Welcome to Slovenia

Slovenia is beautiful. It is clean. Motorists stop as pedestrians near the crosswalks. Roads are maintained. The exteriors of homes are maintained. Unemployment is low. One Brit ex-pat in his 80s said it all. As far as he was concerned, Great Britain could be dropped in the middle of the Atlantic and the world would be no worse off. He loved Slovenia for the health care, the food, the culture, the comfort, the beauty, the security, the peace.

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Slovenia’s war of independence in 1991 lasted ten days. In those days, the joint Croat-Bosniak-Serb Yugoslavian Army had bigger fish to fry, when first Croatia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence. And, while at first the Yugoslav Army was multi-ethnic and eager to hold the nation together, it quickly degenerated into a largely Serb force eager to rid Bosnia and Herzegovina of the residual “Turk menace.”

“Turk menace” was also the phrase used in the official exhibit we watched at the Castle in Ljubljana. When I asked the college student docent about public hostility to Ottoman rule, she told me quite matter-of-factly that Slovenia was still a young nation and that it was still developing a shared national narrative. She was unaware that under Ottoman rule Jews, Muslims, and Christians had lived in relative harmony, and that rights were preserved for all ethnic and religious minorities. I suggested she visit the old town in Sarajevo, where the streets and neighborhoods acquired their names based on the ethnic groups who built and sold their wares there.

The docent was much more familiar with the propensity of Slovenians to white-wash the considerable collaboration by Slovenians with the Nazi occupation. Yes, there was also a small but fierce resistance, the history of which was celebrated during Slovenia’s forty-six year participation in post-war Yugoslavia. But in many regions partisans were few and far between. According to the docent, this history is not even taught at the University, a fact that she again explained by reference to the youth of the Slovenian nation and the need for all Slovenians to develop a shared national story.

Indeed, this story is featured wherever we go. Its inaugural event is the early eighteenth century “Spring of Nations,” itself provoked by Napoleon’s sweeping through central and eastern Europe. If the French have a nation and laws and a language and a literature, then surely we must too. But, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, it was chiefly the literate bourgeoisie, tired of their own servitude, that championed these new “imagined communities,” collecting and often inventing their national literatures, ethnographically isolating the “true” language from the “false” language, identifying national heroes extending far back into neolithic times.

Here, however, because of its position on the edge of the “shatterzone,” Slovenia holds a special place. It had to distinguish itself both from its southern slav (and mostly Muslim) neighbors and from its north and western (albeit Catholic) neighbors. Its natural ally, politically, were the Serbs and Hungarians, who like the Slovenians, wished to gain their independence first from their Ottoman and then from their Hapsburg overlords.

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Thus the complexity of the story that the Slovenians have to construct. It is a multiethnic story in whose final chapter, the Slovenians cast off multi ethnicity. It is a multi religious story, at whose conclusion the Slovenians cast off the “Turkish menace.” And of course it is an economically successful history, in which Slovenians decide not to share their wealth with their erstwhile slavic brothers to the south.

All of which leaves me just a bit uneasy. Was the reduction of state identity to national identity really the solution we were looking for at the end of the cold war? Is this how we defeat the “Turkish” and “Orthodox” menace, in one blow, creating a clean, pure, uniform, identical nation? (Where have I heard this before?) Yes, I am aware of the role economics played in this decision, of the neoliberal revolution that set all of middle Europe free so to speak, and so also of the unprecedented selling off of public assets to private parties. And I am aware also of Slovenia’s cashing in on some of the most beautiful landscape anywhere in the world. Simply spectacular. But I am also aware that this drive towards surface particularism is counterbalanced by the embrace of and by the global economic system in which true particularism is explicitly forbidden.

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Which brings us back to the actually existing multi ethnicity of, well, for example, Bosnia and Herzegovina, home not only of the “Turkish menace,” but also of my family. I will almost certainly return to Slovenia, where, among other things, I got my first real hike (four hours into the mountains to visit castle ruins) since coming to the Balkans. But I am also very happy to be returning to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where cars do not stop for pedestrians, where graffiti clutters buildings everywhere, where the crafts and trades are in disrepair because (apparently) no one can afford to repair their property, where the cuisine is fairly uniform and unemployment is unacceptably high, but where Catholic and Orthodox church bells are mixed with calls to prayer at the fourteen local mosques. Now that’s diversity!

Returning to Sarajevo

The last time I was in Sarajevo (only two weeks ago) I was attending Fulbright orientation at the American Embassy. But my experience this time could not have been more different. I was with my family this time and – thankfully – did not step foot inside the Embassy, but this only begins to explain the difference. Two weeks ago, I was struck by the walled fortress of the US Embassy, its layers upon layers of security. And I was struck by the inherent tension between two of our three policy objectives: rule of law and liberalization of trade. (Evidently our policy-makers either (a) do not know any real businessmen, in which case they do not know how close to illegality real businessmen like to ride; or (b) are real businessmen, which means wink-wink-nudge-nudge the “rule of law” thing is not to be taken literally.)

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This weekend I focused more on Sarajevo – mostly. (OK, while Kirsten was at the world premiere of Jasmila Žbanić’s new film ‘For Those Who Can Tell No Tales’ about the systematic rape of the women of Visegrad; yes, that Visegrad; the boys and I went to see Gravity.) But Saturday morning, we were on our way to the Srebrenica Museum, next to the Catholic Cathedral, located in the Turkish Quarter. The Museum offers only a glimpse into the four days in July 1995 that saw the leader of the military wing of the Serbs systematically murder over 8,000 Bosnians who had gathered under the protection of the UN in this small village. For those who are interested, you are encouraged to find the BBC documentary about Srebrenica on Youtube. After our experience in the Museum, we took off for the hills on the far end of the Turkish Quarter where, spreading literally as far as our eyes could see, were tombstones all with the year of death on them 1992, 1994, 1993, 1995 – all the way to the horizon.

But it was an illusion. Between the skeletons of bombed out buildings and rusty razor wire stretching around walls of vacant lots, we found life springing up everywhere: markets, restaurants, cats, dogs (cats and dogs everywhere), mosques, and of course people – old, young – and fully restored and renovated homes. Which is what you might expect twenty years on.

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We then descended from the hills and to our surprise amidst the tens of thousands crowded into the Turkish Quarter, we ran into our friend Jasmina, fellow professor in the English Department at Tuzla. Jasmina then joined us for a short visit with the new US Cultural Attache and his husband at a jumping food and drink establishment above the park.

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Saturday night, after an unsuccessful search for an out-of-print translation of a Bosnian book, we ended up at 9 pm at a high end restaurant frequented mainly by expats. Thoughtfully, they seated us in the “Rezervirano za pušenje” section, which we thought said “No smoking” but actually said “Reserved for Smoking,” a command with which a large table of German businessmen seated next to us promptly began to comply.

The meal was comfort food. Creamed corn with a bite. Greek salad. Lamb chops. Arugula Salad.

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After determining late last night that there was no Anglican community in Sarajevo, we decided that we would attend English Mass at the Catholic Cathedral at Noon. However, this gave us plenty of time to catch “breakfast” – although you can pretty much forget about an English or American breakfast in Sarajevo, it doesn’t exist – and visit the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish Quarter, which dates to the 16th century, all but disappeared in 1942, when the last craftsman’s shop was closed. Prior to the war there had been 400,000 Jews in Sarajevo. Now there are only 700. Fully 80% of the Jewish population in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was exterminated by the German occupiers and their largely Croat collaborators. The synagogue, which we toured, is now a museum with services only twice a year. Today, the total population of Jews in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina barely tops 11,000.

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From the museum we walked back to the Cathedral where we celebrated Mass. The priest was happy to serve us communion, even though we explained that we were Anglicans. Then then asked Kirsten to read the OT and Psalm during service. I could not help but wonder, given the history of this place and particularly of the complex interrelations between Catholics and Muslims, how the priest would have accounted for the past 75 years (he clearly was not born when the Germans occupied and in all likelihood was not even in seminary during the war). And I could not help wondering how all of these different threads in which we had participated over the weekend – Visegrad, Srebrenica, the Jewish Quarter, Madras, our Christian brothers and sisters, and too many cemeteries – how we could account for our own lives before them, to whom we are ultimately accountable.

I have only more questions. Only partial answers.

The Long Shadow of Fascism

As I follow tragedy unfolding in Washington I cannot help but reflect on events closer to my new home in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where, joined by 10,000 others in the small city’s town square, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation from German occupation. It was a festive occasion with choirs and bands and dancing. The celebration culminates a week during which Kirsten, the boys and I joined our Fulbright host Damir in Vukovar, Croatia, where he spoke on a panel with the Turkish Ambassador and former Vice Chancellor of Austria in a colloquium discussing the place of the Balkans within Europe: “Bridges to Europe.” But it was the location, Vukovar, that distinguished the event. Vukovar was, of course, the site of some of the Balkan War’s worst atrocities; where men from families with Croatian names were rounded up, often by their neighbors, herded into concentration camps and subsequently shot, their wives and daughters raped, and their town razed. Vukovar has thus become a symbol of war and would now like to become a symbol of union.

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Of course, the events in Tuzla’s city square and the events in Vukovar are not unrelated. For, as we know, not all citizens in the Balkans were equally excited by the expulsion of the Germans seventy years ago. In particular, large numbers of Croatians in the 1941 welcomed the Germans as liberators from Serbian domination. Many viewed their own local version of nationalism as completely compatible with German fascism, a view supported by the German occupiers who subsequently ceded a large swath of formerly Serbian and Bosnian territory to their Croat collaborators.

Estimates differ widely, but according to the official US estimates, reflected in the numbers tallied at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Croat collaborators were responsible for the deaths of between 320,000 to 340,000 ethnic Serb residents in Croatia and Bosnia, a horror acknowledged recently by Croatian President Ivo Josipović, who has warned against “attempts to drastically reduce or decrease the number of Jasenovac victims.” He added, “faced with the devastating truth here that certain members of the Croatian people were capable of committing the cruelest of crimes, I want to say that all of us are responsible for the things that we do.”

Just as every past is composed in and for the present, so every present is composed with a specific future in mind. So it is that I am setting myself the task of piecing together the fragments of our own present.

What was the make-up of the throngs who met us in the city square last night? Was the celebration also – even unconsciously – a celebration of throwing out the Croatian collaborators? And, so, did the celebration have a different meaning and feeling for contemporary Croat Bosnians who played no part in the events seventy years ago? And is this therefore an occasion, odd as it may seem, where ethnic Serb Bosnians link up with ethnic Bosniak Bosnians to celebrate their expulsion not only of the Germans, but of their Croat collaborators as well?

But I am also thinking of yesterday’s feature article in the International Herald Tribune – a link to which is nowhere visible on the Internet! – warning of the difficulties Greek authorities now face reducing the influence and size of Greece’s homegrown neo-fascist movement, the “Golden Dawn.” Said one observer: “The reasons why Golden Dawn came to power have not been erased.”

Which brings me back to the drama being played out in Washington. Of course, based on their grasp of US history, I have absolutely zero confidence that any of the Congressional Republicans have the slightest appreciation for the last century of history in Europe. Zero. Nor is this lack of comprehension limited to the current generation. Even before the guns fell silent in Europe, Friedrich Hayek could delude himself into believing that it was state intervention (and not its opposite) that was responsible for the rise of the National Socialist regime. Displaying not even a modest grasp of the social and economic conditions that had brought large numbers of Germans to embrace National Socialism; exhibiting complete incomprehension of why poorly educated, un- or underemployed men and women might flee into the arms of a movement that credits foreigners, minorities, and communists for causing their hardships and that calls followers to attack and destroy the only public institutions that hold any promise of offering genuine assistance – Hayek is rightly an exemplar of the kind of willful historical amnesia celebrated by Congressional Republicans. And, so, I have no confidence whatsoever that historical reflection will bring about a change in either their perspectives or their conduct.

The first element of successful resistance, however, is understanding. And this we may understand: big capital is no longer directly underwriting the efforts of the US Tea Party to annihilate public institutions in America. Nevertheless, because they do not understand the role deregulation and privatization play in producing the throngs of undereducated, un- and underemployed white males who provide the Tea Party with its base, they also do not understand why their ongoing effort to eliminate regulation and privatize public assets and services is fueling the rise of America’s own home-grown neo-fascist movement. And, of course, nor do they appreciate why this movement no longer needs or invites their direct support, since, like all neo-fascist movements, this one too is vocally opposed to the influence of “international capital.” In other words, the movement is now much larger and stronger than the private institutions and neoliberal theories that initially gave it life.

Is it possible that Congressional Republicans will recognize their error and recant? No. It is not. Because for them the heightening of conflict and division is, in and of itself, a victory. Which means that the only way to undo this madness is at the polls in November. Yet, all indications are that the Republicans will hold their majorities among undereducated, un- and underemployed white male voters and that these majorities are sufficient to withhold the much needed and much overdo infusions of revenue into those institutions – schools, healthcare, the arts – that form the foundations of democracy.

And, so, as I stand in the square in Tuzla, as I visit Vukovar, and as I try to grasp the complex histories and present realities of the places and peoples where I am currently living, I am made aware, daily, of fascism and its increasingly long and ever longer shadow.

Vukovar

On Saturday, we borrowed Nakiča’s old Renault and travelled with a contingent of peace activists to Vukovar for the “Bridges to Europe” colloquium, where our host Damir was one of the panelists. Vukovar is in Croatia, nearly three hours due north from Tuzla. It is only a few kilometers from the border with Serbia. Back in 1991 when Croatia declared its independence, Vukovar was the site of some of the worst atrocities. Whole Croat families were rounded up from their homes based solely on their last names. The women were raped. The men were temporarily put in concentration camps before they were lined up, shot, and buried in mass graves, 3800 in all. The colloquium was sponsored by the EU, Austria, and Turkey. Among the other panelists, besides Damir, were the Austrian former Vice Chancellor and the Turkish Ambassador. There was also a marvelous Serbian journalist who criticized the cult of respecting one another’s differences; we are not different. We are the same. It was respecting differences that got us into this mess.

Although I had pleasant conversations with the Turkish Ambassador (“Your Excellency” is how Ambassadors are addressed) and the former Vice Chancellor (simply “Vice Chancellor,” leave off the “former”), they were rather weak panelists; all about economic cooperation, dropping barriers, liberalizing trade, etc. Very little about the mass graves and violence for which neoliberal economic policies bear no small part of the responsibility. There was also a writer who spoke, in Croatian, so we could not understand her.

The colloquium took place in an old castle, restored since the war, which had apparently been completely bombed out.IMG_1117

The tower had been repainted, but still bore the scars of war, perhaps as a reminder.IMG_1120

The post colloquium reception was pleasant, although I had one awkward conversation with the author of the definitive “History of Philosophy,” unfortunately written in a language that no one reads, Croatian. He had served as a translator for the Ambassador and former Vice Chancellor during the Croatian panelist’s presentation. I am guessing that he weighed between 350 and 400 pounds. The gist of his definitive history was that all empires, imperialism, and globalization are all good. Hmmm. OK. Kirsten had a more productive conversation with one of the colloquia’s organizers, a journalist from Austria whose family had fled Croatia in 1991. So she was completely Austrian now with no ambitions of returning.

IMG_1127Following the reception we wandered to the town square, where the main event was to take place. For the first time since 1991, a Serbian band (a reggae band it so happens) was to perform. After the Serbian band a Croatian band was to perform. Police were everywhere. There had been warnings of possible violence. Happily, none took place. Instead, beer flowed. Everyone danced. There was an overall festive atmosphere.

At about 11:30 we decided to make the trek back to Tuzla, three hours away.

Vukovar left me feeling very anxious, sad, and spooked. There were building projects everywhere: banks, shopping malls, streets, sidewalks. But the city was largely vacant. A recently constructed skateboard park teaming with street artists, skateboarders and bicycle artists, testified to the presence of teenagers (and thus families), but apart from the square and the bands and the dancing, the city seemed devoid of any real center; which had in fact been completely razed during the war along with most of the homes. Vukovar has become a symbol, but of what? Europe has showered gifts and building projects upon her, but seemingly to no avail.IMG_1132

Important footnote: 3800 civilian fatalities in a town less than ten times that size, and yet the local hospital cannot afford even one full-time psychologist. Rape and genocide of monstrous proportions, and yet no psychologist to deal with the trauma?

Of course, unbelievably, there is much worse. We will visit Mostar and Banja Luka. But I am happy to be back in Tuzla preparing for tomorrow’s lecture.