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An urgent history lesson from modern Croatia
It’s time to go back Down the Pipes, a semi-private, mostly-public weekly blog for good people who know good people. Welcome to it!
This week I’m starting this post from a ferry between Hvar and Dubrovnik, a 4ish hour cruise through the Adriatic Sea in Croatia AKA Dalmatia AKA the Balkan Islands AKA Hrvaska FKA Yugoslavia FKA Rumelia FKA Reliquiae reliquiarum olim inclyti regni Croatiae (Remains of the Remainder of Once Glorious Croatian Kingdom) FKA The Republic of Ragusa FKA The Kingdom of Croatia FKA the Duchy of Croatia FKA The Ostrogothic Kingdom FKA the Western Roman Empire FKA Illyria.
That is all to say: Croatia is the kind of place that everyone has always wanted a piece of.
It’s not hard to understand why…their olive oil, fish, and wine varietals are so rare and delicious that they hardly export any (some islands, like Hvar, barely see their products leave the island), the beaches are some of the most stunning coastlines the Mediterranean has to offer, the people are all kinds of beautiful and gracious (basically Greeks without the thick hair, Italians without our thick attitudes), and their nightlife is on par with global party capitals like Ibiza, NOLA, Goa, Vegas, and Berlin. I’ve always said NOLA is a better vacation city than Vegas because they had a 200 year head start on the party, Croatia has been perfecting theirs for centuries longer than that.
Growing up in the USA, we don’t really get a good sense of historical scale in our everyday existence. “Ancient” in America is anything pre-Revolutionary war…growing up on Long Island, I lived in an older coastal town that was “settled” in the 17th century (Seaford’s main thoroughfare, Seaman’s Neck Rd, was named after a sailor named John Seaman in 1630). Despite a similar European white washing of the entire eastern seaboard, the surrounding areas all still have names that harken back to an even earlier time (Massapequa, Wantagh, Canarsie, Setauket, Montauk, Patchogue, Quogue, etc. all come from either Iroquois or Algonquian language). While most of Europe was ensconced in dark ages and plagues of the middle 2nd millennia, first nations flourished here, only to be mostly erased when the protestants, explorers, and capitalists showed up (God, glory, and gold, for those of you who paid attention in history class).
Putting aside the fact that our country was settled and thriving long before a bunch of white dudes told the King of England to fuck off and started naming shit after themselves though, a 250ish year old country isn’t very old in the grand scheme of things.
The Republic of Ragusa, on the other hand, was centered around the Croatian city of Dubrovnik from 1358 to 1808—450 years—and saw heyday long before Spanish, French, and English settlers claimed North America as their own. Prior to that period, nomadic Slavic people who settled in the 7th century resisted or appeased invading tribes, conquering kings, and numerous world empires. Imagine a place where the native tribal inhabitants found a coastline to develop in relative peace…outsiders were always knocking, but for the most part they managed to preserve a rich history and geography that is uniquely Croatian for over a thousand years.
When you walk around a city wall that’s so old and medieval that the producers of Game of Thrones decide to shoot the mythical King’s Landing there, you really can’t comprehend the scale of time that separates you from the moment those bricks were laid. The number of love stories, heartbreaks, deaths, births, invasions, kings, gods, and mortals that went into creating or eroding that place is utterly staggering; you might as well be reconciling the concept of a trillion dollars. Yes, the number means something and you know that, but you can’t possibly fathom the depth of its meaning based on your own experience of the known universe (or your bank account).
Equally jarring is realizing how much of this inconceivable measure of time includes more modern developments that you (or, at least I) had no firm understanding of, despite being alive and cognizant for them. In school, our textbooks basically stopped at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War was over, the USSR disbanded, and capitalism “triumphed” over communism the way we were taught to expect it would.
But the truth is that post-Soviet states have almost all struggled in some form to find their identities and borders since that point. Afghanistan saw Civil War throughout the the 90’s, they barely put their guns down before our tanks showed up in 2001. Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and just recently in 2016 dropped “Republic” and became Czechia through more peaceful, self-determined means, but an identity crisis nonetheless. Ukraine’s eastern front is just the most recent, violent, and well-publicized continuation of the messy dissolution of a once sweeping empire.
As a 5 or 6 year old I remembered first hearing about Yugoslavia in the news, though at that age pretty much every country was a new concept to me…a 1986 Kidsongs VHS cassette called “I’d Like To Teach The World to Sing” was really my first and only introduction to places like France (Frère Jacques), London (London Bridge, not the Fergie version), Italy (Funiculi, Funicula), South Africa (Kumbaya), Jamaica (Day-O, though this song was technically introduced to me by Raffi), and Japan (Sakura, Sakura). Today these videos might be seen as a little stereotypical or even as cultural appropriation, but for a toddler I think it was about as worldly as any kid could handle at that age.
To that point, one of my earliest memories in life was a 1010 WINS (you give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the World) broadcast in 1990 (I was 3 and change) announcing the end of the Gulf War. The “middle east” was not a region featured on my infant VHS tapes. I distinctly remember asking my mother if the announcement of the “end of the war” meant there’d be no more wars, in general. Precocious—sure—but a valid concern nonetheless (I am also aware that it’s freaky to recall a heady conversation from this young an age, but what can I say…it stuck with me).
Her answer was perfectly appropriate and truthful given my age and the audacity of the question, and I can literally remember staring through the Cesca chair netting at the yellow-ish vinyl composite tiles on the floor as she answered:
“No James, sadly there is always going to be war. But we’ll never see war here in Massapequa.”
So when the news broadcasts turned their attention to violence in places I hadn’t heard of on Kidsongs or Raffi tapes—places like Bosnia, Serbia, and Yugoslavia—I already understood that wars were inevitable in countries beyond my understanding. They were places full of strife, poverty, unrest and lacking modern development. The travesty of the “third world,” a place allegedly devoid of decency and humanity, forced by tragic circumstance to accept calamity as their fate. If war was broadly inevitable but impossible at my home, then surely the places that experience war must not be like my safe, developed, “normal” country.
Having now visited a deeply normal, centuries-protected, lovely country that does not match my childhood understanding of a “war-torn place,” uncovering the recency and details of the Yugoslav War in this country has been a real eye-opening mindfuck, to say the least.
What I’ve learned this week about Slobodan Milosevic and the Greater-Serbian Aggression or Homeland War (as Croats have come to call the Yugoslav Wars) is truly mind boggling. Milosevic in Serbia and Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro were a modern era Stalin and Mao, using communist nationalism to create absolute power among an aggrieved people, with the ethnic cleansing practice of a Pol Pot or Hitler layered on top to drive Muslims out of Kosovo and the surrounding states of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Albania, Slovenia, and Croatia. Milosevic was eventually overthrown in 2000 and posthumously convicted of war crimes after dying mid-trial at The Hague in 2006. Djukanovic is, amazingly, still the president of Montenegro, despite his early support (though later denunciation) of the Serbian aggression and a decades long kleptocratic rule over a hybrid regime.
I’m grossly oversimplifying. Once full tilt war broke out, atrocities were committed by all sides, with Muslims often facing the brunt of nationalist aggression in Bosnia, a name that still evokes images in my head of starving children from 90’s UNICEF commercials. I still don’t have a full grasp on the entire war to be honest, though I’ve started watching the BBC documentary The Death of Yugoslavia to fill in the gaps of my understanding.
What I do know now that I didn’t know before this past week is three key facts about the present though:
First, the Balkans are an amazing place and if you have the means, you should visit them. Their hospitality and kindness was top notch everywhere, and nearly everyone you meet is grateful to have tourists visiting a country that felt forgotten during the western “glory days” of the 90’s. Everyone knew someone who fought in that war, and the scars are still visible in a number of places, but they’ve done a great job in welcoming tourists.
Second: While Croatia has always been the most peaceful country in the region, tension across former Yugoslavia is still motivated along ethnonational lines, and Bosnia is once again seeing a sharp rise in Serbian nationalism just these past few years. Nationalist ideals that encourage violence across ethnic or political lines are poison for an impoverished people seeking somewhere to place blame for their troubles, and that poison is not easily eradicated or reversed even after decades of fighting and periods of peace.
Thirdly—and I will certainly have more to say about this in the coming weeks—watching the Congressional January 6th Hearing at 2am on CNN International made me intensely aware of just how close the US came to our own dance with violent ethnonationalism, and like in modern Bosnia, that risk has not gone away with the passage of time. We have “us versus them” language being used to create a sense of otherness among neighbors, the aggravated populace that finds solace in violence against a society that has failed them, and a despotic figurehead who knows just the right buttons to push to create an environment where violence against fellow citizens can thrive. We are not as far as we’d like to think from a bloody trap that has snared countless other peaceful countries before us.
The last thing I’ll say here is that if you’re not familiar with “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland, give Kenneth Branagh’s latest film, Belfast, an immediate watch. I caught it on my flight, admittedly another period of violent recent history that I didn’t have a firm understanding of (I knew of Irish Car Bombs as a drink in college before I understood what that name was referencing). And while Irish Protestants and Catholics maybe wouldn’t strike you as the “kind of people” who would fight a war with each other on the same block (blocks much like the Irish-Italian suburban melting pot I knew as a kid on LI), it draws many eerie comparisons to the current state of play here at home.
A once peaceful country falling on hard times and finding fault in the identity of their neighbors, leading to years of unending and senseless violence despite both sides claiming moral superiority and a desire for unity. My hope is that we as a nation have a capacity to avoid the kind of conflict we’ve seen time and time again elsewhere, and perhaps these 1/6 hearings can help provide an off-ramp to the American violence we seem to be barreling towards.
Because despite my mother doing her best to calm a too-smart-for-his-own-good toddler, it is now crystal clear to me that war can happen anywhere. Even deeply peaceful, happy, otherwise safe places.
And in fact, it almost exclusively does.
Until next time.