This post considers the use and controversies surrounding historically loaded symbols, specifically the Croatian WWII Ready for the Homeland salute and the Ukrainian salute Glory to Ukraine. These symbols are often used by social and political actors to advance agendas and manipulate public opinion, both during and after conflicts. The consequences of politicizing them can have lasting impacts on a country’s international reputation and internal stability. Understanding the complexities and historical backgrounds of these symbols is essential for managing post-conflict dynamics and navigating the challenges of memory politics.

Around five years ago, I was preparing to conduct interviews with war veterans of the 1990s Croatian War of Independence (predominantly referred to as the Homeland War, or Domovinski rat in Croatian). At the time, I was living in Estonia and was making phone calls to arrange interviews for my upcoming fieldwork in Croatia´s capital. I was interested in exploring the veterans´ perceptions of the WWII Ready for the Homeland salute (Za dom spremni – ZDS), which was the official salute of the genocidal Independent State of Croatia (1941–1945) and its ruling Ustaša regime.1 Controversies surrounding the salute had been increasing at the time, with one of them even threatening to topple the government.2

Now, war veterans of the 1990s war (usually referred to as branitelji, or defenders) play a significant role in maintaining and performing3 the dominant war narrative.4 The narrative is largely reproduced by political leaders who use the war legacy to further agendas and mobilize voters. Even decades after the war, political and media discourse continue to represent the branitelji as the embodiment of the Croatian war narrative of victory,5 sacrifice, and defense, and as the creators of the Croatian republic.6 As such, any critical examination of the war and historical revisionism – be it by scholars, NGO representatives, journalists or politicians – usually ends up perceived as an attack on the enshrined war narrative.

During the 1990s, the ZDS salute was used by paramilitaries created by the radical right-wing Croatian Party of Rights (HSP – Hrvatska stranka prava),7 who intentionally evoked the Ustaša legacy8 and sought to re-signify the salute as the symbol of Croatian defense and independence. The salute was not legally regulated during the war, which contributed to its further relativization and entanglement with the narrative and legacy of the 1990s war. As a symptom of broader revisionist tendencies, it was part of multiple controversies. It was used during football matches,9 at WWII commemorations,10 and at commemorations dedicated to the 1990s war,11 among other instances, while being downplayed by politicians in power such as former president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.12 This consequently worsened the political dialogue with Serb and Jewish minority representatives.13

The salute and other Ustaša insignia are not explicitly banned in Croatia, but their public display can result in fines for disturbing the peace. According to Article 325 of the Croatian Penal Code, a person can be charged for inciting hatred or offending people based on their national or ethnic belonging when using the salute. At least this is the case in theory, though in practice, hardly anyone chanting or displaying Ustaša insignia is prosecuted under Article 325. However, in line with the constitution, the country is founded upon the actions of Croatia´s Anti-Fascist Council in its opposition to the establishment of the NDH in 1941. Correspondingly, many legal experts and politicians claim this provides a basis for prosecuting displays of support for the Ustaše.

Historically loaded symbols serve various functions:14 they can bind or divide, mobilize and sustain, inspire, motivate, and provoke. In post-conflict contexts such as Croatia, Ustaša symbols like the ZDS salute are (mis)used by various social and political actors to advance political agendas, mobilize voters, and reinforce a one-sided version of the past. This often includes whitewashing the country´s more difficult legacies tied to WWII and the 1990s war.

Active conflict presents its own challenges. Historically loaded symbols tend to gain prominence in extreme circumstances because of their capacity to condense and mediate specific meanings, mobilize people, promote solidarity, and help actors involved in the conflict establish a global presence and communicate their position on the world stage. Contemporary conflict and post-conflict dynamics are further complicated by the significant role new media play in constructing national identities and (re)creating memories.15

The ongoing war in Ukraine illustrates these challenges well. Namely, the salute Glory to Ukraine! (СлаваУкраїні!) and its response Glory to the heroes! (Героям слава!) became associated with expressions of unity and solidarity with Ukraine both locally and internationally after Russia´s full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022. However, like its Croatian counterpart, its meaning is far from benign. The salute was used by World War II-era groups, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who collaborated with the Nazis – who saw them as tactically useful16 – for the supposed ‘greater good’ of achieving Ukrainian independence. During the war, they were engaged in the mass killings of Poles, Jews, and other non-Ukrainian nationalities.17 Nowadays, OUN and UPA remain significant in Ukraine´s memory politics and are instrumentalized by various political actors.18

The Slava Ukraini! salute resurfaced following Ukrainian independence in the 1990s and gained more significance during the 2013–2014 Euromaidan protests,19 which were triggered by the government´s refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. These protests contributed to the normalization of the salute in Ukraine, imbuing it with new meanings for a new generation of Ukrainians. Slava Ukraini! became largely associated with unity and solidarity and even became the official greeting of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the National Police in 2018.

The escalation of the war in 2022 further popularized the salute, with Ukrainian and international top officials using it to end their speeches, position themselves regarding the conflict, and communicate support for Ukraine. Conflicts also set the stage for strengthened propaganda, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated20 on many occasions. In the continuous process of airbrushing parts of history to present the Soviets in a solely positive light, the presence of the Slava Ukraini! salute in Ukrainian society and beyond helps him promote false claims that Ukraine must be “de-Nazified”. This simplification of complex historical21 issues to provoke a strong emotional response demonstrates how Moscow attempts to justify its actions both domestically and abroad.

Symbols can certainly acquire new meanings depending on the contexts they find themselves in and the communicative situations they enter. However, this does not mean that their existing meanings disappear, especially if a society does not reckon with its more difficult legacies. Symbols gain mainstream life, take on new shapes and forms.22 They are disseminated through various mediums and by diverse social groups with different intentions that we can never fully grasp.

Acknowledging the nature and background of historically loaded symbols helps grasp the entanglement of social, political, and historical factors that contribute to conflict and post-conflict dynamics. Whatever the stage of conflict, salutes such as the Croatian Za dom spremni or the Ukrainian Slava Ukraini! trigger strong emotional responses that can escalate or mitigate conflict and affect post-conflict development. As demonstrated by the Croatian example, the implications of politicizing symbols long after a conflict has ended should not be disregarded. Insights into the potential risks associated with different approaches to managing historically loaded symbols in post-conflict societies can inform policy and decision-making and influence a country´s international standing after the war, particularly in how they address their more controversial legacies.

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