GOLI OTOK – Yugoslavia’s open secret

The Yugoslav secret police forbade the released inmates from speaking about Goli Otok and their experiences there. Before they could go free, inmates had to sign the so-called “Commitment”, committing them to silence about what went on in the camp, under threat of re-imprisonment. Those who returned to freedom mainly only discussed Goli Otok with people of their utmost trust. This way, Goli Otok remained Yugoslavia’s open secret. The subject-matter of the score-settling with Stalin’s followers first began to emerge in literature, as early as the late 1960s, in Dragoslav Mihailović’s novel, When Pumpkins Blossomed. After Tito’s death in 1980, dozens of novels were published (Isaković, Hofman, Selenić, Mihailović) that were based on the testimonies of former inmates, who broached this issue in the years of the gradual liberalisation of society. At the same time, very sketchy and belated echoes of an official historiography began to appear, as well as apologias by people who were in the state security apparatus during the Tito-Stalin rift, who justified the internment camps’ existence by claiming that “without Goli Otok, the entire Yugoslavia would have become a Goli Otok”. In the early 1980s, the repression and violence that marked the period of conflict with Stalin also became the subject-matter of feature films, the most popular being Balkan Spy and When Father Was Away on Business. The emergence of films, testimonies and so-called “Goli Otok literature” had a strong effect on Yugoslav society, which was already facing various crises. Despite the historical context in which the camp came into exist­ence, the revelations about the torture on Goli Otok and the brutal repressive apparatus further disillusioned many people, adding to the growing legitimacy crisis of the Yugoslav Communist system. However, due to the break-up of Yugoslavia, the camp remained a poorly studied topic, a legacy of the erstwhile community of little interest to the new successor-states.