With hundreds of kilometers of coastline winding along the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean, interspersed with picturesque villages and lively towns, Croatia has become a popular tourist destination. Politically too, Croatia has made significant advances since the Balkan wars of the 1990s left much of the land in shatters, the recent accession to the European Union being the pinnacle of its political success. Developments in the past few weeks, however, suggest a more ugly side of the country and have sparked a heated debate in the national media: Is a modern form of fascism taking roots in Croatia?
Two incidents, in particular, have fuelled the debate. In November, after Croatia defeated Iceland in a World Cup qualifying game, national player Josip Šimunić took to the microphone and shouted the fascist slogan “Za dom spremni” (Ready for the Homeland) to the Croatians in the audience, many of whom enthusiastically responded, “Ready!” The slogan gained notoriety during the Second World War, when the fascist Ustaša movement, collaborating with Nazi Germany, propagated a racially “pure” Greater Croatia and killed thousands of local Serbs, Jews, and Roma.
The second incident came only a few days after Šimunić’s fascist slur. In a controversial referendum on December 1, 2013, Croatians voted to change the definition of marriage in the constitution to apply exclusively to “a living union of a woman and a man,” making same-sex marriage illegal. Croatia is not the only European country to ban gay marriage. However, it is worrisome that a single extremely conservative group with the support of the Catholic Church was able to gather over 700,000 signatures to organize a referendum targeting a minority group. This discriminatory referendum sets a worrisome precedent. Rumors are that nationalists are planning a new referendum curtailing the right of the Serb minority in the country to use its own language and Cyrillic lettering.
Renowned Croatian writer Dubrovka Ugrešić views the recent developments as a symptom of a deeper ideological shift within Croatian society. For her, the “fascization” of Croatia started twenty years ago and was propelled by all levels of society. It is fuelled by the overlap of Catholic faith and nationalist identity. Catholicism and Croatian nationalism are closely intertwined, and the superiority of the Croat people is often linked to the idea of religious supremacy. With regards to the referendum, Ugrešić therefore posits: “How do we expect a different vote from young Croats who grew up in an environment where hatred towards Serbs, gypsies, ‘the Orthodox,’ ‘the Balkan,’ women, Blacks, Jews and foreigners was encouraged or even rewarded as good behavior?”
While Ugrešić is dead-on with regards to several aspects of her analysis, one has to caution against an over-generalization of Croat society. Bob Dylan’s recent comment in which he compares Croats to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan is severely misplaced. With regards to the referendum, many Croats stood up against the initiative and the current center-left government pledged that it would pass a law allowing civil partnerships for gay people (even though this can only be a small comfort). Similarly, the openly critical discussion in the media is proof that “fascism” in its classical meaning is the wrong description of the phenomenon.
Nonetheless, the extreme nationalist tendencies in large parts of the Croatian population have to be taken seriously. The self-elevation of a group over other groups, the discourse of “We” against “Them” coupled with economic problems can quickly spark greater divisions and incite hatred. Historically, it should be clear what this can lead to.
It is therefore high time for many Croatians to accept that nationalism is not a way out of current economic problems and that it does not strengthen the society. Nationalism has never solved the economic or political problems the countries of the Western Balkans faced. Quite to the contrary, it has often been the root of them. In order to advance and to become economically and politically healthy in the long term, Croatian society has to foster inclusion instead of exclusion and equality instead of misguided ideas of superiority and national pride.