“A society where I should be quiet is not a society for me.” Interview with Hrvoje Klasić

Jonathan Even-Zohar Articles , , ,

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[1]. 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/

[1] 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.

Dealing with Croatia’s Difficult Past in History Education – Part II

This is the second part of a report made by Clara Ramírez Barat and Olesya Skrypnyk on their study visit to Croatia. It is the ninth article in a series of blogposts and reports on all study visits made for the project "Dealing with the Past in History Education". In this project civil society actors from different backgrounds, visit schools and institutions in countries that are struggling with a difficult past. The first part of this blogpost can be found here.

Continuation of the report

Day 2: Tuesday 31 January

After the conversation in the University the DwP team visited the City Museum of Split. Opened to the public in 1992, in a palace that was built in the15th century. The Museum exhibits the cultural and historical heritage of the city through a stunning collection of artwork (including fragments of monuments and statues that were once parts of buildings in Split) together with numerous documents, photographs, maps and manuscripts that tell the story of the city. After the visit, the DwP team met with one of the museum educators and another educator from the Maritime Museum to learn about their perspectives on the challenges of conveying to young people the recent and difficult history of the country.

As a historical museum, the City Museum of Split, however, does not cover the most recent period of the country’s history. As a matter of fact, from the different museums in Split, it is only the Maritime Museum that includes the history of the 20th Century in its exhibition. According to the Maritime Museum educator, a historian by training, it is difficult to explain the history of World War II and the Independence War to the kids that come to visit the museum. This is even more the case when it comes to students coming from Slavonia, a region from the Eastern part of the country near the border with Serbia, not only because the war was especially felt in that area, but also because the classes are mixed, with both Croatian and Serbian students. Indeed, she had sometimes been warned by teachers to be careful on how she explained this period to them, and to limit her introduction to the basics—the terrible consequences of the war—without entering into details about the causes and the way the war unfolded. She noted that while often students are surprised when they hear about the war, it is important that students today learn about the recent history of the country. Having worked in the museum for five years, she commented that the memory of the war is fading, becoming less important with each generation that passes, and she worries that students today don’t get much exposure to it in the school curricula. She mentioned that while the war is briefly touched upon in primary school, students don’t really learn about it until they are 15 years old. However, this is only if they go to high school, as those who attend technical schools won’t learn more about it in school.

After the visit to the Museum, in the afternoon, the DwP team went to visit Visoka, a primary school in the city of Split, to discuss with the students why for them it is important to learn history, and to find out what they learn about the difficult history of Croatia in school and what more would they like to know about it. In general the kids agreed that studying history was important to understand the present time, to know more about their country and the society in which they live today.

As students in 8th grade, they were planning a mandatory school visit in March to Vukovar, a city that was completely destroyed during the war. They were excited about the trip and expressed eagerness to learn more about the “heroes that defended the country” and about the consequences of the war. When asked why they thought it was hard to talk about these topics in the classroom, they mostly agreed it was because the events are still very close, and many people suffered. All of them know someone who lost a member of their family in the war, and thus for them it is still a very painful history to remember, even if they didn’t live during the war themselves.

Through the conversation, they also recognized that it is still not that common among Croatian kids to have Serbian friends (only some of them did), but they expressed complete normality about the idea of meeting Serbian kids, as they thought the war caused pain on all sides and keeping hatred for what happened won’t solve problems but just prolong them in time. One student even said that Serbian kids learn history from a different perspective than the one that they do, and that is something that has to be acknowledged and respected.

Next, the DwP team visited a history lesson in Prva Gimnazija, a high school in the city of Split. The teacher gave a presentation drawing parallels between the bombing of Guernica, in Spain (1937) and Vukovar, Croatia (1991). After that, the class joined a discussion on the problem of the difficult past in recent Croatian history. The teacher admitted that he remembered “that time” [War of Independence] and that for him it was not easy to teach his students about it without emotions, although he also asserted that he tried his best to be objective so the students could better understand the situation, including the consequences of the war.

Despite the fact that the high school students were born in the late 1990s and didn’t experience the war, they generally agreed that it had a huge impact on them. The students hadn’t covered the theme of the Croatian War of Independence before the study visit was held, but they spoke about how they learned about the events from the family – their fathers participated in the war (though, one of the students mentioned that her father never spoke about his memories of the war). Among other sources of information about the war they listed school trips to Vukovar, documentaries and professors’ lectures.

Young people expressed the desire to be given a full picture of the war events because “if you have knowledge, you cannot be manipulated by newspapers,” to have more classes on these topics, and to develop critical thinking. Media and politicians, in their view, are responsible for the feeling that almost all of them bear inside – “mistrust towards the Serbs.” However, some of the students said that they had friends or relatives in Serbia. One of the students shared her experience of participation in a TV show competition that had taken place in Serbia. Despite her own fears, and the fears of her family before the trip, Serbian people were friendly and kind to them, and she was very pleased to have had the opportunity to be confronted with such a reality.

 

Day 3: Wednesday 1 February

On February 1st the DwP team had a visit to the Radić Brothers Primary School in Bračević. They had meetings with the pupils of two classes (one of them consists only two students).

In the first meeting, answering the question why it is important to learn history, the students admitted the following:

  • Need to know more about what happened in the past [in order not to repeat it in the future];
  • Importance of having own opinion;
  • War is not a solution, and has serious consequences (destroyed buildings, psychological problems of former soldiers);
  • Enjoying the history classes.

Speaking about the recent past, the students admitted that they lacked the information in the textbooks. Usually teachers “tell the things which are not in the textbook.” They also learn from the TV programmes and search for information on the Internet (e.g. witnesses of Vukovar, events in Bleiburg and Jasenovac). Sometimes their parents tell “some things” (e.g. not only Serbian soldiers committed crimes during the war), and they discuss the topic among themselves as well.

Like their peers from primary school Visoka, pupils in Bračević were looking forward to visiting Vukovar, learning how people had lived there during the war, and seeing the hospital [memorial], which would help them to “protect our country”.

The teacher told the team about the school projects: one with the Serbian kindergarten, named by Nicola Tesla, and the other about Anne Frank. She mentioned those projects aimed to prevent war.

The second meeting was held with the class of two pupils. They considered it important to learn history, especially recent history, to know how their country came into existence. As mentioned by one of the students “we fought for it for centuries.” Speaking about what they know about the difficult history, the pupils regarded Vukovar as a “symbol of struggle.”

The students know of Vukovar and the Croatian War of Independence through different school subjects, from the history teacher, and from family members or elderly people. They also wished to have more lessons so that they could learn about the things they are interested in (e.g. WWII, its causes and consequences).

They presumed that Serbian people “are not that bad,” and one of the students said that she had contact with peers from Serbia, whose fathers belonged to the same motor-club as her father.

The teacher added that he tries not to give conclusions about what is good or bad, moral or immoral, but the facts, so that the students could make some conclusions themselves. He also admitted, that for him the most challenging period of Croatian difficult history is WWII.

This concludes the report of Clara Ramírez Barat's and Olesya Skrypnyk's study visit to Croatia. This study visit has been a part of the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For more information on this project, please visit the project page

Dealing with Croatia’s Difficult Past in History Education – Part I

This is the first part of a report made by Clara Ramírez Barat and Olesya Skrypnyk on their study visit to Croatia. It is the eighth article in a series of blogposts and reports on all study visits made for the project "Dealing with the Past in History Education". In this project civil society actors from different backgrounds, visit schools and institutions in countries that are struggling with a difficult past. The previous article in this series of Ineke Veldhuis-Meesters' visit to Calcutta, India, can be found here. 

Report of the international study visit Croatia

As members of EUROCLIO’s Dealing with the Past Project (DwP) team, Olesya Skrypnyk (Nova Doba, Ukraine) and Clara Ramírez Barat (AIPR, Brazil office) travelled to Croatia from January 30th to February 1st 2017. In three days, one in Zagreb and two in Split, they met with several civil society actors, state institutions representatives, teachers, and students to learn about how the difficult past is taught in schools, and to discuss the practical challenges involved in dealing with conflicting memories and emotional histories in the classroom. This report briefly summarizes the discussions they held during those days and outlines the main findings of the study visit.

Day 1: Monday 30 January

On the morning of January 30th, the DwP team had a combined meeting with Documenta and Youth Initiative for Human Rights, two NGOs that work with different aspects of dealing with the past in the country, especially in regards to the adoption of transitional justice measures and the promotion of non recurrence. After a brief introduction to the work of both organizations, the discussion centered on the question of how, in their views, history education could help better deal with the difficult past in Croatia. As organizations trying to advance human rights issues in Croatia in relation to the war, however, they found it was very challenging to pursue their mission in the country today and that most of their perspectives were not widely shared by the society.

For both organizations, when it comes to education about the recent history, it is important to begin by recognizing that having a certain narrative about what happened is unavoidable. Facts just don’t stand alone. In this respect, for them, one of the biggest challenges today is that Croatia is still a young nation, and hence identity and tradition play a key role in the ongoing state building project. According to them, in broad terms, history education is not being taught today primarily with the intention of dealing with the past, but rather to teach young people the narrative of how Croatia became an independent nation.

When it comes to better understanding the War of Independence, its causes, how it unfolded, and its consequences, both organizations considered that the topic is not adequately covered in the school curricula. History classes normally end with the story of World War II, and only when a teacher is especially interested, students will learn more about Yugoslavia and the Independence War. They also noted the scarcity of pedagogical material to help teachers and students to critically learn about these topics. Learning from real sources and being exposed to different perspectives is rare, and besides the mandatory visit to Vukovar, there are almost no extra-curricular activities (like visits to memorials or museums) to complement what is taught in the classroom.

The second meeting was held at the Memorial–Documentation Center for the Homeland War (CDMCHW), a state scientific institution and specialized archive run by the Ministry of Culture. Its mission is to preserve, document, and research the history of the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995). As part of its mission, the Center organizes exhibitions and public lectures and actively cooperates with educational institutions (both public and private) throughout the country to help them better understand and convey the recent Croatian national history, especially the War of Independence and its consequences. With the support of the National Agency of Education, for example, they organize an annual seminar for teachers about the Homeland War. The seminar, which is done in a voluntary basis, gathers more than 100 teachers from all over Croatia every year.

For the staff at the CDMCHW, the war is a subject well covered by the current Croatian history curricula. As an archive, which collects and preserves a myriad of documents of the war, when it comes to history, “the facts” are more important than understanding the narratives built. While they recognize experiences are different, as historians, they think their capacity to interpret those experiences is limited—the goal is rather to have to all the facts from both sides of the war and write about the events only based on these facts. Still, they recognize that there are divisions in Croatia today on how the recent history is interpreted, which go back to the time of World War II and the Communist time.

 

Day 2: Tuesday 31 January

The first meeting on this day was held at the University of Split. The DwP team visited the History Department and had a discussion with a group of professors and students (members of History Students’ association).

A professor of the department gave a presentation, which listed a number of the most sensitive issues in Croatian contemporary history and presented the following essential ways to better deal with them:

  • Taking into account different perspectives and interpretations in the study program;
  • Students’ critical thinking in learning and teaching history;
  • Students’ independent participation in the reconstruction of historical events;
  • Importance of micro-history approach in outlining the impact of war [Croatian War of Independence] on civilian population and everyday life;
  • Making victims lists and referring with respect and dignity to every victim regardless of his/her nationality or political views;
  • Encouraging students to engage in extra-curricular activities (e.g. work with additional sources).

After presentation, the students and the professors joined a discussion on the topic of the challenges of a difficult past in history education in Croatia, whether there are enough materials on the recent history in the school curricula, and how the History department members deal with the challenges of emotional histories.

The students pointed out the main problems with teaching of recent Croatian history:

  • It is politically and ideologically biased;
  • There still is a “strong impact of collective memory.”

The students also mentioned that they wanted to be given real facts while studying difficult history. They also felt they should learn more about the Croats crimes and what they “did wrong.” In their view, the topic of the Croatian War of Independence is not sufficiently represented in school textbooks. Regarding their school years, they admitted that students very often got information about the war events from their families or mass media, which were not objective.

One of the professors considered that today there was a wide consensus about how to perceive the Homeland War in Croatia, but recognized that there is still a problem with the interpretation of WWII that splits the nation.

This blogpost concludes the first part of the report of this study visit to Croatia. This study visit has been a part of the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For more information on this project, please visit the project page

Croatia can do better!

EUROCLIO Association

On Wednesday, June 1, at 18:00pm, citizens of Croatia will participate in demonstrations under the slogan Croatia can do better! The demonstrations will be simultaneously held in 13 towns in Croatia as well as in London, Budapest, Shanghai, Paris & Brussels (more towns are getting organized).

Croatia can do better

WHY?
For the past 16 months, the Comprehensive Curricular Reform has been under way in Croatia based on the National Strategy on Science and Education passed in Croatian Parliament in October 2014.

In line with National Strategy, Comprehensive Curricular Reform aims at  developing basic competencies for lifelong learning, increasing the level of functional literacy of pupils and students, definition of learning outcomes (also the ones thatdevelop attitudes, skills, responsibility, creativity, innovation and critical thinking), greater autonomy of teachers in choice of teaching content and methods with a strong focus on participative and active methods of learning.

Hard_working_history_expert_group
History Expert Group

Built on these foundations, the process of Comprehensive Curricular Reform was led by the Expert Working Group (EWG) and was organized in the most participative, transparent and democratic way (involving over 52 working groups and 500 teachers and other experts) with EWG consulting all stakeholders and insisting on Education as a public good and of national interest, above all political and individual interests. The newly elected government gave it only nominal support when it came to power in January 2016, and attempted to obstruct and manipulate the process. Namely, the Parliamentary Committee on Education has decided (decision of the Parliamentary Committee has been reached without participation of opposition representatives, as the session’s agenda has been changed, without informing all members of the Committee ) to expand the Expert Working Group – consisting of 7 persons whose task is to co-ordinate – by expanding it with additional 10 persons for specific subjects. The expert working group requested from the Minister to support the process fully by: rejecting the Parliamentary Education Committee decision; covering the material costs (not fees) owed to members of different working groups and clearly stating the time plan for piloting the reform. As the Minister did not respond the EWG requested the Minister to dismiss them from the appointment.

The public outcry following this event motivated the civil society scene, unions and general public to rally in the campaign “Croatia can do better” and to organize the demonstrations as support to the Croatian Comprehensive Curricular Reform and send the message that education is the priority of the society.

On June 1st Croatia has a chance to prove that participation is the only way to true democracy.

All Croatian EUROCLIO member associations, institutions and individuals – Croatian History Teachers AssociationAssociation for Education and Promotion of Human RightsUniversity of SplitDocumenta – Center for dealing with the Past and EUROCLIO ambassadors in Croatia Kiti Jurica Korda and Denis Detling strongly support the campaign, our members and colleagues working in the expert and working groups. We are proud of you.

Together we can do better!

 

[CROATIA] HTA  Udruga    University Split    [CROATIA] Documenta - Center for dealing with the past