Commemorating Conflict

Models of Remembrance in Postwar Croatia

by Renata Schellenberg (Author)
Monographs VIII, 180 Pages
Series: Cultural Memories, Volume 5


One of Europe’s youngest nations and the most recent member-state of the European Union, Croatia, forged its national identity in the so-called Homeland War, the bloody civil conflict that raged between 1991 and 1995 and ultimately led to independence from Yugoslavia. Since then, a culture of war commemoration has emerged that continues to shape and define contemporary Croatia.
This book focuses on the practices at the heart of this ongoing commemorative process. It addresses three fields of activity: commemorative war museums as official spaces for the shifting mediation of the public remembrance of war; the city of Vukovar as a unique site of divisive, politicized memory culture; and subjective forms of testimony, such as memoirs and satirical cartoons, which corroborate and challenge public discourses of war remembrance.
The book draws on the latest methodological approaches in museology, memory studies and political research in Central Europe and the Balkans as well as autobiography and self-writing. It makes accessible to an English-speaking audience for the first time key primary and secondary texts in Croatian and thus stands as a useful source for an informed understanding of Croatia’s place in Europe today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Commemorative Museums and Memorial Complexes
  • Karlovac
  • Dubrovnik
  • Vukovar
  • Chapter 2: Vukovar: Onus of Memory
  • Chapter 3: Homeland War Literature
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Websites and online resources
  • Index
  • Series index

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In July 2015 I received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for this project, funding for which I am immensely grateful. But before the money there were people, and this book would have been impossible without their interest and care. Velika hvala to Iva, Berna and Dunja for listening, commenting and giving good Croatian advice. Thank you to Thilo and Ute for your incredible kindness and the time you always seem to have for me. Kirsty Bell read a really ropey early draft of a chapter and helped make it better. Bob Derksen was an invaluable part of this project by continuing to be my best friend. I rely on his support, criticism and wit to help me think and be better.

Finally, thank you to my husband, David, who would leave the house in the morning to give me space to write, and then come back later in the day curious to what was on the page. This book would not be possible without you, your love for me and Rupert, and the boundless optimism which you bring to the world.

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In 2015 Croatia proudly celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its Oluja military operation. Oluja (the Croatian word for ‘storm’) was the last fierce battle in Croatia’s five-year war of independence and it brought a final and decisive victory for the Croatian army, signalling the end of the country’s Homeland War and the establishment of a sovereign national state. The anniversary was marked across the country, but it was celebrated with particular pomp in the country’s capital Zagreb, where a large and televised military procession took place in the very centre of the city. Attended by top echelons of the Croatian political elite, including President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović who formally launched this commemorative event, more than 3,000 people marched in a procession. They passed through the streets of Zagreb in army uniforms on foot, in tanks and other army vehicles, accompanied by a fly-past of fighter planes from above, exhibiting full Croatian military might to the world, acclaimed by an enthusiastic crowd of spectators. Most adults interviewed expressed strong national pride in witnessing this event, citing their own views of this key 1995 battle, and many readily shared personal memories of its occurrence, reflecting on their own wartime experiences from twenty years ago. The celebratory tone of this national commemoration suggested there was overwhelming consensus that Oluja should be observed as a victorious and honourable historical event, and that the public ought to remember it in a soundly affirmative way. To the many who were watching the procession that day, either from home or from the streets of Zagreb, it was presented as a cohesive manifestation of Croatian collective memory in which all citizens uniformly participated.

The patriotic sentiment so proudly exhibited at this celebration overshadowed, however, the many real controversies that accompany the Oluja operation, precluding any questions about some of the more problematic actions known to have taken place during this military operation in 1995, demonstrating thereby the potency of a carefully devised commemorative spectacle to captivate and divert public attention in a predetermined way. The memory on display that afternoon in Zagreb was managed to suit a ← 1 | 2 → celebratory occasion, tailored to express the government’s message of liberation and pride, and crafted to enforce a sense of national belonging. To a certain degree this presentation was to be expected, as 5 August is an existing national holiday in Croatia, already recognized in multiple ways as Dan pobjede i domovinske zahvalnosti, Dan hrvatskih branitelja [Victory Day and Day of Homeland Gratitude, Day of Croatian Defenders]. Celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of the Oluja operation in 2015 thus merely compounded an already heightened sense of national occasion, further justifying the demonstration of stalwart citizenship that was on display. National identity was implicit to the occasion and meant to be showcased. Yet, the manner of celebrating this important anniversary was instructive for it revealed some of the more problematic aspects of Croatia’s memory culture, showing the selective means with which national memory is constructed while demonstrating how susceptible events of the past can be to acts of manipulation and omission. The highly politicized context of the Oluja anniversary highlights these points in salient ways, allowing for a more general assessment of memory construction to be made.

The Oluja military operation was a strategically planned offensive and relatively brief in execution, it took place from 5–8 August 1995, or as some remember it, in eighty-four hours. With this swift victory Croatia reclaimed territory that had been lost at the very beginning of the war, thereby dramatically ending the entire five-year Homeland War conflict. Significantly, Croatian forces regained territory around the town of Knin, a place that had a large Serbia population and which was the centre of the so-called Republika Srpska Krajina, a self-declared autonomous enclave that had operated within Croatia since 1991. Through the Oluja operation Knin was returned to Croatia in a very public fashion, with the Croatian government signalling the final suspension of Serbian expansion onto its soil, providing definitive proof that Croatia had reclaimed sovereignty of its territory. Croatian agency and determination were universally praised in the domestic media, as the Croatian army operated alone and without international support in the execution of this military action. There was also formal capitulation on part of the Serbian forces as commander Čedomir Bulat openly admitted defeat of his army, conceding victory to the Croatian army, publicly signing documents to hand over the territory. All of these developments pointed to a conclusive Croatian military ← 2 | 3 → success, ending a war that many Croatians had perceived as unprovoked and morally wrong, denoting the end of a conflict that destroyed the lives of thousands of people of all ethnicities throughout Croatia. Despite the euphoria surrounding this event, and the seemingly clear-cut manner in which it was completed, matters were not as simple as they appeared. In time facts emerged that marred the exalted narrative of national purpose and valour that Oluja ostensibly espoused, illustrating the operation to be rather more controversial than originally presented.

The timing, symbolism and seemingly indisputable victory of the Oluja operation served the nationalistic agendas of Croatian politicians well and they readily cited the significance of this battle for the nation, using its occurrence to consolidate the heroic narrative of the Homeland War as a war of Croatia’s self-determination and liberation. The press was full of symbolic imagery that supported the notion of justified liberation and was heavily politicized in favour of the government. Public events were staged to corroborate the state narrative of Croatia’s honourable conduct during the war. For example, after liberation, the famous Vlak Slobode – the ‘train of freedom’ – passed through Knin for the first time since the beginning of the war, connecting Zagreb with the coastal city of Split, indicating the reestablishment of national unity and the interconnectedness of all Croatian people. The train carried the Croatian president Franjo Tuđman and a number of other politicians, who were photographed en route and gave speeches to big crowds of people at their destination, enforcing the national collective significance of the journey. The objective of the trip was unmistakable, as it was clear that the politicians were, quite literally, intent on creating history, acting on behalf of posterity, wanting to shape public perception in a certain way. Tuđman was surprisingly candid in his assessment of purpose, stating that he wanted the public to understand the journey as a memorious occasion, one that would symbolically map the passage of Croatia into the future.1 Upon arrival in Knin he stated: ← 3 | 4 →

The scene had been carefully staged to connote historical significance. Patriotic paraphernalia accompanied the delivery of this nationalistic rhetoric with many flags and banners proudly displayed by the public. The seemingly impenetrable walls of Knin fortress provided the scenic backdrop to this speech, with a large Croatian flag raised at the very top.3

The import of the Oluja offensive was later formally scripted and defined through an open declaration in the Croatian parliament in 2006,4 which proclaimed the objectives of this military action in no uncertain terms as ‘… the liberation of occupied Croatian territory and the instatement of constitutional judicial order of the Republic of Croatia on territory that had been occupied for four full years’.5 This formulation presented Oluja as legally sound and justified, securing a morally righteous understanding of its purpose while making clear the stance the Croatian government was ← 4 | 5 → taking in regards to its own recent history. What the Croatian government did not acknowledge within this public democratic forum were the many transgressions that occurred during the Oluja operation on the part of the Croatian army, a matter that remains a disputed point to this day. There were many retributions and episodes of rogue violence during this military offensive, acts that included ethnic cleansing, looting and other forms of hostility inflicted onto the Serbian minority population. Initially these incidents were completely absent from formal government narratives and omitted from official analyses of the Oluja battle, wilfully omitted from the patriotic media reports that disseminated this information to the people of Croatia. All messages concerning the Oluja action were focused on a positive presentation, highlighting the benefits this military undertaking had for the independence and future sovereignty of Croatian people.6

International observers did, however, note the transgressions and did investigate the complaints made to determine whether crimes had in fact been committed against the Serbian population. As a consequence of this inquiry, in 2001 the ICTY (The International Criminal Tribune for the former Yugoslavia) indicted three key military figures – Ante Gotovina, Ivan Čermak and Mladen Markač – for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war, capturing them and eventually bringing them to the Hague for trial.7 Although the men were later acquitted for these crimes, the ICTY indictment showed the Oluja offensive to be a disputed military undertaking, not to be perceived as an entirely morally ← 5 | 6 → pristine operation.8 Croatia did have to come to terms with a more nuanced interpretation of its war conduct and did eventually have to account for what happened during Oluja. This happened gradually and somewhat reluctantly, as Croatia was under pressure from the European Union, which was delaying membership to the country until war crimes had been acknowledged and prosecuted.9 Admittedly, recent official rhetoric in Croatia has altered somewhat to include a more conciliatory understanding of these historical events and newer narratives do acknowledge wrongdoings on part of individual Croatian soldiers during the Oluja offensive. However, as the 2015 anniversary celebrations in Zagreb so pointedly indicate, public remembrance of Oluja is overwhelmingly one-sided, and it continues to be seen by society in a largely uncritical and glorious light. Despite the existence of information that speaks to the contrary and proof of its problematic execution, public memory of Oluja remains informed by selective knowledge, one that valorizes, rather than condemns the actors involved. Arguably, this choice of interpretation is not accidental, but rather, like the speech in Knin, carefully managed by those in charge, who use memory to craft a governing national narrative and to create a sense of belonging.

By adopting this selective interpretation of its recent wartime history, the Croatian government was generating a decisive form of political memory, one to be carried to subsequent generations that would ensure public remembrance of the Oluja operation in accordance with its own objectives and values, solidifying thereby an interpretation of the past that did not contradict current political goals. Although clearly self-serving, the short-sightedness and narrow scope of their consideration was not unusual. Their over-simplified understanding of national history is consistent with very nature of political memory, which, as Aline Sierp explains, is necessarily ← 6 | 7 → succinct, as it ‘looks at events from a single perspective, does not allow for ambiguity, reduces events to mythical archetypes’.10 Political memory is by definition not polemical as it does not seek to stimulate debate, eliciting instead abidance and agreement with the facts presented. What is interesting about the Oluja operation is that formal remembrance in this case is written into the very parliamentary declaration that defines it. In addition to qualifying it in lofty heroic terms, the declaration mandates that this military offensive be remembered by the population as a nezaboravna bitka [unforgettable battle]. The declaration appeals to journalists, academics and the general public to remember Oluja in these precise terms, directing them not to forget the relevance it has for current Croatia society:


VIII, 180
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Croatia memory Homeland War
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 180 pp.

Biographical notes

Renata Schellenberg (Author)

Renata Schellenberg is Associate Professor of German at Mount Allison University in Canada. She grew up and studied in the former Yugoslavia. Her primary specialization is German literature and culture of the long eighteenth century and she has published widely on key authors such as Goethe, Herder and Alexander von Humboldt as well as on material culture and museum studies in the period. This latter research interest has more recently extended into the cultures of remembrance in twentieth-century Europe, with a particular emphasis on Austria and Croatia.


Title: Commemorating Conflict