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.

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