References to often manipulated views of history were designed to create a sense of unity within particular ethnic groups and, at the same time, to present modern day political opponents as long-standing ‘enemies from the past’.
By Thomas Moens
“When the future collapses, the past rushes in” – John Torpey
John Torpey refers to the widespread sense of disillusionment felt at the end of the twentieth century, a time of great upheaval and rapid change for many people for whom both the nation state and socialism seemed to have failed. According to Torpey, the vacuum left by the collapse of communism was soon filled with identity politics and a focus on historical injustices. A closer look at the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation and the political discourse used by the two major players at that time – Serbian president, Slobodan Milošević, and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tuđman, seemingly confirms Torpey’s theory. After 55 years of communist rule and suppression of any overt nationalist sentiments according to Tito’s ideology of Bratstvo I Jedinstvo (Brotherhood and Unity), national identity and ethnicity were quick to re-emerge on the Yugoslav political scene during the turbulent late 1980s. Confronted with uncertainty about the future of the federation, leading political figures successfully began to play the ‘nationalist’ and ‘historical’ card. Increased interest in identity politics was accompanied by a renewed interest in national history, as contemporary political goals became closely linked with historical legitimization.
The politics of the past
Almost all nationalist movements locate their contemporary political goals within a wider historical framework. So it should come as no surprise that during the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation at the end of the 1980s, historical references and analogies littered the political discourse. When analyzing public speeches given by both Tuđman and Milošević, the past seems to be almost everywhere. Both politicians tried to create a past-present continuum, which enabled them to present current political issues in historical terms. This overt ‘presence of the past’ aimed to turn collective memory into a political weapon. For example, Croatia’s contemporary struggle for independence was identified with the NDH (Independent Croatian State), a Nazi puppet regime which existed 1941-1945 and led a genocidal campaign against its Serbian inhabitants. Meanwhile, attempts by Serbia’s political elite to hold on to the Yugoslav federation and the (armed) support provided to Serbian minorities in the other republics, was presented as a new episode in a much older ‘Greater Serbian’ ideal, rooted in the mid-nineteenth century struggle for independence from Ottoman rule. These rhetorical strategies in which references to an (often manipulated) view of history were very important; designed to create a historical sense of unity within particular ethnic groups and, at the same time, to present modern day political opponents as longstanding ‘enemies from the past’.
The myth of Kosovo
In 1389 the Serbian ruler Lazar Hrebeljanović led an army which fought a decisive battle against the rising Ottoman power at Kosovo polje. According to the Kosovo myth, an angel came to Lazar and gave him the choice between an earthly and a heavenly kingdom. He chose the latter, was killed, his armies lost the battle and soon afterwards Serbian lands were occupied by the Ottomans. The Kosovo myth is still of major importance to Serbian identity and culture today, as Kosovo, with its ancient monasteries, is still seen as the cradle of Serbian culture and of the orthodox church. So, the 600th anniversary of this battle in 1989, was considered a decisive step in the build-up of nationalist sentiments in the years preceding the Yugoslav civil war. On Vidovadan, on 28th June 1989, Slobodan Milošević gave his famous speech at Kosovo Polje, Gazimestan, in front of an enormous crowd (comprised mostly of Serbs), while the event was also broadcast live on national television. In his speech, Milošević transposed the historical events of the 14th century Kosovo battle on to the conditions of the present. He condemned the disunity which had weakened Serbia’s ruling elite throughout its history and made them lose the original battle for Kosovo. He strongly emphasized the historical continuity between a 14th century Serbian empire and the Serbian people in 1989, and encouraged the Serbian people to show the same bravery as their ancestors when confronted with the current political struggles:
“Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past”.
From Kosovo to Knin
Equally, the city of Knin, located in the Dalmatian hinterland of present day Croatia, has always been of great historical importance for Croatia. During the eleventh century reign of King Zvonimir, Knin was the capital of the medieval Croatian Kingdom (which lasted from the 10th to the 12th century). During the post-communist nationalist revival in Croatia, that medieval kingdom re-emerged as a focus point for Croatian nationalism as Franjo Tuđman proclaimed it his ‘historical duty’ to once again form a strong, independent, Croatian state. In some ways, the role Knin came to play in Croatian nationalist propaganda could be compared to the importance of Kosovo for Serbia. Both were seen as central in terms of linkage to a ‘historical fatherland’, but both areas had an ethnically mixed population. Just as Kosovo was home to a vast majority of ethnic Albanians (estimated at around 85% of the total Kosovan population in 1991), about 80% of Knin’s inhabitants were ethnic Serbs.  The Serbian population of Knin were concerned about the implications of their city becoming part of a newly independent Croatian state, fearing they would be cut off from their compatriots in Serbia and with memories of the atrocities the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) committed against the Serbian population during World War II still prominent enough in many peoples’ minds. During the Yugoslav wars, Serbian inhabitants of Knin even took up arms and formed the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK), and it was only after the Croatian Army launched “Operation Storm” in August 1995 that these territories were recaptured. Only a couple of days later, Croatian president, Franjo Tuđman, victoriously toured the country on his ‘Freedom train’ (vlak slobode). On departing in Zagreb, he travelled through Knin where he gave a famous speech celebrating Croatia’s military victory and emphasized the significance of Knin to the history of Croatia. By projecting the medieval Croatian state onto the present, he depicted the Serbian majority in the region as a ‘historical error’; an error which, according to his view had ‘finally been corrected’. According to Tuđman the expulsion of the majority of the Serbian Krajina after the conflict would not only correct a historical wrong but also offered the opportunity to populate this ‘Croatian heartland’ with ethnic Croats.
The political rhetoric and historical claims made by Tuđman and Milošević were widely reproduced in the Western Press. As a result, the prominent discourse in 1990s Western media was to present the Yugoslav conflict as a new episode in a centuries old conflict. Although this idea has been largely discredited in academic circles, Robert Kaplan’s book “Balkan Ghosts” also proved to be very influential in promoting this myth, with Kaplan claiming that the Balkan region is dominated by ‘Ancient Hatreds’, fuelled by the region’s cruel history of ethnic conflict, forced migrations and mass slaughter. Sabrina Ramet claims that Kaplan’s work even helped to convince former US president, Bill Clinton, against any US military intervention in Bosnia, as any international intervention in this ‘ancient struggle’ was likely to further complicate things, and that it would be best to let the Balkan peoples ‘solve’ it themselves.
It is indeed true that nationalist tensions did not simply appear out of nowhere during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Yugoslavia collapsed; and the Balkan region does have a highly complex past in which borders were frequently redrawn, triggering large scale migrations and creating a complicated ‘ethnic patchwork’ – all elements which could, under the right conditions, fuel conflict. It would, however, be wrong to see the Yugoslav break-up as the logical outcome of centuries of ‘Ancient Hatreds’. It wasn’t the region’s turbulent past which caused the break-up of Yugoslavia and the civil wars of the 1990s; but the exploitation and manipulation of this history for more contemporary political aims did play a key role in shaping events.
Thomas Moens is a postgraduate student, currently studying for his Masters degree in History at Ghent University. He has a particular interest in the history and politics of South Eastern Europe.
To learn more about the Balkans, please refer to TransConflict’s reading list series by clicking here.