Heike Karge

European University Institute
Department of History and Civilisation
Via Boccaccio 121
50133 Firenze (Fi)

email: heike.karge@eui.eu

home address: Max-Beckmann-Str.7, 04109 Leipzig, Germany

Familiar Strangers
Commemorating the Second World War in the Socialist Yugoslavia

Academic research unisonous has acknowledged that memories of the Second World War were conductive in framing political rhetorics and ideological manipulation during the conflicts of the 1990s in Yugoslavia. Paradoxically, this statement has not led so far to a profound analysis of about 40 years of practices of war commemoration in Yugoslavia. Instead, war memories in the socialist Yugoslavia are often simply described as 'frozen'. Accordingly, it was after Titos death only, at the beginning of the 80s, that a process of 'unfreezing' war memories finally started, a process in which then formerly private memories got tangled up with new public nationalist versions of the past, that were to accompany the outbreaking conflicts of the 1990s.

However, in my thesis I will challenge this image of a frozen and static collective war memory in Yugoslavia. Because, if one tries to understand, how and why memories of the Second World War mattered in the conflicts of the 90s, one seriously needs to take into account fourty years of actual practices of war commemoration and remembrance in Yugoslavia beyond its 'frozen' character.

The material I am mainly working with relates to one of the main 'memory makers' in Yugoslavia, namely the War Veterans Union. It was founded in 1947 with the aim to unite all former partisan fighters in one organiation, and carried for the erection of war monuments, for the graves of fallen war comrades etc. Through their institutionalised activity war veterans not only initiated and practiced remembrance to fallen comrades, but more important, they acted as a main 'mediator' of remembrance between the local community, the republican and the federal level.

Mediation does thereby not imply any normative qualification that converges with the notion of negotiating versions of the past. There is good reason to be sceptical about the very possibilities of certain non-party or local actors in Yugoslavia to negotiate officially decreed and highly controlled memory products. The act of negotiation implies a dialogue between two or more partners, an 'exchange on an equal basis' that leads to a new product. This, however, was clearly not to take place in Yugoslavia's highly controlled official memory space. In other words: Verbally and intellectually there was not much to negotiate with the Communist elite regarding the very founding myths of the socialist Yugoslavia. However, mediation of remembrance is inevitably a complex process that goes beyond the intellectual argument. Here, one instead enters a field of practices where personal grief, local practices, cultural codes, and political desiderata to commemorate the past will merge. Therefore, mediation of remembrance practices and war narratives is - instead of a constant negotiation - better to be understood in terms of an encounter of different forms and practices of remembrance. Encounter meaning here, that despite the unilateral 'control over meaning' that was exercised by the political elite of the Communist Party only, there were still areas of remembrance practices where forms of social exchange, of communication were possible. Approaching the culture of collective war remembrance in Yugoslavia from this angle will highlight aspects of agency and creativity of certain actors who operated not really against, but often beyond political elites.