Case Studies

The Collapse of Yugoslavia

This case study examines the rewriting and reworking of Serbian national history that accompanied the breakup of Communist Yugoslavia, especially by intellectuals, and the role such groups played in reconstructing and resurrecting a distinct narrative of Serbia’s national history.

Serbia: Collective Memory, and the Breakup of Yugoslavia

My approach to teaching topics on twentieth century European, East European, and Yugoslav history is to pick five to six themes each semester, develop an introductory lecture for the theme and then use case studies, drawing similarities between cases and pointing out where cases diverge and why. One theme that I have developed in all these courses is the theme of history and memory. For our discussions about the use of history and collective remembrances by different political and social actors in central and southeastern Europe during the last years of the Communist regimes and immediately after the end of those regimes, I often use the case of Serbian academics, intellectuals, and politicians and their focus on Kosovo and on Serbia’s role during World War I. The sources I use are: excerpts from Memorandum 1986, a report produced by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a website from the more recent past that offers an online version of Rista Marjanovic’s Ratni Album(War Album), 1912-1915, originally published and distributed throughout the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in the 1920s.

By working with both a text and an online source, I want students to see how a “discourse” about national identity and the past operates in a single society. Specifically for the Yugoslav case, I want students to see how a political statement like the Memorandum 1986 is framed by and can itself frame a community’s perception of the past. In the case of the reproduction online of a 1920s photo album of pictures taken during the Balkan Wars and the first two years of World War I in Serbia, I want students to think about how the creation of such a website and the photographic album it reproduces reinforce some of the themes brought up in the Memorandum.

Goals for the Discussion

I want my students to examine the rewriting and reworking of Serbian national history that accompanied the breakup of Communist Yugoslavia, and the role that intellectuals, historians, archivists, and museum curators played in reconstructing and resurrecting a distinct narrative of Serbia’s national history as the liberator and unifier of the Balkan peoples.

Scholars working in the field of textbook writing have described the foundational role that history writing and memorialization of the past have played in the construction of national identity and nation-states. In particular, they note the importance of stories about a nation's history, whether true or invented, are used to teach people both how to act as members of the nation and how to think about those who are not members of the nation. The case of Serbia provides my students with a clear example of how the new nation-states of post-Socialist Europe used historical writing, public pageantry and display, websites, and museums as instruments of nation-building in order to instruct their citizens in the values and ideologies of the new state.

Finally, because I consider gender an important category of analysis, I also want my students to understand that embedded within these two sources, one written and another visual, are linguistic and visual representations of a particular national group that gives men and women very distinct roles in the family of the nation. Such gendered representations connect the perceptions, emotions, and memories of individuals with those of the collective to signify not only belonging to the nation, but also distinct gender positions within that nation.

The Context for the Sources

Discontent about Serbia’s diminished position with the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) began with passage of a new constitution in 1974. The constitution of 1974 created a more decentralized state, transferring more power to the republics and dividing Serbia into three parts, the two autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, and Serbia proper. [For a map of the region, click here.] With this act, Serbia’s political power within the larger Yugoslav federation was diluted and its place in a post-Tito Yugoslavia insecure and uncertain. By the 1980s, the two northern republics of the Yugoslav Federation, Croatia and Slovenia, were more economically dynamic and prosperous and appeared poised to lead Yugoslavia toward greater liberalization of the economy and politics. Many in Serbia resented the resulting loss of status within the Federation to these two northern republics.

In 1986 a group of leading intellectuals of the Serbian National Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a public memorandum that alleged systematic discrimination against Serbs and Serbia in Yugoslavia and argued that the most egregious acts were taking place in Kosovo. Their memorandum claimed that the Serbs of Kosovo were being subjected to “physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide.” Reflecting on the centuries-long struggle for independence by Serbia when it was part of the Ottoman empire, the memorandum argued that all of Serbia's sacrifices had been ignored and its independence usurped by the legal dismemberment of Serbia under the 1974 constitution. With this memorandum and other forms of political action, Serbian cultural and political elites set out to reclaim Serbia’s preeminent position within Yugoslavia. Not only did they fix upon the “Kosovo Question” but also upon Serbia’s heroic role in the formation of the first Yugoslavia. Thus, Serbian intellectuals, before, during, and after the wars of Yugoslav Succession (1991-1995, 1999), narrated and commemorated Serbia’s “wars of national liberation, 1912-1918” i.e., the Balkan Wars and World War I through novels, films, photographic exhibitions, websites, historical research, and the dedication and re-dedication of memorials from these earlier wars. TheRatni Album website is an online example of this trend.

How I Set It Up

Given the complexity of Balkan history, I do not give my students these sources without preparing them. I first gave a lecture on history, memory and gender, and then a second lecture on nationalism and the Balkans. Prior to reviewing the sources, my students read the chapters on Yugoslavia in Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield,Return to Diversity. Only then do they engage the two sources, armed with a set of questions for our subsequent discussion. Because the full version of Memorandum 1986 is more than 150 pages long, I assign only excerpts.

Reading the Sources

Each student had to prepare 250 word answers for two of my six questions in advance and be ready to act as a member of an “expert panel” for each question. My questions are:

  1. List at least five grievances against the current Yugoslav state found in the Memorandum. Who is the intended audience and what is the intent of the authors in writing this document?
  2. Find five references to Serbian history. How does the Memorandum use history to justify the view of some intellectuals that Serbia and Serbs had been discriminated against or denied a significant role in socialist Yugoslavia after 1945?
  3. How does the Memorandum present the situation in Kosovo? How is the Memorandum using the term “genocide?” What evidence do the authors provide in making the assertion that “genocide” is taking place against Serbs in Kosovo and elsewhere?
  4. Examine the website where Rista Marjanovic’s Ratni Album is found. Who are its creators? What type of material is found on this site? How might you characterize the websites’ political, cultural, or ideological point of view?
  5. View Ratni Album. Describe how the visual narrative unfolds. What story is this photographic album telling?
  6. How do these two sources together narrate Serbia history? What do the authors/creators of these two sources want the viewer and the reader to know about Serbian history and its place in twentieth century Yugoslavia?

My class period is 75 minutes. We dedicated 10-15 minutes to each “expert panel” and students were responsible for asking the panel questions and the panelists were expected to offer reasonably expert replies. I have often used the “expert panel” in various classes and it works very well for upper division students. Usually they will focus on one of the two sources and thus we will have students who are expert in at least one of the sources. I acted as the moderator and intervened only when a question of fact was asked.

Reflection and Analysis

Students easily listed the complaints and criticisms found in the excerpt from the Memorandum. They had a harder time understanding the context of the complaints, especially references to the Comintern and the national question. However, they quickly identified the historical reference points used by the authors and were able to explain in detail how the Constitution of 1974 divided Serbia into three parts and why this was a point of contention among Serbian intellectuals, especially as it related to Kosovo. At this point my students used the visual evidence from the Ratni Album to bring in the idea that Serbs had fought for this area earlier in the twentieth century and how that might influence Serbian ideas about the region. They talked about the idea of sacrifice and how the discussion in the Memorandum was reinforced by the photographs from Marjanovic. However, they disagreed with the contention made by the memorandum that Serbs had a right to control Kosovo since the majority population was Albanian and most agreed with one student who asserted that if the other peoples of Yugoslavia got to control their own republics, why shouldn’t the Kosovar Albanians? Most students missed the argument that the Memorandum was making about particularism and the fragmentation of the Yugoslav state and whether or not this fragmentation disadvantaged any national group.

In our discussion about the discrimination against Serbs in Kosovo and whether or not the Albanians were in fact targeting Serbs for “genocide,” students felt that this was an exaggeration and maybe they didn’t have enough of the Memorandum to make a judgment. However, most brought up the expulsion of the Kosovar Albanians in 1999 and felt that the Albanians had more of a claim to the term, “genocide,” than did the Serbs. They did understand how Serbs were scattered throughout Socialist Yugoslavia but were not sympathetic to claim that this somehow led to the suppression or destruction of Serbian culture or rights.

My students really liked looking at the Ratni Album website and were quite able to discuss the creation of the site, its intended audience, and its point of view. They remarked that the examination of a website like this one opened their eyes to understanding many of the websites that they visit when researching other papers. They particularly liked our discussion of how deciding to place certain texts and documents on a website creates a historical point of view. We talked a bit about websites sponsored by museums, archives, and libraries and how these institutions are official agents of a state. The album itself was a big hit but some felt a bit disadvantaged since they couldn’t read the captions which are in Serbian. Nonetheless they were able to pull several themes out of the visual narrative: courage, heroism, and determination of the individual Serbian soldier and Serbian women, the prominent role of King Petar and Crowned Prince Aleksandar, suffering during wartime, and the defeat of Serbia that resulted in a retreat. They easily drew the connection between posting these photographs in early 2000s and how this earlier history might be used to mute the acts of brutality, ethnic cleansing, and genocide committed by Serbs during the wars of the 1990s. By the end of the discussion, they were talking about how the two different types of narratives, visual and written, could be bundled together to create a national history that justified Serbian actions in the late twentieth century. However, they had a hard time believing that Serbs could accept this view of themselves in light of what Serbs had done in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s.


Document 1: The Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences' "Memorandum 1986" (Selected Excerpts)
Document 2: Ratni Album

Melissa Bokovoy
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico