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Ivana Polić

Testing the limits of manipulation: Children as a propaganda tool in Serbian and Croatian media during the Yugoslav Wars (1991-95)

14 Feburary 2019
  • nationalism
  • propaganda
  • Yugoslav Wars
  • children
  • ethnic conflict


The violent break-up of Yugoslavia, which began in the early 1990s, was undoubtedly influenced by the war propaganda aimed towards the nationalistic goals of all the sides involved. This article is focused on the analysis and comparison of one specific aspect of propaganda employed by the main pro-regime media in Serbia and Croatia, whose conflict marked the beginning of Yugoslavia’s dissolution: that is of the misuse of children as a warmongering instrument. The research examines different ways in which the manipulation of children as victims was used in Croatian and Serbian media and also its consequences, especially the role it played in shaping the actions of the warring parties. While Serbian media focused on the past by emphasizing the genocidal nature of Croats in the Second World War and the need to avenge Serb victims, especially children, Croatian media presented Croatian children as personifications and ambassadors of the ‘newly born’ Croatian collective national body, which was suffering from Serbian aggression. While standard histories of ethnic conflicts, nationalism and post-war transitions focus mainly on adult actors, this project seeks to shed light on the importance of children as both subjects and agents in the conflict-ridden areas of the Balkans, including their centrality to the transition from communism to democracy, to the wars that marked that shift, and to post-communist nation building, which remains contentious and in a state of flux to this day.

As future leaders of the nation, children have undoubtedly been a group of immense importance for political elites as part of the modern nationbuilding process. This was particularly the case in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, whose statesmen and peoples took pride in the factthat they liberated the country from the Axis through the communist-led, popularly supported Partisan movement in the Second World War. Furthermore, Yugoslavia soon became the only communist state in Europe to break with the Soviet Union and establish itself as neutral. The official socialist Yugoslav line presented the country as an ideal model of multi-ethnicity, with six ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Slavic Muslims and Montenegrins), five official languages (Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Magyar and Albanian) and three official religions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam). Therefore, the leaders of the state knew it was important to mobilize young generations for support of specific goals and ideals of the Yugoslav socialist federation and for nurturing interethnic tolerance among its different ethnic and religious groups.

In 1991, however, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, a violent ethnic war erupted between Croatia and insurgent Croatian Serbs supported by Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA). It began to tear the country apart. Within a decade, a series of conflicts resulted in seven independent states.1 From the very beginning, the pro-regime media in the countries involved played an essential part in shaping public opinion on the war (Thompson 1994, 1). Even though the communist regime in Yugoslavia was not as restrictive as in Eastern Bloc countries when it came to the notion of media freedom, by the time the dissolution of Yugoslavia had begun, the media in Croatia and Serbia were already firmly controlled by the conservative right-wing political elites who embraced exclusive ethnonational political programmes. One element that made the Yugoslav Wars unique is the fact that they took place on the brink of the 21st century, the age that saw mass media culture thrive in Southeastern Europe. Given the extent of media coverage and ordinary citizens’ access to television, newspapers and radio, viewers could literally follow its day-to-day course, and were exposed to gruesome scenes from the war in a way unseen before in Southeastern Europe. In addition to this, ‘patriotic journalism’ and war propaganda contributed to the state-of-war psychosis in which it was extremely difficult to differentiate between fact and misinformation.

How do we define propaganda? According to Professors of Communications Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, it is ‘the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist’ (Jowett and O’Donnell 2012, 7). They further subclassify propaganda intowhite (acknowledged source, accurate information), grey (source and/or information may or may not be verified) and black (false or conceived source, incorrect information) (Jowett and O’Donnell 2012, 17–20). These classifications will be of importance for this study when comparing the media in Serbia and Croatia, the two largest and most regionally dominant of the former Yugoslav states, and two of the parties most deeply engaged in ethnic conflict during these wars.

The research proposed here will demonstrate how children were used to justify ethnic warfare and the notion of ethnic exclusivity, one of the most important strategies of nation building in post-Yugoslav Croatia and Serbia. The evidence indicates that both Croatian and Serbian pro-nationalist media overexaggerated the role of children as victims and, through manipulation and misinformation, sought to enhance the overall public sentiment of animosity and rancour towards the ‘other side’. Nevertheless, the message conveyed in such a way differs slightly in its purpose. Serbian media, while mainly resorting to grey and black propaganda, constantly overemphasized the genocidal nature of the Croats and the parallelism with their crimes committed during the Second World War against Serbs and their children. On the other hand, Croatian media used children to a lesser extent through white propaganda, and with a predisposition towards centring on the present; Croatian children were seen as critical and representative of the ‘finally united’ Croatian collective national body (referring to the establishment of the independent nation-state in 1991), which fell victim to Serbian aggression and needed international recognition.

The connection between ideology and childhood indoctrination has recently been receiving more scholarly attention, especially among scholars working on topics concerning the processes of nation building and political culture in the late 19th‑ and 20th-century. However, most of these works deal with Western Europe, the United States, the former Soviet Union and Latin America, places where the nation-building process, when compared to Southeastern Europe at least, seems better established and successful.2 As for Southeastern Europe, and the region of the former Yugoslavia specifically, one notices the predominance of one type of approach that has left us with, at best, only a very incomplete understanding of children’s central place in the cultural, social and political upheaval that marked the region. Recent historiography has produced numerous child-centred studies covering the period of the Yugoslav Wars (1991–95). However, suchworks focus exclusively on the problems of children’s war trauma and the process of rehabilitation.3 The contribution of my project lies precisely in its different approach: instead of looking at the more familiar subject of the after-the-fact personal experiences of children who suffered through the war, I am turning to the new question of how those who had taken control of post-Yugoslav societies in Croatia and Serbia after the collapse of communism used that suffering to manipulate the masses and motivate them to enthusiastically participate in the warfare.

The study revolves around selected themes and concepts crucial to the understanding of the methods and effect of utilizing children as propaganda tools by Serbian and Croatian media. The first one focuses on Serbian media, while also providing an overview of the general situation regarding its tendencies of communicating information to the Serbian public from 1991 to 1995. The second section is equally structured, but it offers an insight into the problem from the Croatian media’s perspective. Finally, the two sides are compared, with a special emphasis on similarities and differences when it comes to the intentions and techniques behind the employment of such propaganda and its consequences on the relationship between the two countries and their position within the European community.

War for the sake of Serb children

The Yugoslav Wars, marked by the worst atrocities and war crimes seen in Europe since the Second World War, were initiated by Serbia and its ultraradical nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević, who took over the Serbian Communist Party in 1987. With the enormous military power of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Milošević proclaimed himself to be the representative of the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia (Thompson 1994, 51). The aim was to reunite all ethnic Serbs in one state, and this inevitably included the ‘liberation’ of large territories of Croatia and Bosnia where Serbs represented the majority or the significant minority, and also expel non-Serbs in order to annex those territories to ‘historical Serbia’ (Brosse 2003, 14–15). Serbian media contributed to the Yugoslav disintegration more than any other state in the federation; Serbian leadership and the insurgent Serbs in Croatia did not accept the Croatian declaration of independence in June 1991, and the war was to be fought only if the public embraced the idea that it was done to preserve the very existence of all Serbs, and was therefore a justified and divine mission (Thompson 1994, 51).

During the 1990s, Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and newspapers Politika [Politics], Politika express [Political Express] and Večernje novosti [Evening News] became the main organs of pro-regime propaganda in the state. In order to control the media institutions and their managers and staff and eliminate the possibility of any critique of the regime, those in power introduced heavy taxes for printing and the distribution of independent newspapers, and refused to issue broadcasting licences for television and radio channels outside Milošević’s influence. Journalists who refused to practice the official, ‘patriotic’ style of reporting were openly labelled as traitors, and publicly intimidated by death threats and pressure to resign their posts (Thompson 1994; Brosse 2003; Vekarić 2011).

One aspect of propaganda to which the media in Serbia undoubtedly introduced a new dimension during the war in Croatia (and later Bosnia) was the manipulation and (re)invention of myths related to Serbian people’s history and national identity. The most prominent were those connected to the genocidal crimes committed against the Serbs by the extremist groups of Croats during the Second World War, as well as the defeat by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Therefore, the resurrected Serbian identity was endangered by the ‘other’ identities that had suppressed it in the past: Croatian, Bosnian (refers to Muslims, in relation to Turks) and Albanian (given the demands of Albanians for autonomy in Kosovo). The public was constantly reminded about those bloody episodes, which resulted in the collective spread of animosity and prejudices towards the denominated ‘others’, and the children’s role was crucial in accomplishing this goal.

Starting from 1990, Serbian media were filled with reports about exhumations and reburials of Serb victims killed in Croatia and Bosnia by the members of the Croatian Ustasha (Ustaša) movement in the Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War.4 For instance, in August 1991, RTS broadcast a lengthy report concerning the exhumation of the Serb ‘martyrs’ from a mass grave discovered in Prebilovci, a small village in the south of Herzegovina. According to the report, those victims were ruthlessly executed by the Ustashas, and the viewers could see their remains being transferred to coffins and buried properly. A separate part of the report consists of a landscape that shows a pile of very small, children’s skulls, which are then zoomed in on so as to leave the viewers no room for doubt about to whom they belonged. Dramatic music accompanying the video clip contributes to the heavy atmosphere, while the speech ofDobrica Ćosić, one of the most prominent Serb intellectuals at the time, reminded viewers of the ‘unbearable burden of the tragedy of the Serbian people’ (RTS 1991).

Establishing parallels between the Croatian political leadership in the 1990s and that of the pro-fascist Croatian state, led by Ante Pavelić in collaboration with Adolf Hitler in the Second World War, was one of the widely used strategies of intimidating the Serbian ethnic community and ‘inducing’ the desired attitude and sentiment towards the ‘enemies’. Croats began to be collectively called ‘Ustashas’ in the Serbian media, and what needed to become ingrained in people’s minds is the fact that history repeats itself and that the genocidal nature of the Croats was about to be manifested again by reiterating all those monstrous actions from the past. More importantly, the message of the above-mentioned television report was supposed to convince the Serbs that even their offspring would not be spared by the Croats’ newly awakened thirst for blood (Denich 1994).

In this context, it was the Serb children who emerged as symbols of the collective Serbian trauma and represent the ‘Holy Crusade’ for the Serbian ‘Promised Land’. Extremely morbid accounts of alleged atrocities against them were perpetually served to the public in Serbia, and were not restricted to reports on commemorations and reburials only. For instance, the regional newspaper Otadžbina [Homeland], published within the territory of the Republic of Serbian Krajina,5 contained a separate section entitled ‘Genocide Against Serbs (1941–45)’. On 13 May 1995, the poem ‘The Memory of Little Milena’ by Mirko Rakić appeared on the page of this section. It laments the death of a Serbian girl who was ‘impaled by the Ustasha cutthroats’. A picture of a baby girl is added to the text to make the readers’ reaction even more emotionally driven. Numerous similar testimonies of Serb children’s sufferings under the Ustasha regime found their place on television or in the press, and very explicit and suggestive language like the one in Rakić’s poem helped in creating specific symbolic narratives that glorified the sacrifice and the collective woes of the Serb peoples. The goal of such messages was to mobilize as many volunteers as possible for the war cause, and the personal motivation for many of the recruits joining Serbian troops frequently had to do with their children’s well-being and the fear they might suffer the same fate as Serb children forty-five years earlier (RTS 1991).6 ‘Liberation’ was at the centre of the political vocabulary of Serbian leaders, who knew how to play the role of liberators. They wouldvisit schools and orphanages in Croatia and promise to protect Serb children from the rampaging Croats, and their speeches would be broadcast and closely analysed.7 Therefore, even though burying past crimes was part of maintaining interethnic harmony in the multiethnic Yugoslav federation, as socialist Yugoslavia disintegrated, the Serbian and Croatian nationalist movements based on ethnic exclusivity returned these episodes to their centre-stage position (Denich 1994; Pavlaković 2013).

The case that best illustrates the extent and consequences of Serbian black propaganda unravelled in the Croatian city of Vukovar in November 1991, when Croatian forces surrendered and the YPA and other Serbian paramilitary units established control over the city. On 20 November the international news agency Reuters released information that the massacred bodies of forty-one Serbian children between five and seven years of age had been found in an elementary school basement. The news came from a Serbian freelance photographer Goran Mikić, allegedly a witness to the crime. The case became the focal point of the RTS evening news on that same day. Invited as the guest speaker, Mikić claimed he had seen the dead children’s bodies, but brought no additional evidence (Brosse 2003, 7–8). Consequently, a special forensic team consisting of medical experts from Belgrade was sent to Vukovar to look for evidence. They ransacked houses, schools, basement shelters and kindergartens, but found no traces of dead children (Baljak and Hedl 2006).

A public retraction from the YPA and Reuters was made on 21 November in the RTS evening news programme in which, ironically, war analysts discussed the connection of the murders of children in Vukovar with those by the Ustashas in the Second World War, forcing the presenter to apologise to the viewers. Serbia’s ‘most credible’ paper Politika also published the rebuttal on 23 November, but merely as a succinct statement in the back of the issue (Brosse 2003, 8).

Although the story was quickly retracted, the timing of its release and its widespread coverage in the Serbian media inevitably played a part in subsequent retaliations against Croats. The Ovčara massacre, considered one of the worst atrocities in Europe after the Second World War, is especially relevant in this context. Between 20 and 21 November, at a dairy farm in Ovčara near Vukovar, more than 260 people (mostly war prisoners and patients and staff from the Vukovar hospital) were executed by membersof the Serb militia (Nazor 2011; Ingrao and Emmert 2012). Renaud de la Brosse, an expert on political communication, considers this a case of not only black but also unlawful propaganda that violates human rights and international law for political purposes (Brosse 2003, 11–12). Also, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia acknowledged the testimony of Vesna Bosanac, the head of the Vukovar hospital, who believed that the news about the children massacre was deliberately released to justify the Ovčara crime and subsequent retaliations (Bosanac 1998).

Unverified information involving children was also often disseminated by personalities who enjoyed a high reputation among the Serbian public. In the second half of 1991, RTS broadcast a speech of the Serbian bishop Filaret, who appears behind a table on which lies a small skull, and acquaints the viewers with ‘one more instance of the Ustashas’ ruthlessness’.

“The Ustashas came to a Serbian village near Kukuruzari and captured a small [Serbian boy] Ilija and forced his mother to watch his throat being cut ... The mother ran after them and begged for her dead child, but they refused, and instead carried him away and burned him. This skull is all that’s left ...“
(Lalić 1999)

It was no secret that bishop Filaret was a passionate supporter of Milošević’s political programme. He was not only actively engaged in helping Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, but he also assisted Serbian military and paramilitary troops (Ognjević 2004). Despite the fact that the authenticity of this story was never acknowledged, he, himself, was supposed to represent a ‘credible’ and ‘sacred’ mouthpiece of the Serbian nation. Involving children provoked strong emotional reactions and dehumanized the foe as much as possible.

Media lynching and extortion were one of the most frequently employed strategies of patriotic journalists in Serbia and including crimes against children guaranteed their ‘success’. One of the most notorious such cases concerned Davor Markobašić, a Croatian guardsman who was accused by the Serbian press of butchering Serb children in Vukovar and making necklaces out of their fingers, although there was no evidence except for hearsay (Vekarić 2011, 193–202). His name and address were published in the press, and his wife was killed on an Ovčara farm by gunshots to the stomach and vagina; she was pregnant, and was murdered because of the rumoursthat stigmatized her husband as a slaughterer and rapist of Serb children (Došen 1998). There are numerous other examples of openly denouncing individuals for purportedly committing crimes against children. In his book, Deputy War Crimes Prosecutor in Serbia Bruno Vekarić mentions the testimony of one of the prisoners in the Serbian internment camp: Begejci. On his internment, Serbian soldiers removed a knife from his pocket that they considered was the weapon with which he supposedly killed five or more Serb children who were later said to be found in his bathtub. He was labelled a murderer of children (Vučenić 2003, cited in Vekarić 2011, 223).

Cases like this indicate the psychological influence of child-centred propaganda on the minds and actions of those directly engaged in warfare and treatment of the enemy. Even though in most cases it was not possible to confirm the credibility of the information in any way, the manner in which these messages were conveyed had a tremendous impact on the Serbian public, especially troops on the Croatian fronts, and it served the purpose of favouring Milošević regime’s warmongering agenda.

‘My father is a Croatian Guardsman’

In May of 1990 the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU), a new conservative right-wing party led by Franjo Tuđman, won the elections in the Socialist Republic of Croatia (at the time still part of Yugoslavia) with a surprisingly large number of votes. It based its programme on ‘the right of the Croatian people for self-determination and state sovereignty’ (Nova Hrvatska 1990, 9–11, cited in Denich 1994, 377). More importantly, the new Croatian nationalism excluded Serbs as one of the ‘constituent nations’ of Croatia (which was the case during the Titoist regime) and changed its status to that of a ‘minority’. Although the Croatian constitution from 1990 granted national minorities the right to assert their nationality and linguistic and cultural autonomy, the coexistence of Serbs and Croats was looked on as abnormal. Also, the extreme Serbian nationalism that resonated with the large number of Serbs in Croatia only intensified Croatian nationalist impulses that had been suppressed for a long time (Denich, 1994, 377–83).

Croatian nationalism, just like Serbian, had its roots and ‘justifications’ in myth and history. The new government’s rhetoric rested on the narrative that Croatia had been oppressed under foreign monarchs for too many centuries, and that Croatian people almost always were forced to sacrifice their identity and faith. The definition of war was very straightforward: Croatiahad at last achieved independence and had to defend its national body and protect its territory and freedom against the aggressor (Thompson 1994).

Up until 1990, Croatian media were known for their objectivity and multiperspectivity, which is not surprising given the country’s different regional identities. When the CDU came to power, however, it seized the monopoly over the main television and press headquarters. Croatian National Television (CRT) and newspapers Večernji list [Evening Courier] and Vjesnik [Herald] became the most important CDU mouthpieces. ‘Patriotic journalism’ in Croatia actually mirrored that of Serbia: loyal CDU people (all of them being Croats) ascended to the chief positions of the state apparatus as well as the main pro-regime media headquarters. Journalists who criticized the new government (and the majority of Serb journalists) were intimidated or instantly replaced with those ready to go along the ‘patriotic’ line, and independent or private media were continuously sabotaged and forced to stop their broadcasting or distribution (Thompson 1994; Kurspahić 2003, Malović and Selnow 2001).

In the eyes of the CDU leaders, children occupied a very important role in the process of nation building. Unlike Serbian media that used children, first and foremost, to remind the public about crimes from the past, children in Croatian propaganda assumed a very present role. They personified the victimhood of the national corpus suffering from Serbian aggression and also acted as ambassadors and future leaders of the new country on the European political map that sought recognition from Europe and the world. To begin with, children represented one of the crucial ‘pillars’ of the CDU’s political campaign. Apart from being victims in need of protection, they also symbolized the future or, better yet, young citizenry who deserved to grow up in an independent Croatia, one which would not ‘suffer for Yugoslav and Serbian interests’. As the generation of vital importance for nation building, they appeared in political campaign speeches, videos, concerts and posters, while President Franjo Tuđman acted as the nation’s ‘fatherly figure’ and protector. One of the electoral campaign posters from 1990 shows the president carrying two little girls in his arms, while the message says ‘The Safe Future of Croatia’.8 In another interesting pre-election video from 1992, Tuđman explains to a young boy that, throughout his life, he was punished for his political views (referring to his imprisonment for advocating Croatian autonomy and independence from Yugoslavia and, more importantly, against Serbian expansionism). The young boy answers by acknowledging the role of the president in the achievement of a free and independent Croatia and stating that he knows they [Croats] need to liberate the country from the occupier, and that his dad is also contributing by fighting on the front (Globus 1992, 18, 39, cited in Senjković 2002, 140–41). Hence, he represents both the newly established state and its future endangered by the occupiers.

Indeed, by the end of 1991, when nearly one-third of Croatian territory was occupied by the rebel Serbs and YPA, victimhood and suffering became the central themes of Croatia’s political vocabulary. As quintessential war victims, children fit this concept well, and their hardships were ‘usable’ for two purposes: openly denouncing the enemy and appealing to the international community to recognize Croatian independence and its ‘suffering body’. The media, when it came to children, relied on visual imagery much more than the written word. Countless reports centred on the hazards Croatian children had to confront in the war zones, and newspapers were filled with images of youngsters hiding in shelters or saying goodbye to their fathers heading to the fronts, ready to put their lives on the line for their sons and daughters’ well‑being. As with Serbian media, texts of this kind frequently referred to those responsible for children’s tragedies and trauma and, in doing so, journalists continually overgeneralized and exaggerated. For example, on 12 May 1991 the newspaper Vjesnik published an article by Marijan Vogrinec who in his political commentary wondered:

“How to understand that today, on the verge of the 21st century, in the country we thought was a homeland of civilized people, Croatian mothers ... do not let their children go to school, because they ... might get hurt ... or kidnapped and held hostage by horrifying beardos?” (Vjesnik 4)

The derogatory term at the end refers to the members of Serbian paramilitary units called Chetniks, notorious for having long beards, and who, as in this case, were literally portrayed as monsters. Some of the other common terms used to denominate the other side were, for instance, ‘Serbs’, ‘Chetniks’, ‘monsters’, ‘bands of savages’, ‘Yugo-communists’, ‘non-humans’ and ‘pure evil’. This was especially effective during the interviews of refugee children on national television during the second half of 1991, when reporters asked the children who they thought caused their hardships. The collective stigmatization of the enemy was present in both Serbian and Croatian media.

The period between 1991 and 1995 was also marked by the production of numerous patriotic song collections, performed by many prominent artists and perpetually broadcast on national television and radio. Children were one of the most frequent ‘elements’ of such songs, and their mention or appearance incited viewers’ emotions and maternal instincts. One of the most famous war songs was ‘Hrvatine’ [Croats] by Đuka Čaić. In the music video, one of the song lines, ‘Čuvaj oče majčicu, ognjište i sestricu’ [Father, protect mother, home and little sister], is depicted by the scene of a mother and child hidden in a shelter, and then a Croatian soldier carrying a baby in his lap (saving its life). However, ‘Hrvatine’ never reached the popularity of ‘Stop the War in Croatia’ by Tomislav Ivčić, a singer actively engaged in supporting the CDU Party, whose anti-war song became a symbol of Croatia’s victimhood worldwide. Accompanied by a children’s choir, he is asking Europe (in English) to ‘stop the war in the name of children’, but also to ‘let Croatia be one of Europe’s stars’. If we look at children in this context, besides appealing to Europe to act in the name of the younger generation, they also take on the responsibility of ambassadors of their young, newborn country, and therefore assume an active participatory role rather than only being passive victims. This need to demonstrate the Europeanness of Croatia was one of the crucial goals of the political elites in the early 1990s, and the international audience could hardly be left indifferent to the plight of Croatian children.

To accomplish the desired effect, exhibitions like those of children’s drawings (usually depicting YPA tanks and fighter aircraft with red stars destroying homes with Croatian flags or other national symbols, and crying parents and children) were staged not only in Croatian museums but, more importantly, abroad, in countries like Germany, Switzerland or Austria.9 Since these were often organized and/or financed by the Croatian Ministry of Education and other state institutions, reports of such events as well as charity and humanitarian concerts for children funded from abroad were reviewed in the press and shown on television. Furthermore, these drawings were also printed on postcards or food boxes intended for Croatian guardsmen on the fronts, where they were received with great enthusiasm (Šigir 1993, 46–47; Senjković 2002, 35, 45–46). Croatian war posters included images of inconsolable mothers and children in exile, and the message on them was very clear-cut: the aggressor was ‘Serbia and the Yugo-communist army’ (Reljanović 2010).

One of the most conspicuous posters (Figure 1) shows a small boy fully dressed in dark green Croatian military uniform and wearing a headband decorated with the Croatian coat of arms (chessboard emblem); he is standing with his right arm raised while his fingers form the internationally recognized V for victory sign (Reljanović 2010, 244–245). The message reads: ‘I moj tata je hrvatski vojnik’ [My father is a Croatian Guardsman too]. The concept behind this poster resembles that of the famous British war poster from the First World War: ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ by Savile Lumley.

Although the poster designers claimed they were ‘not produced as a result of a programme within the scope of a powerful and organized propaganda machine’ (Reljanović 2012, 19), its primary purpose was to contribute to enhancing war mobilization. Interestingly, connecting children to Croatian national symbols, such as a coat of arms, flags or military uniforms and insignia worn by Croatian fighters (see boy on poster), was a very popular tendency in the pro-regime press and television, particularly in communicating with an audience beyond the state itself. By portraying a child who, again, stands for the universal war victim as well as a young citizen and patriot aware of his country’s struggle for freedom, it managed to bridge the two dimensions that Croatian political elites needed to do to promote the Croatian cause, both locally and internationally.


This study has shown that the use of children as an instrument of war propaganda represented one of the main strategies of the ‘most productive’ pro-regime media in Serbia and Croatia during their conflict between 1991 and 1995. Both incorporated children into the victim-centred war propaganda; their nationalist political leaders claimed the right of their states to victory by reiterating notions of victimhood, defence and protection, ingrained in different mythological and historical explanations and justifications.

A dominant view of Serbian history that emerged after 1986 was that of a ‘heroic, long-suffering nation, struggling for centuries against invaders and annihilation’; this specifically referred to the Ottoman Turks and the massive extermination of Serbs by members of the Croatian Ustasha movement in the Second World War. Therefore, engagement in the war against secessionist Croatia became a chance for Serbian revenge. On the otherhand, Croatian nationalism was very much fuelled by the contemporary expansionist ‘Greater Serbian threat’ posed by Milošević, even though it was also rooted in the ‘long-time oppression by foreign rulers’. The aim of the propaganda was to convince the public that Croatia must be defended from Serbian aggression and, more importantly, aided by the European powers who would recognize its independence. Hence, while Serbia and its parastate the Republic of Serbian Krajina found itself isolated in the attempt to create Greater Serbia, Croatia turned to Europe, claiming its right to become a fully fledged member of the European Union (UE).

Both Serbian and Croatian media exaggerated and overgeneralized children’s victimhood to gain the sympathies of the public by depicting the children’s vulnerability and helplessness. In-depth analysis highlights the three common ‘functions’ of children in both cases. First, children’s suffering was an effective instigator of war mobilization. Secondly, both propaganda systems used children as an embodiment of the nation and its peoples’ ‘sacrifice for the long-awaited freedom and reaffirmation’. Lastly, even though children do personify the future of a particular nation (if we look at this idea from the perspective of a natural course of the life cycle), this notion was constantly overstated in the midst of the war atmosphere to the point that its real meaning became distorted by the propaganda. The three aspects mentioned are by no means a novelty in the history of modern war propaganda; since the First and, notably, the Second World War, children have played a vital part in the mass propaganda machinery. Nevertheless, the priority was mostly given to their role as soldiers or members of massive children’s organizations such as Hitler Youth or Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth). This was not the case in post-Yugoslav Croatia and Serbia, the leaders of which created their own nationalist agendas within the turbulent fall of communism and new European geopolitical reality.

When it comes to methods of dissemination through visual, audio and printed media, such as videos, photographs, war posters, war songs and newspaper articles, Serbian propaganda involving children was notorious for its unscrupulousness. It consisted of techniques such as extortion, medialynching, spreading false information, the falsification of sources and/ or a general lack of credible sources. Many of the cases described can therefore be considered unlawful and/or a combination of grey and black propaganda. Croatian child-focused propaganda was not as transparent as Serbian, but rather subtly infiltrated into white propaganda machineryorganized to maintain the status of the ‘victim of aggression’ that ‘pays the price for its independence’. Croatian media relied more on visual images than the written word, and connected children in contexts related to their inextricable connection to national Croatian political and military symbols. Consequently, their role as ambassadors of the newly independent state was much more active than that of Serbian children, who were treated exclusively as passive victims.

The consequences of such well-elaborated and widespread child-centred propaganda were no less fatal for Serbian and Croatian societies than the war itself. The psychological element at the core of this mechanism of propaganda led many to embrace the concept of war as existential and interethnic. The often exaggerated victimization of children no doubt intensified during the war. It remains a burning issue to this day; one of the barriers that still prevents the normalization of relations between Croatia and Serbia has to do with education and textbooks, and the way in which the two sides interpret this conflict and who the victims are. Ultimately, it all has to do with educating the younger generations and future leaders of these nations.

Finally, the development of their national identities in the 1990s, and especially the role of children in it, helps us better understand the current positions of Croatia and Serbia in the contemporary European order, with the former being the newest member of the European Union, and the latter, because of its isolation, finding itself wavering between an EU–NATO partnership and its traditional ally, Russia. This project is also significant to the understanding of the workings of ethnicity and nationalism in Europe as a whole, where recent events, such as those in Ukraine or the European reactions to the refugee crisis, have shown us that ethnonational exclusivities, once thought to be disappearing in the face of the European Union, are only becoming more important with the rise of an ethnonational right wing. Finally, the project has a global significance, as it explores the potential of media and new communication technologies for both using and indoctrinating children in the service of nationalism, patriotism, chauvinism and other regime-driven political purposes.



Ivana Polić is a PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of California, San Diego, where she also works as a teaching assistant for the Makingof the Modern World programme. She is interested in the modern history of Southeastern Europe, with particular emphasis on post-1945 history of Yugoslavia and its successor states. Her research focuses on topics such as popular culture, the interrelationship between gender and politics and the history of childhood. Her dissertation project deals with the importance of children and childhood in the process of nation building in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia.



1 The term Yugoslav Wars refers to a series of conflicts: Ten-Day War in Slovenia (May-June 1991), Croatian War of Independence (1991–95), Bosnian (1992–95), Croat- Bosniak (1992–94), and Serbia-Kosovo (1998–99) conflict.

2 See Katriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890–1991 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Anna Saunders, Honecker’s Children: Youth and Patriotism in Eastern Germany, 1979–2002 (New York: Manchester University Press, 2007); Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948 (London: Cornell University Press, 2008).

3 See Joseph Kerrigan and William Novick, eds., Healing the Heart of Croatia (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1998); Vjekoslav Šaravanja, 10,000 djece bez roditelja u Domovinskom ratu [10,000 Parentless Children of the Homeland War] (Slavonski Brod: Obiteljski centar župe Duha Svetoga, 2001); Neven Šikić, Miomir Žužul and Ivan Fattorini, eds, Stradanja djece u domovinskom ratu [Suffering of children in the homeland war] (Jastrebarsko, Zagreb: Naklada Slap and Klinika za dječje bolesti Zagreb, 1994).

4 The term Ustasha (Ustaša) refers to the members of the pro-Fascist organization active before and during WWII in Croatia, which supported the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (1941–45) as a Nazi satellite state (encompassed Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of Serbia and modern day Croatia). As part of creating ethnically pure Croatia, hundreds of thousands of people were executed or expelled, particulary Serbs, Jews and Roma.

5 The Republic of Serbian Krajina existed from 1991 to 1995 as a Serbian state within the territorial boundaries of the Republic of Croatia, but it was never recognized internationally.

6 See, for instance, interviews by RTS from August 1991.

7 See, for example, issues of Politika between 1991 and 1992.

8 Available at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb.

9 See, for instance, Djeca u ratu i poslije rata: izložba dječjih likovnih radova [Children during and after the war: exhibition of children’s art works] (Osijek: Galerija likovnih umjetnosti, 1992); Ich Habe Angst: Ausstellung der Zeichnungen der Kroatischen kinder [I am afraid: exhibition of Croatian children’s drawings] (Zagreb: Hrvatski školski muzej, 1992); Papir, boje, kist i rat: izložba likovnih iskaza hrvatske djece o Domovinskom ratu [Paper, colours, brush and war: exhibition of Croatian children’s artistic expressions about the homeland war] (Zagreb: Hrvatski školski muzej, 1992); Sanjam o miru / I Dream of Peace (Zagreb: UNICEF and Croatian School Museum, 1992/93).

10 Square brackets in the reference list and endnotes contain author’s translations of titles originally written in other languages, mostly Croatian or Serbian.


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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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