World War II is the period which experienced the most dramatic changes of interpretation in Yugoslavia and in Serbia. It was in this period that every regime and every ideology found their historical ancestors and, in some of the ideological concepts of the time, found their historical groundwork. One could say that this historical era is an ideal repository for excavating desirable historical myths and also a period which contemporary regimes in Serbia depend upon.
World War II has a special potential for utilization because of the number of ideologies which found themselves opposed during the conflict, and which are still on the political menu. For this reason, in an ideological sense, this event is important for today’s positioning on the political scene, while invoking the already mythical leaders of different movements provides a necessary historical background to those politicians whose current political potential is slim.
However, in the battles for memory, World War II has another, even greater importance. Vast numbers of victims left in its wake in former Yugoslavia are very convenient for manipulation and for sending useful and tendentious political messages. Self-victimization is a crucial lesson drawn from history, because the role of the victim secures a permanent moral and political privilege that can be „redeemed” in the present, either in the context of international relations or as a means of social cohesion within state borders. In the words of Amos Oz, we are witnessing a „world championship of victims“, because the prestigious position of the “greatest victim” brings moral advantage and provides a permanent weapon against the perpetrators which are constantly reminded how they did not pay their real and symbolic debts. Furthermore, current or future violence by the „victims” may be justified in the name of past suffering. The victim has an indulgence for all present and future deeds.
This is the reason why the competition for the position of “greatest victim” is so strong, which, with changing political systems and states in former Yugoslavia, led to frequent shifts on that throne over the last 70 years. This is what makes the role play between perpetrators and victims an extremely interesting subject for analysis, revealing the brutality of „memory“ acting against „history“. World War II is an especially convenient period for manipulation, because the victims were many and belonged to all sides. But the history of remembrance reveals that tribute was not always paid to all victims, that the treatment of victims by different regimes was always selective and that the “contest for the greatest victim” was, and still remains, open. Political contexts and focuses were changing, and every regime was looking for “its ideal victims” in the World War II “repository”. In this production of memory, some victims disappeared completely, while others were being rotated on the top position. The only victims which never came to the top position were the Holocaust victims. This paper deals with the causes of this phenomenon.
Already in his speeches during the war, Tito decided that the basic myth of the new socialist government will be founded on World War II and in the Yugoslav partisans’ epos. Not long after the war, the whole society began to shape within the framework of this paradigm, and the main content of history teaching became the seven enemy offensives, which were studied in minute detail. The partisans became the symbol of the “barehanded” people defending liberty from the mighty Nazi occupiers, which decidedly, although with the help of collaborators, took the No. 1 position among the perpetrators. In such a narrative there was no place for the Holocaust victims, so the crime against Yugoslav Jews almost fell out of history teaching. There was not to be any competition for the partisan victims. This was the phase one.
Phase two began when the socialist order began to lose ground, which led to a new construction of World War II. Among other things, with growing nationalism there was a shift on the No. 1 spot among victims. This meant that in Serbia, in the mid-eighties, instead of thus far unchallenged partisans, this position was now taken by the “Serbian people” seen as an organic entity. However, this stage brought an interesting innovation. Namely, only at this time were the Holocaust victims recognized, but again not in and of themselves, but as completely equated with Serbian victims. From building joint monuments to founding The Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society, the insistence was on the identical fate of the two martyr-nations. By identifying with the Holocaust victims, in this struggle for a place in memory, the Serbian victims became greater and unquestionable, and this was also a chance for them to gain international credentials and acknowledgment.
The chief objective of linking the Serbian and Jewish victims was the alteration of the leading perpetrator. Specifically, the goal was to label as the greatest crime on Yugoslav territory the one committed in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during the WWII, in whose death camps Serbs and Jews perished together. That way, in line with the requirements of Serbian propaganda before the outbreak of the war in Yugoslavia in 1991, the Independent State of Croatia replaced the previously incontestable Nazis as the main perpetrator. At first, in speeches and writings, this genocide was blamed on the Ustashi, but over time the guilt was shifted to the entire Croatian people. That way Serbs and Jews took the place of the partisans as victims and Germans were replaced by Croats as perpetrators. Unsurprisingly, in such a framework of remembrance there was no place for historical facts, especially not for those indicating that Serbian collaborationist forces played a crucial role in the implementation of the Holocaust in Serbia and that they greatly contributed, after only 6 months of Nazi occupation, to Serbia becoming, among the first countries in Europe, Judenfrei. Memory can hold only simple and definite roles. A victim cannot be a perpetrator. It is instantly being relieved of this load. Such information would completely abolish the possibility of equating Serbian and Jewish fates, which would destroy the image of the past that was needed at the time.
However, phase three came soon. The preparations for the Yugoslav war brought new changes. Namely, the Jews were now forgotten again, leaving the Serbs as the only true victims. The main historical subject, from television shows, to monuments, to history textbooks, was the genocide they suffered in the NDH, which served several political purposes. Genocide became a word constantly employed, in daily and continuous use, gradually becoming a sort of mantra, devoid of sense and meaning. One great illustration of this is a 3rd grade primary school textbook, intended for nine year-olds, with a graphically separated and underlined recommendation saying: “1. Read the texts about the genocide over Serbs and other peoples. 2. There are films on this subject, they should be seen and discussed”. By its massive use, the word genocide was trivialized, and the public was being prepared for new genocides.
Fear and anxiousness grew among the public, and the war that was about to begin was in advance proclaimed to be defensive or lauded as the prevention of future Croatian genocide against the Serbs. Namely, with the coined phrase describing Croats as a genocidal nation, an idea was spread that this was, as one historian put it, a genetic trait of those people, which would inevitably drive them into a new genocide against the Serbs as soon as they have a chance. This propagandistic formula was extremely successful, especially among the Serbs in Croatia, and constant abuse of history produced panic among the people and the impression that they needed to do everything to protect themselves from their neighbors. This was important for moral and psychological preparation for the destruction of Yugoslavia and for creating a situation in which new crimes among neighbors would again become possible.
To achieve all of this, Holocaust rhetoric was adopted, but the victims were replaced, and the Jews, as possible competitors, were again forgotten. Textbooks were completely committed to implanting a strong sense of belonging to the victim-nation into the heads of even the youngest of pupils. All methods were allowed, from brutal images of mass graves to cruel and detailed descriptions of crimes, without any prior preparation of students. For example, a textbook for 13 year-olds, published during the war in 1993, used by nearly ten generations of students, has the following passage: “The inmates in the concentration camp Jasenovac (mostly Serbs) were slaughtered with knives, killed with different tools, axes, hammers, sledge hammers and iron bars, shot and burnt in the crematorium, cooked alive in cauldrons, hanged, tortured with hunger, thirst and cold, for they lived in camps without food or water.”
Phase four of role change came in the wake of the Yugoslav wars and after Milosevic’s fall in 2000. The new authorities constructed “their own” World War II. That is to say, the objective of the new anti-communist authorities was to make a sharp break with the historical ancestors of the previous regime, and to fortify their victory over the old regime in the field of memories. It is as if they believed that, by pulling out this particular memory brick, the whole edifice of the regimes which rested on the partisan myth would finally collapse. Therefore, what was now needed, almost 70 years after the war ended, was to defeat Tito’s partisans, find a completely new narrative, and consequently new perpetrators and new victims. To do this, it was not enough to deny the partisans their position as greatest victims, but also to proclaim them as main perpetrators.
Switching the main perpetrator meant changing the main victim. This position was still, in a nationalist manner, occupied by the “Serbian people”, but the focus had been shifted. Now these were no longer Serbs from Croatia, but Serbs from Serbia, because after the Yugoslav wars ended, the central political message was no longer directed towards neighboring peoples. World War II again became the central argument in the internal ideological battle. This is why it was now important to declare that the main victims were anti-communists, that is, the different militias fighting against the partisans, especially Draza Mihajlovic’s Chetniks. The change was complete. Those who previously were the perpetrators, along with the Nazi occupiers, now became victims, and vice-versa. This led not only to complete distortions of the war’s interpretation and the change of historically determined facts, but also to the identification of today’s Serbia with the forces and ideas defeated in World War II.
So history textbooks today insist that it was only the partisans who committed crimes, that they “arrested, tortured and executed” and left in their trail “dog cemeteries”, or unmarked mass graves of their adversaries, and that they “without hesitation sentenced people to death in show trials. Secret and open executions of prominent people and ordinary peasants, revenge killings, as well as executions of those members of the Communist Party who opposed it, were almost a daily occurrence”. On the other hand, large-scale atrocities committed by the Chetniks against Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs are not mentioned. Instead, it is claimed that the Chetnics practiced “beatings as one of the most often used methods of intimidation”. As for the collaborationist regime of Milan Nedic, who was responsible for enforcing the Holocaust on Serbian territory, it is claimed that he “rescued the biological essence of the Serbian people”, while his collaboration is explained in this manner: “He believed that Germany was too powerful at that time, and that in order to prevent the suffering of the Serbian people, cooperation with the occupier was unavoidable”. Members of Dimitrije Ljotic’s volunteer corps, the main aids of the SS units and the Gestapo in terror campaigns in Serbia, are mentioned only once, in the following sentence: “Their ideological fanaticism was greater than that of the communists.”
In other words, the new Serbian authorities found their historical ancestors among the collaborationist forces, allowing anti-communism to lead them to a phenomenon that is now known in Serbia as anti-antifascism. This again excluded the possibility of mentioning the Holocaust, because it was these new idols who took part in its execution. So the first textbooks that came out in 2000, after Milosevic’s fall, were left without any lessons or references to the Holocaust. Following a public outcry against this, subsequent editions included this subject, but devoted only a few paragraphs to it. Jewish victims were again not allowed to threaten the new title holders of the greatest victim. The rhetoric about the victim-nation remained the same, and the patterns of describing the Holocaust still refer to Serbian victims.
This short outline of memory politics in Yugoslavia and Serbia presented the dynamic of construction and deconstruction in the relation between perpetrators and victims. It has also proven the thesis that “heroes” play a central role in history, while “victims” are the central figure for memory. It showed that, for nearly 70 years, there was everything: the constant talk about the victims, the replacements of leading victims, and dramatic changes of main perpetrators. There were no victims of the “other”, even when this other was our “internal other”, as with the Holocaust victims, which were not only suppressed because of the still strong anti-Semitism and the failure to face our own responsibility, but also because they would threaten the exclusive position of “our victim”, which is the central foundation of all regimes. The only things missing, as it seems, were empathy and remorse.
From the conference “Social construction and deconstruction of the roles of victims and perpetrators”, Krakow, 16-18 of September 2013; a part of the European COST project, In search of transcultural memory in Europe.
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