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East European Perspectives: September 3, 2003

3 September 2003, Volume 5, Number 18


By Oto Luthar, Breda Luthar

On the basis of an analysis of the newly created memorials dedicated to those who collaborated with the occupying German and Italian forces in Slovenia during World War II, the authors find that within the framework of a nominal advocacy of a more objective accounting of the past, the postwar executions of the Home Guards (or "Domobranci" as they are called in Slovenian) are used for a radical reinterpretation of the meaning of collaboration and of the resistance movement.

Historical Background
Slovenia, then a part of Yugoslavia, was occupied in April 1941. The northern and northeastern parts were integrated in the German Reich, the Italians occupied the central and southwestern parts, and the extreme northeastern region came under Hungarian occupation.

Although less than 10 percent of the people who joined the resistance movement were communists, after 1943 the Slovenian Communist Party assumed a hegemonic role among the various political groups that had been part of the movement called the Liberation Front from the very beginning of the war.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the right-wing political parties, together with the Italian occupying authorities, started recruiting men into their "Milizia Voluntaria Anticomunista," which after the Italian capitulation of 1943 was reorganized into an anticommunist (and anti-Semitic) grouping called "Domobranci." The Domobranci, who from the beginning openly collaborated with the occupying Germans, also had strong ties with the Catholic Church. Its politics before World War II were to a large degree responsible for the development of communist ideas as a counterreaction. In the 1930s, the Vatican and the local Catholic right promulgated the so-called re-Catholization of Slovenian public and private life. It is consequently hardly surprising that the "cultural wars," which began before World War II and only reached their acute phase during German and Italian occupation, were perceived by many as being a civil war between the Domobranci and communism. It was precisely this perception that determined the Domobranci to take their oath to fight side-by-side with the Germans against the partisans or other common enemies (that is, against the allied forces) in the presence of the Slovenian archbishop.

Partly because of that, and partly because of crimes against the activists of the resistance movement and their relatives, the Domobranci retreated with the Germans to Austrian territory at the end of the war, from where they were sent back to Slovenia by the British in accordance with an agreement between Churchill and Stalin. The partisans took custody of them already in Austria and brought them to concentration camps in Slovenia. The young were released, while most of the rest, including the officers, were executed without any trial. Official Slovenian history quotes a number of 7,000 killed, while the so-called "revisionists" maintain that over 12,000 people were executed.

More important than the exact number of those executed, however, is the fact that the ambition of the "revisionists" is strongly motivated by the desire to rehabilitate the collaboration movement. As part of the reinterpretation of the essence of national identity, collaboration has been presented as a clash over moral values between godless communism and Catholicism, and as part of the "civil war" over the definition of the community. In this "revisionist" reinterpretation, the European resistance movement as a whole is equated with communism. The term "resistance" is constantly avoided and replaced with "revolutionary terror," which is alleged to have forced the Domobranci to collaborate with the occupying forces. The reinterpretation claims that a distinction must be made between "functional" and "real" collaboration. Collaboration with the occupiers, it is claimed, should be understood as a functional opposition to the revolution, and hence one that was morally and politically justified. In the "revisionists'" view, the collaborators recognized the danger of communism and, since patriotism was their primary driving-motivation, they had to opt for collaboration with the occupiers. Furthermore, some "revisionists" go as far today as to describe the deeds of the Domobranci as "national-liberating and heroic" (Ahacic, 1994, p. 14).

Memorials: Mythologizing Collaboration
Henceforth we consider the role of memorials, memorial plaques, and tombstones as one of the various forms of public expression, which have been involved intensively in the revision of the past and in the reification of historical events, especially since 1991. We are interested in the role that these material artifacts have in the reinterpretation of the meaning of World War II and in the construction of a mythical memory for historical events. In our view, memorials are the objectification of memory into material form, and so we read them in a phenomenological manner as a "site for symbolic exchange where the living pay their respects to the memory of the fallen" (Winter, 1995, p. 94). Because of this, we cannot read them as simply expressions of mourning and preservation of memory, rather seeing in them artifacts that create new meanings and new interpretations. We must determine upon which kind of rhetoric, symbolism, and choreography they rest -- in which kind of symbolic guise they try to impose/legitimize themselves.

Memorials to the Domobranci are thus political speech, which with the aid of conventional memorial iconography interprets loss, death, and the events that caused them in a specific way, linking the past to the present. The key role of the Domobranci memorials is to construct the executions of the organization's members as a national trauma, exchanging the roles of victim and perpetrator, and the symbolic reinterpretation of the meaning of the resistance movement -- collaboration and communism. In short, the new monuments fix the interpretation of "civil war" and avoid discussion of the battle between the resistance and the occupying forces and their local collaborators. Therefore, we have to treat them as material artifacts, historical sources and political discourse, which together with other discourses (political, journalistic, legal, academic, pseudo-academic, etc.) in the public sphere contribute to a radical reinterpretation of the meaning of World War II and to forging anew a national trauma.

The placement of the struggle for the reinterpretation of the past within the sociological concept of "national trauma" is important, since it provides both a suitable theoretical framework for analyzing the cultural struggle that lies in the background of the reinterpretation of collaboration, as well as links the struggle for memory with the problem of collective identity. This analytical framework is used in the historical and sociological analyses of comparable phenomena in places other than Slovenia (i.e. the collective trauma of the German perpetrators as the basis of the German postwar national identity, the Vietnam trauma in the United States, the trauma of the victims of the Holocaust, etc.).

Placing the particular Slovenian case (i.e. the reinterpretation of history and the process of exchanging the roles of victims and perpetrators) into the series of related problems is also of key importance for avoiding treating the "Slovenian problem" as different, unique, and incomparable to similar problems elsewhere. To do so would, on the policy-making level, conduce to isolating Slovenia from any consideration of the consensus reached elsewhere in Europe over ways and means to reach a political solution regarding the issues of collaboration with the Nazi regime.

Furthermore, from an academic perspective a "unique phenomenon" approach unavoidably is conducive to a non-theoretical, epistemologically non-reflexive, and therefore politicized treatment of the past and to a battle for memory in the present. "National trauma" is not a term for an actual event, but is instead constituted through a method whereby the executions of the Domobranci are depicted and presented in the various spheres of the public arena: from politics to popular culture, to academic reflection in historiography and to objectification in the material artifacts of mourning. Therefore, we have to understand memorials as a means for the material reinterpretation of an actual event and its public memorializing, a means for constructing a trauma and the transformation of historical events into "symbolic executions," for trying to present collaboration as a failed tragic struggle for the interests of the Slovenes, and for the usurpation of the status of the victim. The memorials themselves construct past events as traumatic and strive to resolve the trauma with the aid of an act of a would-be final word in the interpretation of the past.

The difference between the conditions in Slovenia and those in other transition countries, where revisions of the interpretation of the past similarly arise, rests mostly in that for Slovenia the changing memorial landscape has a greater influence on the revision of public memory than do other discourses. In central Slovenian regions there is at present almost no place without a memorial or "parish plaque" dedicated to the Domobranci; and this is without comparison in the other transition countries. Their planners took advantage of the most effective form of historical revision, by "colonizing" or monopolizing the central areas of parish cemeteries. As a result, today everyone, including those that only occasionally participate in weekly, monthly, or annual routines of village, county, or suburban communities, unavoidably encounters a reworked interpretation of the national past at each visit to Mass or to the cemetery.

At the symbolic level, the memorials to the fallen Domobranci employ symbolism taken from Christian tradition and Christian routine. For example, there is always a crucifix prominently displayed, if not featured as the central element of the composition. The names of the fallen Domobranci are most often inscribed on these memorials on plaques, which thus facilitate the easier individualization of the victims than a single memorial to collective victims would do. On the other hand, and similar to the red five-pointed star in the "mise-en-scene" of the places dedicated to the resistance movement and the revolution, the crucifix is the operative/central piece -- a decoration for the "monument to the [collective] victims of communism." The inscriptions used follow Christian liturgy. Besides the usual Christian farewell captured in such phrases as "rest in peace," there are frequent references to God as the supreme moral adjudicator or sole source of consolation: "You are now united with the Crucified," "Pacem in Domino," "Accept, oh Lord, my wounds, offered to Thee in my hour of death," "Rest in peace till we meet in the eternal homeland," "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies," etc.

Furthermore the entire monument is dominated by Christian symbolism so that the memorial, which has become a part of the liturgical commemoration, blends without difficulty into the existing structure of the cemetery. On the other hand, it dominates the entire memorial area by occupying the central portion in the cemetery. In cases where it had not been possible to erect a monument or memorial site beside the most frequently used cemetery path, or if it does not occupy the central site of the cemetery, a well-marked path leads to it.

Domobranci memorials have in most cases thus become an essential part of the community life, since the configuration of the past in this manner blends in with the awakening cult of the dead, within which ancestors appear as the moral arbiters of the living. In this way, these memorials have become integrated into the rituals of mourning and visits to the cemetery, as well as an essential part of ordinary routine of visits (lingering at the plaques, crossing oneself, remembering dead relatives, etc.). When they are erected outside of cemeteries (on road sides or well-traveled footpaths), these sites also become an essential part of "travel selection" considerations, for which reason they are often designed so that passersby can see them from afar, and where necessary parking lots are provided in the immediate vicinity of the memorials.

On the basis of an analysis of more than 100 memorials, or rather their contents and how they were put up, we have differentiated four groups or types with regard to the kind of interpretation of collaboration, resistance and the executions they offer by spatial positioning, by relation to other existing memorials and to Christian symbolism, and by the entire iconography employed:

1. The AUTHORITARIAN TYPE, defined by a strive for a straightforward monopolization of the interpretation of the past.

2. The HEROIC TYPE, which strives for the inclusion of the Domobranci victims into the community of victims of the two World Wars.

3. The CONCILIATORY OR CONSENSUAL type, which tries to achieve reconciliation, and thus neutralize the misdeeds of both sides by honoring the memory of all of the dead.

4. The CONFLICTUAL TYPE, which clashes iconographically with existing partisan monuments, thus aiming at providing an alternative interpretation.

The Authoritarian Type
We classify as authoritarian type those memorials that occupy the central place in a cemetery as the central public space of a village or locality. The authoritarian type intentionally monopolizes the central place of the cemetery and thus dominates the entire memorial landscape. In some cases, it is accompanied by the traditional crucifix standing in the center of the cemetery, The new monument seeks to establish and to reinforce the alliance between Christianity and anticommunism. This alliance is, first, established at the level of historical interpretation, within which the essential linkage between the Slovenian Catholic Church and the Domobranci is emphasized. Second and simultaneously, it is also established at ideological level, where the linkage equates the Domobranci's nationalism, patriotism, and self-sacrifice with Christianity or Roman Catholicism.

In the mise-en-scene of the authoritarian type, there is no interest in any so-called reconciliation, and/or in the attainment of a consensus and mutual forgiving. Rather, its purpose is the domination of the interpretation of history and the monopolistic definition of contemporary values. An examination of most memorials from this group demonstrates that the authoritarian type does not establish any communication with the general heroic memorial landscape (memorials of World War I or partisan memorials), and that this type of memorial by and large ignores the resistance monuments. This is certainly worth mentioning in those cases where indeed there are partisan memorials within the parish cemetery. In villages and smaller localities the partisan memorials are thus usually found outside of the cemeteries, usually at the locations where important events had taken place or in the administrative center -- on the wall of a cooperative building or structure of the local community or administrative unit.

The Heroic Type
The heroic type is usually found at the second-most-central place of the memorial landscape, namely on the wall of the cemetery chapel/church. This is a place that, until the beginning of the 1990s, was reserved for the local nobility and other secular and ecclesiastical dignitaries. Domobranci plaques are most often found on the back facade of the church. They appear on the side facades only in cases where the designers wished to link them to an existing ecclesiastical or secular monument of exceptional importance. In contrast to the authoritarian type, which does not establish relations with the other war monuments, the heroic type strives to unite two war/warrior stories (the Domobranci victims and those fallen in World War I). On the other hand, its location further enhances the importance of the monument. The tendency to place these memorial plaques as close as possible to the church, or on the church facade itself, thus shows the tendency to tie it to the repeated religious ritual of taking leave from the dead. In this way, similarly to the authoritarian type, this type of monument also becomes an essential part of everyday routine.

The Conciliatory Type
In several cases the new memorial complements an existing monument to the fallen soldiers and victims of the two World Wars, as it is emplaced in such way as to function/appear as an extension of a two-part story, in which World War I takes the primary position, while the memorial to the resistance movement takes the secondary spot. This forges a situational ambiance in which the Domobranci memorial represents the last chapter in a continuous heroic narration, whose political nature is suggested as an accidental and totally unintended consequence.

In some of these particular monuments we find palliative messages saying that all fallen or killed shall attain reconciliation ("Build a sturdy bridge across the chasm, so that brother can once again reach brother"). Somewhat less supportive of this idea of harmony, but still falling by and large within its general framework, are the inscriptions that speak of the senselessness of their deaths ("Because none/ did we harm/ we were freed,/ but when the road/ lead us home/ we were here murdered"). And, finally, there are the occasional metaphorical verses which, though indirectly, blame the resistance fighters for having provoked the violence of the occupying forces.

That more implicit than explicit accusation tries to convince us of the senselessness of the executions, for which most of the blame is placed on the communists, who are depicted as having been the first to have driven some of their contemporaries into a hopeless conflict with the occupying forces, others into collaboration and, finally, still others into settling accounts with political adversaries. This hint often appears on conciliatory types of memorials dressed as rhetorical questions on the sense of the sacrifice ("Most did not fall in battle, they were betrayed and murdered, and the place of their final home is unknown..."). It is precisely this group of Domobranci memorials that represent the war as fratricidal tragedy and national trauma, and seek to settle it by advocating reconciliation through a generalization of guilt.

The Conflictual Type
We are dealing with the conflictual type when a Domobranci memorial stands in opposition to an existing partisan memorial. This is the case when, by partially copying the existing mise-en-scene of a memorial dedicated to the resistance, a new monument attempts to establish a counterbalance in the memorial landscape, also by copying its composition and size. In such cases. the Domobranci memorial is often supported by a crucifix or some other Christian symbol, and so additionally enhances its position in opposition to the partisan memorial within the cemetery.

In the search for such support, memorial planners frequently resort to borrowing the stylistic touches of older (characteristic) Christian memorials, so that the new monument occupies at least the same position of importance within the cemetery that the partisan memorial already has. This kind of opposition most often arises in cases where the partisan memorial "threatens" the center of the cemetery or the consecrated area around the cemetery chapel. In only one of the memorials which we examined is a Christian symbol combined with the symbolism of the resistance movement. In a cemetery near Ljubljana we found a memorial whose basic element is a cross with Christ's crown and the inscription "national martyrs," with the names of the people that the "occupiers and Slovenian traitors" burned alive in the beginning of the year 1944. The cross, the stylized crown of Christ, and the accompanying verses would at first sight suggest that this is a Domobranci monument; however, the contents of the inscriptions indicate that we are dealing with one of the rare (if not unique) monuments that predominantly serves the memory of all the victims regardless of their politics. and not with a memorial concerned more with the significance of an "appropriate" understanding of the victims' sacrifice in the present or in the future.

The Textual Framework
The material communication and interpretation of the past displayed on such monuments should be understood as expressing an own point of view vis-a-vis other public discourses that deal with collaboration. The entire phenomenon of revision of the past is thus intertextual, a web of mutually connected public discourses, where the unfolding debate is no less than one about which interpretation becomes solidified as the legitimate collective memory. These discourses (ranging from academia, media, politics, etc., to memorial iconography) mutually undermine or strengthen each other. Despite contradictory and differing interpretations of collaboration in the public discourse, the process is bound to have as an end-effect the emergence and general acceptance of one version of collective memory as dominating any other version and as considered by most to be the more realistic. However this is not just a matter of the past; competing with the other public discourses, each saga strives to impose a different and sometimes totally new narrative of the past in order to monopolize the definition and essence of community life in the present and in the future with newly gained legitimacy.

The purpose of this monopolization has crystallized to such an extent over the past 10 years that we can identify a few basic theses and concepts within the changing memorial landscape, as well as within the yet ongoing cultural struggle:

1. THE CONCEPT OF RECONCILIATION, which disperses guilt through the relativization of collaboration, and interchanges the roles of perpetrator and victim.

2. THE REINTERPRETATION of the resistance movement and collaboration into the joint concept of fratricidal or civil war.

3. THE PRESENTATION OF THE PARTISANS AS "PATHOLOGICAL" and "exposing" the "non-Slovenian" nature of the communist project.

4. The seeking a national consensus on the basis of HOMOGENIZATION, or the establishment of a community of like-living and like-thinking.

The resistance movement in the memorial landscape of the "Nova Slovenska Zaveza" (New Slovenian Liability) is thus explicitly interpreted as a predominantly pathological episode in the national history. Whenever possible, the Domobranci memorials appear as a counterweight to the existing scattered memorials dedicated to the resistance movement. The Domobranci plaques often confront those of the partisans and fight with them for primacy in the local cemetery.

This contrasts with the other type of memorials (conciliatory memorials), which formulate a joint heroic narrative. In these (rather rare) cases, mutually linked war monuments have been erected, honoring all of fallen soldiers and victims of World Wars I and II. However, the most frequent basic inscription, "to the victims of communist violence (or terror)," demonstrates that their authors strive to blend two traumatic events. In this context, wartime collaboration is presented as if it occurred outside the joint framework of European history. Similar to discourses of historical revision in other Nazi-allied or Nazi-occupied countries, the memorial reinterpretation of collaboration removes local collaboration and the resistance movement from the universal context of the war, and presents the Slovenian case as a unique and incomparable fratricidal tragedy. The purpose and consequence of that kind of invocation of local exceptionality is the universalization of guilt or the dispersal of guilt among all local victims, which leads to a de-historicizing of the phenomenon of collaboration, the resistance movement and the executions of the Domobranci.

Furthermore, in all these types of interpretations one encounters in fact an abstraction from the actual social world , one which -- for all practical purposes -- overlooks every single decision of the actors involved. Therefore the whole process could be classified as a typical case of "invention of tradition," whose essence rests in the formation of a new trove of myths, heroes, memories, and memorial localities. The linking of the present to the past is reflected to a great extent in the use of tropes of timeless concepts (ideals, homeland, pain, mother, respect, etc.). This leads to a frequent inclusion of or reference to truth: "he fell in the name of the truth," "you gave your young life for the truth."

The latter can also be understood as an advocacy of a more direct message, similar to those messages found on Domobranci memorials built abroad on the initiative of emigrant communities. These also speak of interwar military struggles as national tragedies, glorify all types of collaboration units, and ascribe both the executed Domobranci and those who escaped abroad service to the people and "enduring ideals."

Both are examples of the "public use of history" (Braun, 1997, p. 421), that mostly strive for monopolizing the interpretation of contemporary national identity in their search for a missing past. This type of treatment of the past certainly belongs to that historical framework that uses the past as a springboard to a different future -- a history that obliquely suggests that the historian is one who allegedly can ascertain how the past was "in truth," while knowing full well that "ordinary" history "demonstrates the past" in order to gain for those whom it serves authority and power in the present (Braun, 1997, p. 421). This kind of conceptualization for the treatment of the relation between the resistance movement and collaboration is very similar to that which led U.S. historian Norman Geras to the despondent conclusion that without truth there is no guilt: "If truth is wholly relativized or internalized to particular discourses or language games...[or] culturally set of beliefs or practices of justification, [then] there is no injustice" (Jenkins, 1997, p. 23). If there is no justice (or guilt), then the victims are also deprived of the best way to reveal what happened in truth.

In Lieu of Conclusion: 'Les Lieux de Memoire Slovenes'
It is worth noting, however, that in Slovenia the process of rearranging the places of war memorials and redefining memory/national history is almost unfailingly confined to small towns and villages. This is no accident, for it is here, far from the more sensitive urban eye, that the attempt stands a better chance of success and of avoiding a counterreaction. The now-traditional annual gathering in places that store the remains of the Domobranci killed in battle or executed by the communists have grown into "sites of memory" -- to use the now-classical terminology of Pierre Nora -- honoring the "immortal soul" of the nation, "recognition of the truth," "mutual forgiving," supporting the interpretation of the "civil the wider area of the 'Ljubljana countryside,'" and the usual condemnation of the former Communist Party for having "during the war and occupation exploited the Slovenian desire for freedom...for its own purposes."

On the mythological or ideological level it is these type of memorials that most clearly demonstrate that the entire project of supplementing the memorial landscape represents one of the more important public-discourse of public-opinion "revisionism." It appears that this discourse is attempting, along with the entire set of other public discourses, to "colonize" and to monopolize the contemporary definition of the community through the reinterpretation of history, and is therefore part of a political struggle for symbolic and interpretive sources in society, or part of the struggle for the definition of community symbols in the collective memory.

We therefore cannot understand the revision of the past as only a lieu of conflict for the meaning of past events and structures, but also as part of the new search for an ideal "We" in the present. What at first glance appears to be a discussion about the past and the reconstruction of historical truth, is above all else a telling illustration of an ongoing cultural war, of the fragility and plurality of identities at present, and a debate about what policies should be pursued in order to define a still-diffuse sense of Slovenian national identity.

For many people, to be a member of a community is reduced to sharing the same forebears and the same interpretation of the past. The entire project of supplementing the memorial landscape in Slovenia represents one of the most important aspects of public-discourse "revisionism" striving for a transformation of public opinion, as well as serving as an important means for mythologizing historical events and for transforming the executions of the Domobranci into "symbolic executions."

Breda Luthar is a sociologist and lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana; Oto Luthar is a historian and director of the Scientific Research Center, Ljubljana.


Ahacic, D., 1992, Osvobodilna ali drzavljanska vojna? [War of Independence or Civil War?], (Ljubljana: Cankarjeva zalozba).

Braun, R. 1997, "Holocaust and the Problems of Representation," in Jenkins, K. (ed.), The Postmodern History Reader, (London and New York: Routledge).

Jenkins, K., 1997, (ed.), The Postmodern History Reader, (London and New York: Routledge).

Winter, J., 1995, The Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).