Yugoslavia died in 1991. Or 1992. Or 1995, 1999, 2003, or maybe even 2018, pending the results of the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece. In Croatia, however, Yugoslavia, for all intents and purposes, may as well have never existed, or so many in power hope. The Croatian right has pushed in recent years for a narrative of false equivalence between Yugoslav “totalitarianism” under Josip Broz Tito and fascism, an experience and critical point of memory handled all too haphazardly. The iconography of the Independent State of Croatia/Nezavisna država Hrvatska (NDH), the Nazi puppet state that during the Second World War controlled much of what later became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, has seen a resurgence in popularity at public commemorations in Croatia and was revived by paramilitary forces in the early years of the 1991-1995 Croatian War of Independence, commonly referred to as the “Homeland War”.
Croatia’s history as a constituent republic of Yugoslavia saw the construction of massive, elaborately crafted monuments remembering the “National Liberation War”, as Tito’s Partisans had framed the Second World War. Now known by the Serbo-Croatian term spomenik (spomenici in plural), and recently popularised by often uninformed social media clickbait pieces, these monuments marked major battles – whether victories or defeats – and the sites of NDH concentration camps primarily in the Croatian countryside and Dalmatian hinterlands. The Spomenik Database project by Donald Niebyl records in great detail the origins, design, symbolism and ultimate fate of the memorials and provides a valuable resource for contemporary memory and architecture scholars. Beyond the grandiose spomenici designed by renowned architects like Bogdan Bogdanović, Vojan Bakić and Dušan Džamonja, hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller memorial placards on buildings or along once-important backroads recall smaller skirmishes, massacres or locals who fought and died elsewhere during the Second World War, or authors and artists of renown who contributed to the attempted creation of a united “Yugoslav” identity.
When the Homeland War erupted after Croatia’s unilateral declaration of independence on 25 June 1991 (though violence had begun in March of that year in the Krajina region surrounding northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina), anything remotely Yugoslav was seen as a target for removal. Guilty by association with the now Serb-centric rump Yugoslav state and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), which by the end of 1991 had bombarded Dubrovnik from the sea and massacred 260+ civilians and soldiers in a farm near Vukovar, monuments were destroyed in Kamenska and Košute in 1992. Throughout the war, smaller memorial placards and monuments faced a similar fate, whether through demolition or vandalism, this trend continuing after the war’s end in 1995. Between 1995 and 2008, four more large spomenici in Petrova Gora, Korenica, Drvar and Knin, the site of Croatia’s final victory in “Operation Storm” were destroyed, and several more abandoned to nature.
The purpose of destroying a monument is to condemn what it recalls to oblivion (“damnatio memoriae”). Denying the existence of Croatia’s Yugoslav past meant rejecting the values that underpinned post-war Yugoslavia: anti-fascism, anti-nationalism, peace, brotherhood and unity. The resurgence of nationalist discourse from the mid-1970s in Croatia and in Serbia from the late 1980s marked the gradual reshaping of their respective ethnic identities in opposition to the supranational “Yugoslav” identity that had emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War. Modern Croatian war narratives do borrow heavily in their structure from Yugoslavia – the Homeland War was seen as a “liberation” and “defence” from “Greater Serbian aggression”, much as the Second World War was a “people’s liberation struggle” from fascism; Croatian “defenders” receive the same elevated praise as Tito’s Partisan fighters; the Yugoslav past was an artifice, as the disunity of the South Slavs was to the originators of the Yugoslav project. These reformulations seek to replace and ultimately eradicate Yugoslavia from the history Croatia has written for itself, in doing so restoring a degree of continuity to the “thousand-year dream” of Croatian independence, a slogan promoted by war-time President Franjo Tuđman and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) throughout the 1990s conflict.
Manipulating memory in such a way as to create new enemies from former brothers is a violent means to often violent ends. This abuse of memory – that is, constructing how the past is remembered to perpetuate or incite violence, whether physical or social (and it is often social) – is part and parcel of the Croatian cultural conscience. The revival of NDH symbols as tokens of “independence”, brushing aside their associations with the mass murder of Jews, Serbs and Roma in the Second World War, leaves participants in the commemorative process with little room to critique their own social environments. While in many areas generally untouched by the Homeland War (above all in the Istrian peninsula) Yugoslav monuments have been either preserved or tolerated – but not actively neglected, in more spaces, particularly in Slavonia and Dalmatia, they have been vandalised, removed or repurposed to fit the conservative image of Croatia that has spread even after the country’s accession to the European Union in 2013. Among the most common act of vandalising involves the spraying of “NDH” and the letter U with a cross in the middle, symbolising the NDH’s Ustaša paramilitary. The new public face of memory in Croatia is indeed quite old.
Monuments constructed after the Homeland War also underpin a nationalist, anti-Yugoslav and anti-reconciliatory narrative. Above all, new monuments recall the sacrifices of the “defenders”/“branitelji”, pushing a violent, masculine discourse of war, while ignoring civilian victims – especially women – and neglecting the crimes committed against ethnic Serbs during the end phases of war in August 1995. Where once Serbs and Croats co-existed, the forced removal of Serbs during Operation Storm is marked by celebration. Counter-memories recalling peaceful, neighbourly relations are lost, ignored or drowned out by louder voices denouncing Yugoslavia as a totalitarian project of repressive communism and “Greater Serbdom”. The reports of the death of Yugoslavia may be greatly exaggerated, but in Croatia, the continual second death of Yugoslavia is a phenomenon to which scholars of memory, nationalism, violence and identity should all take heed.
Taylor McConnell is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.