To prevent comparisons with its present-day state, Croatia deliberately tries to erase the legacy of Yugoslavia and the socialist federation’s role in developing the nation’s culture, art and infrastructure.
On Monday, a speech by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic opened a ceremony in Zagreb to mark National and University Library Day. Speaking in the imposing entrance hall of the beautiful cubical library, a genuinely modern city landmark, Plenkovic gave an overview of Croatian national culture.
But when it came to talk about how the library was built, the prime minister remarked only that its construction “started a long time ago,” before fast-forwarding to 1995, the year Croatia cemented its independence with the end of a four-year war against ethnic Serb rebels backed by Belgrade.
That year, then President Franjo Tudjman opened the library to great pomp and spectacle, as if he had been the mastermind behind such a grand project.
Both then and now, Tudjman and Plenkovic, the 20th century nationalist and the moderate conservative, suffered from the same ailment – selective, deliberate amnesia.
Neither of them can remember – or bear to remember – Yugoslavia.
Commonly referred to in Croatia as ‘the former state’, Yugoslavia has been a pebble in the shoes of Croatian nationalists for the last 30 years.
Plenkovic’s “a long time ago” actually translates as “in Yugoslav times”, since it was the Parliament of the Socialist Republic of Croatia – part of the Yugoslav federation – that first made plans to build the library in 1966. The library was supposed to be finished by 1970, but the idea was dropped due to a lack of funds.
In 1974, Stipe Suvar, a die-hard socialist and Yugoslav, became the republic’s secretary, or minister, for education and culture, and revived the plan for a new library building.
Money was scarce and all non-business investment was banned, but Suvar managed to whip up support for the project among prominent Croatian intellectuals, actors, artists. Finally, in 1988, when the Yugoslav economy was visibly falling apart, the library’s foundation stone was laid and, by 1989, the building had a roof.
The collapse of Yugoslavia brought construction virtually to a halt. The newly-created Croatian state under Tudjman eventually picked up where Yugoslavia left off and finished the remaining, easier parts of the project. It took full credit, forgetting Suvar and ‘the former state’.
In his eight years as secretary, Suvar, that ‘red devil’, was also partly responsible for the creation of the prominent Klovicevi Dvori Gallery and Mimara Museum in Zagreb, the Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments in Croatia’s second city of Split and the Museum of the Sacral Art in the coastal town of Zadar. His role, however, does not exist in public or official memory – erased, forgotten and hidden.
This amnesia exists on all levels, to the point that people will emphasise some far-off historical events as more important than something from ‘the former state’. Sometimes, they will simply lie or bend the truth to fit the present narrative.
For example, on March 4, 2018, the Twitter account Lice grada [Face of the City] wrote that the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts was founded on that date in 1866. One Twitter user quickly pointed out that the institution was orginally named – as you can probably guess – the Yugoslav Academy for Sciences and Arts.
Before 1991, the only period when the Academy did not have ‘Yugoslav’ in its name was between 1941 and 1945, when the World War Two fascist Ustasa regime also wanted to erase anything labelled ‘Yugoslav’.
The Academy originally took the name ‘Yugoslav’ because its benefactor, Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer, was a strong promotor of the ‘South Slav’ ideas of the 19th century and wished to unite the scientific, cultural and artistic achievements of Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Bulgarians.
That same Strossmayer is the man most responsible for the foundation of the modern University of Zagreb, which he sometimes referred to as the ‘Yugoslav University in Zagreb’.
When you read Wikipedia entries or various Croatian publications on Strossmayer, however, there are long passages explaining his dedication to the Yugoslav ideal as if it was his greatest sin.
Even Tudjman’s life in Yugoslavia is retold.
It is often said that in 1961 he founded the Institute for the History of the Worker’s Movement – today the Croatian Institute for History – that served as one of the arguments in a 2019 petition calling for the Institute to be renamed after him.
In reality, it was the Central Committee of League of Communists of Croatia and the General Committee of the Socialist League of Working People of Croatia which found the Institute, and named Tudjman as its first director.
A whole host of academic, scientific and medical institutions were founded and/or constructed in Croatia during Yugoslav times.
Though Croatia still has many companies that date to before socialist Yugoslavia – such as the food giants Franck and Kras – a huge number of new factories were built between 1945 and 1991. Already existing companies and shipyards were dramatically expanded, some of them transformed into almost exclusively export-oriented ventures, the benchmark for contemporary Croatian companies.
Perhaps it was martians who built all those roads, railroads, ports, and airports opened during those 46 years in which Croatia was part of socialist Yugoslavia?
Forgotten, omitted, downplayed, obscured…
In the cultural sphere, Croatian singers, actors and artists built up international careers during Yugoslav times. Croatian singing legends such as Oliver Dragojevic or Mate Miso Kovac would never sold all those thousands of records had they been dependent solely on the Croatian audience.
It was the newly-born Yugoslavia that in the late 1940s commissioned Croatian sculptor Antun Augustincic to build the Peace monument in front of the United Nations building in New York and which has stood for almost 70 years.
And it was back in Yugoslavia, in 1968, when another famous Croatian sculptor, Vojin Bakic, built a stainless-steel, 30-metre monolith with fluttering wings that was considered at the time the largest modernist abstract monument in the world. It was destroyed by the Croatian army in 1992, but this was also forgotten.
In sport, Croatian athletes were part of great Yugoslav teams that competed on the greatest stages. Croatian basketball legends Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja cut their teeth in the Yugoslav school of basketball, playing in a Yugoslav league that boasted six European championship-winning sides between 1985 and 1992.
All of this is forgotten, omitted, downplayed or obscured given that it shows the level of cultural, artistic and intellectual achievement during Yugoslav times. The main motivation for ridiculing Yugoslavia is to prevent people of making comparisons with present-day Croatia.
But to be fair, all states create what’s called a usable past – taking parts of history that instrumentally serve the present and future. States make nation-founding myths that sanitise the past, transforming complex and dubious historical events into children’s bedtime stories – like Thanksgiving in the US.
Besides the ethical issues, one of the main criteria for evaluating nation-founding myths is to see how successful they are. In other words, how many people believe the story.
Croatia purposely decided to erase Yugoslavia from its memory and public space, renaming everything as ‘Croatian’ and demonising everything associated with Yugoslavia as ‘anti-Croat’ or ‘anti-Croatian’. This is why Suvar is only publicly remembered as “a rigid hardcore Communist”, not as a man who did more for Croatian culture than all nationalists put together.
Simply put, Yugoslavia is seen as a complete negation of anything Croatian, even when it is factual – an internationally-recognised state that a person was born into. According to this story, Croatia was simply a prisoner in Yugoslavia and 1990-91 was its resurrection.
To keep this story alive, no matter how ridiculous and unfeasible it is, Croatia will keep forgetting and erasing the Yugoslav legacy – even on the 44,000 square metres of a beloved library.