- 1 Dragovic-Soso, Jasna, (2007), “Why did Yugoslavia Disintegrate? An Overview of Contending Explanat (...)
1The dissolution of the Communist Party and the dismembering of the Yugoslav Federation in the early nineties gave rise to ethnic conflicts culminating in the “secessionist wars” in Croatia and Bosnia. The break-up of Yugoslavia has been the subject of heated academic debates during the nineties. While the academic interest in this topic has since then diminished, an overview of existing literature suggests that the explanations of Yugoslavia’s disappearance are manifold and that the debate is not over yet1.
- 2 Watson, Ruby S., (1994), «Memory, History, and Opposition under State Socialism», in Ruby S. Watso (...)
- 3 Hayden Robert M., (1994), «Recounting the Dead. The Rediscovery and Redefinition of Wartime Massac (...)
- 4 Aguilar, Paloma, (2002), Memory and Amnesia. The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition t (...)
2One of the most contested issues in the literature was related to the role of collective memory in triggering nationalist backlash and ethnic strife. Throughout Eastern Europe, the totalitarian nature of the socialist regimes produced a discrepancy between official history and collective memory. The latter was filled with hidden transcripts “produced by enduring groups within their own social space” through the transmission of personal memories and their incorporation into subsequent counter-narratives2. These counter-narratives eventually challenged the official discourse, opening the way for a reform of society. In the Yugoslav case, the “hidden stories” initially aimed at undermining the totalizing communist state in an attempt to create a pluralistic society were later exploited by nationalist elites who prompted the violent break-up of the country3. These developments demonstrate how historic memory can influence the present in either a positive or a negative way. Yugoslavia has been pointed out as an example of how “conflicting historic memory results in the impossibility to build a common future or achieve social harmony and political stability”4. The Yugoslav case also highlights the importance of autobiographical memory and oral history in shaping the representation of the past.
- 5 Halbwachs, Maurice, (1992), On collective memory, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and Lon (...)
- 6 Aguilar, P., Memory and amnesia, p. 24.
3The aim of this essay is to contribute to the study of collective memory of the violent break-up of former Yugoslavia by analyzing the testimonies of people who have taken part in the war. If we consider that historical memory has both cumulative and presentist aspects5, we must also acknowledge the fact that the initial construction of a historical event limits what can subsequently be said about it6. Therefore, the collection of testimonies in the wake of such events is of crucial importance for the subsequent “histories” to be produced and for the proper “history of memory” of this conflict.
- 7 The interviews analysed in this paper were collected by the Documentation Centre “Wars 1991-1991” (...)
4This study relies on secondary source testimonies of people who participated in the armed conflicts that took place in Croatia between 1991 and 19957. In the first part, we show how, under communism, a strong national consciousness persisted in spite of the official discourse of “brotherhood and unity” promoted by the authorities. A special emphasis is given to the existence of hidden transcripts related to World War II and on discourses challenging the foundations of Yugoslav society during this period. The second part deals with the externalization of the hidden transcripts which produced an increase of inter-ethnic tensions resulting in the outbreak of the war. We draw on the existing academic literature in order to explore how changes in public discourse, the display of symbols, and competition over monuments affected these individuals and led them to take part in the conflict. Finally, in the third chapter, we analyse the recollection of the latest conflict among the Serb and Croat war veterans. Drawing on the work of Maurice Halbwachs, we scrutinize the presentist features of these narratives and discern the importance of collective remembrance in the perpetuation of memories.
- 8 Scott, James C., (1990), «Behind the official story», in James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts o (...)
- 9 Ibid, p. 4.
- 10 Ibid, p. 9.
5The concept of public and hidden transcript was introduced by James Scott to categorize the power relationships which take place at different levels in society. The term public transcript denotes “the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate”8. This official interface disguises hidden transcripts which characterize discourses “that take place offstage, beyond direct observation by powerholders”9. In other words, the hidden transcripts generated in both the dominant and subordinated group are concealed by a mask which constitutes the public transcript. Scott argues that the discrepancy between these transcripts may develop a “fantasy” of revenge and confrontation by the subordinated individuals which can become a collective cultural product when the suffering is systematically experienced by a whole race, class or stratum10.
- 11 Watson, Ruby S., (1994), «Memory, History, and Opposition under State Socialism», in Ruby S. Watso (...)
- 12 Hayden, R., «Recounting the dead», p. 168.
6The opposition between public and hidden transcripts in socialist societies has been assessed by several authors in Watson’s “Memory, history and opposition under state socialism”11. Of particular interest to us is the work of Robert Hayden who analyses how the official discourse of the Communist Party was challenged both within and outside the party in the eighties12. He shows how these criticisms originally aimed at undermining communism were soon used to build nationalist feelings. Instead of prompting the democratization of society, the outbreak of these secret stories led to an atmosphere of increased polarization between the mutually exclusive histories. Consequently, the initial totalizing socialist ideology was replaced by a totalizing nationalist one, resulting in the dismembering of the country and the outburst of inter-ethnic conflicts.
7Our objective here is to appraise the existence of hidden transcripts and counter-narratives in the collected testimonies. In order to do so, we are going to analyze accounts relating to the pre-war period by emphasizing perceptions of national identities, inter-ethnic relations and attitudes toward the authorities. These testimonies all begin with an autobiography of the informant through remembering of the pre-war period and life in socialist Yugoslavia which brings them to evoke inter-ethnic relations and the perception of national identity during that period. Obviously, these accounts vary in accordance with the informant’s background and we are highlighting here only those which are relevant for our purpose.
8Most of the Serbs interviewed originate from Krajina, and more precisely the region of Knin where the population was ethnically mixed with a considerable majority of Serbian households. Although included in the Republic of Croatia, this territory had regional and historic specificities since it was first the borderland between the Venetian Republic and the Ottomans, and later between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. During that period, the region was populated with Serb settlers in order to create a buffer zone with the Ottomans, which explains why that area is still denominated as “borderland” (Krajina). During World War II, the region was integrated into the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a puppet state of Nazi Germany, which launched a vast campaign of persecution and extermination against the Serb, Jewish and Roma populations. Resistance was soon organized around the royalist pro-Serb Chetniks and the Yugoslav communist partisans that fought against each other while opposing the Nazi Germans and Croat Ustashas. As we shall see, these historical references played an important role in shaping the identity of the local Serb community.
9Although the Yugoslav communist regime was repressing nationalist feelings by promoting the idea of “brotherhood and unity” between the nations constituting Yugoslavia, ethnic identity remained important in the eyes of the local population. This situation produced a dichotomy between public and private transcripts, generating hostility towards the authorities and reproducing inter-ethnic antagonisms through the generations. These facts are illustrated by testimonies in which the informants depict how public exhibition of national identity was banned during the socialist period.
- 13 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N. Ratovanja 1, p. 2.
“In my family, we celebrated the Serbian Slava (Orthodox Patron Saint Day, M.O), but we couldn’t play Serbian music loudly because of the neighbours and the police would always beat us and curse our Serbian descent.”13
- 14 See Colovic, Ivan, (2002), The Politics of Symbol in Serbia. Essays in political anthropology, Hur (...)
10In these circumstances, individuals were forced to look for alternative means of identification. The patterns of national differentiation were translated to the domain of sport at the club level. Indeed, “Serbianness” was exhibited by supporting Red Star (Belgrade) ; “Croatianness” by supporting Hajduk (Split)”. This mass phenomenon constituted an important medium for the propagation of nationalism in the former Yugoslavia14. For the Serb community in Krajina, supporting Belgrade’s clubs was a symbol of connection and allegiance to Serbia. Throughout the interviews, Serbian informants emphasized how they were conscious of their “origins” and ethnic belonging :
- 15 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, p. 124.
“We were constantly turning to the east and looking beyond the Dinara, because our motherland was there.”15
11This fascination for Serbia and feeling of national identity was essentially perpetuated by the oral tradition and the transmission of personal memories at the inter-generational level. This is certainly the domain where hidden narratives are the most salient since they stand in direct opposition to official history. These accounts were not only meant to retrace events experienced by preceding generations, but to produce a holistic vision of Serbian history starting from the Middle Ages. The induction of history at an informal level thus enabled the formation of a national consciousness.
12Oral history most explicitly opposed the official discourse in the recollection of the recent past. As the memory of ethnic strife and mass atrocities perpetrated during World War II was repressed by the communist regime, the remembrance and commemoration of these events was relegated to the private sphere. One informant describes how these hidden transcripts perpetuated suspicion and mistrust in the everyday relationships between the Serb and Croat communities :
“I don’t recall someone openly saying ‘these are Chetniks…’ ; they were probably talking about us, as we were talking about them, in a hidden way. So, we talked about it, we knew who was an Ustasha before. […] We knew, at least I knew, what happened… even if they taught us wrong about the revolution and how the partisans won the war.”16
13This excerpt reveals how the hidden transcripts produced in a private setting within the two communities contradicted the official transcript transmitted at school. Moreover, they rendered the coexistence between the two communities difficult by uncovering the wounds from the previous conflict :
“…forty-five years had passed, it is not a long period of time, my parents were born then… and my grandfather remembered it well and was telling me, he was always talking about it… And he told me, our nearest neighbours, our nearest neighbours attacked us and killed one of his neighbours, they threw a bomb at them in nineteen forty-one, you see.”17
14The extent of these hidden transcripts is confirmed by the testimony of another informant, also from Knin, who depicts how these stories had a deep impact on him during childhood. He grew up in a mixed neighbourhood, where he used to play with his Croat friends, although they secretly felt contempt for each other at an early stage. These feelings would never be expressed publicly ; they were kept hidden, like the stories recounted by the older generations that cultivated or transmitted these antagonisms.
“At that time already, when we were kids, we used to ‘attack’ these Jelic’s as if they were Ustashas when playing games… so I never accepted that story that everything was alright, that it was ideal ; we deeply interiorized those stories we heard from our elders about the Ustashas, about everything that happened in nineteen forty-one when the massacres started in Krajina [...] We would never tell them publicly that they were Ustashas …But I am sure that they also called us Chetniks, the same way as we called them Ustashas. This is that fake picture of brotherhood and unity.”18
15On the other hand, the same informant states that he always used to consort with Croats who would even come along with him to football games of Belgrade’s Red Star club. Moreover, his relatives would often attend the Croats’ religious feasts and vice-versa. But he “shaped his mind” at an early stage by listening to stories told by his grandmother and other elderly people who were challenging the representation of World War II in the official discourse. These counter-narratives were reinforced by the influence of several teachers at school who guided him in the quest for national identity and the building of a “healthy” nationalism19. The hidden transcripts were thus not limited to the family level ; they were also perpetuated in the state institutions, although still in a private way. This divergence between public and hidden transcripts led to increasing tensions and to an escalating display of nationalist symbols, fuelled by opposing discourses competing over identity and historical representations that soon turned into open conflicts.
- 20 Ibid. p. 96.
- 21 Ibid, p. 68.
16It is interesting to note that, as the principal distinction between Serbs and Croats, religion occasionally played a bridging role between the two communities. Indeed, the respect of mutual traditions offered a good base for peaceful coexistence and shared celebrations. A former shop owner from Knin recalls how the Serbs used to participate in the celebration of the Catholic Christmas and the Croats did the same with the Serbian feasts20. However, he argues that this harmony was essentially due to the numerical supremacy of one group over the other, owing to the fact that the Serbs outnumbered the Croats, who, according to him, only represented twenty per cent of the population in that neighbourhood. This perception is contested by accounts of people who lived in regions with a more equal ethnic composition of the population. Indeed, an interviewee from Karlovac, a town where the representation of ethnic groups was more balanced, states that the same practices of mutual respect and harmonious coexistence prevailed in that area21.
- 22 Leutloff-Grandits, Carolin, (2004), «Religious Celebrations and the (Re)Creation of Communities in (...)
- 23 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, p. 127.
17Religious festivals played a particularly significant role in the relations between the Catholic and Orthodox communities22. They had an important social meaning as they promoted group interaction and identity creation at a local level. Even if they were bearers of a particular national tradition and culture, these religious celebrations often included members of the other ethnic group. This is illustrated by the passionate account of an informant from Modrino Selo who recalls the greatness of these events to which both Serbs and Croats participated cordially at least until the nineties23. The festivals served as social platforms where local youths used to meet and get engaged according to the local customs which involved the fiancée being taken away from her household by the groom. Although they were an exception rather than a rule, mixed marriages occurred on these occasions. Moreover, the ties between the two communities were maintained by the kinship relations between Croat and Serb families which were transmitted through generations.
18On the Croatian side, the hidden transcripts took a somewhat different shape since they were not related to the events of World War II, but to a constant yearning for “national” emancipation fomented by discourses denouncing Serbian domination and calling for the establishment of an independent state. Although the “Yugoslav project” was to some extent initiated by Croatian intellectuals, it has never been an object of consensus among the wider population. For the majority, the establishment of the kingdom of Yugoslavia after the First World War was seen as an extension of the Serbian monarchy and the replacement of Austro-Hungarian domination by Serbian hegemony. After World War II, the communist regime attempted to attenuate this perception by providing broad autonomy to the newly established republics and by restricting Serbia’s political weight within the Yugoslav federation.
19It is important to point out that the Croatian informants do not come from the Knin area, which prevents the comparative analysis of testimonies issuing from members of the same local community. The advantage is that it enables a more compre-hensive analysis of the Croatian national narrative among war veterans. These testimonies suggest that the awakening of the “national consciousness” relied on a threefold basis : a strong relationship between the Catholic faith and national identity, a “historical” quest for an independent state, and a feeling of national subjugation within the Yugoslav federation.
- 24 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 3, p. 22.
“Owing to the fact that we have always been a nationally determined family, the national option was always firmly expressed. There has always been a desire for freedom, for independence, so that we could finally re-establish this state that we had eleven centuries ago. I always considered, even before the events of nineteen seventy-one, that Croatia was not equal to Serbia ; we could feel… especially in Dalmatia, a ‘Serbianization’ of the Croat population.”24
20This “Serbianization” of the Dalmatian population refers to the earlier discussed allegiance of local Serbs towards Serbia, which was perceived by some Croats as a reluctance to integrate in the local society :
“It is a specific region, in the last fifteen years they have reacted strangely to their environment, and in fact they did not want to integrate into that environment. There is a famous joke saying that they planted corn praying for rain in Serbia.”25
21This attitude was at odds with the position of the Croatian informants who emphasize how the Croatian Republic stood above the Yugoslav Federation in their eyes, in the sense that their identity and their interests were perceived at the local level. They claim to have considered themselves as Yugoslav only “in terms of citizenship”, since their national identity was clearly determined at an early stage26. In that situation, the hidden transcripts were calling attention to the defence of the Croatian national interests which were, in their view, compromised by the Yugoslav state.
“I was intrigued because I realized that, in the judiciary for example, people are named Milovan, Radovan, Gojko, and these names do not belong to my ethnicity, so I realized…clearly… that for me this was not normal. […] It was the same in the police, how many times did I have to face it. […] And I heard, and this is not a secret, that people were affected by this situation, but I didn’t experience it myself.”27
22Hence, the feeling of subjugation was increased by the conviction that members of the Croat community were under-represented in the state institutions at the local, national and international level.
“Since my family lived abroad and I have been out of the country a lot, I have realized their influence at the foreign policy level, because all the personnel in the embassies and consulates were Serbs or nationally uncommitted, committed to Yugoslavia.”28
- 29 Denich, Bette, (1994), «Dismembering Yugoslavia : nationalist ideologies and the symbolic revival (...)
- 30 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 3, p. 31.
- 31 Ibid, p. 78.
23This perception of injustice could only be counter-balanced by the resurging promise of independence. The longing for the establishment of an independent Croatian state was a hidden transcript which occasionally emerged in the public sphere and directly challenged the official discourse during the socialist period. This was the case during the “Croatian Spring” in 1971, when a political movement initiated by a group of prominent intellectuals called for greater rights for Croatia within Yugoslavia29. Although it was excluded from the public sphere by the communist authorities who had made every attempt to suppress and erase all such notions since World War II, the nationalist discourse remained at the private level. In this context, several informants declared how the death of Tito was already at that time perceived as a presage for the emancipation of Croatia30 and the forewarning of increasing tensions inside the Yugoslav federation that could lead to war31.
- 32 Hayden, R., «Recounting the Dead», p. 168.
- 33 Denich, B., «Dismembering Yugoslavia», p. 369.
24The collapse of the communist system brought hidden stories into the public sphere. This led to the creation of a new official history in order to “convert the ‘social memory’ underlying the old official history into a secret archive, officially both denied and suppressed”32. In the former Yugoslavia, the totalizing communist ideology has been replaced by a totalizing nationalist one, producing competing and mutually exclusive histories based on the hidden transcripts of the socialist period. The revelation of the once-hidden stories has enabled the “transmittal of Serbian and Croatian nationalist ideologies from the intellectual sphere to that of mass politics through the manipulation of symbols with polarizing emotional content”33. Discourses calling for a re-assessment of the past emerged on both sides, having deep implications for the political consciousness of the present.
25The analysis of the shift from socialist to nationalist official discourse in former Yugoslavia exceeds the scope of this paper. In this section, we will refer to the existing literature in order to analyse how the instrumentalization of symbols by the political elites has been perceived by the interviewed war veterans. Therefore, we limit our analysis to the factors that have played a major role in triggering the conflict from the point of view of our informants.
- 34 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, pp. 14-16.
26Most of the Serb informants recount how they perceived the introduction of the multi-party system and the emergence of the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) on the political scene as the event that triggered the deterioration of inter-ethnic relations. An architect from Zadar describes how these political changes were followed by purges in the management of firms and state institutions where the old establishment war replaced by political cadres loyal to the new regime34. Soon, tensions increased with the appearance of nationalist discourse and symbols, and mounting acts of violence led to the geographical separation of the two communities, which sought refuge in safer places, where their ethnic group was predominant.
- 35 Hayden, R., «Recounting the dead», pp. 173-175.
- 36 Ibid., pp. 176-178.
- 37 Denich, B. «Dismembering Yugoslavia», p. 376.
- 38 Hayden, R., «Recounting the dead», p. 178.
27The first multi-party electoral campaign revived the antagonisms conveyed by the hidden transcripts and used by the political parties to gain popularity. In Croatia, the uncovering of the massacres committed by the communist partisans against Croat and Serbian collaborators at the end of World War II compromised the old political elite and opened the way to the nationalist HDZ which advocated secession from Yugoslavia35. For the Serb minority, an independent Croatia was associated with the genocide perpetrated by the Ustasha regime, whose importance the leading Croatian politicians tended to minimize36. Prior to the elections, the leader of the HDZ, Franjo Tudjman, published a revisionist book that “sought to view the Ustasha genocide within the total sweep of human history”37. Hence, instead of acknowledging the massacres committed during World War II and giving way to public recognition of the Serb hidden transcripts, the new Croatian history denied the genocide, forcing these experiences back into hiding38. Under these circumstances, the arrival of the HDZ to power was even seen as a presage for war by some of the Croat informants :
- 39 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 3, p. 7.
“All right, the nationalists came to power, if a more moderate party had won, more Croatian Serbs would have been on that side [...], but a Serb could not be for the HDZ, that’s so normal. As soon as the HDZ won, they were enemies, so they joined the other ones (nationalists, M.O) and they had the weaponry from the beginning so they took these territories. Afterwards, we gained strength and took them back.”39
- 40 Denich, B., «Dismembering Yugoslavia», p. 381.
28Once elected, the new Croatian government relegated the Serbian population to the rank of minority by abrogating its status of “constituent nation”. Furthermore, it reintroduced the symbols associated with the fascist wartime state, the most prominent one being the chessboard as the key symbol of nationhood. Bette Denich argues that the reintroduction of these symbols has to be considered in the light of repressed memories that took the form of “standardized narratives evolving into oral traditions expressed as litanies of suffering”40. Indeed, this political act was irritating the collective memory of the Serb minority, which perceived it as an open provocation and refused to comply with the directives of the new government. This is illustrated by an informant from Karlovac who recounts how the workers had to sign allegiance to Croatia at work, and adds :
- 41 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, p. 70.
“All public places had to exhibit the chessboard. There was no way at that time… for any Serb to wear it, because they perished under that same chessboard. That’s how the roadblocks revolution started.”41
- 42 Denich, B., «Dismembering Yugoslavia», pp. 376, 377, 379.
29Moreover, the new government initiated a campaign of cultural repression by prohibiting Serbian cultural institutions, re-introducing the linguistic “innovations” of the wartime Ustasha state and designating the Latin alphabet as the sole official alphabet throughout Croatia42. An interviewee from Knin recalls the tensions at school :
- 43 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, p. 162.
“In my view, it all started at school, in education, when the Croats from Zagreb sent labels to stick on every map written in Cyrillic in order to overwrite in Latin. To write Croatian instead of Serbo-Croatian […] for me, this was the first semblance of tyranny, a cultural tyranny towards the Serbian nation ; it is the most dangerous of all kinds of tyrannies. That’s where it starts, there’s no doubt about it, absolutely, about who is responsible for the war that occurred down there.”43
- 44 Ibid., p. 99.
- 45 Ibid., p. 163.
30The conflict over cultural heritage extended to historic monuments. This can be illustrated by the story of the church in Cetina, which became a matter of dispute between the local Serbs and Croats. Indeed, both communities claimed that the church was “theirs” by quarrelling over the date when it was erected. Despite the fact that it was completely ruined and that the dispute didn’t make much sense since the Croats argued that it was erected in the eighth century, which precedes the Christian schism, the “politicians found a trouble-spot in this church which they used to create conflict among the people”44. This story is confirmed by another informant who states how it was the first direct confrontation between the two communities since both wanted to celebrate Ascension Day, which exceptionally that year was held on the same date, in this church45. Therefore, just as religious celebrations presented an opportunity for social interaction in peaceful times, they were also a potential source of inter-ethnic tensions.
- 46 Gordy, Eric D., (1999), The Culture of Power in Serbia : nationalism and the destruction of altern (...)
31This progressive degradation in the position of the Serb community in Croatia produced an increasing sense of threat and potential victimization that resulted in the rapprochement with the nationalist circles centred in Belgrade. In Serbia, the national “renewal” was taking place under the leadership of Milosevic who replaced the communist ideology with nationalism, while maintaining the power structures inherited from socialism46. Supported by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts which issued a Memorandum deploring the condition of the Serbian nation within Yugoslavia, the Serbian authorities launched a vast campaign of victimization of the Serb population. While the victimizing rhetoric initially focused on the status of the Serb community in Kosovo, it soon extended to the rediscovery and reinforcement of the memory of the Ustasha massacres in World War II. This campaign partly consisted in the organization of massive meetings, the so-called “happenings of the people”, during which parallels were drawn between the past suffering and the present situation of the Serbian nation. These mass rallies were also held in Croatia, as a Serb informant recalls :
- 47 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, p. 69.
“I remember Petrova Gora. A hundred buses came from Serbia. More than one hundred thousand people. Support from the Serbians for the Serbs in Croatia. Independence ! […] People believed in that Serbia, people were coming from Serbia and giving speeches about not wanting to see massacres and mass graves again as happened in World War II.”47
32The local population welcomed these events where “people used to go and ‘let off steam’ as if it was a football game”48. The comparison with sport might be accidental, but it clearly symbolises how national feelings emerged from the hidden sphere, where they could only be displayed via sporting events, to be publicly exhibited at these massive rallies. The increasing influence from Serbia was perceived by many Croats as a renewal of Serbian hegemony representing an obstacle to the establishment of an independent state. For many Croats, the Serbian nationalist movement was a precursor to the conflict :
- 49 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 3, p. 120-121.
“The Memorandum was a forbearer of the war. […] All Serb mobilization was created through the myth of Kosovo, around the Serbs’ defeat and the occupation by the Albanians…”49
- 50 Hayden, R., «Recounting the dead», p. 179-180.
33As the Yugoslav federation collapsed, the propaganda warfare between the two regimes intensified through the state-controlled media, which were used to convey the newly minted nationalist official histories generating a genuine “verbal civil war”50. This is illustrated by the testimony of a Serb from Knin who explains how a journalist from Belgrade came to investigate the massacres which occurred in World War II.
- 51 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, p. 100.
“Those from Belgrade were as damaging as the ones from Zagreb. […] This is all true, these massacres were well known to the local population, but there had been enough time since 1941 to investigate and punish those who had committed these crimes. […] So, there was the Catholic Church on one side and the Belgrade media on the other. The masses are livestock that can be easily manipulated.” 51
34Thus, the Serbian community in Croatia found itself trapped in between the Croat nationalist authorities who contested the traumatic experiences embedded in its collective memory and the Serbian nationalists who exploited the frustrations produced by these hidden narratives to expand their influence. The establishment of an independent Croatia was soon followed by the political organization of the local Serbs who refused to recognize Croatian national sovereignty. The Serb rebellion resulted in the proclamation of the Serb Republic of Krajina and turned into an open confrontation between the two communities as they both organized armed patrols which controlled the territory by setting up road-blocks. The situation was aggravated by the intervention of the Yugoslav People’s Army which soon turned its support to the Serb belligerents who took possession of a third of the Croatian territory. In 1992, the parties agreed a ceasefire which was guaranteed by the UN Peace Corps but was regularly violated on both sides. In May and August 1995, the Croatian army launched two vast offensives and practically took possession of the whole Krajina, thus provoking the exodus of almost the entire Serb community.
35Up to this point, we have analysed how segments of historical memory were perpetuated via hidden transcripts during the socialist period and how their revival exacerbated the conflicts between the Serb and Croat communities in Croatia. In the following section, we are going to assess how events related to the recent war are being recollected by war veterans.
- 52 Wachtel, Nathan, (1986), «Introduction», in Marie-Noelle Bourget, Lucette Valensi, and Nathan Wach (...)
- 53 Aguilar, P., Memory and amnesia, p. 11.
- 54 Halbwachs, M., On collective memory , p. 22.
36Oral sources have acquired and increased importance since questioning the positivist conception of history has led to a reversal in the relationship between memory and history. Whereas in the past historians used to reconstruct history in order to build collective memory, they are now looking at the multiplicity of individual memories when writing history52. However, recollection of memories needs to be scrutinized in accordance with the principles of scientific accuracy, entailing criticism based on theoretical grounds. An essential contribution to the study of collective memory has been achieved through the work of Maurice Halbwachs. As a faithful disciple of Durkheim who developed the notion of “collective consciousness”, Halbwachs reinforced the idea that memory is socially constructed53. He argued that remembrance is enabled through the interaction between individuals within social groups delimited in space and time. Therefore, recollection of the past is linked to a collective framework in which individuals recreate their own experiences together : “it is individuals as group members who remember”54. Since autobiographical memories tend to fade with time, their persistence relies upon attachment to the group. Moreover, memory has a spatial dimension because it is linked to certain images bound to the environment.
- 55 Wachtel, N., «Introduction», p. 211.
37The social nature of memory implies that personal recollections are “produced by the criss-crossing of several series of memories which themselves correspond to the various groups to which we belong”55. Therefore, personal memories display significant dissimilarities related to the manifold networks of solidarity to which the individual adheres. However, although the substance of memories varies, it should be possible to find some kind of consensus regarding the lessons to be drawn from it. This kind of consensus is essential in order to achieve social harmony, which is undermined when personal and dominant memories amply differ, as we have seen earlier.
- 56 Bloch, Maurice, (1998), How we think they think, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, pp. 114-128.
- 57 Halbwachs, M., On collective memory, p. 26.
38A second significant notion introduced by Halbwachs is the importance of the present in the representation of the past. Indeed, the present acts as a filter for memory since recollection cannot be detached from the moment in which it is produced. As Marc Bloch demonstrated, different accounts and narratives can be produced from the same memory, depending on the emotional state and social context of the present56. Moreover, these narratives are usually filled with inferences brought by other memories in order to give them substance. On the other hand, memory evolves against a background of continuity related to the stability of the group and the social deposits in which it is stored. As Barry Schwartz argues, “the past is always a compound of persistence and change, of continuity and newness”57.
- 58 Wachtel, N., «Introduction», pp. 210.
39Nathan Wachtel argues that when analysing oral sources, the historian is less interested in the content of the recollections than in their developmental process58. In the remainder of this paper, we are going to scrutinize the process of selection and organisation in the recollection of our informants. By focusing on the emphases, nuances and value judgements that come with the evocation of memories, we intend to disclose and compare the presentist aspects of the testimonies. Hence, we aim to demonstrate how the representation of the past diverges both within the two communities and between them as a result of the present reality.
40The collection of the interviews from the Croatian informants was done in 1998, at a time when the country was still run by Franjo Tudjman and the HDZ, whose popularity was shrinking. Indeed, the country was suffering from a precarious socio-economic situation and political instability, exacerbated by charges of corruption incriminating the government.
- 59 Lindsey, Rose., (2004), «Remembering Vukovar, forgetting Vukovar : constructing nationalidentity t (...)
- 60 Leutloff-Grandits, C.. «Religious celebrations and the (re)creation of communities in post-war Kni (...)
41The endurance of the Tudjman regime relied upon fierce nationalist propaganda based on an insistence on reminding people of the catastrophe that had taken place. A broad policy of framing Croatian national identity around the celebration of the recent war was established through a media campaign based on the rhetorical victimhood of the Croatian nation. In that light, the date of the “liberation” of the Serbian-held territory was celebrated as a national holiday called Dan Domovinske Zahvalnost (National Thanksgiving Day). The memory of the war was institutionalised through the erection of numerous “sites of memory” and the organization of ceremonies and rituals legitimising the present situation. For example, the city of Vukovar which had been brutally assaulted by the Serb forces in 1991 was used as a monumental icon of Croatian trauma and suffering59. Religious festivals in Krajina were utilized to symbolise the re-appropriation of the region, “with special emphasis on the historical ‘roots’ of the Croatian nation and the role of the Croatian army as ‘defenders’ and ‘liberators’ of Croatia from ‘Serbian occupation’ ”60.
42The testimonies of our informants generally correspond to this historical narrative as most of them claim to have taken part in the war for the sake of the defence of their community from the “Serbian aggressor”.
- 61 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 3, pp. 26-27.
“We had to protect women, children, we had to protect our households. This was the most important, not to let them invade us, to have victims, because at that time we saw what happened in Vukovar and Dubrovnik […] I was in Vukovar afterwards, it is terrible, like Hiroshima, as if the atomic bomb had been dropped there.”61
43The Croatian official discourse portrayed the conflict as an aggression perpetrated by Serbia in order to delegitimize the Serb rebellion, which was effectively orchestrated from Belgrade. Nevertheless, there is an effort to justify participation in the conflict on the part of the Croatian informants by distinguishing between what is seen as ‘legitimate defence’ and what is not.
“There was the liberation of Dubrovnik for example. Dubrovnik was surrounded. The Serbs really did not have anything to do in Dubrovnik. I mean, the Montenegrins, they surrounded the city. What were they thinking of, sacking the city or what ? - I don’t know. So we had to go and free Dubrovnik, we had to go into Bosnia a little bit because the Croatian border is really thin down there.[…] Around Dubrovnik, there are no Serbian villages at all, it is all Croat. It is not Knin where the Serbs are. I think it was legitimate to go down there.”62
44The veterans’ testimonies clearly diverge from the official discourse when it comes to the conduct of the Croatian army and its role in the Bosnian conflict. While the Serbs are presented as being the only perpetrators of atrocities and plundering in the regime’s propaganda, the informants assert that the Croats did the same. At the same time, several informants openly stated that they perceived the Croat intervention in Bosnia as an aggression.
“I left the army just because of Bosnia. I didn’t think it was right to fight in Bosnia. […] In my opinion, Bosnia is an independent and sovereign state and I think that the Croatian people should have acted by political or any other means for the protection of its community there… there was no need for a military intervention.”63
- 64 Ibid, p. 121.
- 65 Ibid., p. 127.
45The instrumentalisation of the war for the sake of domestic political propaganda on the part of the Tudjman regime has deeply affected the testimonies of our informants. The perceptions of the war display considerable presentist features, as the conflict is seen through the lens of the political situation at the time when the interviews were carried out. Bitterness related to the widespread corruption and abuses of power represents a central theme in these narratives. The discordance with official history is thus linked to opposition to the current government. This can be illustrated by the testimony of a former general of the Croatian army who says he got involved in the war for the sake of “malice towards the invaders and the local nationalists”64. Throughout the interview, he displays his opposition and contempt towards the regime of Tudjman, arguing that “the real enemy is in Zagreb”65. He emphasizes how the members of the HDZ profited from the war :
“I went to war because I didn’t want to seem like a deserter, and because I considered that it was legitimate to defend ourselves. I didn’t plunder ; I didn’t sell weapons like the members of the HDZ.”66
46This excerpt reveals a latent disillusionment with the war. The informant’s defensive attitude suggests that the ideals for which he fought were compromised by those who went to war for personal gains. He attributes the responsibility for this to the ruling party, which had absolute control over the army :
“This was the Croatian army in ninety-two, but from ninety-three it was the army of the HDZ.”67
47This disillusionment is shared by other informants who describe the moral downturn produced by the political circumstances and the injustice they have witnessed during the conflict. One veteran who declares having taken part in the war for the sake of social recognition thus describes how the resources allocated to the army were constantly appropriated by smugglers, who were left unpunished. His account is filled with resentment produced by the unfair rewarding within the army. This sentiment of injustice is apparent throughout his testimony and has consequent repercussions on his perception of the conflict :
“I know a lot of people who were wounded and didn’t get anything. They were relegated and didn’t get anything. On the other side, there are those who have benefited a lot.”68
48But being a war veteran did bring at least some sort of social recognition : it was a proof of patriotism which is a valuable asset in such a nationalist environment, in which dissidents were portrayed as foreign henchman and traitors by the regime.
“I am completely against this government. I was against them even before. But nobody can reproach me with anything - because I could have died for this Croatia, so I do not think Tudjman is alright and I can tell anybody that to their face, I can write it on the wall and nobody can do anything about it.”69
49These testimonies show that there is a substantial discrepancy between how the war is represented in public transcripts and how it is personally recollected by those who participated in it. When we look at how these memories are commemorated at the private level, we find evidence that corroborates Halbwachs’ concept of group memory. All the informants declare that they commemorate the war exclusively with fellow war veterans and maintain a special relationship with their “brothers in arms”. These commemorations may take place within veteran organizations, although they usually do not :
“The best is to meet with those with whom you’ve been on the battleground, with those with whom you’ve gone through the beginning. We organize dinners or lunches, and there are always the same stories. They are stories we have already recounted a hundred times, but we still enjoy them like the first time. This is important to us, these stories from the war which aren’t usually related to courage. On the contrary, they are always related to fear and the unusual situations we’ve gone through.”70
50Participating in the war has created a common sentiment of solidarity among the veterans. They share experiences related to life on the front line that have become part of their identity. The fact that they endured sufferings and risked their lives for a common goal or ideal has strengthened the existing ties between them. The rupture with “normality” engendered by mobilization and the traumatic experiences on the front line render reintegration into civil society difficult. This explains the need to associate with people who share the emotions related to those events :
“These friends from the war, it is something different, they are really like brothers. And I am telling you, after coming back from the front, I would want to associate with them, to be with them, because that’s how I would feel normal. And with those who stayed here, I wouldn’t have anything to talk about, it was a different world.”71
51This informant even asserts that he was so attached to his fellow soldiers that he wouldn’t have left the army if his platoon hadn’t been dissolved. The feeling of closeness exceeds the close circle of acquaintances from the brigade, extending to all those who were engaged in the conflict. This common identity is reinforced in opposition to those who did not have to, or who refused to, take part in war. Antagonism towards the latter group is increased by the conviction that this was a defensive war- a war in which every Croat should have contributed for the defence of the community :
“If we hated anybody, then we hated them. We hated them more than the Serbs, than our enemies. Because they abandoned us, and we were defending them.”72
52It is interesting that this feeling of proximity is extended towards those who took part in the conflict on the opposing side. Indeed, an informant from Osijek states that he once met a Serbian veteran with whom they exchanged their experiences about the war.
“I should have killed him, but I didn’t, same for him, and we started to talk since I respect courage, for instance their courage, the courage of the enemy.”73
53However, in this case the informant makes clear that he did not share any sympathies or feeling of belonging to a common group, but that he respected the bravery of his conversational partner. The veterans assert that they mention the war only with those who experienced it, because those who did not would not be able to understand it. Nevertheless, they are aware of the importance of their testimonies as something that concerns the whole of society.
“Now, I am giving this interview so that people know, so that it can be seen as it really looked. Usually, I avoid talking about the war except with those who were there with me.”74
54For the Serb community, the war ended with their expulsion from Krajina and exile in Serbia or abroad. The testimonies are filled with painful accounts of the sudden evacuation preceding the advance of the Croat army which took possession of almost the entire territory controlled by the Serbs in only four days in August 1995.
55The sudden fall of Krajina raised a lot of doubts about the role of Serbian political leadership which is accused of having implicitly collaborated in the sudden expulsion of the Serb population. The flight in the face of the Croatian army is interpreted as the execution of a well-prepared scenario made up by the Serbian and Croatian political leaders. Thus, the testimonies of the Serb informants are centred on the idea that their tragic fate results from the “great betrayal” on the part of the Serbian authorities, who first initiated the insurrection and then abandoned them. At the same time, the Serbian authorities have always denied having been directly or indirectly involved in the war. The Serbian official discourse represented the conflict as a civil war taking place in a foreign country. This hypocritical stance increased the veterans’ conviction that everything was agreed between the Serbian and Croat political leaders who traded their destiny.
- 75 Gojkovic D., Basic N., Ratovanja 1, p. 66.
“These leaders made that decision and that is how it was. From my perspective at that time, I did not think that way at all, I did not consider that they could concoct killings or anything that horrible drinking whisky and smoking cigars.”75
56The informants retrace their progressive disillusion in the struggle for their political rights. They recount how there was a distinguishable euphoria at the beginning of the conflict, especially among the youth. This feeling was produced by some positive “excitement” related to the idea of the defence of the community. In that sense, the Serb testimonies correspond to the Croat ones since both perceive their struggle as a legitimate defence from the aggressor. However, this sentiment soon turned into disenchantment due to the political agreements which often resulted in withdrawal from the invaded territories, engendering the feeling that the war was “pointless”. Hence, the narratives are filled with foreshadowing elements announcing the catastrophe that was predicted :
“The morale of the troops was excellent. The army of Krajina by itself could advance, and it did, it entered Zadar and Sibenik ; but they were receiving orders to withdraw, and their morale was dropping ; it simply had to be so because it was all a big betrayal, nothing else.”76
57The description of the downturn in morale has an important place in the narratives of the Serb informants. Many relate it to the distrust in their political and military elite, which was composed of the same individuals who had ruled during communism. Indeed, some informants express their aversion towards these people who shifted from the communist to the nationalist hard line in order to hold on to power. The most salient example of such behaviour is depicted by an interviewee from Knin :
“I remember an incident for the Orthodox new year in nineteen eighty- eight when a policeman put his gun in my mouth and cursed my Orthodox mother. But of course, this policeman was Serbian- it was actually Mile Martic who later became the president of Serb Krajina.”77
58The fact that people who represented public authority during socialism became the leaders of the movement for Serbian emancipation compromised the real meaning of the struggle in the eyes of the informants :
“When I realized who commanded and who was now a Serb, and that I was not a Serb any more, so that everything was reversed…then I did not want to go to the front any more, I had my opinion and I was feeling sorry for everything we were going to endure, because at that time, I already realized how we were going to suffer.”78
59Moreover, the Serb veterans deplore the fact that the Krajina was indirectly managed by the authorities from Belgrade, who imposed their will by rigging the elections in favour of their candidate. Although the Yugoslav army withdrew in nineteen ninety-two with the introduction of the cease-fire, many paramilitaries from Serbia were included in the ranks of Krajina’s army. This hindered the authority of the regular officers and led to widespread plundering and smuggling which compromised the significance of the conflict in the eyes of the interviewees. This is illustrated by an informant who recounts how he was jailed in 1993 because he changed his mind about the war and wanted to leave the army79.
60The sentiment of contempt and aversion towards the political elite which had led them into the war is reinforced by the mistreatment that the war veterans endured upon their arrival in Serbia. A few informants relate how they were captured and brutally re-mobilized by the Serbian authorities, which incorporated them into the paramilitary units in Eastern Slavonia. They describe this experience as a “psychological stigma” resulting from the torture and humiliation they suffered there for several months.
“This was probably a political act due to the fact that this people came from Krajina filled with outrage against the Serbian leadership and that they represented a threat for the authorities…”80
61Moreover, their perception is deeply influenced by their present position as refugees in an alien environment. While some of them were successful in rebuilding their lives, others were still living in communal centres for refugees seven years after the exodus, when these interviews were conducted. In these circumstances, the blame for the continued tragedy is placed on the Serbian regime rather than the Croat “enemy” :
“In my view, when we take into account what happened and is still going on in Serbia, the Croats aren’t responsible for what happened to us. […] It is not their fault. They told us you can stay but the state is ours. Milosevic did not agree, he wanted a great Serbia and then he betrayed us. Therefore it doesn’t matter that they shot at me or that they beat me. Now I see how things are, that they (Croats, M.O) are not to blame.”81
62Many veterans express their regrets regarding the conflict, declaring that a compromise guaranteeing the rights of the Serb community within Croatia should have been sought. Others emphasise their loss of faith in the values they cherished in the past.
“I think that I have lost faith in this patriotism. For me, patriotism was when I went to war to defend my home, for me patriotism was sacred. […] So now, I don’t even know if there is any patriotism at all.”82
- 83 Aguilar, P., Memory and amnesia, p. 11.
63Unlike the Croatian informants, the Serbs do not commemorate these events either at the public or private level. Indeed, since the Serbian authorities always denied any involvement in the conflict, there is no public commemoration of this war. At the same time, the recollection of memories at the personal level is disabled by the dissolution of the group of reference and the loss of familiar spatial images. As Paloma Aguilar argues, the elements of space and time render the trauma of exile twice as intense for an individual : because of the break from the former peer group which the individual previously belonged to, as well as his/her being detached from the environment in which he/she lived83. Thus not only does the refugee find himself among a new group whose historical memory he doesn’t share, but he would even encounter difficul-ties in reintegrating his former environment because there would be a discrepancy with those who had stayed or settled there.
- 84 Gojkovic, D., Basic, N., Ratovanja 1, p. 41.
64This is illustrated by the testimony of an informant who went back for a visit to Krajina and describes how settlers from Kosovo and Bosnia now inhabit his village84. On the other hand, the geographical setting of his new place of residence is so different that he is hardly able to assimilate to this new environ-ment. All the informants state that they still consider Krajina as being their “home” in contrast to the actual place of residence. They emphasize how they miss the beauty and the freshness of the Dinara Mountains and how they had difficulties in adapting to the smoggy Serbian lowlands. Hence, an informant from Knin retraces his search for a new dwelling upon his arrival :
“Montenegro was very attractive to me. I started to miss Krajina, these rocks and that entire environment so I thought that my place was down there.”85
65On the other hand, some have managed to partially reconstruct certain elements of their initial setting. Indeed, many refugees have settled in the northern surroundings of Belgrade where most of the informants actually live. Their integration was eased by support from earlier migrants from Krajina who have traditionally settled in that region. Although they insist on integrating in the new environment and respecting local customs, they admit that they mainly consort with people from their place of origin. Some have even managed to reproduce their social habits. For example, one informant describes how they have restored the traditional football tournament they used to take part in with his contemporaries who now all live in Vojvodina, a province in northern Serbia86. Nevertheless, the wish to return, at least temporarily, to their homeland is unanimous. The willingness for reconciliation is there, but the threat of revenge and persecution as well. Hence, Krajina Serbs are gradually being assimilated into Serbian society. At the cost of losing their identity, they rid themselves and future generations of the spectre of national discrimination.
66The war veterans’ testimonies suggest that the hidden transcripts and counter-narratives developed during communism effectively played a substantial role in the run-up to the violent break-up of former Yugoslavia. Our informants attach a great importance to the repressed memories of atrocities perpetrated during World War II and the secret cravings for national emancipation, which they claim have deeply affected the relationships between the Serb and Croat communities during socialism. In those circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the political elites successfully advanced nationalist mobilization by exploiting the pervasive atmosphere of resentment and mistrust between these ethnic groups.
67The remembrance of the latest war substantially differs between the Croatian and Serbian communities. Although there are significant disparities and dissenting views in Croatian accounts of the recent war, there is a wide consensus that this was a war of liberation from Serbian domination. Therefore, the private accounts of Croatian war veterans mostly correspond to the official discourse of the Croatian authorities. The “Homeland War” is widely commemorated in public as the cornerstone of modern Croatian statehood, and it is also actively recollected at the group level by those who participated in it.
68On the other hand, the exile of the Serb community prevents the cultivation and transmission of collective memory within this group. Dispersed throughout the world, the Krajina Serbs are physically detached from their “community of memory” and their original environment. Moreover, there are no official commemorations related to the Krajina in Serbia since the Serbian state denies any involvement in the conflict. That is a great source of frustration for the Krajina Serbs. Most of them believe they were betrayed by the Serbian authorities, who initially pushed them to take arms. Their accounts of the war are thus at odds with the official discourse, which seeks to clear Serbia from responsibility for the conflicts that occurred in the nineties. However, it is unlikely that these accounts may become a new source of hidden transcripts and counter-narratives in Serbia as most Krajina Serbs have either emigrated to third countries or integrated in Serbian society.
69Under these circumstances, the Krajina Serbs have resorted to the internet in order to perpetuate their memories. There are indeed plenty of websites and forums where members of this group congregate in order to commemorate their home-land and recollect their prior life. By all means, these “virtual communities of memory” constitute the ultimate resistance to oblivion.