An Unpopular Opinion
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Filip Mitričević, March 17th 2018
This text is formed from extracts of conference presentations made by Filip Mitričević and Andrija Popović, March 2017 in Belgrade and November 2017 in Szeged.
The short 20th century, as defined by Eric Hobsbawm, was a century of ideologies. During the major part of the century, a whole lot of brutal conflicts of ideological systems happened. The tension and dogmatism set the historic path of many nations. Although some appeared in various forms, both left and right wing were clearly defined political and philosophical terms, and in their own manners gave inspiration to the people.
Beginning of the 21st century brought some new processes to light. At first sight, ideology was put aside. Rudimentary leftovers of the “old, 20th century regimes” are observable in some examples and only if observed from a certain point of view, with the application of perfect scenic lighting. And it is because we are living in a time when some sort of ideological conversions are happening that are, necessarily, dragging a shift of collective change of identity with itself.
One of the most intriguing subjects today is historical revisionism of the 20th century history, happening right now. Identifying with and legitimizing certain political ideas and regimes by changing the character of some historic events has become ever present. In ex-Yugoslav countries, this revisionism takes all kind of interesting and unique forms. Sometimes, the changes in how some events, persons or historical processes are viewed are so radical that they even cause a serious identity crisis.
For a few decades after the end of it, World War II has been observed as a time of great struggle of Yugoslav people to liberate themselves from fascist occupation. This was perceived as a time when brotherly nations rushed into combat against the foreign occupying force in one unified front. Vjekoslav Perica calls this “defensive and just war for liberation” the greatest event in the history of the South Slavic peoples and nations. This notion of the past was glorified and molded into a myth-like narrative that became the backbone of Yugoslav identity. Sometimes too vigorously. Then, it came a time when it was necessary to break the country’s back by introducing a new “old” or “original” identity. In doing thus, post-Yugoslav countries went back to the pre-modern mythomany of ethnic mythological narratives.
The parallel that Anthony Smith draws between the ancient drama King Oedipus and the nationalistic need to find the roots of identity is more than applicable here. As did the king of Thebes – while looking for the essence of his personal identity – start to destroy everything that was created through the years, so did Serbs, Croats and all others in Yugoslavia destroy everything that for decades made them who they are while living in the same country.
For the unsuspecting observer it seemed suddenly, yet the idea of anti-fascism was quite systematically shifted and slowly pushed off the stage. All sorts of nationalistic movements that are taking some kind of antifascist connotation are trying to fill a vacuum of their own historical inconsistency. So, we must ask ourselves if the idea of anti-fascism has any kind of a future in the Balkans and what is yet to come for us?
Why are we witnessing the deconstruction of the antifascist narrative that is so harsh and what it has managed to achieve so far?
We must try to find at least some answers.
Sloboda (Eng. = Freedom) monument is located on Fruska Gora, and was erected in the period between 1950 and 1951, on the project by Yugoslav architect and sculptor Sreten Stojanović. Time of the construction carried a lot of influence on the symbolism and the messages which this monument is conveying. Sloboda symbolizes the unity of Yugoslavian people. The influence of the 1948 political crisis which led to the breakup with USSR had a great influence on the symbolism of the monument. The great central obelisk is enclosed with reliefs which depict scenes of workers and partisan fighters which differ from the ordinary people just by their distinctive caps and rifles. In such manner, a message of great unity between the people and the party, their strength, defiance and determination against any enemy (even USSR, if necessary) is being transmitted. Localization of the monument is as equally as important. Fruška Gora was a sight of many battles and actions during World War II, and on this mountain partisan movement was active during the whole course of the war.
We conducted a research for a conference presentation in which we wanted to examine the distinction between generations that were brought up in different circumstances and try to analyze the two possible different mind sets The survey for the purpose of this paper was conducted in two age groups, those from 15 to 25, and those older than 25. The border was set at those born in 1992 as the year in which former Yugoslavia hasn’t existed anymore. There isn’t much difference with two persons born in 1990 and 1994, so this border is only psychological, but the results proved to be quite outstanding. It was conveyed in the region of no more than 50km from the monuments and included inhabitants of Irig, Sremska Mitrovica, Novi Sad, etc. Of the 324 persons under the age of 25 that went through this examination, 14,8% of them knew to what is this monument dedicated to; 0,9% knows its name; 10,2% has been there; 0,9% of them attended the ceremony but a total of 0% knows the meaning of the date. The most disturbing fact is that 47,2% of them thinks that Yugoslavia came out of the World War II on the losing side, and only 9,3% knows that there was an antifascist movement in Srem, but only 2,8% knows which one was it. To be honest, 88,8% of them defined fascism as a negative phenomenon, but when asked to assess their knowledge on the subject 50% said that it is insufficient and another 26,8% stated “I don’t know”. What is the main reason behind all of this? Well, this would be a matter so complicated that it would require a whole new study, but we tried to pinpoint a certain weak spot. When asked what is their primary source of knowledge for the subject of fascism, 36,1% said media/internet, 8,3% said family, and 9,3% said that it was different kinds of organizations. Only 46,3% said school. When we compare it to the over 25 group, we get a possible answer. Of 123 persons over the age of 25, 78% of them stated school as the primary source of knowledge on fascism. 95,1% of them defined fascism as a negative phenomenon, and also 85,4% of them knew to what was Sloboda dedicated to. Of the total, 34,1% knew the monuments actual name from the picture shown in the questionnaire, and 48,8% has been there. The add insult to injury of the youth, 73,2% knew of antifascist present in Srem, and they all knew it was the socialist movement, or the partisans. Also, the right mind set is illustrated with fact that 83% said Yugoslavia emerged from World War II victoriously. Although, only 19,5% of the older group attended the proceedings during the July 7th celebration, they put a great distance between themselves and the younger generation.
It is clear that monuments dedicated to antifascist struggle just do not have their purpose of existence in this order of things. They are left to oblivion, and their devastation symbolizes an anti-civilization decline of our society. At the very beginning, a series of questions concerning this devastation is imposing itself. Why has the celebration of heroes become unwanted? What is the way we see antifascist fighters from World War II based on? Is it, and in what way, possible to overwrite real past with fiction? Political background of this process of radical change in the culture of remembrance is quite clear.
At the end of the last century a complete and instant denunciation of European socialism was conducted. Warsaw Pact was disbanded, and some countries ceased to exist. Although Yugoslavia was not a member of the Warsaw Pact and it was the only country of Eastern Europe in which socialism did not come on a Soviet tank, it shared its destiny. A bit bloodier, in fact. All of the Yugoslav successes, including antifascist struggle, were made to look negative. History is being changed in accordance with the needs of propagators of new Serbian identity which being associated with some movements active from 1941 until 1945 whose antifascist character is questionable at best. Through these movements, it is being associated also with Serbian monarchy of the 20th and 19th century, and also the Middle Age state. In this Serbian Sonderweg there is no place for partisan movement. Serbian historiography, culture even, and politics especially (both in Serbia and Republic of Srpska), are now trying to show socialist antifascism as diverging from our true historical path. New identity does not stand for internationalism, brotherhood among Yugoslav nations and the mutual fight against fascism. This is why this monument (and others) do not exist in the cultural of remembrance and history of our regions and our countries; this is why they do not have their place in history textbooks; and this is precisely why they are disappearing from our memory.
When Yugoslav antifascist mythology is in question, we must acknowledge that this specific mythology has not emerged from fictitious stories filled with historic inconsistencies. This was a system which was built through the years with the specific aim for the past to be as effectively adopted. Brave soldiers made from flesh and blood were transformed into typical socialist monuments with sharp edges. But those monuments were erected with a plan, to support certain ideas and values; there can be no doubt about it. The most important thing is that the basis of this myth is true. The antifascist essence remained intact.
The results of this (in)activity are best seen from the results of the survey. But is it all systematic? What part of it is neglect from just plain lack of care? Vjekoslav Perica also, indirectly, blames the 1945-1990 regime for this. The communist regime was simply overzealous in pompous admiration for its own achievements that it went into the process of sacralisation of politics. Culture of remembrance suffered from a lot of interfering factors, deliberate and accidental, even. Yes, the results of the survey for the age group under 25 are devastating. But they are not the policy makers. Those over the age of 25 that had far better results are the policy makers in this country. Apparently, we need to look at the educational programs and history textbooks, as well. In the end, to the question of how is this paradox possible, we are left with multiple answers. It seems like the narrative became a chimerical mixture of elements. As Olga Manojlović-Pintar said, we lost trust in both the possibility of objective scientific interpretation and even facts themselves. The final conclusion of all can only be that this is, like we said, quite deliberate – but also in some points even indeliberate – damnatio memoriae performed by a post-socialist and, obviously, a post-antifascist society. These monuments are just victims of us facing with our own past which has actually become a violent clash. Only then, words written by Ivan Čolović shine the brightest: We today, however, know that identity, as well, is a matter of choice, political will, construction, and strategy. It is not just a set of fatal limitations, but rather a wide specter of opportunities for countries, their peoples, and their leaders to chose from when wondering what they are going to make of themselves.