Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb
Hrvoje Klasić was born in Sisak, Croatia, in 1972. He graduated from the Department of History, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Zagreb in 1997, where he defended his master thesis entitled «Socio — Political changes in Sisak, 1970-1972.» and his dissertation entitled “1968 in Yugoslavia. Socio – economic changes in international context”. He has been employed as a professor at the same Faculty and University since 2003, and holds a number of courses related to the world and national (Croatian) history of the 20th century.
Hrvoje Klasić won the Annual Award of the Association of University Teachers and other Scholars in Zagreb in 2006, the Annual Award of Sisak City in 2006, and the Annual Award of Zagreb City in 2022. In 2017 The Serb National Council in Croatia awarded him for the improvement of Croatia-Serbia relations. In 2019 he won the Award for the promotion of peacebuilding, nonviolence, and human rights.
He is the author of 5 books and two documentary series titled «Croatian Spring» and “Independent State of Croatia”. In 2022 he started with a new documentary project about the antifascist struggle in Yugoslavia during WW2.
- I often talk to colleagues about the roles of researchers in society and how they can contribute outside of the (strictly) academic context. What do you consider to be some of the main responsibilities that researchers have?
You used one term that I consider crucial, and that is responsibility. It often seems to me that researchers approach their work as if they themselves are a goal as well as the means. Specifically, it seems like they often focus on work that is not necessarily useful for society at large. I observe this from a Gramscian perspective and I think that both researchers and intellectuals exist precisely for society; they should not isolate themselves. For me, this means that whatever I am researching and doing should not remain inside my own four walls or limited solely to professional audiences who are engaged in similar topics. Society should benefit from various modes of research and scholarly contributions, regardless of disciplinary background. When it comes to historians specifically, they should be able to provide insight into often very complex, contradictory, controversial, and sensitive topics related to history. I am not, however, criticizing colleagues who are not actively engaged in the public, or those who do not write in a more accessible way to a wider audience, but I do personally think that those are crucial skills and aspects of our work as researchers. To illustrate, I remember a while back when colleagues in the field of sociology and ethnology invited me to be one of the promotors of a book about fear. Other promotors were quite heavy on theory, so the audience ended up not being too receptive; there were reactions, of course, but the way the content was presented was simply too academic and burdened with terminology. I tried a different approach and connected the book content with some of my personal, as well as professional, insights and experiences. From what I have gathered, the majority of the audience was generally able to follow – and respond to – the presentations introduced by my colleagues who were more theoretical. However, there were somewhat more reactions and follow-ups to my presentation, which also indicated that a more down-to-earth approach had its appeal. To sum up, I have nothing against theory, it is certainly a much needed base, but it should not be an end in itself. I think theory should serve as a means that helps us comprehend something, be it an event or a certain phenomenon. When scholars make theory a goal in itself – and even more abstract – the consequence is that it becomes hermetic and understandable only to a limited group of people, which should not be the point of scholarly work.
- Somewhat related to the previous question, would you like to change or somehow challenge certain academic practices? For example, nowadays there is the increasingly present publish or perish dynamic and prioritizing quantity over quality when it comes to scientific publications.
This relates not only to quantity, but also to some quite suspicious evaluation criteria in general. It is often not clear to me what types of categories scholars are referring to, or even what those categories mean in terms of evaluation of scholarly work and advancement in academia. About ten years ago I was invited as a guest to Oxford University to talk about one specific theme as part of a published collection of papers. The authors who contributed to that collection were prominent historians. However, my contribution did not count when it came to measuring progress later on (in terms of academic advancement) because my work was part of a collection of papers published in a book, rather than an academic journal article. Of course, there need to be systems in place that somehow evaluate academic contributions and overall progress. However, it seems like there is a lack of awareness that not all academic disciplines and fields can be evaluated or measured in the same way. One consequence is that there are more and more publications of questionable scientific value, and the kind that are published primarily for the purpose of satisfying form. Furthermore, we have a lack of quality doctorates in Croatia, specifically those written in the field of history. Namely, researchers often work on marginal topics that will unlikely leave a trace in Croatian historiography, led alone in European historiography. So the question that arises is whether it makes sense for researchers to work on topics that virtually nobody – aside from the person in question – is interested in, or to be more proactive and create a catalogue of topics that would be useful for a specific society, but also to the wider academic community that could learn from our particular example. The importance of dialogue comes up organically here, but I would also like to point out the importance of communicating with oneself. It is often the case that when we encounter an idea or a position that somehow challenges our own, we selectively stick to the aspects of the story that works in our favor rather than questioning ourselves and self-reflecting. It can be extremely difficult for us to actually change our minds, but doing so is often a part of personal development. It should be normal to say that, for instance, I had that particular position about something and now that position has changed because I was exposed to different information and I learned something new. If we do not have the capacity to enter into dialogue with ourselves, it is not likely that we will be able to have a constructive dialogue with other people.
- Your documentary series about the WWII Independent State of Croatia (NDH) is precisely an example of your contribution as a historian and researcher to the general public. What do you consider some of the biggest challenges you encountered while working on the series?
I think it is relevant to clarify that I chose to focus on the topic of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) precisely because it was never approached as a thematic whole. What I would likely emphasize as the most powerful aspect of the series is certainly the documentary material. Namely, NDH had a film company that was called Hrvatski slikopis (Croatia film) which produced news reels. The tricky thing is that this material is located in Belgrade, and since most of it had never been viewed, my team and I went to Belgrade, purchased and digitized it. The material was fascinating; it documented various scenes from everyday life under the NDH regime. Another challenge I encountered was the appearance of new scholars who research NDH and approach it through many novel perspectives, which is invaluable. At the same time, there is unfortunately never enough space to include all of them into a documentary series. This is a common issue in general – cutting or excluding certain parts of material that we have at our disposal. And this was indeed very difficult when it came both to the material and the scholars we had the opportunity to collaborate with. So I think the mentioned aspects were the biggest challenge in the creative sense.
- In one of your columns – also published in your book Crveno na crno – you write about the importance of multiperspectivity and the development of critical thinking in history education. Unfortunately, the situation is often much different in practice, with emphasis being primarily on the reproduction of information. How would you approach history teaching, first and foremost in elementary schools and high schools?
I think we should first clarify what the goals of history teaching actually are. If the goal of history teaching is to create a stronger connection with the nation and state, as well as to reinforce a patriotic sentiment, then we have one very specific version of history teaching. If, however, the goal is the education and upbringing of youth that will later on readily participate in a multicultural environment and society, be citizens that respect the legal state, have the capacity to question themselves, as well their teachers and parents, then we are talking about a completely different approach. Unfortunately, we do not have the latter approach in Croatia. I often make comparisons with Germany, specifically in reference to 1945 when not all Germans had given up Nazism (for instance, ideas of superiority), nor had all Nazis been punished. However, at one point, emphasis switched to the youth and education, with the purpose of fostering independent and critical thinking. So during the 1960s, young men and women – those who were around 18 years old at the time – started to question their parents and family, along with the roles they had in society between 1933 and 1945. Not surprisingly, many sensitive questions arose precisely because the younger generations were taught to pose them; they could not imagine why they would not ask questions. Or more explicitly, they could not imagine why they should glorify their father who was, for instance, an SS commander in Treblinka. As I mentioned, we were not successful in accomplishing this in Croatia, led alone in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We did not ensure our youth the freedom to question the world around them, especially the society they are a part of. On the contrary, the education system that we currently do have at our disposal – education fixed on reifying national identity – hinders the possibility of them becoming critical and independent thinkers. Moreover, we often witness youth that are more rigid and closed-minded than their parents. The question is, why is this the case? Those of us who were a bit older during the 1990s wars also remember our life before the conflict. We remember that we shared a common space with Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians, basically that we shared friendships, fell in love with each other, got married, played football, went to concerts etc. We remember the “other” as simply being different, not as being a “problem” because of their national, religious, or other belonging. Today’s youth in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Croatia, grow up in an atmosphere where the perceived other presents a problem. So to sum up, education is certainly relevant. However, I do not think that it is the dominant medium that influences someone’s position and attitude. My generation acquired knowledge and insights from our teachers who then functioned as authority figures, along with our parents, grandparents, and family in general. Nowadays teachers are neither the main nor the primary authority of various types of knowledge transfer; we also need to take into account new media, social networks, celebrities, and influencers, among others. We should definitely continue talking about the role that education has nowadays, but we need to keep in mind that it is only one part of the everyday lives of today’s youth and that they are exposed to a variety of sources and influences, as well as contradictions. To use a specific example, how can we expect a young person not to be confused if we tell them that the Ustaše are criminals and that Mile Budak signed racial laws, if that same person lives on Mile Budak’s street?
- One specific challenge is history education in post-conflict societies where there is a prevalence of narratives that serve to reinforce divisions between us and them and hinder dialogue about sensitive topics from history. How do you imagine a constructive approach to somewhat tabooed topics in history education?
I think there should be no such thing as tabooed topics, or more specifically, there should be no space for them. I have, for example, explicitly opposed the Declaration on the Homeland War and any related efforts to institutionalize access to knowledge in general and specifically to knowledge and insights about the past. Those practices remind me of communism and when we had official narratives that could not be questioned. The same goes for the abovementioned example of the Homeland War (1991-1995 Croatian War of Independence), and a common question that arises concerns the character of that conflict. Namely, was it strictly an aggression, a civil war, or both. If you want to be a consistent scholar and academic, you also need to be aware of the complexity of this issue. Not only should we talk about the fact that there was a civil war in Croatia, as well as an aggression, but we should talk about a civil war in Yugoslavia. There should be no space for taboos; once something is proclaimed a taboo it inevitably brings out the question why something else should not be deemed as such. Once the practice of tabooization is established, it becomes that more challenging to manage and control. In the context of the 1990s Homeland War, we should strive towards no taboos regarding its nature; this shows how we have (or have not) progressed as a society in terms of democratization, a functioning legal state, human liberties, etc.
- Politicians also contribute to the above mentioned conditions when they favor a particular version of the past in order to further political agendas and mobilize voters. There are many examples in the Croatian context, from reinforcing a one-sided interpretation of the Croatian War of Independence, to the relativization of the Ustaša salute. What are some of the main responsibilities of politicians in post-conflict contexts? When it comes to their political engagement, what should they strive for?
Any person that is in some way engaged in the public space has a responsibility towards society, regardless of whether we are talking about a musician, athlete, or a politician. Politicians certainly have a bigger responsibility since they propose laws, which consequently either allows or bans certain actions and behaviors. However, if a politician’s engagement and public actions in some way negatively influence the functioning of the legal state, that certainly poses a problem. For example, I consider it extremely problematic that Croatia’s president questions the verdicts issued by the Haag Tribunal because he disagrees with those verdicts based on his legal background. This is a slippery slope since it begs the question why someone else would not disagree with another dimension of an international judgment. Or when it comes to the instances of the use of the Ustaša Za dom spremni salute, the lack of consistent responses by politicians also sends a certain message to the general public. This is particularly important since politicians – contrary to musicians or athletes – contribute to the creation of the legal and political space that we are all a part of. Politicians can directly influence whether the mentioned salute will be banned, or will it be partially or fully allowed as an alleged symbol of patriotism. This is also a problem of the lack of self-reflection, as I mentioned earlier. Namely, there are politicians who are not historians nor knowledgeable in topics related to history. This, in itself, is not a problem. However, a problem arises when those same politicians are presented with concrete evidence by scholars, and yet refuse to acknowledge this evidence and the limits of their competency in a given matter. I have a strong impression that politicians in Croatia do not have a clear vision of the future nor any substantial and sustainable projects to offer, so they use the past in order to appeal to the general public and mobilize voters.
- Specifically, about the Za dom spremni Ustaša salute, what do you consider adequate measures when it comes to its use? Banning in itself does not seem sufficient since ideas and narratives that fuel symbols can appear in other symbolic forms…
If we, as a society, have not yet reached a level that a person feels uncomfortable to even utter the salute, then there is no point in banning it. However, there are examples of many societies – and Germany comes to mind here – that do ban contentious symbols. In the case of Germany this was accompanied by a wide social initiative towards denazification, especially in education. After WWII, there were no possibilities for the youth in Germany to hear instances in which Hitler was relativized. I am definitely in favor of banning the Ustaša salute, but as you pointed out, the accompanying narratives and ideas behind it need to be addressed. In our case this means that there should be no Mile Budak street, or celebrations dedicated to the victims of Bleiburg. Essentially, we need a widespread social initiative that would counter various tendencies towards historical revisionism and refer to things as they are. Namely, regardless of whether the salute is banned, there should be no doubt that the NDH was a criminal project and a criminal regime. While any dilemma regarding the nature of the NDH exists, no bans whatsoever will be helpful. If the prevalent narrative in society is not consistent with values and attitudes that should be fostered – such as the values of antifascism – bans simply do not make sense since they lack substance.
- How would you evaluate the success of Croatia and Serbia in coming to terms with the past?
Well, compared to Serbia Croatia has certainly advanced in many aspects. We have realized some of our goals related to politics, economy, and security; we are members of the European Union, we became an independent state within the borders we wanted, we joined NATO, Schengen, and the Eurozone. The circumstances in Serbia, on the other hand, differ significantly. The state plan of Serbian political, intellectual, and religious elites towards the end of the 1980s consisted of the idea of all Serbs in one state. This plan was not realized and Serbs nowadays live in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo… They lost wars they fought and they are labeled as the main guilty party by the international legislative bodies. Croatia, with all its faults, has reached a level where the media is free to bring to attention different political affairs and events. The legal state functions in such a way that the Prime Minister and other ministers can be sentenced to prison. We are still far from Switzerland or Finland in this regard, but bear in mind that in Serbia it is difficult to even imagine the mainstream media reporting on political affairs within president’s Vučić circles, led alone for Vučić or his close colleagues to be sentenced to prison. Sure, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ- Hrvatska demokratska zajednica) is the ruling party in Croatia, but we should not forget that HDZ is not the ruling party in all the biggest cities in Croatia. That also counts for something and I consider it progress. When it comes to coming to terms with the past, that has its own peculiarities. I am a part of a circle of historians such as Tvrtko Jakovina, Dragan Markovina, Ivo Goldstein, to name but a few. We are active and present in mainstream media on a daily basis, so our attitudes and opinions are heard more often compared to some historians belonging to the political right or the extreme right. Croatian history textbooks are of a better quality than they were in the 1990s, when they were an absolute disaster. In Serbia there is no way that you would be able to discuss and question Serbian crimes committed in Kosovo, as well as in Bosnia or Croatia. In Serbian mainstream media there is no space for historians that are critically engaged in the discussion of those important and dark events from Serbia’s past. And history textbooks are the same as they were during the 1990s. So, the state politics, intellectuals, the Church; all these actors still prevent a more constructive coming to terms with the past, one that welcomes dialogue. This is not to say that Croatia does not have a long way to go in order to improve ways of coming to terms with the past, but I would say that we have created a solid base. To provide a concrete example, I am a member of an initiative that alarms the local community of Zagreb to the presence of streets named after individuals who had distinguished positions in the NDH. Until now, we have changed the names of approximately ten streets, and that, I think, is a step in the right direction.
- Historian and semiotician Juri Lotman writes about the importance of conflict (in a wider sense as a conflict of meanings) for new meaning generation, new insights. We learn and grow precisely through being exposed to difference, and we need another person specifically because they are different. How do you view conflict, be it on the individual or collective level?
One personal experience comes to mind here. A few years back one person contacted me via email from the Netherlands and introduced herself as a psychotherapist. She then continued to say that she had been following my work for a while and while she agrees with the content, she expressed an opinion that the way I was expressing myself was not quite right. I was, of course, quite taken aback at first, but then I got intrigued and wanted to hear more so we kept in touch. She later elaborated that my approach does not work for the simple reason that people usually do not accept facts (and potentially modify their opinions) just because someone is facing them with those facts. People essentially do not like to be wrong. She pointed out that I can be somewhat aggressive in my public engagement and media appearances – which I indeed can be. I am not, however, aggressive by nature and character, and I generally get along well with people. Nonetheless, I am aware that I can leave that impression in some of my public appearances, especially when it comes to situations where I am face-to-face with someone who is downright negating war crimes and advancing polarization through their engagement with the general public. The psychotherapist I mentioned suggested that I train in order to develop some skills that would help me engage more constructively with opposing and generally extreme positions and attitudes, which I considered at that point. However, I then talked to another psychotherapist who told me that that is simply my nature, my character, and that it is unlikely to change. Nowadays I pick my battles more carefully and I will not necessarily react to every situation that might arise, especially to various hateful comments and emails I tend to receive. So I guess my association to this question are internal conflicts that I go through… On a wider level, academic conferences come to mind. We are usually in a setting where we are simply agreeing to what our colleagues are saying, feeling content that we share values and see eye to eye. However, I do think it would sometimes be more fruitful to invite colleagues who have opposing – even controversial – opinions on a certain topic. We might not necessarily accomplish something as a result, but at least we would work on exiting the enclosed academic bubbles that we have gotten used to. This, I think, is also an important part of how we communicate science, and it should be a skill that we continuously develop and improve, especially when it comes to public engagement and constructively responding to opposing views. This is something that should be taught already in high schools, where facilitating a culture of dialogue, as well as a culture of listening, would be a relevant component of education.
- Dutch sociologist Fred Polak once wrote that a society without positive images of the future is a society in decline. Ways in which societies create and reproduce stories about their past inevitably influence the ways how they act in the present, and how they see the future. What kind of capacities – and how – should we develop in Croatia in order to face the past and turn more towards the future?
We can take France and Germany as good examples here. These are countries that were at war with each other significantly more than Croats and Serbs throughout history. Very soon after WWII, France and Germany became vehicles of progress aimed towards general development, as well as the development of the European Union. Already 5 years after the end of WWII it was difficult to imagine those two countries in conflict. This, put very simply, serves as evidence that such progress is indeed possible. And precisely this brings us to what you mention in your question, namely the existence of a vision, which the politicians of Germany and France had. Of course, there was no seeing eye-to-eye on virtually every aspect of their history, there were certainly points of disagreement. However, what they did have were precisely visions of the future that guided them. It seems to me that we do not have any particular visions of the future since we are more focused on making the past more appealing, rather than the present and especially the future. So, if we remain predominantly focused on making the past more appealing, I doubt we will make much progress. Croatia is located in the Balkans, regardless of how we might feel about this. We are neither Scandinavia nor Benelux and it is not likely we could compete with them, but we can stand out in our region and on our terrain in such a way that it benefits others. We can, for instance, help other countries in the region – such as Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia – by sharing our experiences and serve as a bridge to Western Europe. Not in such a way that we perceive our neighbors as inferior, but to serve as guides, build better futures together and benefit from it along the way.
- Lastly, you are currently working on a new documentary series about the antifascist struggle in Yugoslavia during WWII. Could you tell us more?
I am currently working on a documentary series about Croatian Partisans in WWII. This important topic had previously largely been approached in a very selective manner and I think the series will provide a more multifaceted as well as balanced insight into that important part of history. What can we learn from it? Well, for people who are 40 or younger, the content will likely be completely novel. For those somewhat older there will still be a lot of new insights simply because they had no opportunity to hear it from other sources. Around 30 historians from different countries are contributing to the series and there are no taboo themes; we are covering topics ranging from crimes committed by Partisans during and after the war, to the Partisan movement as the only antifascist resistance movement. There will also be some interesting and controversial questions raised concerning relationships with Russia and attitudes towards the Church, among others.
Interview by: Katarina Damčević