In 1945 Žanka Stokić was condemned to lose her civic rights for a period of eight years, because as a member of the Belgrade National Theatre she had played in two theatres established under the German occupation, and also on the Belgrade Radio programme ‘Afternoon Choice’, thus collaborating with the occupiers and domestic traitors. She defended herself at the time by claiming that she had volunteered to work in those theatres because she needed money for her health, and that she had joined Radio Belgrade only under pressure. A recent verdict by the Belgrade district court stated among other things: ‘Following the arrival of the forces of occupation, the actor continued with her customary work – acting. She was not politically engaged, nor for reasons of health in a position to refuse offers of work. Her actions in no way contributed to the creation of a new atmosphere in cultural or broader circles.’
This is not a story about whether it was right after World War II to try actors who had collaborated, like Žanka Stokić in Yugoslavia, or like the famous Emile Jannings in Germany. Žanka Stokić defended herself by insisting that she had not engaged in politics, Jannings by saying that the earnings were so high that no one would have refused them.
Nor is this a story about whether it was right to execute journalists who had collaborated, as democratic France did after the War. Nor about whether it was necessary to drop atomic bombs on cities in order to end the most bloody war in history – as was done by another democratic state. This story deals only with the currently cherished notions of humanity and morality which, within an all-pervading indifference, first equalised collaboration with fascism with resistance to it, then – swimming in anti-communist hysteria and false humanity – switched them round. Collaboration in the Second World War has become practically a recommendation, anti-fascism practically a criminal offence. In this selective picture, the whole context of the War has somehow become lost; the nature of fascist ideology has disappeared; and the suffering of tens of millions of people, including the extermination of whole nations, has been forgotten. Nothing is now said about whether the struggle against that evil was a matter of elementary morality; about how anti-fascists were the first to be killed in the camps; or about the fact that in much of Europe the majority of those anti-fascists were on the left (horrors!). The accent is placed instead on 9 May 1945, when ‘it all began’ – apparently what came before was a normal state of affairs. People collaborated with the occupiers for ‘human’ reasons, they merely ‘carried on with their lives’, being in the main uninterested in politics.
This is by no means a novel approach. It is precisely the picture that Milan Nedić [Serbia’s quisling leader] tried to achieve, by creating an impression of the normality of everyday life, and with it the ‘normality’ of the occupation. A jolly life was celebrated, together with an insistence that only cowards nurtured prejudices in their effort to hide ‘their inability to live today’. The theatres in particular were entrusted with the role of stressing joy in the ‘normal’, ‘post-war’ Hitler order. Special daily shows were organised for the German army; Belgrade opera singers performed in Germany; German theatrical groups performed as guests of the National Theatre, and the whole theatre would travel around entertaining wounded German soldiers.
What did the ‘normal situation’ actually look like before 9 May 1945? Having strung up the anti-fascists on lamp posts; having rounded up the city’s Jews, children included, for transportation to camps where they would be either shot or suffocated in mobile gas chambers; having transported thousands of people to Germany as forced labour, or to local mines to dig ore for the Fuhrer; having executed all the illegal youth activists they managed to find – the occupiers and their domestic collaborators needed a break. Their entertainment after a hard day’s work was supplied by actors.
Žanka Stokić was just one of these, maybe the most active but by no means the only one. She was a frequent guest of Radio Belgrade and a great star of the lively Belgrade scene, in a parallel reality composed simultaneously of summary courts and the Pastime Theatre, concentration camps and ‘Merry Afternoon’, mass executions of civilians and performances of Mrs Živka.
They called Radio Belgrade the ‘European soldier’s radio’, because it represented ‘the strongest link between the front and the fatherland’ – meaning, of course, the German front and German fatherland. It contributed a good deal to the popularity of the song Lili Marlene on the German fronts, the gramophone disc of which was kept at the radio station as the ‘most precious thing’. Radio Belgrade at first served German soldiers in on the south-east front, but its programmes later expanded to include ‘Serbian broadcasts’ too. Between 14.00 and 16.00 hours it would as a rule broadcast reports from the German High Command, and news for the German army. This would immediately be followed, between 16.00 and 18.00 hours, by ‘Merry Serbian Afternoon’ or ‘Afternoon Choice’, the main star of which was Žanka Stokić. Alongside dozens of other actors and singers, of course.
The National Theatre held a special place in the construction of a New Serbia within Hitler’s New Europe. Its director, Jovan Popović, gave daily thanks to the ‘Great German Reich’ for its generosity, promising as late as 1944 that the theatre would continue its work until ‘the arrival of the day in which all of us new Europeans fanatically believed: the dawn of the new European family, united and ideologically linked to the great National-Socialist Germany’. He addressed the German wounded as ‘the brave soldiers of the Great German Reich, who under the leadership of Adolf Hitler are with unprecedented sacrifice forging the New Europe’. As a true Nedić commissar, Popović took the theatre to visit ‘anti-Mason exhibitions’; organised regular ‘information meetings’ for employees, at which he would inform them, together with the German representatives, of the theatre’s duty in the ‘creation of a New Europe’; and started a new tradition by organising in January 1942, ‘for the first time in its history’, the celebration of its ‘baptismal slava’ at which the most important guest was the German commander of the city.
This took place only three months after the execution of school children in Kragujevac [a notorious Nazi massacre, 19-21 October 1941]. Many comedy theatres were established during the War, in order to contribute to optimism during the forging of the ‘New Serbia’. Aware of the importance of humour for increasing labour productivity, Nedić’s government also sent these wartime merry fellows to the Bor mine to raise the optimism of the citizens forced to work there for the German war effort. There was a showing of ‘The Merry Afternoon’ at the Kolarac Endowment [in Belgrade] that was broadcast on the radio. In addition to the extremely popular theatre ‘The Humour Centre’, which was advertised as a ‘purely war theatre’, Belgrade also had the theatres ‘Men of Humour’, ‘Aca’s Theatre of Fun’, ‘Amusement’, and ‘The Merry Fellows’. Their greatest star was Žanka Stakić. Alongside dozens of other actors, of course. In June 1942 the press was able to report that ‘a comedy revue has been playing every evening and with great success over the past three weeks in the capital city’s jolly theatre ‘The Humour Centre’. Žanka Stokić was its main star. Together with dozens of other actors, of course.
It was only a month after the extermination of the Belgrade Jews had been completed.
Some people would say that it was wartime, and that actors too had to live. That is true. But there was also the time before the war.
It is the year 1936. The war in Abyssinia is filling the pages of the international and domestic press. The attack of fascist Italy on Ethiopia is condemned by the civilised world. French intellectuals are strongly divided between pro- and anti-fascists. The French pro-fascists defend Italy’s right to Abyssinia as ‘our civilised Latin sister’s right over the barbarian tribes’. The anti-fascists defend the Abyssinian people’s right to freedom. Only fascist Italy makes fun of the Abyssinians in its propaganda films.
It is 1 January 1936. Belgrade awaits the new year in the cafes. Their main star is Žanka Stokić, who moves from one café to another entertaining the guests. Her show is called Abyssinia. She is dressed in the appropriate mode. Her legs are covered in gaiters and army trousers, a Turkish sabre and an old-fashioned pistol are tucked into her waist, she wears a topee on her head, and her legs are adorned with a flask and a thermos. She is barefoot. She is playing an Abyssinian volunteer. Žanka speaks the text: ‘Au-Au! Upala Ua! Adua! Amhara! Takara! … I have joined the Abyssinia volunteers , and have come, dressed as you can see, to greet you and to say goodbye to you before my departure ! Halt – halt – halt! Don’t cry. I will return to you alive and, God willing, whole, unless the Blacks over there manage to roast me and eat me like a tenderloin or make me into kebabs. … I am going to Abyssinia to cut throats, to cut throats, of course! Golly! I crave blood …’. The public is convulsed with laughter.
That in 1936 the subject of satire is not Italian fascists but Abyssinian ‘barbarians’, and that they are portrayed by Žanka Stokić – who does not engage in politics – is not necessarily significant. Nor it is necessarily significant either that in 1942-3 comedy spots starring Žanka are regularly emitted between German High Command broadcasts and the appearance of a ‘young Belgrade guard’ who serves in the army on the German front, and through it sends presents to Hitler on his birthday. Nor does it necessarily matter that while bodies sway from lamp posts, cries are heard emanating from the nearby camps, and pits are filled with innocent dead, that actors should entertain their executioners. But it is of some significance that a ‘text’ from the past should today be read outside its context, and that a morbid time should be experienced as a normal situation in which actors ‘only’ act, prime ministers ‘only’ preside, soldiers ‘only’ fight, and gendarmes ‘only’ keep order. It is only when such an inhuman and immoral inversion of ‘memory’ is made that something is ‘perceived’ to have happened only on 9 May 1945, when the question of the responsibility of ‘decent citizens’ who had only looked after their own affairs came to be posed.
What is perplexing, though, is why Žanka Stokić in particular should be chosen for rehabilitation. Many postwar Belgrade stage stars, renowned artists in Communist Yugoslavia, had behaved like her. Having kept silent for decades, they remain silent also about the reasons for this particular choice.
Translated by Bosnian Institute