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The History of Resistance: An Exchange

In response to:

An Archaeology of Resistance,” November 16, 2020

To the Editor:

In the essay “An Archaeology of Resistance,” the esteemed Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic singled out two researchers based in her native country and labelled them “angels of death” and potential “executioners.” The reader may wonder what crime these scholars could have possibly committed that made them deserve such descriptions. It turns out that they were curators of a 2018 exhibition on the cultural opposition in Eastern, Central, and Southeastern Europe that bore the same title as her piece and, by her standards, inadequately represented the dissident scene. One might assume that such an extremely harsh insult was justified by a thorough engagement with the curators’ work and the output of the international research project COURAGE (Cultural Opposition—Understanding the Cultural Heritage of Dissent in the Former Socialist Countries), in which the mentioned researchers took part. Well, not quite. Instead, photo portraits of the curators were analyzed, and an “unpleasantly cunning expression” was discovered in one of the faces, while the other scholar was dehumanized as an empty “gaze expressing nothing.” They are associated by Ugresic with a wider cohort of unqualified historians who “have infiltrated the state institutions, the archives, the international networks, and they receive generous subsidies from numerous commissions populated by similar angels.” What an ironic twist of history that a defender of antifascism resorts to physical anthropology to denigrate scholars whose only sin is not to share her unsophisticated view of the past.

The heritage of cultural opposition to state socialism is an important resource for social reflection and innovation in Europe today, which is again bearing witness to the emergence of regimes with authoritarian tendencies. The mission of the EU-funded COURAGE project has been to help this resource win wider acknowledgement and understanding and to ensure that its significant symbolic power be better exploited. In contrast to the insinuations of Ugresic, the aim of the project has been to show strategies of resistance to authoritarian governments through culture while also countering one-sided interpretations of state socialism and working against the exclusion of important groups or individuals from history. This is testified to by a database containing over 560 relevant archival and artistic collections and the open access publication The Handbook of COURAGE: Cultural Opposition and Its Heritage in Eastern Europe (2018). Far from lumping all totalitarianisms together, as Ugresic claims, the entire project through its various outputs aims to qualify knowledge, making careful distinctions between the manifestations of nonconformism and resistance (e.g., nonconformist art; anti-establishment religious movements; samizdat; flying universities; underground music; green movements). Nationalists are not excluded from the research, as opposition to authoritarian rule was not always democratic or liberal either, and this helps in the analysis of the post-Communist political landscape. The status of post-dissident has been a source of political legitimation and thus became a subject of competition after the regime changes. Acknowledging and reflecting on this is a precondition of critically engaging with contemporary memory politics. Had Ugresic found the time to actually view and read the results of the COURAGE project, she could have also discovered that many of the highlighted examples of cultural opposition against Communist dictatorship came from left-leaning individuals and groups, notably in Yugoslavia.

The COURAGE registry and the related exhibitions, film festivals, and learning platforms were created to spark discussions on freedom, resistance, and human rights in connection with cultural opposition and strategies of resistance. Fair criticism would be the adequate response to such efforts, instead of dismissing them as results of “hostile, egregious, and mendacious ideological malarkey.” To insinuate that the aim of the project and its Croatian team was to rehabilitate wartime fascists only testifies to the fact that the author had not bothered to get herself acquainted with the object of her debasing accusations.

The registry documents the diverse efforts to maintain and communicate the legacy of cultural opposition. It received acclaim from the associations of European museum professionals and cultural heritage NGOs as a breakthrough in our understanding of the role of culture in opposing authoritarian regimes, and for “adopting a comprehensive, democratic approach” that “delivers a message of tolerance and freedom of expression.” It highlights the creativity of nonconformists and draws attention to the wide variety of ways in which individuals and organizations can challenge the status quo. It reveals the intensity of transnational connections, both among the socialist countries and between East and West. As such, the entire agenda of the project is precisely the opposite of what Ugresic suggests. Her simplistic portrayal of the COURAGE project and of the underlying history of opposition against Communist one-party rule is the epistemological equivalent to the right’s dismission of antifascism and their lumping of all European dictatorships together under the misleading term “totalitarian,” a tendency that COURAGE has consistently criticized.

If Ugresic refers to the “rising ‘archaeologists,’ reliable navigators through history, makers of memory maps, historians, explorers, memento collectors” as heroes of our time, then she should consider getting acquainted with the COURAGE project, for this is precisely what this project promoted. Actually, by describing the histories of collections, the project recognized archivists and collectors as historical agents whose activities greatly contributed to our contemporary understanding of nonconformism. We have proposed a more nuanced view of history going beyond naive stories of heroes and villains. It is time to recognize that not only resistance heroes create history, but ordinary persons with everyday concerns and fears, who, despite all their constraints, took the courage to act as if they were not subjects of a repressive regime.

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Ulf Brunnbauer
Academic Director of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (Regensburg, Germany), Chair for Southeast and East European History, University of Regensburg, on behalf of the COURAGE project


Dubravka Ugresic replies:

I don’t know how and why Dr. Ulf Brunnbauer, whose COURAGE project was mentioned in passing in my essay “An Archaeology of Resistance,” concluded that my essay was about his project. Had Dr. Brunnbauer actually read the essay, he would not have permitted himself such an un-nuanced and insulting conclusion. I permit myself to say that I am better versed than Dr. Brunnbauer in the teams of Croatian and Serbian historians, historical and educational institutions, academies, and the culture of defiance against communism, particularly strong in Soviet Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. I’d rather avoid a debate. Instead, I’ll explain the context in which most of Croatia’s new historians, several of whom have collaborated on the COURAGE project, are being shaped.

The main theme of “An Archaeology of Resistance” is the political, cultural, ideological, and historical revisionism that has been employed consistently, systematically, and brutally in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and, I assume, in the other European post-Communist countries. The new states are calling for a version of history that will justify and support the political elite and, as with the former Communist elite, they are not enthusiastic about change. For thirty years I have been watching the erasure of one history and the imposition of another.

One of the earliest, for example, was the mass cleansing in the 1990s of the Croatian libraries of books authored by Serbs or printed in the Cyrillic alphabet, supported by the Ministry of Culture and Education in Croatia. The fragments in my writing on the shameless book burning insulted some of my countrymen because I had insensitively compared the Croatian book-burning practice to the massive Nazi book burnings. The then minister of culture explained that while the Nazis were pursuing a political agenda, the Croatian motivation was purely hygienic. According to the reports of a few journalists, my own books were found in the garbage, too. For hygienic reasons, naturally.

Beyond burning books, the nascent democracy in Croatia has destroyed many antifascist monuments. One of these was the work of sculptor Vojin Bakić. The magnificent monument was devastated over the last thirty years, presumably by people driven by a fervent anticommunism. True, the slabs of stainless steel encasing the monument sold for good money, but financial benefit will never assuage the affront felt by these Croatian “antimodernists” at a Serbian (Bakić was a Croatian Serb) monument standing on Croatian soil.

Meanwhile, new monuments have gone up in Croatia. Most of them celebrate Franjo Tuđman, the first Croatian president, who was himself a historian. For a time, he was even director of the Institute for History, and some researchers who work there now are involved in the project run by Dr. Brunnbauer. Tuđman—who also worked in the Ministry of Defence of Yugoslavia in the 1960s—relied on the montage technique in both his work as a historian and in politics. He erased the Yugoslav period of Croatian history so he could link more smoothly the new democratic Croatia with its only authentic predecessor, the fascist Independent State of Croatia (1941–1945). Only then could Tuđman make credible the idea of the tradition of Croatian statehood.

Tuđman inspired many professionals—students, professors, and politicians alike—to work on history, but he also motivated amateurs. Thanks to this democratization of history, even the smallest villages in Croatia have raised monuments to local “heroes,” combatants in what is known as the “recent” Croatian–Serbian war. The veterans of that war enjoy taking history into their own hands. They have browbeaten the few incorruptible Croatian historians who are critical of populist historical revisionism, and who have, for whatever reason, been excluded from historical research projects like Brunnbauer’s. And as far as the veterans are concerned, they have made known their modest request to attend classes on contemporary history in elementary and secondary schools to dissuade teachers from speaking critically of them when the war of the 1990s is discussed.

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The push for historical revision seems to have come to an efficient conclusion: now it is in textbooks, history books, the educational system, institutions, institutes of history, museums, archives, the media, and everyday life. Yugoslavia has been erased from the Croatian memory card, and if it does appear, it is there only to play the villain. Thanks to the Croatian revisionism, many “souvenirs” from the Nazi period, such as the Croatian version of the slogan Heil Hitler (Za dom spremni!) are legal, while in Germany, for instance, they are illegal. The concentration camps of World War II, such as the well-known Jasenovac, have been reinterpreted by some historians as work camps or possibly even Communist fabrications.  

I left Croatia and my job at the Institute for Theory of Literature at Zagreb University in 1993. The Croatian community harassed me through the media and accused me of many things, including my “unsophisticated view of the past,” “simplistic portrayal[s],” a lack of “nuance” in my views and in my understanding of people who were, I was told, overjoyed by their new state—for many of the same things that, almost thirty years later, Dr. Brunnbauer is accusing me of in my essay. I left Croatia after deciding that the new Croatian political elite were following in the footsteps of Franjo Tuđman without question, and slowly sliding back in time, certainly not Yugoslav time. Croatia over the last thirty years has not yet proven me wrong. The historians take no individual risk when they write what they write because institutions, academies, projects, research teams, and state funded institutes support them. But, being a woman writer (and an exile, too), I have no institution, academy, project, network, or state to back me up. I have borne and will bear all the consequences of my views alone.

—translated by Ellen Elias Bursac

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