Review: Flag on the Mountain: A Political Anthropology of the War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990-1995

This review was originally published on Balkan Academic News (June 2007).

Ivo Zanic, Flag on the Mountain: A Political Anthropology of the War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990-1995. London: Saqi.  566 pp. GBP 35 (hardback).  ISBN 0-86356-815-7.

This first book-length English translation of work by the Croatian political anthropologist Ivo Zanic is long overdue.  The first version of Flag on the Mountain was published in Croatian in 1998 as Prevarena povijest: guslarska estrada, kult hajduka i rat u Hrvatskoj i Bosni i Hercegovini 1990-1995. godine (Deceived history: gusle showbusiness, the cult of the hajduk and the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990-1995): a title which sums up the scope of Flag on the Mountain more specifically, if less poetically.  Zanic’s aim is to analyse the political afterlife of the ‘hajduk’, the legendary outlaw-figure who appears in epic poetry through most of ex-Yugoslavia (and elsewhere in south-east Europe).  Through more than 500 pages’ analysis of press articles and political speeches, Zanic makes the case that rhetoric based on an idealised concept of the hajduk was used, especially in Serbia but at times also in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, to legitimise the state and para-state violence of the 1990s.

Zanic’s approach to political communication will be familiar to readers acquainted with the essays of Ivan Colovic (whose The Politics of Symbol in Serbia has been available in English for some five years), and indeed subjects its texts to even closer scrutiny.  The image from which the new edition takes its title – that of ‘the banner waving over Romanija’, the mountain which overlooks Sarajevo – is traced from its reactivation by the Croatian nationalist politician Sime Djodan at a 1990 pre-election rally in Zagreb, through its significance to Serbs and its resonance with Serbian epics of the hajduk Starina Novak, via an excursion into the hajduk imaginary among the Second World War Cetnik and Partisan movements, into an assessment of the suitability of hajduk imagery for the political aims and cultural backgrounds of various groups of Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks.  Two themes emerge from the Romanija sections and the discussions of individual hajduk cults: the preconditions for the ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’ of mid-1980s Serbia to be transformed into the ethno-nationalist revolution of victimised Serbdom, and the legacies of different historical experiences and legal systems which cut across ethnic groups in their propensity to romanticise or demonise the hajduk.

Zanic shows the prevalence of a certain idea of the hajduk in the political discourse of both the first and second Yugoslavias, where hajduks’ connotations of heroic resistance (against foreign conquerors and – under Titoism – on the side of social justice) were set up as a suitable model for (male) nationals, and their less altruistic motives were marginalised.  The continued significance of epic-based models in Titoist military doctrine ensured that the public would be familiar with their meaning when they were invoked by Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic or the Croatian Serb leaders, with the corollary that present-day adversaries were equated on the level of symbolic communication with the hajduks’ imperial foes.  This aspect of the book is a useful parallel to the many studies of Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav school textbooks (by Wolfgang Hoepken, Dubravka Stojanovic and so forth) which in the tradition of Charles Jelavich have exposed the pervasiveness of exclusivist and militarist narratives in education throughout the twentieth century.

However, Zanic also demonstrates that the cultural imaginaries of these ethnic groups are far from unified.  Affinity for hajduk motifs is determined less by ethnicity, more by experience of Habsburg or Ottoman rule: positive evaluations of hajduks (particularly the now Croat-identified hero Mijat Tomic) are much more common among the Croats of Herzegovina and Lika, formerly part of Turkish Bosnia, than among their co-nationals in former Austria-Hungary, and the same reservation holds for the Serbs of Vojvodina.  The example of hajduk imagery in Croatian nationalist politics is illustrative.  The Zagorje-born president Franjo Tudjman, along with state-owned newspapers, denounced the Croatian Serb rebellion as ‘hajdukery’ and thus positioned Croatia on the side of lawful authority, in keeping with the Croatian claim to legitimacy through statehood.  Yet a famous open letter by Mate Boban, the president of ‘Herceg-Bosna’, to the Archbishop of Zagreb glorified the epic moral code with reference to Ivan Raos’s 1971 novel about hajduks in southern Herzegovina.  Tudjman’s own ambivalence towards the gusle (Zanic gives a strong account of the symbolism which led the 1990s state to prefer the Pannonian tamburica) did not prevent Croatian guslars such as Zeljko Simic from praising their President in neo-epic form.

For all its strengths, Flag on the Mountain may be too steep a climb for newcomers to the ex-Yugoslav region.  The chronology of the outbreak of war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina must be teased out from Zanic’s thematic structure, in which a speech by the Serb Democratic Party leader Jovan Raskovic harking back to ‘the hordes of the bloody Ustasha Francetic’ can be quoted on page 239 and the significance of the said Francetic – the Crna legija commander who led an attack on Romanija and expelled the Serbs from Visegrad in 1942 – not explained until page 275.  Discussion of the role of Fikret Abdic and his Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia during 1993-94 is woven into a longer section about the Bosniak hajduk Mujo Hrnjica.  (The English edition of Colovic’s Politics of Symbol included a glossary of the key mythological and political characters and terms: such an addendum might have helped make Zanic’s text a little more approachable.)  Zanic’s Croatian original addressed an audience who could be expected to be largely familiar with the historical and cultural context of his examples, and the same level of knowledge is expected from the English-language reader in order for him or her to grasp the full implications of his arguments.

Perhaps the opportunity to revise the text for its English edition might also have extended to a certain degree of rearrangement to clarify the concept of the hajduk.  A historical account of hajduks’ emergence and organisation in the early modern Balkans does not appear until chapter 3, and the term’s etymology is left until chapter 4.  However, in a book which seeks to show that the mythological significance of these characters distorted and outweighed their actual historical presence, that may indeed be the point.  On the subject of editing, it might have been helpful too if the originals of quoted lyrics and poems could have been provided, perhaps in a second column alongside the translation (indeed, this could also have been said for the English translations of Colovic or Dubravka Ugresic).  If this is now the definitive version of Zanic’s work, to be preferred even by those who can read the 1998 text, access to the originals would be valuable.  Significant phrases from prose sources are occasionally translated, but the selection is a little patchy: Djodan’s ‘on top of Mt Romanija’ (p. 227) is accorded its original (‘navrh gore Romanije’), but one is left to wonder why ‘guerrilla warfare in the forests and on the highlands’ (p. 281) should be important enough to italicise.  (The reference is to the well-known Partisan song Po sumama i gorama.)

A book like this may not figure on many undergraduate reading lists, but in the current circumstances of the publishing industry it is all the more commendable that Saqi, in association with the Bosnian Institute, should have invested in its translation at all.  Maybe one can hope that more Croatian anthropology will soon be made available to a wider audience: possibly Naila Ceribasic’s work on folklore festivals or Reana Senjkovic’s analysis of visual symbolism in Croatian politics.  In the meantime, Zanic’s book should be consulted by anyone concerned with historical memory or political mobilisation in former Yugoslavia – even if they have already got to know the Croatian text.


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