Showbusiness historiography in Croatia: myth, war memory and Marko Perković Thompson

Catherine Baker


The folk-rock singer Marko Perković Thompson first rose to prominence when, as a bartender and mechanic from the village of Čavoglave fighting in the Croatian army, he composed and performed a vigorous rock track celebrating his unit’s actions against Serbian soldiers.  Thompson faded from public attention after the war, but returned to the popular music scene in 1998 with an album entitled Vjetar s Dinare (Wind from Dinara), and in 2002 became one of Croatia’s best-selling recording artists with the release of his album E, moj narode (Oh, my people), with which he attempted to present the image of ‘a people’s tribune who promotes general Croatian values, unity, love for the family, God and the homeland.’[1]  However, he shares his understanding of ‘Croatian values’ with the formulators of the 1990s nationalist narrative, which offered uncritical praise to any group or individual who had defended the independence of Croatia, including the 1940s state of Ante Pavelić.[2]  As Thompson’s popularity increased, this implicit and explicit attitude in his repertoire proved more and more troubling to Croatians who rejected the Tudjmanist narrative, culminating in the polemic provoked by the revelation at the end of 2003 that the singer had performed Ustaša songs.[3] 

Thompson’s songs themselves are often characterised by references to the past: one notes the invocation of ‘generations of heroes/and the victorious strong army/[who] are still guarding and dying/for the Homeland’[4] on the title track of E, moj narode.  One of his wartime (1993) songs, Anica, Kninska kraljica, sets a description of a Croatian assault on a Serbian base in Krajina alongside a call for Croats to remember that Knin, the Krajina capital, belonged to the legendary King Zvonimir[5]—which should be understood in the wider context, identified by Ivo Žanić, of symbolic legitimation of the Croatian war effort against Serbs in Krajina by referring to Zvonimir’s association with Knin.[6]  These allusions may take their sense from the memory of historical events, but their force is mythological, and, indeed, Thompson himself explained in a 2002 interview that in his musical vision history is reduced to the ‘mythic tales’ of ‘our heroes, kings and knights’,[7] a pantheon which would be familiar also to the Serbian ethnologist Ivan Čolović.  For Čolović, such an assemblage presents past and contemporary events ‘in an extra-temporal experience of mythic presence,’ with the aim of detaching them from their particular context and positioning them in a narrative of eternal heroism,[8] as would appear to be the intended effect here.  On Thompson’s late-1991 breakthrough hit, Bojna Čavoglave, the band of Croatian brothers (‘Croat stands by Croat, we are all brothers/you won’t get to Čavoglave so long as we’re alive!’[9]) are joined in defence of their homeland by no less than the folkloric and Biblical Elijah to support the argument that the argument that the territory is Croatian by historical right: ‘[Serbs,] listen now to the message from St. Elijah/you won’t reach Čavoglave, you were never there before!’[10]. 

Since the late 1990s, and especially during the Mesić-Račan era, Thompson has presented himself on songs such as Prijatelji (1998) and Reci, brate moj (duet with Miroslav Škoro, 2002) as a spokesman for Homeland War veterans, capitalising on the disappointment of organised branitelji with their status in peacetime society.  Thompson’s accusation is that the memory of the fallen has been betrayed (Reci, brate moj: ‘Tell me, my brother, are we cursed/for it all to be so quickly forgotten?’[11]), most of all by Croatia’s co-operation with war crimes indictments against Croatian veterans.  Indeed, the amount of attention devoted to Thompson’s E, moj narode concert tour in autumn 2002 may have been largely been owed to its resonance with the wider political climate of mass protests against the indictment of Ante Gotovina and the imprisonment of Mirko Norac,[12] to which Thompson attached himself by dedicating empty, spot-lit VIP seats at his concert venues to the two generals.[13]  Thompson’s articulation of the hard-line nationalist stance on Croatia’s present and historical persecution is also reflected in his reference on E, moj narode to the Devil’s eternal effort to eradicate the Croats (‘vražje sile se trude/da nas ne bude’).  This not only conforms to the 1990s tendency in both Croatia and Serbia to present one’s own nation as victims of genocide,[14] but to Tudjman’s rhetorical strategy of depicting Croatia as assailed by a succession of external and internal enemies.[15]  The motif, indeed, is not confined to Thompson’s brand of patriotic ethno-rock, but also appears strongly in certain songs belonging to what one might term the ‘schlager historiography’ genre, such as Dražen Žanko’s 1991 Od stoljeća sedmog (From the seventh century)—for which Tudjman is said to have shown a particular affinity[16]—which also deals with evildoers’ efforts to disperse the Croats from their long-possessed land.

To express their value judgments of Thompson’s repertoire and fame, both his defenders and his opponents have recourse to arguments based on certain historical narratives which have acquired a mythic value.  Myth, according to George Schöpflin, ‘attributes special qualities to the group, extends its distinctiveness and creates a boundary’,[17] a function which appears both in the national-reconciliatory idea and the demand that Croatia, to become a deservingly modern nation, must engage with its past.  A commentary by the journalist Davorka Blažević, for instance, expressly identifies Thompson with the Tudjmanist ‘collective identification of ours with national legends’, which he claims has led to the mythologisation of war criminals and which Croatians must overcome in order to become the modern nation they claim to be.[18]  This latter school of thought frequently relies (as in the work of Slavenka Drakulić) on an understanding of the post-1945 (West) German approach to the Second World War period, which itself elevates the German model to the status of myth.[19] 

Musical value judgements are often understood in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s process of distinction, in which groups and individuals express their identities through the exercise of taste, and frequently ‘by the refusal of other tastes’.[20]  This observation fits well with Schöpflin’s understanding of myth, and also with Anthony Cohen’s theory of the importance of boundaries in maintaining a community: for Cohen, boundaries are largely kept up by the attachment of meanings to certain symbols which signify the shared identity of the community but also its difference from others.[21]  Croatians on the left, especially in the urban centres of Zagreb and Rijeka, commonly associate the Dalmatian hinterland and Herzegovina with social and economic backwardness and with a fixation on the Homeland War at the expense of progress into Europe, in an example of the ‘symbolic geography’ identified by Milica Bakić-Hayden.[22] 

In this context, the location in which the significance of Thompson is most keenly contested may be Split, where such anxieties are keenly felt by those who define themselves as longer-established residents of the coast and resent the changes wrought to the city by immigration from the interior.  An essentialised discourse of the Mediterranean as multi-cultural and tolerant, contrasting the mild ‘wind from the south’ with ‘the brutal and cold winds from Dinara’, is often employed to this effect;[23] with this, yet another historical myth is introduced to the debate, this one perhaps ultimately relying on the French historian Fernand Braudel’s well-known theories of the similarities between the people of the Mediterranean coasts.  Similar discourses are common in Istria, where the multiple identities resulting from the region’s particular history are a point of pride among self-defined Istrians.[24]  However, as Pamela Ballinger points out, the rationale of this discourse implicitly, and necessarily, constructs a definition of non-Istrian (especially interior) Croats as rather less than European and being inclined towards intolerance.[25]  The same, in this case, must be said for the myths which comfort those who believe themselves to be the genuine Splićani.

Thompson’s Dinaric background, in which his musical narratives take particular pride, combine with his continually reaffirmed uncompromising nationalism to establish him as a repository for urbanites’ anxieties about the ruralisation of their environment by largely Dinaric newcomers.  Thus, he has become a powerful cultural resource for the construction of such a symbolic geography, but the discourses of this symbolism are not only geographical (such as the critic Zlatko Gall’s claim that Thompson shares his audience with the Serbian turbofolk star Ceca[26]) but historical: Thompson’s high-profile concert at Split’s Poljud stadium in September 2002 was compared (also by Gall) to Slobodan Milošević’s folklore-laden ‘happening of the people’,[27] while the audience’s insults to Mesić were unfavourably measured by another (Rijeka-based) journalist against the honouring of Tito at Poljud before the 1979 Mediterranean Games.[28] 

In February 2003, Thompson appeared, apparently without an official invitation, at Zagreb’s municipal reception for the victorious Croatian handball team.  Before a reported 50,000 people in Jelačićev trg, Thompson began his set in his customary way with Čavoglave – which is introduced by the cry of ‘Za dom spremni’ – and was answered by a few dozen audience members with Ustaša salutes.[29]  These words, as the slogan of the Croatian Home Guard during the NDH, are frequently understood as having Ustaša connotations themselves,[30] and the utterance and the response caused all the more comment for having occurred in the central square of Zagreb,[31] a place strongly associated with celebrations of successive political leaders,[32] but also with spontaneous popular manifestations.  Indeed, Jelačićev trg is one of those ‘nationally popular sites of assembly and congregation’ which, as such, are as significant to a spatialised national identity as are sites of state-led commemoration, and the values they connote are permanently open to contestation.[33]  Thompson, however, justifies the words ‘Za dom spremni’ as having existed before the NDH, since Nikola Šubić Zrinski used ‘Za dom’ and King Petar Krešimir IV ‘Spremni’,[34] and claims besides to understand them ‘as non-violent, because it expresses the noble intention to defend one’s home.’[35]  Here Thompson echoes the ideology of Tudjman, and of the veterans with whom he has aligned himself from Prijatelji onwards, to considerable commercial benefit.

At the same time, the Thompson case—and especially the much-commented appearance of youths wearing Ustaša insignia at his concerts—has facilitated discussions of the shortcomings of Tudjmanist historiography.  Emblematic of this particular discourse is Ivo Goldstein’s critique connecting these youths’ behaviour to the ideological grounds on which nationalists had resisted the Hague Tribunal by arguing that Croats could not commit war crimes in a defensive war.[36]  From Thompson’s side, meanwhile, common ground can be found between his political attitudes and the Tudjmanist interpretation of national unity.  Under Tudjman, the nationalist movement was supposed to stand above politics and to bridge the divisions which had kept the Croatian people disunited;[37] however, the Croatian nation had first to be defined as excluding enemies such as Serbs and Communists.[38]  Thompson, for his part, told an interviewer from Novi list in October 2002:

Young people… aren’t weighed down by Ustaše or Partisans…  We are the victorious generation which created Croatia and we are the ones who need to construct well-being in the country, regardless of on what side one is.[39]

However, Thompson’s call for national unity, like Tudjman’s, has provoked adverse comment with its apparent readiness to include NDH soldiers in the pantheon of those who fought to defend the homeland.  Before the E, moj narode tour, the presence among a section of Thompson’s audience of individuals wearing T-shirts and caps with Ustaša symbols had already attracted attention, which Thompson deflected by saying that ‘that is our history, which, to be fair, some people praise and others curse’, and appealing once again for ostensibly apolitical unity.[40]  The controversy escalated, via the Jelačićev trg affair, to an incident where two Thompson concerts in the Netherlands were allegedly banned because of the audience’s tendency to display NDH imagery,[41] and then to the claim at the end of 2003 by an online magazine that it had obtained recordings of Thompson singing Ustaša songs including Evo zore, evo dana, and Jasenovac i Gradiška Stara.[42].  As telling as the fact that Thompson had performed such songs is the fact that the turn of 2003 became a propitious moment at which to finally engage with the troubling popular-cultural rehabilitation of the NDH, and, in the words of Jelena Lovrić, to challenge the Tudjmanist version of history in which it was possible ‘to depict Ustašism as a specific patriotism and not a criminal project.’[43] 

Many articles critical of Thompson at this stage explicitly referred to the impact such a singer’s popularity was likely to have on Croatia’s image abroad:[44] this was a matter of particular sensitivity after Croatia’s EU application had been delayed by Britain and the Netherlands until co-operation over ICTY indictments increased.  It would appear that the events of November 2003, which first indicated in Croatia that Thompson was well-known abroad, offered an impetus for the nature of his presentation to be questioned.[45]  Yet it is possible, too, that the elevation of an online report into a national scandal was also influenced by the November 2003 election victory of Ivo Sanader’s HDZ (note, for instance, Lovrić’s parallel discussion of the incident in the Netherlands and of the EU’s warning to Sanader not to include the far-right HSP in his government[46]).  Whether for left-wingers ashamed that their anti-nationalist alternatives had not been successful, or for nationalists who supported Sanader’s forward-looking and conciliatory leadership, the election could be interpreted as a signal that greater openness regarding the past was not only permissible but necessary. 

The younger consumers of Thompson’s music have received their historical education under the Tudjmanist regime, where history teaching served primarily to reinforce the ‘statehood narrative’ on which HDZ grounded its legitimacy, including holding up the NDH as an expression of the Croatian will for independence.[47]  The increasing polemic surrounding Thompson has taken place in tandem with a wider reassessment of historical education in Croatia, for instance, the initiative to give presentations in Croatian schools on Holocaust Memorial Day 2004, widely seen as a signal that history teaching should now be oriented towards developing skills of critical thinking and debate,[48] which would enable, in this specific case, young people to question whether Thompson’s designation of all Croatian defenders as patriots was appropriate. 

Yet the designation was not only Thompson’s, but also Tudjman’s, where the past was used as a resource for political legitimation rather than a matter for reasoned discussion.  By questioning the reasons for Thompson’s stardom, it was possible for those concerned about the wider tendency to politicise and rehabilitate war memory in Croatia to express their unease, thus transferring the matter from the sphere of popular culture to that of historiography.  This essay, then, attempts to illustrate the way in which contested historical narratives provide the ingredients for particular groups in Croatia to define their own identities and others’, a process which takes place just as strongly in the field of popular music as it does in historiography itself: indeed, the Thompson case demonstrates the significance of what one might term a showbusiness (estrada) historiography in today’s Croatian society.

[1] Dragan Miljuš, ‘Thompson u Dom sportova’, Večernji list, 6 October 2002

[2] Alex J Bellamy, The formation of Croatian national identity: a centuries-old dream? (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003), 71

[3] Matija Babić, ‘Thompson – domoljub ili fašist?  Konačan odgovor je…’, Index, 28 December 2003, [accessed 9 March 2004]

[4] ‘Generacije junaka/i pobjednička vojska jaka/još se brine i gine/zbog Domovine.’

[5] ‘Ej, Hrvati, sjetimo se Knina/hrvatskoga kralja Zvonimira!’

[6] Ivo Žanić, ‘The curse of King Zvonimir and political discourse in embattled Croatia’, East European politics and societies 9:1 (1995) 90-122, 110
[7] Danijela Ana Morić, ‘Marko Perković Thompson odlučio opovrgava napise o preseljenju u Australiju’, Večernji list, 30 August 2002
[8] Ivan Čolović, Bordel ratnika: folklor, politika i rat (Belgrade: Biblioteka XX vek, 1994), 153

[9] ‘Stoji Hrvat do Hrvata, mi smo braća svi/nećete do Čavoglava dok smo živi mi!’

[10] ‘Slušajte sad poruku od Svetog Ilije/nećete u Čavoglave, niste ni prije!’  On Elijah’s folkloric association with spirits of thunder and storms: see Ivo Žanić, Prevarena povijest: guslarska estrada, kult hajduka, i rat u Hrvatskoj i Bosni i Hercegovini 1990-1995. godine (Zagreb: Durieux, 1998), 75
[11] ‘Reci, brate moj, jesmo mi prokleti/da se tako brzo sve zaboravi?’

[12] The crisis over the indictment of the former HV chief of staff Janko Bobetko broke out, by chance, in the middle of the E, moj narode tour.

[13] Zoran Krželj, ‘Norac i Gotovina nisu došli, ali svi ostali jesu!’, Novi list, 17 September 2002

[14] David Bruce MacDonald, Balkan holocausts?: Serbian and Croatian victim-centred propaganda and the war in Yugoslavia (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 261

[15] Gordana Uzelac, ‘Franjo Tudjman’s nationalist ideology’, East European quarterly 31:4 (1997) 449-72, 462

[16] Ivo Žanic, Smrt crvenog fiće: članci i ogledi 1989-1993 (Zagreb: Studio grafičkih ideja, 1993), 129

[17] George Schöpflin, Nations, identity, power: the new politics of Europe (London: Hurst, 2000), 83

[18] Davorka Blažević, ‘Moderna Hrvatska’, Slobodna Dalmacija, 14 October 2002

[19] Slavenka Drakulić, Café Europa: life after Communism (London: Abacus, 1996), 84, 181

[20] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 56, 174-5

[21] Anthony P Cohen, The symbolic construction of community (London and New York: Routledge, 1985), 53

[22] Milica Bakić-Hayden and Robert M Hayden, ‘Orientalist variations on the theme ‘Balkans’: symbolic geography in recent Yugoslav cultural politics’, Slavic review 51:1 (1992) 1-15, 4

[23] Miro Kučić, ‘Surovi vjetar s Dinare’, Slobodna Dalmacija, 8 October 2002

[24] Drakulić, Café Europa, 163

[25] Pamela Ballinger, History in exile: memory and identity at the borders of the Balkans (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 253-4

[26] Zlatko Gall, ‘Thompson: Hrvatska Ceca’, Slobodna Dalmacija, 21 September 2002

[27] Gall, ‘Hrvatska Ceca’

[28] Krželj, ‘Norac i Gotovina’

[29] L Tomičić, ‘Thompson nagrdio sportsko slavlje’, Novi list, 4 February 2003
[30] Glavan, ‘Kratka povijest ekstremne rock-ikonografije’

[31] Mladen Bariša, ‘Prvaci svijeta u politici’, Slobodna Dalmacija, 4 February 2003

[32] Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin, ‘The monument in the main city square: constructing and erasing memory in contemporary Croatia’, Balkan identities: nation and memory, ed. Maria Todorova (London: Hurst, 2004) 180-96, 184
[33] See Tim Edensor, National identity, popular culture and everyday life (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002), 48.
[34] Zvonimir Mamić, ‘Thompson krivi Židove’, Novi list, 29 November 2003
[35] Arsen Obremović, ‘Pjevačka zvijezda prvi put progovara u javnosti nakon višetjedne afere koja se diže oko njega’, Večernji list, 30 January 2004
[36] Tomislav Klauški, ‘Anti Paveliću?’, Slobodna Dalmacija, 12 October 2002

[37] Bellamy, The formation of Croatian national identity, 67

[38] Uzelac, ‘Franjo Tudjman’s nationalist ideology’, 462
[39] Vesna Kljajić, ‘Mladi nisu opterećeni ni ustašama, ni partizanima!’, Novi list, 26 October 2002
[40] Danijela Ana Morić, ‘Marko Perković Thompson govori o novom albumu, domoljublju i duhovnim vrijednostima’, Večernji list, 6 July 2002

[41] Zvonimir Mamić, ‘Thompson zabranjen zbog ‘fašizma’!’, Novi list, 25 November 2003.  The fact of the ban is not disputed, but its motivation has been: see also Marijana Kasalo, ‘Nizozemska policija Thompsonu zabranila koncerte!’, Slobodna Dalmacija, 25 November 2003.

[42] Babić, ‘Thompson – domoljub ili fašist?’

[43] Jelena Lovrić, ‘Triježenje od ustašluka’, Novi list, 26 January 2004
[44] Željko Ivanjek, ‘Slaveći zločince NDH Thompson sramoti Hrvatsku’, Jutarnji list, 31 December 2003
[45] Srđan Brajčić, ‘Gdje ste bili kad je Thompson pjevao?’, Novi list, 9 January 2004
[46] Jelena Lovrić, ‘Perači crnih košulja’, Novi list, 2 December 2003
[47] Bellamy, The formation of Croatian national identity, 150-1
[48] Lovrić, ‘Triježenje od ustašluka’