Croatian historian Ivo Goldstein gives a short lecture on Yugoslavia’s history in an attempt to answer the question, “Was Yugoslavia good or bad for its peoples?”
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
Today’s bonus episode of Remembering Yugoslavia was a Patreon exclusive. A year ago, I released it to my and the podcast’s supporters on that platform as a perk for their generous support. It was the first such exclusive on Remembering Yugoslavia’s Patreon, and I’ve since released another (I won’t be releasing that one to the public). Patreon supporters have also enjoyed three extended episodes over the past year as well as early access to all episodes. If you want to hear these exclusive or extended episodes and enjoy early access to all episodes of Remembering Yugoslavia, go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and choose from one of the options there. You can become a monthly Patreon sustainer or contribute one-time (yes, one-time contributions also get some perks).
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You may recall today’s speaker from episode 13, “Croatia’s Political Tragedy,” about historical revisionism in that country. Ivo Goldstein is a professor of history at the University of Zagreb and the author of some 30 books and textbooks on various aspects of Croatia’s history. When I visited with him last year he greeted me with a copy of his article published in 2008 in the journal Sud-Est Europeo titled,“Was Yugoslavia Good or Bad for Its Peoples?” I thought the question was just as good as any to start my interview with him.
You won’t believe what happened next: by way of an answer, Professor Goldstein gave me a mini-lecture on Yugoslavia’s history. This is what he said (okay, I’ve edited it for length and clarity):
IVO GOLDSTEIN: It’s a very complex question and you cannot give a simple answer or simple answers.
The problem is that some people think that Yugoslavia was very good during its history of 73 years of its existence and then at the end of the day some bad guys came and destroyed it. On [the] other hand, you have that also, in a way, extreme thinking that everything was bad in this country and that there was no possibility for it to survive.
First of all, one has to say that Yugoslavia lasted 73 years, that means from 1918 till 1991. And it was 73 years of constitutional crisis. Constitutional crisis, dictatorship, totalitarian and then authoritarian regimes.
First Yugoslavia, so called royal Yugoslavia, which lasted from 1918 to 1941, the Constitution, which was proclaimed in 1921 lasted for only for eight years. And this was the period of this eight years when tensions due to national problems but also economic problems were growing step by step and it finished with [the] proclamation of dictatorship in 1929. And then at the beginning of the 30s, [a] new constitution was proclaimed, saying that this first state which was named Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes should transform into Kingdom of Yugoslavia, proclaiming that only one nation exists in it, the Yugoslavs. And the names of former nations were only names of some parts of that unified Yugoslav nation. But it was too late. Yugoslavism couldn’t survive with neglecting national names and national identities.
The Serbs, the Croats, and Slovenes already before unification of Yugoslavia existed as different nations and this process of unification of them finished even before 1918. So it was too late. Yugoslav ideologists, and mostly they were coming from Croatia, were seeing Yugoslavia before 1918 as something similar to what happened a couple of decades before in the case of Italy and in the case of Germany. Both countries, sometimes in the 1850s were completely disintegrated. About 300 counties were existing in the territory of Germany and in Italy also very many different states, identities from Piedmont on the north to Sicily in the south. So the differences in both countries from the north to the south were extremely big and obvious. But in the 60s of the 19th century, both countries were created, became strong states, Germany, one of the strongest in Europe, or in the world in those times.
So Yugoslavs before 1918 and after 1918 thought that this similar scenario can be repeated in the case of Yugoslavia. But it wasn’t so. And the national tensions, particularly between the Croats and the Serbs in the 30s of the 20th century, when this dictatorship was installed, the reaction of the Croats were obvious: They were trying to preserve their national identity. Of course, this repression, this dictatorship, created the atmosphere in which the repression and the violence which was introduced by the regime was in a way repeated by the groups which started to use terror as a weapon of reaction.
What we had at the end of the 30s or in 1941, when Yugoslavia was attacked by Germany, we had installation of fascist or pro-fascist regime in Croatia, they were called Ustaše, and they were creating new Croatian identity or trying to create new identity under the umbrella of German Nazis and Italian fascists.
It was impossible in a way. The answer of Croatia people throughout the war was opposition towards that state. People abroad think that this so-called Independent State of Croatia was supported by the majority of the Croats. Maybe at the very beginning of the war, yes. But as the weeks and month after this proclamation were passing, many people were becoming disappointed for many reasons. First of all, some very extremely important or key territories of Croatia along the coast in the north, rich agricultural regions, were given either to Italy and these regions in the north to Hungary. Terror started, not only against the Serbs and the Jews, but also against the Croats, anti-fascist Croats. And then their economic collapse came after a couple of months. So that was the basis for the strong opposition and the creation of the strong Partisan movement during the war.
Foundations for the new Yugoslavia were created in November ‘43 in Jajce. That was the Second Assembly of the so called AVNOJ, Antifascistic [sic] Council of the Liberation of Yugoslavia. So it was where the movement which was led by Marshal Tito proclaimed the foundation of new Yugoslavia, federative Yugoslavia with six republics. In those times, it was not clear whether there will be certain autonomous provinces in next two years. They were discussing that, assessing how to do it but these six republics as founders of new Yugoslavia were proclaimed.
That means that not only they were resolving or trying to resolve [the] Croatian national question, but also Slovenian. Macedonia was not [a] new nation, in royal Yugoslavia it was part of Serbia and in this territory, [the] Slavic population was perceived as Southern Serbs. And in the case of Montenegro, Montenegro for some Montenegrins, they were only part of the Serbian nation. Nevertheless, some of the Montenegrins thought that they are [an] autonomous nation as the Serbs are [an] autonomous nation. So [the] Montenegrin question was also on the table. And then the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which three nations were living–Serbs, Croats, and Muslims–was created under long debate and I wouldn’t say confusion, but very different perception of [the] position of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Somebody thought that it should be autonomous region, and then there was another question which was following that strategy, whose autonomous region should Bosnia and Herzegovina be. So, trying to keep [the] balance between Serbia and Croatia and other republics, Bosnia and Herzegovina was constituted as a republic equal to any other republic.
This is not the end of the problem. The fact is that then the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija was created within Serbia. There were long debates about the region of Sandžak, northern Montenegro-southwest Serbia, whether to have [an] autonomous region within Serbia or some parts of Sandžak were seen as part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. So there were many questions or there was a lot of confusion about the destiny of Sandžak but then it was divided between Serbia and Montenegro. It’s important to say that quite numerous Muslim population is living still in Sandžak, even they constitute [a] majority, but it was divided between Serbia and Montenegro.
IVO GOLDSTEIN: Yugoslavia as a country after [the] Tito-Stalin split in 1948 started a relatively fast process of industrialization, economic development, and what is even more important, democratization in certain aspects and liberalisation. It was, of course, very, I would say, a modest or timid democratisation, liberalization but still Yugoslavia within 5, 10, 20 years was becoming so much different from any other Eastern European country that from the eyes of Eastern Europeans, Russians, and the others it was seen as a part of the Western world.
Yugoslavs in those times were able to travel, they had passports, they could reach Western Europe without a visa. Sometimes around, ‘66, ‘65-‘66 and in the second half of the 60s, about one million Yugoslavs, out of 20-22 million left the country, started to work mostly in Germany as so-called Gastarbeiter. At that time, generally, they were thinking that they will go back home. Many of them went back home, we don’t know how many, but many of them went back but I think many more stayed in Germany and other Western countries. And the ties between those countries and Yugoslavia was [sic] extremely strong throughout [the] 60s, 70s, 80s.
What is so important to understand in that Yugoslavia: Yugoslavia was doing well in the 50s and in the 60s. That liberalisation and democratization was giving results. Yugoslavia was open to the west, Yugoslavia was open to the east, Yugoslavia was transferring, being some kind of shortcut between the East and the West, being open to both divided worlds, divided with the Iron Curtain. So we made a lot of profit. We had companies, which were very strong, which were able to work in the East, in the Arab and Muslim countries. For the Western companies, some countries were closed, so Yugoslavia was profiting out of that.
In the 50s, in the 60s, and in the 70s, Yugoslavia was passing through the quickest economic development, economic and social development. It was not only that [the] economy was growing nine or ten percent of GDP growth per year. It was a dramatic change, a dramatic development and modernization. And it was social modernization because before that, after the Second World War, Yugoslavia was mostly [a] rural country. And in that 20 or 30 years, also in the 70s, it became mostly [an] urban country.
So that was really a change, which we didn’t witness in any other period before that and after that, after the split of Yugoslavia, no. It was, of course, due to the world economy, which was also in those periods very rapidly growing. Only Japan had so quick growth as Yugoslavia in those periods.
So Yugoslavia was [a] well-organized country, well-organized state in those times but only for that time. In the 70s, and particularly in the 80s, Yugoslav leadership, including Tito until his death and then his successors, didn’t find adequate answers to the challenges with which they were confronted.
Under the surface of this relative[ly] calm atmosphere, relative[ly] stable situation, there were tensions, national tensions, economic tensions, first of all, due to the incapability of [the] Yugoslav regime at the beginning of the 70s to face all the challenges and to make certain reforms which were needed for further development.
Why I’m saying that: because these reforms were step by step democrati[zi]ng [sic] the Yugoslav society. Sometimes at the end of the 60s, they reached the point, in which the question was posed, whether we can challenge the monopole [sic] have the power in the hands of the communists.
The Communist Party gave certain space of liberty for the artists, in [the] school system relatively, in the economy as well. But Tito, who was in a way also [an] autocrat, he was a reformer, but he still was a communist, he was a Bolshevik, I would say still in his heart. When I was a kid when he was speaking, giving those long speeches, I thought it’s so futile. Then after a couple of decades I understood the meaning, the profound meaning of these words and how important that was to understand that situation. He was saying, for example, who can be responsible for the development of our Yugoslav society if not the communists. So, his answer was of course, who can be responsible? Only the communists. So to block any kind of reform which would endanger the monopol [sic] of the Communist Party, that was his task.
There was another step towards democratization after 1968 but then in the ‘70-’71 with the crash of the Croatian Spring, with the squaring [of] accounts with the liberals in Serbia and some other republics, Yugoslavia was losing its advantages. We didn’t go back towards, let’s say, the Soviet-Stalinist system as it was in some other European countries, but we were in a way, becoming close to the concept Ceausescu was developing in Romania.
After ‘71 in Croatia, after the Croatian Spring, which was similar to what you had in Czechoslovakia with Dubček in ‘68, two things: liberalisation of [the] economy, of the political system, and the solution of the national question. We were getting loans from abroad and Yugoslavia was open so tourists were coming and still [the] 70s were very good. And if we speak about the standard of living the best years in Yugoslavia were ‘78-’79.
IVO GOLDSTEIN: And then the crisis started in the 80s. It was obvious that Yugoslav economic system and political as well is not functioning. All these problems which were not so obvious in the 70s came out or exploded in the 80s.
In those times, people in Yugoslavia were not poor. We had enough to eat and there was a certain standard of living, modest standard of living but still. Nevertheless, this atmosphere which was created at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, after almost 30 years of progress, obvious economic, political, psychological progress, the atmosphere of pessimism started to dominate: that nothing can be done.
When I was a kid and when I was young, in [the] first 20 years of my life, we lived in [an] atmosphere that this year we have a modest life but it is better than the year before and next year it’ll be better. The story was over at the beginning of the 80s. We entered a crisis, which was prolonged, and the political system, [the] Yugoslav political system was not capable to resolve [sic] these questions.
And then the national tention started to grow. First, Tito died in 1980. In 1981, there were big demonstrations and unrest in Kosovo, which incited Serbian nationalism. [The] Memorandum in 1986 was, I would say, the creation of the Serbian national movement, and then it was underlined or intensified with Milošević becoming the leader in Serbia in 1987. So this vicious circle started in 1987, and you know the rest.
This Serbian nationalism and national movement started a series of demonstrations in Serbia and then in other republics. And already in 1989 we had public meetings, that hundreds thousand people, even in Croatia, who were coming from Serbia, singing or shouting, “This is Serbia, always Serbia.” So this atmosphere of unrest, unstability [sic] was already transferred to Croatia and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, already in 1989.
It was not necessarily linked with the fall of [the] Berlin Wall. We had already started this process of democratization and installation of [a] multiparty system already at the beginning of 1989, that means [a] couple of months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the Berlin Wall for us in Croatia particularly, and in Slovenia, wasn’t the key incitement for democratization.
At the end of the 80s, there were two different options. Slovenia and Croatia were proposing [the] dissolution of Yugoslavia according to the borders which were already created in 1943.
With crisis of Yugoslavia and with the creation of process of democratization, the new political parties proposing certain things, it was logical that the main political parties in Croatia and in Slovenia will ask for independence.
Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were confronted with the challenge whether they will leave Yugoslavia under the threat that Serbia is going to ask, as Milošević and his associates would say, we are asking for our part in those countries.
We can all always ask ourselves whether it was rational to go into the war. For the Yugoslav people, did they make a profit out of that? For Croatia, well, the answer is very easy: there was no choice, there was no alternative. [The] Milošević regime or the politics, which was promoted by Belgrade in those times, was leaving no space for any discussion: We will organize Yugoslavia as [a] more centralistic, even more unitarian state, or we will create new borders, which will not be according to those republic borders during the time of socialist Yugoslavia.
Serbia was [a] relatively small country and economically quite weak, it was constantly under pressure, sanctions and other political, diplomatic, military, economic measures, so they simply collapsed economically, which led to the final chapter of the wars in 1995, with liberating the occupied parts of Croatia and then liberating certain territories in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was concluded in the Dayton Peace Agreement in at the end of 1995.
PETER KORCHNAK: In his paper, Professor Goldstein answers his titular question, “Was Yugoslavia good or bad for its people?” ambivalently, with a non-answer. I quote: “Sober analysis shows that it is not possible to provide a final answer to that question.” End quote. Basically, the question is simplistic and the answer super complicated. The country brought unprecedented economic development to its peoples but it also failed to satisfy or quell their national aspirations. Yugoslavia’s achievements and leadership on the world stage were a source of pride but Yugoslavia was a fragile creation that collapsed in shameful ignominy.
I do have a sense that, while Yugoslavia’s positives over its forty-plus year existence do tend to receive the acknowledgement and appreciation they deserve, that the country split up and, more importantly, how it split up often overshadows everything. It’s as if one dismissed a lifelong marriage on the basis of its violent end. This creates a yawning hole, in life, in memory, in that notorious Balkan soul. A gap filled with questions of all sorts.
The other lesson implicit in that historical overview is this: whatever the topic of discussion in former Yugoslavia, the answer tends to require delving into history, and often quite far into it. This is why travelogues about former Yugoslavia contain deep, often meandering cuts into local, regional, and national lore; why so many issues entailing established historical facts continue to elicit clashes of interpretations; why, well, nothing is simple in the Balkans, which is why I love the place. But hey, at least we’re still asking the questions.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this bonus episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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I am Peter Korchňak.
Ćao and Merry Christmas, if you celebrate!