Each Generation Is (Not) a New Nation: Why We Should Study Yugoslavia
Mirko Savković is a doctoral researcher of East and Southeast European History at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
Photo: Adam Harangozó
Earlier this year I told my friend from Kolkata about my recent trip to Croatia, where I visited some of the famous Yugoslav-era monuments commemorating events during the Second World War. I showed him photographs from the Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Area. He was particularly interested in the Stone Flower monument. This honest interest prompted me to passionately tell him that Yugoslavia was a unique place, our art not bound by somehow anachronistic-looking socialist realism, but with substantial public support and recognition for artists; how our monuments did not just commemorate horrors of war and glorious revolution, but that artists aimed for their monuments to embody it and to revolutionize the form itself… My friend tried to bring my attention back to the stove; our Bosnian coffee was just about to boil over my cezve.
Having been educated by the post-independence Croatian school curriculum, I can attest to the conspicuous erasure of the Yugoslav past, replaced with a new nationalist focus on the establishment of ancient traditions and continuities.
How is it possible that the history of a country gone before I was even born can trigger me in such a way? In a way, it could be compared to some form of intergenerational trauma similar to what I can see among my Spanish or Greek friends, whose identities are also shaped by enduring ideological divisions. But one notable characteristic is that our passionate debates are usually not informed by a detailed understanding of history. Serbian human rights campaigner Sonja Biserko argues that most citizens in Yugoslav successor states, particularly young people, do not in fact understand the real causes of the breakup of the country and the wars of succession.[i] Having been educated by the post-independence Croatian school curriculum, I can attest to the conspicuous erasure of the Yugoslav past, replaced with a new nationalist focus on the establishment of ancient traditions and continuities. To the extent that Yugoslavia was mentioned, it was reinterpreted as a historical mistake, a prison of nations and an anomaly in our history. In their analysis of this process, Snježana Koren and Branislava Baranovi observe a uniform, strong and lasting nationalist ideological pressure, which has led to a new nationalistically-determined curriculum stripped of any positive memory of Yugoslavia.[ii] To borrow from Umberto Eco, each student is indoctrinated in the ideas of popular elitism in which they were invited to feel pride in belonging to the apparently best people in the world.[iii]
The new curriculum was not there only to teach young children about history; it sought to fulfil the ideological task of re-educating the nation.
Looking back, it is fascinating how effectively something only a couple of years old, as was the case with the new post-independence curriculum, presented itself to pupils as a hegemonic norm. It was an eternal truth hardly older than its own elementary school students. The new curriculum was not there only to teach young children about history; it sought to fulfil the ideological task of re-educating the nation. Yet, as always, the results of propaganda are never entirely successful. The weak link came in the fact that, as a member of the Serb minority in the eastern Slavonia area of Croatia, I attended a school for Serbs. We were supposed to learn social sciences and humanities in such a way that one-third of the curriculum would cover Croatian, one-third Serbian, and one-third international literature, history, and art. This arrangement was reached with the signing of the Erdut Peace Agreement which enabled peaceful resolution of the war in the region. With both national segments demanding loyalty, compromises and uncomfortable critical distance were implicit both among students and professors. The practice of minority educational autonomy in the region, often criticised by Croat nationalists and media, therefore allowed both teachers and students more space to develop what in Gramscian terms can be perceived as counter-hegemonic critical resistance.[iv]
Once the doors to critical reflection on dystopian post-conflict reality started to open, critiques of many other propositions of the dominant ideology became importunate. The mandatory erasure of multicultural Yugoslavia, its desolate monuments, and defeated citizens who were the losers of the transition, came together from across the social margins to our focal point. Slovenian cultural studies professor Mitja Velikonja describes ‘Yugoslavia as a nationalists’ negative obsession, as socialism (was) neoliberals’ negative obsession’, which motivated the first group to expurgate Yugoslav name from public vocabulary.[v] In fact, the issue of the intentional forgetting of the past in transitional countries is noticed beyond the post-Yugoslav past. Mark et. al. describe how countries that have joined European Union in particular tend even to forget their numerous and important socialist-era global engagements.[vi] In many ways, this intentional forgetting tends to narrow the legitimate field of political discussion and to exclude numerous participants from it. Critical observations that many social issues in the past were addressed in a more appropriate way are laconically disregarded as a form of delusional Yugonostalgia of people who yearn for their youth. Palmberger however underlines that nostalgia is not necessarily oriented towards the past alone, but may in fact serve as a critique of post-socialist reality.[vii] Svetlana Boym additionally distinguishes between what she calls restorative and reflective nostalgia, with the restorative type focused on the first part of the word nostos (home) and its reconstruction through the Manichaean collective battle of good and evil; and the reflective type focused on individualistic algia (the longing), itself sceptical of restoration and committed to fragmented affective memories.[viii] While ruling nationalist elites and even some European Orientalists discredit and refuse to take anti-nationalist and Yugoslav identities seriously, Milica Popović underlines the strategic importance and subversive potential of Yugonostalgia, particularly among younger generations.[ix]
While on the surface Yugonostalgia may seem like a marginal social phenomenon, its persistence and clear critique of the existing reality makes it a socially important issue to be understood.
Despite all efforts to forget – or more likely because of them – a counter-hegemonic, positive reinterpretation of the Yugoslav past and post-Yugoslav commonalities is alive throughout the region. In social sciences, this type of remembrance is addressed in what is known as guerrilla memorialization from below in the absence of official commemorations.[x] Citizens in the region may use Yugonostalgia not only or even primarily to commemorate the censored past but to reject new ideological impositions and reaffirm their commitment to a set of progressive values (anti-fascism, multiculturalism, and rights of women and minorities, to mention some). Here it seems to me that the epithet of Yugonostalgia is in fact close to another term occasionally used in a derogatory or discrediting fashion - that of Evropejstvo (Europeanism). Both imply insufficient patriotic credentials. And yet, while on the surface Yugonostalgia may seem like a marginal social phenomenon, its persistence and clear critique of the existing reality makes it a socially important issue to be understood. What do I mean by this? In some Gramscian sense again, if what we may describe as Yugonostalgia is an enduring and primary form of the system critique in the region, it is not that important how strong the phenomenon is. While other social forces may be more pronounced (ethnic nationalism as exemplified by sports hooligans or marginal ultranationalist groups), they, in fact, do not represent real counter-narratives to the dominant nationalist ideology but are often merely its more radical embodiment. While they may be visible, threatening or outright aggressive, they can hardly provide an alternative in the case of wider social rejection of the dominant elite and its values. This line of thought may also explain supposedly paradoxical situations of nationalist success at the time of the Yugoslav or earlier Austro-Hungarian breakup. Prior to both situations, nationalists were not as influential and powerful as we may think in hindsight. They were merely people with clearly-defined alternative proposals during the point at which the previous regime underwent systemic collapse.
If Yugonostalgia is not only a yearning for youth but in fact a remembering of a better, utopian past (even one which never existed in this exact form), then understanding this utopia is important for us as it can easily redirect focus from the past into the future. Youth emigration from the region, or inner silent disillusionment, currently serves as a means to channel social dissatisfaction. But the question remains as to how long this will remain so, given the economic harmonization of the region with the rest of the EU. It appears that nationalist regimes in the region are losing their grip over the large section of the new generation choosing emigration. At the same time, young people remain in regular interaction with the region, to which they may bring new ideas, experiences of post-Yugoslav immigrant or multicultural socializing in general, and new expectations.
In all this, nostalgia can be a basis for critiques of the current system, even (and especially) for those with no actual memory of the past society. Numerous young emigrants from the region will naturally be inclined to feel nostalgia, and will critically consider the causes of their emigration while living in a Europe which has never felt smaller. After all, nostalgia is not a documentary record of the past but rather a feeling responding to the present circumstances – as such it is not really about the past. It is therefore imperative for the academic community to properly understand the complexities and processes which took place both in the Yugoslav past as well as in post-Yugoslav spaces. It becomes important for our new generation of scholars to learn more about this past, to reject both negative and positive fallacies and to develop our own relations towards it. To do this, we must listen to the generations who can share their own experiences, insights, and analysis – but we cannot rely solely on them to write our own histories of Yugoslavia. At the same time, we need to understand that the key question at hand is not whether one person’s recollection of Yugoslavia is factually accurate or not; the question is why these alternative visions of the past are important today, how they differ, and what alternative visions of the present and future they point towards. Petrov and Filipović hence recognise a continual academic interest in Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav topics, and argue that we should work towards a clear development of Yugoslav studies as an area of studies which will help us understand a broad spectrum of Yugoslav issues.[xi] This task does not stand in front of students of history alone, but all social scientists who want to understand the region’s past, present, and future in a wider European and global context.
[i] Sonja Biserko, “Reč izdavača: Zašto ovaj projekat” in Jugoslavija u istorijskoj perspektivi, ed. Latinka Peović et. al., 9–11. Belgrade: Helsinšni odbor za ljudska prava u Srbiji, 2017. [ii] Snježana Koren, Branislava Baranović, “What Kind of History Education Do We Have after Eighteen Years of Democracy in Croatia? Transition, Intervention, and History Education Politics (1990–2008)” in ›Transition‹ and the Politics of History Education in Southeast Europe, ed. Augusta Dimou, 91–140. Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2009. [iii] Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism,” The New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995. [iv] Joseph Smith, “Community and contestation: a Gramscian case study of teacher resistance,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 52, no. 1 (2020): 27–44. [v] Mitja Velikonja, “Yu-retrovizor: Način sećanja na Jugoslaviju” in Jugoslavija u istorijskoj perspektivi, ed. Latinka Peović et. al., 485–513. Belgrade: Helsinšni odbor za ljudska prava u Srbiji, 2017. [vi] James Mark, Artemy M. Kalinovsky, and Steffi Marung, “Introduction” in Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World, eds. James Mark, Artemy M. Kalinovsky, and Steffi Marung, 1–31. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020. [vii] Monika Palmberger, “Nostalgia matters: Nostalgia for Yugoslavia as potential vision for a better future,” Sociologija, 50, no. 4 (2008): 355–370. [viii] Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” The Hedgehog Review, 9, no 2 (2007). [ix] Milica Popović, “La Yougonostalgie – la Yougoslavie au regard des derniers pionniers,” Études Balkaniques, no. 19-20 (2013-2014): 303–324. [x] Ana Hofman, “We are the Partisans of Our Time”: Antifascism and Post-Yugoslav Singing Memory Activism,” Popular Music and Society, 44, no. 2 (2020): 157–174. [xi] Ana Petrov, Andrija Filipović, “Introduction: Towards Yugoslav Studies,” AM Journal of Art and Media Studies, no. 13 (2017): 1–4.