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Ivo Goldstein, Historian

Nationalism Is Today’s Greatest Danger

He inherited a famous surname and cultivated a Yugoslav, Croatian and Jewish identity. The Yugoslav part disappeared with the collapse of Yugoslavia, while the other two remain and are questioned daily. A university professor and historian who studies events and personalities of the 20th century, this former ambassador to Paris speaks to CorD about his family and his books, but also about nationalism, or chauvinism as the disease of a nation that’s deadly to other nations

Named after his grandfather, who was one of the most highly rated and most respected bookshop owners in Croatia prior to World War II, his father Slavko gave him the freedom to choose what he would do, and he opted for university and a career in science. And thus Ivo Goldstein, 62, is today one of the most prolific Croatian historians and among his generation’s most versatile researchers in the social sciences and humanities. His rich oeuvre comprises around 30 books and 200 scientific and professional works published both in the country and abroad. He is a professor who lectures on the subject of Croatian History of the 20th Century at the Department of History of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Philosophy.

In the first part of his career, Ivo Goldstein dealt with Byzantology and Croatia’s medieval history, particularly the period of the early Middle Ages, as well as the history of Jews in Croatia, and since the mid-1990s he has also dealt with various aspects of Croatian history from the 20th century. He also deals occasionally with the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has written a series of books dedicated to the Croatian history of the 20th century (The Holocaust in Zagreb, together with Father Slavko, Jews in Zagreb 1918-1941 etc.). It was also in collaboration with his father that wrote Jasenovac and Bleiburg are not the same, as well as the book Tito, and all of these works attracted great public attention.

As the son of the famous journalist, publicist and publisher Slavko Goldstein, Ivo was born in Zagreb, where he was also raised, completed his studies and started working, and where he still lives to this day. He says that his parents had a good marriage, even though they were very different characters:

“Those were differences that complemented one another. Mum was calm, quiet and measured, but also decisive when needed. Father was open-minded and fond of grand plans, as a restless spirit who was constantly coming up with something. He was terribly curious and trusted in people. I remember from my childhood my father in the study sitting and typing on a typewriter. The characteristic sound of that machine, the thumping of metal letters on the roller, often accompanies me in my mind to this day. And mother’s smoking, which probably caused the development of the fatal disease that she died of at the age of 54.”

As a boy, Ivo had wanted to be an astronomer. It should be noted that this was during the ‘60s, a decade of the sensational reach of space flights that culminated in man landing on the moon in 1969. And he consumed every possible text about the stars and the planets. His father brought back from his travels some magazines on this subject in English, which made it easier for Ivo to learn English.

The story of Tito isn’t onedimensional; it can’t be boiled down to just good or just bad. He couldn’t be considered a Serb-hater or a Croat-hater, because he wasn’t one of those

Ivo’s father Slavko was born in Sarajevo, while his parents were originally from Tuzla. He spent his childhood in Karlovac, where his father, Ivo, was the owner of a reputable bookshop who was murdered by the Ustasha fascists at the outbreak of World War II. His mother fled Karlovac with her two sons, Slavko and Danijel, and soon all three of them joined the ranks of the Partisans. Slavko grew up with antifascist democratic beliefs, and when asked what kind of upbringing he received in his home and how much he was raised as a Jew and the extent to which those origins defined him, Ivo tells CorD:

“My father did not talk much about his own father Ivo (1900-1941), rather my grandmother Lea told me more about him. So, my grandfather mostly read or told stories to his sons from classical antiquity, i.e., about the Greeks and their mythology. Then my father continued recounting those stories to me. My memory was so engrossed in the story of Achilles, whose mother Thetis wanted to render him immortal by immersing him in the River Styx, but who didn’t dip his heel into the water, which she held him by while immersing him. And thus that point remained the only vulnerable part of his body. There were many stories similar to that. I eventually realised that I’d grown up in an atmosphere where it mattered that I was the fourth generation in the family to deal with books.

“I was poorly educated in terms of being a Jew. My father didn’t insist on that, and my mum was a Croat. It now seems to me that they were waiting for me to decide for myself. It was significant when I started going to summer holidays with the Jewish youth – to Zaton near Dubrovnik, Sutivan, Pirovac. There I learned something in Hebrew, poems, and further informed myself about Jewish history. I made a lot of friends during those summer holidays, primarily from Belgrade and Sarajevo. I’m still in touch with some of them today. However, I’ve always cultivated, and still cultivate, a kind of triple or double identity – Yugoslav, Croatian and Jewish. That Yugoslav identity disappeared with the collapse of Yugoslavia, while the other two remained. And I also question them daily.”

My life Ivo Goldstein, Historian
IVO, SLAVKO, TESA & VERA GOLDSTEIN, CHANTILLY, 2015

It’s never been easy to be Jewish in any country, including Yugoslavia and Croatia. And it seems logical to us to ask Ivo whether he recalls a situation in which he felt uncomfortable as a Jew in his own country:

“There were almost none in the time of socialist Yugoslavia, but there have been ever more since the early 1990s. And especially in recent years, since it has been possible to comment on various events on the internet, that can be clearly characterised as anti-Semitism. For example, if I post something that has nothing to do with my identity and someone doesn’t like what I’ve said or written, the counting of blood cells, insults, etc. start immediately. Fortunately, those are nonetheless marginal occurrences, at least for me. I have many friends, acquaintances and colleagues in Zagreb and elsewhere in Croatia who thinks similarly to me. Yesterday I returned from the promotion of my book Controversy of Croatian History of the 20th Century, which was organised in Spilt by an anti-fascist association and was great. And it was similar in Belgrade, where I promoted my book Jasenovac precisely a year ago. The Belgrade promotion flowed phenomenally, the media followed it exceptionally, I gave several interviews and statements, but then some ugly comments followed on the internet.

“Of course it’s not nice when you are spat on through the internet, but I try to defend myself. Several times I’ve ended up with lawsuits for defamation in court. I’ve had various experiences. I recently won a second-instance verdict against director Antun Vrdoljak, which benefits me because he called me a plagiarist. It also happens that strangers stop me on the street and support my public statements. All of that gives me the strength to continue.”

Ivo’s father Slavko was a successful screenwriter and film director, journalist and publicist until 1968. Ivo recently read a file that the State Security Agency kept on his father from the mid-1960s. That file had grown to 400 pages by 1990. It was stated even during the late 1960s that Goldstein “criticised all events in our country.

Eric Hobsbawm warned in 1994/1995 that Croatia “as a small country, should open up internationally if it wants to progress”. Unfortunately, Croatia did not open up

He considers the state leaders as being guilty of the low standard of living. He claims that English laws and social security have more socialist elements than in countries that call themselves socialist.” He states that there should be “more press freedom and less interference by the League of Communists in social and political life”. When we ask him when he realised that his father was an important figure on the public scene, Ivo explains:

“From 1967, the police had been tapping my father’s phone. Officers claimed that Slavko Goldstein “speaks English and German perfectly” and that “as a Jew, he has a wide circle of acquaintances both at home and abroad.” They invited him for informative talks, but “he refuses” cooperation, and in particular “it is unacceptable for him to reveal the views of individuals because he considers that as denunciation”.

“After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Slavko made comments and wrote articles in the media on the situation in the Middle East, protesting against inaccuracies in some articles (because he considered them to be extremely pro-Arab, in line with the then Yugoslav foreign policy). He also defended some aspects of American politics in conversations with friends, and even towards Cuba in one conversation.

In discussions with friends and acquaintances on those topics, although his interlocutors opposed him – “he was difficult” and didn’t relent, noted police informants. The intelligence services concluded that such conduct from Goldstein’s represented “publicly politically harmful propaganda declarations” and, as such, was “within the jurisdiction of the prosecuting authorities”.

“The affirmation of my father in the general public was gradual. When in the 1970s he became director of the University Publishing House Liber, which published a number of interesting and important books, he was on good terms with, for example, Miroslav Krlež and Milovan Đilas. I also had the opportunity to get to know both of them, and I was only a high school graduate or student. I naturally realised that my old man was an important person.”

Ivo Goldstein, Historian
IVO PICTURED WITH THE AMBASSADORS OF QATAR AND UAE, DUBAI 2014

His father never told his son what he should study. Even as a high school graduate, Ivo considered studying medicine, law, economics or history. During his final year of grammar school, he decided to enrol in history studies at the Faculty of Philosophy. And it happened that he earned his PhD in Belgrade:

“In primary school and Classical grammar school, I studied Latin for eight years and Greek for six years. When I graduated, an assistant position opened up at the Department of General History of the Middle Ages, so I applied and got the job. In agreement with Professor Miroslav Brandt, who was my boss, I orientated myself towards Byzantology. I went to Paris for postgraduate studies, to the prestigious Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, where I met Professor Ljubomir Maksimović from the History Department of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, today a vice president of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. After prof. Brandt retired, there was no longer anybody in Zagreb who could adequately monitor me in the work on my Ph.D., so I logically accepted Maksimović’s invitation to do my PhD at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade. It was in 1988 that I defended my PhD under the title “Byzantine on the Adriatic from the 6th to the 9th Centuries”. And I’m eternally grateful for the help and understanding of the academic Maksimović, as well as the other two members of the committee from Belgrade – the late academic Božidar Ferjančič and Professor Ivan Đurić. I am also grateful to the people at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts because if I hadn’t worked in the libraries of those two institutions I wouldn’t have been able to write my doctorate.”

With the exception of the successful defence of his doctorate and career advancement, Ivo’s first major professional success was the book The Holocaust in Zagreb. It was published in 2001, and with it, the author showed himself and others that he can research successfully and write extensive texts about the history of the 20th Century. As a historian and write Mirjana Gross wrote, it was “the first comprehensive treatment of a topic only elements of which had generally been known to date, often components in the redrawing of history”. The book prompted discussion in the Croatian historiographical community and influenced further research into these and related topics. The English edition was in the final (one of two shortlisted books) for the 2016 National Jewish Book Award in the U.S.

However, Ivo considers his best work to be his book Tito, in which he wrote around 80 per cent of the text, with the other 20 per cent authored by his father. Within it the two of them summarise their views not only of the most significant figures of Croatian and Yugoslav history of the 20th century but also regarding their understanding of Yugoslavia. Specifically, through Tito’s biography, they reflect not only the history of so-called Tito’s Yugoslavia but also on the history of the Yugoslav idea as a whole. And answering that question is a challenge for every historian, including every intellectual of this father and son’s generations.

We lag far behind in a rapidly changing world and are destroying the future of our countries for the generations to come

During the time when Croatia was being led by Ivo Josipović, Zoran Milanović and Vesna Pusić, Goldstein took on the position of ambassador in Paris (2013-2017):

“It was an honour for me to represent Croatia, especially during the moments when we were entering the EU. In Paris, based on instructions from Zagreb, but also the space I had to act independently, I also promoted – among other things – what we today call regional cooperation. I’m personally pleased that we, representatives of B-H, Montenegro, Serbia and Croatia, were able in 2016 to “push through” our joint nomination for the inclusion of “Stećak” [Stećci – Medieval Tombstones] on the World Heritage List, although the first assessments (and official grades) gave us very little chance. The axis of the project in Paris at that time consisted of Serbian Ambassador Darko Tanasković and I, with the wholehearted help of Montenegrin Ambassador Dragica Ponorac and B-H Ambassador Ivan Orlić. That is a real example of how it possible to work for our mutual benefit.”

According to CorD’s interlocutor, Josip Broz Tito was the only European statesman to successfully fight battles against Hitler and Stalin in his long political career. During World War II, in occupied Europe, he was the main organiser and commander of the strongest guerrilla resistance to the German- Italian occupiers and their collaborators, but after the war he used those successes to impose a communist single-party dictatorship in Yugoslavia, modelled on the harshness of Stalin’s USSR:

“However, after three years, Tito came into sharp conflict with Stalin’s hegemony. He separated his country from the Eastern (Communist) Bloc and skilfully maintained neutrality between the democratic West and communist East for about 30 years.

“Over the course of those 30 years, Tito gradually eased some of the rigidities of the communist system, expanding space for various civil liberties. Under his leadership, Yugoslavia developed faster economically and socially than the states that composed it ever did before, or after. But Tito never gave up on the single-party system, state- and party-controlled economies, nor his personal arbitration of authority. He often didn’t handle himself way during occasional economic crises or with nationalist conflicts within the multinational state. Bitten by illnesses in his last years and suffering the heavy fractures of his last marriage, Tito left behind a catastrophically disordered system of governing the country, with immature political leadership, most feuding in inter-ethnic conflicts. Ten years after Tito’s death, that led to a series of mutual armed conflicts in which the former state of Yugoslavia collapsed into seven small states.

Ivo Goldstein, Historian
MONACO, NATIONAL DAY EVENT, WITH WIFE SANJA ANDHONORARY CROATIAN CONSUL JEAN KERWAT

“The story of Tito isn’t one-dimensional; it can’t be boiled down to just good or just bad. He couldn’t be considered a Serb-hater or a Croat-hater, because he wasn’t one of those. Only when we consider the elements that I’ve noted, but also many others, can Tito’s personality be grasped. I had a much worse opinion of him when he died than I do today.”

And where are we today, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia; in the view of this historian, what are the greatest dangers in the countries of the former Yugoslavia; how would he describe the threat of nationalism in these new states?

“One of the greatest historians of the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), gave an interview in 1994/1995 to a Croatian newspaper and warned that Croatia “as a small country, should open up internationally if it wants to progress”. Unfortunately, Croatia did not open up. We became an EU member seven years ago and, seemingly paradoxically, we were more open at the moment of entry than we are now.

“Nationalism is the absolute greatest danger today. Nationalism, or chauvinism, is a disease of a nation that is deadly to other nations. Nationalism, thus, brings misfortune to another nation but does not bring happiness to its own. We could have learned that in a terrible way from the experiences of the wars of the 1990s. We could have learned, but in a good portion of our publics, that lesson has not yet been learned. And those who do not learn such lessons from history are forced to repeat them. I would love to be an optimist, but I’m afraid that the brutal reality doesn’t leave much room for such hopes.

“Even today, among the publics of the former Yugoslavia, the dominant narrative is – they are all to blame, only we are just. We can’t progress in that way. It should be understood that there is that other side with which we probably can’t agree on many things, but whose views should be respected, and then find ways for us to resolve disputed issues or function according to some transitional solutions. Specifically, we lag far behind in a rapidly changing world and are destroying the future of our countries for the generations to come.”