Serbia has many problems and it is difficult to live in it, especially if one is a historian. To be sure, the historians’ profession is made easier by the fact that the subject under study is well defined, in the sense that you deal with something that has happened, that is done. In Serbia, however, history is subject to change; the facts and not just the interpretation of history are subject to change. This makes our work very much more difficult, especially if one is an eager beaver like myself. I was supposed to attend with some female colleagues a conference in Berlin on redefining the Second World War. And since I am an eager beaver, I wrote my paper last week. Suddenly, however, my paper started to change – or rather external circumstances started to change it. I was truly astonished to see Boris Tadić on TV on 20 October laying wreaths on the graves of the liberators of Belgrade, and writing in the book of commemoration that Serbia had always and will always fight against fascism. I was even more astonished to see Andrija Mladenović, port-parole of the DSS, in a similar setting. I have nothing against it, of course, especially after what happened in Novi Sad [a neo-nazi demonstration in early October 2007], but as a historian I was shaken by something quite different.
Since 2000 I have been passionately following the various anniversary celebrations linked to the Second World War. On the first anniversary on 20 October 2001, the mayor [of Belgrade] was Milan Protić, who formally declared that in his view the event had not been a liberation but an occupation, and that it would henceforth not be commemorated. In the following year the mayor became Radmila Hrustanović, who always celebrated it [2002-4]. When Nenad Bogdanović replaced her as mayor, he stated on the first anniversary coinciding with his term in office that there were many and varied interpretations of the event. The wreaths would henceforth be laid by his deputy, Radmila Hrustanović. Thus from 5 October [2000, fall of Slobodan Milošević] until now this has appeared to be more or less her own private affair.
There was also the special scandal of the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Auschwitz, which was not attended by any Serbian representative. Some had caught cold, others had technical problems with the plane. And on the sixtieth anniversary of 9 May [Russia’s VE Day], the central parade in Moscow was attended even by Bush, despite the famous debates in the 1960s on who had won the Second World War, the Americans or the Russians; and it was in a way a homage to the Red Army and the Russian victims of the Second World War. Serbia sent a low-ranking representative, Boris Tadić visited the monument of the Unknown Soldier erected after the First World War, while Vojislav Koštunica did something even worse: he visited the monument to [Yugoslav] airmen downed during the bombardment of Belgrade on 6 April 1941. Vojislav Koštunica thus celebrated 1941 at a time when the whole world was celebrating 1945, and he celebrated a defeat instead of a victory celebrated by the whole world. He celebrated the defeat of the royal army, which resulted in its surrender (leaving aside the Chetniks, later named royal army in the homeland). A manipulation was thus effected to avoid celebrating something that the whole world did.
How then did it come about that on the sixty-third anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade the president of the republic, and also Andrija Mladenović as the high DSS official, would be laying wreaths? On the following day, Sunday 21 October, Politika published a special issue dedicated to anti-fascism, which contained various texts for and against anti-fascism, which is fine. It is interesting that the Politika issue should have appeared in 2007 with a large photograph over half of its front page in which we could see Partisans and Russians together with an ecstatic population and heaps of flowers. It was a picture that we had not seen during the past seven years, or even under Milošević, I think – it was certainly not much stressed. Why the sudden change? A more careful watching of the [TV] News, and a reading of Svetlana Vasović-Mekina’s text published on the front page of Politika, revealed what is was all about. Boris Tadić was accompanied by the Russian ambassador, and Svetlana Vasović-Mekina informed us in her text that it was rumoured in Belgrade how Putin had reproached Koštunica for the fact that the names of Soviet marshals and generals who had taken part in liberating Belgrade and Serbia had been removed from Belgrade streets. It is thus not difficult to conclude that our clever government, concerned with how to defend Kosovo, suddenly discovered that on the sixty-third anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade it would be sensible to make use of the Partisans, who would once again become liberators despite the fact that they were also occupiers, since they were a convenient link with the Russians who are meant to secure Kosovo for us. History is once again being misused, with serious implications, of course – which, when it comes to the subject of fascism, is particularly dangerous.
My paper, which I had incautiously and naively completed before history had changed once again, is an analysis of history textbooks for the eighth grade, i.e. for children aged 13-14 years. I have been analysing textbooks since 1993, when history was drastically changed for the first time. Every time this subject of studying the textbooks comes up, I say I shall stop doing it, since I am the only who does so and it may appear (which is what happened to Radmila Hrustanović) that this is just my personal problem, my own personal delusion, and that I am the only person to be disturbed by it. If others find nothing scandalous here, then it is indeed my personal problem, so I might as well apologise and withdraw. However, the conference demanded that I should once again read through the textbooks, and I found myself once again surprised and astonished, because the matter has advanced a few more steps.
The first change of textbooks after 5 October happened in the 2002-2003 school year. The textbook published then for the last class of middle school completely altered the course of the Second World War in our land. The Chetniks turned out to be the good guys and the Partisans the bad guys. Miloš Vasić and I criticised this in [Belgrade weekly] Vreme. Our main points referred to the fact that the textbook did not mention a single example of Chetnik collaboration, suggesting that it had never happened. Chetnik crimes against civilians in Serbia and non-Serb civilians in Bosnia and Croatia were also omitted. The same group of authors have now published a new textbook seemingly in response to our criticism. They now cite examples of collaboration and crimes, but only in order to tell us that it was all perfectly in order. This I find quite incomprehensible. In other words, in complete contrast to what we saw on the occasion of the commemoration of the liberation of Belgrade, in the current history textbooks the Partisans appear as a negligible movement. Josip Broz Tito’s picture appears on page eight of the lessons dealing with the Second World War on our soil, after pictures of (in order) Draža Mihajlović, Alojze Stepinac, Ante Pavelić, and so on. The new textbook thus now admits the collaboration, but only in order to justify it. [The quisling] Nedić was justified because, as had been written in the previous textbook, he was trying to save what was termed the biological substance of the Serb people. This time round the Chetnik collaboration too is excused, because it too aimed to save the people. I must quote this passage from the textbook, because no one will believe me. It says the following: ‘The Italian occupation was the best military solution for saving the bare existence of the Serbs, especially in the areas of Lika, northern Dalmatia and Herzegovina, and the Italian soldiers were the least of the evils that confronted them.’ It then moves on to Draža Mihajlović’s collaboration with the Italians, saying that ‘he consciously advocated collaboration with them as the only possible way to save the [Serb] people in the NDH, already bloodied and broken.’
It says next that the Partisans, unlike the Chetniks who met once or maybe twice with the occupiers, got together with them forty times, especially – this is printed in bold letters – in Zagreb and Sarajevo, which is a message in its own right. It says next that the Partisans went to negotiate with the Germans, with (I quote) proper Ustasha passes and in German company. The Partisans collaborated with the Germans not in order to save the people, which is what the Chetniks did, but in order to defeat the Chetniks. It also says that if the British had landed in the Balkans, the Partisans would have fought against them alongside the Germans, since the idea is that the British supported the Chetniks and would have brought them to power after the Second World War. This suggests, in other words, that Partisans fought alongside the Germans against the Chetniks, and that the Chetniks were an important military factor, although we know that their publicly proclaimed strategy was not to fight. The textbook’s authors responded also to our criticism that Chetnik crimes had not been included by adding the following sentence: ‘One of the methods which the Chetniks used was beatings, while on the other hand there was a popular fear of the Partisans, whose summary courts sentenced people to death without much ado and who conducted daily executions.’ Both textbooks say that: ‘The Partisans left behind masses of dead bodies.’
A second and third generation is learning from these textbooks, which describe the arrival of the Partisans in Serbia and their entry into Belgrade as an offensive against Serbia. This accords with what Milan St. Protić said, when he was mayor of Belgrade. The final sentence says: ‘During the Second World War the Serbian middle class was totally destroyed, the national movement broken up, and the intelligentsia suffered a collapse.’ We are left to conclude that Serbia found itself on the defeated side. The authors find this acceptable, because they find the Chetnik ideology acceptable. They accept that Serbia found itself on the side of the defeated, that it was occupied by the Partisans, and that although it consequently found itself somehow on the winning side, it had experienced a complete collapse. These textbooks were written in the anti-Communist surge of the year 2000, when it was necessary to bring down also anti-fascism.
We have now returned to anti-fascism, but not because of its values; not because it is a system of values that has defined the modern world; and not because it is a bastion of defence of individual rights against collective ideologies endangering freedom – but in order to flatter a great power.
Peščanik, Radio B92, 26.10.2007.
Translation from Bosnian Institute