by Taylor McConnell, University of Edinburgh/Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
Croatian collective memory is dominated by remembrances of the Homeland War/Croatian War of Independence, which marked both an end of the Yugoslav project of “Brotherhood and Unity”/“Bratstvo i jedinstvo” and, particularly for Croats, a restoration of a thousand-year Croatian state. The commemorative practices surrounding the war have been crafted in no small part by a conservative, nationalist narrative of liberation from “Greater Serbian aggression”/“velikosrpska agresija” and Yugoslav “totalitarianism”. Monuments around the country remind us of the cost of this independence, but of the various people, places and things remembered, it is the branitelji – the “defenders” – whose memories are elevated to that of near-deities.
But what about the braniteljice – the female defenders? Of the 23,000 women who fought on the side of Croatian independence from 1991 to 1995, few to none are given monuments of their own. The history of war – as are most histories and most wars – since time immemorial has been written by men, with little regard to the experiences of women, as victims, as fighters, as survivors. These mainstream narratives are constantly challenged nevertheless by heart-wrenching and vivid first-hand accounts by women; in the Croatian context, the works of Slavenka Drakulić and Dubravka Ugrešić come to mind. The authors, however, have been slandered as “Witches from Rio” for poking holes in the masculine narratives of the victor and his honour and for challenging the nationalist legitimation of war.
My fieldwork has involved extensive road trips around Croatia, documenting any and all monuments from the Austro-Hungarian period onward, with particular focus on the Homeland War. While this research is by no means exhaustive (nor can it be given the fleeting nature of memory and the readiness of some far right-wing hooligans to destroy monuments they disagree with), the predominance of the branitelji is hard to miss. Braniteljice, or women more generally who were not aristocrats, artists or authors, are not mentioned, nor are they made visible in any particular way. While the Croatian language, like German, may have a deference to masculine nouns in situations involving groups where men are present, there was no monument, no memorial placard, and no museum that retold the experiences of female fighters in the Homeland War. It took until 2 June 2018 for a “Square of Croatian (Female) Defenders”/“Trg hrvatskih braniteljica” to be dedicated, and at that in the small village of Mošćenica (population 2,471), at the initiative of Petrinja mayor Darinko Dumbović, whose mother Marija, a Croatian defender, officially dedicated the square.
A handful of organisations of female defenders does exist, particularly in the areas most directly impacted by the Homeland War, Dalmatia and Eastern Slavonia. There is a “Women’s Club of the Association of Volunteers and Veterans of the Homeland War” in Petrinja, an “Association of Female Defenders of Vukovar-Srijem County”, founded in 2010, and an “Association of Women in the Homeland War” in Zadar. These groups have organised Days of the Female Defenders/Dani braniteljica, hosted public talks and exhibitions and participated in commemorative events across Croatia. The Association of Female Defenders of Vukovar-Srijem County additionally hosts annual “Festivals of Patriotic Poetry”/“Festivali domoljubne poezije” with the aim of preventing forgetting the sacrifices of the defenders.
Despite this work, the voices of the female defenders have not been integrated into the mainstream narrative of the Homeland War that is driven by (male) veterans’ associations, like those who led the 18-month protest against the war veterans’ ministry from 2014 to 2016. The only instance in my fieldwork where I noticed images of women in military fatigues was at an open exhibition at the Hrvatski dom Glina; of the hundreds of images places on boards around the small gallery, only a few dozen featured women, where they appear to be performing auxiliary or secretarial roles rather than participating in active combat. Only one image depicts a woman holding a gun. As well, the only monument to make mention of women was in the context of war victims in Vukovar, which perpetuates the more prevalent narrative of women as passive victims with no agency to choose whether to participate in conflict – the history of war written and fought by men. Women in war have been subjected to humiliating rape and sexual abuse by men, whether professional soldiers or paramilitary forces, and the war in Croatia is no exception. While the Croatian state has passed a law for compensation of victims of wartime sexual violence, its lingering effects on its victims and their communities are irreparable.
Remembering women in the Homeland War: Ovčara, Glina
Left: Memorial placard outside Ovčara Memorial Centre, August 2017. Centre and right: Women depicted in a photo exhibit at Hrvatski dom Glina, August 2017. Almost all other photos (several hundred) featured only men.
The Croatian experience highlights a remarkable shift from the narrative of active female Partisan fighters in the Second World War, a total war in which anyone with the means to participate could and did. Chiara Bonfiglioli’s excellent piece on these “dangerous women”, the Partizanke, demonstrates the degree to which women were integrated in the war effort to liberate Yugoslavia from enemy combatants. She notes, “The contribution of partizanke, […] to the Yugoslav liberation war was unprecedented in occupied Europe: official statistics of the socialist period report 100,000 women fighting as partisans, and two million participating in various ways to the support of the National Liberation Movement. Approximately 25,000 women died in battle, 40,000 were wounded, and 2,000 of them acquired the officer’s rank, while 92 women were designated as national heroes.” Partizanke were remembered as soldiers and volunteers in the anti-fascist struggle, and their memories are slowly being revived by memory activists across the region who seek to build “counter-memories […] as a repertoire against the post-socialist retraditionalisation of gender relations”, states Bonfiglioli. The image of the partizanka was also popularised in the post-war era through film and literature as a “Revolutionary Icon” in, for example Vjekoslav Afrić’s Slavica (1947) or, only later in the film, Lordan Zafranović’s Pad Italije (1981). The revolutionary nature of gender equality in socialist Yugoslavia, it appears, has been eschewed by the modern Croatian state in its commemorative practices. If any legacy of the Yugoslav era remains, it is in the narrative of “liberation” against an aggressor, here Serbia, but without the insights of the women who participated – whether willingly or not – in the Homeland War.
Where does this leave us, and what is the way forward? The remembrance of branitelji already presents significant issues for those seeking a more inclusive face for Croatia, as it perpetuates an antagonistic relationship with Serbia, currently negotiating its accession to the European Union. Further, the predominance of the defender narrative in Croatia provides little room to remember the victims of war – of the 130 monuments to the Homeland War I was able to document between May 2017 and May 2018, 31 made explicit mention of civilian casualties (and only one in Varivode to Serb victims), while 82 mentioned the (male) defenders. Treading the fine line between respectful commemoration and memory abuse presents significant hurdles for the Croatia’s future, but even more progress has yet to be made on ensuring these commemorative practices include marginalised voices – of women, of ethnic, religious or sexual minorities – and challenge the overwhelming masculine history of war.
They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague – Slavenka Drakulić
Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War – Slavenka Drakulić
Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream – Dubravka Ugrešić
The Ministry of Pain – Dubravka Ugrešić
Women and Yugoslav Partisans: A History of World War II – Jelena Batinić
Special thanks to Heleen Touquet for her commentary that helped guide the writing of this piece.
Bulgarian-North Macedonia’s history-dispute: Whose “shared history” in the name of which “European values”?
by Naum Trajanovski
Much has been said and written on the vociferous Bulgarian-North Macedonia’s historical dispute in the last months. This bulk of opinions is, undoubtedly, just a tiny portion of what is to be expected in the upcoming period.
Before the highly anticipated opening of North Macedonia's EU accession negotiations, Bujar Osmani, North Macedonia's Foreign Affairs Minister, paid an official visit to Sofia on 9 October, as a first foreign visit in his new governmental capacity, while joint Bulgarian-North Macedonia's commission on historical and educational issues (Joint Commission) held a two-day meeting in Skopje on 15-16 October, after an almost one-year halt caused by the summer electoral cycle (and its protraction) in North Macedonia and the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two events were just a portion of triggers for heated public debates in the neighbouring states. In reverse chronological order: on 6 November, the Bulgarian MFA informed the EU that “Sofia will block the so-called negotiating framework for North Macedonia, which is due to be the basis for the formal launch of EU accession talks” – even so a Bulgarian greenlight was expected after the Berlin meeting of the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, and her North Macedonia’s and German counterparts, among others.
Prior to that, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, initially hinted at 10 November 2020 – the date of the Berlin Process’s Summit which was co-chaired by Bulgaria and North Macedonia – as a deadline for settling the quarrel over Gotse Delchev/Goce Delčev – “whose memory is revered in both countries” and the most recent bone of contention within the Joint Commission – thus imposing an almost untenable pace in the work of the Commission.
On 11 October, North Macedonia celebrated its annual “Day of the People’s Uprising in Macedonia in 1941” – commemorating the Partisan insurgence against fascism and serving as one of the most pertinent post-WWII national holidays – which was interpreted as an “anti-Bulgarian provocation” by Andrey Kovatchev, a Bulgarian MEP from the ruling party GERB. On 1 October 2020, the Bulgarian parliament voted on changing the official name of the national holiday of 24 May to “Day of Bulgarian Letters, Education and Culture” instead of “Day of Bulgarian Education and Culture and the Slavic Letters” which, in turn, provoked a reaction in the Macedonian public discourse.
However, it would be the so-called “Explanatory Memorandum on the Relationship of the Republic of Bulgaria with the Republic of North Macedonia in the Context of the EU Enlargement and Association and Stabilization Process” (Memorandum) from mid-September 2020 which shook the most the recent bilateral relations. The six-page position paper, supported by all the political parties represented in the Bulgarian National Assembly, was circulated at the Council of the European Union and caused a divergent set of reactions which, I would argue, even so diachronically repetitive, neatly illustrate the major trajectories, mobilizations and (re)positionings over history- and memory-related issues in both countries.
The aforementioned neighbourly developments should be read in the key of the recent (regional) Euro-Atlantic integrations.
After the call for a “new narrative for Europe” and the emergence of the so-called “EU memory framework” in the mid-2010s – as a set of soft law and decisions produced by the European Parliament – Western Balkans’ EU integrations are widely understood as a mean for settling not only territorial, human- and minority rights issues between the nation-states, but also as a platform for accommodating the historical inter-state disputes – even if formally not articulated as such.
This framework dwells, among other things, upon EU’s redefinition of the memory of the Holocaust as a “soft EU-membership criterion” – urged upon the aspiring EU member-states in the 2000s – and the recent EU-backed strategies of promoting “Europe as a cultural identity”. All these initiatives help us understand the rationale of the recent EU memory politics – rejection of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism, respect for human rights, freedoms, and minority protection – as they “convey broadly defined European values and undergird the idea of a common future through the fostering of a European identity”.
This set of values translates into a different set of memory politics, however. Valérie Rosoux, a senior research fellow at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research, identifies two prevailing, ideal-type approaches to EU’s “historical reconciliatory project”: a “minimalist” one, which refers to the mutually conciliatory accommodation of historical narratives, and a “maximalist” vision which “highlights the transcendent nature of a far more demanding process requiring truth, justice and forgiveness”.
Where does Bulgarian-North Macedonia's case stand in this coordinate system? Without a single doubt, the key reference here is the “Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness, and Cooperation between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Bulgaria” (Friendship Treaty), signed on 2 August 2017 and ratified in January 2018 by both the Bulgarian and North Macedonia’s parliaments. The Friendship Treaty came after the 2012 Bulgarian veto to North Macedonia’s start of the EU accession talks, despite the fourth consecutive recommendation by the European Commission, and after the governmental change in North Macedonia from 2016 and 2017.
In brief, North Macedonia's parliamentary elections from December 2016 and the post-electoral negotiation, as well as the landslide victory on the 2017 local elections, established the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia as the main political factor in the Macedonian political camp. The party set the Euro-Atlantic integration high on its political agenda and, arguably enough, employed a perspectivist strategy during the long episodes of campaigning in 2016 and 2017 – with the finalization of North Macedonia's NATO and EU integrations as a guiding principle for settling the state's long-lasting bilateral disputes.
These politics were widely recognized as contrapuntal to the last phase of the second VMRO-DPMNU’s rule in North Macedonia (2006-2016) – declaratively pro-European, while de facto amplifying North Macedonia’s bilateral disputes. The “Skopje 2014 project” – an umbrella term depicting more than 130 monuments and memorials erected in North Macedonia’s capital city over the last decade – was vastly discussed as the epitome of this memory politics.
The Friendship Treaty was also followed by the so-called Prespa Agreement from June 2018 (ratified in January 2019; in force as of February 2019), which settled the two-decades-long name-dispute between Greece and North Macedonia, facilitated North Macedonia's full-NATO-membership and revived the state’s EU integrations.
Between the “minimalist” and “maximalist” approaches
Both the accords, amidst their focus on the economic partnership between the signing parties, aim at enhancing good-neighbourly relations by introducing new paradigms in history education (both the Friendship Treaty and the Prespa Agreement), public memorialization (both the accords), and joint state-commemorations of shared historical figures and events (the Friendship Treaty).
Back to Rosoux – one can argue that the two accords are authentic in their hybridity: with the latter one, or the Prespa Agreement, targeting “Skopje 2014” from a rather “maximalist” perspective (by introducing conventional descriptive plaques to the monuments depicting historical figures and events from the Hellenistic period), and delineating, in a “minimalist” key, the symbolic domain of the signifier “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” within both the Greek and North Macedonia’s “realms”.
Heretofore, it took a year to change the descriptive plaques in North Macedonia – a process met with resentment and counter-mobilization across the state – while the Greco-North Macedonia’s “Joint Interdisciplinary Committee of Experts on Historical, Archaeological and Educational Issues” – envisioned with the Prespa Agreement – announced a tentative agreement over the Ancient history representations in the history textbooks before the 2019 Greek legislative elections.
The Bulgarian-North Macedonia’s Treaty, on a different note, had the “maximalist” approach towards the public state-commemorations (see, for instance, the first-ever, and up until nowadays, the only official visit of a high-ranking Bulgarian politician to a state-commemoration of the deportation and the mass murder of the 7,144 Macedonian Jews in 1943, which took place in Skopje in March 2018, even though without delivering “a hoped-for apology for the role of the then Kingdom of Bulgaria in the tragedy”), which was followed by the Joint commission’s breakthrough in the work on the history textbooks’ depictions of shared historical figures in both the states (concerning, predominantly, Medieval history).
The initially agreed “minimalist” asset, in these regards, was the Treaty’s very treatment of self-determination, nation- and state-building processes, with the ethnic-Macedonian identity and the Macedonian language at a high-stake: contested by the Bulgarian side as of 1948, or the year of the Tito-Stalin split and the consequent political realignment, but, arguably enough, recognized with the accord. Herein, Zoran Zaev, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, claimed that the Treaty would “not harm or undermine Macedonia in any way”, but make Bulgaria “more dedicated to friendship”.
The Bulgarian Memorandum…
What unfolded in the meantime is critical for understanding the most recent bilateral developments noted in the introductory part.
Namely, one can clearly state that the Bulgarian side is pushing for a conceptual reframing of the very “minimalist” aspects deriving from the Friendship Treaty – seeking to redefine the “Macedonian” standpoint on the Macedonian ethnic identity, language, nation- and state-building; and conditioning this process with North Macedonia’s further EU integrations.
Drawing upon the “European values and principles”, the Memorandum calls North Macedonia’s leadership to “break with the ideological legacy and practices of communist Yugoslavia” and accuses the state of “ethnic and linguistic engineering” after 1944. Besides the language- and history-related issues, the paper also depicts minority-related issues as a non-topic: bashing, again, the Macedonian authorities for their policy towards social agents that urge for recognition of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian Memorandum is, however, one in the series of events reaffirming these positions. In October 2019, the Bulgarian parliament passed a Declaration in regards to the EU’s negotiations with North Macedonia, which held almost all the points stressed with the Memorandum. In May 2020, a consortium consisting of affiliates of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and three Bulgarian universities issued a brochure entitled “On the Official Language of the Republic of North Macedonia”. The text restates the standpoints on the Macedonian language as a “southwestern written-regional norm of the Bulgarian language”.
The crucial novelty of the Memorandum is its clear distinction of the Joint Commission’s working concepts: it reads that the Macedonian side refuses to accept the concept of "common history" – using "shared history" instead – which in turn undermines the bilateral trust between the two states. This statement can be read as an attempt to reframe the discourse delineating the cross-national and national history-domains, and even push the already settled agenda of the Joint Commission. A recent policy brief by the Skopje-based European Policy Institute is neatly mapping these differences in the newest Bulgarian conditions and the Friendship Treaty.
And its immediate aftermath
One of the loudest reactions to the Memorandum was a letter signed by a group of prominent Bulgarian historians and social scientists – highlighting that the Memorandum “does not reflect the principles and the values” of the European Union, and it does not speak the language of the modern historiography, humanities and social sciences.
Among the initiators, Stefan Dechev, a Bulgarian scholar, was frequently challenging the antagonistic tones by the Bulgarian side and opted for a mutual understanding. Dechev is also one of the founders of a Facebook group, entitled “Historians and experts against the Bulgarian explanatory memorandum for Macedonia”, which already has more than 140 members who timely share the news on the bilateral developments.
The Memorandum also provoked heated reactions in the Macedonian public. The president of the Macedonian team within the Joint Commission, Dragan Gjorgjiev, hinted at this exclusivist interpretation of the notion of "common history" – an undebatable, nation-centred "historical truth" which is to be accepted in the negotiations (with North Macedonia as the only side required to change its historical paradigm) – as a clear obstacle in the work of the Joint Commission.
This tone was adopted, in general, by high-profiled Macedonian politicians: Nikola Dimitrov, North Macedonia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs – in office when the Friendship Treaty was signed – and nowadays a Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, suggested that the Memorandum (and the framework position it supposedly entails) is undermining not only the good-neighbourly, but also the basic values the EU is built upon, while North Macedonia’s President, Stevo Pendarovski, and PM Zaev restated that the national identity and the Macedonian language are not subjected to negotiations and rejected any possibility of signing an annex to the Friendship Treaty.
The aftershocks can be felt even further in both the Macedonian and Bulgarian societies. A public survey from October 2020 also showcased the link between the Memorandum and the public perceptions in North Macedonia on the neighbourly relations: only 1 per cent of the respondents saw the Republic of Bulgaria as "friendly” to North Macedonia, while only 23 per cent positively evaluated the Friendship Treaty (and 42 percent held a negative opinion). Another recent survey – conducted by the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation and M-prospect – showcased that the majority of the Macedonian citizens expect that North Macedonia’s government will not comply to the newest Bulgarian demands. The Bulgarian Alpha Research came to a number of 83.8% of the Bulgarian citizens who agree with the government’s decision to halt North Macedonia’s EU accession until reaching a “settlement regarding the historical facts from the Bulgarian past”.
Memory actors and memory agendas
The Bulgarian Memorandum and the debate it provoked over the notions of "common” and “shared” histories, as well as the referent "European values", should also be treated in a historical perspective. The contextual argument, here, reveals that the "memory work" on the ground is closer than commonly perceived. At the same time, the fallacies oftentimes resulted from the inability to define a framework for discussing the history- and memory-related issues, as well as the normative referent of these negotiations. A side note: the state-sponsored stakeholders should not be automatically perceived as the most rational agents in these regards.
Much has been written in both Bulgaria and North Macedonia on the history of failed attempts to settle a “historical reconciliation”: the excellent take on the “Macedonian question” by the Bulgarian historian Tchavdar Marinov is to be re-published in Macedonian this year, while Pendarovski recently touched upon the memories of Krste Crvenkovski, a leader of the Macedonian CP in the 1960s and a direct witness of the erstwhile bilateral negotiations, to point out the repeating tendencies in the neighbouring relations.
It will certainly be an invocation of the much-referenced European values if the negotiating parties build upon this “shared” history as a critical stepping stone for the future. Herein, one can also mention Boris Trajkovski’s attempt to establish Ilinden’s commemorations in Kruševo as a platform for a univocal articulation of the regional EU-aspirations in 2003 – the year when a Bulgarian state delegation attended, for a first time, a celebration of Ilinden, or the Republic Day, in North Macedonia. Moreover, a careful reader would find evidence of a provisionary, short-lived “settlement” among the Bulgarian and Macedonian Wikipedia administrators in the mid-2000s, which resulted in a mutually-agreed-upon depictions of the now-contested historical figures.
The non-governmental sector, as well as certain academic institutions are also contributing to this discourse. A recent project by the Forum Ziviler Friedensdienst – Macedonia Program, the Institute for National History – Skopje, and the Institute for Ethnology and Anthropology – Skopje, entitled “Cultures of remembrance in Southeastern Europe: Nationalism, transnationalism and cooperation”, aims at providing a platform for revisiting the regional history- and memory-related quarrels by bringing eminent scholars to the table. The initial results show that a vast number of experts hold similar opinions on the recent “weaponizations” of national histories and even speak about a “nationalistic turn” in the history-production.
Yet, it appears that another set of actors is also informing the ongoing bilateral negotiations, as these harsh, identity-related processes are not unfolding in a sociopolitical vacuum. Herein, public commemorations appeared to be a highly valent process – involving not only state-actors but also a divergent set of memory stakeholders across the state-borders. These, in turn, are frequently pushing different agendas in the realm of “shared” and “common” histories.
The brief, two-decades-long history of Mara Buneva's commemorations in Skopje is more than illustrative as it reveals one immensely interesting aspect of the recent bilateral dispute: а good portion of memory agents across the state-borders perceive the historical reconciliation in different keys, tilt historiographic agendas and even load the EU integration discourse with particularistic demands.
As of 2001, almost every year, on 13 January, a commemorative plaque dedicated to Buneva was mounted and, on several occasions, demolished in the very centre of Skopje. Buneva (1902-1928), affiliated with the rightist interwar Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), is famous for her assassination of Velimir Prelić (1883-1928), a high-ranking representative of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on the territory of today's North Macedonia, as well as her immediate suicide at the very crime-scene.
Buneva was initially endorsed by the interwar IMRO, active until the official ban of the Organization following the Bulgarian coup d’état in 1934. The Bulgarian authorities erected a monument of Buneva on the very assassination spot during the WWII, which was demolished in the immediate post-war years, thus sentencing the memory of Buneva “to oblivion”. Likewise, socialist Macedonian historiography entirely ignored the 1928 Skopje assassination and treated Buneva as – what Brown defines as – a "symbolic pollution” in the national-historical canon.
It would be a Bulgarian political party claiming legacy over the interwar IMRO which reenacted Buneva’s memory in the 1990s – naming its women’s association “Mara Buneva” and advocating a commemorative service in Skopje (correlating with Ivan Vančo Mihajlov’s – on of the IMRO’s interwar leaders and a dramatis persona in the assassination – a plea from his post-war memoirs: Buneva should be annually commemorated in Skopje by the Bulgarian patriotic youth).
Even so, the annual commemorations, organized by both Bulgarian and North Macedonia’s actors, were met with resentment during the early 2000s, an interesting twist occurred in the late 2000s and the early 2010s: Buneva got recognized within the Macedonian national canon, as a wax figure depicting her was mounted in the newly formed Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in 2010, and a set of “Macedonian patriotic organization” started celebrating her revolutionary deed – parallelly to the “former” group of admirers. Only recently, after the Friendship Treaty, the Bulgarian Cultural Club in Skopje called the locals for a massive attendance of Buneva’s commemoration in the name of good-neighbourly relations and Euro-Atlantic integrations.
Buneva’s case is the most telling for the multidirectionality of public discourses over mnemonic and historical issues: not always are state-sponsored initiatives successful, rather, it is the bottom-up memory work (and its persistence) which determines their relative success. In these regards, Bulgaria and North Macedonia are much closer than depicted in the public discourse: Buneva’s commemorations showcase the way a partisan memory is being integrated into the official one, while it also pinpoints the divergent usages of the EU and the European values in the process of achieving these mnemonic goals. Only a clearer depiction of those values might trace the escape routes out of this bilateral quarrel.
Originally published on November 16, 2020 on the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Sarajevo blog.
by Jelena Đureinović
On 20 October 2020, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić laid wreaths at the Monument to the Unknown Hero on the mountain of Avala near Belgrade, the memorial built in the Kingdom in Yugoslavia in 1938 that commemorates the Serbian soldiers fallen in the First World War. Vučić left a note in the memorial book, honouring “the immortal liberators” whom the Serbian president thanked for their courage and great sacrifice. “Heroes, eternal glory and gratitude to you for freedom”, he wrote, emphasising that Belgrade and Serbia today show that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Although this mnemonic act took place at one of the most prominent First World War sites of memory in Serbia, it was actually about the Second World War. Namely, 20 October is the Day of Liberation of Belgrade, the day that celebrates the 1944 liberation of the capital city by the joint efforts of the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Movement and the Soviet Red Army. As much as this act was widely ridiculed, the Serbian president – accompanied by the Minister of Defence and the Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces – was not the first among Serbia’s political elites who might seem to have mixed up their world wars. The intertwinement of the memory of the two world wars was also characteristic for the representatives of the Democratic Party, the political predecessors of the Serbian Progressive Party which is now in power. It was also the case during the early period of socialist Yugoslavia.
In the memory culture of socialist Yugoslavia, the uprising and liberation in the Second World War were embedded in the long history of people’s struggles and uprisings. In Serbia during this period, it was common for the speeches given at People’s Liberation War commemorations to include references to the anti-Ottoman Serbian uprisings and other events from Serbian history. The regime appropriated the First World War memory as well. In the early 1950s, the commemoration of the Day of Liberation of Belgrade took place at the First World War memorial on Avala, before the memorial cemetery of Belgrade liberators was built.
Today’s amalgamation of the memory of the First and the Second World Wars in Serbia is different and has to do both with the relationship of the post-Milošević political elites to Yugoslav state socialism and with the recent rise of right-wing populism. While laying wreaths at a memorial to First World War soldiers, Aleksandar Vučić did not mention who the immortal liberators were and what their victory against fascism meant. The Partisans were an all-Yugoslav movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, and their struggle against the Axis occupation and its collaborators was a simultaneous socialist revolution. This is invisible in commemorations of their victory.
In her recent book, Jelena Subotić talks about the process of Holocaust memory becoming a proxy for remembering communism in Eastern Europe and terms it memory appropriation. The appropriation and inversion of Holocaust memory exists in Serbian memory politics, too. Additionally, during the last decade, the communist-led and victorious People’s Liberation War has been appropriated for various inward- and outward-oriented needs of Serbia’s political elites. At the same time, the Second World War is a proxy for remembering the First World War and other wars throughout Serbian history officially referred to as the liberation wars of Serbia (oslobodilački ratovi Srbije). The armed conflicts that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s are also counted among the liberation wars.
Belgrade Liberation Day was not always remembered. In the hegemonic anti-communist political climate of the immediate post-Milošević period, the official politics of memory rather aimed at criminalising the Partisans while rehabilitating their enemies – the Axis collaborators who were on the defeated side of the Second World War. In the search for a role model from the Second World War politically more appropriate for the post-socialist nation-state than the Partisans, political actors construed the Chetniks as the national antifascist movement and as victims of communism, because of the post-war retribution they faced when their leader Dragoljub Mihailović was sentenced to death and executed in 1946. In Belgrade, the Partisans and Red Army commanders were erased from street names while the Cemetery of Belgrade Liberators was left to ruin.
A sudden change came in 2009, when the Liberation Day celebration was organised under the title “Belgrade Remembers”, after almost a decade of forgetting. It coincided with the state visit of Dmitri Medvedev, at the time President of Russia. Serbian state officials, including President Boris Tadić, managed to go through the series of commemorative activities and speeches without mentioning the Partisans, Josip Broz ‘Tito’ or socialist Yugoslavia. What followed in 2014, when the Serbian Progressive Party was already in power, was a pompous military parade, organised four days before the actual Liberation Day so that Vladimir Putin could attend it. In this period, the First World War song “March to the Drina” established itself as an inseparable part of the celebrations of Liberation Day and Victory Day on 9 May. The Army of Serbia became the key memory actor in commemorations of the People’s Liberation War, as their purpose became celebrating the Serbian army in past and present. This is also why the government uses the occasion of Liberation Day to organise spectacular displays of its military power.
In addition to the commemorative military parade in 2014, the first in Belgrade since 1985, the official merging of the two world wars was confirmed through the invention of the Days of Freedom (Dani slobode), a two-week-long joint commemoration of the liberation of Belgrade in both the First and Second World Wars. It takes place between 20 October and 1 November, connecting the two liberation days and involving a series of activities such as a street race, concerts, historical re-enactments, a memorial procession, displays of Serbian military power, and the now traditional concert of the Alexandrov Ensemble from Russia. For most primary school pupils across Belgrade, 20 October starts with a mandatory class about the battles for the liberation of the city in 1944.
The concert of the official choir of the Russian armed forces is not a random part of the liberation festivities. The return to commemorating the People’s Liberation War has gone hand in hand with the strengthening of relations between Serbia and Russia. Russian state representatives and diplomats are crucial actors of the memory politics on the Second World War in Serbia. This “memory alliance” is most visible on the occasions of Victory Day and Liberation Day that honour and historicise the Serbian-Russian friendship. Russian memory politics is also a source of inspiration for Serbian memory actors, with the appropriation not only of generic commemorative practices such as military parades to the Serbian context, but also of very particular acts and symbols, such as the Immortal Regiment and St George’s Ribbons.
The Days of Freedom as a state-sponsored project of world wars’ fusion illuminate the memory appropriation, historical revisionism and relativization of historical events that are at the core of Serbia’s official memory politics. “The ideologies pass, as concerts, exhibitions and theatre plays will show, while the desire for freedom is eternal”, says Aleksandar Gatalica, author and art director of the 2019 Days of Freedom, talking about the symbols of King Peter I and hammer and sickle on the soldiers’ caps as no longer conflicted but reconciled. The national reconciliation discourse erases the specificities of historical contexts, their consequences and legacies as well as ideologies, merging all actors under the symbolic umbrella of the Serbian army. The construction of a glorious military past as a source of pride is, however, not unique to Serbia’s post-socialist transformation processes – or to contemporary Russia – but exemplifies the wider phenomenon of the interplay of right-wing populism and memory politics. Hybrid memory politics of authoritarian democracies blend nationalism and a vision of the past through the binary lens of heroism and victimhood with “a populist self-representation as the historical underdog”. The mnemonic efforts of contemporary populists resemble the traditional nation-building processes that aimed at constructing a coherent national history, usually in combination with military pride. At the same time, they are also a novel phenomenon influenced by the current rise of populism and emergence of new forms of authoritarian democracies at the global level and the templates and tropes of memory that have developed since the end of the Second World War.
Jelena Đureinović is Scientific Coordinator of the research platform "Transformations and Eastern Europe" at the University of Vienna. She holds a PhD in History from Justus Liebig University in Gießen. Her main research interests include memory studies, nationalism studies, postsocialism, history of Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav space. Her book The Politics of Memory of the Second World War in Contemporary Serbia: Collaboration, Resistance and Retribution was published with Routledge in 2019.
Originally published on November 16, 2020 on the Transformative Blog of the Research Center for the History of Transformations (RECET) of the University of Vienna.
by Vjollca Krasniqi
The Covid-19 pandemic has assumed a central position altering the many aspects of the institutional and everyday life. This novel condition has had an impact on memorialisation too with the institution of lockdown and social distancing measures. The corona virus pandemic has forced us to live in the present. However, these unprecedented times has not made it obsolete, but rather relevant to continue inquiring into how the past envelopes and shapes the present? How the past guides the present? And also, despite uncertainty looming large about the future due to the Covid-19 pandemic, how is the future imagined?
The past may be represented as static and frozen in the present, but it is far from that. It is dynamic and formative of sociality, identity, and collective memory. Yet, as Halbwachs has pointed out ‘even at the moment of reproducing the past our imagination remains under the influence of the present social milieu’ (Halbwachs 1992, p. 49). Hence, the past and the present are mutually constituted. The past maintains a living relation to the present, entangled in the social structures of the present and molded into political discourse, cultural memory, memory policy and commemoration practices.
As an inherent part of the social structure, memorialisation is a representation of how societies remember, define and negotiate meanings of the past, as well as how they forge identity and belonging. Represented in the public sphere, memorialisation is expressed in commemoration events, memorials, symbols, emblems, art projects, memory policy and mnemonic communities. Altogether they constitute myriad narrations of the past offering a rich panoply of sources for understanding how the present relates to the past and how is shaped by the past.
Nations and memory have stood indivisible and intertwined to this present day. Memory is formative of the national identity. Nations account their imagined continuity through a given national temporality. Similarly, to other contexts, in Southeast Europe, the nation has remained the dominant frame of memorialisation and it has served to forge an exclusivist national identity. The memory politics has become a vehicle for national interpretations of the past through an exclusionary lens and hierarchical categorisation of past events and its actors within the imagined ‘We’ community and in opposition to the ‘Other’. Transmission of memories feeds into national imaginings maintaining divisive group remembrances and competing narratives of the past undermining social cohesion.
Power has been an overall system of memorialisation constructing the relationship between memory, places, actors and mnemonic practices. Interpretations and renditions of the past in the present are mere manifestations of power relations. The memory of the past is selective, but there are multiple and contested ways in which the past events are remembered and represented in the public domain. Yet, despite being nestled on continuity and national temporality, memorialisation carries potential for genuine transformative politics and social change. For this to take ground, memorialisation should be viewed as a platform to search for a shared memory of the past.
These unprecedented times of the Covid-19 pandemic show the importance of solidarity, mutual support, understanding and recognition of diverse knowledges, experiences, and voices. Today more than ever before there is a need of memorialisation premised on empathy and solidarity to undo the exclusivist nationalist frames which can lead to social change. Harnessed with this is mind, the memorialisation frameworks can be a meaningful point of departure for social construction of the present that is democratic and inclusive of diverse histories, memories, sentiments, and actors beyond the confines of imagined communities.