Here in Serbia history keeps changing each day and I simply cannot write down all these changes. In the last few weeks history has been dealt by, influenced and written by: a judge from Nis, who rehabilitated Cvetkovic – who signed the Tripartite Pact with Hitler; state prosecutor Radovanovic, who formed this commission which is even officially called The Exhumation Commission and which will dig up mass graves of communist terror. And lastly, we had Mevedev in Belgrade. Everyone on all levels of government dealt with history, and all of them more or less with World War II. Judging by the media, it looks like World War II is a question of life and death in today’s Serbia, as if nothing here is more important than World War II.
Today we will talk about October 20th. What is certainly indisputable is that the partisan troops, namely the First Proletarian Division, alongside the Red Army, reached Belgrade, beat the Germans – using neutral terms – and that the Germans subsequently left Belgrade. These are facts. It was always my position that this was liberation and I always had a question ready for those who speak cynically of it or who smile knowingly: would it be any better if the Germans had stayed here? If this is not liberation, then what preceded it must have been better. And actually, when you think about it, many of them actually believe that to be true, because they are ideologically closer to that than to what happened on October 20th. So this is my interpretative position.
However, we need to see what was done with October 20th these last few years. On October 20th 2000, we had this Acting Mayor of Belgrade Milan St. Protic who said, just fifteen days after October 5th, that this was not a liberation but an occupation and that he as mayor will not commemorate this day. Radmila Hrustanovic who succeeded him commemorated the day by regularly visiting the appropriate monuments. Nenad Bogdanovic was appointed after her by the Democratic Party and he said something similar, although not quite as brutal as St. Protic, that this was a controversial date and that he personally will not commemorate it. Radmila Hrustanovic continued commemorating the day as a sort of personal holiday.
Soon after that October 20th was no longer a city holiday of Belgrade and the main holiday was shifted to April, along with the main city award in all fields. This is no longer the October Award but the April Award. Then these history textbooks appeared, which mostly dealt with the revision of World War II and in which this lesson – the liberation of Belgrade by partisan troops and the Red Army – is called the Serbian Offensive, where it says, I quote, “In World War II, the Serbian urban population was destroyed, the national movement was crushed, and the elite was annihilated.” That is the final sentence. It is in bold type and it clearly suggests that Serbia was actually defeated in World War II. This is what the eighth-grade history textbook says.
In 2005 Kostunica’s administration adopted the low which equates the Chetnik and the partisan movements and then all these started a widespread rehabilitation of Chetnik soldiers in small towns and villages. Secretary of state Homen repeated this position several times on the latest Utisak nedelje, when he irritably said “We agreed that there were two equal anti-fascists movements and they all committed crimes.” He repeated these two mantras tree times. In 2005 we also had the famous celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and as you recall, Serbia and Montenegro did not send a delegation to Auschwitz where the entire world gathered to commemorate the liberation of the concentration camp. A low-profile delegation was sent to the main celebration in Moscow, which also sent a message that we do not want to participate in this, and that we were not on the winning side. Then something very interesting happened, and that was October 20th, 2007 when the famous edition of Politika came out, with the picture of the partisan liberators and the Red Army marching into Belgrade on half of the front page. This was really shocking, because it was not in accordance with the Law or with the statements made by the mayor who did not commemorate it, and it was against the holiday which was no longer celebrated. The question was – is Politika going insane – but of course this was not the case. The editor at the time was Ljiljana Smajlovic. The thing was that we were waiting for the Russian vote on Kosovo and that was an act of giving credit to the Russians – with other stuff like NIS – so we could get the long awaited veto, which has yet to happen.
And then this administration launched this almost hysterical search for Draza Mihailovic’s remains. This started last spring. A colleague of mine jokingly said that every newspaper has a weather forecast, a TV schedule and the latest news about Draza Mihailovic’s remains. Then in the summer they launched another campaign of searching for the mass graves of communist crimes committed after October 20th, 1944. They came up with 80,000 to 200,000 victims. Again we are seeing some strange Xeroxed papers being waived at the camera. And then the listings: Vlasotince – 700 dead, and so on. And so all this reminds us of the pits being dug up in Croatia in the late eighties.
Suddenly in the midst of all the euphoria, the billboards started appearing: 65 years of freedom, the slogan “Belgrade remembers”, a romantic video on the subject, and finally a fitting performance. It was fascinating to watch the performance at Sava Centar. It lasted for an hour and it was dedicated to the celebration of the 65 anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade. But let’s take a look at what was celebrated in this performance. Some soldiers make an appearance in just one scene, and they might remind you of partisans – they wear the same hats but without the red stars. In the background there is a song “Through Forests and Mountains,” which we all sang in choirs as a key association of World War II. You couldn’t tell the ideological affiliation of anything else. And I think it was done intentionally. The only explanation is that there were instructions issued to produce it in a way so you can’t tell what happened or who entered the city, and at the same time to keep the Russians happy.
The highlight of the event was at the very beginning. President Tadic walks out onto the stage to deliver a speech and what happens next? The March on the Drina starts playing. And who is behind him? A World War I soldier from the Salonika front. Neither he nor the music had anything to do with Belgrade and 1945. On this sphere that was on the stage you could see the new Russian and Serbian flags, with eagles and crowns. I mean, we must remember that these were not the banners under which the soldiers entered Belgrade. The Red Army marched in under their red flag with the hammer and sickle and the partisans came in with their Yugoslavian flag. On the symbolical level it is a flagrant intentional transgression. And the whole time they were talking about the friendship between Russians and Serbs, forgetting that it was the Yugoslav army that entered Belgrade. The First Proletarian Division was made up of different Yugoslavian nations, as was the Soviet army. Obviously it was important to nationalize what happened and turn those soldiers who came into Belgrade in 1945 into Serbs and Russians, forget the flags they were waving and place the current flags into their hands.
The only realistic things in the clips they showed had to do with the Red Army. We saw Stalingrad, Belgrade, Berlin, Moscow… so the Red Army was present in Belgrade on October 20th, 1945, so this is ok. But who was there from our side, along with the Red Army? If we’re being cynical we can only conclude it was the little ballerinas who performed “Swan Lake”. They were our only real representatives, because what did we have there? We had this video which was broadcast for days and which depicts some guy who we presume is a partisan, but he’s only shown from the back. He’s got the hat and the grayish uniform – so he’s probably a partisan. What does he do? He wins the girl in a very urban, flower patterned dress. She is not a partisan and they kiss. It is a nice love scene. This may be the brighter side of the liberation. But that was above all a bloody liberation, because 20,000 people died on both sides. These were difficult battles and that was not a romantic story. In this video we hear the song “Dark is the Night”. It is a beautiful Russian song, but it has nothing to do with World War II and I don’t think it was chosen by accident.
Therefore, the liberation of Belgrade is credited to the Russians, but not to the Yugoslav army. The announcer on TV said: On this date the Red Army and our liberation army entered Belgrade. So now we are calling it our liberation army, which is again a form of nationalization. They do not mention the name of the army; it is not the People’s Liberation Army. This performance revealed it all. It revealed the so called swindler’s idea of politics. Like we were going to fool the Russians with this performance. It is as we were winking at them knowingly, saying – OK, we might name this boulevard after this Zhdanov of yours. We should mention that neither Zhdanov nor Biriuzov could be seen. They didn’t show photographs of those people. And why didn’t they show them? So they wouldn’t have to show Peko Dapcevic or Josip Broz Tito. This is why we had the anonymous partisans and girls in flower dresses, so they wouldn’t have to show specific individuals. If I were Russian I’d be upset that there was no Zhdanov or Biriuzov, especially since they both died in a plane crash in 1964, precisely on October 20th on mount Avala.
They did not give up on the historical revision, regardless of president Tadic saying we were against any kind of revision, that we do not want a society with violence and crime. This revision is thoroughgoing, it is continuing, and what we saw was made only for this day, for NIS, for the billion dollar loan, for Kosovo – we’ll make whatever performance you like. And this is the message sent to our citizens. We shouldn’t wonder why we have those extremist organizations or why those people killed Brice Taton if we are sending this message to the people – now we fooled the Russians.
It was clear that since 2000 this revision is being conducted because of the so called search for an ideal ancestor. We were supposed to do wipe out the communists and Yugoslavia. We were supposed to find an ancestor who fought both those things and then it was clear that World War II is an ideal period, because Serbia had given a lot of such ideal ancestors then, and Draza Mihailovic was clearly the most convenient of those. If you took away his collaboration with the Germans and his war crimes, you could make him into an antifascist.
However, it is not enough to simply absolve the grandfathers of those currently in power, to rehabilitate them, the search for an ideal ancestor alone is not enough. This is an even greater danger to this society. This is what Olivera Milosavljevic has brilliantly named the normalization of fascism. This is what the secretary of state Homen repeated over and over again, very nervously: we agreed that we had two equal antifascist movements and that they both committed crimes. This is the normalization of fascism which is constantly being served to our public. This is the idea that communism and fascism are the same and that their crimes are the same. This is why the Exhumation Commission is formed and why communist crimes are constantly being discussed, so that the fascist crimes could be placed in a totalitarian context. This is why it is extremely important to keep repeating that fascism and communism are not the same. The communist ideology is not primarily based on crime. It has a lot of things which led to horrible consequences. But crime is not its basic idea, unlike fascism. The basic idea of fascism, or national-socialism, is racism and it is the idea that this Other, who might be Jewish, Romani, Slavic or whatever is convenient at the time, should disappear. So this is simply a fundamental idea on an ideological level, on a criminal level. Naturally, we should not justify what happened here after 1944. And there is no justification for executions without trial and without proof and for mass graves. No one can justify that.
However, that was a revolutionary situation. This was a country getting out of civil war, which continued after World War II ended on all fronts. So this is a continuation of this civil war and a fight with a political opponent and it includes mass crimes. It is an integral part of every revolution. Terror is an invention of the French Revolution. In the French Revolution it was natural to kill everyone who is against you and it happened in all subsequent 19th and 20th century revolutions. So killing the enemy is, unfortunately, a part of these terrible things such as revolutions and civil wars or any other kinds of wars.
After World War II in all the European countries people were being hanged on lampposts, also without trial, for example in France. The way they dealt with their collaborationists was equally horrifying. So this was not strictly limited to new communist revolutionary governments. This was a way of dealing with collaborationists in all the post-war European countries, while fascist crimes are rooted in the very foundation of this ideology, which is racism and which in political practice requires killing of this other one who is marked as an enemy. And this other one is an enemy by belonging to another race, another religion, by having another name, another dialect. This is the central problem.
The Chetnik organizations during World War II largely applied this ideology. We don’t have to say that the Chetniks were fascists if we don’t want to. But what is important is the ideology and what happened on the ground. And what happened on Croatian territory, and what was done to Croats and Muslims on Bosnian territory, especially in eastern Bosnia, was ethnic cleansing. This was a program of the so called homogenous Serbia, which needed to be cleaned, as they said, of other people. So this is the idea that the Other is to disappear. It is the same idea we had in the wars from the 90s. And I think this is the fundamental thing. The revision of World War II is happening because of the aforementioned grandfathers, and because f the ideal ancestor and because of the need to create another tradition. So we could say that in the 90s, just like in World War II, everyone was involved in crimes, everyone is partially to blame. This is in fact a defense of the Great Serbia program. And this mask with October 20th, this message to the Russians is in fact a cover-up so the essence of the 90s wouldn’t be revealed.
This is why I think that the excavations and the frantic search for Draza Mihailovic’s grave all over Belgrade is one way to prevent raising the question of what happened with the mass graves from the 90s. The ones near Belgrade for example. No one is mentioning them anymore, there is no commission for their excavation, there is no search on the prosecutorial level, this was all stopped back in 2001 with the reefer trucks and lakes and mass graves. So no more of that, now we are digging up this and this is a way to bury the wars from the 90s forever, to avoid facing them and to focus on something that is actually totally irrelevant.
As for the Russian policy, Milorad Ekmecic came up with a good definition in his book Serbian War Goals of 1914. He said that every superpower has to have a region which it uses to demonstrate its power. It does not have anything to do with this region, it has to do with other superpowers, because the superpower just uses it to flex its muscles. The more controversial the region, the bigger the muscles. And the Balkans are traditionally this kind of region for Russia. As far as we are concerned, the misunderstanding is complete, and it is a result of our ignorance of the foreign policy of superpowers, of diplomacy and above all, of Russia. If you were to ask ordinary people what they knew about Russia, I think it would end in a great love scene, like the famous scene from The Spawning of Carp, where those guys in 1948 have a difficult political conversation and discuss what they should do, whether to side with Tito or with Stalin. And then someone starts singing a Russian romance and they all join in and start crying. And finally they all end up on Goli otok. I think it paints a very good picture or our perception of Russia. There is some endless emotion there which shows up on a completely trivial level such as Russian romances, which are of course beautiful, but our understanding does not go any deeper than that.
This is basically what the relations are all about, while we are trying to practice this cunning politics. I don’t know what they are doing now and with what idea in mind. Are they trying to raise their profile in the European Union by making important deals with Russia? Are they trying to copy Tito? The Cold War ended long ago. You cannot flip-flop between two superpowers. Do we want to join the EU or not? This is the question. This idea of nonalignment is simply not possible, and they don’t seem to understand that. Therefore, I think that by not understanding our place in the world – and this is always my theme in Pescanik – by overestimating our own importance, and misinterpreting the Russian strategic interests in the Balkans we are heading into something uncertain and relativizing the questions of fascism and anti-fascism. We are additionally confusing the already confused society.
Latinka Perovic wrote several books about the Russian-Serbian revolutionary ties. She says that we are a sort of Russian ideological colony. We accept these Russian concepts, these Eurasian concepts, which are anti-European, anti-individualist, anti-intellectual, anti-urban, which talk about the society of the equal and the collectively poor and so on. But when the Russian writers who wrote these books come to Serbia they are astonished by how literally we took it all, how we misunderstood it. They are ignored in Russia and their books and ideas are being dismissed, and then they come here where everyone knows them by heart and where everyone is ready to apply them tomorrow. Whatever it may be. Socialism – tomorrow. Anarchy – tomorrow. Any of the great 19th century Russian concepts. Therefore, we are a kind of Russian spiritual colony, which studied too hard, took it too far. Russia always had a very serious foreign policy, with Europe and with the United States, and it doesn’t get mixed up in conflicts too often. But we do not understand this and take it too far and then we find ourselves stunned, and again we say – the world doesn’t like us. So we are a spiritual colony who accepts uncritically everything that comes from Russia and runs with it till we are faced with serious consequences. And why do we keep choosing Russia and why have we, for so many times in our history – whenever we were in a situation to join Europe, to go in that direction – chosen the alternative? This is what Svetozar Markovic called – Serbia in the East. This is Serbia in the East; this is the choice that we unfortunately made regarding the West.
Pescanik, Radio B92, 23.10.2009.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic