1945 versus 1995, Europe versus the Balkans?

Nicolas Moll

A plea for an inclusive and differentiating pan-European culture of remembrance

How many times have you heard someone say “Europe has been at peace since 1945” or “There has been no war in Europe since 1945”? The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, which left over 130,000 people dead and created millions of displaced persons and refugees, are quickly forgotten (not to mention the war that has been under way in Eastern Ukraine since 2014). When challenged about this, people’s response tends to be: “Oh well, I was of course referring to the EU.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help. For equating the European Union (EU) with Europe is part of the problem and reflects a tendency to ignore the (post-)Yugoslav region when discussing Europe in general and a European culture of remembrance in particular. There are several reasons behind this attitude. Firstly, the idea that ‘the Balkans’ are not part of the real, ‘civilised’ Europe anyway; as analysis by Maria Todorova has shown, this is an old mindset that originated in the 19th century and was revived and intensified by the wars of the 1990s. Secondly, the less-than-glorious role of European governments and of the European Community, which proclaimed in 1991 that the Yugoslavia crisis was “the hour of Europe” but then failed to prevent or halt the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and even contributed to prolong them. The memory of these wars does not fit well into an uncritical, undifferentiated narrative of a Europe that has been at peace since 1945 and of the EU as a successful force for peace.

This year, 2020, we commemorate not only the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War but also the 25th anniversary of two key events in the Bosnian War. The first is the crime of Srebrenica in July 1995, which was classified as genocide by two international courts and was the first genocide on European soil since the end of the Second World War, taking place in what was officially a United Nations Safe Area. The second is the Dayton Peace Agreement of November/December 1995, which ended the war and still forms the basis for the political structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina and for international engagement in the country. This double 25th anniversary should not be ignored or given only cursory attention in EU countries. Admittedly, 11 July is an official European day of remembrance for Srebrenica in the EU, and has been for the past decade, but who actually knows about it? This year’s double 25th anniversary could and should be an opportunity to think of the Bosnian War and the other Yugoslav wars in European terms and to take a more critical look at the role of European governments as part of the international community, in Srebrenica and beyond. While a number of  researchers on the Balkans have been doing both of these things for many years, Southeastern Europe in general and the Yugoslav Wars in particular remain shadowy presences in mainstream discourse on Europe and a European culture of remembrance. Even if there is no in-depth critical analysis, it should at least be possible, on such an anniversary, to ask ourselves some questions: What role did different European actors play in the origins and progress of the Bosnian War? On what basis can the Yugoslav Wars be described as European wars? What did these wars mean for Europe? Moreover, there are not only critical things to report about Europe’s role in the 1990s. I am currently researching the civil society mobilisations that took place in Europe between 1992 and 1995 in solidarity with Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a wonderful yet little-known example of European solidarity, involving many committed individuals and groups in various European countries, who gave practical and political support to the democratic citizens of the new state and to the victims of the war while at the same time criticising the then European policy of non-intervention and support for ethnopolitical peace plans. In this time of coronavirus, when there is so much talk about European solidarity or the lack thereof, looking back to the 1990s can also help raise thought-provoking questions about the topical issue of solidarity in Europe.

Southeastern Europe is all too often ignored, particularly the Yugoslav region and Albania, and not only in relation to the 1990s but also when remembering the Second World War in Europe. Yet Yugoslavia’s role in the Second World War was far from insignificant: following the coup against the pro-German government in Belgrade in April 1941, Hitler decided at short notice to attack Yugoslavia and therefore to postpone the planned offensive against the Soviet Union by several months. This was quite possibly a turning point in the war, because it meant that the German attack on the Soviet Union got caught up in the Russian winter and stalled before reaching Moscow, which gave Stalin time to mount a defence and then a counteroffensive. Yugoslavia, which was defeated and subsequently carved up after the German onslaught in 1941, became part of the pan-European Nazi machinery of extermination against Jews and other victim groups, with the energetic support of local collaborator governments. However, it also had some specific characteristics of its own: for example, the fascist Ustasha regime in Croatia worked also towards the extermination of the Serbian population on its territory. At the same time, a multinational resistance movement emerged in the form of Tito’s Partisans. They developed into the strongest Partisan movement within Nazi-occupied Europe, and largely managed to liberate Yugoslav territory from the inside. The Yugoslav Partisan movement thus occupies a special place in the history of anti-fascist resistance in Europe, but was also closely intertwined with it: for example, it cooperated with the British government and army from 1943 onwards, and towards the end of the war the Yugoslav Partisans fought against the Wehrmacht in Serbia alongside units of the Red Army and the Bulgarian Army.

There are a number of reasons that may explain why Yugoslav history barely features in European public remembrance of the Second World War. A European political discourse on remembrance has been developing within the EU since the 1990s. This was initially dominated by Western European perspectives on the Holocaust and the resistance to Nazism and Fascism. When Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004, Holocaust remembrance became more important also in these countries. At the same time, their governments pushed for the commemoration of communist crimes to be made an integral and equal part of official European remembrance policy. Symptomatic of this development was the European Parliament’s decision in 2009 to officially designate 23 August as „European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism“, in reference to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939. To this day, the European memory landscape remains dominated by a view from and on Western and Eastern Europe, with a focus on fascism and communism (either equating or differentiating between the two) in these parts of Europe. There is little room left for the Yugoslav region and its specificities, especially since socialist Yugoslavia went its own way within Europe for several decades after the break with Stalin in 1948 and politically belonged to neither Western nor Eastern Europe during the Cold War. As noted at the beginning, this tendency to see the Yugoslav region as ‘not belonging’ was further intensified during and by the wars of the 1990s. While two of the Yugoslav successor states, Slovenia and Croatia, are now members of the EU, both countries are reluctant to remember their historical Yugoslav identity and have no interest at all in upholding the memory of the Second World War from a Yugoslav perspective within the EU. The other Yugoslav successor states and Albania are not in the EU and are a long way from joining: they therefore have little say on issues of European remembrance discussed in the EU and/or are not regarded as equals. Furthermore, these countries too are united in their refusal to commemorate the Second World War from a Yugoslav perspective, while also being completely divided in their perceptions of history. This rejection of a Yugoslav perspective and the simultaneous fragmentation of the post-Yugoslav region along national lines resulted, among other things, in the closure of the Yugoslav pavilion at the Auschwitz Memorial. Opened in the 1960s and redesigned in 1988, the pavilion has stood empty for many years. In 2011, representatives of the Yugoslav successor states began negotiations coordinated by the UNESCO on renewing the pavilion to commemorate the more than 20,000 Auschwitz victims from all parts of the then Yugoslavia, but so far these talks have been unsuccessful due to a lack of agreement and government interest. The closed and empty Yugoslav pavilion at the Auschwitz Memorial is a striking metaphor for the way that Yugoslavia has been faded out of a central chapter in Europe’s remembrance culture. The fact that the divided post-Yugoslav countries themselves prefer denying the Yugoslav dimension of Second World War history should not be an excuse for the rest of Europe to do the same. Just because something is not in vogue today does not mean that it is not important.

However, when it comes to developing a truly pan-European culture of remembrance, it is not only the integration of Yugoslav history during and after the Second World War that is important, but also dealing with Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav remembrance culture in a European context. Engaging with this issue can also provide stimulating input for discussions on the historical memory of anti-fascism and the role of anti-fascism in Europe today. As in other Eastern European countries, anti-fascism was the state-backed ideology of socialist Yugoslavia, albeit with a specific emphasis on ‘brotherhood and unity’ reflecting the multinational character of the Partisan movement and the Yugoslav state. From the mid-1980s onwards, this ideology was questioned, increasingly openly, by nationalist forces in the various constituent republics, and with the wars of the 1990s ethnonationalist historical discourses gained the upper hand in each of the post-Yugoslav states. In these new cultures of remembrance, anti-anti-fascism constitutes a dominating attitude, articulated, for example, in the destruction or removal of anti-fascist symbols from the Yugoslav period and in the rehabilitation of anti-communist collaborators. At the same time, this revisionist nationalism also partially integrates anti-fascism into its ethnocentric memory politics. For example, in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, both the nationalist, anti-communist Chetnik movement and the Partisan battles are officially remembered, the argument being that both were Serb resistance movements. In other words, the collaborating Chetniks are stripped of their fascist and the Partisans of their communist and multinational dimensions, and both gathered within a broad front of anti-fascist Serbian liberation struggle. On the other hand, the anti-Yugoslav reinterpretations of Second World War history and the abuse of anti-fascist memories are regularly criticized by sociopolitical groups that see themselves as part of the ‚authentic anti-fascist‘ tradition from the Yugoslav era. These groups organise their own events to commemorate Partisan battles and other events from the Second World War, in a continuation of the memorial days celebrated in socialist Yugoslavia.

We know similar trends in dealing with the legacies of anti-fascism from other post-socialist Eastern European countries, which is one more reason to view the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav history of anti-fascism within a European context and thus possibly open up new perspectives on the issue of anti-fascism and anti-anti-fascism in Europe. Like any serious engagement, this analysis should be conducted critically, not only regarding anti-anti-fascism, but also regarding (post-)Yugoslav anti-fascism – without wishing to equate the two attitudes. For example, what was the relationship between ‘prescribed anti-fascism’ and ‘lived anti-fascism’ in socialist Yugoslavia? What crimes were committed and covered up in the name of Yugoslav anti-fascism? How was remembrance organised, and also manipulated and instrumentalised, under the sign of anti-fascism ? To what extent does today’s anti-fascism address these issues, or is it simply content with moral and nostalgic feelings of superiority over nationalist forces? Under what circumstances does it still make sense to use the terms ‘fascism’ and ‘anti-fascism’ in contemporary contexts?

Embedding post-Yugoslav memory discourses on the Second World War in their pan-European context also makes sense because there are not only parallels here, but also connections and interdependencies. Thus the EU’s enlargement policy, including towards the Western Balkans, is linked among other things to the fulfilment of certain standards on memory politics, particularly with regard to the Holocaust, and at the same time nationalist memory discourses in the Yugoslav successor states are keen to present themselves as European. Croatia, for instance, adopted European political standards on Holocaust commemoration in the course of its EU rapprochement, for example by participating in Europe-wide commemorations on 27 January marking the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. However, this has not prevented governments there from deliberately downplaying the role of Croatian collaboration and the significance of the Ustasha-run Jasenovac concentration and extermination camp, or from using European political concepts of remembrance to legitimise their own nationalist disourses on victims and perpeptrators. Similar trends can be found in Serbia, where, for example, references to the Holocaust are used as an opportunity to equate Serbia’s own sufferings with it, and where, significantly, 9 May as ‘Victory over Fascism Day’, is celebrated as one of the country’s official remembrance days and public holidays. In fact, 9 May 1945 was not a particularly significant date in terms of the liberation of Yugoslavia or of Serbia – these liberations mostly took place in the previous six months. However, participating in the European commemorations on 8/9 May marking the capitulation of Hitler’s Germany allows the Belgrade government to highlight the Serbian contribution to Europe’s liberation from fascism and to present Serbia – including the rehabilitated Chetniks – as part of the pan-European resistance family.

Using European political memory discourses on the Second World War for national purposes is another tendency familiar from other European countries. At the same time, what is specific to the (post-)Yugoslav region is that in the 1990s nationalist forces deliberately mobilised the memories of crimes committed within Yugoslavia in the Second World War, in order to invoke the return of enemies from the 1940s , to stir up hostility towards the neighbours, foment war and legitimise their own contemporary acts of war. In today’s memory discourses also, the wars of the 1990s and the Second World War are often interlinked and amalgamated for the purposes of ethnonational instrumentalisation. In Republika Srpska, for example, the memory of Jasenovac as a site of Serbian suffering is deliberately invoked as a counter-memory to Srebrenica 1995, one of the arguments being that those who were victims in the Second World War could not have been perpetrators in the 1990s.

Which brings us back to 1995 and its importance for European history, which I outlined at the beginning. To avoid any misunderstanding: I am not trying to play off the wars of the 1990s against the Second World War or the Balkans against Europe. In fact, quite the reverse. I want us to think about these dates and places in terms of each other. Not to mix them up or equate them. 1995 is not 1945, and vice versa. The Balkans and the Yugoslav region are not the same as other European regions. But they are nonetheless European regions. And only by thinking about them together will it be possible to identify, work out and understand specificities and differences, similarities and parallels, as well as trans-European relations and interconnections. In short: if, in 2020 and beyond, we wish to commemorate the past in a truly European sense, and really wish to take seriously the concept of a ‘European culture of remembrance’, we must also think about the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav region and not forget neither 1995 nor the Yugoslav 1945. There is one final argument I would like to make for why we should generally pay more attention to Yugoslav history and memory discourses from the (post-)Yugoslav region and take them more seriously, beyond Balkanising stereotypes. Both the Yugoslav period and the post-Yugoslav fragmentations exemplify one of the central challenges of European remembrance culture: to what extent is it possible to create a common and differentiating memory space on the basis of multiple and often antagonistic memories? With the continuing rise of nationalist tendencies and memory discourses in the EU member states, this question will become even more relevant for discussions on a European culture of remembrance, and increasingly difficult to address.


Nicolas Moll holds a PhD in Contemporary History from the University of Freiburg and has lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe, since 2007. He works on issues of memory politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Europe and on movements of solidarity with Bosnia and Herzegovina in Europe in the 1990s. For more information, visit: https://www.nicolasmoll.eu/

Selected references for further analysis of the issues raised:

→ On the history of Southeastern Europe and the Yugoslav region in its European context:

Marie-Janine Calic, Geschichte Jugoslawiens im 20. Jahrhundert, Beck, 2010 (part of the ‘Europäische Geschichte im 20. Jahrhundert’ series)

Edgar Hösch, Geschichte des Balkans, Beck, 2016

Ulf Brunnbauer & Klaus Buchenau, Geschichte Südosteuropas, Reclam, 2018

Michael Martens, Im Brand der Welten. Ivo Andric – ein europäisches Leben, Zsolnay, 2019

→ On the perception of the Balkans in Europe and the West:

Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, 2nd and updated edition 2009

→ On European policy towards Yugoslavia and during the Yugoslav crisis, see for example:

Josip Glaurdic, The Hour of Europe. Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia, Yale UP, 2011

→ On the development of remembrance cultures in the post-Yugoslav region since the 1990s and their embedding in a European context, see for example:

Todor Kuljic, Post-Yugoslav Memory Culture, Lambert Academic Publishing, 2017

Ljiljana Radonic, Krieg um die Erinnerung. Kroatische Vergangenheitspolitik zwischen Revisionismus und europäischen Standards, Campus, 2010

Nicolas Moll, Fragmented memories in a fragmented country: memory competition and political identity-building in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nationalities Papers 41/6, 2013, 910-935

Jelena Subotic, Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism, Cornwell University Press, 2019

Ana Milosevic & Tamara Trost (ed.), Europeanisation and Memory Politics in the Western Balkans, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020 (publication planned for summer 2020)