Remembering WWII in post-Yugoslav countries

Ongoing debates on memorials, museums and commemorations

Debates on unfinished 20th century wars still dominate public debate of Croatia and other post-Yugoslav countries. Issues linked with relativizing of the genocides and holocaust committed in the World War II as well as in still insufficiently-investigated political violence from the times of the socialist Yugoslavia and gross violations of human rights in the wars of 1990’s remain open.

Revisionists keep on questioning tragic facts. Youth are sometimes deprived of the most basic information on the Holocaust, and other genocides committed in that period are not well covered in history textbooks. It is particuarly worrying that attempts are made to forget, deny or relativize horrible crimes committed by Nazi-fascist armed forces and by state-like formations (in particular Ustasha in Croatia and Chetniks in Serbia), as well as ideologies that came up with and attempted to legitimate such crimes. The diminishing and complete denial of certain crimes is wide spread.

Remembering Holocaust victims at the state level is mostly linked to attending annual commemorations and antifascism is reduced only to occasional marking of anniversaries of certain events that cannot be missed or ignored. Pressure on institutions, like Jasenovac Memorial, scapegoating of independent journalists and human rights activists reinforces fear of insisting on developing local network of education, research and memorialization institutions engaged in remembrance activities.

WWII stories often remain in shadow of recent armed conflicts. More than 20 years since the beginning of the wars in-between and in then Yugoslav republics as well as since the establishment of the International Criminal Court for War Crimes in former Yugoslavia (ICTY), peace process remains unfinished. The question of how to remember more than 130.000 persons killed in the wars from1991 to 2001 and finally how to get information on the fate of 13.000 persons, still missing, gets ever more pressing with the passing of time.

Until today, most of the victims of the 20th century wars have not been acknowledged from the state or the society as a whole. Instead of recognition, memory politics got even more confrontational during the last years. Although civil society initiatives keep addressing sensitive issues, the question remains how much can be done through civil and art interventions, with only very limited support of political and social actors?

On examples of public debates related to the fate of Nazi, Fascists and Ustasha regimes victims the most important trends will be illustrated.


Vesna Teršelič is the founder and director of the organization Documenta – Center for Dealing with the past based in Croatia. She studied Philosophy, Literature and Physics at the University of Zagreb.

Vesna Teršelič, Zagreb
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