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Monika Palmberger: “There are practices of ‘border crossing’ and acts of solidarities before...”

Monika Palmberger: “There are practices of ‘border crossing’ and acts of solidarities before, during and after the war”

Memory landscapes in (post)Yugoslavia

Edited by Milica Popović, Sciences Po CERI and University of Ljubljana and Natalija Majsova, University of Ljubljana and Catholic University of Louvain.

Yugoslavia as a state existed twice, once as a monarchy and once as a socialist republic. Different historical legacies, state regimes, cultural and religious heritage are woven into the region – there is a myriad of different political entities and also a plenitude of political and/or national/ethnic identities. The dissolution of the socialist republic, responsible for an advanced modernization of the country and an unprecedented development of the region, ensued during the crisis of the 1980s, and continued all the way into the violent wars of the 1990s. In January 1992, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart. The end of the Yugoslav state, however, did not feature the end of the Yugoslav idea or the end of Yugoslav memory. While all are marked by “political abuse of power and the deeply unjust privatization processes” (Dolenec 2013: 7), each of the seven republics of Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Kosovo,[1] - reveals a particular memoryscape, abundant in internal battles, which sometimes converge and sometimes diverge, weaving a complex net of (post)Yugoslav memory.

In line with Catherine Baker's observation that “nationalism was an instrument, not a cause” (Baker 2015: 129), (post)Yugoslav memory continues to evolve in dialogue across the borders of (post)Yugoslav states. Although our approach in this series of interviews remains “republic-centered”, this does not in any way imply that we do not believe that (post)Yugoslav memory works as “nœuds de mémoire” (Rothberg 2009), producing new solidarities and possibilities for thought and action.

Before you is the fifth in a series of seven interviews with seven leading scholars in memory studies, each discussing memory politics within one of the (post)Yugoslav republics. While the online edition of Historical Expertise will publish them one by one as they are ready, the printed edition of the journal will gather them all together and provide a well-rounded whole – a comprehensive, in-depth outlook on the memory landscapes in the (post)Yugoslav space today

M.P. and N.M.

  1. 4. The case of Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina – City of Mostar.

Interview with Mag. Dr. Monika Palmberger, Elise Richter Research Fellow and Lecturer, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna

Questions and Introduction by Milica Popović

Paris-Vienna, 01.08.2020.

Abstract: As Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a country institutionally-divided on an ethno-national basis between its three consitutuent peoples – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, top-down memory politics encourage these divisions. Using the still divided city of Mostar as an example, Dr. Monika Palmberger gives insight into the discursive tactics opposing hegemonic memory narratives, through a generational approach and focusing on the generation of the Last Yugoslavs, thus underlining the importance of studying the integrative potential of positive memories of the pre-war period.

Key words: memory politics; generations; Yugonostalgia; divided cities; ethnic divisions

Not many countries remain divided to the extent of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a country, as peoples, as its cities. Following the changes throughout the Yugoslav federation, in 1991 Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted constitutional amendments which introduced market economy and pluralist democracy. On the 20th of December, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from socialist Yugoslavia. In 1992, it was recognized by the international community as a sovereign country. That same year, a three year long war started. The Dayton Peace Agreement, signed in Paris on the 14th of December 1995, ended the war and brought a new constitutional framework. Today, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina still consists of two entities – the Republic of Srpska, majoritarily Serbian, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, majoritarily Bosniak and Croat, and an independent District of Brčko. The Federation further comprises 10 cantons. This complex instititutional arrangement, still strongly influenced by the international community, represents an enormous, sometimes perceived as insurmountable, obstacle to the development of the country. The ethno-nationalist key embedded in the institutional arrangement inherited from the Dayton agreement colors both politics and the everyday life of the Bosnian citizens.

Each of the three constituent peoples – Bosniak, Croat and Serbian – are represented by one of the three dominant political parties. Regardless of the decision of the European Court for Human Rights in the case of Sejdić-Finci,[2] all ethnic communities beyond these three are discriminated against and neglected – they remain the „Others“. Political parties represent „the main ethnic groups in a way that emphasizes accountability towards one's own group rather than to citizens of the country as a whole“ (Kapidžić 2020: 82), with few exceptions. Such a political environment, dominated by nationalist discourses, has created party sub-systems along ethnic lines so rigid that cross-ethnic voting is difficult to even imagine (Kapidžić 2017). While over 60% young people remain unemployed (Turčilo et al. 2019: 11), ethnic divisions within institutional arrangements, and party politics spill over into memory politics.

As Nicolas Moll rightly notes, the memory landscape in Bosnia and Herzegovina is marked by „fragmentation, coexistence and competition between different memory narratives and policies“ (Moll 2013: 911). Each of the three constituent peoples create their own memory politics, whether it relates to the medieval times of Bosnia or the war in the 1990s. State continuity is narrated from different anchoring points; the antifascist tradition of the Second World War is ethnicized and appropriated; and no common narrative exists at the state level.

The city Mostar, administrative center of one of the ten cantons in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was once considered as one of the most multicultural cities in socialist Yugoslavia. After the war, the city remained strongly divided along ethnic lines, the Neretva river marking the border between the Bosniak and the Croat communities, a border appropriated by the hegemonic memory politics. Ethno-nationalist memory narratives remain conflictual and anti-Yugoslav. The latest incident of demolition at the Partisan Memorial Cemetary in Mostar happened in April 2020 – even the curfew imposed due to the Covid-19 crisis did not stop the mnemonic struggles.[3] Fascist graffiti and the demolition of World War Two-monuments are not a rare occassion in post-socialist spaces and times, accompanied with the rehabilitation of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and in West Mostar streets given the names of Ustasha[4] regime leaders (Moll 2013: 920).

An attempt of monumentalizing a universal symbol, namely, a 2005 monument of Bruce Lee pointing his fist towards the division line of the city, was quickly dismantled – the monument was demolished and has not been reinstalled since (Moll 2013: 925). Yet, hope remains that despite the divisive narratives, joint efforts to create mnemonic solidarities are still being born.

In the following interview, Dr. Monika Palmberger offers her own perspective on the genesis and implications of the issues outlined above, especially within the city of Mostar. Palmberger holds a PhD from the University of Oxford (2011), for which she conducted long-term fieldwork on memory and generation in post-war Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Presently she holds an Elise Richter Fellowship at the University of Vienna and is a Research Fellow at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre at the University of Leuven. She is PI of the “REFUGEeICT – Multi-local Care and the Use of Information and Communication Technologies Among Refugees” project funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). Previously, Dr. Palmberger was Hertha Firnberg Fellow and PI of the project “Placing Memories: Ageing Labour Migrants in Vienna” also funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF); Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen; and a Visiting Professor at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre at the University of Leuven.

Palmberger has published her work in numerous international peer-reviewed journals, including Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Space and Polity, Identities and Focaal. Furthermore, she is the author/co-editor of the books How Generations Remember: Conflicting Histories and Shared Memories in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Memories on the Move: Experiencing Mobility, Rethinking the Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, with Jelena Tosic), and Care Across Distance: Ethnographic Explorations of Aging and Migration (Berghahn, 2018, with Azra Hromadzic).

  1. In your book entitled How Generations Remember: Conflicting Histories and Shared Memories in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2016, you use a generational approach to discuss memory strategies and tactics, which you understand in de Certeau’s sense of individuals’ efforts to make sense of their own identities and narratives in the divided city of Mostar. In your work, you argue that memory is not solely a top-down process but much more. How do you depict the individual and collective memory narratives in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina? And how do they communicate to one another, what do the individuals contribute to the weaving of public memory narratives? Are personal memories of socialist Yugoslavia in conflict with state memory politics?

Most scholarly and media discussions on memory in the Yugoslav successor states focus on what we may call “public memory”, as is actively propagated by politicians, journalists, and historians among others. Thereby the manifold ways individuals position themselves relative to the past remain widely unexplored. This one-sided focus easily paints a picture of memory politics as a top-down process. But, as I observed during my fieldwork in Mostar, not only are people confronted with changing political contexts and changing memory politics but they also try to come to terms with their personal past experiences. For that reason their reconstructions of the past remain more flexible than those of professionals involved in writing official national history. In order to capture these nuances, in my work I adapted Michel de Certeau’s distinction between strategy and tactic (de Certeau, 1984). I show how discursive strategies are employed by those who claim to represent the nation in order to narrate and legitimize national histories. Discursive tactics are utilized by individuals to create space for themselves in a field of power. Ultimately, individual memories need to remain more flexible than public narratives of the past. While the latter are strategic, the former are better described as target-seeking. We can see this very well in the case of memories of socialist Yugoslavia. Personal memories are often much more ambivalent and sometimes even conflict with public narratives of socialist Yugoslavia. So, answering your question: yes, personal memories of socialist Yugoslavia at times are in conflict with state memory politics. This is particularly true for the generation I call the Last Yugoslavs.

During my fieldwork in Mostar (2005–2008), I realized that the Last Yugoslavs, a generation that finds itself between old and new political-ideological outlooks, deals in very specific ways with the discrepancies they are confronted with concerning their and their city’s past. Even if the 1992–1995 war was experienced as a disruption in the biographies of all the people I talked to, the narratives of this generation, with their specific discursive tactics, show the rupture most prominently (see Palmberger 2013b). Compared to the First Yugoslavs, who experienced WWII and the difficult post-WWII period, and the Post Yugoslavs, who were children during the war and have no personal memories of the period of Yugoslavia, this generation of the Last Yugoslavs grew up in relatively stable political circumstances. At the time the war started, the Last Yugoslavs either already had their own households and were pursuing their careers or were just about to do so. The particular life situation that the Last Yugoslavs found themselves in when war broke out is crucial to understanding their discursive tactics. While the war and the far-reaching transformations that accompanied it were decisive for everyone, the Last Yugoslavs experienced the war most prominently as a rupture in their lives.

A discursive tactic that characterizes many of this generation’s narratives is the switching between opposing discourses: one that remembers life in Yugoslavia vividly and positively and one defending the national developments that resulted in the division of Mostar. The rupture that the war and the end of socialist Yugoslavia caused in the lives of the Last Yugoslavs not only finds expression in their clear division of life into before and after the war, but also penetrates their narratives as a whole, creating accounts that are characterized by a lack of conclusiveness.

This question is indeed interesting: how to integrate good memories of past (pre-war) times with memories of conflict and war? This is certainly a question people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are confronted with. Sometimes they reach the conclusion that they simply can no longer trust their memories of past times. This was the case, for example, with a young woman in Mostar who clearly identified as Croat and studied the Croat language at the university in the Croat-dominated part of the city. She was just old enough to have childhood memories of Yugoslav times. She remembered this period in her life very nostalgically. Central to her memories were the mixed apartment building in which she grew up and the good komšiluk (neighbourliness) she experienced there. Neighbours of different ethno-national backgrounds, who got along well, visited one another and all the children played together. While these memories are treasured, they are also challenged. At times she distrusted her own memories and came to the conclusion that the adults must have pretended to be friendly and only the children were real friends, since they were simply unaware of their different backgrounds.

But a public display of nostalgia for Yugoslavia could also be observed, for example, in the discussion on renaming streets. This was the case in Sarajevo, when citizens actively protested against renaming its main artery, ulica Maršala Tita (named after the Yugoslav statesman Josip Broz Tito), in honour of Alija Izetbegović (a Bosniak activist and the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Here the decisions of the cultural, academic, and political elites about what should be publicly remembered and what should be silenced did not resonate with the views of a good part of Sarajevo’s citizens (Palmberger 2018).

  1. At a more local level, where do different memory narratives meet in divided cities? You researched place-making practices: how do you see them reinforce or weaken the divided cities?

To answer this question I would like to come back to the young woman I just introduced. She and another young woman of the same age, who identified herself as Bosniak, were regular guests in my house. One day they met there and the Bosniak friend was fasting, because it was Ramadan. My Croat friend did not know about Ramadan and asked her why she did not want to join us for coffee and cake. When she heard why, there was an awkward silence. After a short while the silence was broken by sharing childhood memories of Yugoslavia: the sweets the two of them liked back then and the excitement of becoming Tito’s young pioneers. It was not the only time I experienced how shared memories of Yugoslavia were actively used to cross ethno-national divisions (see Palmberger 2008).

It must be said that there are very few places where Bosniaks and Croats meet and even fewer where they would feel safe to exchange different perspectives on past experiences. The education system is divided and Bosniak and Croat pupils in schools and students at universities are taught separately and under two different curricula. They are exposed to opposing narratives when it comes to the local past, especially concerning the local past in respect to WWII, to Tito’s Yugoslavia and the war in the 1990s. There are initiatives for multi-perspective textbooks and there are a few places that explicitly promote themselves as meeting places for all Mostarians. But these are rare.

However, we should not underestimate the power of positive pre-war memories. As I have shown in my work, positive memories of pre-war cross-ethno-national relations have strong integrative potential. And here I refer not only to the physical crossing of borders but also crossing in a more metaphorical sense, e.g. through the questioning of absolute national identities. Such acts of border crossing rely heavily on memories of positive pre-war cross-ethno-national relations, which are evoked to re-establish these relations in post-war times. My work also suggests that in order to strengthen the integrative potential of these memories, more attention needs to be paid to them, not as the only true and valuable interpretation of the past but as an integral part of the local past (see Palmberger 2013a).

  1. Given the ethnic and religious diversity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, what are the differences between the various communities in BiH in terms of their understanding of the events of WWII and the creation of socialist Yugoslavia?

While in the dominant Bosniak discourse victimhood is located first and foremost in the period of the 1992–1995 war and in the WWII period, the dominant Croat discourse centres first and foremost on the suppression of the Croat nation (and Catholic religion) in socialist Yugoslavia and the centuries-long struggle for national liberation. The crimes committed by the NDH are silenced or downplayed. In both discourses I could observe a strong linking of different historical periods.

In the dominant Bosniak discourse, the war in the 1990s is presented as if it were only the latest historical example of Bosniak suffering and victimhood. In this narrative, the Croats and Serbs are perceived as threats to the Bosniak nation because of their denial of the latter’s independent existence. In contrast, Bosniaks present themselves as a nation that respects the other nations. Particularly prominent is the linking of WWII with the recent war, including in school textbooks. In the case of the Bosniaks, textbook authors suggest that the recent war can be explained (and perhaps could even have been foreseen) by events in the past, by the decades-long (or even century-long) hostility of Croats and Serbs towards Bosniaks.

In the dominant Croat discourse, socialist Yugoslavia is presented as a dark period that needed to be overcome in order to achieve national liberation. Tito’s presidency is narrated as a time of suppression of the Croat nation, and the war in the 1990s as the final liberation. In this national master narrative, Croats did not participate in Tito’s socialist project, and Croat liberation was realized with the Homeland War of 1991–1995 (domovinski rat) which led to Croatia’s independence (although, in this understanding, independence was only fully realized for the Croats in Croatia and not for the Croats in BiH). In this discourse of liberating the Croat nation, crimes committed by the NDH during WWII are downplayed or even silenced.

  1. What would you define as the specifics of the situation in BiH concerning memories of the past?

Because of the war, we easily forget that people in Bosnia and Herzegovina not only experienced war but also profound societal and economic changes. This aspect has remained widely overlooked, even among social scientists. In my work on generations and memory, different experiences and the memories thereof, which go beyond the 1992–1995 war, are crucial for understanding what I call “generational positioning”. Let me come back to the Last Yugoslav generation. As I already stated, the Last Yugoslavs have spent most of their lifetime in Yugoslavia and grew up in relatively stable political and economic circumstances (compared to the younger and older generations). For the generation of the Last Yugoslavs, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) concerns is Mostar’s extremely weak job market. Many public enterprises went bankrupt due to the war, loss of markets and a dislocated labor force. The transformation of the Yugoslav socialist market economy into a neoliberal, capitalist-oriented economy directly and most severely affected the lives of the Last Yugoslavs. The loss of social security and economic well-being has had a severe impact not only on the lives of the Last Yugoslav generation but also on the way they remember the time before. Memories of Yugoslavia are strongly coupled with experiences of security. Compared to the insecurities this generation is experiencing in Mostar today, sometimes even the war period is described as one in which they had fewer worries, although such comments were made with some cynicism. In this respect, some of the Last Yugoslavs told me that it was easier during the war, because back then people “only” had to worry about their basic existence and not about electricity bills.

  1. From the longer-term historical perspective, would you characterize as present and/or relevant any memory narratives on the colonial imperial times of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires? Is there what Bojan Baskar (2007) calls Austro-nostalgia, obviously only among older generations?

Yes, I encountered several people, mainly elderly, who expressed a deep nostalgia for the Habsburg Empire. Two encounters, both with elderly men, were particularly telling. I met one of them in Sarajevo. He was a child at the end of the Habsburg occupation and was sent to Austria by his father every summer to practice his German. While he shared his memories with me, we ate a Viennese Sachertorte (a typical Viennese chocolate cake) and drank coffee in a café in Sarajevo’s Old Town called Wiener Café (Viennese Café). For me, as an Austrian, this was a very curious encounter with Austria-nostalgia enacted by an elderly Bosniak who spoke the Austrian German dialect reminiscent of that time and whose manner evoked the so-called Viennese-School.

I also met another elderly man in Mostar and remained in close contact with him over several years. He was a retired German teacher and often hosted German-language students. His strong bond with the German language was also linked to Habsburg history, which he “remembered” as a good period for Mostar in particular and for Bosnia and Herzegovina more generally. In contrast to the man I met in Sarajevo, he had no personal memories of that time but only those transmitted to him by older family members. Several times I had the pleasure of walking around Mostar with him. During these walks he pointed out public buildings that were constructed during the Habsburg occupation and praised the infrastructure the Habsburgs introduced. He reassured me that Mostarians warned Franz Ferdinand not to travel to Sarajevo but that, unfortunately, he did not heed their advice.

  1. But Franz Ferdinand traveled to Sarajevo where he was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. Princip is sometimes considered a terrorist, sometimes an anti-colonial freedom fighter. How do these memory narratives intersect given the context of WWI and the events in Sarajevo in 1914?

Following up on the encounters with the two elderly men who expressed strong nostalgia for the Habsburg Empire, it is not surprising to hear that some consider Gavrilo Princip as a terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. But what I found particularly interesting is the rethinking of the past and reflecting on past memory politics in the present post-Yugoslav context. In this respect, I remember clearly a conversation I had with a woman who was born in the late 1960s. When the two of us sat together in a café, she told me in a serious tone that she regretted having accepted the history version she was taught as a schoolgirl that glorified the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Today, she said, she feels pity for Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.

  1. From past to the future, how do these memory narratives within Mostar reflect what is hoped for by its inhabitants?

My main fieldwork took place from 2005 to 2008, so I started it ten years after the war had ended. Now, 25 years have passed since the end of the war. During my revisits, I noticed that people had an increasingly negative outlook concerning Mostar’s future. While ten years after the war, the bad economic and tense political situations could be blamed on the war, 25 years later, the situation seems deadlocked. And even those few young people who swore that they would never leave their beloved birth place, Mostar, had left the country due to a lack of future prospects.

But despite this rather poor outlook, it would be wrong to only research what does not work and only concentrate on the tensions and division in the city. There are acts of resistance, practices of “border crossing”, and solidarities based on common identities that precede ethno-national divisions. From the stories people shared with me, I learned that there were also examples of these practices during the war; and I observed some of them ten years after the war. What I want to say is that I am happy to see there is a new generation of scholars who are following this path and in their work show how Mostar – like other “divided” cities – is more than its conflict, nationalism, and ultimately its division (see Special Issue on Mostar in Space and Polity edited by Carabelli et al., 2019, Issue 2).


Baker, Catherine. 2015. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Carabelli, Giulia, Alexandra Djurasovic, and Renata Summa. 2019. “Challenging the Representation of Ethnically Divided Cities: Perspectives from Mostar” in Giulia Carabelli et al. (eds.), “Challenging the Representation of Ethnically Divided Cities: Perspectives from Mostar”, Special Issue of Space and Polity, pp. 116-124.

Dolenec, Danijela. 2013. Democratic Institutions and Authoritarian Rule in South East Europe. ECPR Press.

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kapidžić, Damir. 2020. “Subnational competitive authoritarianism and power sharing in Bosnia and Herzegovina” in Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 20:1, pp. 81-101.

Kapidžić, Damir. 2017. “Segmentirani stranački sustav Bosne i Hercegovine” in Političke perspektive: časopis za istraživanje politike, Vol.7, no.1-2, pp. 71-201.

Moll, Nicolas. 2013. “Fragmented memories in a fragmented country: memory competition and political identity-building in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina” in Nationalities Papers, Vol.41, No.6, pp. 910-935.

Palmberger, Monika. 2019. “Why Alternative Memory and Place-Making Practices in Divided Cities Matter” in Giulia Carabelli et al. (eds.), “Challenging the Representation of Ethnically Divided Cities: Perspectives from Mostar”, Special Issue of Space and Polity, pp. 243–249.

Palmberger, Monika. 2018. “Renaming Streets and Nationalizing Public Space: The Case of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina” in R. Rose-Redwood, D. Alderman, and M. Azaryahu (eds.), The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes: Naming, Politics, and Place. London: Routledge, pp. 168–184.

Palmberger, Monika. 2016. How Generations Remember: Contested Memories in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Palmberger, Monika. 2013a. “Practices of Border Crossing in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Case of Mostar”. In Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, Vol. 20, No. 5, pp. 544–560.

Palmberger, Monika. 2013b. “Ruptured Pasts and Captured Futures: Life Narratives in Post-War Mostar”. In Focaal. Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, No. 66, pp. 14–24.

Palmberger, Monika. 2008. “Nostalgia Matters: Nostalgia for Yugoslavia as Potential Vision for a Better Future”. In Sociologija, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 355–370. O MLADIM JUGOISTOČNE EVROPE

Rothberg, Michael. 2009. Multidirectional memory: remembering the holocaust in the age of decolonization. Standford University Press.

Turčilo et al. 2019. Studija o mladima – Bosna i Hercegovina 2018/2019. Sarajevo: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. IJE

[1] All references to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo. It is important to note that in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kosovo had the status of an autonomous province, while the other six states had a status of a republic.

[4] A fascist Croatian movement founded in 1929 by Ante Pavelić, a Croatian politician, with the support of Italian fascists. Conducted terrorist activities by the start of the World War Two, when they governed the Nazi puppet state Independent State of Croatia (NDH) till the end of the war.


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