free themselves from a very difficult situation.

Overall, in my view, Stryjek’s book not only provides a deep analysis of historiography and politics of memory in Serbia and Croatia, but is also a contribution to their modern political history. The work is based on a wide range of sources, including Serbian and Croatian academic and history texts. Stryjek applies adequate methodological tools and approaches. Thus, his book provides, on the one hand, a coherent and synthetic perspective of the researched topic, and on the other hand, a detailed catalogue of actors, themes and institutions which are involved in these two states in memory politics.

Grzegorz Skrukwa is an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

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