Changing names as shaming and forgetting

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

When An Ideal for Living, the first EP of Manchester-based band Joy Division came out in 1978 it fuelled controversy because on its cover was the drawing of a member of Hitlerjugend beating a drum. The question arose as to whether the members of the band were Nazi lovers. Of course, this was as far from the truth as it could be, but the band constantly played with this idea, for it was commercially viable. However, the whole Nazi thing was a reaction to Thatcherism that was at its height in the mentioned year. The band realised that the real threat of fascism was imminent, and they played with that notion. It is very similar to what Laibach have been doing throughout their career.

An Ideal for Living today, as seen through the eyes of the establishment, is banging the war drum all the time. Constant mobilisation and preparations for imminent conflict with imagined enemies. Just take a look at the ‘Leaders of Men’ (to use the name of the song from the EP) and their doings nowadays. But, it is nothing more than a cover-up for the brutal heist and constant redistribution of world’s wealth and power. But that is not what I was planning to write about now, was it?

The town in which I am spending my earthly days is called Zrenjanin. It was named after a Second World War hero, member of the communist party, and one of the organisers of the uprising against the Nazis in Vojvodina – Žarko Zrenjanin Uča. He was caught and killed in 1942. There is no town in Serbia where a street does not carry his name. But now the Mayor and a small group of rich people are trying to change its name to Petrovgrad. (It is the name the town held from 1935 to 1946, and for six centuries before that it was called Bečkerek.)

Every era has its customs. The name change could therefore be understood as a symbol of a turn in the broader paradigm, namely the rise of right wing ideologies throughout the world. What Mr Mayor and his group are trying to avoid is the well-known tool of democracy called the referendum. And the reason is very simple. In 1992, a similar initiative was coined, but it failed because the citizens simply voted against. Back then, nobody wanted to change the name. Every time the town changed its name it was done by a decree and every time the decree reflected the governing ideology, but it is time to flip that. Nobody would have anything against a democratic decision, regardless of the fact that one side has all the power and owns all media, and the other only possesses sheer activism and good will.

The pro-change group wants to use the celebration of the end of the Great War, and the union of Vojvodina with Serbia as the basis for the name change. By doing so they are trying to demonstrate that a demographic change occurred, and that the town lost a lot of its non-Serbian population (Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks...) during migrations caused by war and poverty from 1991 onwards. In other words, they are very proud of the fact that this change occurred. But on the top of that, they are trying to change history, or rather to erase the great anti-fascist tradition that led to the prosperity of a provincial town that became one of the most developed in former Yugoslavia. What they are promoting is a new and strongly widespread concept of anti-anti-fascism (I am grateful to Miroslav Samardžić and Todor Kuljić for turning the public’s attention to this idea). Anti-anti-fascism means that people are nominally against fascism, that they would, for instance, not support Hitler or Mussolini, but are at the same time very much against the ideas of democracy, modernity, freedom and development that anti-fascism brought along. The pro-change group has chosen to forget a simple fact: Most of them/us are immigrants too, most of them/us are hillbillies whose families came from Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Croatia, or Montenegro to Zrenjanin after the Second World War and received their jobs and their education there. In other words, if it wasn't for anti-fascism and the progress it brought along with it, they would not have been given the opportunity to change the name of the town, at least not this one. They would simply be living somewhere else.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Shakespeare wrote. In the case of Zrenjanin, the smell is rather unpleasant, and the name change is, in a way, an attempt to hide the stink, i.e. to redistribute wealth, to create an ideal for living for those who have. Still, the name Zrenjanin has enormous symbolic power. It reminds us of the great past, of the prosperous town very much unlike today's ruins, of what once was one of the most industrialized towns in Yugoslavia. By changing the name, they are trying to seal and steal a part of an identity, to obliterate it. If they succeed, then the process of pauperisation of the town would be complete. Its dying would indeed be finalized, its death institutionalized. They would like to put to shame the communist past and discredit the fact that once this was a proud and powerful town the name of which was, indeed, a symbol of a new era. This era that unfortunately ended, but while the name persists it may come back. If they manage to kill it, not everything would be lost, we would continue with our lives, albeit not as free individuals but as an enslaved population.

Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal and He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum,, He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.