The naked island: the dark side of the old country

In the old Yugoslavia, one place was feared more than any other. Today it is a tourist attraction and a reminder of a nearly forgotten era.


Yesterday’s post focused on how some people might look back on the Communist era through rose-colored glasses, especially when faced with the dysfunction of the modern system. There is, of course, more to the story.

For  most working people, the old Yugoslavia may have been somewhat comfortable, but for many it wasn’t. In fact, there was one place in particular that took discomfort to an extreme — the political prison camp known as “Goli otok”, which in English means “Naked Island”.

Goli Otok got its name because of its desolate terrain. Its brutal climate and remote location made it the perfect place for such a prison. The first group of prisoners, 1,200 people, arrived in 1949, and were literally thrown out of the boat because a proper dock had not yet been constructed.

“We don’t talk about that”

There are a few published accounts of time served on the island. One inmate said of his time in the camp, “What is there to fear about this camp? In camps in Germany, in Siberia, in Croatia — in those camps they killed the body. But in this one, they kill the man inside the man. That was the basic logic. I often hear how people say they had someone who had been on Goli Otok, but they don’t talk about it.”

I often hear how people say they had someone who had been on Goli Otok, but they don’t talk about it.

In general, prisoners sent to Goli Otok were suspected of colluding with Soviet forces or other entities deemed dangerous by the Yugoslav regime. Marshal Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, split with the Soviet Union in 1948, and did not participate in the Warsaw Pact treaty after that time. That meant that Yugoslavia, though it was still communist, was technically not behind the so-called Iron Curtain.

Tito was able to keep the country together for 35 years, but he did so with tools like Goli Otok in his back pocket. There was one political party, and dissenters were not treated kindly. The kind of multi-party system we experience today did not exist.

It is easy to idealize history, but an objective perspective will reveal good things and bad. If we can look at both, then it is possible to forge a better future for those that will come after us.

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