The Tribes of New Fascism
Tribes of Europa, a series which is problematic in many ways, treats the Petrova Gora Monument as a playground for various sadistic fantasies.
Monument to the uprising of the people of Kordun and Banija. FOTO: Kulturpunkt.hr
Some five weeks ago I sat down to watch the new German Sci-Fi series Tribes of Europa currently streaming on Netflix. As an avid Sci-Fi fan, I was interested to see how this post-apocalyptic saga fairs in comparison to such mind-bending complex shows as Dark, produced in Germany by the same show runner Philip Koch, and featured on Netflix. Much to my chagrin, Tribes turned out to be a sour viewing experience and after two episodes I decided to stop watching. While in the Covid-19 pandemic entertainment desert I could have overlooked the series’ clumsily structured narrative and bad acting, it was impossible (even for someone who sat through some of the worst of what Sci Fi has to offer--try watching dreadful film version of Battlefield Earth) to overlook its absolutely catastrophic political undercurrent.
The series’ politics is problematic in many ways, and it is precisely this political content that prompted me to force myself to watch the rest of the show and write this text. One scene in particular stood out, and I will begin my text by referring to it. The scene in question happens in the second episode of the first season (and for now the only season) in an encampment of a military dictatorship called the Crimson Republic, one of the many violent factions (tribes) existing in this alternate, post-apocalyptic Europe. In this particular scene, Liv, one of the three young protagonists whose family and entire community have been massacred, finds herself in the Crimson Republic’s headquarters. The scene begins in an unknown indoor space, with the Crimson soldiers interrogating Liv. After a few minutes, Liv is taken outside. As the camera slowly pans behind the young woman, trailing her as she stumbles outdoors, we end up in what seems to be a courtyard full of soliders going about their daily business. Contemporary French rap music is playing, adding to the masculine, grimy flair of the compound. Liv walks around, taking in the sights and sounds of the outdoor space, as female and male tough-looking soliders mill around chatting, cooking, or doing chores. Few are wearing distinct red berets matching the crimson-red flag of the republic. It is at this moment that things went sour for me.
Immediately after Liv exited the room in which she was held at the beginning of the scene, I recognized the courtyard because, in fact, it was not just any courtyard but the square in front of the main entrance to the Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun at Petrova Gora. This iconic memorial complex, recognizable to anyone who has lived in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, was designed by the sculptor Vojin Bakić in collaboration with architects Berislav Šarbetić and Zoran Bakić, and completed in 1981. The complex was comprised of the main sculpture/building, a large reception square, several accompanying buildings, a parking lot, and a number of surrounding walking trails. All these are now in various states of decay with the main building still standing, however, in a skeletal state with its once gleaming stainless-steel skin half-gone showing armature and insulation like a living wound. The moment at which I recognized where these Sci-Fi characters of a post-apocalyptic B-grade TV show were standing, I was struck as if by a flash of lightning, a flash of recognition or of deja vu.
It was some thirty years prior that a similar, only real-life, scene was taking place. As the war in Croatia (and across former Yugoslavia) raged in the 1990s such scenes of soliders clad in camouflage, Kalashnikovs in hands, with black, green, blue, or red berets on their heads (depending on which ‘nationalist tribe’ they belonged to) walking in those very same spaces of Petrova Gora Monument flashed in front of my eyes. There was a strange kind of symbolic reversal occurring, reflected in the fact that those solders of the 1990s were in many ways mimicking to them very familial images of Rambo-like characters from American action movies that were by the late 1980s part of the everyday Yugoslav television experience. And so many of the young men who went to war during this period visually mimicked Western action heroes they grew up with. Now, thirty years later, a German film crew landing on the site of the Petrova Gora in a subliminal, perhaps unconscious way, mimicked the very real violence that happened there. In a moment of hyperreality, it was a case of life imitating pop culture imitating life.
My disgust with the scenes at the Petrova Gora Monument, however, was not just over the similarities between the simulated violence of the Sci-Fi series and the real violence of the wars of the 1990s, but also with the larger political questions these bring up. First and foremost is the flagrant disregard for the context and the history of the site itself—a site of human suffering where many have died fighting fascist occupation during World War Two. Secondly, apart from the desecration of the memorial done by the film crew, there is also the larger question of thirty-year long destruction of the site, and other sites like this one, perpetrated first by the Croatian military, various paramilitary forces (Serbian and Croat) and criminal gangs during the war, and after that by various state institutions, Croatian Ministry of Culture and Media in particular, which have been deliberately neglecting Petrova Gora Monument and thousands of others. While Petrova Gora Monument is perhaps "lucky" to still be standing, almost 40% to 50% of approximately 3000 various sites of commemoration of anti-fascist struggle in Croatia have been destroyed (including Vojin Bakić’s other monumental sculpture at the memorial site in Kamenska, Požega).
What is it about the context of the monument that becomes so crucial in this case? As I have already hinted, Petrova Gora was a site of large-scale anti-fascist Partisan resistance. The mountain was a central gathering point for Partisan units from Dalmatia, Kordun and Bosnia, and there was a large Partisan hospital with more than thirty buildings that supported thousands of troupes and civilians in the surrounding area. The site on which Tribes of Europa played out its violent Sci-Fi fantasy was therefore a site of real-life struggle against fascism where some 3200 people lost their lives (Partisan fighters and civilians). Unlike during World War Two when Yugoslav Partisans put up a strong and decisive resistance, in the series, there is a notable absence of anti-fascism. Instead, what we see is a pure aesthetization of violence pointing to an inevitability of fascism. As with many TV spectacles of the similar post-apocalyptic genre such as The Game of Thrones, The 100, Hunger Games, or The Walking Dead, the viewers are offered a relentless tribalization of the social sphere in which the most ruthless reign doling out charity according to their whims.
As the base for all such shows is a complete breakdown of social and state structures, individuals are left to their own abilities. The punishment for not being able to defend oneself (for example if one is disabled) is a grewsome death. The relationship between survivalist individuals is Machiavellian, based on the survival of the fittest, and mirroring capitalist market theory of self-interest. The glimpse of the future fascist Europe offered through the Tribes of Europa, is one in which beautiful-looking, leather-clad sadists and übermenschen fight for resources, trade and kill slaves, and engage in the cruelest, most rudimentary (or perhaps I should say purest), form of capitalist exploitation. While one could argue that the show’s violence is a critique of capitalism, its producer’s comments point to something very different.
When in a recent interview asked about the similarities between his show and shows such as The Game of Thrones, Philip Koch remarked that the series offered a more positive outlook on the future, saying that it is, "not moving in a radioactively contaminated post-apocalypse where doom lurks behind every corner. Rather, we are living in an exciting world where everybody gets back on their feet. A new beginning for the continent, full of hope – symbolic thus its new name: Europa, with an English pronunciation." This new Europa however is an individualistic one. Even the main protagonists, the three siblings fighting for survival do so on their own––each person for themselves. In this version of Europe there is no solidarity, only sporadic individual acts of compassion or charity. Just like in neoliberal capitalism, there is no room for communal action in a world in which an almost religious adherence to the ideal of individualism reigns supreme. As the current Covid-19 pandemic has shown, there is no possibility of solidarity or good of community, Tribes of Europa mirrors this world perfectly.
My dismay over the particular representation of this show was also triggered by a more symbolic violence perpetrated. The military troupes depicted in the show play war in the place where Yugoslav Partisans fought actual German, Italian, Croatian and Serb fascists. To add insult to injury, they are doing so at the monument that has been deliberately dismembered in order to remove all traces of anti-fascist and socialist history in Croatia. Croatian Ministry of Culture and Media allowed the crew to shoot at Petrova Gora monument without any preconditions.
The site of historical and artistic value, a heritage site both very sensitive and unsafe due to the monument’s destruction over the years, was used over several months of filming, with the crew allowed to climb on the monument obviously harming its wounded structure. Of course, this insult to injury is not an exception but a rule, as various Croatian ministries and institutions allowed even Jasenovac Memorial Centre to be abused by both Croatian fascists and murky Western companies selling fashion items. In both cases, Croatian institutions simply closed their eyes to what was happening.
The new Croatian state which has so easily and cheaply sold off its various natural and cultural resources, including historical sites, is doing that in order to maintain a cultural amnesia at work since the 1990s. Croatia’s historical amnesia, imposed and maintained by the hegemony of European Union, seeks to build a new and liberal-democratic version of history in the region. Such narrative cannot include anti-fascist, anti-imperialist and socialist history of Yugoslavia because it inconveniently reminds capitalist neoliberal Europe that there were in fact alternatives to the kind of worlds EU is offering. It is not then a coincidence that the entire show was filmed in Eastern Europe (Czechia and Croatia) with cheap labour and all-too-ready Ministries of Culture to sell-off the long-gone socialist heritage which now simply becomes a playground for various sadistic fantasies.
What Tribes reveals is the following: on the site of one of the most important defeats of fascism––Petrova Gora–– this neoliberal visual fantasy recreates a new version of fascism with the full blessing of the current Croatian government. The new fascism so aptly illustrated by the show strips away illusions of European (and Western) democratic neoliberal fantasies, showing us a direct link between their politics and fascism. As Ishay Landa has shown in his book The Apprentice’s Sorcerer liberalism of the 20th century, "significantly contributed to fascism, informing many of its far-reaching manifestations", and even fascism’s most pernicious and extremist aspects, "are historically unthinkable outside of the liberal framework" as fascism was, "an organic product of developments largely from within liberal society and ideology". Tribes is therefore not a critique of the present or some post-apocalyptic future, but as its creator suggested a "new beginning full of hope", hope for a new fascism. This new fascism cannot happen without an attempt to symbolically and materially defeat anti-fascism. In this case the attempt at destruction of anti-fascism takes place on the site where the reverse was the case in 1945. Petrova Gora, a symbol of Yugoslav courage, solidarity, socialism, and anti-fascism, is now the very site of fascist powerplay.