On many occasions when I have to fill in a form, I am asked for the date and country of my birth. For the country, I am offered some two hundred options, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, including many I would have a hard time finding on a map. But my country of birth doesn’t appear on any of these lists. The country where I was born and where I spent the majority of my life has disappeared, it is conspicuously missing. Its name is still vividly present in the collective memory, but I guess not for long. It will soon be relegated to out-of-date history books, sharing the fate of the state (Austria-Hungary) where my parents were born, another disappearance.
It makes me bemused, this disappearance of countries, not just the fact that countries emerge and pass away, despite their sturdy demeanor, but the stinging thought that countries don’t just wither away, their disappearances are (in the vast majority of cases) starkly marked with bloodshed and wars, their memory tainted by blood. There is a bloodstain on this missing spot.
The country’s name was Yugoslavia. I wonder how that name sounds to foreign ears, with its five syllables, its profusion of vowels, its echoes and associations. I can only hear with the ears of an insider, a denizen of a fantasy space that in some ways I still inhabit, as one continues to inhabit the space of one’s youth and formation, now gone. But it doesn’t evoke just the loss of a fantasy land of one’s youth, later tragically falling apart. There are some things that need to be marked beyond my personal remembrance and the vagaries of collective memory.
Yugoslavia was created in 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the WWI and its massive bloodshed, on the ruins of two empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. The idea guiding its creation was to gather the southern Slavic nations into one country, the nations that had hitherto very different historic fates and belonged to vastly different worlds, cultures, and experiences. The idea was to recognize a common origin and fraternity, in the face of disparate historic tides, and to form a new country on the basis of widespread pan-Slavic movements of the nineteenth century. South Slavs, this is what its name means, it could be rendered as Southslavia. The southern Slavs are geographically cut off from the rest of the Slav nations by the belt formed by Austria, Hungary, and Romania, thus constituting a separate unit, a unit despite their diversity. It’s true that these nations include Bulgaria, which was never a part of the Yugoslav project, for various historic reasons, but the rest gathered around the common political purpose and the will to unite their fates in a new communality. No doubt the idea of a common Slav heritage was a romantic one, but it was guided by the will to invent a new common state. This idea of the common, of fraternity, inspired enthusiasm, against enormous odds: Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Bosnians were deeply marked by the centuries-long and bloody history of belonging to the Ottoman Empire, a history of oppression, revolts and strife, during which time Croats and Slovenes were part of Austria-Hungary, striving for their autonomy and increased independence within that framework. There was the difference of religion, the eastern part largely Orthodox, the western part largely Catholic, with the part of Muslim population and with Jewish communities. There was the great difference of economic and social development, with the Austro-Hungarian part close to the western framework of industrial development, modernization and political reforms, while the eastern part largely developmentally lagged behind. There was the huge difference of cultural patterns: the old division of the Eastern (Byzantine) and the Western empires, originating in Roman times (with Diocletian and Constantine in the fourth century), ran exactly through the middle of the newly established country. I am listing these historic facts (in a cursory and simplified manner) to gauge against their background the idea of Yugoslavia that needs to be brought to mind and kept in mind: the idea of a state bringing together the diversity of nations, religions, cultures and traditions, based on the will to create a new common, a new kind of universality that could encompass this multiplicity, this heterogeneous mixture, a new citizenship that could set aside all the seemingly unsurpassable differences in view of a common cause. A country that could reach beyond the obsession with national identity, and was in its very inception based on the idea of a nation-state beyond nations.
To be sure, Yugoslavia didn’t live up to its idea. Soon after its creation the strife between the two biggest nations, Serbia and Croatia, became endemic, the nationalisms that it was supposed to keep at bay came back with vengeance. It didn’t take more than a decade for the country to be held together by a dictatorship (in 1929), to be marked by political assassinations and instability. As a result, it was in a pretty unenviable state at the beginning of WWII. But then, again against all odds, the idea was reinvented and reinvigorated with the massive common anti-fascist struggle during WW2, the organized partisan revolt—and Yugoslavia was, as an exception, largely liberated by its own self-organized armed forces (not by the Russian tanks, like most of the Eastern Europe, nor by allied forces). The new common cause, based on the common struggle against the fascist occupation, was then linked with the idea of socialism, with the Communist Party taking power on the basis of this victory, embodied in the charismatic figure of Tito.
The universalist idea of a state that would embrace the diverse national identities and traditions was supplemented with another one: that of building a socialism that would inherently differ from the Soviet model and set itself in opposition to Stalinism. Additionally, from the late fifties on, Yugoslavia was one of the prime instigators and major proponents of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), refusing the bipartition of the world deeply immersed into the Cold War, the division into the western and the eastern bloc. Virtually all the Third World countries that had just shuffled off colonial rule were eager to join, some one hundred and twenty countries comprising more than half of the world’s population. The movement presented a serious global political force in the sixties and seventies, and Yugoslavia, very much at the heart of it, was the only European country to belong. (This movement technically still exists, but it lost its significance after the end of the Cold War.)
With its transnational character, its anti-Stalinist socialism, and its non-alignment, Yugoslavia represented a space of a promise of emancipation. It was a focal point for the global left, perhaps its fantasy land, attracting numerous international thinkers and artists that pursued this promise. It looked like a way to follow. And indeed, despite its limitations, it actually did offer an extraordinary space of freedom, of artistic and intellectual invention and innovation, at the interstice of its multiple cultures, of east and west, an experimental ground for another kind of sociality.
To be sure, this reinvented Yugoslavia didn’t live up to its idea either, it didn’t hold its promise. The most immediate and drastic testimony of this is its outcome, the bloody story of its dreadful falling apart, the former state now exploded into no less than seven independent countries. With the political turmoil and the rearrangement after the end of the Cold War, nationalisms were again back with vengeance, and the political moment spilled into the impossibility of thinking beyond the boundaries of national identities, falling back to the national thing as the only viable option, the impossibility of imagining another kind of political common. The Non-Aligned Movement got stuck in bitter strife between its member states, many of them displaying authoritarian rules no better (or even worse) than those of the previous colonial rulers. As for the non-Soviet socialism, it looked more attractive to people looking at it from the outside than to those of us who lived inside it. Yugoslavia was far from being a democratic state, the Party history was stained by crime, there were many violations of human rights and ample social antagonisms, and I myself (largely my whole generation) constantly participated in oppositional movements and protests against the regime that breached its own principles. The fact that in comparison we nevertheless had it far better than the rest of the socialist countries was but a grim consolation.
What of the disappearance of Yugoslavia? The conspicuous hole in the list of world countries? Does it call for nostalgia? The so-called Yugonostalgia is a widespread feeling, but something I don’t share (despite the fact that the ex-compatriots are invariably very glad to meet in foreign countries and immediately engage in exchanging tall stories about the disappeared homeland). But there is something I acutely feel as a loss, quite beyond the feelings about the lost fantasy land of one’s youth and the singular experiences of one’s formation, family, friends, children, social mores. It’s ultimately not the disappearance of this country, but something it stood for, although it never lived up to it—a universalist and emancipatory idea that it aroused, and in this it sadly shares the fate of universalist and emancipatory ideas at-large over the last decades. It is as if nationalisms, populisms, the impossibility of another kind of socialism, and now the prospect of another Cold War got the upper hand, against some basic ideas that the disappeared name of Yugoslavia, with all its terrible failures, vividly evoked. It is that which I stand for in the turbid, sad space of its disappearance.