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


Semiotics of Conflict 2019. All rights reserved.

Pattern by Harryarts.