Historian Ivo Goldstein identifies the roots and actors of historical revisionism in Croatia.
Croatian exiles, a Serbian war criminal, and Lauryn Hill also make an appearance.
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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.
We live in a world where different groups live in different versions of reality. Through confirmation bias and other biases, information we receive in such bubbles reinforces and often even radicalizes our beliefs and attitudes. Truth is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
If disagreement on what is happening in the present poses a problem, imagine places where different views of the past stand in opposition. Not just interpretations of what happened, but the actual events are contested. The discourse can turn verbally and sometimes also physically abusive.
Places like Croatia. In a past episode I already tackled how different versions of history, of World War Two, of Yugoslavia, of the Yugoslav wars of dissolution, compete in the public marketplace of ideas. In this episode we’re going to delve deeper into historical revisionism in Croatia, where contesting versions of history play out in the political arena.
Where in Episode 10 historian Hrvoje Klasić offered an introduction to the phenomenon, today’s guest will classify the roots of historical revisionism, identify its actors, and point to a way out of the predicament.
Ivo Goldstein is a professor of history at the University of Zagreb; his office, where we spoke, is a few doors away from Klasić’s. Goldstein has written some 30 books and textbooks on the history of the Byzantium; Croatia; Holocaust in Croatia; Jasenovac concentration camp; Croatian Jewish community; as well as a biography of Tito. He is at work on a book about Croatian revisionism.
IVO GOLDSTEIN: Croatian revisionism of course, it’s fake, it’s, it’s a lie, you cannot divide Ustaša Independent State of Croatia from its Nazi fascist origin or character…
PETER KORCHNAK: From 2013 to 2017 Goldstein was Croatia’s ambassador to France and a permanent delegate at the UNESCO.
Croatia’s other celebrity historian, he too appears in the media frequently. He is a fervent critic of virulent nationalism and revisionism of World War II history, particularly pertaining to the wartime Croatian state and the Holocaust. In one interview he labeled nationalism as today’s greatest danger.
These attempts at revisions of Croatian history come mostly from the right flanks of the right.
IVO GOLDSTEIN: These are, let’s say, right wing of the ruling party, HDZ…
PETER KORCHNAK: The solution is something akin to liberalism, in the traditional, European sense.
IVO GOLDSTEIN: I hope that leading politicians will be more responsible in future in future months and years.
PETER KORCHNAK: Croatian exiles, a Serbian war criminal, and Lauryn Hill also make an appearance.
Three Roots of Croatian Revisionism According to Ivo Goldstein
PETER KORCHNAK: Professor Ivo Goldstein, how would you define Croatian revisionism? What do we talk about when we talk about historical revisionism in Croatia?
IVO GOLDSTEIN: Well, I’m writing a book about Croatian revisionism, which started actually in Croatian diaspora after 1945. Due to collapse of the pro-fascist, so called Independent State of Croatia, which disappeared in [the] main at the end of the Second World War, so those Ustaše who managed to escape towards the West, many of them to Argentina and some other countries, including Australia, Canada, the United States, started to create their narrative, which was different from, I would say, what history or decent history’s saying.
They were neglecting the fact that this country, this state, Ustaša state, was created according to Nazi and fascist ideological patterns, and it was a some kind of puppet state, puppet regime of of Hitler and Mussolini. So there they were neglecting that dimension of the problem, saying that it was only a Croatian national state, that they were doing their best to defend Croatian national interests. And this is what it is about. There are many aspects of that problem but basically this is Croatian revisionism.
Croatian revisionism of course, it’s fake, it’s, it’s a lie, you cannot divide Ustaša Independent State of Croatia from its Nazi fascist origin or character, it’s simply unpossible [sic].
It is also unpossible [sic] to avoid mentioning the genocide, which was committed against the Jews and against the the Serbs and Roma and the mass crimes against the Croats [sic] anti-fascists.
In the [sic] 1991 as a victim of the aggression, in Croatia it became very popular to call upon the traditions of the Ustaša state because people were perceiving the Ustaša state as a good dam against Serbian, or great Serbian, offensive or invasion.
In our Constitution we have clearly stated that Croatia is founded on the basis of 1943 anti-fascist and Yugoslav and Croatian representative proclamations, that means anti-fascist Croatia and anti-fascist Yugoslavia, and that it that it is this formal tradition is what was leading to the proclamation of independent Yugoslavia in 1991 against the proclamation of Ustaša state in 1941. So, in our Constitution, it’s clearly stated that we are an anti-fascist state.
Nevertheless, in reality, Tudjman was making many concessions towards the Ustaša or Ustašism.
PETER KORCHNAK: Independent Croatia’s first democratically elected president, Franjo Tudjman, was a strident nationalist and a self-styled father of the nation (in his actions and posturing he also emulated that earlier leader and fellow Croat, Josip Broz Tito). A historian, he was also the first president of the Croatian Democratic Union party, at whose helm he ruled Croatia until his death in 1999. In his pursuit and maintenance of power, he courted elements of the far right.
In an interview for Balkan Insight marking 20 years from Tudjman’s death last year, Goldstein said, “Between healthy nationalism and chauvinism, he chose chauvinism; between free-market economy and clientelism, he chose the latter. Instead of the cult of freedom, he chose the cult of the state. Between modernity and openness to the world, he chose traditionalism; a fatal choice for a small state like Croatia that needs to open for the sake of development. When it comes to all the values of liberal democracies, instead of leading us forward, Tudjman always led us in the opposite direction.”
IVO GOLDSTEIN: He was seeing himself and [the] new Croatian state as synthesis of all possible nation state ideologies and politics. So he was making or trying to make compromise or trying to make the third way between the, let’s say, communist partisans and the Nazi fascist Ustaša which was of course, completely inacceptable [sic]. There was a strong opposition in the 90s against these tendencies. And it has to be also underlined that there is no way to differentiate the Ustaša regime and its criminal character from [the] Croatian national state, it is simply it cannot be [the] Croatian national state, it wasn’t.
The Croats were disappointed very quickly. After the proclamation of Ustaša state in 1941 very soon they were opposing it, but it took them some time to take the weapons and to fight against it together with the Serbs. So that was the basis for the creation of the strong Partisan movement led by the Croat Josip Broz Tito.
There is no way to relativize the criminal character of the Ustaša regime. It was simply on the bad side.
So, this story about revisionism is also [a] very complex one.
PETER KORCHNAK: Where does the story start?
IVO GOLDSTEIN: There are three roots of the revisionism which was developing in diaspora from 1945 till ‘89. Then certain elements were transferred to Croatia. It started to develop very quickly from 1989-90 and then it exploded throughout the war.
Three roots. First of all, you couldn’t speak about the, let’s say, sensitive chapters of the Croatian and Yugoslav history here in Croatia, till 1989, and there were some taboo themes, which people need to discuss, but there was no space, it was not allowed by [the] regime. Certain aspects, certain subjects were discussed, but always under the control of the Communist Party, and it was complicated.
So, at the moment when the possibility was created to discuss certain problems, they were discussed. And then of course, in such atmosphere you cannot at first point at first sight, have a balanced discussion, there was always a danger, [a] possibility—and it happened in Croatia—that this balance goes to the other to the other extreme.
Although we had [a] certain degree, as I said, a certain degree of democratic possibilities, to have a democratic discussion, there were certain limits and everybody almost almost everybody knew where the limits were. But there were limits.
PETER KORCHNAK: So limits on freedom of speech during socialist Yugoslavia hampered the debate of certain subjects in that period, and when those limits disappeared with Yugoslavia’s disintegration, the floodgates of discourse opened. What’s the second root of historical revisionism in Croatia?
IVO GOLDSTEIN: Secondly, there was the fact that already in Serbia—because that there was a very specific situation there with the rise of the Albanian national question and the reaction in Serbia, which went through through the 80s and it was a top political question throughout the 80s—there was revisionism which was which, which was created in— already developing in Serbia, and one of its peaks was already ’86 when [the] Memorandum was published of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Art, and then ’87 when Milošević became number one in the Serbian politics.
PETER KORCHNAK: The 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Art is widely credited with stoking virulent nationalism in Serbia. It voiced Serbian national grievances and portrayed Serbs as victims all throughout history. The sentiments the Memorandum expressed helped Slobodan Milošević’s rise to power, providing him with ready-made rhetoric to fan the flames of nationalism.
IVO GOLDSTEIN: One of the questions or one of the statements made from many people who were part of that revisionist movement in, in Serbia, were stating that in the Ustaša camp of Jasenovac 700,000 people were killed and that the Croats were or are genocidal by nature. That means that the whole people is accused of being genocidal which is of course, completely unacceptable. So that was also [a] reaction to that offensive or that pressure, which was coming from Belgrade from Serbia. And then as I said reaction always creates something what goes to the extremes and then it happened in, in Croatia.
So I’m in my book, in my future book, which will be I hope published next year, but who knows, in it, I’m following that development. And there are certain there are certain stages and certain periods, which need to be analyzed separately. First of all, end of the war ’95, then [the] death of President Tudjman and the creation of the new moderate social, social democrat and liberal government in 2000, then very quite not quick, but let’s say, a relatively quick rapprochement towards the European Union and we became members only in 2013. That means, nine years after most of the Eastern European countries and six years after Romania and Bulgaria, which is due to the problems we had because of the war and the problems we had, we had in transition.
And with this revisionist politics as well, I would say, revisionism was quite suppressed, after 2000 and till 2015, although we saw it and it was still obvious, but, let’s say, quite comparing with the 90s it was almost silent almost, I wouldn’t say non-existing but less obvious than in the 90s. And then after after the elections 2015 when we got [a] new president and HDZ after four years again came into power, and with the general development in development in other European countries we have we have revisionism and Ustašophilia and also Ustašism as an old-new new-old phenomenon, once again, here quite, quite strong and becoming stronger as throughout the last couple of years, that means last three or four years.
PETER KORCHNAK: HDZ, the Croatian Democratic Union party, remains in power to date. Though in early 2020 Croatia elected a leftist president, Zoran Milanović, replacing the HDZ figure, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, she of the Yogurtgate, in the July parliamentary election, voters kept HDZ in the parliamentary majority. And for the first time, a far-right party and members of the Green-Left coalition, including a democratic socialist MP, also entered parliament.
If freedom of speech after decades of suppression and a reaction to Serbian revisionism are two roots of Croatian revisionism, what’s the third?
IVO GOLDSTEIN: [The] third root of Croatian revisionism is the fact that those those revisionists, although no matter whether they are amateurs or even professional historians, their motives are not motives, let’s say, scientific or motives of professional researchers which have, in their perception, an ambition to know to, to get to, to make, to make research, to understand something to analyze and then to draw out conclusions out of that and to be pleased to have a new text, new book. In front of their eyes is some kind of political agenda. This Croatian revisionism, as every revisionism, is politically motivated.
So what they are doing is speaking about the Ustaša and Partisans pick them out in a better State of Croatia, but mostly having everyday agenda. They are mostly promoting a concept, a social political concept, which is conservative, which is sometimes undemocratic, which resembles in certain aspect definitely what [the] Ustaša state was, if not genocidal or criminal in character, then certainly ethnocentric, different or opposing all the liberal democratic values of modern Western countries.
And this is the challenge with which Croatian society is confronted for 30 years. There are certain circles, which are not even many of those people were participating in the war and in theory they were fighting for democratic Croatia, in fact, they were not willing democratic Croatia or liberal-democratic Croatia, which will comply to European liberal democratic standards. And we did it, in fact. They were in effect, opposing that and they are not satisfied with Croatia today. They think that they were fighting for some other Croatia. And this is what it is about, even today. We have two perception[s], two visions of the Croatian society even today in public. And these people, these extremists are speaking loudly and clearly about the society in which not everybody will be equal.
There are some challenges towards the Croatian liberal democratic system. We see it, and we are, me too, me personally and my friends, colleagues, we are constantly trying to warn the public because of those challenges and dangers. They are still there, and there are in fact many European countries where the liberal democratic values are in question, and I would say also in danger.
Who Are Croatian Revisionists?
PETER KORCHNAK: So who is doing all this revisionist work? Who benefits?
IVO GOLDSTEIN: These are, let’s say, right wing of the ruling party, HDZ, for example, they are challenging the rights of the Serbian minority.
The Serbs as a minority, which now according to the census, there are 4% of the Serbs living now in Croatia, and they are under the pressure of assimilation, so who knows in the new the new census in 2021, how many Serbs will be there in Croatia. So I think that [the] number of the Serbs is diminishing. Before the war, there were 12%, constituting the 12% of the population.
Still, the revisionists are not satisfied and they think that even more rapid, quicker path of assimilation or even I wouldn’t say annihilation but disappearance of the Serbian population would be some kind of victory. Of course they are attacking political opponents, naming them Yugoslavs, communists, or among them, I can I am proud that among them some of them see me as well. I’m not a Yugoslav, I’m not a communist, even in those times of socialistic Yugoslavia.
This is the perception of those extremists, who are, unfortunately, not only on the margins of the society, as they were, let’s say, five, six years ago, but they pass, step by step pressing [into] the mainstream political life. And this is the great danger for the Croatian democracy. And it is quite similar to those situations which you have in some other European countries as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: In a recent interview, you said that hate speech, especially towards the Serbs, and then to some degree Yugoslavs or Yugoslavia, is killing this country. Is this what you mean by the danger?
IVO GOLDSTEIN: Yes, definitely I’m using— you can say also in English that it is killing me. There is a famous song “Killing Me Softly.” When that singer was singing that, she didn’t mean that somebody will kill her but anyway. It’s—
The problem is that you have of course hate speech from the other side, and that this Serbian and the Croatian extremism—and in the Serbian case is not only relevant for the Croatian extremism, there are some other opponents in the Serbian nationalistic agenda as Albanians in Kosovo and Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina—so this extremisms from all sides are making other extremism functioning. If you have action from the Croatian side today particularly in the age of internet you will have in [a] couple of minutes not hours, a couple of minutes you will have reaction from the other side.
There is an episode [a] couple of years ago when Serbian war criminal Vojislav Šešelj was released from the prison in the in the Hague and he came back to Belgrade and then he gave certain couple of couple of statements very, very aggressive and he was indicted for he was accused of ethnic cleansing of the Croatian population in in some parts of Serbia where the Croatian minority is living.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vojislav Šešelj is a Serbian politician convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of war crimes. He spent nearly 12 years in prison in The Hague during his trial, and when he returned to Serbia after acquittal on most charges, he became a member of parliament on his Serbian Radical Party’s ticket.
IVO GOLDSTEIN: He gave couple of statements, very aggressive, and then our president, Mrs. Grabar Kitarović, answered that he will be arrested if he comes to Croatia and that we have certain reasons to to arrest him. And then he he said that he is coming to Croatia but that he will make love to Mrs. President and he needs he asked for a decent bed to be prepared as he comes to Zagreb. Of course it create[d] [a] horrible explosion of the of the extremists from the other— from the Croatian side as they saw it, I mean, it was it was nasty, it was horrible. And then you have, what my disappointment is, you have [a] couple of idiots from both sides saying this or that.
I had to mention this episode because it’s very— it is very characteristic. So you have you’re working for month[s] on reconciliation and creating mutual understanding, and then you have such an idiot who destroys everything in a couple of minutes.
Ivo Goldstein: “I Hope Politicians Will Be More Responsible”
PETER KORCHNAK: So what is to be done? How can the situation be resolved?
IVO GOLDSTEIN: I hope that leading politicians will be more responsible in future in future months and years. And they have to understand that their agenda shouldn’t be to incite basic emotions and to incite hatred. Although that they are giving certain space to those extremists and they should do the opposite. That means they should work on mutual understanding of— on rapprochement on creating [the] basis for further development of the liberal democracy particularly Croatia.
Croatia is a member of NATO, European Union, we have certain responsibilities, we have certain interests at least in the countries in the southeast of Europe, that means in the countries of former Yugoslavia, which are still out of the European Union, out of NATO, some of them not all of them. So, we are obliged to work with our partners in Europe. We have to try with them to resolve the problem and not to be part of the problem. This is what, unfortunately in some aspects, Croatia became being very similar to in promoting revisionism and Ustašism and inadequate politics towards its neighbors in the southeast. That means that we were becoming or resembling or becoming similar to the concepts of— political concepts which are promoted in our neighborhood, in our southeastern neighborhood. And this is, I would say, [the] political, Croatian political tragedy today.
PETER KORCHNAK: Something doesn’t sit right with me in Professor Goldstein’s account of the three roots of historical revisionism in Croatia. Using his metaphor of a tree, the first root, freedom of speech seems more like the environment that allows the tree to grow. And Serbian revisionism seems more like fertilizer.
It’s only on the third point that we agree. Way back when, I analyzed the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a result of elite mobilization. With this lens, I view Croatian revisionism as a power-seeking strategy, a tool certain segments of the political spectrum employ in the pursuit of power. They remain on the right fringe for now, but the fact the center-right party in power tolerates them,and on occasion co-opts their message, allows their rhetoric to persist and definitely remains a cause for concern.
I return to the issue of historical revisionism in former Yugoslavia for a reason. Compromising with the far-right tends to result in some of that extreme rhetoric entering the mainstream. The U.S., Hungary, Brazil, Croatia… it’s happening. Whether you talk about Jews or immigrants or Serbs or communists or migrants, the Other may change, from country to country, from period to period, but the impulse to victimize them for political purposes persists.
What is to be done becomes the more urgent question. Calling them out is one route. Another may be, paradoxically, not giving them energy, because once you start playing their game, once you try to match their volume, you’ve already lost. Presenting more attractive alternatives, reframing the issue as it were, is a third solution.
Whatever it is, at least one part of that old Yugoslav slogan, “Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!”’ or “Death to fascism, freedom to the nation!” won’t get old. Here’s to not having a reason to say it anymore some day.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find all resources for this episode as well as subscription links in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast. And if you feel some responsibility for Remembering Yugoslavia, support the show on Patreon or tell your friends.
I am Peter Korchňak.