Interviews

Eric Ušić

PhD student in the Balkan Studies program, Ljubljana

Eric Ušić is a PhD student in the Balkan Studies program at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis and researching post-World War II graffiti in Istria, Croatia, under the supervision of professor Mitja Velikonja. Eric holds an MA degree in Cultural Studies, received at the Faculty of Philosophy in Rijeka, Croatia. He published papers in Croatian and Slovenian scientific journals and participated in several international conferences. His field of interest includes cultural studies, visual ethnography, memory studies, Balkan studies, and Istria’s contemporary history.

  • Starting on a more general note, could you tell us something about your research background and interests?

I am currently researching political graffiti that were created during World War II and predominantly in the immediate aftermath of the war (1945-46). The study is framed as a historical and visual-anthropological research. From a historical perspective, I am analyzing the context of production of these political public writings and their position in it, examining their meanings and functions in the historical period in which they were written, as well as exploring experiences and memories of their authors, and various media representations and interpretations of graffiti. From a visual-anthropological perspective, which is the central part of my research, I am conducting a visual ethnography of the surviving post-WW2 graffiti. This includes the following: documenting and mapping the surviving graffiti, analyzing their compositions, aesthetics, contents, patterns and their symbolic relation with the surroundings. Furthermore, I am attempting to interpret their position and meanings almost 80 years after their production. This refers to a different socio-political, post-Yugoslav context shaped by political forces and dominant ideologies that are in stark contrast with those political positions and ideologies that supported the writing of post-WW2 graffiti and were articulated and visualized through them. 

  • Exploring graffiti that were made during and after WWII is an intriguing topic. As you’ve mentioned in another interview, people often pass them by without paying a lot of attention, although there seems to be much we can learn from graffiti. What inspired you to pursue this topic?

A couple of years ago, I started to notice red inscriptions on the walls of my hometown, Vodnjan, as well as on public surfaces of other Istrian towns; inscriptions such as «Long live Tito«, «Long live Stalin«, «We want Yugoslavia«, etc.  I have seen them before, but I didn’t pay much attention to them until I realized that I know nothing about those graffiti. Then I started to ask myself some questions: who wrote them, when, why? What do they mean? I started to dig a little bit, but found almost nothing in the broad scientific and non-scientific literature dealing with recent Istria’s history, except for one essay written by Ivan Zupanc in 2003, and some occasional remarks on the margins of historical studies. Then I realized that this unexplored topic has great research potential, both from a historical and visual-anthropological perspective. However, except for this «empty» space that could be filled with broader research on post-World War II graffiti, there were two major triggers. 

First, what moved me was my amazement caused by the huge quantity of surviving graffiti that I found during my preliminary research: I simply couldn’t believe that there were hundreds of graffiti out there, graffiti with such strong and – from a post-Yugoslav point of view – «controversial» political messages that survived for more than 70 years and are still undocumented and unexplored. Then I decided to abandon a purely historical perspective and to combine it with thorough visual-ethnographic fieldwork. The second trigger that motivated my research were the numerous interactions and informal talks I had with many different people living in various parts of Istria. While talking with them about my research interest, I received useful information, remarks and (post)memory fragments, and realized that these post-WW2 graffiti are small parts of the Istrian «collective knowledge» or, from a Gramscian perspective, fragments of the Istrian «common sense». During these interactions, I observed how people contextualize and understand them, and deduced that these graffiti are taken for granted as remnants of the past, as self-evident «truths». But wherever there are self-evident truths, there is a need for a critical reflection and systematic research.

  • What makes Istria particularly interesting for exploring graffiti? 

Firstly, there’s the quantity and quality of post-war graffiti present on walls across the region: by quantity, I mean that graffiti can be found in many Istrian towns in great number (not to say almost everywhere); by quality, I mean that many of them are still well preserved and can be fully read. This combination makes them a kind of «open air» archive. Therefore, those graffiti can be conceived as fragmented spatial notes of Istria’s political and cultural (auto)biography. Namely, the graffiti somehow reflect Istria’s recent and tumultuous history, they are visualizations and expressions of particular historical ruptures, processes and events that radically reshaped Istria’s political, social and cultural life. 

Another important aspect of Istrian graffiti is bilingualism, a cultural characteristic of the region. Namely, graffiti were written both in Croatian and Italian language. Croatian writings can be found in those parts of Istria historically inhabited by Croatians (mostly in rural areas), while Italian inscriptions can be read in areas historically populated by Italians (mainly in the then urban, industrial and commercial centers, mostly on the coast). Thus, graffiti are also a kind of cultural-historical and socio-linguistic markers. 

The third and last aspect that I will introduce here is that Istria was not part of Croatia or Yugoslavia until 1947. The majority of these graffiti were written in 1945-1946, when it was still unclear whether Istria will be reintegrated into Italy or annexed to Yugoslavia, and they functioned as visual and public expressions of those parts of the population that strived for the Yugoslav solution.  Thus, those graffiti can serve as symbolic reminders of the contingency and temporality of borders, nation-states, and hegemonies – of those things that are perceived as natural and (re)presented as eternal. 

Also, it should be noted that some aspects I have pointed out here apply to the surviving post-WW2 graffiti in the Slovenian Littoral and in Rijeka – this whole region went through more or less similar processes in the immediate postwar period.

  • Have you noticed any intriguing differences between war time and post-war time graffiti?

Yes, there are many differences between them, so I will highlight only two aspects. The first main difference is the context of their production and the mere practice of writing. Namely, writing graffiti during the war was a hazardous activity. For instance, there are some written testimonies of resistance activists (i.e. graffiti writers) who remembered how they were shot or arrested by fascists when writing graffiti. I had the chance to interview two graffiti writers that were writing during the war, and one writer that was active in 1945-1946. While the two «war-writers» had to be very careful and used to write political slogans and resistance messages only at night in small groups, the «postwar-writer» emphasized the sense of euphoria while participating in collective graffiti writing actions.

Another difference is their function. During the war, graffiti were used as «symbolic weapons» in the struggle against fascists, and they were a particular «mass media» employed by the Partisans: on the one hand, by writing on the walls the activists were subverting the dominant symbolic order and the fascist control over space, while on the other they were dispersing condensed resistance messages to local population, explaining political and military goals of the resistance movement, informing local inhabitants about their presence, trying to mobilize fighters, etc. The functions of postwar graffiti were different. Their main function was to express «the will of the people» to live in Yugoslavia, and to highlight the Croatian and Slavic background of certain places. On the third level, another function of postwar graffiti was to emphasize the readiness of those pro-Yugoslav and pro-Communist Italians to continue to follow Tito after the war victory. The context and functions thus shaped their contents and meanings: for example, while Partisan wartime graffiti consisted of slogans condemning fascist rule and celebrating the resistance movement and antifascist fighters, postwar graffiti pointed out how many fighters «fell in the struggle for the annexation of the region to Yugoslavia«, or explicitly expressed pro-Yugoslav claims. However, there are some constants: both during and after the war, activists wrote graffiti that were celebrating Tito, Stalin, communism, antifascism, Yugoslavia and «the brotherhood and unity between Italians and Slavs«.

  • Fieldwork is a significant part of your research. How do you usually go about it? Are there any related anecdotes you could share with us?

Wherever I go, I try to thoroughly inspect the public space of towns and villages in order to find still present, surviving graffiti. In other words, I observe walls and other public surfaces. Until now, I visited and scrutinized around 200 locations in Istria and found more than 600 examples of graffiti – fully readable, fragmented or only faded traces of the inscriptions. I am using my camera to document them, doing fieldwork from the position of an ethnographer-photographer as elaborated by the visual anthropologist Sarah Pink in her book Doing Visual Ethnography. I have three ways of searching and finding graffiti. First, while reading and analyzing historical sources, I single out certain locations and then I go there to inspect them and check if the graffiti are still present. This is especially the case with archival photographs or media records of graffiti. Second, my friends, colleagues and acquaintances often inform me if they come across graffiti when they are travelling in Istria. This helps me a lot and I am very grateful to them all. Third and last, when I don’t have specific information, I simply travel randomly through different places and try to cover as much territory as I can.

Beside the visual documentation, I interact with local people when there is a chance to talk. I am interested in their reactions and how they interpret graffiti when I tell them what I am doing and ask them if I can take a photo of an inscription on their house. People are often amused by what I do, and some of them even told me that they actually never noticed these writings on their walls until I asked them. People with whom I had informal conversations had different ways of contextualizing and interpreting post-WW2 graffiti, but for the majority of them the graffiti were triggers for a comparison between Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav times, and as such, triggers for a sharp critique of the current socio-political situation and a nostalgic look backwards. Of course, there are many anecdotes in these situations and in fieldwork in general. Some people invited me to their homes to drink their wine, some of them wanted to show me some «hidden» interesting stuff in their hometown, while others proudly showed me their home collection of Yugoslav memorabilia. Except for people, I met friendly goats, cows, dogs and cats, and once I had to run from an angry dog that was chasing me. 

  • You once mentioned the possibility of planning an exhibition as a practical output of your doctoral thesis. Could you tell us a bit more about this idea?

Although I am not a photographer and I’m not trying to be one – and this can probably be noticed by looking at my photos — I think that a photo-exhibition of the ethnographic material collected during my fieldwork could be interesting for those who are not familiar with post-WW2 graffiti. Since both the research and topic are highly visual, photography – that I am using as an ethnographic research tool – is an adequate way of documenting and (re)presenting the surviving graffiti. Such an exhibition could potentially function as an introduction to a widely unknown and particular political practice, and as a short visual introduction and overview of less known symbolic aspects of Istrian post-war political and cultural life. In addition to a historical perspective, a photo-exhibition of surviving graffiti could give an insight into the contemporary Istrian political, cultural and memory landscape, with its emphasis on historical political texts embedded in the everyday public space. For now, there are plans to create an exhibition in Rijeka soon, and some talks about a photo-exhibition in Ljubljana are taking place as well. 

In addition to exhibitions, I would like to create an open archive with all the material I collected during my visual-ethnographic fieldwork. If all those photos of surviving graffiti remain exclusively with me, I think they will be useless and the photo-documentation process will be pointless. 

  • Are there some aspects of your topic that you would like to explore further in the near future?

Of course, since there is never enough space and time to explore every aspect. I had to focus on particular questions and leave other questions aside. I hope that I will manage to deal with them later. Further on, I would like to extend my research to other regions as well, since graffiti were written almost everywhere across Yugoslavia in the World War II period. Beside the topic of graffiti, my historical research opened many new and intriguing questions related especially to the postwar context in Istria: the establishment of the Communist government, relations between local Italians and Yugoslavs, the mass departure of Italians after the war, everyday life, cultural activities and political rituals in the immediate postwar period, and the memory culture of World War II in Istria.

  • Last but not least, what are some thoughts that you associate with conflict?

The reflection on conflict could go deep into history, so I will focus only on modern times. What comes to mind first is that we live in a system where conflict is a structural problem, a system that is in itself a deeply conflictual one and is based on sharp class, national, and gender divisions that produce conflicting interests and asymmetric relations of power between different social groups. It is a kind of «factory» of both material and symbolic conflicts, both on the social level and on a subjective, existential one. The question of conflict in such a system is thus deep and broad, it crosses both the macro and micro scales of modern society and it has its explicit and implicit motives and causes. Namely, when looking at the bigger picture of more drastic modern conflicts between different groups of people or different states, there are foreground and background interests and triggers: usually, the so-called national interests in the front, with private interests lurking from behind. For example, the wars during the dissolution of Yugoslavia are depicted as struggles for national emancipation and realizations of common national interests, while in the background they were in fact struggles for a radical redistribution of wealth and social property in favor of the then future elites closely tied to the ruling parties. Thus, social and political conflicts are Janus-faced, both on the discursive and material level, and are tightly connected to asymmetric relations of power, social hierarchy, and interests of those in power. But conflict is not always associated with the «top-down» perspective: conflict is sometimes the last available tool for the oppressed, for those whose voices cannot be heard and for whom a direct material or symbolic conflict presents the only way to point out their problems and needs, to try to achieve emancipation and improve their living conditions, to react to injustices and discriminations faced on an everyday basis.

Interview: Katarina Damčević

Vjeran Pavlaković

Associate professor of Cultural Studies, Rijeka

Vjeran Pavlaković is an associate professor at the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Rijeka, Croatia. He received his Ph.D. in History in 2005 from the University of Washington, and has published articles on cultural memory, transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia, and the Spanish Civil War. Recent publications include the co-edited volume (with Davor Pauković) Framing the Nation and Collective Identity in Croatia (Routledge, 2019), “The Controversial Commemoration: Transnational Approaches to Remembering Bleiburg,” in Politička misao (2018), and The Yugoslav Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2016). He is currently the lead researcher on the Memoryscapes project as part of Rijeka’s European Capital of Culture in 2020.

  • You and Davor Pauković edited the book “Framing the Nation and Collective Identities: Political Rituals and Cultural Memory of the Twentieth-Century Traumas in Croatia,” published in 2019. Could you tell us more about the project and collaborations behind it?

The project lasted 4 years and was funded by the Croatian Science Foundation (HRZZ). The goal was to analyze how Croatia’s political elite and other social actors (leaders of various religious communities, veteran organizations, victim associations, civil society activists, etc) “framed” key events from the 20th century in their commemorative speeches. We focused on seven commemorations – five related to the Second World War, and two from Croatia’s War of Independence (known as the Homeland War in Croatia) – from 2014 until 2017, recording all of the commemorative speeches and collecting other visual materials from the field as well as print and electronic media. The commemorations included anniversaries related to the Jasenovac concentration camp, the Bleiburg massacre, the Jazovka mass grave, Anti-fascist Struggle Day, the former Uprising Day in Srb, the fall of Vukovar, and Victory Day held in Knin. Our team, consisting of myself and Davor along with Benedikt Perak, Tamara Banjeglav, and Renato Stanković, analyzed the material with a variety of interdisciplinary methodologies, including history, political science, philosophy, cognitive linguistics, and cultural studies. While commemorations are not the only source of cultural memory, we felt that these particular political rituals provided an insight into how memory politics was used to project ideological positions in the present. We were lucky in that during the research period Croatia underwent several changes of government as well as a presidential election, which enabled us to observe how the various mnemonic actors used each of the annual commemorations for their own interests.   

  • How have the commemorations in Croatia change in the context of the Covid 19 pandemic?

Commemorations often involve large numbers of people gathered at sites of memory in order to create a certain aura and evoke emotions, so of course the global pandemic affected how they can be organized. Since many of the commemorations we had been following were controversial due to participants displaying problematic symbols, staging protests, or organizing counter-commemorations, the new conditions meant that this year participants were reduced to a minimum and the government could control the protocol to a much greater degree. The first major commemoration was held at the Jasenovac concentration camp site, and represented a positive shift as the divisions over the past few years (a result of an increase in revisionism and Holocaust denial) were eliminated and both government officials and victims’ organizations all attended the same commemorative event. The inability of the Bleiburg commemoration to be held in Austria in May resulted in a well-publicized controversy, since the organizers held events in Zagreb and for the first time in Sarajevo, provoking massive protests and debates about (not) dealing with the past, rehabilitation of the fascist Ustaša movement, and ethnic relations in Bosnia and Hercegovina. While this commemoration deepened ideological divisions in the region, restrictions due to the pandemic meant that the anniversary of Operation Storm on 5 August (celebrated in Croatia as Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and Day of the Croatian Defenders) could send a radically different message than in previous years. For two decades, this commemoration was controversial because of the excessive nationalism of those celebrating the Croatian Army’s legitimate liberation of occupied territory in 1995 while ignoring the tragic fate of Serb civilians killed in the aftermath or forced to flee Croatia. This year the government included an official representative of the Serb minority in the commemorative protocol, and all of the speakers (Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, President Zoran Milanović, Speaker of the Parliament Goran Jandroković, and commander of Operation Storm Ante Gotovina) emphasized the need for reconciliation and the recognition of all victims of the conflict. The Covid-19 restrictions limited the number of participants and prevented incidents by the radical right, which had characterized this commemoration in previous years.   

  • As someone who spent a significant part of their life in the United States while still being actively engaged in the post-Yugoslav context, you have an interesting insider’s perspective into both worlds. What are some aspects you find intriguing about memory culture in the US? What about the post-Yugoslav states?

If we look at US history and memory culture prior to the Trump era, we can see a lot of continuity and stability of the political system and consequently the interpretation of the past. Coming from US academia I had the sense that there was a lot of space for critical reflection on all aspects of the past, and that pluralistic interpretations could co-exist in an environment of civilized debate and open discussion, even when that past exposed the dark sides of US politics and society, such as the fate of Native Americans, the legacy of slavery, US imperialism in Latin America, and various other examples of foreign intervention. In contrast, historians in Croatia and neighboring countries were considerably more conservative, with many of them feeling that it was their duty to support official narratives and perpetuate nationalist myths. Because of the turbulent 20th century, memory studies scholars in this region have a wealth of material to analyze how each successive regime has manipulated collective memory and rewritten the past every few decades. This allows us to observe the dramatic discontinuities in the historical interpretations (and the continuities in the methods of imposing those interpretations) in the former Yugoslavia, while the US lacks those dramatic breaks. A lot of this has changed in the past few years, as we have seen memory politics of the US Civil War once again entering everyday discourse and the debates over public space (monuments, names of streets, institutions, etc.). 

  • The debate regarding Confederate monuments and memorials in the US remains topical and reactions have been diverse; from leaving or removing them, to relocating them to museums and adding more information to provide context (or even hiring a guide who would contextualize multiple perspectives). What is your take on this issue and do you see a potential solution?

As mentioned above, some historical issues and controversies lie dormant for decades and are seemingly resolved, but can then become flashpoints that set off new debates and even launch political action when conditions change. I have long thought that many Confederate monuments are inappropriate and serve not as historical markers but as politicized symbols asserting power, control, and the glorification of a system built on slavery. This is even more apparent when we analyze the chronology of their construction, since many monuments to the Confederacy were built during periods when Blacks in the United States were seeking equal rights, such as in the 1950s-1960s. For example, the massive monument to Robert E. Lee that used to stand in New Orleans seemed absurdly out of place since Lee had never even been in that city, while the huge memorial to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, in the center of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, could only be interpreted as a grotesque shrine to a politician who sought to destroy the unity of the United States. It is difficult to understand how individuals can idolize the Confederacy and the Lost Cause and still consider themselves to be patriotic Americans. That being said, I think there are many parks and battlefield sites within the National Park Service that can provide the proper information and context for memorials from both sides of the war, and these are the places where these monuments should be moved. I am against the vigilante attacks and illegal removals of monuments as long as there are still opportunities for discussion and community decisions on a case by case basis – some memorials express reconciliatory messages or simply mark a battle or cemetery without glorifying the injustice of the defeated system. Some monuments can be modified with explanatory information, or can be moved to National Parks or museums. Only when there are no other legal options remaining should memorials be attacked, since this behavior opens the door to all kinds of destruction against memorials we might consider appropriate by right wing opponents or racists. The most extreme option would be to just eliminate all memorials, but I don’t see this a realistic scenario considering so many societies construct memorials to physically embody the past.

  • The questions of what we remember, how, and why remain intriguing as ever. Those questions are particularly significant in post-conflict contexts such as Croatia, where we more or less continuously witness symbolic conflicts on different levels of society. However, can we talk about too much remembrance that can hinder the possibility of going forward? This question probably brings us closer to the implications of political (mis)uses of memory…

While I personally enjoy visiting sites of memory and consider myself a monument hunter, there is an argument to be made for forgetting and ignoring certain aspects of the past. Many monuments are invisible and do not really perform the function they were intended to do, but others constantly remind people about the past, which can be problematic in divided societies that are trying to heal the wounds of either recent or long-term conflicts. For monuments to serve a positive role there has to be a functioning administrative system that can regulate the construction of sites of memory, ensuring that not only aesthetic criteria are fulfilled but also that the discourse of the memorial texts is one that fosters healing and does not perpetuate the divisions that led to the conflict in the first place. But it is hard to expect the idealistic visions of liberal academics to be implemented in post-conflict societies, especially when those political forces and even individuals that initiated the wars are still in power. We want to believe that it is the goal of the political elite and other social actors to “move forward”, but in fact, looking at the former Yugoslavia as an example, many politicians benefit from a permanent post-conflict situation and therefore support the kind of memoryscapes that fuel division. They support monuments only to their own victims, glorifying the perpetrators on their side as heroes and martyrs while the victims on the other side are denied recognition in public space or are even demonized as the eternal enemy on monuments. For remembrance to work, there has to be political will for reconciliation that is supported by critical thinking in the educational system, accountable local administrators, religious communities that work on bridging differences, media that are not complicit in populist demagoguery, and intellectuals that engage in civil society initiatives fostering a positive cultural memory.

  • You were also engaged in transitional justice efforts. Could you tell us a bit more about your activities and contribution in that context?

I worked closely with the REKOM coalition since 2007, participating in numerous forums, workshops, conferences, and work groups over the years. REKOM was initially formed by three regional NGOS – Documenta (Zagreb), the Humanitarian Law Center (Belgrade), and the Research and Documentation Center (Sarajevo) – and eventually included hundreds of civil society organizations and individuals throughout the former Yugoslavia, as well as numerous international partners. The goal was to create a regional truth and reconciliation commission modeled on similar ones created in South Africa, Peru, Sierra Leone, and other countries. However, REKOM faced greater challenges since it included seven independent countries rather than a single state. I was part of a work group that drafted the statute of the envisioned commission, and as the only historian (and only non-lawyer) I contributed in creating a document that took into account the complex and challenging past of the region. Although the commission has yet to be established, I think that reconciliation is not a singular event but a long process, and the experience of fostering dialogue between so many different groups, from victims to veterans, politicians and activists, artists and legal experts, is certainly valuable in ultimately creating the tolerant and open societies I believe most of us want to live in. The difficulty in realizing this project was that there was a perpetual lack of political will across the region, and even when certain countries backed the initiative there was always a new electoral cycle in the neighborhood that threatened to derail the process. There was also the problem of donor fatigue, since REKOM relied on funds from the international community, which couldn’t last forever. Despite the difficulties, I think the initiative still has a role to play in the region, and combined with the positive legacies of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), such as the tribunal’s archive, there is considerable potential for at least symbolic reparations if not absolute retributive justice. The new commemorative culture in Croatia, exemplified by the recent reconciliatory messages in Knin and in the village of Grubori, is a result of these symbolic reparations. 

  • What are certain topics you would like to explore in the near future? I remember some talks about the commodification of symbols from WWII and the 1990s Homeland War.

While my last project focused on the performative aspects of cultural memory and commemorative culture, for the next project I am interested in exploring the economic and financial aspects of commemorations, in other words, the business of memory. During our research we observed the roles played by mnemonic entrepreneurs, whether organizations that profit from collective remembrance, or politicians who build careers on traumatic issues of the past. The financial aspect of building monuments, bussing in participants to commemorations, the budgets for various ideological commemorative events, selling souvenirs, printing publications, and a comparative analysis of dark tourism are all invisible elements of memory politics I would like to explore. At the moment I am working on some more traditional historical research, such as the struggle over the Yugoslav-Italian border after the First World War, and there is plenty of semiotic conflict in the port city of Rijeka. I have a lot of material related to the use of flags and badges by both pro-Italian and pro-Yugoslav citizens during the period 1918-1920, when the international community tried to decide where to draw the border based on identity and historical territorial claims. 

  • Lastly, what are some thoughts that you associate with conflict?

I think conflict is an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. It hones our rhetorical skills, drives our actions and desires, is replicated in sporting events, and inspires the arts. The problem is when conflict escalates to violence and encourages the complete elimination of the Other. I think the goal is to create societies that can offer mechanisms for resolving and dealing with conflicts peacefully – spaces for debate, discussion, negotiation, tolerance of other opinions – rather than populistic calls for “national unity” that verges on the prohibition of differing views, which leads to authoritarianism, dictatorships, and fascism.

Interview: Katarina Damčević

Darko Gavrilović

Professor of History, Novi Sad

Darko Gavrilović is a history professor at the Faculty of Science in Novi Sad, Serbia. He is a visiting professor at the Faculty of European Legal and Political Studies in Novi Sad, Serbia. Darko is the chief editor of the journal “Serb-Croat Relations in 20th century,” an editor of the journal „Polis Culture,” adviser of the Euroclio organisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a member of the Association of Writers of Vojvodina. He was a visiting professor at Charles University Prague and University of Lodz. Professor Gavrilović’s research is focused on Serb – Croat political relations in the 20th century, political myths, and cultural studies.

  • What can you tell us about CHDR (Center for History, Democracy, and Reconciliation)? When was it founded, what are the goals, which activities do you focus on?

CHDR was founded in 2007 with the initiative by researchers from the former Yugoslav region and with cooperation with the (then) director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation from Salzburg, professor Elazar Barkan. The main goal of founding CHDR was the creation of a network of researchers and politicians who want to contribute to establishing a regional politics of reconciliation, which is in direct opposition with the current state of affairs. That means that the conflict is still present, although nowadays it transferred from war trenches into the fields of (non)communication, media lynching, and occasional nationalistic excesses. Fighting against political elites that use nationalism as a tool to fuel nationalistic and religious hatred in order to justify and hide corruption and politically organized crime is obviously not easy. In that sense we try to give as much as we can at the moment: we organize gatherings with researchers and politicians who support the idea of normalization of relations in the region, we filmed three documentary series that focus on eliminating political myths related to the totalitarianisms that existed in former Yugoslavia, we organize summer schools for students from the region as well as round tables for the local returnee population that facilitates an educational approach and helps them develop tools that aid the development of their production capacities. Furthermore, we also organized two artistic workshops that connected Croat and Serb artists.

  • One of the main aspects of your research are political myths – what motivated you to pursue this topic and in which contexts do you explore it?

The main reason is because Serbia has become a safe haven for court attempts to rehabilitate extreme right wingers as well as collaborationists of the occupying forces. For example, in the last couple of years we witnessed the attempt to rehabilitate Milan Nedić, a man who was at the head of the collaborationist government during World War II and whose men provided help to the occupiers in the liquidation of more than 10000 Jews. Those who defend him want to present him as a man who was only trying to protect the “biological substance of the Serb people” by giving up Jews and Roma. Moreover, they want to present him as a true patriot who was only fighting against the communist ideology. These and similar attempts to white wash history but also the social consciousness regarding certain collaborationists, such as Dimitrij Ljotić who admired Hitler as a notable world genius, develop under the guise of settling scores with historiography that developed during socialism and is accused of single-mindedness. In this sense we actually go from one totalitarian communist single-mindedness into another, setting a different kind of totalitarianism on a sacred pedestal. After the collapse of socialism and under the excuse that this miserable society of partocracy is actually a democracy, numerous nauseating political ideas have been present in the public sphere. In order to prevent the proliferation of various political myths and the political rehabilitation of Nazi collaborationists, we need to rely on our research and archival material that serves as evidence against their political rehabilitation.

  • What can we learn from political myths? Could you give us an example of a political myth in the context of Croatia?

In the same way that different kinds of aggressors cannot live with the truth, the survivors cannot live without it — the aggressors are aware of this. It is why they rely on propaganda imbued with political myths, with the purpose of arousing prejudice in numerous readers and listeners because they are aware that this is an easier option than to use logic and reasonable debate. Extremist propaganda is full of political myths about the sacredness of the nation, about the promised land (which entails the expansion of boundaries with the politics of conquering), the eternal enemy, death, and leadership. This kind of propaganda is not only characteristic for totalitarian regimes; in its milder form it is also present in contemporary authoritarian regimes. If we would talk about political myths related to the Croatian past, then we could mention the myth about the WWII Nazi puppet state Independent State of Croatia, such as the one about the victims of the Jasenovac concentration camp that are either negated or minimized or both. There is also the myth about Ante Pavelić [Croatian fascist leader] as the undoubted Croatian patriot, or the myth about the Croatian border on the Drina river as a symbol that Croats have always been Antemurale Christianitatis. 

  • In august this year the 12th gathering was organized on the topic of Serb-Croat relations in the village of Golubić. What is the symbolic significance of Golubić for this gathering?

Golubić (in Obrovac) is a Serb returnee village in the Obrovac hinterland in a county with the majority Croat population. This county shows positive results in terms of Croat and Serb cohabitation; political representatives of these two peoples have even been in power together for almost twenty years. Trust is being continuously built and it doesn’t base itself on whether someone is a good Croat or Serb, but simply on whether they are a good person.

  • How would you characterize contemporary Serb-Croat relations in terms of cultural memory?

It seems as if the politicians are continuously driving in reverse. In that sense they maintain themselves by poisoning people with a politicized return to the past, because if the people would pay closer attention to the present they would see that there should be no space for such politicians. What’s worse, humanity is lost if in a nationalistically framed cultural memory we find excuses for national and religious hatred and crimes. 

  • One of the questions raised during this year’s gathering was what kind of cultural memory do we actually want. How do you imagine cultural memory in the context of Serbia and Croatia?

The central theme of cultural memory in the region is not the representation of historical and objective knowledge, but first and foremost a collective and subjective perception of historical relations with the past in the present. It is characterized by individual memory, state and national rituals, and dominant narratives that are being transferred primarily through the media and school curricula. A striking aspect is that the collective perception shapes the subjective one. Social conflict and different relations and problems influence cultural memory as well, they are intertwined. In a highly emphasized cultural memory practices the elements that are less accentuated will probably end up being forgotten. A common narrative that fosters cultural memory as the representation of historical and objective knowledge is one of the possible directions towards reconciliation that requires each and every participant to leave behind their partiality and prejudice. To continue along that path means to take into account the past in order to learn something new for the future. Unfortunately, the two previously mentioned countries present a sad example of not only being unable to find the right way, but also of degrading a potentially good path towards reconciliation that was built during social-democratic rule in both. 

  • How would you like to see CHDR develop in the future? Are there any concrete plans for next year?

Wishes are a tricky thing in terms of developing activities in a region where we seldom have the understanding of the current governments. Since CHDR has been financially tied to domestic sources of funding, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to find external sources as well and build stronger relations with organizations in Europe that deal with similar topics. As we are turned towards the future, our emphasis always lies on the youth, on students from the region who would be able to carry on the ideas of reconciliation further. In this respect we will probably do our best to organize a summer school next year that would connect not only students from the region, but also those from other countries that were faced with national, ideological, and religious conflicts. We are actually currently discussing potential ideas with our colleague from Ireland, John Paul Newman, about inviting his students who have similar experiences on the confessionally divided island.

  • How would you describe your thoughts about conflict? 

For me as a historian, conflict in political history is a result of dynamic psychological events, completely opposed political motives that cannot be solved with dialogue and a peaceful seeking for a solution. As such, conflict often results in frustration, even more so if the opposites are bigger and the obstacles for their expression more challenging. It leads to physical violence and in extreme cases clashes of varying intensity that can result with expulsion, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The antithesis to conflict is dialogue, a confrontation of attitudes and opinions that carry in themselves a level of objectivity based on which we can come up with solutions. For me as the director of CHDR and an activist, in order to avoid a conflicting situation that could further escalate, the most important thing is to develop a society with content individuals. Or to put it more clearly, not allow ourselves to become weapons in the hands of those who would want to destroy our inner peace. We should remember that we are not the noise of other people’s political passions and that our lives belong to us only. We need to turn to those who value and foster peace and love.

Interview: Katarina Damčević

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Semiotics of Conflict 2019. All rights reserved.

Pattern by Harryarts.