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 against people who were not Croats. Many thousands of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies, and Communists died in the Jasenovac concentration camp run by the Ustashe regime led by Ante Pavelić. Today it is simply a falsification of history to ignore that regime’s fascism and emphasize only its independence. One might have thought the Zagreb council would have been more careful about such a sensitive matter, especially because the protests came not only from Croats in Zagreb but were also made in the foreign press. The council stuck to its decision.
Roughly at the same time another attempt to erase the past occurred with the removal of World War II monuments to partisan heroes, leaders, and poets, including, of course, the many statues of Marshal Tito. This happened discreetly at first and then with considerable publicity because some of the monuments, including one in Brac and one in Dubrovnik, were blown up. More than twenty of these monuments have been removed from public places in Zagreb alone.
In February the city council of Zagreb renamed sixty-seven streets. One of them, which has three university buildings on it, was to have been renamed after Mile Budak, a Croatian writer who also held several high offices in the government of Ante Pavelić. For example, as minister of education and culture on June 4, 1941, he signed, together with Pavelić, a racist decree, one of many, about protection of the “national and Aryan culture of the Croatian people”:
Those belonging to a Jewish race are not allowed to influence the national and Aryan culture with their collaboration; they are prohibited to take part in social, youth, sports, or cultural organizations of the Croatian people in general, especially in literature, journalism, visual, and musical arts, urbanism, theater, and film.
Mile Budak was executed as a war criminal and his writings were banned from school textbooks and histories of Croatian literature. Clearly it was a mistake to banish Budak from literary history—just as it would be a mistake to banish Pound, D’Annunzio, Celine, or Knut Hamsun (although these writers were not fascist officials and no one has proposed naming streets after them). In other words, Budak should be rehabilitated as a writer but not celebrated as a hero. After a number of protests, the decision to name a street after him in Zagreb was withdrawn, but an elemetary school in Zagreb now bears his name, as do streets in Dubrovnik and Split. In all three cases, there were no visible protests.
On the other hand, the street called “May 8th, 1945″—the day of victory against fascism in Croatia—no longer exists in Zagreb. Ivan Goran Kovacić, a partisan and a famous poet who was killed by Chetniks, has lost his street in Split; Ognjen Prica, a writer killed in a Ustashe prison on the Square of Victims of Fascism, no longer has a street in Dubrovnik—in fact, this is the street that has been renamed after Mile Budak. In Dubrovnik, moreover, the street named after Mice Martinović, a young partisan killed by fascists has been renamed after Bruno Buić, a controversial figure who, according to some people, is a new national hero because he has fought for an independent Croatia, while others consider him a terrorist because he supported all means, including violent ones, in order to achieve this independence. But apart from writers, the fighters of World War II, and alleged terrorists such as Buić, other people are being honored with street names; the newspapers have reported that a street in Veliko Trgovisce, where President Tudjman was born, has been named after his father, and that a street in Vinkovci has been named—with his permission—after Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German foreign minister who first recognized Croatia.
In Zagreb a commission appointed by the city council explained that it had to rename the streets in order to remove “everything that would disturb the national being, the national identity and a rich Croatian heritage.” But if the names of both Communists and antifascist resisters are effaced, we might well conclude that not only Communists but antifascists “disturb the national being” of Croats. And if Communists and antifascists become nonpersons, then who is left? Apparently the fascists who supported the independent state of Croatia. Do the Croats really accept that they should be identified with the Ustashe, and if they don’t, why don’t they say so? The protesters make up only a small minority.
As the new “settling of accounts” is taking place, one can only compare it with the post-World War II attempts by Communist regimes to carry out violent cleansing of the popular memory. The new government claims it is trying to correct the mistakes of the Communists by reevaluating the past, but why must it do so in a way that falsifies history? Don’t people have a right to their own past as it actually took place, a past that is not distorted according to the ruling ideology? Is it possible to confront the reality of both Tito and Pavelić? Or are we condemned always to live in a world of political fiction? It will be a travesty if Croatian children—e.g., those attending the Mile Budak Elementary School—are told that Budak was “only” a writer or that Pavelić was “only” the president of the Independent State of Croatia.
One thing is clear about the current annihilation of the past: no one is in a position to say, “I didn’t know what was going on.” Therefore all those who see what is happening and remain silent, and in effect approve of the new definition of the Croat “national being,” are complicit in defaming history and truth. And those who watch from a distance, thinking that this could not happen to them, and that it is all taking place in a far-off country, bear some responsibility too.
May 27, 1993