Monumental Exchange. My hero, your terrorist.

A couple of years ago, Benedict Anderson visted Graz to give a talk on Why we believe our nation is good. I had the pleasure to take him on a city tour before the talk. On the Schlossberg, we looked at the monuments to different causes, commemorating resistance to Napoleon and commemorating the so-called “Kärtner Abwehrkampf”, i.e. the conflict between Austrian troops and troops of the State of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes over the border of Carinthia, settled later in a referendum. 662px-Graz_Schloßberg_Gedenkstein_an_den_Kärntner_Abwehrkampf

On this sunny October day, he remarked poignantly that it is probably only scholars of nationalism that notice these monuments, whereas ordinary citizens walk past and ignore these monuments to an era that seems of little relevance today. To some degree, this is a relief, as most European cityscapes are littered with tributes in the form of monuments and street names to people whose contribution to the nation seems rather dubious today ( such as Conrad von Hötzendorf in Graz, von Hindenburg in numerous German cities, Gugielom Oberdan –thanks to Gregor Mayer for the hint in Italy). Some of the most odious cases have  been corrected, such as changing the name of the Karl-Lueger-Ring, previously named in honor of the the notoriously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna (famous for the line Wer Jude ist bestimme ich–I determine who is a Jew). While it is desirable to change names of streets or remove monuments honoring anti-Semites and other extreme nationalists of the past, the void also leaves a gap in the history of city when they were honored. In brief, the city can forget its past. Belgradem not for that reason, but due to the contest nature of street names, put up a history of street names on some most prominent streets in the centre. This helps to map the different ideologies dominating, but implicitly also admits that the current name might be just temporary.

Now, unlike what Benedict Anderson remarked to me, the discussion over monuments and other forms of commemoration on the centenary of World War One, suggest that the past can attract a lot of attention and controversy (including on facebook). So the initiative build monuments to Gavrilo Princip in Republika Srpska and Serbia triggered negative reactions elsewhere (see article in Der Spiegel and esp. reader comments). While an assassin who killed a person is not a particular positive figure to celebrate, European states more broadly are fond to celebrate murders rather than peace makers (including of course the rider on a horse in Skopje, a.k.a. Alexsander the Great). A good approach to remedy this morbid European habit would be a European exchange program. Let’s exchange the ‘heroes’  of one country with those of another. Why not exchange the statue of Franz Joseph II in the University aula in Graz with a monument to Gavrilo Princip in Serbia, or exchange a street name.

The Gavrilo Princip Street in Belgrade would come to Graz to call the main street leading out of the city to the south, while that street’s name, Conrad-von-Hötzendorf Strasse could migrate to Belgrade, some of the statues in Skopje could go to Thessaloniki or Sofia, nobody would notice them missing and nobody would find them strange there. Ban Jelačić could visit Belgrade, while Knez Mihajlo could travel to Zagreb. Adem Jashari could leave Prekaz for Belgrade, the Eternal Flame in Belgrade (that lasted less an an eternity) could travel to Prishtina. Such exchanges would create unease, but also a need to explain, to justify: one hero in Europe is another one’s nemesis. It would provoke and maybe look more carefully at ones ‘owns’ monuments.

The Museum with the longest name

Among the many novelties of Skopje in recent years there is also a new museum, probably the museum with longest name in the world, called the “Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence “Museum of IMRO and Museum of the Victims of the Communist Regime”” (official website). The visit was probably the strangest and also most unpleasant museum visit I had.


The museum with the long name is a strange reincarnation of a 19th museum. The access and the narrative is tightly controlled. You have to join a group and are not allowed to visit the museum by yourself. The tour lasts close to two hours in which the guide (in my case a friendly history student) tells a well rehearsed national story from the beginning of the revolutionary struggle to the various forms of repression by neighboring nations and finally Communist cruelty. Taking pictures is not allowed and strictly enforced. The narrative texts are very short and there is no ability to understand the museum and its story without the guide/narrator. Although the museum is poor in original artifacts (the vast majority are guns), it chooses to not use interactive tools or allow visitors to approach the items, but instead it imposes distance and supposed administration. The control suggests that the government wants to impose a narrative, but also tightly control it and avoid individuals engaging with the narrative or challenging it, in particular when it becomes controversial (here is a short summary of the exhibits). For example, the guide pointed out that an early 20th century program of the Macedonian Revolutionary Museum should not be wrongly understood to be in Bulgarian, but rather it was written in archaic Macedonian. Later, he asked whether the older Macedonian visitors had learned about a case of Serbian forces torturing a Macedonian patriot during the Balkan wars in school. When the visitors negated, it became evidence of past manipulation of history during the Yugoslav period.


Officially, the museum describes itself as “Collection of wax 109 wax figures of prominent Macedonian revolutionaries, ideologists, voivodas, intellectuals, communist activists, politicians, and foreigners, collection of artistic paintings – 25 portraits of prominent Macedonian activists and 85 mass scenes of significant events and battles from the contemporary Macedonian history; 1500 items including weapons, documents, photographs, ambient items, newspapers, brochures, albums, etc. These collection is in constant process of enrichment through purchase of museum materials and through donations from citizens.”

The museum in parts reminds of Madam Tussaud’s chamber of horrors, we see wax figures of Macedonian heroes bleeding or hanging from the gallows as a result of torture by Bulgarian, Serbian, Communist and Greek, Ottoman fascists/nationalists/imperialists. The 85 mass scenes are large historical paintings, mostly painted by artists from Russia and Ukraine. The style evokes the romantic nationalist paintings (in German these types of paintings are appropriately known as Schinken, ‘ham’) of the late 19th, early 20th century, such as Antoni Piotrowski and his portrait of Batak–a key event in the Bulgarian national history (on the historical mythmaking see here) . The scenes and portraits are hyper-realistic, but painted over 100 years after the events, they are at best a ‘creative’ reflections on the topic by the artist and in most cases simply made up (this is not to argue that the events they portray did not happen, but their depiction is made up). As such, most of the museum is fiction, not fact.


The narrative arch is uncreative and follows the classic structure of nationalist story-telling elsewhere. It suggests the Macedonian nation is several sentences old (so one of the few narrative texts suggests), in the 19th century the Macedonian national revolutionaries emerged, who struggled for autonomy and independence from the Ottomans, threatened and killed by the neighboring national movements. The most difficult period for the narrative is the positive view of the World War Two national liberation struggle and Communist recognition of the Macedonian nation, followed by the Communist terror and how Communist Yugoslavia incarcerated Macedonian leaders. It ends with Dragan Bogdanovski, a Macedonian exile and co-founder of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE in 1990 (which sees itself as a direct successor to the Macedonian revolutionary movement), thus making sure that the merger between the  nation, the national movement and the governing party becomes complete. Bogdanovski’s New Jersey vanity license plate is also exhibited, it reads VMRO 1.


Ready for the Homeland? Šimunić and a bit of normal fascism

After the end of the soccer qualifier for the World Cup between Island and Croatia two days ago, Josip Šimunić took a microphone and shouted “Za dom” (for the homeland) and the fans in the stadium screamed back “spremni” (ready). This is no ordinary slogan, but was the salute of the fascist “Independent State of Croatia” and has been used by extreme nationalist groups in the 1990s. It is the equivalent of shouting “Seig Heil” at a German soccer game.  After coming under fire for the incident, Šimunić defended himself, arguing that “I associate home with love, warmth and positive struggle – everything that we showed on the pitch to win our place in the World Cup… Some people have to learn some history. I’m not afraid. I’m supporting my Croatia, my homeland. If someone has something against it, that’s their problem.” Of course, it is he, who has to learn some history. While the salute has its origins predating World War Two, it is tainted by the use by the Ustaša regime. The blantant display of extreme nationalism during a sport event is of course nothing new either in Croatia or other countries of the region and maybe it forces a greater degree of dealing with the use of extremist and fascist symbols in the public space in Croatia.The response by media and most politicians was clear and condemn the incident, as did many fans on online portals. However, as columnist Boris Dežulović points out, the problem is less that Šimunić shoted “Za dom”, but that thousands shouted back “spremni”. This exchange  points to a failure of the state and society to openly deal with the past, both of World War Two and of the war in the 1990s and to build a social consensus that makes the open use of fascist symbols unacceptable. The salute is not banned and in a different case, a court found a man evoking “za dom spremni” not guilty of hate speech. Courts are also ill suited to confront flirting with fascism, as concerts by singer Thompson demonstrate. The symbolic references to the Ustaše are clear, but they do not need to be explict enough to make courts effective. It is the ambiguity on which extreme right wing politicians thrive elsewhere as well.

The main concern is that these symbols become or remain “normal” and part of the mainstream and thus using them does not put you at the margins of society. The incident in the stadium takes place in the context of polarization in Croatia over the introduction of cyrillic script on public buildings in Vukovar. While the groups that kepts smashing the cyrillic signs are marginal, they contribute to “normalise” that the use of a script is a threat to the nation or disrespectful towards war veterans. It seems like a contradiction that these incidents occur now that Croatia joined the EU and last year saw the release of Ante Gotovina from the ICTY, seemingly putting a symbolic end to the war era.

There are three ways to think about it: First, the regime of Tudjman, while officially distancing itself from fascist Croatia, began the ambigious use of fascist symbols and references, that brought it to the mainstream and it never really left. Second, just like ten years ago when the HDZ used nationalism to bring down the first post-Tudjman government through mass rallies in defense of generals accused of war crimes, nationalist incidents and protests are a resource for the opposition to weaken the government. When evoking the war, the assumption is that by setting the agenda (war and homeland rather than reform or economic isssues), it would benefit more the nationalist opposition than the government. Third, after reaching the strategic goal of joining the EU, Croatia is now just a normal, ordinary country, with high unemployment and little to no growth for five years. The everyday fascism is a way to distract from this dull reality.  Probably, it is the combination of these factors that makes such incidents possible. If this leads to a broader debate in Croatia on what symbols and slogans are socially acceptable and which ones are not, Šimunić might have done Croatia  service, but not in the way he thought.

No news news from Albania

Sali Berisha at the celebrations in Skopje with Ali Ahmeti and Hashim Thaci in 2012 (from

Sometimes the absence of news is the biggest news.When parliamentary elections were held ten days ago in Albania. Tim Judah remarked on Twitter that “Albania holds election. The opposition win convincingly, no one cries foul and the prime minister resigns. Er…that is it.” And of course, despite some violence on election day the fact that elections resulted in an uncontested change of government is hardly news in any democracy, except in Albania which has not only seen violence in the most recent elections, but also only experienced two changes of power since the fall of communism, one after the state and government effectively collapsed in 1997 and in 2005 when Sali Berisha returned to power.

A second ‘no news’ news from Albania is the failure of Albanian nationalism to gain ground. In a speech in Skopje in November 2012, Berisha pledged to work for the unity of Albanians and challenged the existing borders in the region. While the idea of a “natural Albania” (i.e. an Albania based on ethnic criteria to include all territories where Albanians live or used to live, e.g. the Cham region in Greece), has been promoted in extreme nationalist circles and maps of such an imaginary Albania have been for sale in Albanian and Kosovo for years, the idea of Albanian unification has never received such a high level endorsement. Berisha’s call was noted by observers, including the historian Oliver Schmitt as a change of tone and leaked US memos took a critical line towards Berisha for abandoning he previous support for existing borders. While his party back-paddled not to lose critical external support (he had to go back on an election promise to extend Albanian citizenship to ethnic Albanians elsewhere in the region), a new political party, the Red and Black Alliance fully supported this agenda. The group attracted quite a bit of attention (see here, here, here and here)in recent years for its extreme nationalist policies and its links to the strong opposition movement Vetevendosje in Kosovo. Opinion polls  in recent years have additionally been indicating that a majority of Albanians in Kosovo and Albanian would support unification of the two countries.

Picture from Red-Black Alliance Rally (from website

In the end, the Red and Black Alliance performed poorly. It only gained 10,171 votes (see here for results of the election commission), nowhere close to the 3 percent threshold with a support below one percent (only in the district of Tirana did the partydo slightly better than 1%). In brief, the party failed to break the polarized Albanian political system between Socialist and Democratic Party and nationalism seemed to not be a successful tool to achieve more than some international attention. While Berisha was not defeated for his nationalism, his efforts to evoke Albanian nationalism provided him with no electoral advantages. Dusan Reljic noted that it was economic and social issues that dominated, but still the rhetoric of Albanian unity is also evoked by the new governing party. However, the striking ‘no-news’ news remains the fact that while some romantic imagination of a unified Albanian state might exist among some, the reality of corruption and a difficult economic situation cannot be overcome with evoking the ‘national question’ as elsewhere in the region. In this sense, these ‘no-news’ are good news.

“Mixed Meat” or a lesson in national purity in Republika Srpska

One comes across a lot of bad, hateful and nationalist texts when reading newspapers in former Yugoslavia, but a recent column in the Daily Glas Srpske (Voice of Srpska) called “Mixed Meat” (Miješano meso) stands out as a highlight to which lows of hate speech the public discourse in the RS has sunk.  The columnist Nikola Pejaković describes in great detail his opposition to mixed marriages, marriages between individuals of different national or religious background, and suggests that they are essentially a expression of communism, to be precise: “a Yugo-melting pot with the goal or creating a Yugoslav nation, atheist and based on the teachings of Marx, Engels, Stalin and local šalabajzer” (an untranslatable term standing for something like a simpleton).

He accuses particularly Serbs for having given up their god and been to willing to enter mixed marriages and points out “the experience of the past war has demonstrated that mixed marriages have resulted in many problems for these people and their families. Thus we should no longer beat around the bush. Ok, love happens, but when it happens… But where to marry? In whose church? Or again in the municipality, like the marriage is a municipal matter, a building permit.”

In the end the columnist concludes that “in my humble opinion marriages that remain mixed (sic!), where one doesn’t know who is the man and who the woman, neither to which god the children should pray, where for the sake of peace at home they celebrate neither Easter or Bajram—are just a misfortune for the lover and for their children.”

Of course such a language is nothing new to Glas Srpske, which was owned by the Republika Srpska government until a few years ago when it was sold to Željko Kopanja who used to be considered a critical and daring journalist in the RS.

While the hate speech of the war and immediate post-war period has declined it remained loyal to nationalist rhetoric of SNSD. Amidst glorifying the RS and the war, downplaying war crimes committed, the suggestion that “mixed marriages” stands out as particular offensive. The fake care for children from mixed marriages cannot hide the fascist (and I do not like to use this word) assumption: nations should marry among themselves, some kind of national purity would thus be maintained expressed through religiousness and worship of the imagined ancestors of the nation.

Not only does the author clearly oppose mixed marriages to be concluded, but also against the ones that already exist. Ironically, the authors claims that “Excuse all those who are in mixed marriages or from mixed marriages. This is not against them, but against the communists and their pro-Nazi plans, playing with people-nations and genetics, against their experiments which cost us 60 year standing in place ….” (of course there were mixed marriages before Communism and after)

Of course, it is the author who is promoting ideas of national purity which is a lot closer to the terms he accuses the communists of. The fact that such ideas which present the legal relationship between two individuals of different national or religious backgrounds communist and undesirable in 2012 in a European daily is hard to fathom, especially for a newspaper published in Banja Luka where Radoslav Brdjanin said 20 years ago about children from mixed marriages “We shall throw them into the Vrbas and those who swim out are certainly Serbs.”

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