Hrvoje Klasić discusses historical revisionism in Croatia and life as a celebrity historian.
A 1980’s president of Yugoslavia, Tito’s corpse, and rakija-guzzling neighbors also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
There are few places where the past is used for political purposes more than in the countries of former Yugoslavia. Among them, Croatia is at the top of the list.
The 2019 Holocaust Remembrance Project report gave Croatia a red card for revisionism, listing it among the European countries with the worst record. The authors noted that, “Croatia continues to have difficulty coming to terms with its wartime past under a Nazi collaborationist government.”
While World War II history is the most contested, the period of socialist Yugoslavia and the ensuing Croatian War of Independence rouse passions as well.
Visiting state-run museums around the country you might think socialist Yugoslavia either never existed or was a totally dark or insignificant period in Croatia’s history. Thousands of World War II memorials built mostly in the 1960s and 70s have been destroyed or damaged.
Balkan Transitional Justice Initiative has concluded that “the 1990s war continues to cast a shadow over contemporary society.” The recent 25th anniversary commemoration of Operation Storm, the Croatian military’s campaign in which hundreds of Krajina Serbs died and hundreds of thousands fled, stoked tensions yet again.
To borrow Faulkner’s words, in Croatia the past is not dead, it’s not even past.
Here to shed some light on all this is my guest Hrvoje Klasić, a Croatian historian and professor at the University of Zagreb. In his work Klasić focuses on post-World War II Yugoslavia, people’s perceptions of and dealing with that history, and, inevitably, historical revisionism in contemporary Croatia.
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: But in [the] 90s with democratization, actually, nothing crucially changed. But this black and white narrative became white and black.
PETER KORCHNAK: Klasić’s views spring from his mostly positive experience and recollection of Yugoslavia.
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: People in my street, we know each other, we were helping each other. And I don’t know it was it was, it was in a way some kind of security.
PETER KORCHNAK: I really should have said celebrity historian. Klasić publishes a lot, makes a lot of appearances, and gives a lot of interviews in the media both in Croatia and in other countries of former Yugoslavia. You could say he’s the media’s go-to critic of aggressive nationalism, chauvinism, and historical revisionism in Croatia.
He is so well known that pretty much everyone I mention his name to in ex-Yugoslavia knows of him and his views. On the flip side of his notoriety stand anonymous threats of violence, even death, he frequently receives from the far right.
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: So, on one hand, people are approaching me on the street and saying me, I don’t know, thank you for— you’re so brave. And on the other hand, there they are guys approaching me that I’m a traitor, and I am anti-Croat, and so on.
PETER KORCHNAK: A 1980’s president of Yugoslavia, Tito’s corpse, and rakija-guzzling neighbors also make an appearance.
A quick note before we get to it. When Hrvoje refers to “the war” he means the 1991-1995 Croatian War of Independence, which followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia; he refers to World War II in full in all instances.
Historical Revisionism in Today’s Croatia
PETER KORCHNAK: Professor Hrvoje Klasić, you have a new book out in Croatian about Mika Špiljak, a distant relative of yours and also a one-time president of the rotating presidency of Yugoslavia in the 1980s. I’d say he is virtually unknown in the West and not exactly a household name in today’s ex-Yugoslavia. Why was it important to you to dedicate an entire book to him?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: Yeah, actually he was far more than my relative and President in one term in Yugoslavia. So, his second wife and my grandmother were sisters. But that was really not a reason why I decided to write a book.
But the main reason is that one guy who was born very poor in 1916 became one of the prominent political figures in socialist Yugoslavia. But his career started even before the war. So from mid-30s, he was [an] active member of Communist Party which was at [the] time illegal. Then he was a one of the founders of first Partisan squad, anti-fascist squad in Yugoslavia in June 1941.
After the war, I can’t remember a position he didn’t hold. So he was the president of the party, mayor of Croatian capital, Zagreb, he was president of union of workers. Then he was president of government, republican and then federal government. He was president of after Tito’s death, he opened Olympic Games in 1984 in February, so I think he was a very interesting person. And that was one reason.
But the other reason is an actual situation in Croatia today with this revisionism. Everything what happened between 1945 and 1990 is percepted [sic] as as a bad time, as a prison, especially for Croatians. And my opinion is totally opposite, not because of my subjective feelings but because of my researches, and I think that is one of the most interesting, most influential periods in Croatian history, and he was active and very important part of that system.
PETER KORCHNAK: And what has been the response from the Croatian public or the media to the book? I mean, especially given the historical revisionism you are referring to and given generally the relationship of Croats to former Yugoslavia?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: It’s interesting that this revisionism is maybe absent in historiography and in among historians, it’s more present among politicians, among journalists among, I don’t know, ordinary people.
There were no, let’s say attacks on on my book from my colleague historians, who, let’s say, disagree with some thesis or with some facts, interpretations, but there are many, many attacks from very far right-oriented people writing me letters, writing letters to publisher, writing letters to all dailies, which are publishing interviews with me about the book.
From 1945 to 1990, there was a black and white narrative with good guys and bad guys, with demonization and glorifications. Dealing with the past was very tendentious, very selective, very ideological. You know, on one side, good guys were communists and all who were supporting them and bad guys were all who were not supporting them.
In [the] 90’s with democratization, actually, nothing crucially changed. This black and white narrative became white and black. So those who were bad guys, they became good guys, those who were demonized, they are now glorified and, you know, so it’s again, selective, tendentious and very ideological, not communist but nationalist ideology.
So, we are [a] very divided society today. And what is really strange, we are not divided about [the] future. We are not divided about economy, about taxes, about healthcare, we are divided about history. There are no differences between two main parties, Social Democrats, and Demo-Christians [Christian Democrats, ed. note]. If you ask them about foreign policy, economical policy or whatever, but if you ask them about, I don’t know a role of Partisans or Ustashas, [the] role of Tito or Tudjman, war crimes, there will be differences not only on [the] political level but also in everyday life.
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s talk about this societal division in Croatia about history, about the past. In one recent interview you said that the Croatian society had undergone a collective lobotomy about the past. Can you elaborate on that?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: What’s going on in Croatia is really repeating what was going on after the Second World War. Nineteen forty-five was proclaimed as [a] zero year and pivotal moment and nothing before that was really important in history of Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, Slovenians, whatever.
In modern Croatia, we repeated the same mistake and we proclaimed 1991 as Zear Yero [sic] and everything before that is not important. Not that it’s not important, but it is bad and all good stuff started with 1991 with democratization [a] new ruling party and all before that was bad because comparing, for example, Czechoslovakia, comparing Hungary or Poland, this transition from communism to democracy didn’t pass peacefully, but Croatia gained its democracy and independence through the war. And it was [a] war against the state, Yugoslavia. It was in a way, [a] war with communism. So because of that, everything connected with Yugoslavia and communism became bad and became black.
So today, it’s it’s very hard to talk about good aspects of that 45 years period. And what is unbelievable that historians, sociologists, political scientists, but also witnesses of the time from from all around the world are dealing with that period of Yugoslavia as really one experiment between East and West, and they find Yugoslavia not behind [the] Iron Curtain. It was not it was not usual communist state, also not democratic. So, that Yugoslav experiment became popular to anybody and everybody, but for us who were living in that society, in that country.
And it’s [a] really strange situation not only that, we are not dealing, but we are dealing totally wrong.
PETER KORCHNAK: In what way?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: Because of because of war and because of role of, for example, political prisoners, and especially because of the role of political emigrants, emigrants from Croatia, so who emigrated after 1945, but also in 60s and 70s.
PETER KORCHNAK: A quick point of clarification: what Hrvoje is talking about here is people who emigrated from Croatia during the socialist period for various reasons.
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: Their role in society in beginning of 90s became very powerful, and their narrative about Yugoslavia was totally bad. And Yugoslavia was to them, to them was hell on the earth. So they tried to convince all of us that we were also living in a kind of hell, in the prison. Since they are in leading positions in Croatia that’s the reason why one said they are trying to lobotomize all of us.
We are not talking about situation in Nicaragua in 1936. We are talking about [the] situation Yugoslavia in [the] ’70s and ’80s, and there is really a lot of people who remember that period. So you can come from Argentina and from the United States or from prison and said, “Oh, I think that Yugoslavia was very bad,” but, you know, for you maybe it was, but for millions of people it wasn’t, it was something totally opposite of a prison.
So how to deal with that? The problem is that, you know, people are afraid to talk about it. And that’s the reason why historians like myself, who are [a] minority become popular because they’re not a lot of us and people want to hear another story about about their history.
PETER KORCHNAK: In all my conversations with people in former Yugoslavia, the negative view of the socialist period is actually quite difficult to find. I’d say there is a positive perception or a positive recollection of Yugoslavia among the general public, regular people, at least on some level. Is it an expression of nostalgia? A reaction to the present situation? Or just a matter of my asking the questions?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: Croatians, but not only Croatians but ex-Yugoslavs, so Slovenes, Serbs, Macedonians, they were living in a very interesting society, interesting country, which was communist. It wasn’t democratic with free elections. But it wasn’t [a] Soviet type of country. Yugoslavia has never been a part of Eastern Bloc, Warsaw Pact, but it wasn’t also [a] member of NATO. So it was one of the founders and prominent players in [the] Non-Aligned Movement.
And what is more important, you know, for those who were, let’s say born in 1920, in Kingdom of Yugoslavia—and you can, you can choose any small town in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Macedonia—they were born in one of the poorest countries in Europe, Kingdom of Yugoslavia. They couldn’t imagine that their kids could be educated in high school, special universities or for PhD, they couldn’t imagine free health care, I don’t know, vacations and [a] better living standard.
And then [the] Second World War was really a bloody war here in the region. And after the war during the communist period, [the] standard of living from year to year became better and better.
It was normal that if you’re from the poor family that your kids could go to universities or to PhDs. It was normal to go to hospitals for free. It was normal to go to, I don’t know, summer vacations, winter vacation, so many aspects of life became unbelievably better than it was in [the] 30s or 40s.
So for those people, Yugoslavia was industrial, very, very strong industrialized, let’s say, comparing with [the] pre-war period. So a lot of jobs, a good standard of living. And what was different comparing other communist countries in Eastern Europe, all Yugoslavs, or, let’s say except maybe political prisoners, but majority a great majority, they, they had passports so they could travel all around the world, almost in all countries without visas.
So you know, if we are talking about that, it was for sure for [the] great majority of people, it was a good and secure period of life.
Of course, there were no elections, there were [sic] no multi party system. But you know, there were some other aspects of life which were better than than they are today in capitalism and in democracy.
What else, you know, after 1945, after the end of the war, every year was better and better. In today’s Croatia, or in today’s Serbia, and Bosnia or whatever after the war—we are now in 20 years after the war, or even more—it’s not that every year is better and better. So for those people who remember how they were prosperous from year to year, of course, it’s a reason why they remember that part of their life as something which was not black and white and which was not just a prison.
PETER KORCHNAK: What about you personally? What do you remember, what does Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1991 mean to you?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: Yeah, I can’t remember 1945, I was born in 1972. What I remember was, let’s say, [the] funeral of your Josip Broz Tito and the day when he died, it was May 4, 1980. And I remember everybody’s crying and you know, it was not totally clear why they’re crying.
So his funeral was on May 8, 1980, and we in my building, it was not [a] huge building with maybe 10 apartments, but we all gathered in one apartment because they only they got [a] color TV. And you know, it was [a] funeral with a lot of flowers and everything, and so what I keep in mind is that all fathers were in the kitchen, they were drinking rakija or whisky or whatever. And all mothers with childrens [sic] were in room with TV and they were crying.
I was young. So when war started, I was 18 years [old]. So I think childhood is, you know, everywhere the best part of your life.
But you know, comparing to today what was better, we really didn’t care about nationalities, about religions. And I think that this sense of solidarity is much much bigger. We were always, almost every day, we’re helping each other in some organized activities or non-organized. People in my street, we know each other, we were helping each other. And I don’t know it was in a way some kind of security.
Yes, I can understand those who were singing some wrong songs and then they were imprisoned for them. Of course it wasn’t [a] sunny time of their life. But you know, I think for millions of people who understood reality, the life was not so bad.
PETER KORCHNAK: In another interview, again in Croatian, you mentioned there were actually two Yugoslavias. What did you mean by that? And in what way does it matter, to you and generally, today?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: As historian but also as a citizen, I realized that during this communist period, there were parallel universes. There were parallel worlds inside one society.
You know, I’ve never met anybody who went to church, who was religious, who was a nationalist. And then, during the war and immediately after the war, I realized that around me in the same time there were really people who cared about all this stuff, about religion, about nationalities.
For example, I’m from Sisak. It is a town 50 kilometers from Zagreb, but it’s let’s say, 50 kilometers from [the] Bosnian border. It’s [a] mixed region with a lot of Serbs, a lot of Muslims from Bosnia, and a lot of [a] majority of Croatians. Villages close to my town, there were villages with Croatian and villages with Serbian majority. Guys from from these villages, they were going to school with me or later their fathers were working with my father or mother. But you know, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, they, they, they told me that they were together only where they should be together, for example, in schools, on the job, but when they were weddings when they were birthday celebrations when there were some parties, they were separated: Croats with Croats, Serbs with Serbs. So you know, for me it was [a] shock because I grew up in the center of town and there were Serbs Bosnian Muslims and creations and I never or my father or mother never asked me, ‘your girlfriend is Serb oh no please try to find a Croatian one.’ But actually I realized that they were really parallel worlds, so in the same time, they were really different views on everyday life.
Hrvoje Klasić, Celebrity Historian
PETER KORCHNAK: So that societal division about the past and the war of words, as it were, about it helps explain that a historian would be receiving death threats about things he says in the media. How do you as a public figure deal with death threats you receive simply because you speak your truth or present your scholarship, or you know, do your job?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: Before I answer, it’s really interesting. Last year I was in Denmark in Aarhus University, giving some lectures, and I ask students of history, if they know any Danish historian, how does he look like? And they were very confused. Why should we know how historians look like?
Why did I ask them that question? Because in last few years, I became, let’s say, celebrity in this region, not only in Croatia, for example, when I’m in Belgrade or in Sarajevo, people on the street they want to take [a] selfie with me. People in, I don’t know, in securities [sic], in some shops, policemen, regular people all around the region, they recognize me from the television, from newspapers, from portals because I’m giving, I think I’m giving more, much more interviews than some movie stars and sportsmen in Croatia or in [the] region.
So it is of course, as society is divided, these approaches are divided. So they’re really fans, and I think [a] few years ago, on Facebook [a] fan page was opened. They never contacted me, I don’t know who did it. But so on one side there are those who are glorifying all I’m doing, they are fans, and they call me voice of reason, and whatever.
But on the other side they are those guys who are very very mad on [sic] me because, you know, I’m dealing with their narrative about history and their, let’s say truth.
And what is the worst for them, I’m from from 100% Croatian family and in 1991 I was volunteer in the war. So you know, if you are in Croatia [a] Serb and you are dealing with some Croatian myths and dealing with some crimes committed by Croatians, then you know you are a Serb. But if you are a Croatian, if you were volunteer in the war, and asking the wrong questions and giving wrong answers, then you are you are [a] much bigger problem than anybody will expect.
So, on one hand, people are approaching me on the street and saying me, I don’t know. Thank you for you’re so brave. And on the other hand, there are guys approaching me that I’m a traitor, and I am anti-Croat, and so on.
And of course escalation is many, death threatening letters. I’m receiving very often. I’m going to [the] police but you know, it’s anonymous, and it’s very very hard to do anything about that.
The main problem, if you ask me, about it is that we normalize not normal things. And for me, these threats are [a] part of my life for [the] last few years and my friends are laughing at that. With the last death threat, when I went public, at that moment, I realized how not normal it is because so many people contacted me and they wanted to give support, and they were really afraid, scared about it, and then you know, you realize that what I find normal is really not normal.
PETER KORCHNAK: So how did you become that celebrity historian?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: I decided to step out from my office. My colleague historians usually are producing some papers and some articles and maybe some books. But you know, in Croatia we are 4 million people, and if you sell a book in one thousand copies, one thousand, it’s a big deal.
It’s my duty in society, which is ill with the past, that I as an expert for history, I should react. And I realized that writing just scientific articles or books, it’s not enough. So I step out to public, I start to be present in public space. I’m giving a lot of interviews, going to TV shows, shooting documentaries, going to panel discussions all around the region.
For example, I’m writing a column for one internet portal, and let’s say maybe 100,000 people read it. So it’s much much bigger than writing articles.
Some historians maybe find me as maybe Yugonostalgic or maybe a left-oriented. And I really care about different interpretations, different stories, different narratives, different memories, and I’m really not afraid of them.
And on [the] contrary, I’m always asking for that dialogue. But you know, we are still living in—although we have democracy for last 30 years—we are living in [a] society of monologues, not dialogues, we can’t, we don’t know to speak with those who are thinking different than we are than we are thinking.
That’s my challenge: to find out and to talk to discuss about different views on life that it was mine during the same period.
PETER KORCHNAK: All that said, what is your next big project?
HRVOJE KLASIĆ: You know, of course, there are a lot of themes from a lot of items, a lot of, I don’t know, periods or a lot of persons from communist period or from Second [World] War period but I’m in last few years I’m more interested in this dealing with the past process. So why there is so huge problems with dealing with with if you ask me obvious things, why is a problem to say that, that Croatians were also war criminals. And why it’s hard to say that Serbs also got a huge victims although they were or some of them were I don’t know rebels and or they were aggressors, whatever.
That’s the reason I am thinking maybe to write a book about case studies about dealing with the past for example, we are always talking about German case study, but also what about Spanish? What about Greek, but then Rwanda is [a] very, very interesting case study, Sierra Leone or Lebanon. So, maybe I would like to find out differences, similarities, maybe some opportunities, from different perspectives from different societies, which also once in the history got some some kind of war or trauma. So I think that could be my next project.
PETER KORCHNAK: I spoke with Hrvoje the day after the 28th anniversary of the Vukovar massacre. All around Zagreb, votive candles, mostly red ones and some emblazoned with the Croatian flag, burned in clusters at intersections, on street corners, beneath statues and monuments and memorials. Trying to make sense of the past and how it lives on today, I wonder what the best way forward is.
Of course Hrvoje beat me to it. The year before, in his column for net.hr, he wrote, “Today, Dresden and Hiroshima are among the most desirable cities to live in Germany and Japan. And it was the painful past they never forgot that these cities used as an incentive and a challenge in building a brighter future. It is important to commemorate the Vukovar victims at least once a year. It is even more important to be proud of Vukovar on all other days of the year. The reason for pride will forever remain the tragedy that its citizens experienced in the past, but above all that reason must be the successes that its citizens will achieve every day in the future.”
It is this forward-facing outlook that I, along with so many people I speak with in former Yugoslavia, find missing in today’s political narratives. Of course, this is a global phenomenon, as Hungarians and Americans and Brits and the Japanese and many other nations can attest.
But it is here, in Croatia and other ex-Yugoslav countries, more than elsewhere, that history continues to be used and manipulated and, yes, revised for the pursuit of power rather than built upon for the betterment of the people. And it is here, more than anywhere else, that we need to talk about it.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening.
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I am Peter Korchňak.