“Primitive Accumulation” of Capital and Memory, or: How the Berlin Wall Fell in Yugoslavia

The belief that nationalism can mean the fulfillment of all longings for “us” and death and ruin for “the others” is widespread in Western discourses. Accordingly, images of jubilant people in the face of “German unity” are juxtaposed with images of war from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. The common denominator of these images is suppressed: after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, the expansion of neoliberalism – whether in Berlin or Belgrade – was only possible through the appropriation of memory by popular narratives. In his contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” political theorist Gal Kirn shows that the enemy of emancipatory politics knows no borders, although it is constantly engaged in marking (identitarian) boundaries.


30 years have passed since the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall reached Yugoslavia: what has been by then seen as an enthusiastic wave of democratization and peaceful dismantling of socialism, has become much more troublesome and obscurantist in the former Yugoslavia. In 1990/1 the democratic elections were held across republics and the winning political parties embraced not only nationalism of the emerging new nation-states, but also mobilized their populations into ethnic wars. The images of the Berlin Wall were soon substituted by the destruction of the old bridge in Mostar, the besieged city of Sarajevo, a series of concentration camps and genocides. Socialism, and finally also Yugoslavia was there no more.

Many critical researchers agreed on the horrific sides of the transitional process. Depending on their methodologies and political affiliations they would divide their theoretical labor on two sides. The first theoretical approach focused on the analysis and critique of nationalist ideology, the instrumentalization of media and state, and called for the protection of human rights and minorities. Meanwhile, the second approach was mostly focused on the critique of transition to capitalism pointing to forms of economic dispossession, the dismantling of socialist welfare state, and the re-peripheralization of large parts of former Yugoslavia that was intensified in the European integration process.

Economic dispossession and memorial repossession

The political hypothesis that aims to unite these two approaches goes as follows: the more former Yugoslavian countries entered into the processes of economic dispossession and crisis, the more there was a need for the ruling class to participate in the reinvention of national tradition and memorial repossession of the nationalist past. If the future was now sold to the foreign direct investment and financial speculation at large, new nation-states could now focus their speculation on inventing their glorious past.

An expanded theoretical hypothesis that reads the economic and ideological together borrows a revised concept from Karl Marx, namely his concept of “primitive accumulation of capital” that he introduced in the very last chapters of “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy” (1867-1883). Here, Marx dismantles the bourgeois myth of capitalist origins located in the entrepreneurial figure of Robinson Crusoe or Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market. Then he shows that, in contrast to that, a set of historical preconditions enables the rise of capitalist mode of production. Thus, what Marx prompts us to think is that critical research should be less concerned with a “pure economic genesis,” and more with an analysis of non-economic constraints including legal policies (e.g. the expropriation of communal land), forms of state violence, and colonialism (e.g. the expansion of the market and the guarantee of resources).

If all of this is subsumed under the term “primitive accumulation of capital,” then this concept is useful not only for the historical evaluation of the “origins” of the capitalist mode of production. It enables us also to observe repetitive “primitive” patterns of the accumulation of capital in the context of very violent policies within each cycle of systemic crises.

In the post-Yugoslav context one can observe the following: while the “primitive accumulation” of capital is reloading, a process that I call “primitive accumulation of memory” by the state takes shape and acquires strong mobilizing power. The “accumulation of memory” by the state can be defined as the deployment of various degrees of symbolic violence with respect to the past. This was tied, for instance, to the physical destruction of partisan monuments and books published in times of socialism, the renaming of streets and schools and also the erasing of ideas that evoked the non-aligned, modernist, partisan and socialist figures and times. This process was intensified through the ethnic and legal cleansing of people who failed to comply with the dominant orientation of the newly imagined nation-states – a major conservative backlash that was not unique but rested on a more general wave of historical revisionism in the 1980s in Europe.

Rehabilitation of fascism: make these countries great again!

As we are discussing this within the German context, it is crucial to mention that the very first “heroic” steps towards memorial regression can be traced to the nouveaux philosophes that dominated the French debates and the (West) German revisionist historian Ernst Nolte in particular. The position taken by Nolte and his supporters in the “Historikerstreit” was that the Holocaust was not unique and therefore Germans should not bear any special burden of guilt for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

In political events, the commemoration shift that most openly rehabilitated fascism dates back to the Bitburg controversy in 1985. West Germany’s chancellor Helmut Kohl organized a visit and remembrance gathering at the Bitburg cemetery with US president Ronald Reagan. The visit was intended to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe but aroused considerable criticism from Jewish communities within the United States and around the world when it became known that 49 of the 2,000 German soldiers buried at the site had been members of the Waffen-SS, the military arm of Nazi Germany’s Schutzstaffel (SS).

It did not matter that Nolte and Co. were academically defeated in the “Historikerstreit” of the late 1980s. As with Germany’s “reunification” and the fall of socialism this revisionist historiography was soon translated into one of the most potent narratives of new nation-states in the former East and the recent musealizations of the socialist Europe’s past. Therefore, the rise and expansion of neoliberal capitalism during that period can be understood as a double attack on the welfare state and a neoconservative assault on the emancipatory narratives of the past.

War capitalism

This said, historical revisionism is closely tied to policies catering to the “invention of tradition” (Hobsbawm). In the post-Yugoslav context such policies clearly fixed the nation to its imaginary premodern authenticity and forged an inseparable bond between “nation” and “religion.” The new-old double bind materialized into the following: Croat-Catholic, Serbian-Orthodox, Bosnian-Muslim, Slovenian-Catholic, etc. The primitive accumulation of capital was executed in the name of the nation and expropriated people of their means of social ownership; as such it was and remains inextricably linked to the memorial accumulation by the state.

One of the paradoxes of the transitional process is that the memory-related accumulation by the state intensified feelings of national pride and ethnic hatred, while at the same time the primitive accumulation of capital in the new nation states expropriated people of their social ownership. In short: denationalization (as catalyzed by global capital) robbed people of the material base, and hence of their „national pride“, as right-wing populists argued. At the same time, it was precisely these comprador elites that had been helping accommodate strategic foreign capital investments, that were loudest when it came to the defense of the national interests and true patriotism.

In the conventional Marxian frame it is the economic instance that determines other instances (e.g. politics, ideology, culture). Yet, in the civil wars of the 1990s the interplay between these instances was determined by the state’s “primitive accumulation of memory.” This became the crucial precondition for neoliberal economic transition.

In this light, the wars fought in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001 can be seen as the ultimate “spending” – waste and ruination – of people, and also of resources, infrastructure and wealth accumulated in socialism, and an uninterrupted mass brain drain from the region. This “war capitalism” entailed huge amounts of dis/accumulation of social wealth. In fact, enormous amounts of violence were needed in order to dismantle socialist self-management. Such a bellicist economy also brought and rehabilitated the defeated fascists and local collaborationists from WWII who, in some places, even got baptized as the true patriots of the respective nations. These defeated ghosts carried all heraldics and slogans. The Chetniks, Ustashe, Home Guards and others, received new monuments, books, exhibitions, series, songs and became very much alive in these wars and in this transition.

Affirming the unfinished process

With the recent aggravation of the capitalist crisis that is accompanied by a general move towards extreme right-wing populism across Europe in the wake of the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015, the narrative of open rehabilitation of fascism and local collaborationism is yet again on the rise across the entire territory of former Yugoslavia, as Marina Gržinić and many others observe. This is undoubtedly a grim landscape, which does not trigger any political enthusiasm, hope, or inspiration for the immediate future.

However, despite all odds and tough circumstances the last decade saw an impressive amount of critical theory, political initiatives, art collectives and works that have been engaged in alternative political imaginaries. Uprisings against the corrupt leaders, uniting across the ethnical lines, re-imagining and practicing workers solidarity with or without trade unions, and most of all being highly critical of the transitional fairy tale that was supposed to bring affluence and democracy.

Across the entire geocultural spectrum of former Yugoslavia there is an impressive urban struggle in many big cities. Moreover, the first political parties who are not afraid of embracing socialism are entering municipal or national levels. New generations – unburdened by the totalitarian ghosts and demonization of socialism – are emerging, and for many people mobilizing parts of the partisan, non-aligned and self-management past is becoming an important anchor for intervention into present struggles.

Despite the slippery field of Yugonostalgia, as Walter Benjamin pointed out well, the oppressed need to reconstruct and cultivate their histories, both of defeats and victories. To resurrect past figures is to not freeze and idealize them in marble, but make them our – partisan – contemporaries, imaginary partners in constructing a better world.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

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