One of my students in this summer’s grad seminar (a comparative look at 1989 in Eastern Europe and China) alerted me to a story in yesterday’s New York Times about the popularity of Ustaše regalia among some fans of the Croatian rock star Marko Perković. In the article, Nicholas Wood writes that at a recent concert Perković was shouting a slogan from the Second World War and many in the audience were responding with the Ustaše salute:
The exchange with the audience is a routine part of Mr. Perkovic’s act, and the gesture seemed to lack any conscious political overtones. The audience — most of whom appeared to be in their teens and early 20s — just seemed to be having a good time. But Mr. Perkovic’s recent success among a new generation — many of them apparently oblivious to the history of the Holocaust — has prompted concern and condemnation from Jewish groups abroad and minority groups in Croatia.
Wood then quotes Croatia’s education minister, Dragan Primorac, as saying, ““You can’t see any anti-Semitism here.” It seems that the minister may have just a touch of what we used to call “Waldheimer’s Disease,” named for the former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim. Unlike Alzheimer’s Disease, where you eventually forget everything you once knew, when one has Waldheimer’s Disease, you just forget that you were a Nazi in the war.
Primorac’s comment reminds of a similar comment I received as feedback from a presentation I gave several years ago at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington on interwar Czech politics. In that presentation I alluded to various anti-Semitic politicians and their supporters in Bohemia and Moravia and afterward, a very nice woman in her 70s or perhaps 80s came forward to admonish me. You see, she informed me, she had lived in Czechoslovakia during the war and she could say that without doubt Czechs simply weren’t anti-Semitic. So, I must have been mistaken when I made those allusions. Given the substantial difference in our ages and my training in the proper respect for those much older than myself, I simply thanked her for her correction.
To say that one cannot find anti-Semitism in Croatia, or anywhere else in the region we used to call Eastern Europe is simply absurd–just as it is absurd to say that one cannot find it here in the United States.
This particular dust-up over the behavior of fans of a rock star at a concert in Croatia is similar in many ways to what one would expect if fans of some rock band in the U.S. showed up wearing KKK hoods. The resonance of the image–whether the regalia is from the Ustaše or the KKK–is such that it reminds us that the past is always with us. And, if we don’t teach our students about that past and why it matters–both as a subject of study and as living thing in our midst every day–we’ve done them a huge disservice.