University of Washington, Jackson School of International Studies
The 1945 Post-war Massacres in Slovenia and the Politics of Memory
Immediately after the retreat of the Nazi occupation from Slovenia in May 1945, the country became, in the words of historian Jože Dežman, “Europe’s greatest killing field.” (Delo, March 17, 2008). Over 100,000 Nazis, anti-revolutionaries, and Nazi collaborators – including over 10,000 Slovenian domobranci, or Home Guardsmen – were killed and interred in mass graves around the country. The Yugoslav leadership simultaneously promoted the Manichean creation myth of the national liberation struggle (narodnoosvobodilna borba, NOB) against foreign Fascism and suppressed public memory of the massacres for the duration of the state, leading to an eruption into public discourse in the early 1990s as the federation fell apart. However, historiography of the NOB is still seen as serving political ends rather than attempting to illuminate what happened, and investigation of the massacres by two commissions – one appointed in 1993 but not renewed by former Communist Prime Minister Janez Drnovšek in 1996, and one appointed by the conservative PM Janez Janša in 2005 – is criticized by some as the government “making the relationship with the past one of its priorities.” (Mladina, 12, 2008)
This paper seeks to analyze the rhetoric surrounding the post-war massacres and the political use of memory of the NOB. I argue that the politicization of the memory of the war has pervaded every aspect of its remembrance. The division of collective memory of the massacres has its roots in social divides present during the war, between mostly Catholic conservatives and Christian Socialist and Communist liberals. The Yugoslav era prevented both reconciliation and a deeper rift by freezing public discussion of both the perpetrators and the victims. Following independence, the rapid reentry of conservatism and the Roman Catholic Church into Slovene political life reenergized a dichotomous memory of the events. I will trace this evolution of the political use of memory of the NOB by the leadership of Yugoslavia and independent Slovenia, and the counter-narrative produced by the Church, the émigré Slovenian press, and conservative elements in Slovene political life. In the post-socialist period, this paper will focus on public commemorations of the victims of the massacres at government organized events as well as grassroots-level memorials to the domobranci by Nova Slovenska zaveza (New Slovene Covenant), the domobranci veterans’ group; the two aforementioned commissions to investigate the massacres; and the Janša government’s attempts to advance the counter-narrative of the NOB in the broader European context.
Using the framework proposed by Roediger, Zaromb, and Butler (2008), I argue that these dichotomous collective memories persist due to a combination of cognitive mechanisms and political deployment. In so doing, I hope to remedy a common complaint among political memory scholars – namely, in Verovšek’s (2009: 5) words, that “little… has been done to understand why certain events retain political salience.” The role of repeated retrieval and feedback in producing, maintaining, and strengthening collective memories has been established (e.g., Roediger, Zaromb & Butler, 2008; Pennebaker & Chung, 2007). People have a powerful motivation to share their memories, to do so repeatedly, and to receive feedback on their version of events. I argue that the unilateral direction of history and memory by the Yugoslav leadership through the adoration of the NOB – and crucially, the exclusion of competing narratives – created an environment where challenges to this story are seen as political. The issue is compounded by political use of these memories by those actors seeking to promote the counter-narrative through varied means, like the establishment of commissions on the massacres and, during the Slovenian Presidency of the EU in 2008, the designation of an All-European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Despite Ferenc’s (2005: 273) exhortation that settling the issue of the mass graves “should be separated rigorously from these topics,” the rhetoric and political deployment of memory surrounding the massacres sadly precludes this. Reconciliation is not an option without the sort of pluralism that is impossible in this environment.
Access the full paper here.