Over the past two years, a collection of photographs of WWII memorials from (the former) Yugoslavia has made the rounds on social media. Popular sci-fi and fantasy blog io9 reported on it and this post from Crack Two appears to have been "liked" over 173,000 times on Facebook alone. And here is the same article, with more or less the same perspective, on a blog from BiH. This process of "re-discovery," however is to me the truly fascinating aspect of this phenomenon.
The authors of these articles, as well as those leaving comments, repeatedly refer to the monuments as "bizarre," "haunting" or, at best, as "modernist," which one can safely interpret to mean "weird." This commentary is essentially an inversion of the Stalinist insistence on "socialist realism." We are now surprised that a society once existed, some long ago civilization which we relate to as though it were an artifact of Tolkien lore, which was capable of producing abstract representations of real events. What does it say of our societies that in the second decade of the 21st century, we consider symbolic representations to be "strange?"
As it concerns the Balkans, this fascination is emblematic of the virtually wholesale dissolution of culture and art in the post-Yugoslav space. It reminds us, I argue, of the anti-political nature of the post-Yugoslav, neoliberal-nationalist political order.
On the one hand, the eternal specter of "joining the EU" has been revealed as illusory not only because of the global financial crisis but also because former socialist states and now EU members like Romania and Bulgaria, as well as former Yugoslav republics like Slovenia and Croatia, appear no closer to resolving their internal political contradictions in 2014 than they were in, say, in 1984. Oligarchy still defines these political systems and kleptocracy their economies, as I continually stress. Whereas they previously felt themselves marginalized by Moscow and Belgrade, they are now marginalized by Brussels. Incidentally, was this not also the central motif of David Černý's brilliant EU installation from a few years ago? The rage comes precisely from the realization that this abstraction reveals much more of our sordid reality than the neoliberal insistence on no possible alternative to the EU project.
On the other hand, the nationalist dream of ethnically pure "nation-states" constitutive of the Yugoslav dissolution but also of the anti-migrant and anti-Roma policies of most of Europe is likewise a bankrupt one. As we are asked to engage in successive rounds of purges of [insert preferred current national enemy here], we seem to come no closer to resolving the underlying problems of our societies. And as "new" terrors emerge, with new grievances (e.g. the LGBT movement), the true intent of the national dream reveals itself. It is to fundamentally deny popular participation in politics, to crush dissent and debate.
Yes, we are invited into the streets to defend our communities from the enemy but we are presented with a finished program. We are asked merely to become grave diggers and executioners not citizens. And when the Muslims are gone, we'll turn on the Roma, and when the Roma are gone we'll turn on the homosexuals...and then? Then it's the turn of the domestic critics, the liberals and the communists and perhaps our own selves because by this time the "purging" seems never ending and the factories are still shuttered. Wasn't it the fault of the Muslims and aren't they gone now? The Roma too, and homosexuals and liberals and communists. They're all gone, the factories remain shuttered and yet there's still shining BMWs among the wreckage. And to ask to whom these belong is to find our own selves declared national enemies, in turn.
So perhaps those photographs reveal all this in of themselves, but what is that we see? I am particularly interested in the "local gaze," that is of the (former) Yugoslavs themselves.
The sight of these monuments is a moment of dislocated recognition. As we are still unable to really talk about the horrors of the war, nor the horrors of the post-war period, to accept and acknowledge the suffering of our former friends and neighbors, we remain largely frozen in place. In this frozen space, trauma is dealt with differently; anger, suspicion and paranoia fester but the the freeze remains. And yet when presented with these photographs we are haunted by a suspicion. The suspicion that what was necessary to create these monuments was a complex society, one we have forgotten and were forced to forget. A complex society which had memorialized the past, however problematically, and devoted most of its energy on imagining a future. A "self-managed society," where we were political agents and if we felt frustrated by the actually existing imperfections of this system, the solution(s) were self-evident; it was not to dissolve the system but rather to insist on the actualization of its ideological principles.
The mere recognition of these monuments' complexity, however, allows for a kind of mourning that has otherwise been denied to us. Their now crumbling edifices allow us to mourn for the future that was taken away from us, to mourn all that which we individually and collectively lost, without having the process interrupted by emotionally charged questions of who did what to whom, when and how.
Beside the overt chauvinist implications of many contemporary monuments in the Balkans, their primary failure is that they are essentially ahistorical constructs or, at least, this has been their intent. They memorialize a kind of ethereal suffering that serves not to turn us toward reconciliation but rather to keep us frozen in trauma. Whereas the Yugoslav monuments were massive, abstract, leaping out of the earth with little to hide precisely because this was a society with a future that allowed for participation and interpretation (a truncated kind, granted), the contemporary monuments are small and literal. They are our tombstones not memorials in the true sense.
The Western fascination with these installations is by comparison much simpler: a long-standing Oriental fixation on the East, their odd customs and spectacularly horrific political systems. If they are beautiful, they are either beautiful in a vacuum or in the way the Ryugyong Hotel might be deemed spectacular. This is not to accuse individual viewers of these photographs of racism. The monuments are beautiful. But it is to point to a generally banal conception of Yugoslavia in the Western imagination, which naturally places all "socialist experiments" on a spectrum between Stalin and the Kim dynasty. Hence, the likening of these structures to UFOs as though the whole of the Yugoslav period was not merely one of fiction but of spectacular science fiction.
Yugoslavia was real, once. And it once had a future. It was a society capable of producing complex structures and systems: political, economic, cultural. These structures and their remnants ought to be taken seriously on their own terms precisely because they point to the absence of all these phenomena in our present. A fact worth mourning, indeed.
The concept of "Yugonostaliga" is by now well-worn terrain in Balkan and post-Soviet [sic] studies. A less discussed sub-genre (?) of the field, however, is the collection of photographs, postcards and videos contributed by current and former residents of (the former) Yugoslavia, in this case BiH, to a growing , informal archive of audio-visual artifacts of eras gone by.
There is an added significance to this phenomenon in BiH, where during the recent war, the destruction of cultural monuments, religious institutions, archives, libraries and graveyards was an important dimension of broader campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The burning of the the National and University Library of BiH in Sarajevo in 1992 and the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar in 1993 were only the most famous instances of these practices. What has survived the war is today jeopardized by the ongoing cultural crisis in the country, with museums and archives now targeted by a different kind of malice, one inescapably linked to the wider structural flaws of the Dayton constitutional order, as I recently argued at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
In the face of such tremendous violence and, today, neglect, the efforts of ordinary citizens to document and preserve segments of their own historic memories offers a hopeful alternative to absent official responses. This is not to say that a Facebook page can substitute for a museum or an archive but it is to suggest that popular interest in documentation of this sort may not always readily manifest itself in traditional ways. I believe this is a tremendous opportunity for those of us interested in preserving cultures and memories to harness this energy for such projects.
Moreover, from a socio-political standpoint, it bears making this (perhaps) obvious point: for a society still recovering from war and genocide, especially given the current political climate in BiH, to so openly and consistently engage in acts of pre-war and pre-genocide remembering is tremendously important. It speaks to a fundamental disconnect that, I think, the majority of ex-Yugoslavs feel. Typically, we recognize only the first two features of this disconnect: the overwhelmingly positive inter-communal experiences of most ordinary Yugoslavs, on the one hand, and the incredible level of violence many experienced during the 1990s, on the other. However, there is today, a third layer: the utter economic destitution and moral bankruptcy of the post-Yugoslav social order.
This third dimension is experienced by both the overwhelming majority of the population who were victimized by the architects of the dissolution of Yugoslavia but also the small constituency of ordinary "true believers" who now live in the hollowed out skeleton of a society that once had a future and now barely has a past. What is a young man to think, for instance, growing up in contemporary Prijedor, whose parents insist that nothing happened here during the 90s, when he stumbles upon this album and this story? And he will stumble upon on it, as many already have. To be sure, the reaction(s) may range from denial to disbelief to silence. But no society where there is even relative freedom of information can long bury the events of the past.
However, it likely won't be the immediate perpetrators and the immediate victims of these crimes against humanity that will have to make amends. It will be their children and their grandchildren. And despite the ability of interested parties to manufacture hate and engage in wholesale historical revisionism, the disconnect will persist until something akin to a catharsis occurs. Something that acknowledges that terrible things happened, that they were done in our name, that women, men and children were murdered, tortured and brutalized who were once our neighbors, co-workers, countrymen and friends. We may or may not have had a hand in their deaths or expulsions but we do have a hand in remembering them, inviting them back and, in seeing them safely returned even for a moment, restoring a segment of our own humanity.
Then, we might begin to recognize in the past all that was, all that might have been and all that might still be.
At least in terms of ready-made narratives, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s (BiH) first appearance at a major football tournament is precisely the sort of story international media will want to report. The Guardian and the BBC have already jumped on board, as had numerous other media ahead of the deciding match against Lithuania on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, foreign stories about BiH are for many folks from the region an often tedious experience; the bullet points are always the same. "War-torn," "recovering from war," "genocide," "ethnic differences," "Bosniaks (formerly Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats" etc. This is not to say that BiH is not a post-conflict "zone." It certainly is. And I don’t begrudge the global media for wanting to explain an often complex country to a large audience, often unfamiliar with the particulars of the current situation. But there are other notes that might be worth plucking, at least in reporting on the football team ahead of Brazil 2014.
This is a sampling of a handful of points worth keeping in mind about this new player on the world football stage:
To begin with, if you want to seriously talk about football in BiH, then you’re going to want to talk to Saša Ibrulj. In terms of analysis, Ibrulj is the authority and his work is widely available in English.
You’re also going to want to learn the name of Marjan Mijajlović, who has become the voice of BiH national football. Mijajlović’s unabashed enthusiasm for the national team has quickly won him a cult following among sports fans in the country. And it was Mijajlović who gave Edin Džeko the nickname "the Diamond" and dubbed the team "the Dragons." Finally, Mijajlović is unique also for the fact that he was born in Tuzla but speaks with a pronounced Ekavian accent, typical of Serbia proper.
Speaking of which, mention the goals, all 30 of them, but maybe this incredible game-winner by Izet Hajrović, in particular. Mention the individual goal scoring standings for this ferocious young attacking team. And mention that UEFA considered them the team of the qualifications, as much for the symbolism as for their play.
In terms of broader themes, rather than situate the national team as being held back by the usual ethno-chauvinist nonsense that dominates BiH political discourse, it would perhaps be better to juxtapose the team to the political establishment. For instance, after the BiH football federation was suspended by FIFA for having an absurd three-member, ethnically-constituted Presidency, a caretaker regime was brought under the legendary Ivica Osim. Osim, as much as coach Safet Sušić, deserves credit for having created an atmosphere in the FA based on respect, dialogue and, above all, the best interests of players and fans in BiH. This new FA has continued to struggle to reign in nationalistic provocations during certain domestic league encounters, but as far as the national side is concerned, the arrival in Brazil is proof enough of their success. Without much exaggeration, the BiH national team may very well be the only functioning institution in the country as a whole. And FIFA, in any case, should be commended for having taken a more serious and effective stance towards BiH than either the EU, US or the OHR.
Nevertheless, the “ethnic question” will come up. So, you might mention that the national team has legitimately become a team striving to represent all of BiH. Ironically, BiH may legitimately have more fans in Belgrade and Zagreb than in certain parts of BiH itself. Nevertheless, some recent media speculation suggests that things are not as dire as all that and that, at least privately, there is a growing fan base for "the Dragons" across the country.
Moreover, BiH’s coaches have been ethnically mixed for years now, as has the team itself. The most capped player in the team’s history, co-captain Zvjezdan Misimović, played for FR Yugoslavia at both the U18 and U21 levels. The man many consider to be the BiH “Captain for Life,” the now retired Sergej Barbarez, could not possibly come from a more ethnically mixed background. Recent call-ups like Ognjen Vranješ, Ivan Sesar and the incredible Miroslav Stevanović have also come up through local clubs in Banja Luka and Široki Brijeg. Stevanović’s decision, in particular, to play for BiH, as arguably one of the best players to come out of BiH in years and after having spent his formative years in Borac Banja Luka, is promising. On this front, it is also worth noting that the U21 side is even more “mixed.” Hence, while there is no guarantee that these kids will not, in the end, choose to play for Serbia or Croatia, for the time being they represent the clearest indication of BiH’s next football generation and "generation" more broadly, perhaps.
While BiH’s domestic league is in dire shape, success in Brazil will also likely mean a new crop of players from the diaspora wanting to don the national side’s colours, as has already become the case. This may not be much of a long-term growth strategy but for the time being, it's still an incredible pool of talent.
The central point here is a simple one: Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 will remain an emotional date for many people in BiH. This is not a society with too many recent successes. Nor is it a society whose leaders have shown very much willingness to change this fact. Indeed, if anything, these leaders have all but insisted on keeping the peoples of BiH impoverished, expelling their energies merely on stoking collective mutual suspicions and resentments.
Football may not have the ability to actually transcend politics but it has the ability to, at least, provide a different kind of conceptual space for people to share. Media, whether local or international, has a role to play in this too. Hence, this primer.
In the meantime, here’s hoping our Croatian cousins join BiH in Brazil in November. Sretno!