The Strange World of Yugoslav War Propaganda

Two parts war crimes to one part synthpop. Mix well to combine. Listen once for Sarajevo.

Griffin Sonnemann-Creed, Columnist

The Balkan peninsula has never been a place of peace. For centuries, constant rebellions, wars, and invasions have threatened the balance of power in both the region and the entirety of Europe. Perhaps this is most exemplified by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, lighting the powderkeg which would eventually become the First World War. After the war, many of the western Slavic nations located in the Balkans unified into one nation: Yugoslavia.

For decades, Yugoslavia was relatively stable. The country was first unified under the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty, and while peace was kept, ethnic tensions did sometimes cause breakouts of sporadic violence. During the Second World War, Yugoslavia was dissolved into several different states, with the Independent State of Croatia acting as the successor government. With the collapse of Nazi Germany in May 1945, Croatia was soon defeated and a communist government led by Josip Broz Tito was put in place, once again unifying Yugoslavia. Under Tito and his centralized leadership, much of the ethnic tensions which characterized the region cooled due to a combination of centralized government and Pan-Slavic propaganda. Disputes were settled in the court of law, rather than on the battlefield. Many of the constituent republics were finally considered equal to each other. However, in 1980, Tito passed away. The strongman of the Balkans had passed, and there was no strong successor to continue his policies.

In response to the death of Tito, Albanians in the province of Kosovo began to ask for autonomy or possible secession. Ethnic tensions along the former allies began to grow. In 1987, Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević was elected president of Yugoslavia, and immediately began centralizing the country under Serbian rule. In response, several of the constituent republics elected nationalist leaders to lead them, culminating in the secession of these republics from Yugoslavia.

So what does this have to do with propaganda? Well, wars are fought in two places: the front and back home. And in Yugoslavia, both were extremely brutal. Electricity was shut off for hours, homes were unable to receive water, and one was always at risk of being attacked by an opposing force. Patriotic films and music were just another way to keep your citizens’ morale high. The leaders of Yugoslav countries just happened to take this a step further, by combining it with the instruments typical to the 80’s and 90’s pop music which was now firmly ingrained in European culture.

When one listens to a military song, it’s often meant to make you feel strong. The drums, to symbolize the marching of thousands of men in tandem. A flute to keep your spirits high. Countless other instruments from every different culture, to make you proud of your nation. For example, take La Marseillaise, the French national anthem composed in the midst of the bloodshed of the Napoleonic Wars. No matter your home country, this is a song that makes you want to fight! And then there’s Yugoslavia, with synths, recorders, and accordions fuelling their troops in the field.

Take one of the most popular Yugoslav songs, and one of the most famous of them, with a global audience – Radovan Karadzic Haag Bluz, also known as the infamous “Remove Kebab” song. With a hilariously stern-looking man playing an accordian while praising some politician, one could find this an example of absurdity in the middle of a war zone. But this song is not innocent; it praises Radovan Karadzic, the first president of the Republika Srpska, (one half of the now unified Bosnia and Herzegovina) who committed war crimes and ordered genocidal killings against the local Bosnian and Croat civilians. Other Yugoslav propaganda films include those like Oj Alija, Aljo, whose beginning sounds more like a 90’s video game soundtrack than a patriotic anthem. Yet if you look at the lyrics, they are filled with racist stereotypes and advocating for violence against Muslim minorities in Bosnia.

In the end, to understand the insanity behind Yugoslav propaganda, one has to look at the situation behind the songs. The audience behind many of these songs needed a scapegoat, someone they could blame for their perilous situation. The breakaway governments proved the perfect scapegoat for such a job, and additionally allowed for Serbia to attempt to reassert itself as the dominant power in the Balkans. While the wars may finally be over, there is still plenty of ethnic tension in the powder keg of Europe.