Image of the wars of the nineties in Serbian history textbooks (1993-2005)

This is a comparative analysis of the interpretation of the wars of the nineties in Serbian textbooks published in the nineties and in those published after the political changes in 2000. The key issue is whether there was a discontinuity in the interpretation of these events or the current authorities adhere to the same interpretation of the dissolution of Yugoslavia as the previous one.

History textbooks, especially in times of transition, and particularly in countries were there are no alternative methods of learning, are used to tailor the past to fit the present, to create an instant version of history which will justify the present and put it in the necessary historic context. In times of great disruptions, events are speedily erased from history, and, at the same time, everything that “suits” the present, that makes us feel better, supports national self-confidence, and helps us find a new goal, is added even faster. These alterations can be applied to any historical period, and it is a great misconception that certain historical periods are impervious to manipulations. However, the ending chapters in textbooks for final years of primary and secondary school, where current issues are discussed, always bring particularly interesting “news from the past” – they express the standpoint of the Ministry of Education, which approves these textbooks, regarding the current state-of-affairs in the country and its recent past. Here we can read “the recommendations how to use the present”, see the values that the current society is based on, see who the main political authorities one should be following are, and understand how we came to where we are now. On these pages, the authorities have the chance to justify themselves, as well as to offer us a desirable opinion on themselves, in a concise and concentrated manner. Although the desire here is to impose an ideal picture, a researcher can, using the compliments the authorities gave themselves, see what they really are in the best possible way; the more they try to hide, the more they reveal.

This is especially pertinent to textbooks which are written during wartimes. There we can find comprehensive explanations of events seasoned to the taste of those who lead the wars; we can see the framework of their ideas; we can fathom the goals, discover the untruths. These pages are intended for schoolchildren growing up in wartimes, so that they can orientate themselves in the present “correctly”, in accordance with the guidelines provided in these textbooks, so that they can understand where and why they still live, and what is the goal of all this. The authorities hope that the schoolchildren of today will take this knowledge to their adulthood. Thus, the interpretation of dramatic events they were given in the earliest years of their life would determine their standpoints towards these events in the future. Education is abused for the sake of permanently shaping generations according to the dictate of current needs of the authorities. When there is a war going on, the abuse is even more brutal and sinister. Those who were in 8th grade in 1993, when Milosevic’s history textbooks were published, are now in their thirties. The messages they received in their childhood can now be passed along to their children. This is where the danger of these textbooks lies: they work with a delayed effect, they represent permanent contamination, transferred from one generation to another.

History textbooks in Serbia were first changed in 1993, thus – in the middle of the wars for Yugoslav heritage and precisely because of these wars. As I have written on several occasions in the past,[1] same as in previous anthologies published as part of this project, the point of these books was precisely a drastic alteration of the view of the past to suit the needs of the present. It was necessary to construct a history of conflict, in order to place the conflict in progress into the appropriate historical context, to justify it, make it logical and unavoidable. The Serbo-Croatian conflict was extracted from history as a constant feature, as its most important content. The roots are dated back with great precision to the year 1525, when the first open conflict between the two nations was detected – a date that could not be found in previous scientific historiography. From that detected year, a continuous line was drawn directly to 1991, thus providing a clear historical foundation for this year, and, in turn, making it both a destiny and a necessity.

In addition to the drastic changes in the interpretation of the past, a large number of pages in the history textbooks for the final grade of primary school, published in 1993, were dedicated to explaining current events. These changes were also introduced into geography textbooks,[2] which are particularly interesting, thus this analysis will begin with an attempt to define geographically the state in which schoolchildren of 1993 lived. Let’s just be reminded that the then schoolchildren of Serbia lived in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, composed of the republic of Serbia and the republic of Montenegro, which proclaimed a new federation in April of 1992, following the dissolution of SFRY. However, the uncertainty about the framework of the state one lived in at that time began already in 3rd grade of primary school. Children were taught that “our homeland was Serbia”, that Belgrade was its capital city (not the capital city of FRY), and that it bordered with Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.[3] Judging by this, Montenegro was in the same position towards Serbia as Croatia, which was a consequence of the fact that textbooks could not be changed at the speed the war was creating a new reality, thus resulting in old relationships between republics remaining unchanged in the textbooks. Moving to the next, 4th grade, children would find themselves confused when they discovered that Serbia was in a federation with Montenegro, under the name of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a state bordering with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia on its west.[4] In order to confirm these borders, they were also labeled as natural: “The river Drina is a natural border towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Danube is a natural border towards Croatia and Romania.”[5] From this, one could conclude that at that time FRY recognized the border on Drina and Danube.

This, however, was brought into question and refuted in the 8th grade geography textbooks, where neighboring countries were referred to as Former Yugoslav Republic of Croatia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.[6] International documents recognize only the last one under that name, which makes it unequivocally clear that FRY, at least in this textbook, did not recognize the remaining states. It also makes it clear that, in all actuality, FRY did not consider the borders on Drina and Danube to be natural. In this way, political ambiguities became part of what one may consider to be an exact science – geography. The problems were even more complicated than they appeared, because, as part of the lesson “Serbian lands beyond Yugoslav borders”, there were entire sections dedicated to the geographical, economic, even tourist details from the life of the then Republika Srpska Krajina and Republika Srpska, which were not recognized as states by FRY. The textbook did not explain the relation between these states and Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina or FRY, so that a less informed child may have understood that these entities were also a part of FRY.

All of this clearly shows that the relations between Serbia, Montenegro, FRY, Republika Srpska Krajina and Republika Srpska were not totally clear in 1993, that the borders were not considered definite and that, according to the views of the textbook authors, everything was subject to changes and reshaping. Textbooks hastily tailored to the situation in the field create confusion even in basic issues. This is why the authors of 4th grade science textbooks, probably out of sheer despair, found the solution in the following advice: “You will get to know your homeland better if you watch TV, read children’s publications, create albums and collections and make a calendar of social events which pertain to our country”.[7] Textbooks could not change at the speed with which states did, so they retreated before the more modern and faster media, publicly proclaiming their withdrawal from the contest for “the truth”.

Textbooks offer many explanations as to how the then political situation came to be. Extensive political lessons were part of 8th grade geography textbooks, where they certainly didn’t belong. In these textbooks, the entire history of Yugoslavia was presented in a petty political way, because it was obviously necessary to support the official interpretation from “a geographical perspective” as well. The most vulgar arguments were also used, those that one was able to hear on every street during the late eighties, at the time history was a discipline everyone practiced at all times. We can find one of these stereotyped interpretations of Yugoslavia in the geography textbook: it says that in the first Yugoslavia, Serbs, Croats and Slovenians had “opposing religious and national goals. With the creation of Yugoslavia, Croats and Slovenians were, in addition to the liberation from Austria-Hungary, saving their ethnic territory from Italy and Austria, and, despite the fact that they were defeated in war, they were included amongst the winners and met the requirements to later create independent national states”.[8] Describing the relations among nations in the second Yugoslavia, the authors, still in the geography textbook, openly lobby for Milosevic’s war program: “A possible solution to the position of Serbs in Croatia was the creation of Serbian autonomous regions where Serbs were the majority. However, the leadership of the Communist Part and of the Federation, where Croatian and Slovenian politicians exerted the biggest influence, did not allow any kind of autonomy for Serbs”.[9] Despite the fact that, as the authors previously claimed, Croats and Slovenians exerted the biggest influence, “They were dissatisfied with both the first and the second Yugoslavia, although they had an especially favorable position on the Yugoslav market”.[10]

In order to show the reasons why Serbia was unhappy in the federation, well-known arguments about the moving of Serbian factories to other republics were quoted. These factories were listed in detail in the textbook; along with iron foundries, mills, second railroad track near Jagodina, the list includes “the most famous stable with purebred horses in Europe”, which was moved from Stare Moravice to Slovenia.[11] With this, the arguments well-known from the SANU Memorandum and the big media campaign aimed at proving the harsh position of Serbia and Serbs in Yugoslavia, as well as at the creation of a picture about the danger they were in and their subordinate position, became part of the education system. Such arguments were necessary in order to create a psychological foundation for war, because the starting point was that “the victim” had the right to compensation, that the victim was pardoned in advance. Thus, the victim was free to do anything in the struggle for justice. Bearing in mind “the delayed effect” of textbooks, these explanations were also used to formulate the attitude of future generations towards wars which were being led, to prepare their resistance towards any different view of these events which may occur in the future.

This “geographical” side of the Yugoslav problem fitted into the political one, which was explained in the 8th grade history textbook.[12] Interpreting the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the beginning of the process of disintegration was placed in the year 1964, at the Brioni Plenum. This is yet another of those historical interpretations which could be frequently heard starting from the eighties. According to this interpretation, the fall of Aleksandar Rankovic from the position of first policeman was part of the reckoning of Tito’s leadership with those representatives from Serbia who wanted to strengthen the position of Serbia in the federation and win a better place for their nation within a complex state union. Aleksandar Rankovic thus became the “icon of resistance”, the protector of Serbian national interests, especially those in Kosovo. Such an image resulted in about 100.000 citizens of Belgrade attending his funeral in June of 1983,[13] transforming it into the first unofficial “truth protest”, which Slobodan Milosevic would, later on, use as his own method of political reckoning.

The attitude towards the Brioni Plenum in the textbook is rather interesting. The authors claim that this event led to “the disintegration of a powerful federal institution (which exists in every civilized state)”, referring to the communist state security![14] It was already then, the author claims, “that the conditions for carrying out the prepared and well conceived scenario (inspired and helped by certain foreign parties, as well) for the destruction of the Yugoslav union were created”.[15] This makes it clear that the authors and the then Ministry of Education believed the secret police of communist Yugoslavia to be the defender of Yugoslavia, which says a lot about the way they understood unity and equality, which were to be the foundations of a federation. Furthermore, the textbook claims that the subsequent events which followed in Kosovo in 1968, in Croatia between 1967 and 1971 and in Slovenia in 1969, proved that the dissolution of Yugoslavia started with the ousting of Rankovic. “The crowning event was the passing of the new SFRY Constitution in 1974”, which was “without question” accepted “by the subordinate and bureaucratized structures of the Serbian political scene”.[16] This was meant to prove that the communist leaderships, primarily the leadership of Slovenia and Croatia, were responsible for the dissolution of Yugoslavia, as well as for the war which was underway at the time. According to the textbook, they started carrying out their “plan” from the moment Rankovic was deposed, with the obvious, albeit undefined, help from abroad. This absolved those who started the war in 1991 from responsibility, and moved back the beginning of the dissolution for thirty years, thus shifting the focus of interpretation, and laying all responsibility to the previous, communist government.

According to the textbook, the situation in SFRY did not change until 1987. Then, the correction of the injustice began: “At the 8th session of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia, the concept advocating the democratization of the society, the revision of the existing Constitution, the protection of Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo and Metohija and the creation of a unified Serbia on its entire territory, prevailed”.[17] The same power structures adopted constitutional amendments which allowed Serbia to carry out sovereign state functions on its entire territory, and, in 1990, the new Constitution, under which “the citizen, his personal freedoms and rights, are central to all events transpiring in the society”.[18] This presented the existing government as the protector of democratic, human and national rights on one side, while at the same time explaining its politics as a method of protecting the rights of Serbs, which was to remain the key propaganda position during the wars, thus giving those wars a defensive character. Thus moral pardon and political shelter were secured – there is nothing more just than the protection of an endangered nation.

According to the authors of the 8th grade history textbook, with the passing of the time, nationalism and separatism in Yugoslavia gained strength. “Others” are responsible. “The leadership of Slovenia was the most prominent, especially starting from 1989, portending the secession from Yugoslavia”.[19] It is interesting to note that the authors perceive only two cohesive factors in the then Yugoslavia: the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ) and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), thus confirming, in a history textbook, the most rigid concept of Yugoslavism, relying on communism and the army. This was the interpretation followed by the hard line in Serbia in the late eighties, which believed that the salvation of Yugoslavia was to be found in “an iron fist”, and perceived its dissolution as a consequence of democratization.[20] Although the disagreements within the federation derived precisely from such an approach, it found its way into the textbook as the sole explanation. Further explanations follow the same logic: the enemy “decided, in accordance with their previously prepared plan, to destroy first one (SKJ), then another (JNA) factor of unity”.[21] This is the reasons why, according to the authors, SKJ was shut down following the 14th Congress, “thus resulting in the destruction of one of the factors for the preservation of Yugoslavia”. This was both the official standpoint of Milosevic’s leadership and the interpretation of the last congress of Yugoslav communists. The reduction of the Yugoslav federation to the League of Communists revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of the complex union of nations as well as the hard-line attitude of the then Serbian leadership.

After such an integrative factor had disappeared, claim the authors of this textbook, elections were held in 1990 in all the republics. This did not resolve the crisis, because, according to our author, “in some republics ultra right-wing forces won. Thus, in many parts of Yugoslavia, one type of single-mindedness was replaced by another, which, at some points, turned into insanity”.[22] This is an example of repugnant, arrogant and impermissible interference with electoral outcomes in other republics of the then still joint state. At the same time, the attitude towards elections displays a strong influence of the old ideological matrix, while democracy and multi-party system are perceived as a danger. Although the intention of the authors of those lines was to create an image of other nations that were to be accused as the sole culprits for the dissolution of Yugoslavia, they ended in making the strongest accusations against themselves, revealing the attitude that the then Serbian leadership had towards political transformations. In this context, textbooks prove to be a valuable historical source which detects the most vulgar ideological messages in their fundamental form.

From 1990 onwards, according to the textbook, the situation started to become more complicated. It is rather interesting that the geography textbook places the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the year 1990. One might at first think this to be a mistake, because the textbook claims that the second Yugoslavia lasted from 1945 (the coat of arms of that state says that it was founded in 1943) until 1990. A later chapter explains that “the secession of Croatia from Yugoslavia, and the proclamation of an independent state, was carried out with the passing of the new Constitution in 1990”.[23] The fact is that Croatia proclaimed independence in June of 1991. This antedating actually shifted the dissolution of Yugoslavia, thus proclaiming Croatia as the main culprit and the only one responsible for this event. Namely, the Croatian Constitution was marked as the moment of dissolution, which unequivocally pinpointed the culprit.

This is an interesting lesson to ponder history and its misuse. Namely, the advocates of positivism claim that facts are facts, and dates are dates. The abovementioned example shows that historical chronology is in itself an important part of manipulation, and that by changing dates one can achieve much more in creating a desirable image of the past than by implementing complicated historical argumentation. As soon as the date of the dissolution of Yugoslavia was set in 1990, the culprit became obvious.

The 4th grade textbooks then explain to children that Serbs were thrown out of the Croatian Constitution, that they were proclaimed a national minority and thus deprived of their rights. This is why “the Serbian people armed themselves”[24] (without a word as to how they did arm themselves), while JNA, which was, at that time, the Army of the joint state, attempted to protect them: “since the attacked and threatened Serbs had to protect themselves from new tribulations and destruction. Accepting the imposed struggle created a conviction amongst Serbs that they themselves, same as the others, had the right to become independent and decide on their own fate.”[25] This is an interesting interpretation, bearing in mind that such standpoints could not be heard in public due to the dominant message about the defensive character of the war led by the Serbian forces, protecting “the empty-handed people”. The defiant view about “taking matters into our own hands” is contrary to the official propaganda formula about self-defense.

The interpretation offered in the textbooks also includes foreign enemies: “The European Economic Community attempted to offer its good services in the Yugoslav conflict. Due to the favoritism of ECC, especially Germany, as its most influential and aggressive member, the fighting continued”.[26] This did not suffice – it was also necessary to remind the children about the “centuries-old” Serbian-German conflict, about “the tradition” of aggressive German policy, about the fact that nothing ever changes in history – that it is some kind of destiny, that we are once again victims of the German Drang, as it happened already twice during the 20th century. This is a propaganda formula that is expected to leave no soul indifferent, and to always bring about the necessary emotions and psychological defiance in Serbia, twice occupied by German forces. The textbook claims without hesitation: “for the third time in the 20th century Germany and Austria repeated their ‘Drang nach Osten’ in 1991, this time political and economical, inciting and supporting secessionist forces in Yugoslav republics and thus contributing to the dissolution of SFRY”.[27]

Here we can also find the favorite enemy –Vatican: “The participation of Vatican politics in the Yugoslav syndrome is also very important. Through the Catholic church and its fanatical believers, a fight against Orthodoxy and Serbs is being led”.[28] It was another strong propaganda message, because “the Vatican conspiracy” belongs to the arsenal of favorite interpretations of history, especially when it is necessary to trigger revolt and readiness to fight. And, finally, in order for the set of “ideal enemies” to be complete, United States of America and the new post- Cold War situation were added – briefly: “The attitude of Serbia and Montenegro, which did not accept the dissolution of Yugoslavia, caused the wrath and vengeance of the initiators and instigators of the New World Order, who decided to punish the disobedient”.[29]

In such difficult circumstances, the Serbian people were left only with the unquestionable fate in their own leadership, one that always welcomes praise: “realizing the complexity of the forthcoming development of events, the Presidency of Yugoslavia and the Serbian leadership took the necessary measures and managed to transfer the problem of the Yugoslav crisis to the Security Council and the United Nations”.[30] Apparently, this diplomatic success was not sufficient, “thus, after many threats, blackmails and unimaginable favoritism”, sanctions against FRY were imposed. It was not explained why the sanctions were imposed, what was asked of the Serbian leadership, what were the causes and motives for the punishment which deeply affected the bare existence of the citizens of Serbia. The sanctions were presented as another in a row of injustices, the product of favoritism and anti-Serbian orientation of the entire world.

The language used to write the chapters in this textbook speaks for itself about the unscrupulous politization of education. Passionate journalistic platitudes are not a language schoolchildren should look up to. As to its essence, this language can only indefinitely revive the war atmosphere, pushing the schoolchildren even farther away from a rational perception of the situation. Filled with xenophobia, contempt and hatred towards neighboring nations, the European and global community, such texts fit into the propaganda system which has made the war psychologically possible. Throwing insults at the international community we still live in, and even at the religious feelings of certain nations (for example, “fanatical believers” of the Catholic church), which is a great example of the propaganda of religious intolerance, can be nothing but the expression of an arrogant, primitive understanding of the world, a world we thus willingly exclude ourselves from. Textbooks are not a place to continue waging a war, and even less a place to praise the Serbian leadership. By explicitly imposing political reasoning, textbooks loose their educational purpose.

This gives an extra-historical interpretation of everything that could have been previously learned about the past, thus making the subconscious suggestions presented in the previous chapter politically usable. Without such a finale, they would not be so ominous. We are left with the impression that the previous historical experience, with all its power, materialized in contemporary events, as if the contemporary events naturally result from it. This is an erroneous interpretation of modernity, but also a dangerous, single-minded reduction of historical totality to one dimension only. This is where the deepest instrumentalization of history in the textbooks lies. The objective of studying history is to develop the ability to think in relative terms, and to realize the richness of many possibilities and choices that are constantly being offered. “Neither history nor nature ever places everything on one card only”.[31] This very ambiguity of what history offers remains totally unknown when the schooling ends. It is true that it is not easy to present this ambiguity in the limited space offered by a school curriculum, but it would suffice, for a start, to offer views of different parties on a particular event or phenomenon. This would significantly soften the image of a single truth, single direction, single possibility, which dominates the textbooks and which, consequently, creates an erroneous perception of the past. The meaning of comprehending history lies in perceiving all offered possibilities and in contemplating on the reasons for one of these possibilities to take precedence. This conveys the valuable apparatus of reasoning, which can help in explaining the present. However, such dilemmas were not presented to the schoolchildren. On the contrary, they are imprinted with historical determinism which precludes any possibility of free thinking and creativity of understanding. It enthrones a system of though in which the cause of all causes can be changed as needed, at the same time keeping the essence intact. The essence remains a deeply authoritarian understanding of the world, which is older than any other system. More precisely, systems are reproduced from such and understanding. Thus, responsibility lies not only with the authors of school curriculums and textbooks, not even with the science on which they should be based. They are all a mere consequence, and this is why they represent an excellent starting point for contemplating upon the society that generated them.

A change of matrix after the political change?

In textbooks published after the political changes in 2000, special attention, or so it appears, was dedicated to “calming down the passions” regarding the last decade of the 20th century. Probably expecting that the critics would start by very carefully reading just these chapters, authors took pains not to use hate speech, avoided journalistic platitudes, abstained from strongly criticizing the international community and from insulting members of other religions and nations. Great effort was invested in composing a text using correct language and contents.

However, despite the “cleaned up” text, it is interesting that the matrix of interpreting the dissolution of Yugoslavia remained fundamentally identical to the one in Milosevic’s textbooks, which goes in favor of the standpoint that there is a continuity between ideas before and after the changes in 2000. The key of the interpretation lies in the presentation of the Serbian nation as a victim, and of Yugoslavia as the country destroyed by selfish interests of secessionists who failed to understand the subtlety of a multinational community, and, even more, the interests and needs of the largest, Serbian nation.

From a chronological point of view, the first similarity between the two interpretations is noted where the notorious Brioni Plenum is concerned. The 8th grade textbook unambiguously presents Rankovic as the protector of Serbian interests, deposed in order to weaken the largest Yugoslav nation. The start of the dissolution of Yugoslavia is overtly placed right here, in the year 1966, when “this integrative factor” was destroyed with the deposition of Rankovic. This makes it clear who was destroying and who destroyed Yugoslavia: “With his deposition (Rankovic’s – author’s note), due to alleged (author’s emphasis) audio surveillance of Tito, the process of dissolution of Yugoslavia began, with increasing tendency of Slovenia and Croatia towards independence”[32] The word “alleged” is interesting, because it openly suggests that the entire affair was a setup and that Rankovic was yet another innocent Serbian victim, which once again strengthens and openly advocates the mythic matrix.

It is especially important to underline this fact, since the new generation of textbooks also includes the well-known standpoint that JNA was the key integrative factor of SFRY. In the lesson pertaining to the sixties and seventies of the last century, the authors claims that: “The Yugoslav National Army, as the only Yugoslav institution, also had an important influence on political life in the country”. Although at that time, a large number of Yugoslav institutions existed – from the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Archive of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav Drama Theater, up to the Jugoplastika factory, the authors stick to the familiar matrix where the key factor of the common state is seen in the army. This is both a glorification of a communist army and a humiliation of Yugoslavia, a state reducible to the power of its army. If the Serbian side has been frequently accused of such a perception of Yugoslavia, then the authors of the textbook, albeit indirectly, proved that the common state was actually understood in such a way, and that the tradition of militarism left a strong imprint on the understanding of this complex federation.

SFRY itself is interpreted in both relevant textbooks as “the dungeon of the Serbian nation”, which was one of the dominant interpretations during the mid eighties.[33] A conspiracy is, once again, the key explanation. This time, party and state leadership were part of the conspiracy. Their goal was to destroy Serbian interests, thus, they had an anti-Serbian mission. The culmination of such activity is seen in the process of federalization of SFRY, which, as it is obvious from these textbooks, is perceived as contrary to Serbian interests.[34] The textbook claims that the key event was the passing of the 1974 Constitution, a move interpreted as the breakup of the state, which proves that the strengthening of federalism was understood as contrary to Serbian interests. This, in turn, confirmed, once again indirectly, the unitarian understanding of Yugoslavia by the textbook authors: “Nationalisms were orchestrated by state and party leaderships. With the help of other internal and external factors, they were the main causes of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. A part of the Serbian political and intellectual leadership strongly criticized the 1974 Constitution. Their opinion was that this Constitution legalized the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and that Serbia was broken up when Vojvodina and Kosovo and Metohija were given a broad autonomy.”[35] In the 8th grade textbook written later, the authors were even more explicit: “These constitutional changes enabled further strengthening of the independence of republics and provinces. It led to the weakening of unity, splitting up of the economy and the undermining of Yugoslavia as the common state. Provinces were given broader jurisdictions in legislative and executive power, thus practically acquiring the status of republics. This placed Serbia in an unequal position, which, in the following period, led to a great political crisis in Serbia and Yugoslavia and caused the dissolution of the state.[36]

The next situation which stands out as an important factor which led to the dissolution of the state was the situation in Kosovo. It was interpreted within the matrix of Serbian victimization. Failing to offer a more comprehensive explanation of the situation in Kosovo, authors presented only the Serbian side as the victim, using Milosevic’s arguments from the late eighties: “Pressure on Serbs in this province continued unabated. For a long time, Serbs have lived in an atmosphere of fear, destruction of their property, treats and constant exile from that territory”.[37] There is no doubt, according to the authors, that such a position of Serbs was part of a broader, state policy in SFRY: writing about Albanian demonstrations in 1968, the authors claim that: “Although they were massive and separatist, Tito described them as ordinary riots (bold in original text)”, criticizing “those who still lived in the old spheres and who were not satisfied with all nations and nationalities in our country having equal rights. He was referring to Serbs here”.[38]

The demonstrations in 1989 were also presented as having full continuity with the conflicts which occurred in Kosovo in the sixties and early eighties. Immediately after the sentence about the exile of Serbs and the creation of pure Albanian territories during the previous period, comes the following sentence: “New demonstrations came after the constitutional changes in Serbia (1989), when civil war in that province was prevented by JNA”.[39] Once again, the army appears in a positive context, almost as a factor of peace, while, at the same time, the textbook fails to explain the mentioned constitutional changes in Serbia that actually abolished the autonomy of Kosovo, which was part of already advanced Milosevic’s policy of crushing Albanian rights and a violent solution to the Kosovo problem. No word about tens of people who died at the hands of that same peacekeeping army and police during those days in Kosovo, which was a conflict that permanently separated the Albanian community from the idea of a common life. With this, the authors of the textbook showed a complete lack of understanding of the Kosovo issue, which is what led to the loss of Kosovo.

The formal dissolution of Yugoslavia was dated June 25th 1991, when the Slovenian parliament voted for independence. The textbook says that the same thing was done the next day by the Croatian parliament, following the passing of a Constitution in which Serbs lost the status of a constitutive nation. We find only one sentence talking about the cause of the wars: “The increase of intra-national hatred and the strengthening of old fears, ominously pointed towards a war solution”.[40] Mythological factors such as “ominous indicators” lead to the conclusion that the war was caused by supernatural forces. However, here too we can see Milosevic’s interpretation of the cause of war: old fears. The key of the propaganda about a defensive war which was led in Serbia during the eighties is precisely that: the perpetuating story about Ustasha crimes and genocide against Serbian people in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) blasted almost every evening from TV screens and printed media. The goal of such psychological preparations for war was precisely the creation and dissemination of “old fears”, primarily the fear that the genocide against Serbs may happen again. Thus, the war became not only defensive, but preventive as well – a war that would prevent a new crime from being committed against the barehanded people.

The war itself was depicted as some kind of natural phenomenon. The language used to neutralize the problem of responsibility, to blur the situation to the extent that history looked like some kind of force directing the behavior of people, controlling them, placing them in situations for which they bear no responsibility, has already been analyzed: “Wars first started as local, limited and partially controlled, and, beginning from summer of 1992, wars flamed up so strongly, that every attempt of the international community and its military forces to stop the destruction failed”.[41] Everything resembles a natural disaster, almost a summer storm, which started mildly, but then turned really bad. Nothing is said about the fact that peace offers were refused, truces violated, that war was knowingly and intentionally being continued and escalated, expanding the conquered territory and then ethnically cleansing it. The impression was given that no one was making decisions, which was a typical way in which wars were discussed in the Serbian public and media while they lasted. However, there might have been hope that after the fall of the regime which led these wars, the new authorities would distance themselves and be able to realize where the responsibility lies.

This fatalistic attitude towards history is particularly emphasized with the standpoint that the 1991 war is directly related to the Second World War – almost its new phase, so to speak. Such a standpoint could be explicitly found in Milosevic’s textbooks, where the idea about repetitious history or about its systematic, cyclic comeback was openly stated: “In 1991, it was like 1941 happened again”. The new regime in Serbia maintained the same understanding of history. Thus the 3rd grade textbook claims that: “The causes of civil war, in addition to current problems in resolving further functioning of Yugoslavia and implementing the planned national programs, lie with the events which transpired during World War II. The unfinished war continued exactly 50 years later. (bold in original)”[42] The 8th grade textbook offers the same idea in the shape of a question to the students: “Is there a connection between the events during Second World War and the events during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and how can it be recognized?”

It is clear to every serious historian and analyst that, apart from national conflicts, no historical similarities between the two events exist. In 1991 there was no Hitler, no Second World War, no conquered Europe, no external attack on Yugoslavia, nor fragmentation of the country by occupational forces, and the world, in the meantime, started moving in a whole new direction. However, the connection with the Second World War is crucial to the Serbian propaganda interpretation of the war of 1991. It is important to constantly revisit the genocide committed in NDH, keep reminding that 1991 was a consequence of that event, thus not only explaining, but also justifying the position of the Serbian side, as well as fully pardoning it. A victim of genocide cannot be the executioner. Such an interpretation was also included in textbooks.

JNA is, once again, introduced as a player. Still presented as the only force protecting Yugoslavia, it now also appears in its military role: “the only military force which attempted to protect the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia was JNA”.[43] With this, another one of Milosevic’s propaganda messages entered the textbooks – that JNA was protecting the common state from separatist forces which were ripping it apart. Without dealing with the reasons for the division of the common state, it was yet another standpoint interpreting the war in a manner which was clearly going to be accepted by the Serbian public, since the protection of Yugoslavia was understood as a totally legitimate goal. On the other hand, the destruction of Yugoslavia was automatically regarded as treason, which, in the emotional sense, linked the public to the politics of the Serbian leadership.

In further texts referring to JNA, it is said that JNA withdrew from territories caught in the war, thus providing full pardon for JNA: “following the international recognition of each of the republics belonging to the former common state, JNA was under the obligation to withdraw from its territory.”[44] Without noting that non-Serb soldiers left JNA and that, more or less spontaneously, it became the Serbian army, and, as such, remained present in warzones, the authors offer an extraordinary comical remark, ignoring the fact that this army totally changed its ethic structure, ideology and military goals: “With a stroke of historical irony, the former Partisan army started being called the Chetnik army in each of the republics”.[45] Such a claim, completely lacking an insight into reality and the true causes of a phenomenon, continues Milosevic’s propaganda and adopts his key explanation – that these events were a product of some kind of injustice, a total lack of understanding and malicious condemnation of the Serbian side.

Not much is said in textbooks about the war in Croatia. Neither Vukovar, nor Dubrovnik, nor Ovcara are mentioned, not even Republika Srpska Krajina and its leadership. Much more attention is dedicated to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is described as a war which had a religious dimension as well, unlike the war in Croatia, which was the product of pure and simple hatred: “In Croatia, hatred between Serbs and Croats was fierce, and the war in Bosnia took a religious dimension”.[46] Without explicit claims, the responsibility for the war in Bosnia is however placed on the Croatian side, with one seemingly skillful sentence: “Croatian tendencies for independence and their own state expanded beyond the borders of that country. The Serbian and the Croatian national community have tied them to their mainstreams, and this former bastion of Tito’s Yugoslavia found itself caught in a tragic rift.”[47]

Responsibility is shown as fully equal, thus making all the warring parties equal as well: “The consequences of these conflicts were catastrophic for all citizens, regardless of their national and religious affiliation. Massacres of civilians, Serbs, Croats and Muslim, left behind mass graves (Pakrac, Medacki dzep, Ovcara near Vukovar, Gospic, Kazani near Sarajevo, Kozarac, Foca, Sipovo, Bratunac, Srebrenica)”. Mixed and ordered in such a way as to show that the Serbian people have been the victim at more places than other nations. Furthermore, it is important to note that the crime in Srebrenica is included in the same line with all other crimes. This is part of the message of Serbian authorities after 2000, that all crimes are equal, which led the Serbian Parliament to pass two resolutions – one condemning the crime committed in Srebrenica, the other condemning crimes against the Serbian nation. This constant “balancing” can be noted later in the textbook: “Ethnic cleansing is recorded as the cruelest method of creating new national territories. Hundreds of thousands of families were forced to abandon their homes. Numerous religious buildings and houses of worship were also destroyed: Catholic and Orthodox churches, monasteries, parish homes, mosques and madrasahs.”[48] It is, of course, important that this has been stated, however, without more specific information about these crimes, this paragraph remains unclear. To begin with, it makes all crimes equal and does not criticize its own side, and there is also the possibility that such “neutral” language may lead to an understanding that the Serbs were the biggest victim. If we want to express this in a quantitative way – there are three types of Orthodox religious facilities mentioned, two Islamic and one Catholic – thus leading to the conclusion about the nation which suffered the most.

The selected photographs also lead towards the conclusion that Serbs were greater victims and paid a higher price: in the history textbook for the 3rd grade of high school we can see a photo with the caption saying that it is a demolished Orthodox church in Pakrac in 1991, and then the photo of the murder of a tank driver, with the caption: “Croatian nationalists on the streets of Split dragging a JNA soldier from a tank and murdering him, May 6, 1991”. All of this strengthens the image about the Serbian side as the victim. In 8th grade textbooks, alongside a picture of a tank in Split, there is also a photograph of a monument in Foca, but there is no clarification as to whom it was dedicated, since the caption is: “to fallen fighters 1992-1995”. There is also a photo of picturesque Srebrenica and the photo of a line of Serbian refugees from Croatia on a highway, thus, once again, acquiring “balance”.

When discussing the perpetrators of crimes, textbooks claim that they were members of paramilitary formations: “different newly formed armies and paramilitary formations were gradually joining the war. Fighting against JNA or helping it, they committed atrocious crimes. JNA itself, as the federal army, in search for the lost meaning of its existence and its state, most often during liberations of its own barracks and soldiers, contributed to the destruction of many cities and to the suffering of many civilians living in them.” Here we are faced with several problems: it is unclear how JNA returned into the focus of the story, since only a few sentences ago, it left the republics following international recognitions of new states. It was not mentioned that it returned to those republics, so this remains a riddle. Its presence and the search for the “lost meaning” becomes even less understandable if we imagine that, while liberating barracks, it destroyed cities!

This manner of writing about the wars in the nineties, although cleaned up and pacified in comparison to the language used in textbooks published during the nineties, proves in a disturbing way the thesis about the continuity between “the two Serbias” – the one before, and the one after 2000. The authors believed that it was their duty to hide data about the beginning and the course of wars in former Yugoslavia, but also to unequivocally adhere to the interpretation which led to the dissolution of the common state when explaining the course of events in SFRY. By establishing continuity from the Brioni Plenum to the secession of Slovenia and Croatia, the finger was clearly pointed at the guilty party, while our own side was pardoned from any responsibility. Serbs once again turned to be the victims, and the historic injustice once again remained the key explanation of events. This unequivocally points to the continuity of such a line of thought and to solidarity with those who led Serbia into those wars, since by hiding data, those who committed crimes are being protected. In this way, history textbooks once again proved that they are one of the most sensitive indicators of the current situation, that they include the sublimated message the authorities are sending to schoolchildren, as their interpretation of the world. It is expected that the children will carry such an interpretation into their future, thus defining their own habitus. This would mean that the abovementioned interpretation of the wars in the nineties will be transposed, through the educational system, as the future attitude towards them. And thus the title of this article: explosive device with a delayed effect.


The conclusion of this text is that the new history textbooks in Serbia kept the interpretations of the dissolution of Yugoslavia which were present in textbooks during the times of Milosevic. The beginning of the dissolution was placed in the late sixties of the twentieth century, when Aleksandar Rankovic, who is perceived as the protector of Serbian national interests, was removed from the position of the head of Yugoslav police. The federalization of the country is further perceived as the process of its gradual dissolution. The war in the nineties is presented as a consequence of the separatist activity of the Slovenian and Croatian leaderships. War crimes are recognized in textbooks, however, they are all represented as equal and all parties in the war as equally responsible for these crimes.

This paper was written for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in BiH project. It is published in the book Culture of remembrance 1991. Historical breakdowns and overcoming the past, edited by Tihomir Cipek, Disput, Zagreb, 2011. It is the fourth book in the edition which deals with memories of the crucial years of the 20th century in ex-Yugoslavia: 1918, 1941, 1945 and 1991. All four books were written by Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian historians, political scientists, philosophers and psychologists.

Translated by Bojana Obradovic

Pešč, 18.04.2011.


  1. Warfare, Patriotism, Patriarchy, (edited by Vesna Pesic, Ruzica Rosandic), Belgrade 1993.
  2. M. Milosevic, 8th Grade Geography Textbook, Belgrade 1993.
  3. B. Vlahovic, B. Mihajlovic, 3rd Grade Science Textbook, Belgrade 1992, page 24.
  4. B. Danilovic, D. Danilovic, 4th Grade Science Textbook, Belgrade 1992.
  5. Ibid, page 5.
  6. M. Milosevic, 8th Grade Geography Textbook, page 7.
  7. 4th Grade Science Textbook, page 5.
  8. M. Milosevic, 8th Grade Geography Textbook, page 8.
  9. Ibid, page 9.
  10. Ibid
  11. Ibid, page 10.
  12. N. Gacesa, Lj. Mladenovic-Maksimovic, D. Maksimovic, 8th Grade History Textbook, Belgrade 1993.
  13. Modern Serbian State (1804-2004), Chronology, Belgrade 2005, page 387.
  14. N. Gacesa, Lj. Mladenovic-Maksimovic, D. Maksimovic, 8th Grade History Textbook, page 156.
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Ibid,page 157.
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid, page 156.
  20. O. Milosavljevic, „Yugoslavia as a Mistake“, in: The Road to War in Serbia, edited by N. Popov, Belgrade 1996.
  21. N. Gacesa, 8th Grade History Textbook, page 156.
  22. Ibid
  23. M. Milosevic, 8th Grade Geography Textbook, page 11.
  24. B. Vlahovic and others, Science…, page 15.
  25. Ibid
  26. Ibid
  27. M. Milosević, 8th Grade Geography Textbook, page 7.
  28. N. Gacesa, 8th Grade History Textbook, page 157.
  29. Ibid, page 158.
  30. Ibid, page 157.
  31. L. Perovic, „Dimitrije Mita Cenic“, in: Selected Essays, page 189.
  32. S. Rajic, K. Nikolic, N. Jovanovic, 8th Grade History Textbook, Belgrade 2005.
  33. O. Milosavljevic, „Yugoslavia as a Mistake“, page 213.
  34. K. Nikolic, N. Zutic, M. Pavlovic, Z. Spadijer, History Textbook for 3rd Grade of High School, Belgrade 2002.
  35. K. Nikolic and others, 3rd Grade, page 239.
  36. S. Rajic and others, 8th Grade, page 188.
  37. S. Rajic and others, 8th Grade, page 189.
  38. K. Nikolic and others, 3rd Grade, page 237.
  39. S. Rajic and others, 8th Grade, page 189.
  40. S. Rajic, 8th Grade, page 189.
  41. Ibid
  42. K. Nikolic, 3rd Grade, page 242.
  43. S. Rajic, 8th Grade, page 190.
  44. S. Rajic and others, 8th Grade, page 190.
  45. S. Rajic and others, 8th Grade, page 190.
  46. S. Rajic and others, 8th Grade, page 191.
  47. K. Nikolic and others, 3rd Grade, page 242.
  48. S. Rajic, 8th Grade, page 191.

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Dubravka Stojanović, istoričarka, magistrirala 1992 („Srpska socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918“), doktorirala 2001 („Evropski demokratski uzori kod srpske političke i intelektualne elite 1903-1914“) na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu. Od 1988. do 1996. radi u Institutu za noviju istoriju Srbije, pa prelazi na Odeljenje za istoriju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, gde 2008. postaje vanredna, a 2016. redovna profesorka na katedri za Opštu savremenu istoriju. U saradnji sa Centrom za antiratne akcije 1993. radi na projektu analize udžbenika. Sa Milanom Ristovićem piše i uređuje školske dodatne nastavne materijale „Detinjstvo u prošlosti“, nastale u saradnji istoričara svih zemalja Balkana, koji su objavljeni na 11 jezika regiona. Kao potpredsednica Komiteta za edukaciju Centra za demokratiju i pomirenje u Jugoistočnoj Evropi iz Soluna, urednica je srpskog izdanja 6 istorijskih čitanki za srednje škole. Dobitnica je odlikovanja Nacionalnog reda za zasluge u rangu viteza Republike Francuske. Knjige: Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socijaldemokratija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (1994), Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o “zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije” (2003, 2019) – Nagrada grada Beograda za društvene i humanističke nauke za 2003; Srbija 1804-2004 (sa M. Jovanovićem i Lj. Dimićem, 2005), Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (2008), Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije (2010), Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek (2011), Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (2013), Rađanje globalnog sveta 1880-2015. Vanevropski svet u savremenom dobu (2015), Populism the Serbian Way (2017), Pola veka XX veka. Zbornik radova povodom 50 godina Biblioteke XX vek (ur, 2021), Prošlost dolazi. Promene u tumačenju prošlosti u srpskim udžbenicima istorije 1913-2021 (2023).

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