An Archaeology of Resistance

 Berliner Verlag/Archiv/picture alliance via Getty Images A Nazi propaganda image depicting soldiers of the German Wehrmacht withdrawing in Yugoslavia during Allied air-raids, January 1945
Berliner Verlag/Archiv/picture alliance via Getty Images. A Nazi propaganda image depicting soldiers of the German Wehrmacht withdrawing in Yugoslavia during Allied air-raids, January 1945

The tale of Scheherazade is one of the cruelest stories about beauty and the vitality of artistic expression. It tells of the relationship between the artist and authority, suggesting that the creative act itself is an act of resistance; it conveys the message that there can be no authentic artistic act without personal risk. Although one of the oldest stories of artistic resistance, the legend of Scheherazade is an unlikely example of the genre. Might that be because at the heart of the metaphor stands a woman who, by telling stories, saves not only her own life, but the lives of the future victims of Shahryar the misogynist? Does the story’s happy ending compromise the gravity of Scheherazade’s resistance? After Scheherazade’s storytelling marathon, which lasts a thousand and one nights, Shahryar falls in love with her. The storyteller and her potential executioner go on to live together. Scheherazade’s victory is also her greatest defeat: Shahryar may have given up on cutting off women’s heads, but misogyny—surprise, surprise—is still flourishing.

The myths and legends about artistic creativity are most often romantic, although the same can’t be said for the practice in life. The artist is shaking up God’s order and this is why he must be punished. The punishment is more draconian if the artist is a woman. With their act of creativity, the artist is unconsciously vying with God. Artistic creativity implies undermining the entrenched system of values—aesthetic, moral, political—and bringing in a new vision of the world. The contemporary “creative industry” has erased these romantic clichés, replacing them with clichés about more pragmatic and comprehensible forms of artistic success.

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I remember my childhood in a provincial, industrial town in Croatia (then Yugoslavia) as a time of repressive channeling from the surrounding community, of exposure to the terror of popular “generalities.” Out of an understandable desire not to have their child stand apart from the rest of the community, my parents went along, tacitly, with this channeling. Moderation in all things. This popular axiom advised cleaving to the median; in other words: mediocrity. Adaptation to societal norms was the most remunerative and secure life choice. Who flies high, falls low. This proverb clipped my wings and scared and attracted me in equal measure. The saying Never confront those stronger than yourself taught obedience, admitting the power of those stronger, advocating submission to all forms of authority. In the community where I grew up, it was not advisable to raise one’s voice. Silence is golden. Silence, hypocrisy, and lies were the ways one evaded all sorts of trouble.

Unlike those of my community, my parents’ life choices did challenge the rule of the golden mean. When World War II broke out, my father, at seventeen, joined the antifascist movement, the Yugoslav Partisans. After the war he worked for a bright future, a society in which nobody would be hungry, humiliated, or despised, and his legacy was a modest heap of worthless medals given him for his dedicated work at building a socialist Yugoslavia. He fell in love with my mother, a woman from another country, during a dangerous and, fortunately, brief period when relationships with foreigners were tantamount to treason. A deep-seated resistance to the terror visited upon me by this community, which set the moral, aesthetic, and other standards while brimming with self-righteous sanctimony; my love for my parents who, whether they meant to or not, marked me with a sense of “otherness;” my early passion for literature—all these were my signposts. I grew up on Greek myths, legends about brave Yugoslav Partisan legends, Hollywood films, and fairy tales, especially the tale of the courageous youth Danko, a sort of communist Jesus Christ, who ripped his own heart from his chest to light the way with it, leading people out from the dark forest into a sunny clearing. This modest cultural package bolstered inside me my first sense of good and evil.

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I often feel I grew up and lived in one time and then found myself, suddenly, in another. In any case, the fairy tale about the courageous youth Danko would probably elicit sneers today, which, it should be said, Maxim Gorky, the story’s author, also anticipated: as soon as they step out into the sunny clearing, a scoundrel stomps on Danko’s pulsing heart as if it were a frog. The culture of the heart has long since been elbowed out by the culture of money. The truths we knew have been undone and replaced by new truths. In the small country of Croatia where I was born, three thousand monuments—which were raised after World War II to commemorate the Yugoslav resistance movement—have been demolished over the last twenty-five years or so. An army of unqualified historians is toiling today, erasing antifascist history and legitimizing revisionist versions.

In Poland, for instance, the Institute for National Remembrance, with quite a crew of diligent staffers, is toiling to expunge the collective guilt of the Polish people by erasing guilt-provoking facts from the national historical record and the history books. The Polish courts are now under the total control of the government, and the Polish Senate has approved what is popularly known as the Holocaust law. Those who use the phrase “Polish death camps” can be prosecuted in court. For on “occupied” Polish territory, the death camps were, they claim, built by the Nazis, with whom the blameless Poles had no connection whatsoever. And in Croatia, as well as Serbia, many are toiling to sanctify the criminals, the ones from World War II and the new ones from the “recent war”—this being the name that has taken root in the language, yes, the recent war, 1991–1995. Today, in the heart of Europe, in Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian children are required to attend ethnically separated classrooms; they study the same history and the same language but from completely different textbooks. News of similar approaches has also been heard from Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Macedonia, and in Europe’s north and south, east and west, and these currents are merging into a subterranean river that is slowly but surely eroding the ideological and ethical foundations on which Europe stands, foundations built on the rubble of World War II.

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My late mother was haunted her whole life by images of what she saw in 1946 when she traveled from Sofia by train through southern Serbia and Belgrade on her way to Zagreb. “Everything was rubble!” she’d say, always with the same incredulity and the same shudder. There were no images conveyed by that sentence, and I wasn’t able to picture the reality described. Today, twenty years after the recent war, I feel as if I do know. For twenty years, I have been living in rubble. And yet, nobody has established a reckoning of the damages. How many people killed, how many disappeared, how many displaced, how many economically ruined, how many houses demolished, how many factories destroyed, how many miles of railway lines, roads, hospitals, churches, schools, monuments ravaged, how many books burned…nobody has yet offered a summation. The authorities in most of the ex-Yugoslav statelets are not interested in either a reckoning or a renewal; all they care about is maintaining the status quo, a limbo between war and peace, between devastation and revitalization. Reforms are promised but not implemented. War criminals, murderers, thieves are rarely convicted, and even if they’re sentenced, they don’t do their time behind bars. Life mid-rubble is a process, a continuing condition.

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In Vodice, a tourist town on the Adriatic coast, Croatian veterans of the recent war viciously ransacked flower beds in a local park in late April 2018. These valiant Croatian veterans had the impression, apparently, that the flower beds were laid out in the provocative shape of the five-pointed star. The red star, the symbol of communism, has the same effect on majority of the Croatian population as the red flagdoes on a bull. The flower beds, protested the mayor, were arranged like a five-petalled blossom, not a five-pointed star.

A couple of months later, Zagreb photographer Robert Gojević mounted a show of twelve large-format photographs along the central walkway through Maksimir, Zagreb’s largest park. The show was conceived of as an homage to Ivan Standl, the Zagreb photographer who first documented Maksimir. The exhibit was scheduled to travel after this to other Croatian parks. Only a few hours after the photographs were put up, they were slashed to pieces.

Several days later, a drunk in Split lunged at one of the few monuments still standing from the Yugoslav Partisan movement, one to Rade Končar, a communist hero. The sculpture toppled more easily than he’d expected and fell onto the drunken vandal, breaking his leg. The vandal ended up in the hospital, and he used the opportunity to tell journalists that he had nothing against the “fellow himself” (meaning Končar, shot by local fascists in 1942), he knew nothing about the man, but on principle he couldn’t stand those “Serbs, Partisans, and communists.”

And so, day by day, a quarter century has passed. I chose these three recent incidents at random; any three would have sufficed, each exemplifying a form of violence. Such violence is now the norm. Any political justification for murder, theft, destruction is moot. Everything can become an object of violence. Perhaps this is why ever more numerous, ugly, and monumental sculptures are being raised in the most vacant, parched, barren, devastated places to the “father of the Croatian nation,” Franjo Tuđman, the first Croatian president (the most recent of these sculptures stands fifteen feet tall, and once the pedestal is added, it will tower at over twenty-two feet), and streets, parks, institutions, airports, squares are being given new names, most of them “Franjo Tuđman,” a perfect confirmation of the emptiness of the nationalistic state concept. The selection of the symbolic subject— Tuđman and only Tuđman—does away with any dilemma about choice. There is only one Biblefor the choosing, one church, one religion, one ideology, one race, one class. The Sacred One is the haven of the illiterate.

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Where lies the appeal of fascism and its many forms, soaking into Europe like ink into a dry blotter? It lies in the fact that fascism requires no qualifications, no guarantees, no certification of any specific education or knowledge. Fascism’s appeal lies in belonging to a like-minded group of people, in acceptance, in the violence of one gang over another, in the easily stoked feeling that we’re better than others, we’re finally better, and being better—surprise, surprise—doesn’t take much, only the same blood group and a willingness to do violence to those who don’t share that blood group with you.

Sophophobia is the term used for fear of knowledge and learning. Among many of my compatriots I note apathy, lethargy, a striking absence of curiosity, reliance on stereotypes, a refusal for anything that would require them to step outside their familiar world. Knowledge long embraced—that man-made climate change is real, for example—is now gradually giving way to debate. This stubbornness of human minds was duly noted by the first experts who attempted to draw the attention of young amateur Wikipedia editors to their inaccuracies and errors. The complaints were seldom taken on board.

The catastrophic plummet in educational standards began with the collapse of Yugoslavia, the upsurge of nationalism, the huge layoff of journalists, doctors, judges, all of whom—or at least, this was the way it played out in Croatia—were Serbs, non-Croats, former communists, or simply people critical of the system of corruption in the new states. The plummet of all standards began with nepotism, with the vast power of the church, with the law by which Croats, veterans, the children of veterans, patriots—but not experts—were favored in the hiring process.

Each time I see the new post-Yugoslav fascist class in the media flaunting their expensive name-brand clothes, beautified by cosmetic interventions, their little lap poodles, attending all the fashion shows, first nights at the theater, and art openings, when I see the exemplars of that class giving voice to their critiques of the theaters, books, art shows, I see the power and profit their ignorance brings them.

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The exhibition “The Archaeology of Resistance: Discovering Collections of Cultural Opposition in Socialist Croatia”opened in Zagreb in October 2018. It came about as a collaborative effort between the Croatian Institute of History and the Croatian State Archives, as part of the European project known, for short, as COURAGE, or, in full: Cultural Opposition—Understanding the Cultural Heritage of Dissent in the Former Socialist Countries.

The curators of the exhibition were guided by the grand notion that every resistance is, plain and simple, resistance, every opposition is, plain and simple, opposition, and all the totalitarianisms can be lumped together (which, is, by the way, the most hostile, egregious, and mendacious ideological malarkey in the post-Yugoslav ideological zone, and beyond). This approach, at least in the Croatian interpretation, promotes the notion that human history is an ash heap of debris where all of us end up: “émigrés, the faithful, dissidents…artists, feminists, censors, ideologists, secret agents,” because ultimately we’re all the same, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, Hitler and Jesus Christ. Every act of resistance is, therefore, pointless because we will all be a pile of bones in the end, of reconciled swastikas with five pointed red stars.

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The policy of  Croatian historical revisionism and the strategies of a determined destigmatizing of the Ustasha movement, the Ustasha Independent State of Croatia, and its infamous leader Ante Pavelić, of denying the existence of the Nazi camps in Croatia, as well as of denying the atrocities committed by Croats during the recent war has been going on for thirty years already, since 1991. Croats are “officially” ashamed of their antifascist and communist past.

Luckily not everybody is ashamed of their resistance movements and proud of their Nazi collaborations in the past. The 1943 attack on the Amsterdams Bevolkingsregister (the Amsterdam civil registry office) to destroy the registries that the Nazis could use to identify Jews has remained etched in the collective consciousness of the people of the Netherlands as a shining example of resistance to Nazi terror. A group of artists risked their own lives to save those of fellow citizens. There exists, of course, the other dark, parallel history, the history of collaboration. The case of Anne Frank unites both, the light and the dark. Anne Frank is a story of resistance, but also of betrayal.

At the site of the Verzetsmuseum (Museum of Resistance) in Amsterdam, the visitor is met with the following unambiguous question in several languages: “Nazi Germany has occupied Holland. What will you do?” and three possibilities, three answers, three buttons to press:  Adapt. Collaborate. Resist.

When the war began in 1991 in destabilized Yugoslavia, I clicked on the invisible button: Resist. This was a personal—unpremeditated perhaps, but certainly sincere—act of resistance to the stupidity and lies, a protest against those many disgraceful strategies by which the future pillagers and murderers set out to convince the people of Yugoslavia that war was a necessity and there were no options available other than fratricide.

Several years later, when I turned up in the Netherlands after leaving my country, I was awarded the Verzetsprijs (Artists in Resistance Prize) in 1997, an award that was still being conferred then in recognition of those Dutch artists who gave their lives during Nazism in defense of human dignity, theirs and their fellow citizens’. This unexpected honor was what inspired me to unpack my suitcases and make my new home there. The award, sadly, no longer exists. I was its last recipient. I know now that one presses that imaginary button on an impulse, just as I know that people from all historical constellations most often choose the button Adapt. The survival instinct prevails, and adaptation, they say, guarantees survival. A negligible minority will press the Resist button. I believe the intelligentsia—the schoolteachers, professors, artists, writers, scholars, journalists, and many others—will stop and think about whether to choose to adapt, collaborate, or resist overt, covert, and all other forms of terror. These three choices determine the culture in which we live. Ex-Yugoslavs have been living that culture, faced with it as with their own faces in the mirror, for a full quarter century now, but they still haven’t succeeded in coming up with a name for it. In less politically sensitive times, it would be called neofascist. Today, with the full awareness and responsibility of the thinking democratic majority, it is most often termed populist. The word “populism” was the Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017.

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Somewhere, among the newspapers offering reviews of the exhibit “The Archaeology of Resistance” flashed the faces of the curators, a young man with an innocent, round face and blue gaze expressing nothing, and a young woman on whose face the camera caught an unpleasantly cunning expression. While I studied these smooth, right-thinking faces, I was struck by the thought that these are the angels of death, my future executioners. They have infiltrated the state institutions, the archives, the international networks, and they receive generous subsidies from numerous commissions populated by similar angels, who, with their invisible wings, are cleansing and discarding everything that is to be thrown away, everything that no longer has a purpose, and all this together, all human effort, will be tossed onto the ash heap. Before the cold heavens there is no such thing as right or wrong, and all our efforts are in vain. I studied the photograph of these two young angels with their indifferent faces and wondered how many more there are like them. Tens? Hundreds? Hundreds of thousands?

We are plagued by the feeling that everything is slipping too fast through our fingers. Thanks to the help of seductive technology, we have recast our fear of death into the ritual of the daily archiving of our lives. And the more technological toys there are to help us register our voice, face, movement, the faster and more efficient the forgetting becomes. We’re constantly making trash and then collecting it—these two actions are sometimes out of sync and vie with one another. We’re buried in rubbish, shards, trash, rubble, debris, vestiges of something that, until recently, held meaning and function. Today, our metaphorical home and the surrounding landscape are a garbage dump. We’re gradually joining the seagulls and the crows, greedily pulling at somebody’s bowels, plastic bags, rags, rotten food. We are no longer able to handle the speed, the extreme present, yet we feel as if we haven’t even had a chance to be born, but, look, now we’re dying. Hence the hysteria of self-archiving to which we succumb without resistance. We send our reflections into the world at top speed as if every day is Judgment Day and our Instagram accounts simply must appear on God’s computer screen.

And if somebody in this age, in which we’re all swimming in debris, asks me for directions, for what to grab onto to keep from sinking, if someone asks me who the person or what the point, mental state, ideology, metaphor, religion, utopia, straw, or, simply, consolation would be—Hanta comes immediately to mind.

Hanta is the protagonist and narrator of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s 1976 masterpiece, Too Loud a Solitude. He is a well-read recluse, a social outcast, a “yurodivi,” a sacrificial lamb of his time, who has worked for thirty-five years compacting old paper, mainly discarded books. He shapes them into special bales. To each bale he gives “his signature.” Into each he builds his heart. He would never pack Kafka and Hitler together in a bale. In the thirty-five years he has been working while surrounded by books, which are like living beings for him, he has been inhabiting “too loud a solitude,” he does the work of a “tender butcher,” and as the “heavens are not humane,” he finds consolation in “compassion and love.” All in all, manuscripts don’t burn.

Today, Hanta’s offspring are the rising “archaeologists,” , reliable navigators through history, makers of memory maps, historians, explorers, memento collectors, the repairers, the rebuilders, the righteous who work on the historical “refuse,” the educators, protectors of truth, the curators of virtual museums, the defenders of historical facts…. Thanks to Hanta’s children, books don’t burn. When they’re violently tossed into the bonfire, the books laugh with the quiet laugh of resistance.

Dubravka Ugresic is a novelist and essayist. Her new collection of essays, The Age of Skin, is published by Open Letter Books. (November 2020) The essay, which was translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is adapted from The Age of Skin, published by Open Letter Books.

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