back to Historijski arhiv Sarajevo

Archives and Cultural Memory under Fire : Destruction and the Post-war Nationalist Transformation

Robert J. Donia

University of Michigan

Speaker Biography:

Robert Donia received his Ph.D. in history at the University of Michigan in 1976. He is a Research Associate at the University of Michigan's Center for Russian and East European Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at San Diego. He is the author of Islam under the Double Eagle: The Muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina, 1878-1914 (1981), and with John V.A. Fine, co-author of Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed (1994). He recently completed a book on the history of Sarajevo.


The Historical Museum (formerly the Museum of the Revolution) in Sarajevo was a dismal place to visit in May 2004. The lights were off and the heat was not working. The museum’s director and staff were huddled over lukewarm coffee in a corner of the conference room. The museum’s employees welcomed the foreign visitor warmly, as they always had, but staff members were deeply preoccupied with the prolonged financial crisis facing their institution. None of them had been paid in five months. The museum had received nothing of the paltry appropriation designated for it in the budget of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and an appeal for a partial payment for sustenance had just failed. The staff openly discussed the possibility of closing the doors and going home.

A few hundred meters away, the visitor encountered a very different situation. The Bosniak Institute, a structure completed in the late 1990’s, is an architectural tour-de-force, combining modern elements with a preserved sixteenth century Turkish bath in the heart of the new edifice. The lavish quarters include a meeting hall and several small conference rooms adorned with working fountains and exquisite Oriental tiles. A temperature-controlled library holds carefully preserved books and manuscripts. Readers are served by professional librarians and archivists using computerized finding aids. Anywhere in the world, the Bosniak Institute would be a researcher’s dream.

The Historical Museum and Bosniak Institute represent extremes in the transformation of memorial institutions in Sarajevo that began shortly after Bosnia’s multiparty elections of 1990. Orchestrated by the nationalist parties that prevailed in that election, the changes threaten to destroy the custodial institutions of Bosnia’s richly diverse history and culture. The destruction of that legacy began with artillery and mortar assaults in wartime, but its continuation by other means in the postwar era threatens to ruin much of the country’s historical heritage as recorded in documents and artifacts.

The Obliteration of Memory

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was home to most major archives, libraries, institutes, and museums in the republic as of 1990. Most were formed during the first decade of socialist rule (1945-1955). The National and University Library was founded in 1945, and in 1949 it acquired the confiscated libraries of the cultural societies of Serbs, Croats, Muslims (later known as Bosniaks), and Jews. But many institutions of memory traced their origins to the Provincial Museum (Zemaljski muzej), organized in 1888 under the auspices of Austro-Hungarian administrators as an omnibus institution functioning as an archive, library, museum, and scientific institute.

In 1991, representatives of the leading nationalist parties considered a scheme to dismember the library – by then grown to many times its original acquisitions – and distribute its holdings along national lines. War broke out before their plans could be implemented. But war proved to provide the occasion and pretext for widespread destruction of institutions of memory, with the Bosnian Serb nationalists conducting the most methodical and widespread campaign. In spring and summer 1992, while holding the city of Sarajevo in siege, they annihilated the Oriental Institute with its priceless collection of manuscripts; the National and University Library with over 2,000,000 volumes; and the Olympic Museum with its artifacts from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. Other institutions were damaged by shelling and sniper fire. The vast destruction evoked world-wide condemnation and promises of aid to rebuild the ruined institutions. But except for token donations, those promises were forgotten long before the hostilities came to a close.

The Bosnian Serb nationalist assault, although widespread, was highly selective. Each of the three major institutions noted above was representative of the city’s multiethnic life, and the Oriental Institute held the treasures of the Ottoman era so despised by Serb nationalists. But other institutions experienced only isolated damage. The Provincial Museum, with its vast holdings of natural science treasures and pre-Ottoman tombstones known as stećci, was only a few meters from the front line for almost four years. It sustained damage from artillery and mortar strikes, but it was spared the wholesale annihilation suffered by the National and University Library.

The Historical Museum, with its superb library, archive, and artifacts dating largely from the Second World War, was also close to the front line. The comings and goings of its staff members were visible to Serb snipers in high-rise buildings across the river. To discourage direct attacks, staff members wore the blue workers' coats so familiar as the uniform of archivists in socialist Yugoslavia. The strategy worked, and the Historical Museum emerged from the war with little damage to its building and holdings. The Serbs' relative inattention to the Historical Museum may be due to another factor: Serb nationalists are ambivalent about the Partisan resistance movement of the Second World War. They despise its communist elements, but view it as a Serbian uprising that was treacherously betrayed by Tito and other enemies of the Serbian people. Most Serb nationalists did not see the museum's artifacts and documents as inimically hostile to their nationalist point of view.

The Segmentation of Memory

With the coming of peace, Sarajevo’s institutions of memory were subjected to a less spectacular but no less pernicious threat to their existence. Two products of American diplomacy, the Washington Agreement of March 1994 and the Dayton Peace Agreement of late 1995, recognized and created governmental bodies under the control of nationalist parties that had taken power in the 1990 elections. The central institutions of state were left with few powers and no significant taxing authority. As a result, by the late 1990’s most institutions of memory had fallen under the jurisdiction of governmental bodies that were committed to one or more nationalist agendas.

With no effective central government to take over from the pre-war Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, institutions of memory were divvied up among political units that normally viewed them as budgetary burdens. The ten cantons that made up the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina were charged with supporting education and some institutions of memory. Most heavily encumbered was the Canton of Sarajevo. Leaders of the Sarajevo canton, mostly Bosniaks by nationality, were generous in supporting institutions of learning and memory, but the canton’s tax base was a small fraction of that enjoyed by the pre-war republic. The Institute for History in Sarajevo and the Historical Archive of Sarajevo are among those that receive support from the canton, but their funding is far from sufficient to return those institutions to full functionality. Additionally, the Historical Archive was expelled from its premises of several decades to make way for the construction of the Bosniak Institute in the city center. It was forced to house many of its holdings in remote warehouses under uncertain conditions.

During and after the war, Croat and Serb leaders established rival institutions of memory and denigrated Sarajevo’s institutions as "Bosniak" or "Muslim." In Croat-controlled West Mostar, nationalists used funds provided by the European Union to reconstruct the city’s library and renamed it the "National Library." The title leaves unspecified the "nation" to which the library belongs, but the strident Croatian nationalism displayed at the Library’s festive opening in July 1995 left little doubt that the library was a Croatian cultural institution. In the Republika Srpska, the former "National and University Library Petar Kocić" was renamed the "National Library of the Republika Srpska" and promoted as a counterpart to the Sarajevo institution, which was characterized as a Bosniak or Bosnian Muslim library.

The trifurcation of key libraries and archives has been accompanied by studied neglect of those institutions that are not dedicated to nationalist causes. The plight of the Historical Museum is shared by other institutions of memory in Sarajevo. Six such organizations are wholly dependent on the Federation for support and had received no funds at all for 2004 as of May. They include the Provincial Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. An American colleague visiting that institution in May 2004 also found the lights out, the staff demoralized, and the institution closed except by special appointment.

The post-war political structure has orphaned the most important institutions of memory in Bosnia and Herzegovina, fragmented many of them, and weakened those that have not been divided. Some have already been destroyed. The "Young Bosnia" museum, one of several display areas belonging to the City Museum of Sarajevo, was closed for some years and its contents relegated to the basement of the Jewish synagogue.

The Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina, founded in the 1940’s, is a classic case of an institution victimized by the complex, fragmented political structure. The archival staff successfully resisted a Bosnian Serb proposal to separate the institution’s holdings into "Serb" and "non-Serb" collections, a plan that would have created a squabble over millions of archival documents and hopelessly complicated the storage and retrieval of documents. But the compromise solution produced an administrative nightmare. The institution was divided nominally into the "Archive of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina," placing it under the jurisdiction of Croat and Bosniak (Muslim) nationalists, and the "Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina," meant to encompass both the Federation and the Republika srpska. Since the practice in the Federation was to have a director of one nationality (Croat or Bosniak) and a deputy director of the other, the Federation archive required two large offices for its Director and Deputy Director.

In the interest of parity, the "Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina" also had a director and deputy director, meaning that four directors in the post-war world took the place of two pre-war officials. In the ensuing war of egos, the archive’s users were driven from the spacious pre-war reading room (now converted to an office for a deputy director) into the photography dark room deep in the bowels of the archival stacks. Much of the institution’s meager budget is devoted to supporting a massive administrative superstructure while documents are at risk from moisture and insect damage and users are forced into cramped quarters in the decaying Presidency building.

The Privatization of Memory

Several new institutions have arisen in post-war Sarajevo. The most prominent one, already described briefly above, is the "Bosniak Institute," a project of Adil Zulfikarpašić, a former Partisan from a wealthy Bosnian Muslim landowning family who moved to Switzerland after the Second World War. In Zurich, he went into the construction business and multiplied the family fortune many times over. He established the Bosniak Institute in Zurich and began assembling books, periodicals, documents, and artifacts from the Bosniak past.

After the war, Zulfikarpašić established a Sarajevo office of the Bosniak Institute and used it to gather more books and manuscripts. In 1998 he struck an agreement with city officials to purchase the old Turkish bath building and to relocate the holdings of the Bosniak Institute to Sarajevo. The new plans demanded the demolition of an older structure which housed the extensive holdings of the Historical Archive of Sarajevo.

The new Bosniak Institute constitutes a triumph of privately-financed Bosniak nationalism over both national rivals and non-nationalist secular institutions. It promises to be the premiere institution of written social memory in Bosnia and Hercegovina, and it will be under the exclusive control of a founding father of twentieth century Bosniak nationalism or his heirs.

Two other new organizations, each devoted to the study of war crimes and genocide, were founded in Sarajevo during the war. While both received government funding at one time, each receives private funding as well. (I have been unable to learn anything more about their funding sources.) These institutions are performing valuable functions in documenting the crimes of the recent war, and one cannot quarrel with the social benefits they provide. But their humming computers and busy staffs only highlight the plight of the orphaned institutions that are slowly being strangled by neglect. The privatized world of memory is becoming a highly selective one, and it is increasingly challenging to preserve the historical record apart from those themes deemed urgent by the nationalist elites.

The national cultural societies of the Bosniaks and Croats, called Preporod and Napredak respectively, have resumed their earlier pre-eminence in gathering and preserving materials from the histories of their respective peoples. The libraries of each have benefited from donations of books by prominent scholars in their advanced years or upon their deaths. In the Republika Srpska, a similar role has been taken up by Prosvjeta, the Serb cultural society that was founded and once housed in Sarajevo. The three cultural societies have recreated a tri-opoly of Bosnia’s institutions of memory under the jurisdiction of nationalist elites.


Bosnia’s institutions of memory have undergone a major transformation since the multiparty elections of 1990, as illustrated by the fate of those located in the city of Sarajevo. During the war and prolonged siege of 1992-1995, Bosnian Serb nationalist forces destroyed key institutions of memory while leaving others largely untouched. But the peace agreements and postwar political structures have devastated many of those that survived the wartime destruction. Nationalist elites have trifurcated libraries and cultural societies while strangling many institutions through neglect.

It is difficult to see a future for most of these organizations. There is no possibility of replicating the wartime global outrage provoked by images of libraries and museums aflame and in ruins. In any case, that outrage did not translate into meaningful financial support from outside Bosnia for reconstitution of the lost collections. The nationalists are on the verge of prevailing in their effort to reformulate the fundamental sources of historical inquiry for future generations. It remains uncertain whether they will exercise their newly-acquired control for the benefit of all or only to advance the interests of their particular constituencies.