Balkan Memory

Balkan Memory: Ghosts of the Great War

by Aaron Buzek

Balkans Animation 1800-2008

An animated history of Balkan Geography

This story began, for me, when I stumbled across an article from the excellent news source Balkan Insight, perhaps the best English-language authority on the topic. The article was entitled “World War I History Divides Balkan School Children” and was published in early May of this year (Dzidic, et al.). The first thing that struck me was that World War I, of all of the parts of Balkan history, would be a divisive subject; the clashes between the Chetniks and the partisans in World War II and, more immediately, the conflict of the Yugoslav Wars, seemed so much more present and influential; but as I delved into the subject I began to see why this was such an important aspect of Yugoslav and Balkan history.

Kosovo Textbook

A history textbook for Gimnasium in Kosovo

The most surprising aspect of the educational divide was how definite it was: Bosnian Serbs learn one thing and Bosniaks and Croats in the same country learn something completely different. Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia, focuses on victimizing Serbia and emphasizing imperial aggression: “Austria-Hungary ‘used’ Franz Ferdinand’s assassination ‘to blame Serbia’ and declare war on the country” (Balkan Insight, May 6, 2014). On the other hand, Bosniak and Croat children learn how a terrorist organization, directly linked to the Serbian government in Belgrade, was the cause of four years of unprecedented violence.

Zijad Sehic, a Sarajevo-based history professor, noted that this divide was not present in the Yugoslav state. Princip was viewed and taught as a fighter for Yugoslav unity but, Sehic says, “Now that there is no more Yugoslavia, his actions are being viewed more narrowly and he has been reborn as a Serbian hero.” I was hooked. The history hadn’t changed but its interpretation had clearly evolved a great deal since the fall of Yugoslavia. I wondered, how much impact had World War I really had on the course of Yugoslav history and how has it been commemorated since 1918? How had it been mobilized for political and nationalist purposes and what was remembered and, perhaps more importantly, what had been left out? To get to the bottom of all of these questions, I had to go back to the start, the end of the war and the establishment of the Yugoslav state in 1919-1920.

Andrej Mitrovic’s essay on the Paris Peace Conference in 1919-1920 and the formation of the Yugoslavia provides important contextual information in understanding the factors upon which the Yugoslav state was built (The Creation of Yugoslavia 207-217). First and foremost, Yugoslavia, then called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (SCS for short) was not actually recognized as a sovereign nation until several months into the peace conference, and even then only begrudgingly accepted by some nations. This blow to their identity was compounded by the fact that though they presented themselves as the delegation of SCS, they were referred to simply as the delegation of Serbia until the end of May 1919. However, these struggles do attest to the strength of the Yugoslav ideal in the formation of the Kingdom of SCS. This historical background presents us with two facts vital to understanding the memorialization of World War I in Yugoslavia: first, the people in control of the Kingdom of SCS would pursue the establishment of the Yugoslav state avidly and in the face of great challenges; and second, Serbia, as the one victorious party of the new kingdom, would take the reins in this pursuit.

The Interwar Years


“Constructing Yugoslavia: A Transnational History” by Vesna Drapac. An excellent resource for anyone interested in Yugoslav history and historiography. Amazon link here.

In her discussion of the interwar period of Yugoslav history, Vesna Drapac notes the importance of World War I: “The outcome of the war determined who had power and who did not and therefore which conception of Yugoslavism would prevail” (Constructing Yugoslavia: A Transnational History 96). From the very beginning Serbia was the one in control of Yugoslavia and therefore determined almost entirely how the war was remembered. As the victors they claimed dominion over the political and memorial realms, perpetuating the idea that Serbia was the country that sacrificed its blood and its men for the sake of South Slav unity, “that everyone wanted the state, [and] that everyone needed the state” (97). The legitimacy of the Yugoslav government depended on the propagation of these myths as the truth of their national narrative. However, many a Croat, Slovene, and Bosnian took exception to this created history which led to an incredible amount of political violence during the interwar period, destabilizing the state and dividing the historical interpretation between ethnicities: Croats, Slovenes, and Bosnians inherited a history of Serb oppression and autocracy while Serbs perceived their duty to unite the South Slavic people and fight against ungrateful rebels.

The remaining members of Yugoslavia besides Serbia had always intended for a loose federation of states with great individual autonomy but Serbia, as the leading faction, created Yugoslavia in the mold of a unitary state. In pursuit of this goal, Serbia mobilized the memory of World War I to emphasize their role as saviors and victors and almost completely ignored the sacrifices of Croatia and Slovenia during the war. They were, after all, the losers, and this history of conflict with Serbia undermined the idea of Yugoslav unity. The relationship forged by the entente alliance between Serbia and the powers of Europe, as well as the U.S., strengthened Serbia’s role as diplomat to the outside world, further increasing their power over the other member states of Yugoslavia. This relationship was, of course, entirely based on the shared memory of the war.

Tomb of the Unknown Yugoslav Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Yugoslav Soldier

Once Serbia’s ideal Yugoslavia was relatively established, though, the power balance began to shift towards true Yugoslav unity. As the political violence of the 1920s was reaching its crescendo, King Alexander took drastic measures to contain the chaos, replacing the parliamentary democracy with a dictatorship (Ignjatovic 629). Aleksandar Ignjatovic examines an example of Yugoslav unity based upon the memory of World War I in his article about the Tomb of the Unknown Yugoslav Soldier (Slavonic and East European Review, 2010). First, he notes the unique location of the tomb in comparison to other monuments throughout Europe. Although originally planned to be located in Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, the eventual site was actually well outside the city center. This decision differs sharply from the architectural tradition of the time which consisted of adorning Belgrade with “monumental public edifices” celebrating Serb leadership of Yugoslavia (628). Second, Ignjatovic includes in his examination that the original Tomb of the Unknown Yugoslav Soldier of 1922 was replaced by the current one, partially because of its modesty, but also because of the inclusion of the Orthodox Christian cross, a symbol of the Serb population. The Tomb of the Unknown Yugoslav Soldier presents us with one of the few concrete examples in the interwar period of mobilizing the memory of World War I in the name of Yugoslavism.

Case Study: Slovenia

As a highly integrated part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I, Slovenian memory (or lack thereof) presents an informative case study of the official non-remembrance of anything about the Great War that contradicted Yugoslav Unity. Gregor Joseph Kranjc examines this in his article “The Neglected War: The Memory of World War I in Slovenia.” The interwar period, he explains, was marked by very selective memory of the Slovenian efforts during the war, only remembering those Slovenes that were involved in mutinies against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and claiming that Slovenian efforts for the empire were the result of manipulation and force. The Slovenes engaged in the Judenburg mutiny were highly commemorated, for example, and their “post-mortem heroics… [were] exaggerated” (Kranjc 221).

Due to the lack of official remembrance of Slovenian sacrifices in the First World War most of the commemoration that was established was personal and familial and “the few humble monuments in remembrance… were constructed mostly because of local initiative” (219). These sources of memory, though, were seriously threatened and diminished by the collective trauma of Axis occupation during World War II. Additionally, World War II presented Yugoslavia with the basis for a new national narrative upon which Tito based his new regime. In this rewriting the Yugoslav story the Slovene involvement in World War I was distanced further because of their association with the Germans. Communist-era history books attest to the dominance of World War II in the collective memory of Yugoslavia: one 1969 book had only four pages on World War I in comparison to the thirty-seven dedicated to World War II; another book published ten years later, History of the Slovenes also only included four pages on World War I but had an astounding 150 pages on the Second World War.


Rudolf Maister. Just look at that mustache.

When information was available about World War I it was presented in an overtly biased manner. The communist party saw World War I as “sparked by imperialist ambitions, that workers’ strikes, peasant unrest, and especially the October Revolution had a pivotal impact on the war,” and that Slovene mutineers had a powerful impact on the end of the war. But, as it had always been, the reality of the Slovene struggle against the Entente was repressed, deemed too contradictory to Yugoslav unity. With Tito’s death and the later fall of Yugoslavia, though, investigation of World War I was reopened to Slovenian historians. The World War I general-turned-defender of post-war Yugoslavia, Rudolf Maister, is an excellent example of Slovenian remembrance of World War I in the time of Tito’s death and the eventual disintegration of the state. Although he defended the Slovene regions of Yugoslavia after the war ended he was forgotten because of his association to the Austro Hungarian Empire; this combination, pro-Slovene, disliked by Yugoslavia, proved the perfect rallying point for the Slovenian separatist movement (230).


The Kobarid Museum

While the modern, post-Yugoslav era has shown a renaissance of Slovenian World War I commemoration and research, there is still a dearth of evidence due to the long history of forced forgetting. Work will continue, though, and the modern commemoration of World War I promises that Slovenia will work to remember its past, not bury it. The Kobarid Museum on World War I history is perhaps the most shining example of this. Upon visiting their website (which is a must-do), it is clear that a great deal of care and energy was put into the creating of the museum, something that began with local efforts in 1990. The exhibitions celebrate the bravery and sacrifice of the Slovenian soldiers as well as the lives of the Slovenes on the home front who worked to make the war effort possible. Additionally, their international work with the museum and the availability of the rather extensive website in five different languages (Slovenian, English, Italian, German, and Hungarian) attests to their desire to share their history as much as possible.

Modern Day

Nicolas Moll’s article on memory and identity formation in modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina provides important insight on current commemoration of World War I and its place in Bosnian history. Republika Srpska’s commission on “Nurturing the Traditions of the Liberation Wars” groups both world wars and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s together, indicating a “direct continuity between all these events,” viewing World War I as the starting point for their eventual autonomy (918). Perhaps more interesting are the specific dates commemorated: the entry of the Serbian army into Banja Luka and the internment of Serb soldiers and citizens in Doboj by Austria-Hungary. The first is presented as the liberation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Serbs and the second is used to demonize the Austro-Hungarians and victimize Serbs.


A new monument to Gavrilo Princip.

The recent centennial celebration was accompanied by a cacophony of memories, often split along ethno-national lines. A Time article discusses the celebrations that took place in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, as being viewed by the Serbs as blaming them for the beginning of World War I (Gjorgievska). The celebrations also echo the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s as they took place in the city hall of Sarajevo, a symbolic place for Bosnians and a site of heavy bombing during the war. Unsurprisingly, neither the Serbian president nor the president of Republika Srbska was in attendance. In an article in the New York Times, a prominent scholar in this field, Florian Bieber, noted the difficulty of remembering the history of World War I in a non-biased way: “[the commemorations would] not be shaped by reflecting on the past, but by making use of the past for the present” (Hockenos). Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, was the unveiling of a new monument to Gavrilo Princip just before the centennial (Jukic). The monument was placed in eastern Sarajevo, the part of the city dominated by Serbs, but it elicited a negative reaction from the Croats and Bosniaks that they share the city with.

It is clear that the divisions caused by the results of World War I have shaped the history of Yugoslavia and the states that used to constitute it. These splits were deepened by the refusal to heal the wounds suffered by the Croats and Slovenes in the Great War which were instead ignored completely. Once the Yugoslav state collapsed there was no unifying ideal to support the constructed narrative of Yugoslav unity and the divisions have shown themselves to erupt once again. With the celebration of the centennial and the reemergence of the cult of personality and nationality surrounding Gavrilo Princip there does not seem to be an end in sight.


Bibliography & Works Cited

Drapac, Vesna. “A State in Search of a Nation: The Kingdom, 1920-1940.” In Constructing Yugoslavia: A Transnational History, 96-148. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Dzidic, Denis, Marija Ristic, Milka Domanovic, Josip Ivanovic, Edona Peci, and Sinisa Jakov Marusic. “World War I History Divides Balkan Schoolchildren.” Balkan Insight, May 6, 2014. Accessed October 27, 2014.

Gjorgievska, Aleksandra. “Bosnia Finds World War I Centennial Divides Instead of Uniting.” Time. June 27, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2014.

Hockenos, Paul. “World War I Conference in Sarajevo Divides Scholars.” The New York Times. June 22, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2014.

Ignjatovic, Aleksandar. 2010. “From Constructed Memory to Imagined National Tradition: The Tomb of the Unknown Yugoslav Soldier (1934-38).” The Slavonic and East European Review 88 (4): 624-651.

Jukic, Elvira M. “Bosnia Marks World War One Centennial.” :: Balkan Insight. June 29, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2014.

“The Kobarid Museum.” The Kobarid Museum. Accessed December 4, 2014.

Kranjc, Gregor Joseph. 2009. “The Neglected War: The Memory of World War I in Slovenia.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 22 (2): 208-235.

Mitrovic, Andrej. “The 1919-1920 Peace Conference in Paris and the Yugoslav State: An Historical Evaluation,” in The Creation of Yugoslavia, 1914-1918, ed. Dimitrije Djodjevic, 207-217. Santa Barbara: Clio Press, 1980.

Moll, Nicolas. “Fragmented Memories in a Fragmented Country: Memory Competition and Political Identity-building in Today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Nationalities Papers 41, no. 6 (2013): 910-35. Accessed December 4, 2014.