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New Series no.17/18 July - September 2000


Writing and rewriting history in Yugoslavia and after
by Branka Magas

The centralism that the Communist Party of Yugoslavia imposed on the country after the Second World War can be likened to its submergence under deep water. The area enclosed by the Yugoslav borders became filled with water so deep that the actual contours and features of the ground below þ the valleys and hills, the forests and fields, the rivers and lakes, the sea and the shore- could no longer be seen. Only a few peaks remained visible as islands. These islands represented the six republics, testimony to the fact that Yugoslavia was now a federated state.

Political centralism embraced also the world of learning, of course, including the writing of history. History became squeezed into the mould of class struggle. Historians wrote about other things as well, to be sure. But class struggle was the organizing principle: whatever was written had to have a class struggle dimension. The good thing was that an important aspect of history, the role of social conflict in relation to the production and redistribution of wealth, was indeed made visible. The bad thing even here, however, since the Party tolerated no ideological differences within its own ranks, was that class struggle was itself presented in a monolithic manner. Ranged on one side were the forces of progress or social emancipation- slaves, serfs, apprentices, workers, and so on. On the other side stood the forces of reaction, representing the oppressors: nobility (especially of foreign origin), church, bourgeoisie, etc. However different Yugoslavia's constituent parts might be, what united them all was the history of class struggle. This history, moreover, was presented as a uni-directional flow: the past progressed in a way that made the Yugoslav revolution and the rule of the Communist Party an inevitable outcome.

Beginning with the mid 1960s, however, a process of decentralization was initiated that eventually led to the adoption in 1974 of a new Yugoslav constitution. The republics and provinces now acquired the governance (within limits) of cultural production, including the writing of history. Decentralization was an agency that, as it were, allowed the water to drain away and reveal the nature of the ground below. The model of history as the history of class struggle was now replaced by a more sophisticated one that permitted greater stress on the context within which it took place. That context, of course, was provided by the areas embraced by the republican and provincial borders. This, together with the fact that the social sciences were expected to validate the new constitution, meant that the writing of history now became more interested in the historical (in effect national) diversity of Yugoslavia's component parts.

Integrating the Ottoman Past

This change was compounded by another: emancipation of the Muslim (now Bosniak) and Albanian nations. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the fact that Bosnia and Kosova- in other words, the Bosniaks and the Albanians- now began to write their own history. In doing so they changed two formerly dominant perceptions of the past. The history of the Ottoman period could no longer be reduced to a long-drawn-out war between Christian and Islamic forces, or to a wholly destructive invasion by the latter, given that one of Yugoslavia's nations was a positive- what else?- product of the past Ottoman presence on Yugoslav soil. Rather than being expelled from history as its negation, the Ottoman period now became integrated into the rest of the history of the area as a natural and accepted part of it. At the same time, institutions such as Prishtina's University and Albanological Institute initiated a valiant struggle against the well-entrenched myth that Kosova was exclusively a Serb land; that the only thing to be said about Kosova was that it had provided the site for a battle which came to symbolize the destruction of the mediaeval Serbian state. The Albanians, indeed, embodied a direct contact between the Slav and non-Slav histories of the area.

A New Polyphony

To sum up: history now began to speak in many voices- it became polyphonic. Yugoslavia's diversity was not only recognized, but also celebrated. This polyphony was not necessarily a harmonious one- the various interpretations of history did not always agree, nor could they do so. But although there was still a limit on how wide differences were allowed to be, there was also a recognition that they did exist. And one important aspect of the new historiography was that the history and nature of Yugoslavia itself became a subject of exploration. The period, in other words, was a highly productive one in historical terms.

The momentum gained in the late 1960s and in the course of the 1970s was carried over into the period after Tito's death, i.e. into the 1980s. The political vacuum that the loss of such a central figure engendered acted indeed to give it additional force. Earlier taboos were broken, as the following examples may serve to illustrate. Slovenia since the Middle Ages had been part of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germans and in due course came to be ruled by the House of Austria- until 1918, in fact. Yet Slovene historiography for various reasons had never interested itself in this aspect of the national past, which became an object of historical examination only in the 1980s. In the case of Croatia- the only country of Yugoslavia with an un-interrupted state tradition- it was in the same period that the first attempt was made to study the nobility, particularly in its role as a patriotic force. And similarly in Serbia, it was at this time that a number of studies appeared of Nikola Pasic, Serbian prime minister at the time of Yugoslavia's creation.

In Serbia, however, the process took on a specific dynamic. The state-political constraints on the re-interpretation of history were suspended altogether, leading inter alia to the appearance of the notorious Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. A revisionist history- anti-federalist and overtly nationalistic- now filled the republic's media. History was used by the Serbian leaders, in fact, to prepare the Serb people for war. A strategic reinterpretation was initiated of the origin, nature and future of the Yugoslav federal state. As Yugoslavia shuddered and began to fall apart, moreover, Serbian historical revisionism provoked corresponding responses in other parts of the country. The result was that history throughout Yugoslavia became a veritable battlefield.

In the 1950s it was art- i.e. the struggle between abstract art and social realism- that had provided a key ideological battlefield. In the 1960s it was philosophy, when battle was joined between `socialism with a human face' (represented by the journal Praxis) and the more dogmatic ruling-party interpretations. In the 1970s the focus of ideological battle was the economy, with self-management being extended to all social spheres. But in the 1980s the main battlefield was provided by history. And as one (the Serbian) part of the orchestra stopped following the conductor- the 1974 Constitution- the music became reduced to cacophony. Belgrade's attack on the constitutional order ended any consensual interpretation of the nature and purpose of Yugoslav unity.

From Unity to Diversity

What ensued was Yugoslavia's break-up, accompanied by a radical re-interpretation of history everywhere. Until then the dominant theme of Yugoslav history had been unity: the catch phrase `national unity' of the royalist period (1918-1941) was in the Communist phase (1945-1990) replaced by that of `brotherhood and unity'. The entire history of these South Slav nations had been perceived as leading inevitably to their coming together within a single state. In this view of the area's history, Yugoslavia had been its inevitable outcome; and because inevitable, Yugoslavia was eternal. Now, however, that unity was gone- and the former Yugoslavia's constituent parts were left as the real subjects of history. Historiography now had to explain not only why Yugoslavia had fallen apart, but also why it had ever come into being. This meant examining not only the international context and the relations between the country's republics and provinces, but also what happened within each of these parts that impelled them to unify under the Yugoslav umbrella.

It is crucial to grasp the radical nature of the rupture that Yugoslavia's disappearance has imposed on local historiography. All has changed, nothing remains the same. Everything- the entire history of the area- is now having to be re-examined. The writing on the area being produced in the West, however, remains deeply conservative, in that it has overwhelmingly retained a `Yugoslav' conceptual framework. This seems to be true irrespective of whether the object of study is the break-up of Yugoslavia or the area's mediaeval history. The Yugoslavia that no longer exists remains the real focus of attention, while the former constituent parts that are now its successor states- those that have been internationally recognized as well as those like Kosova that sooner or later will be- are kept in its shadow. Some acknowledgement is made, however, to the non-existence of Yugoslavia, in that what previously pertained to it is now often called `the Balkans'- another terminological straightjacket imposed on the people of this part of Europe by outsiders blinded by their own parti pris.

This conservative approach to the area's history is one that the new states will not, indeed cannot, follow. Their writing of history will seek to do what Yugoslavia once did for itself: to justify and venerate their own existence. They will lay stress on their own national unity and argue the historical inevitability of their emergence into independence. This is something that all nations do, of course. These newly sovereign states must indeed affirm their individualities, since they are now responsible for their own fates. There is no longer another centre to be applied to- such as the Yugoslav federal government of yore- if, for example, disastrous economic mistakes are made. Whatever their governments do will require a degree of national consensus, imposing a need to create- or re-create- a sense of national-territorial singularity.

`Nationalization' of History

This new `nationalization' of history, in other words, is a natural by-product of recent history. The fact that a certain ritual that may often appear ridiculous to outsiders is attached to it should not deflect us from understanding the importance of the undertaking. Slovenes in the first years of their independence were apparently expected to climb Triglav- the mountain that also appears on the new Slovene flag and state emblem- in order to prove they were true Slovenes, and also in order to illustrate their highland or Alpine character, as a marker between them and the rest of the former Yugoslavs. New borders have become a reality and must be internalized- so the Slovenes become mountaineers. While TuÔman was alive, Croats were pressed to identify with the mediaeval King Tomislav under whose rule all of Croatia was first united. Serbs in today's Serbia are classified as descendants of either the national- albeit purely mythical- warrior Milos Obilic or the alleged national traitor Vuk Brankovic. The Bosnians' initial choice (now, alas, denied to them) of the Anjou lilies for their national flag and state emblem referred their newly independent state to the pre-Ottoman mediaeval one. And so on.

It is true, of course, that the circumstance of Yugoslavia's dissolution permitted history to be highjacked by all manner of shady enterprises. In the Croatian case, history during the TuÔman era was premised on the motto `One nation, one party, one leader.' Once again Croatia became a party-state, with the difference, of course, that while the Communist ideology with its message of human and social emancipation was the child of the European Enlightenment, that of the HDZ belonged to the reaction against the latter. Such tendencies, however, are transitory. The writing of history in the area of former Yugoslavia cannot be conducted in isolation from what preoccupies historians in the West. Western historiography today indeed tends to downplay purely political history, in favour of an approach that seeks more complex social and cultural roots of national and personal identity. And whereas the new states cannot yet follow this path wholeheartedly, given that their basic political historiography still remains to be established, there is no doubt that political normalization in the region will also be conducive to a conceptually more intricate understanding of the past.

This is the written version of a talk delivered at a conference at Nancy, organized by Forum IRTS de Lorraine, in early May 2000.
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