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World War II -- 60 Years After: Too Much 'Past' And Not Enough History In Former Yugoslavia

The recent commemorations reflected the complexity of World War II's legacy across the region. Some leading historians also used the opportunity to draw important lessons from the past for today.

The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II was marked in former Yugoslavia on or around 9 May with the customary laying of wreaths and holding of speeches, most of which centered on the role of the "antifascist" Partizan movement led by Josip Broz Tito. Some ceremonies in Serbia honored the Ravna Gora Chetnik movement led by royal Yugoslav General Draza Mihailovic, whom some regard as a hero but others consider a collaborator (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 April 2005).

In Sarajevo, a protest took place against the presence of Borislav Paravac, who is the Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency and its current chairman, at the head of Bosnia-Herzegovina's delegation at the Moscow festivities because his family supported Mihailovic rather than Tito. In Montenegro, the government and opposition traded charges as to who better preserves the antifascist legacy of the resistance.

Elsewhere, the Croatian survivors of the May 1945 Bleiburg tragedy made plans for a commemoration on 14 May. Croatian historian Ivo Goldstein notes that up to 55,000 conscripts and civilians, as well as pro-Axis Ustashe troops, died after the war officially ended at the hands of the Partizan forces at Bleiburg, Austria, or on subsequent death marches. Among those scheduled to be present at the commemoration are Vladimir Seks, who is speaker of the Croatian parliament, and Roman Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, who is the first cardinal in Bosnian history.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Zagreb on 7 May, however, that Croatia stood on the Allied side, "the side on which every honest man at that time should have been. This won't be diminished by any attempt to rehabilitate the defeated side by portraying them as the real winners." He argued that the Ustashe's so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH) "was founded on crime [and was] an unfortunate episode and a disgrace for the entire Croatian people."

In Serbia, President Boris Tadic used the anniversary to take issue with present-day thuggishness. Speaking in Belgrade on 9 May, he warned that there must be no sympathy for those who "flirt with atrocities...[including the] killing of journalists or of people of a different race, religion, or skin color." He argued that World War II was not just a struggle against fascism or Nazism but also "a battle against the evil within us." Tadic stressed that it is always important to identify both the victims and the perpetrators of atrocities, "regardless of whether they were committed against us at the hands of others or against others by our side."

Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski chose to draw attention to the role of Tito himself, not only "in the fight against fascism...[but also as] a historic personality who made an extraordinary, positive contribution to the Macedonian national question [by recognizing the Macedonians as a distinct people] and through the creation of Macedonian statehood" by setting up a Macedonian republic within the Yugoslav federation. Accordingly, Crvenkovski continued, "I launch a project to build a memorial dedicated to Josip Broz Tito in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia."

The broadcasters of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service marked the anniversary by interviewing several historians. One was Stevan K. Pavlowitch, who was born into a diplomatic family in interwar Belgrade and is professor emeritus of history at the University of Southampton. His books include "Serbia: The History of an Idea," which appeared in 2002.

Pavlowitch noted that the dichotomy between fascism and antifascism in discussing World War II is itself a product of communist ideology. It is a black-and-white approach to history, which continued after the fall of communism in many places when the communists were then cast into the dock and their opponents lionized in a reversal of roles.

This phenomenon, the professor argues, is an example of history placed in the service of ideology. In reality, World War II in former Yugoslavia involved multiple conflicts -- or wars within a war -- operating on multiple levels. Dividing history into periods is difficult in such an environment, as is choosing the nature of the particular geographical unit to be studied.

Pavlowitch believes that the problem is compounded by the typically "Balkan" practice of dwelling on and misusing "the past," which is actually a collection of self-serving nationalist myths rather than scholarly history. In this Balkan way of viewing the world, one's own people is always good and in the right, whereas the others are not. In light of this practice, he argues that the Balkans suffer from an excess of "the past" but not of real history.

The professor feels that one can break out of this Balkan narcissistic syndrome by applying the same objectivity shown in some other countries, where people began to take a critical look at their own history after the fall of Nazism or communism. Such a process requires a recognition that others also have legitimate concerns, and that their overall situation actually has much in common with one's own. In the last analysis, Pavlowitch argues that "it is never disgraceful to admit one's own mistakes."

A second professor who spoke to RFE/RL's broadcasters was Rade Petrovic, who was born in Dubrovnik but spent most of his academic career in the History Department of the University of Sarajevo. He subsequently became Bosnia-Herzegovina's first ambassador to Italy, a country that is also one of his academic specialties.

Like Pavlowitch, Petrovic argues against the black-and-white view of history favored by the communists. He also notes that the juxtaposition of fascism and antifascism is problematic, if only because nobody -- and certainly not the communists -- can claim a monopoly on antifascism. Petrovic points out that the late Pope John Paul II certainly was an antifascist but could scarcely be called a communist. The wartime opposition to fascism, the professor argues, was really a broad movement.

Petrovic also cautions against the misuse of history for political ends. If one wants to study complex phenomena like unemployment, emigration, or European Islam, one must dig deep into the past and not behave as though history began with one's own generation or with the collapse of former Yugoslavia in 1991-92.

He notes a general tendency to put one's own history in a good light, which he considers counterproductive. Echoing Pavlowitch's comments about political abuse of "the past," Petrovic argues that history should be left to the experts, namely trained historians. He suggests that the new post-Yugoslav political elites should instead concentrate their energies instead on promoting progress, contacts between peoples, and international integration, which, he concludes, is what the modern world is all about.

As the world commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, RFE/RL takes a look at that conflict's enduring legacies in its broadcast areas. See "World War II -- 60 Years After"