Courtesy of Inter-University Centre Dubrovnik

Ivo Banac, a preeminent scholar of the Balkans and Yale History professor, died June 30 at the age of 74. As a historian of the Southeastern European region and a member of the Croatian parliament, Banac both taught and shaped Balkan history.

In his academic career, Banac — who served as the Bradford Durfee Emeritus Professor of History at Yale — was an accomplished scholar of the nuanced national histories of the Balkans. A staunch advocate for human rights, individual rights and the rights of minorities — particularly during the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s and in the early days of Croatian independence — Banac was instrumental during a period of great change in the region. He served as president of the now-defunct Croatian Liberal Party, as the Minister of Environmental Protection and Urban Planning in Croatia and as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. At Yale, he was head of Pierson College from 1988 to 1995, directed Yale’s Council on European Studies and taught courses on Eastern and Southeastern Europe in New Haven and in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

“Ivo just knew so much,” history professor John Merriman wrote of his longtime friend. “He did so many important things for so many colleagues, students, and other folks.”

Born in Dubrovnik at a time when Croatia was a constituent republic of socialist Yugoslavia, Banac was educated in the United States. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and a master’s degree and doctorate from Stanford University. He went on to teach at Stanford and at San Francisco State University before joining Yale’s faculty in 1977.

Banac’s book “The National Question in Yugoslavia” is widely regarded as an authoritative text. For his writings, he received the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Josip Juraj Strossmayer Award by the Zagreb Book Fair.

“He loved history. He truly loved history. He loved Croatia, and he loved talking about it,” said Jasmina Besirevic-Regan, dean of Trumbull College and lecturer in sociology.

Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor and scholar of Eastern Europe, called Banac’s book “an incredibly complex account of national relations in the Balkans from the Medieval period up to the 20th century, but written with such panache that it was a pleasure to read.”

For many years, Snyder co-taught his popular lecture courses “Eastern Europe to 1914” and “Eastern Europe since 1914” with Banac. He still assigns readings from Banac’s work to students in the latter course, and credits Banac with personally teaching him much about Balkan and Hungarian history.

“He had a big personality and liked to laugh at the beginning and the end of sentences,” Snyder said. “A laugh that drew you into whatever story he was about to tell.”

In Croatia, Banac was instrumental in the lead-up to, and early days of, independence. A committed liberal who looked westward toward integration with Europe and alignment with the United States, he was a fierce and prominent critic of the conservative Franjo Tudjman, the first President of independent Croatia. Despite their differences, Banac invited Tudjman to speak at Yale in 1990, shortly before Tudjman assumed the presidency.

Banac retired from his full time responsibilities at Yale in 2009 and returned to Croatia to involve himself in politics and publish. He remained on the emeritus faculty of the history department and taught “History and Culture of Southeastern Europe” for Yale Summer Session, held in his hometown of Dubrovnik.

Banac was first approached by Yale in early 2000 to craft a non-language summer abroad program focused on the Balkans, a region prominent in the news during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

“I think for those of us who had a chance to listen to him lecture on the Balkans and Eastern Europe in general, we are so much richer,” said Besirevic-Regan, who co-taught the course. 

In the program, which ran for 13 years and was cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Banac taught the history and Croatia-specific content of the course, which began with the Roman Empire and ended in the present day.

“I was always impressed by how he was able to definitely answer any question that we had,” said Kelsang Dolma ’19, who participated in the program in summer 2017. “You could just tell he was a very learned man.”

Banac’s impact on students was considerable, Besirevic-Regan said.

“We have had many students from the summer session who never thought about Southeastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia,” she said. 

Many students “fell in love with the region because of his lectures,” returning for senior essay research and through post-graduate fellowships and nonprofit work, Besirevic-Regan added — Banac made himself a resource to all, putting his vast knowledge and network at students’ disposal to facilitate introductions and assist students in their work.

“It was really the time of our lives,” Dolma said of the summer program. “There was nothing quite like it.”

Banac was admired in Croatia and beyond, regarded by many as a maverick for his fiercely independent and shrewd positions. A critic of both far-left and far-right, he was revered by his supporters and fiercely debated by his detractors. Many in both camps would approach him on the streets of Dubrovnik, eager to discuss the issues of the day.

“Every time we sat in a coffee shop, someone would come, and either they wanted to introduce themselves and thank him for whatever, or disagree with him,” Besirevic-Regan said. “He always stood his ground well. For me it was a teaching moment. It was lots of fun, just to watch him.”

Besirevic-Regan said that Banac was “always happy to hear other people’s opinions, to agree or disagree with them, and to prompt you to think outside the box whether you’re a student or a passerby.” 

Many of his acquaintances and students recall at first being intimidated by his stature as such a major figure, but soon being disarmed by his humor, charm, and eagerness to help and teach others.

“When we traveled the country, Professor Banac seemed to have friends in every small village and restaurant we passed. Wherever we went, strangers seemed to be excited about his arrival,” said Matt Chisholm ’18 who participated in the program in the summer of 2016. “Croatians certainly admired Banac, and Banac loved Croatia.”

“After his lectures, people would stand up and clap,” said Besirevic-Regan.

Banac’s loss has been mourned around the world.

The loss was reported widely across Croatian media. Le Courrier des Balkans, a French-language news outlet covering the region, referred to him as “une grande figure intellectuelle et politique croate.”

In a statement released in Croatian, the U.S. Embassy in Croatia called Banac “one of the greatest Croatian and American historians.” It continued, “With his work, he left behind a great cultural and scientific heritage – something that all generations will appreciate and remember.”

“I don’t know if we had another prominent and internationally-recognized scholar of the Balkan region … as we had in Ivo Banac,” Besirevic-Regan said. 

Of Banac’s advocacy for human rights in the Balkans, Besirevic-Regan added, “I hope to continue his tradition — but there are huge, huge shoes to fill.”

Banac is survived by his wife, Andrea Feldman, herself an accomplished Croatian historian and former member of the Liberal Party.

Adam Shaw | adam.shaw@yale.edu