At a meeting in Sarajevo, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, I spoke about revisionism of history, which was initially supposed to refer to the negation of the genocidal proportion of that event. In turned out that, in a methodological sense, the concept of revisionism can’t be applied to unwritten history, so I focused on the history of World War II. The reason for this is the quantity of facts which European and global historiography has already elaborated, so that they serve as an axiom, in an array of verified historic results. In other words, it’s undisputable, however hard the revisionist historians may try.
World War II is a good example to illustrate the efforts of revisionists ideologically motivated by hate towards antifascism, while, on the other hand, our recent history is a good example of “blindspots”. This is why it’s important to emphasize the difference between the revision of history and lack of history.
In general, history exists through a written document, and historiography through a written work on a specific historic event. If such a work is missing, future generations are deprived of knowledge about it, i.e. only the contemporaries of that history, which the future can’t learn about, have that knowledge. In their research, historians select events based on their importance so that the most important events are the most important subject of historiography. When it comes to the Yugoslavian war, we enter a paradox worthy of an analysis. On the scale of events from the second part of the 20th century, the breakdown of the Yugoslavian state 73 years after its establishment is certainly unique in our history. Not only because it’s the state in which we, our parents, and our children were born, but also because that project was the ideal our ancestors, South-Slavic intellectuals and South-Slavic citizens, had been fighting for for almost two centuries.
The bloody epilogue of such an important historic project demanded special attention of historians and historiography, but it didn’t receive it. There are neither successful nor unsuccessful books about it. Yugoslavian war evades problematization in such a way that it simply consumed historians and historiography. This is not only the problem of Serbian historians and historiography. Since our past is “common”, this is also the problem of other Yugoslavian republics, now sovereign states, i.e. their historians and historiography. We are all educated and trained to deal with such events in a scientific and interpretative manner, but we simply aren’t doing it. It’s obvious that the problem is not our expert skills, but some kind of compulsive disorder which accompanies that sort of attempt.
That kind of neurotic perturbation is characteristic of creativity. For example, with painters, it’s a fear of an unpainted white canvas, with writers the fear of an empty, unwritten white paper. Here we have to ask: what is the reason for our paralysis, what kind of disorder is it? We can’t blame it on the necessary historic distance, because, as Agnes Heller said, historians come forward when there are no more killings and suffering. It’s been 20 years since Srebrenica, 25 since the collapse of Yugoslavia. We are far enough from those horrible times.
The image of our infirmity is almost the same as the infirmity of iconographer Andrei Rublev in Tarkovsky’s eponymous movie, who can’t manage to paint the scenes of the Apocalypse on empty, white monastery walls, simply because Rublev himself is experiencing apocalyptic levels of crime and devastation left behind by the Tatars in Kievan Rus’. This kind of event forces a man to face the nothingness of existence, a painter to face the senselessness of art, and a historian, perhaps, the senselessness of history. But what causes this consuming nihilism? The answer is simple – empathy. You can’t be a great painter without feeling the world you imagine on a canvas, you can’t be a good historian without empathy towards the people and society you are supposed to describe in historical terms. Not because historians suffer from an excess of philanthropy, but because without empathy for people from the time that has passed, we can’t understand them.
There is another element of the unwritten history, and that is the idea of the Enemy. In our case, although seemingly obvious, our enemy has no face or has multiple faces, because our evil if bureaucratic technicized, ideological. Battles weren’t only fought on battlefields, forests, and in the wild, but on the streets, in homes, with former friends, with new value systems which were established by nihilistic mechanisms of living, which turned life into mere survival. The idea of the future was gone, and time was stopped in the past. Coming back to my personal experience, at the dawn of that “black hole”, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the creation of the Yugoslavian state and the role of Serbian intellectuals in that process in the period from 1918 to 1929. I finished it in 1996, in a bizarre environment of total decay, witnessing, as a historian, the catastrophic ending of their historic efforts and the overthrow of all of their ideals. That powerful feeling of senselessness made my seven-year-long research efforts senseless as well.
In the dusty and bloody mud of the 1990s, Yugoslavian historiography wallowed with the warmongering group of historians who gave historic justification to death and destruction. What’s more, they created the ideology of war which was trying to settle the “old accounts” and which was supposed to create new states on ethnically clean territories. Their visions finally came true, our Enemy or Enemies won! In the deathly antagonism which historiography and historians together found themselves in, they became only a byproduct of divisions and conflicts with the mission to create a new historic awareness. That way, fighting with various enemies on various battlefields, historians were divided and now belong to their own post-traumatic historicity.
Still, can the common ground of destiny and Yugoslavian decay be sufficient argument for the “blindspots” which are filled with content only by our remembrance? Or could it be something else? Cowardice, for example? If we look at European historiography after World War II, it’s clear that it has accepted its historicity and started the general problematization with dignity and responsibility. In Germany, for example, Fritz Fischer started searching for Germany’s goals in World War I as early as 1957. He published his findings in 1961 in a 900-page book titled “The Reach for World Power”. From there, he continued to search for continuity with World War II, and found that both wars were caused by German elites joined together by their aspiration for world power. He sublimated it further in his book “Alliance of elites and continuity of German power structures” where he showed that no war is possible without that alliance. From Bismarck to Hitler, in continuity, it was inspired by an imperial goal – Drang nach Osten. The “Breach towards the East” is supposed to be implemented by war and the German “living space” includes the Eastern Europe. His brave action raised a lot of noise among German historians; European historians also joined the discussion which was recorded in the history of historiography as “Fischer’s controversy”. Today, Fritz Fischer’s work is under attack from German revisionist historiography.
If we look at our territory in the same continuity, or “processes of long duration”, all our politics are “old politics”. Whether they are great projects of the state reduced to ambitions of individual nations, or universal South-Slavic or confederate-Balkan projects. The epilogue of all of them, lost hopes, illusions and historic victories is summed in the greatest defeat in 13 centuries of our joint life on this territory. Symbolized by Srebrenica, Potocari, and all other places of suffering of our former common state, it represents the project which rushes between the rational and insane. From mass executions to refrigerator cars which surface from the dark water filled with dead bodies, we are all caught completely helpless in the merry-go-round of our past. Awareness of it allows it to grow further and makes the historians, as well as other people, ask themselves in intimate monologues whether they should ignore it or identify with it? Whether we should say: “no, it’s not us”! The next step is to look for those responsible. The history which they made and we fought unsuccessfully is our common history. We are its participants, we are its witnesses, we are its historians. Since it’s our history, twenty years later, we must claim responsibility for it.
Translated by Marijana Simic