Svetlana Lukić: […] the other conference I have mentioned was held at the Centre for Democracy, under the auspices of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, on the subject ‘Anti-fascism in Serbia’. Here is [part of] the debate between Slobodan Vučković of the Democratic Party and the historian Olivera Milosavljević.
Slobodan Vučković: Do let me say, please, that the national liberation struggle [in World War II] was undoubtedly the strongest and best organized movement against the occupation. Nor is there any doubt that it was headed by the Communist Party. But the Party greatly exaggerated its role, making it appear as if only the Communists were anti-fascist. This was a cover for the Communist Party’s eternal rule: ‘because we freed ourselves, we possess the legitimacy to rule forever.’ The Party and its leaders thus maintained an anti-fascist exclusivism, suppressing the fact – or at least it was not being clearly and publicly talked about – that the majority of those involved in the national liberation struggle were not Communists, nor had any tie to the Communist Party. There was talk for a while about a Popular Front, etc., but then increasingly solely about the Communists as fighters for freedom and against fascism. Given this kind of attitude to one’s own side, is it surprising that the resistance conducted by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s army in the Second World War was completely negated?
One cannot deny that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia resisted the fascist occupiers and waged a struggle against them, which it is true was of brief duration, but then far better organised, wealthier and better equipped armies gave into the fascist hordes. The result was that hundreds of thousands spent four years as prisoners of war. Did not these people, these antifascists, deserve some recognition? Or did they deserve that nothing should be said about them, that they should be confined to history? The fact is that there is a growing tendency to suppress or sidestep the revolutionary nature of the Communist Party. This was stressed as long as it seemed that the regime would last forever, had a huge and lasting historical perspective. But its revolutionary nature prevented a joint struggle of the Royal Army in the Homeland [commanded by Draža Mihailović] and the Partisans, and led to an internecine war, because it was most unlikely that the previous royal regime’s legitimate forces would accept a revolution. A conflict was inevitable. It is well known that the Yugoslav [royal] army was the first to engage in battle, but then withdrew to the forests and mountains; that it avoided conflict with the occupiers. It was not well organised and conducted a policy of passivity and waiting, upon the advice of the government [in exile] in London. The most serious criticism voiced by Communist historiography against the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland was that this amounted to collaboration with the occupiers. But I must immediately add that Allied military missions, American, British and Soviet, were present throughout at the headquarters of the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland. They do not report that there was collaboration; and the question of anti-fascism is essentially a question of freedom. The question is whether this anti-fascism [as represented by the Communists], which was so exclusive and also linked to revolution, really did bring freedom or rather full freedom. That is the basic question.
Olivera Milosavljević: Mr Vučković’s exposition is the classical revisionist history. You have produced all the arguments which our school children learn from textbooks published after 2000. I need not stress that practically nothing you have said is correct. Let’s start from the beginning. You say that the National Front was barely mentioned., and that it was asserted that all participants in the national liberation struggle (NOB) were Communists. But the Popular Front, as you know, became the Socialist Alliance of the Working Peoples of Yugoslavia, which existed until the country’s break-up. The official Party statistic, which I learnt as a child in school, was that in 1945 there were 140,000 Communists, while 800,000 people had taken part in the NOB [national liberation struggle]. Who then are those others? Next. You speak of a deluge of falsifications, but I would be grateful if you could quote at least three. You say that Communism was more popular in the agriculturally poor areas, but if so why did the entire democratic, conservative and pro-fascist press write throughout the interwar period about the need to educate our youth, given its pro-Marxist orientation? Who were the young people who regularly clashed with Ljotić’s supporters outside the [Belgrade university] faculty of law? Who were those leftists? You talk about the Royal Army in the Homeland, which you treat as legitimate, although we know it had capitulated. You said first hat it engaged in fighting, then that it avoided conflict, and later still that it was passive, then it turned out these were the instructions it had accepted in order to avoid conflict… But wait, Bailey and Hudson and others who were at its headquarters and wrote about it, what sort of non-confrontation? It is perfectly clear who in 1943 fought at the battle of the Neretva – not even contemporary pro-Chetnik historians deny the facts.
I decided to intervene really when I heard your last sentence. If you pose the question of whether it was a liberation – which indeed is the argument of the revisionist historiography – then does it mean that you think it was better under the occupation? I don’t know what would be the third option. I also wish to add something about the concept of anti-fascism, what it actually meant to be anti-fascist in those days. If you read the press, journals and books of the day, written in the 1930s, you will see that no one was ready to claim they were fascist. Why? It is because the term fascism, the word itself, had a pejorative connotation in the world at that time. But that does not mean that those who didn’t wish to declare themselves fascist, or even those who explicitly called themselves anti-fascist, did not have an ideology that contained fascistic elements. Thus Ljotić himself – I see that he finds support in parliament these days – when pressed by his supporters to declare himself a fascist, replied in one of his articles that he couldn’t do so, because even Hitler would have been angry if someone had called him a fascist, because fascism was the specifically Italian form of the new nationalism. Hitler’s national-socialism was the specific form of the new nationalism; to be an adherent of [Ljotić’s organisation] Zbor was the specific form of the new Serb nationalism – Yugoslav he would say before the war, but it became Serb during it. Declarative anti-fascism thus need not refer to true anti-fascism, the true struggle against fascism, as became clear during the Second World War. Before the war, especially in the leftist organisations – not only Communist ones, but those on the left – you had a militant anti-fascism, and also an anti-fascism which was based on a nominal negation of fascism, but which believed that Communism was the greater danger, and that one should therefore concentrate on the struggle against Communism in particular. You had anti-fascists who were against fascism only in regard to its foreign policy, because it was a threat to Yugoslavia, but who enthusiastically endorsed all aspects of fascism in domestic policy and even recommended they be applied to Yugoslavia. To say, therefore, that someone was critical or that they called themselves anti-fascist means nothing until the moment of the true battle begins, when words are turned into action.
Slobodan Vučković: Can we today, when we no longer have either the king or Tito, say that the royal army that led the war of 1 April was anti-fascist, or that our prisoners of war, who filled Serbia, were anti-fascist? After all, the Germans themselves believed them to be anti-fascist. It will be difficult to continue to deny this in historiography. Could we not reach an agreement? It is clear, in my view, that Nedić, or Ljotić and his movement, were purely fascist. But everything else was various forms of anti-fascism, some more successful, some less so. They were all defeated. The royal army abroad and the [royal] Yugoslav army in the country lost the war, and the Partisans after all gained only a temporary victory before being defeated. We have, therefore, all suffered a great defeat as a nation, and it should be possible to reach what some call national reconciliation, or at least a level of tolerance.
Olivera Milosavljević: Well, the two of us can agree to whatever we want, but it is not a matter of our agreement but of what historiography says. To begin with, what you have arranged as a single side confronting another is incorrect. As a student of the past I couldn’t equate, for example, the 1 April war with Draža Mihailović’s subsequent movement. I think those were two different phases and two different things, which simply cannot be equated. The first is the legitimate army that goes to war, is defeated, and is anti-fascist for the simple reason that it was attacked. This is perfectly true. There were prisoners of war, for the simple reason that they were incarcerated in German camps. But when it comes to Draža Mihailović’s movement, there is no way I can agree that it is part of the same side, because of the war crimes. This is something that cannot be denied. Do we have committees dealing with all World War II and post-War victims? Are all those people equally important in the eyes of this society? Also, Mr Vučković, you should not forget that when the revisionist history got going at the end of the 1980s, it began with a total denial of the Partisan anti-fascist movement and with glorification of the Chetnik one. It was only when this proved unacceptable, when it turned out that it could not be done – O.K, the Communists were also an anti-fascist movement. What I mean is that when it comes to history we cannot haggle like in a market – a bit this way, a bit another. I myself am interested in what actually happened.
From the radioshow Peščanik, 5 June 2009.
Translated by Bosnian Institute