“Historical injustice” as a tool in the hands of the populist and authoritarian government: Souvenirs from the myth-making museum dungeons

Part of the virtual assembly “Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism”. Author: Darko Stojanov

In the literature on historical myths in the Balkans, one can find Macedonia in the debates dealing with three particular myths: the myth of the eternal sacrifice, the myth of the centuries long political continuity, and, more recently, the myth of ancient origin. I shall briefly discuss the first one – the myth of victimisation.

This myth is founded upon the idea of historical injustice. In academic historiography the concept of historical injustice has a precisely defined meaning in the context of the 20th century military conflicts, and in that sense we find it in international debates on wars and war reparations. Apart from this meaning, the term can be found in nationalistic discourses as well, albeit with a loosely defined meaning. In the last few decades the “historical injustice“ was a central part of the political and intellectual discourses in the Balkans, and played an important role in the bloody wars during the fall of Yugoslavia. Every single country in the region believes that it is a victim of some historical wrongdoing. In Macedonia, the nationalistic understanding of “historical injustice” is still a leitmotif in the populist rhetorics of the ruling party. The “burden of history” is being imposed upon the citizens through political speeches, history textbooks, historiography, documentaries, as well as through public space.

In that context, I was recently fascinated by one interesting case. Last year, in the presence of the political establishment, the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Skopje solemnly promoted its second exhibition. By that time, as a historian interested in the contemporary perceptions of the past, I had already visited and analysed the museum’s main exhibition twice, and I believed that nothing could surprise me anymore (in terms of nationalism). Yet … During the 20-minute horror I found myself face to face with an understanding of history that one encounters only while researching long gone regimes and ideologies. In a claustrophobically tight and dark space, decorated with severed heads stuck on poles, mutilated bodies and torture devices, accompanied by constant screams of tortured patriots and their wives or mothers, Ottoman, Bulgarian and Serbian (or perhaps communist) torturers sadistically brought great pain to their Macedonian victims, involving even the visitors in the acting.

I saw this museum/exhibition as a myth-making factory, as a powerful visualisation of the nationalistic rhetoric of blood. A place where the historical injustice turns into myth, which then turns into propaganda. The myth of victimisation, arising from the idea or the feeling of historical injustice, is considered to be one of the most dangerous historical political myths. Its inflammable potential lies in its capacity to touch the deepest human emotions of fear and insecurity. It implies a particularly strong and unchangeable image of the Other, as well as a feeling of moral superiority. Combined, these two components can eventually lead to aggression.

The museum is not only a depiction of a dark past, it is also a call for a dark future. One leaves the place feeling anger towards people which do not exist, and bearing a trauma from events that he/she never experienced. Despite its irrationality, this phenomenon is a powerful tool in the hands of the government. The accentuation of the history of suffering, of the myth of victimisation, is quite effective in the mobilisation of the citizens, through the manipulation of the atavistic emotions of the crowd. The ultimate purpose of this kind of a museum is the creation of a mental landscape inhabited by all the archenemies of the nation, in which the visitor becomes a victim of their evil intentions. This resonates well with one of the main tools of the government today – the continuos pointing to (foreign) enemies and (domestic) spies, dividing the citizens into patriots and traitors. Briefly, this story shows how a populist and authoritarian regime can employ the so-called “usable past” in its exercise of power. In certain contexts, the insistence on victimisation, i.e. on “historical injustice” is in fact a mobilisation, a call to uniformity and blind obedience to the Leader and the Party.

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