This summer, historian and EUROCLIO Ambassador Hrvoje Klasic received various death threats in response to his public speaking on television and in newspapers, in which he sought to provide nuance and ask critical questions on Croatian history. Jonathan Even-Zohar reached out to find out more.
In the interview, Prof. Klasic talks about his involvement with EUROCLIO and the circumstances surrounding the recent death threats, as well as the situation of history educators in Balkan countries more generally.
Since 2003, Hrvoje Klasic works as a university professor at Zagreb University department of History where his main focus area is Cold War history of Yugoslavia between east and west. He is dealing with sensitive pasts, more specifically, World War II, the Communist period, the Croatian War of Independence (Homeland war), and the situation in the 1990s.
Jonathan Even-Zohar: What is your relation with EUROCLIO?
Hrvoje Klasic: In 2003, right after I started my new job at university, my colleague asked me if I wanted to go to Sarajevo where EUROCLIO was starting a project on designing a common textbook. At that time, I had no idea what EUROCLIO was or what are they were doing but I agreed. Back in February 2003, we met for the first time in Sarajevo and from that moment I've been connected with the network, with EUROCLIO programs, and some of those colleagues have become very good friends.
For the last 15 years, I have been involved in a couple of projects as a resource person developing a common textbook about Yugoslav history of the 20th century. The other position at EUROCLIO is connected with my job as a university professor when I was able to help the teachers in elementary and high schools with my knowledge and skills (see list of projects). I am very proud about this connection with my career and I am very grateful for are opportunities that EUROCLIO gave me. I was able to travel so much from Latvia to Lampedusa, from the Black Sea coast to Cardiff. I would have never expected that I would have been able to go to so many places and meet so many colleagues if it wasn't for EUROCLIO.
JEZ: Over the last couple of years you have done more of public speaking and have been more present on the international level in dialogue and reconciliation projects. What happened recently and how do you see that in a context of the death threats you have received? Has the situation changed for the worse?
HK: In terms of EUROCLIO engagement, I thought that we were moving forward. I was in touch with colleagues from the same field who have a similar approach to history, from Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo. In the past, EUROCLIO was seen as a center for many history teachers and historians. We could improve our work and widen our connections with other teaches - all thanks to EUROCLIO. The last few years, however, this process has become more problematic and sometimes - when I listen to radio, watch TV, look at the media, internet, or social networks - I feel like we are back in the 1990s again. You can see that the nationalistic “patriotic” approach is dominant; we are again confined to our borders, our walls. The dialogue has disappeared. EUROCLIO educated many intellectuals and educators who are now coerced in their society. Even people like me – prominent educators in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Slovenia who are willing to deal with the past – are forced to fit into the dominant narrative. The political and economic situation is not going well, especially in the countries which are outside of the EU. Nationalism and populism are dominant approaches in these countries.
JEZ: What happened recently? What is the background of the last death threat? You have been in the public sphere for the last couple of years, so why now?
HK: Actually, nothing changed that much. I have received vulgar letters and people are approaching me on the street calling me a traitor, a fool, not a good Croatian, but this is the first time that I decided to speak openly about this and use my platform. The reason for my decision was triggered by a few incidents last summer, when Croatian nationalists beat up Serbian people in Croatia. At the same time, our Liberal Prime Minister was saying that the atmosphere was good and that there were just some small incidents.
I decided to illustrate that the atmosphere is good for those who don't ask difficult questions or give the wrong answers. People can be bystanders as long as they don't challenge the world they're living in. I wanted to show that even I – a 100-percent Croatian, a volunteer in the Croatian army since age of 18 - can receive death threats as a professor of History for talking about my own research. This shows that something is wrong. If I as a Christian and a veteran am receiving death threats, then how bad is it for minorities? This is the reason why I decided to share the experience of my life from the last few years with the public. Many people responded with surprise and shock when they found out that a university professor can receive so many death threats and can be attacked on the street. I want to make it more clear that this is not just incidental and that we have to do something.
JEZ: Are you able to continue with what you're doing?
HK: I decided not to be only a professor. I wanted to move into the public sphere as an intellectual. That is why I am on the TV and doing interviews, and writing columns on popular web portals. A few months ago, I wrote that it would be much easier for me to live with other people if I stop, but then I wouldn't be able to live with myself. Living in a society where I should be quiet is not a society for me. There are so many people who are supporting me and are approaching me in the street. I know that the radicals and extremists are a small, loud minority. I want to deal with the majority who is silent, to make them more sensitive – and not necessarily active as it's not for everybody to be active and brave, but at least for everyone to recognise that this is not normal. They don't have to write columns or go to the streets, but they can vote for “normal” politicians and parties and not rightists, not populist, and not extremists.
JEZ: You are still lecturing at university, so how does this topic of history being used for nationalistic and/or extremist purposes get discussed with your students? I can imagine there are still those who want to go to study history in order to celebrate their nationalism?
HK: You are right. The majority of the schoolchildren are learning through history to be patriotic and to be good Croatians. Certainly not all, but I think it's a majority. The faculty where I work can be seen as somewhat left-leaning with a majority of liberal professors. The students who choose to study at my faculty are therefore often close to my approach.
Sometimes students like to engage with me and I can see how they often get their information from fake news and false interpretations. On the other hand, when you start to talk with them and you present your case supported with arguments, then you can see that they only have opinions rather than arguments; they are always answering with, “I think…”. This is a challenge for me, because I don't want them to think like I do, I just want them to think. When everybody is wrong and we are good this is a very problematic position and with nationalists this is always the case.
JEZ: Many organizations tried to work with teachers to change the situation, so what do you think is the more difficult job: to be a historian or to be a teacher?
HK: History teachers! Unlike professors, they have to follow the curriculum made by the government which means that they must present a certain narrative. Right now, we are looking into reforms of the school system but we do not have any political space to tackle complex questions. Why teach history? How to teach history? What should be the impact of history? Is it about making a loyal patriot and a good Croatian? For me, the aim of history teaching is to help young people to become critical thinkers and open-minded learners who could think and read and find themselves in such a complex world, but in the wider Balkan region nationalism and patriotism still dominates the curriculum.
For example, I recently met a teacher who works in a small community school. She was using new perspectives on the Wars of the 90s until one day a father of a student came with his uniform. He was a veteran of the war and he threatened the teacher to be careful with what she was saying.. It's easier for me to be brave than it is for teachers in local communities, because there is a direct connection with the families who may have lost people in those Wars.
JEZ: EUROCLIO has in the last 15-20 years worked with teachers to build connections, trust, and a larger network. On the other hand, there are groups, as you said, which are maybe more stuck in a “border mentality”. What would you recommend EUROCLIO and other international organizations to do?
HK: I do think the network building was very important, but unfortunately nothing in this region will go on if there is no top down approach as well. It would be great if some more powerful individuals and organizations are challenged and that not only schools but also universities apply more public pressure on the issue. Personally, I have started to speak more out but I was not trained on how to do this and certainly there are better and more professional ways to do it. What would I recommend? Well, to help teachers as well as academics become more visible in society, not only inside their field, encourage them to make new textbooks and materials, but also how to make public blogs, columns in portals, special posts and videos on social media, how to propose TV documentaries and raise funds or even, for example, to create a regional podcast. There is a gap! I listen to podcasts when I drive and when I run. The problem is that there is no podcast in our language! We must use these new possibilities to engage the public. We should use more historians and teachers in this region who can benefit immensely from this exposure, which is also something I would volunteer for!
List of projects
History in Action - Planning for the Future https://www.euroclio.eu/project/history-action-planning-future/
Enhancing History Education and Civic Society https://www.euroclio.eu/project/enhancing-history-education-civic-society/
Football. A People’s History of Europe https://www.euroclio.eu/project/football-a-peoples-history-of-europe/
History that Connects https://www.euroclio.eu/project/history-that-connects/
Once Upon a Time…We Lived Together (Advisor and Trainer) https://www.euroclio.eu/resource/29666/
 Ordinary People in Extraordinary Country; Cooperation between historians from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia was established through joint project “Improvement of teaching history and civil society in the region” in 2004 and continued through 2007 in the project “History at work - preparation for the future of BiH, Croatia and Serbia”. The idea for the joint project originated from European Association of History Teachers - EUROCLIO, which initiated establishment of history teachers associations in Croatia and BiH and connected them to the Association in Serbia. The goal of the project is to support the development of teaching history and civil society in the said countries, as well as to promote the cooperation, development of critical thinking and mutual understanding, promotion of peace, stability and democracy in the region.