The Three Graces

Today I went to the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin to see the First World War exhibition, heralded with great fanfare. It is vain to waste many words on the exhibition, when a single one describes it: boring. In the basement, in one large room, a turbulent installation tries to present the entire history of WWI. The attempt is a complete failure. Anyone who does not already know the progress of the war in detail will not be able to assemble into one coherent picture the objects exhibited in separate stalls, which are labeled with the names of various theatres of operation, and presented in an “ach, wie schrecklich, der Krieg!” way to maximize the emotional effect. And anyone who knows it will clearly see the random and commonplace character of the selections. I would have not even written about it, if, just before the exit, in the stall dedicated to the post-war developments, I had not caught sight of one last exhibition object.

The more or less one meter wide bronze plaque once adorned the building of the Croatian Parliament in Zagreb, while today it is preserved in the Croatian Historical Museum. According to its inscription – “narodno vijeće na spomen proglašenja slobodne nezavisne države slovenaca hrvata i srba u hrvatskome saboru, XXIX. X. MCMXVIII.” – it was raised by the national council to commemorate the proclamation of the free and independent state of the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs on 29 October 1918. The three female figures in classical dress, personifying the three peoples, hold hands. The figures on the left and right hold in their free hands the coats of arms of Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia, assembled from a wide variety of regions. The figure in the middle has both hands full, yet she is not left without a coat of arms either. She has it under her foot.

If the three South Slavic brother nations want to celebrate their union on the wall of the Croatian Parliament, let them do so, although the sincerity of the gesture is seriously questioned by the permanent fratricide against each other they have been committing ever since, both by the pen and the machine gun. But that on this occasion they found it necessary to immortalize, aere perennius, the treading on the (heraldically defective) coat of arms of Hungary, with which Croatia fought on the same side through WWI; which they did not win, but were separated from it by virtue of the treaty of peace; and with which they were for eight hundred years in personal union, and fought together against the Ottoman empire and its Balkan marauders, so that here they also tread on their own coat of arms and eight hundred years of history – this already belongs to the pathology of the newly created Eastern European small states. And it also illustrates, together with thousands of similar gestures, why that treaty of peace, of which today we commemorate the ninety-fourth anniversary, can remain a living psychological and emotional burden, beyond all historical considerations and necessity.

Ivo Kerdić, the sculptor, creator of several patriotic post-WWI sculptures and medals, seems to have thoroughly learned the principles of Roman classicism in his study trips. However, it seems that neither he nor his commissioners had ever heard about the most important principle of classical Rome, with which it could preserve its conquests and under which they would flourish, and which is summed up in four words as the art of government by Virgil in the famous verse 6.853 of Aeneis:

parcere subiectis et debellare superbos
spare the subdued and vanquish the arrogant

To learn the second half of the principle, they had plenty of time between 1991 and 2001. The first half, however, they seem never to have learned.

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