One June night in Zagreb, the sign bearing the name ‘Marshal Tito Square’ was removed and unceremoniously thrown into the garbage. The unknown perpetrators didn’t even wait for official confirmation that one of Zagreb’s central squares, that stretches out in front of the National Theater, would be renamed. That confirmation came weeks later on July 21 at a Zagreb City Assembly session, when the Committee for the Naming of Neighborhoods, Streets and Squares accepted the proposal that Marshal Tito Square should become the ‘Square of the Republic of Croatia.’
The “Tito in the trash” picture was shared all over social networks after the name change was announced on June 26 by Milan Bandic, the long-standing, and newly re-elected mayor. “Since I am 61 years old and in my sixth mandate as the head of the city of Zagreb, and I know how to read the signs of the time in this city and beyond, and how to listen to the pulse of the people, I was inclined to … propose something which no normal person in this country should be against,” Bandic proclaimed at a press conference.
The decision sparked protests, with accusations of a political trade-off being behind the renaming, and reminders sent to Bandic that he should respect his pre-electoral promise to decide about the square’s name through a referendum.
It is not only Tito’s name which is problematic. Since the ’90s, any connections to people or events linked to the anti-fascist fight, workers’ rights and generally the entire legacy of socialist Yugoslavia have been systematically erased, either by changing the names of streets and squares, or even destroying or neglecting monuments and cultural heritage. This phenomenon is not limited only to Croatia, but takes place in all of the former republics and provinces of Yugoslavia.
Dealing with the past or calculating the future?
By destroying or neglecting reminders of the socialist Yugoslav past, history has been revised, and a new one is being written. Sanja Horvatincic from the Institute of Art History in Zagreb wrote her PhD thesis on the legacy of monuments from the socialist period, and believes that the attitude towards monuments in post Yugoslav states varies considerably from country to country.
“There was almost no destruction in Slovenia,” Horvatincic says. “Monuments are duly recorded, taken care of, and many of them are under protection. Monuments in some parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have been heavily damaged. It largely depends on the political and wartime environment in the 1990s, as well as on the makeup of the population in certain regions or cities.”
For Milan Bandic, the decision was less motivated by dealing with the past, and more by a calculation for his future. Since he gained a significantly smaller advantage in the second round of elections than he had hoped for, he “traded” the name of the square for a healthier majority in the City Council. Bandic sought to form a coalition with Bruna Esih and Zlatko Hasanbegovic, whose given condition for their support was “taking down the Marshal.”
Bruna Esih, who also competed in the race for Zagreb’s mayorship at the last local elections, held her main election rally in the square, declaring its renaming one of her most important goals. From 2012 to 2016, Esih was the leader of the Croatian Way of the Cross, an association which aims to “preserve the memory of the suffering of Croats during World War II and the post-war period,” and was committed to the decommunization and implementation of lustration in Croatia. Newspapers Slobodna Dalmacija and Vecernji have proclaimed her as “an icon of the Croatian right wing.”
Zlatko Hasanbegovic, Esih’s new party colleague and the former minister of culture, was previously part of the ruling right wing Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (Croatian Democratic Union) party and caused a number of issues last year with his statements on the nature of anti-fascism, and his attacks on the independent media and freedom of speech, which led to turmoil far beyond the borders of Croatia. Hasanbegovic welcomed Bandic’s announcement by saying that insisting on change is not a fixation, “but a clear political-national standpoint.”
“It’s about fundamental facts — the SFRY [Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and the Croatian state are mutually exclusive, and political, social, or any other form of continuity is unnecessary, because the modern Croatian state was created in opposition to the state that existed before, in a war that was initiated by the YNA [Yugoslav National Army],” said Hasanbegovic, who was soon named President of the Committee for the Naming of Neighbourhoods, Streets and Squares in Zagreb’s City Council. When asked about how many streets should have their names changed, Hasanbegovic replied: “many.”
Removing socialism and forgetting Yugoslavia
The following months will show whether — or how intensely — Hasanbegovic will continue the revisionism that started in the ’90s, and whether he will dare to ‘strike’ some other symbols of the past, such as the ‘Square of the Victims of Fascism.’
This square, which is only a 15 minute walk away from the area formerly known as Marshal Tito Square, was renamed as the ‘Square of Croatian Nobles’ on December 10, 1990. The Croatian president at the time, Franjo Tudjman, said that this decision was not understood by “dilettantes and exhibitionists,” adding that, “along with that square, a larger one should be made and named the ‘Square of the Victims of Communism.’”
This opened a space for a discussion that echoes through Croatia until this very day: Which crimes are larger and more serious — those committed by communists or those by fascists?
Numerous intellectuals rebelled against Tudjman’s decision, and the Action Committee for the Square of the Victims of Fascism organized protest gatherings every year on January 9, the Day of Victory over Fascism in Europe. In 2001, after 10 years of campaigning to get the original name reinstated, the authorities relented.
New time, different heroes
There has been no such systematic destruction in Serbia, but the monuments are in poor condition, mostly due to neglect. Jelica Jovanovic is an architect and member of the Group of Architects NGO, which is conducting research on the conditions of monuments from the socialist era throughout Serbia.
“Some major removals took place in the early 1990s in the wake of nationalist madness,” she says. “It was what was in the parks that suffered most, the busts of national heroes being damaged for example. Most often it is about vandalism and metal pickers. Sometimes it happens that something is moved somewhere and never put back in its place.”
It was only after going out in the field that the group realized that there was no good archive of monuments and they were surprised by “how many monuments there are, how many of them remained.”
“Even if people are against a monument there is the opinion that it should not be touched … ‘let it fall apart if it needs to,’” he explains. “There are still families to whom this monument belongs, so they take care of them. Or a local priest or local association of fighters, in the case of small towns.”
Systematic destruction in Serbia might not have happened, but neither did systematic protection of these monuments, nor are they treated as valuable heritage. “All post war modernism had to be protected, but it was written off as something unworthy, something communist,” Jovanovic explains. “Foreigners should have come and told us that it is worthy.”
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