Memories of the 20th Century: A selection of documents from personal and family bequests in the Croatian History Museum

This web-site exhibits records of individual lives, personal documents and memories: incomplete and subjective, occasionally not very relevant nor even realistic, but still authentic, unique and valuable testimonies to the time of their origin. The documentary material illustrates the fates of people who lived in Croatian cultural and historical areas during the extremely dynamic and turbulent, chaotic and controversial period known as the short 20th century. It simultaneously provides a solid basis for interpretation of the recent Croatian past in the international (European and global) context. But most of all, the material displayed here is presented as a part of the Croatian History Museum’s Documentary Collection II in order to shed light on various aspects of everyday life during the past decades, to encourage new generations to reflect on their own living conditions, and to teach them how to associate scattered fragments of the past into a comprehensive and complex mosaic of events. After all, we encourage our contemporaries to compare their personal experiences to the values and misconceptions of their predecessors, so that History may achieve its mission and finally become Life’s Teacher. More than ever before, the everyday lives of contemporary generations are burdened by the scandals, memories, events and conflicts that emerged during the 20th century. This particular period of history was primarily marked by frequent crises: the two World Wars, deep stratification in almost all facets of life, and the unequal distribution of natural resources and economic wealth. But at the same time, humanity experienced rapid progress in science, technology and communications. Furthermore, during the 20th century, a gradual but persistent transformation of traditional (civic) social values occurred – manifested in new sensibilities, different conceptions of time and space, modified personal roles and identities within communities, or changing human attitudes toward the natural environment.

As a general theoretical framework for the presentation of museum exponents in that historical context, we have chosen the inspiring interpretation of the short 20th century as defined by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, who logically divided this period from 1914 to 1990 into 3 basic (chronological and thematic) units:

(1) The Age of Catastrophe – the highly critical period encompassing the First and Second World Wars, with the interwar period marked by wide-scale economic crisis, during which the Croatian lands belonged to several state-political systems and, accordingly, shared their fate: from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and (partially) the Kingdom of Italy, through the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Kingdom of Yugoslavia, to the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and then Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (DFJ).

(2) The Golden Age – is the slightly shorter but considerably more stable period of general peacetime prosperity that occurred between 1945 and mid-1970s. In that time, Croatia was a part of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (FNRJ), later renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ), under its communist regime, which initiated a general restoration and reconstruction of the country after the Second World War. The regime simultaneously nationalized and seized private property, introducing a system of social ownership over the means of production. These processes were followed by the gradual implementation of economic reforms and worker self-management, as well as a sort of cultural revolution – phenomena that represented a unique form of socialist state organization in Yugoslavia compared to the Soviet Union (USSR) and its Eastern bloc satellite states.

(3) The Landslide – is the new crisis period that emerged at the end of the short 20th century, from the mid-1970s to 1990, during which multiple radical changes occurred, especially in the communist bloc countries in Europe. Their repercussions triggered the definitive collapse of communist regimes throughout Europe, and the disintegration of generally multinational and totalitarian socialist states, including the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. During that period, Croatian society sought the best way to establish an autonomous state that would secure the cultural, political, and individual emancipation of its citizens.

The documents from the bequests of 11 persons and/or members of their families, which deal with virtually the entire period from 1914 to 1990, illustrate how and to what extent the actual facts of modern Croatian history fit into Hobsbawm’s theoretical concept and (his) specified periodization for the short 20th century – which he symbolically characterized as the Age of Extremes. If we try to structure these unique personal testimonies according to Hobsbawm’s scheme, they can be set into a wider historical context within several chronological units:

(1) Life on the border between two worlds (East and West) during the first half of the 20th century (Age of Catastrophe) – is the most chronologically comprehensive and substantial, and also thematically most diverse segment of this presentation (e-Catalogue). It encompasses the major part of the bequests of five families (Baj, Javoršek, Sudar, Kumičić and Švob), as well as four personal bequests (Milivoj Jambrišak, Ms Anka Matić, Antun Antolović, Hrvoje Macanović). Basically, this period of Croatian history was characterized by the Central European bourgeois milieu, modified by the specific impact of wartime activities present in everyday life at the very beginning (1914-1918) and end of the observed period (1941-1945). In between, the political dictatorship of King Aleksandar Karađorđević (1929-1934) in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (mostly) coincided with the general economic crisis in the first half of 1930s, accompanied by unemployment, poverty and scarcity, high inflation, widespread emigration, etc. With regard to these features of Croatian historical development at that time, the overall content of this component of the presentation can be further thematically broken down into the following (3) relatively well-rounded sections:

(a) The First World War, as a turning point between historical epochs and a catalyst for multiple changes in the Croatian lands (1914-1918), is represented by: the wartime diary of an Austro-Hungarian army corporal (Franjo Javoršek), a part of the personal documentation belonging to a member of the Yugoslav Committee who resided in Russia prior to the very end of the Great War (Milivoj Jambrišak), and the personal and school documents of an elementary school student from Karlovac (Dragutin Baj).

(b) The civil order in the interwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Yugoslavia (1918-1941) is the second and central part of this segment, which encompasses approximately 23 years of (everyday) peacetime life. It is documented by: parts of the Baj family bequest, the private correspondence of a veterinarian from Brinje in Lika County (Martin Sudar), documentation from the Croatian Scout Alliance related to members of a respectable Croatian family (Kumičić), family correspondence belonging to a railroad official (Franjo Javoršek) sent from different parts of Yugoslavia, the official documentation of an officer in the Yugoslav Royal Army (Antun Antolović), and the memoirs of a young communist who spent her student days in Paris just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War (Ms Anka Matić).

(c) Military and civilian life during the Second World War (1941-1945) in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and the People’s Liberation Movement (NOP) is a particularly complex and sensitive topic, since it encompasses testimonies about not only different, but also conflicting fates and life experiences, and the tragic victimhood and suffering of the people on opposing sides. It is therefore the starting point of the difficult heritage which set the course for the entire latter half of the 20th century and still impacts our everyday lives today. This part of the presentation is primarily based on confrontation and comparison of various individual subjective experiences by the people of Croatia, sorted into the standard categories, who lived through the Second World War as: (a) civilians – either in the Independent State of Croatia or in the occupied (Italian, German, etc.) territories, but also in the areas liberated by the antifascist (Partisan) army, or as refugees (outside of Croatia), (b) internees in Ustasha, German, or Italian camps, or (c) soldiers in active military service with the Ustasha, the Home Guard or the Partisans. Consequently, this segment opens up many specific issues and identifies problems that lead to dissonant responses – not only from the standpoints of witnesses to past, but also in different historiographic interpretations. As a result, a part of the Croatian population neither wants to confront nor accept certain relevant but unpleasant historical facts or arguments. Even though the Croatian History Museum’s Documentary Collection II contains numerous and diverse individual testimonies on human experiences and fates during the Second World War, only a few examples that illustrate typical categories of the Croatian population at that time are presented here: prisoners of Nazi/Fascist camps (such as journalist Hrvoje Macanović and historian Držislav Švob), anti-fascists in the People’s Liberation Movement (NOP) and in the French Resistance (MD and politician Milivoj Jambrišak, or doctoral student Anka Matić), Home Guardsmen and Ustasha officers in the army of the Independent State of Croatia (veterinarian Martin Sudar, and career soldier Antun Antolović), plus civilian residents of the Independent State of Croatia (such as members of the Baj, Kumičić and Javoršek families).

(2) Stabilization of life (Golden Age) during the division of the world into blocs, the communist regime in Yugoslavia and Yugoslavia’s controversial socialism (1945-1975) – together form the second sub-topic, documented in different (and even directly conflicting) ways by parts of the already mentioned bequests, such as: (a) documentation of Ms Anka Matić, a young Communist, a doctoral student of psychology and education in Paris and a member of the French Resistance, who became a prominent postwar public employee in socialist Yugoslavia; (b) the bequest of Hrvoje Macanović – a notable Croatian sports journalist and former internee in the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen; (c) documentation left by Ms Nevenka Prosen – the curator and (former) director of the History Museum of Croatia, who later worked as a consultant for museums in the highest Croatian cultural institutions. These are contradicted by (d) illustrated diary records, reminiscences and memoirs written by Grga Šore – a prisoner of the Communist post-war camp on Goli, a desolate Adriatic island.

(3) Impact of the global Landslide on the collapse of Yugoslav socialism and disintegration of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (from the mid-1970s to 1990) – is the last segment of the presentation (an historical and museological synthesis) of the 20th century. It has been only partially and superficially illustrated by individual documents from the bequests presented in the preceding units – particularly that of Grga Šore. Therefore, this period of Croatian history should be represented in greater detail and complemented with a new variety of sources (from the contemporary documentary collection of the Croatian History Museum) in the following stages of the project (e-Catalogue).

For the purpose of providing a brief explanation of an extremely dynamic, complex and complicated historical period, this introduction has touched upon certain relevant phenomena and processes at the national (Croatian) and wider state (Yugoslav) levels, attempting to link them to global (international) processes and phenomena. Moreover, the Croatian History Museum’s web-site also intends to accomplish several equally important objectives: (1) to underscore the potential of individual (subjective) experiences in the course of the long-term development of Croatian socio-political and cultural life, and (2) to draw attention to the importance of the Croatian History Museum’s documentary materials in the interpretation of recent national history; (3) to urge museum visitors (users) to contemplate their own fates and thus encourage them to reflect on our common and yet quite different pasts, especially insofar as they have influenced contemporary social life, and finally, (4) to suggest a general lesson to benefit future generations – that each of us should make a personal contribution to a better understanding of the numerous problems and discord in the modern world in an attempt to play a part in the reconciliation of opposing experiences, interests and attitudes.