Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists, was an entity born initially from the collapse of the old Central and Eastern European empires after World War 1. A loose confederation of a number of different ethnic and religious groups united under a monarchy during the inter-war period, Yugoslavia was invaded by the Germans, Italians and Hungarians in 1941. A violent war of resistance against the Axis invaders ensued with the communist Partisans under Tito, allied with the royalist (mainly Serb) Chetniks under Mihajlovic, in opposition to them (the Chetniks later became more worried about the communist threat and switched sides). The Axis powers dismembered Yugoslavia using the tried and tested technique of divide-and-rule while Croatia became an independent fascist state ruled by the notorious Ustase. As can be imagined this created yet another layer of deep bitterness to a region which has long been riven by ethnic tensions. Tito’s Partisans emerged victorious at the end of the war and he set about establishing a socialist government in Yugoslavia which, if it was to stay in power, entailed sweeping all the various national and ethnic divisions under the carpet.
Simply titled Jugoslavija, this book is a small undated red hard-covered publication with photographs credited to Foto Borba and Foto Putnik from Belgrade. Although no date is present, a previous owner has written 1947 in an inscription and the book has the feel and look of a publication produced around that time. The French language captions accompanying the photographs is the only text present (apart from a cyrillic proclamation.) Design wise, this book is quite average with a straightforward layout consisting of a single photo per page. The only aspect that makes it stand out from the crowd is the metal Yugoslav state seal stuck on the front cover (it does make a nasty dent on the other books when you put it in the shelf though).
The narrative structure of the book is divided into three sections; the war, reconstruction and the paradise on earth that has been created (or, as the book puts it, ‘the land of sun and health’). A single unifying theme runs through the book; everything is designed to lend credibility to the official myth that everybody in Yugoslavia was united against the Germans and supported the Partisans. Alternative points of view or the fact that there were a number of different groups who strongly opposed Tito’s Partisans have no place in this official, and heavily simplified, version of history.
Myth making is integral to the creation and sustainability of nation-states. In effect history is written in such a way as to create a consensus that legitimates the core political ideology of the state in question. This in turn creates the perception that the current status quo is merely an inevitable, natural progression from these so-called historical facts. Mythical history, or the official version of it, creates the rules within which the political game is played within every country. Nation building (the formation and creation of a stable national identity in which certain values are regarded as being a natural and inevitable part of everyday life) lies at the heart of every artificial political entity we know as a ‘state’ or country and, without it, the long term viability of a state/country is impossible. Most of the people living in a country actually have to believe in (or at least go along with) the ideals and values that are part and parcel of the historical myth that in turn makes them different from all the other countries and peoples in the world. Yugoslavia failed to create this stable, unified national consensus. Instead, the various wounds and grievances were allowed fester beneath a facade of outward compliance to the state which erupted into violence once the control of the Yugoslav state collapsed in the early 1990s.
The first section depicting the war years is relatively straightforward; the barbarity of German soldiers burning villages and executing people are contrasted with the discipline and order of the partisans. A number of images show the partisans marching in step and holding political meetings which are designed to show that Tito’s group is the only genuine representatives of the Yugoslav people. The tempo increases in the final series of images within this section; Partisan forces massing for an attack, artillery blasting away, the smoking remains of a battle and finally the victorious Partisan tanks entering a town, all followed by images of celebratory crowds greeting their liberators are designed to construct a historical narrative. All these images are designed to reinforce the message that the Partisans alone defeated the Germans and therefore they are the only legitimate government.
Following on from the victory the book now shows us the reconstruction effort. Bridge building is an easy metaphor for people to grasp and it appears at the beginning of this section, followed by the inevitable images of people carting wheelbarrows, building houses, harvesting crops and happily working to repair the damage done by the war. Again, the message of these photos is crystal clear; the entire country has been united under Tito’s guidance and is working collectively to produce a new and better society for the future. The images of the toiling workers reinforce the idea that collective self-sacrifice in the name of a greater good will assuredly produce a brighter utopian future for a happy and content Yugoslavia.
The last section, ‘the land of sun and health’, is a succession of picturesque images of snow-capped mountains and lakes, old and modern townscapes as well as lots of women in traditional costumes. Most of the various entities that made up the former Yugoslavia are represented in these images, which serves to create an illusion of national unity,while allowing a safe display of national and ethnic difference. The celebration of different ethnic identities through traditional costumes and customs are permissible as long as they remain safely consigned to a backward past and do not threaten the Yugoslav ideal. Many of the captions accompanying the landscape images also refer to some battle or event that is a part of the new Yugoslav myth, making the new government appear as the inevitable outcome of what has gone before as well as linking it to the very land itself.
The photographs in this book are in themselves relatively mundane and the design is fairly pedestrian, but that’s not the point. The real purpose of the book is to convince the reader that what they are seeing is the truth (after all, the camera never lies) and photobooks like this are very effective at doing just that.