Slavenka Drakulić lives in Zagreb, where she is a columnist for the magazine Danas.
Imagine that you live in Munich on a street named after Willy Brandt. One day you wake up and your street has overnight become Adolf Hitler Street. Or imagine that you are a student at the Free University in Berlin and the city council has just decided to rename your street after Joseph Goebbels. These are not outlandish questions for those of us who live in the new, independent Croatia.
Renaming city streets is a common practice in all post-Communist countries. Indeed, it was one of the first visible signs of the political changes that took place after 1989. The city squares and parks named after Lenin and Tito were the first to go. But of course historical events and personalities have traditionally been reflected in the street signs of European cities, which bear the names of military victories, revolutionary heroes, martyrs. Every Italian city has a Corso Matteotti in honor of the Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti who was murdered by fascist thugs in 1924.
What was unusual in Communist countries was that on taking power the Party officials changed the street names so as to belittle or deny the past. Just after World War II a street in Zagreb which was named after the ancient Croatian king Zvonimir became Red Army Street. When Yugoslavia broke with the USSR in 1948, it was renamed the “Street of the Socialist Revolution,” and now it is once again called after King Zvonimir. One had the impression that for the Communists history began in 1945. The justification for the changes was to “settle accounts with the reactionary forces” of the past, and since virtually everything preceding the revolution was reactionary by definition, the past was treated like a dead dog. Therefore, streets, squares, schools, sport clubs, factories, even entire cities were renamed after Communist leaders, war heroes, and antifascist resisters.
The renaming of streets in the newly independent Croatia started with a scandal. In October 1990 the city council of Zagreb, which is dominated by people loyal to President Tudjman, decided to rename the Square of Victims of Fascism as the Square of Croatia’s Great Men. No doubt there are enough great men in the history of Croatia to deserve a square, but this decision was protested at public meetings and in petitions by groups of respected citizens. Under the quisling Independent State of Croatia between 1941 and 1945, they pointed out, many antifascists had been tortured and killed in Ustashe prisons situated on the square and in nearby streets. The protesters wanted to honor the memory of the 50,000 Croats who participated in the antifascist movement during the war, 20,000 of whom died fighting fascism or as victims of its terror. Changing the square’s name would, in their view, mean not only suppressing the antifascist past of Croatia, but rehabilitating the first independent Croatian state, an openly fascist state committed to a racist policy …