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Is Eastern Europe experiencing a rebirth of nationalism?

Joan Phillips suggests that national identities are being invented and history rewritten by political elites in order to legitimise their rule. Nowhere is this more transparent than in Croatia

How to invent a nation

Thinking of becoming a nation state? It's easy. Before you start, assemble a good public relations team. Get them writing lots of glossy histories about your glorious national past. And don't forget the trappings: flags, shields, emblems, uniforms, stamps and currency. While you're at it, erect some statues of national heroes and open a few heritage museums. Best of all, invent a language (it doesn't matter if nobody understands it). Now, throw together a constitution. All set? Declare your sovereignty and appeal for international recognition (but make sure you do some canvassing first). If you're lucky, it may suit the interests of some great power to take your side. And finally, a word of warning: don't do it if you're not prepared to go to war.

Croatia showed that it can be done. Zagreb politicians spent two years marketing the idea of Croatian nationhood, before winning recognition from the 12 EC member states on 15 January 1992, six months after seceding from the Yugoslav federation. According to the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, this was the fulfilment of a centuries' old aspiration for national sovereignty. In reality, it was the culmination of a two-year campaign of nation building by his government. A campaign which succeeded only after an enormous loss of life in six months of civil war with Serbia, and only with strongarm German sponsorship.

Cradle of civilisation

Over the past two years, the Zagreb regime has done a good job manufacturing a national identity for Croatia. The ministry of information has produced a mountain of literature to convince the world that Croatia is a cradle of Western civilisation. Legions of professors at the University of Zagreb have produced new histories testifying to Croatia's national destiny. A new constitution has appeared, dwelling on the glories of the nation since time immemorial.

The process of Croatisation has extended to language. What the world outside knows as Serbo-Croatian is no longer recognised as such in Zagreb. More than 1000 new words have appeared which even Croats themselves cannot understand. According to the new constitution, only the Croatian language and the Latin script can be used for official purposes.

Nation building

The blue, white and red Croatian flag with its red and white chequerboard shield in the centre is everywhere. New monuments to Croatian heroes have been erected. In Zagreb's main square, the statue of the nineteenth century Croat hero, General Josip Jelacic, has been given pride of place (the fact that he was a great admirer of Serbia has been quietly forgotten). The names of streets and squares have been changed. The police have been kitted out in new uniforms. The presidential guard have been dressed up in garish red and gold regalia. The Croatian dinar has replaced the Yugoslav variety. The new postage stamp is on its way. No doubt a national football team will be cobbled together.

Croatian propaganda has emphasised the unique ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural tradition of the Croatian people as distinct from that of the Serbs. Croatia has been presented as Western, Catholic, democratic and cultured. Serbia has been depicted as Eastern, Orthodox, communist and barbarian. Zagreb's appeal for international recognition was based on the claim that it represented a civilisational frontier between West and East. Radovan Pavic, professor of political science at the University of Zagreb, characterised Croatia as a buffer zone between 'Europe and Barbaria' (Gaudeamus, No4, Fall 1991).

Croatian politicians have succeeded in inventing a national identity which did not exist a few years ago. Of course, they would never let on that their national identity is a fake. No aspiring nationalist could admit that his nation was starting from scratch: authenticity demands a minimum of a few centuries. In order to confer legitimacy on their claim to nationhood, Croatian politicians have sought the authority of the past. By projecting the existence of a separate ethnic, linguistic, confessional, cultural and national history back into the past, they hope to lend credence to the idea that Croatia has earned its right to independence.

Millenial identity

The Croatian constitution of 22 December 1990 expounds the historical foundations of the Croatian nation. Apparently the millennial national identity of the Croatian nation first manifested itself in the formation of Croatian principalities in the seventh century. This insistence on the existence of a national identity centuries before the emergence of modern nation states seems somewhat suspect. The constitution's emphasis on the continuity of Croatian statehood is also rather bizarre. Croatia's existence as an annexe of the Hapsburg empire and then a constituent part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia is difficult to reconcile with the idea of Croatian statehood.

But that only goes to show that creating a national identity involves the official rewriting of history. Nothing about the past can be taken for granted any longer. Reading the countless new histories coming out of Zagreb, it is easy to lose touch with historical reality. The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred, as new interpretations are imposed on historical events, and some historical happenings are erased altogether.

Yugo your way

One striking example of how history is being rewritten is the concerted effort to rubbish the Yugoslav idea and to suggest that it never meant anything to Croats. Today it is easy to forget that the idea of a South Slav union was once eagerly embraced by Croats as well as Serbs. Although they did not belong to the same state until 1918, Serbs and Croats had been striving to establish cultural and political union for almost a century before that.

In the 1840s, under the influence of the Serb, Vuk Karadzic, and the Croat, Ljudevit Gaj, Serbs and Croats cooperated to establish a common South Slav literary language. For the most progressive thinkers of the time, a union of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was seen, in the words of the young Croatian writer Vladimir Cerina, 'as the only outlet from our battered and dismembered life, which leads nowhere' (quoted in T Butler, 'Ivo Andric: a "Yugoslav" writer (1892-1975)', Cross Currents, No10, October 1991).

Eastern unity

The idea of South Slav unity expressed the aspiration of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs to free themselves from the domination of the great powers. For Croatia, in particular, unity with Serbia offered the best escape route from Hapsburg rule. The progressive content of the Yugoslav idea was well expressed by the first congress of the Social Democratic parties of South Eastern Europe in Belgrade in 1910:

'To free ourselves from particularism and narrowness; to abolish frontiers that divide people who are in part identical in language and culture, in part economically bound up together; finally to sweep away forms of foreign domination both direct and indirect that deprive people of their right to determine their own destiny for themselves.' (Quoted in L Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, p30)

What a contrast to the orgy of petty particularism that has been promoted by Zagreb politicians in recent years!

According to the rewritten histories emanating from Zagreb today, however, the idea of a South Slav union was little more than a Serbian plot. Vuk Karadzic is accused of being a purveyor of Greater Serbian ideology. The Yugoslav idea is denounced as a cover for Serbian expansionism. The suggestion is that when Croatian politicians decided voluntarily and overwhelmingly to join the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 they were being conned into something which they did not really believe in (see for example, Croatia Between War and Independence, University of Zagreb and OKC-Zagreb, November 1991).

The most blatant example of how history is being rewritten to suit the purposes of the Croatian regime concerns the Second World War. The veneration of the past becomes problematic when the past does not show the nation in a venerable light. History needs to be rewritten to minimise any inglorious episodes.

Nazi puppet

The history of the Second World War is especially problematic for Croatia. On 10 April 1941, following the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, Ante Pavelic's fascist Ustashe movement proclaimed the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). The Nazi quislings in Zagreb embarked on a campaign of genocide against Serbs, Jews and Gypsies which lasted until their defeat at the hands of Marshal Tito's communist partisans in 1945.

With full support from the Reich and the Vatican, Pavelic banned the Serbian Cyrillic script, closed down Orthodox schools, destroyed Orthodox churches and began the forced conversion of Serbian Orthodox Christians. The government's policy towards the Serbs was baldly stated: convert a third, expel a third, kill a third. Jews and Gypsies fared no better. Massacres were carried out in Serbian villages and Ustashe concentration camps in Croatia and Bosnia. A collection of archive photographs recently published by the Belgrade regime bears grim testimony to the savagery of the killing.

Sound of silence

It is impossible to ignore what happened in the war, but that hasn't stopped some people trying to smother these events with silence. A chapter on the wartime experience in a book produced by Zagreb university manages not to mention the Ustashe once. Censorship by the Croatian government ensures that no film showing the Germans in a bad light can be shown on television. When the magazine Danas carried an article criticising the regime's censorious policy, the main television news had a major item attacking the magazine.

Soon after its election in March 1990, the new government renamed the Square of the Victims of Fascism in Zagreb as the Square of the Croatian Kings. This provoked a strong reaction from the Jewish community in Zagreb, which organised a protest demonstration. But a spokesman for Tudjman's party, Tomislav Krusic, told me candidly why the government changed the name: 'Because we don't want to remember such periods any more. We just don't want to remember.'

However, it is simply not possible for the Croatian authorities to deny the past. Instead, they have tried to impose a new interpretation on what happened. One commonplace argument is that everybody in Yugoslavia was equally guilty and suffered equally.

Lea Baumann, a spokeswoman for the ministry of information in Zagreb, and a member of the Jewish community, insists that Croatia cannot be singled out as the guilty party: 'Everybody in Europe was guilty during the Second World War. You cannot take one population and say they were guilty. The fact is that all over Europe they were slaughtering Jews and not just in Croatia.' The fact that Croatia was one of the few states to implement a policy of genocide against the Jews is deemed to be of no relevance.

The same line is pursued in a pamphlet, published by the ministry of information, which rejects the charge of genocide levelled against the Croatian state: 'In that war the victims came from all nations, because it was a bellum omnium contra omnes.' (Croatia from 1941 to 1991) In other words, in a war of all against all, nobody can be singled out for special blame, since everybody suffered to an equal degree. It is conveniently forgotten that the conflagration that engulfed the whole of Yugoslavia was a direct consequence of the policies pursued by the Ustashe regime.

Franjo Tudjman went further when he declared last year that the Croats were just as much victims as anybody else: 'On the whole, the Croat and Serb people probably suffered equally.' He added that 'if there is any difference, then it is a matter of fractions, not percentages'. Indeed, it is now commonly argued that the suffering of the Croatian people and the loss of Croatian life was greater than that of any other people. 'All in all', concluded Tudjman, 'the Croat people had more victims than the Serbs'.

As well as maintaining that the suffering of the Croatian people has been minimised, Zagreb authorities also contend that the suffering of the Serbs, Jews and Gypsies has been exaggerated. A heated debate about the numbers killed on either side has raged for several years.

The most intense haggling over the death toll focuses on the numbers killed at the Jasenovac death camp. In 1945, the Croatian Commission on Crimes of the Occupiers and Collaborators estimated that between 500 000 and 600 000 were killed there. In 1991, 50 years after the event, the synod of the Serbian Orthodox church said that Jasenovac had claimed the lives of 'not less than 700 000' Serbs.

In his study, Historical Wastelands: Historical Truth, published in 1989 by Matica Hrvatska, Tudjman developed the thesis of what he calls the 'Jasenovac myth', claiming it was deliberately created by Serbs so they could label the Croats as genocidal. He also said that he was misquoted by Dr Milan Bulajic as saying that 40 000 to 60 000 Serbs were killed at Jasenovac, and that the true figure was from 30 000 to 40 000. In 1991, he again cut back the figure to 30 000. In keeping with this scaling down of the significance of Jasenovac, it looks like the memorial centre at the camp will be closed down on one pretext or another.

Playing the numbers game is one way of minimising the crimes committed by the Independent State of Croatia. Another is to find a counterpart in the alleged crimes of the Serbs. Some revisionists have even suggested that many of the killings were in fact carried out by the Serbs. Lea Baumann has argued that the Serbs were responsible for exterminating the Jews of Serbia during the war. In reality, the extermination of 14 500 Jews in Serbia, 90 per cent of the Serbian Jewish population, was carried out by German army personnel.

Zagreb's glossily illustrated guide to the republic of Croatia makes it sound like the genocide was committed by the Serbs. It barely mentions the Ustashe, but concentrates on supposed atrocities carried out by Serbian forces against Croatian villages. In particular, it draws attention to the alleged postwar genocide against the Croats, when thousands of fleeing Ustashe fighters and supporters were handed over to the partisans by Allied forces. On the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Ustashe state, in 1991, large commemorative services were held in Croatia for the fascists who fell in 1945 near Bleiburg.

Worse than Hitler

The most consistent attempt to relativise the Ustashe experience has been to suggest that what the communists did in Yugoslavia was far worse. According to Maja Freundlich, a journalist and a member of the Jewish community in Zagreb, communism was a greater evil than fascism: 'Communism was an ideal realisation of Hitler's dreams. Communists made real all that Hitler only dreamt about and never found the right way to do it. He was too violent, too open. They were not. They killed people silently, in the dark.... The communists just took a longer period of time. They were more patient than Hitler was.' By shifting the burden of guilt on to the communists, Freundlich ends up absolving the fascists. By this logic it is possible to justify the actions of the Ustashe, as an understandable response to the threat of communism.

It's not natural

All in all, the recent Croatian experience calls into question the notion that nationalism is a natural phenomenon. If it is natural, why do politicians and historians devote so much energy to kindling national sentiment? The ease with which national identity has been invented, abandoned and reinvented in Croatia and other parts of Eastern Europe suggests that it is an artificial creation. Far from being the expression of a deeply rooted popular desire for nationhood, the assertion of national identity in Croatia represents an attempt by a new political elite to legitimise its carve up of the Yugoslav market.

The irony is that Croatia has achieved independence only to become a sort of colony of Germany. But many Croatian people seem quite happy to have a whole new history invented for them if they think there are material benefits involved. For the moment, most welcome the idea of being colonised by the strongest economic power in Europe - which only goes to show how ready people are to trade in their national identities.

For the cameras: the Croatian regime has turned the presidential guard into chocolate soldiers to show off its centuries-old sense of tradition

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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