Slovenes, Croatians, Archives and National Interest

A colleague from the archives confided to me over coffee that she never had and never could cheer for Croatia. I remember this statement well it was this summer when Croatia was eliminated from the European Football Championship. Although they definitely deserved the bit of luck needed to advance, many a Slovene only smiled smugly. A similar situation, only the reverse, occurred two years ago when Croatians could only watch from home while Slovenia played in the World Cup. Then also, with a bit of luck, Slovenia could have progressed in the tournament. However, many a Croat did not wish that for them and smiled in sweet satisfaction. Just like when Croatia’s top skiers Janica and Ivica Kostelić carved the slopes much faster than the Slovene skiers and thus contributed to the destruction of skiing as the pride and myth of Slovenia.

The emergence of the new states of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 gave rise to new national euphoria in both nations. The patriotism thus inspired caused collateral damage; a tectonic break in the comprehension of mutual relations. Every year the border between the two nations increasingly becomes a limiting fact rather than a space of opportunity. During the existence of various multinational structures – from the Habsburg Monarchy through the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to socialist Yugoslavia – both nations and their political elites perceived it as such a space. For Croats and Slovenes everything was ‘ours.’ Croats were happy to cheer for the Slovene skier Bojan Križaj and Slovenes kept their fingers crossed for the Croatian boxer Mate Parlov, while both together would experience ecstasy following the epic actions of Yugoslav national teams (known as the ‘Plavi’ [Blues]) in football, handball, basketball, etc. My colleague from the archives also still remembers well when successes were ‘ours’, however today she no longer likes the Croats so much. Is something wrong with her, is something wrong with us?

In the past two decades since the collapse of the common state of Yugoslavia, the relationship between Slovenes and Croats has become special and original as never before. Nostalgia has been mixed with the creation of a new tradition, and populism, above all, has strengthened, which is very dangerous and destructive for the relations between the two nations. It is not difficult to see that relations between Slovenes and Croats are worse than ever. The need to set up boundaries has never been as obvious as it is today. This can also be felt in Slovene and Croatian archives. Such archives, as with history and the public space, have been ‘occupied’ by various experts who, in the name of national interest, browse through materials that could be useful in reinforcing the boundaries between the two states. In public the border dispute is generated as the central point of the dispute between the states. However, on the basis of the signed inter-state arbitration agreement, the dispute will presumably not be resolved before 2014, and at least until then there does not seem to be any interest in debates running their course, either among political elites or the kind that are carried out in bars and cafes. All the avoidance of establishing borders with Croats and general disinterest therein, which had been a constant since the onset of Slovene nationalism in the 19th century, has now dissipated and the logic has been reversed. For a century and a half the emerging Slovene public ignored the Slovene-Croatian border. However, nowadays the borderline is a cause célèbre among Slovenes and receives enormous publicity. For the Slovene public the border issue has grown to reach a broad ideological dimension, especially after Slovenia entered the European Union (2004), the Schengen Area and the Eurozone. The border which had previously connected us with the ‘brotherly republics of Yugoslavia’ became the border with the ‘Balkans’. The rhetoric of the Slovene yellow press has been to suggest that it is necessary to distance oneself from the ‘barbaric South’.

Are the national interests of Slovenia and Croatia characterized by limitation? Consequently, do the Slovene (and Croatian) archives, as the treasuries of both national identities, need to be perceived merely as having a function in the creation of new physical and content-related borders? In terms of the relationship between the two states, the archives of both states are perceived merely as storage places from which politically selected topics will be gathered and culled. In the Slovene regional archives for the Štajerska Region located in Maribor, Ptuj, and Celje we are not willing to agree with this and believe that our colleagues from archives in Croatia understand their role similarly. Instead of being perceived merely as the bastions of the national interest, especially in these delicate times, we would like to deepen our mutual co-operation and prove ourselves capable of building strong bridges between the two nations, by means of common projects.

Rogatec, 1903, held at the Historical Archive Celje, Collection of postcards. Image courtesy of Historical Archives Celje

The result of the co-operative agreement between the three Slovene and three Croatian archives in the border area is a common bilingual exhibition entitled Cities and Market Towns along the Croatian–Styrian Border. In this project, entitled SIHeR, the following archives participated: the National Archives in Zagreb, the National Archives for the Medžimurje Region, the National Archives in Varaždin, the Ptuj Historical Archives, the Maribor Regional Archives, and the Celje Historical Archives. By means of a narrower selection of materials from the archives the exhibition material was focussed on presenting the history of 16 border towns, including market towns and the sites of archives: Zagreb, Samobor, Celje, Brežice, Podčetrtek, Rogatec, Ptuj, Ormož, Središče ob Dravi, Varaždin, Krapina, Vinica, Maribor, Ljutomer, Čakovec, and Štrigova.

Podčetrtek, 1681, held by Historical Archive Celje, Graphics Collection. Image courtesy of Historical Archives Celje

In the six collaborating archives we are well aware that our professional activities could be generally benefited by actions which foster productive dialogue between the two administratively and politically separated spaces. We have endeavoured to emphasise and demonstrate to those outside the border areas the ongoing successful co-operation between the two countries; by intensive co-operation of archives from both sides of the border to select materials which demonstrate the co-habitation of people from both sides of the border. The message of our rich cultural heritage declares that Slovenes and Croats know how to cultivate tolerant relations, and through productive professional work we manage to create genuine friendships and contribute to the cultivation of tolerant relations. Both states are, in fact, still in the dew of youth, which is why it is completely understandable why the border has not yet been defined to the last stone.

Attempts at uncovering possible mistakes is most unhelpful in the relations between the two states. We should leave the decision regarding the border to the arbitration tribunal, while the rest of us should together try to become aware of the starting points. An example of this is a project The History of Administrative Borders and Boundaries: the Slovenian-Croatian Border 1800 – 1991 by the research group at the Institute of Contemporary History in Ljubljana. The project identified the Slovene-Croatian problem as above all lying in incorrect starting points. Their finding was that since researchers address the border issue anachronistically as a fixed unit in history, the broader contexts of ‘border movements’ are ignored, and the national/ethnic/linguistic aspects are drawn into the periods when it was not at all possible to draw a sharp line between the Slovene and Croatian elements. History is simply such that it will never be possible to define retroactively what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘theirs’.

Some media have understood the point of the exhibition incorrectly, i.e. that it originates from the needs of the ongoing border arbitration, which again is a very revealing message in its way. The exhibition does not feature merely the ‘pearls’ stored in our archives, but it exposes the borderline symbiosis between towns, market towns, and their inhabitants, while it also points to the common destiny of the people from the broader area. Actually, it can immediately and without great prejudice dawn on even an accidental traveller, whether from Zagreb or Ljubljana, seeking health and rest in the Terme Olimje spa on the Slovene side, or on the Croatian side in the Tuheljske Toplice spa, that there are many more similarities between the people along the entire Slovene-Croatian border than between them and the people of their respective national centres.

The exhibition was first opened at the beginning of 2012 in Zagreb, subsequently it travelled to Celje and Maribor, and in the summer of 2012 it is receiving a new informative dimension as it moves from the exhibition space on the premises of the archives directly to the border, among the people who live with and along it. From June to September 2012 the exhibition was staged in a section of the Rogatec Strmol Palace.

The next opening is taking place in Ptuj today (the 5th of October 2012)

Guests at the opening, Rogatec Strmol Palace, June 22, 2012. Image courtesy of Historical Archives Celje guest writer;

Dr. Borut Batagelj, Director
Celje Historical Archives

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