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A screen grab from the cult Yugoslav movie Walter Defends Sarajevo, starring Bata Zivojinovic as the eponymous anti-Nazi resistance hero.

August in Sarajevo is dominated by that city's now-famous film festival -- a defiant child of the Bosnian war and since then arguably the most important cultural event in the country.

But while the festival showcases new movies and talent, at least some of the limelight this year has been stolen by a tribute to a film made nearly half a century ago, in a country that no longer exists.

A new multimedia museum dedicated to the cult movie Walter Defends Sarajevo is due to open later this year, and organizers hope it draws a good number of tourists -- especially from China.

The movie, released in 1972, paid homage to the Yugoslav partisan resistance to the Nazi occupation of the city during World War II, coordinated by the eponymous Walter, the code name of Vladimir Peric.

Inspired by real events -- the historical Walter (Peric) was killed during the liberation of the city on April 6, 1945 -- the film has a "mythic power," according to filmmaker Jasmin Durakovic, director of the Sarajevo film center. It was a triumph of Yugoslav and Bosnian filmmaking, Durakovic told RFE/RL.

'Das Ist Walter!'

The promotional event for the new museum took place in Park Princeva (Princes' Park), an elevated spot on the outskirts that affords a spectacular view of the city. Durakovic said it was chosen because it was the setting for the movie's iconic final scene.

The Germans had been unable to destroy the underground resistance in Sarajevo, or to identify and capture its leader, the elusive Walter. As the movie closes, it is spring 1945 and the commanding Nazi officer is taking his leave. He meets his successor at what is now Park Princeva and announces that he has finally solved the mystery of Walter's identity: "I have spent the war hunting Walter, but it is only now, as I depart, that I finally know who he is." The other man impatiently demands to be told, but the officer says he can do better: "I will show him to you!" He then points at the cityscape spread out before them and explains: "Do you see this city? Das ist Walter! (That is Walter!)"

"[Park Princeva] is a legendary place, and we have already designated it as the 'Das ist Walter' location," said Durakovic.

The promotional event was well attended, and it was announced that the museum dedicated to the movie will be open to the public by the end of the year. Near the end of the event, recounted Durakovic, a Chinese woman ran up to him and asked breathlessly if she could bring her husband and children. She had been passing by and recognized the face of the movie's protagonist, actor Bata Zivojinovic (Walter), on one of the original posters (which will be among the exhibits in the new museum) and wanted her family -- tourists in the city -- to see the promotion.

A poster for the Walter Defends Sarajevo film with both the original title and its Chinese translation. (file photo)
A poster for the Walter Defends Sarajevo film with both the original title and its Chinese translation. (file photo)

The film's apparent popularity in China has undoubtedly contributed to its cult status. It is thanks to its Chinese audience since its release in the 1970s that Walter Defends Sarajevo is the most-watched Yugoslav movie of all time.

Pioneering Foreign Film

In the late 1970s the movie was screened not only in Chinese movie theaters but also appeared frequently on Chinese television. Walter was first screened in China in 1976, as the country emerged from the Cultural Revolution and its resultant social and cultural desolation.

Bosnian director Hajrudin Krvavac's war movie was a pioneering foreign film in China at that time, so for millions of Chinese it represented a rare glimpse into an unfamiliar world.

Now, decades later, Chinese visitors to Europe are signing up for guided tours of Belgrade and Sarajevo that include locations where Walter Defends Sarajevo was filmed in the Bosnian capital, the Belgrade house in which actor Zivojinovic lived, and museums in both Serbia and Bosnia linked to World War II and the partisan struggle.

A model of the planned multimedia museum dedicated to Walter Defends Sarajevo, which was presented at this year's annual film festival in the Bosnian capital.
A model of the planned multimedia museum dedicated to Walter Defends Sarajevo, which was presented at this year's annual film festival in the Bosnian capital.

Apart from Walter, there is a recent agreement of a mutual visa-free regime between China and Bosnia.

By at least one estimate, more than 50,000 Chinese tourists are expected to visit Bosnia in 2018, and next year that number could rise to 70,000.

So Belgrade and Sarajevo, on opposite sides of a conflict in the 1990s, are seemingly brought together again thanks to their shared historical and artistic legacy -- preserved in Chinese popular culture.

A Chinese beer brand called "Walter" featured the face of Zivojinovic, who passed away two years ago and whose widow was a guest of honor during the Chinese president's visit to Belgrade in 2016.

Lu Fei, the actor who dubbed Walter's voice in Chinese, touted his "love for this story," according to the China Daily a few years ago. "Every time I was introduced to others, I was called 'Walter,' and people were always amazed," he added.

Potent Myth

Krvavac died during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, although he lived to see the slogan "We are all Walter!" chanted by peace protesters on the eve of another war in Bosnia: The first shots were fired just as the city was about to mark the 47th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi occupation on April 6, also the day of the real Walter's death.

Citizens were gathering that April in defense of the multiethnic makeup of the city. But more than banners and slogans were required to defeat the mostly Serb forces encircling the city.

Walter, as embodied by the city's population -- as the German officer in the movie implied -- could not triumph again, and Bosnia is today a country ethnically divided for the first time in its history.

But the myth of Walter remains potent, not least among the Chinese. There is speculation that a remake of Walter Defends Sarajevo is in the works, with a Chinese director and a Bosnian and Serbian cast; but the original film's appeal endures.

With Chinese tourists arriving by the tens of thousands, Walter (both real and fictional) is once again doing his bit for Sarajevo -- this time by boosting tourism in a country whose economy has yet to recover fully from conflict.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Adolf Hitler (2nd left) and Ante Pavelic (2nd right) listen to Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering (right) at the Berghof Obersalzburg, near Berchtesgaden, Germany, in June 1941.

The latest round in Spain's ongoing effort to cope with its own fratricidal past may inadvertently be reopening old wounds elsewhere.

The government of Spain's new prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, is proposing changes to the 2007 Historical Memory Law that backers say would fully respect "the right to truth" for victims of fascist General Francisco Franco's former regime, both during and after the Spanish Civil War.

The proposed moves include a more systematic approach to opening mass graves, but also the exhumation of the body of the late dictator himself and its removal from its mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, near the Spanish capital. The latter suggestion has elicited opposition within Spain, including from some people who are openly sympathetic to Franco and want to honor his legacy.

The Sanchez government and its supporters claim that the mausoleum and the giant 150-meter cross serve only to glorify the fascist regime, while many of Franco's victims still lie in unmarked graves around the country. A similar desire to discard the fascist legacy is behind the proposed exhumation and possible repatriation of the remains of foreign fascists who sought shelter in Franco's Spain after World War II. Near the top of this list of the unwanted dead are two well-known Croats -- Ante Pavelic and Vjekoslav "Max" Luburic, both leading Croatian Ustase who fled in 1945 and eventually settled in Spain, where both were buried.

Pavelic was the founder of the ultranationalist Ustase movement and leader of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi puppet state (1941-45) that included parts of modern Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He introduced racial laws that led to the internment and death of tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma, as well as of antifascist Croats and other political opponents.

Luburic was the commander of the notorious concentration camp Jasenovac, where more than 80,000 were killed during World War II.

After the war, Pavelic initially fled to Argentina, where he survived an assassination attempt by the Yugoslav secret service before relocating to Spain, where he felt more secure. He died in 1959 and was buried at the San Isidro Cemetery in Madrid.

Luburic went directly to Spain following his escape from Yugoslavia, settling in Carcaixent, Valencia, where he was given a new identity by the Franco regime (Vicente Perez Garcia, aka Don Vicente). He was killed in his home in 1969, either by the Yugoslav regime or by rivals within the Croatian emigre community, and was buried in Carcaixent.

Where Is 'Home'?

But if their remains were to be repatriated, where would they be sent?

Their political careers and crimes are most closely associated with the Independent State of Croatia, and some Spanish media have mentioned Croatia as their country of origin; but both Pavelic and Luburic were in fact born in what is now Bosnia. (Pavelic was born in the village of Bradina, near Konjic, some 60 kilometers south of Sarajevo; Luburic was from the small village of Humac, near Ljubuski, in southern Herzegovina.)

Dragan Markovina, a Bosnian-born Croatian historian and political activist, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that he would not welcome the reburial of Pavelic and Luburic in either Bosnia or Croatia. He predicted their gravesites would become destinations for pilgrimages by extreme nationalists.

But he said he's uncertain whether the return of Pavelic's and Luburic's remains would increase tensions in the region. "I don't think that tensions could be much higher than they are now," Markovina said.

"There are already massive divisions [in Croatian society]. This became evident during the recent soccer World Cup, when the team that reached the final and finished second in the competition was greeted at home by two Croatias: the nationalist one and the civic one."

The situation is just as bad -- or worse -- in Bosnia, according to Markovina. "The mistrust is greater than ever between all three nationalist elites in Bosnia [Muslim, Croat, and Serb] and those who vote for them, as well as between those elites and some of the leftist, antinationalist forces," he said. "I don't think that tensions would be inflamed much more than they are at present, but I do think that [reinterment] would be harmful for the education of future generations."

Markovina recalled that even in Madrid, where it was relatively out of the way, Pavelic's grave occasionally served as a symbolic site for reaffirmations of nationalist credentials.

"There was the case of the current head of the Croatian Football Association, then a famous player for Real Madrid, Davor Suker, who posed" -- in 1996, although the photo was not published until 2010 -- "with a group of people in front of Pavelic's grave in Madrid. The same is true of the current Croatian health minister, Milan Kujundzic, and various others. I think from the Spanish perspective, the decision is understandable."

Historian Hrvoje Klasic has noted that Benito Mussolini's birthplace is an annual gathering place for supporters, and that the last thing Croatia needs is another shrine for fascist sympathizers -- at a time when "Ustase salutes are being heard in soccer stadiums and in the streets." He argued that there was no reason for the remains of Pavelic or Luburic -- both of them Bosnian-born -- to be repatriated to Croatia, as they had "nothing to do" with the country.

But even Pavelic's daughter was reportedly opposed to moving her father's remains to Croatia. According to Jakov Sedlar, a Croatian director close to the political right, this was because Croatia's first postindependence president, Franjo Tudjman, did not build a state based on Pavelic's vision. That's what she told Sedlar during an interview a decade ago in Madrid. She died in 2015 and was buried next to her father and mother at the San Isidro Cemetery.

Croatian journalist Inoslav Besker said he was vehemently opposed to moving the remains. He said that modern Croatia was no place for the likes of Pavelic and Luburic and that it's up to the Spanish and Bosnian leaders to find a solution. Pavelic and Luburic are long dead, he said, but the "rattling with their bones in the media has disturbed the spirits in both Croatia and Bosnia."

Bosnia is meanwhile caught up in jockeying, ahead of October elections, that is particularly fraught with ethnic tensions.

Bosnian Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic has been making statements that critics call inflammatory and is seemingly flaunting his friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Croatian member of the Bosnian Presidency, Dragan Covic, appears determined in his pursuit of a third, ethnic Croat entity in Bosnia -- possibly in hopes of achieving in peacetime what eluded Bosnian Croat nationalists during the war. And the president of the Serbian entity, Milorad Dodik, is arming his police and threatening secession -- none of which has excluded him from running for membership of the joint Bosnian Presidency.

So while Spain seeks to shed reminders of its fascist past, including the remains of foreign fascists harbored by Franco, trends in the Balkans are arguably moving in the opposite direction. Throughout the Balkans, the region's antifascist past -- including the struggle waged by Tito's partisans against the Nazis and their domestic allies, the Croatian Ustase and Serbian Cetnici -- is being revised and in many cases rejected, while local fascists are being rehabilitated.

Last year, residents of the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja were shocked to find posters with Nazi and Ustashe symbols and a proclamation celebrating the NDH and Ante Pavelic all over their neighborhood -- including a letter signed by Max Luburic from 1968, the year before his death.

But the prospect of the return of Pavelic and Luburic, even if in remains only, could be a nightmare for a region whose plate is already full up with unconfronted history.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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