Yugoslavia’s contested memories

Is it possible to avoid ideologies?[1]

In Italy, after about 70 years, Fascism is still a dissonant heritage. To be sure, there is a past not yet elaborated by Italians. The topic is more often than not, after the end of the so called 1st Republic, exploited by the political forces in a quite rigid framework: from the myth of the partisans on the left, to the revisionism – indulgence toward fascism – on the right.

Is Italy an exception? Apparently the answer is negative. Indeed, socialist Yugoslavia and its remembrance are not experiencing an easy life in the public memory.

After the end of WW2, the new socialist regime lead by Josip Broz – Tito, had to re-write the narrative of his country after the tragic experience of the war, the dismemberment of the Yugoslav kingdom and the so called fratricide conflict. Talking about the recent past, during socialism, it was not allowed to discuss about the war avoiding a regime sponsored narrative, in which the partisans were the heroes. It was, politically, a taboo: to adopt a critical thinking was not allowed because it was an attack to the regime.

The partisan myth went unchallenged for decades, but then, in the 1980s, after the death of Tito, the first critics grew, from Slovenia to Serbia. During the first half of the 80s, some irresolute attempts of repression of the dissent failed (as the so called white book of Stipe Suvar, or the repression of some intellectuals by Stane Dolanc, head of the security services). The public intellectuals, that criticized, at some extent, the regime, attacked vehemently exactly that myth: the partisan heroic war, Tito etc. They did so because it was a way to attack the politicians and the government. To many Yugoslav citizens, at the end of the 1980s, the partisan myth was nothing more than empty rhetoric, empty and outdated words. It had no real appeal on the population, it was not anymore a mobilizing factor: at the time just nationalism was able to mobilize the people.

The rhetoric adopted by the dissidents usually was nationalist (Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian etc.) and at the time was usually interpreted as democratic by the West. In other words, socialist Yugoslavia got money and help also from the West – in particular the USA exploited the heresy of the titoist regime in the European eastern flanks as an instrument against the Soviet Union. At the same time, while during the Cold war a stable regime in Belgrade was functional for Washington, the opponents, critics and dissenters of socialist Yugoslavia were generally welcomed and supported by the very same West, while not formally or officially. The long term goal was to promote, one day, a pluralistic democracy in Yugoslavia.

The socialist regime punished, in an authoritarian way, the dissent, blocking their career, with imprisonment, banning them from the political life or even killing some opponents abroad. While Yugoslav socialism was far more liberal compared to the Eastern bloc (because of the travel’s freedom, the consumerism, just to mention a couple), it was, without doubts, an authoritarian, illiberal political regime. The regime did not avoid censorship and political persecution and repression against any form of political criticism. This historical heritage was just made more controversial with the end of the regime, the dissolution of the common Yugoslav state and, in the end, with the wars during the first half of the 1990s.


In the main former Yugoslav republics, there was – and still is – a major trend in the use of public history and the memories of socialism. While each republic developed its own narrative – because they had to justify the independence from the past federation in the last twenty years, generally speaking, the rhetoric about the independence is mainly a prerogative of the center-right. On the other side, to indulge toward Yugoslavia and socialism is seen as a prerogative of the center-left, and in particular (but not only) the social-democrat parties heirs of the national league of communists.

What does it means practically? Recently, in Croatia, for example, the political advisor of the President of the Republic was fired during the pre-electoral campaign for the presidential elections, because he wrote that the referendum about independence (held in 1991) was not properly legal. In the national discourse in Croatia the patriotic war is the prevailing myth, everything that is connected or linked with socialism is seen by the voters of the center right and their interested leaders as something horrible, a crime, a dangerous revisionism. Still, just recently, in Rijeka a new university center about the studies of socialism emerged (such the everyday life of the people during socialism etc). Moreover, a younger generation of historians is trying to rehabilitate part of the socialist era, going on public debate in the media. Anyway, to be sure, to be too soft toward socialism or, even worst, to question the independence of Croatia is a kind of taboo in the public discourse.

While I can’t talk about every single former Yugoslav republic, I would like to mention few other cases. In Slovenia, the political feud between the center left and the center right is basically an everyday matter. For example, in 2009 there was an exhibition at the Museum of the contemporary history about the Slovenian 1989 and a celebration of its independence of Slovenia from Yugoslavia. This is the kind of cultural product that is functional for the right, such as Janez Jansa. The very same year, a street in Ljubljana was named after Tito, but a court in 2011 considered it unconstitutional. In 2011 a 2 euro commemorative coin portrayed Franc Rozman, a Slovenian partisan, and again new polemics in the public opinion emerged (with some minor indignation in Italy, because it was linked, symbolically with the “foibe” topic, which is by itself very controversial). Among the most recent case, I can mention the referendum advanced by the center right about opening and digitalizing all the documents in the archives of the ministry of internal affairs. The basic idea was to attack publicly the Slovenian citizens who collaborated with the regime as informers. In the end the referendum did not achieve its goals (actually it was a very long and expensive project).

What about Serbia? Serbia had quite a different path compared to Slovenia and Croatia. It was a kind of latecomer. Since during the 1990s the former communists held power – Milosevic – the process of revision of the public memory started just in the past decade and still is ongoing. Milosevic’s regime maintained the same currency (dinar), the same name of the country (Yugoslavia), and never repudiated the socialist inheritance. When the opposition in 1996/97 got the power in the city of Belgrade (Zoran Djindjic), the red star on the top of the town hall was promptly removed. On the contrary, in the years following the 5th October 2000, new/old names were given to the streets (such as Bulevar revolucije/kralja Aleksandra), with a very strange effect to the least. Politically, the Socialist party of Serbia, recently took distance from the 1990s and the years of euphoric nationalism (this is also an effect of the EU pressures), but did not make a radical U turn toward socialism. SPS still is the heir of the socialist memory. Ivica Dacic, the leader of the SPS, last year spent generous words towards the widow of Tito (Jovanka), and somehow tried to reconsider the figure of Rankovic, the chief of the security services fall in disgrace in the 60s. The center right supports a process of historical revision in order to 1) denounce the crimes of the partisans, especially at the end of WW2 (e.g. with exhibitions and TV series), and 2) trace the corpses of the victims of partisans, including Draza Mihailovic, the former head of the Chetniks, the royalist Serbian army. In other words, there it is clearly an attempt to shape a new and alternative discourse that could represents the values of the right wing public opinion of Serbia.

If we change republic, such as in Macedonia, the situation is not that different after all: the right, the VMRO-DPMNE nationalist party, is pushing for a wave of “lustracija” (the intent is similar to the right in Slovenia – to accuse members of the current establishment of being collaborators of the criminal socialist regime). In Kosovo there are recent cases of destruction of partisans monuments, because they are connected with the idea of Yugoslavia, Serbia and oppression of the Albanian population. Bosnia and Herzegovina is somehow mirroring the quarrels of its neighbors, while Tito is still a kind of popular hero among part of the Muslim population (because the regime recognized Muslims as a nation in the 1960s and supported Bosnia as a third player between Serbia and Croatia).

As we can see, the socialist memories of Yugoslavia are a battlefield used and abused by political parties. Socialist Yugoslavia was not able to confront its past because of the regime. The democratic regimes are confronting the past with a very parochial point of view, opposing and comparing a crime with another one. At the same time, the memories of socialism, who is seen today by many across the boundaries with indulgence because at that time there was work, money, welfare state etc. But the public opinions of former Yugoslavia is actually “overcrowded”. They have to cope with the myth of independence (generally speaking), they have to deal with the wars (and the cooperation with the ICTY). On the top of that, there is one more dissonance process, such as to recognize that the recent past was a kind of evil and the public opinion should take distance from certain events (e.g. the paramilitary formations in Bosnia and their war crimes). The very same fact that t-shirts with Ratko Mladic are sold at the bus station in Belgrade, or Ante Gotovina is considered a hero (and it is quite common to find graffiti depicting him in Dalmatia), is a signal that the field of public history and shared memories is, to the least, controversial, and is undergoing some sort of revisionism. Finally, the EU is pushing the Western Balkans, directly and indirectly, to assume a different approach toward their recent past, because EU members should not have open conflicts. The transition from a nationalistically minded public discourse to a one politically correct, as usually prevail in the West, is not an easy one. To consider the cultural heritage as just a piece of history, that could be economically exploited (e.g. with tourism), is very hard when contemporary events are in question, because it opens fresh scars.

Christian Costamagna

[1] The first draft of this paper was originally presented at the Fondazione Micheletti in November 2014. The opinions expressed in this paper are exclusively of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Fondazione Micheletti.


One thought on “Yugoslavia’s contested memories

  1. The conservative nationalism is much bigger threat to the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, than it was Tito’s socialism.

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