Maybe the best way to begin would be to tell the history of this paper? I should tell you that when we made arrangements for this panel six weeks ago I proposed the topic entitled “World War II in Serbia today.” Meanwhile, in a matter of days, a complete change of “the past” occurred and the First World War completely suppressed the second one; emotions, goals and purpose of the use of history were completely transformed. Serbia was engulfed in great emotional tension, as if the July Crisis of 1914 was in full swing, the war was just about to begin and we faced the great uncertainty of the first world conflict, with Serbia surrounded by enemies. This is why the topic of my paper had to be changed, so instead of World War II you will now be hearing about the First World War in Serbia today. This again proves the old theory that the past changes faster than the present and the future. Even this short history of my unwritten paper demonstrates how the topic of today’s panel was wisely chosen.
What is the main point? World War I appeared among us faster than a speeding bullet. The success of reprogramming the past was tremendous! Emotions were raised to a feverish pitch, the First World War was all around us, sucking us in, homogenizing, closing the ranks. No one was to be left out. For days every newspaper printed “news from the past” on their front pages. The head of state is delivering historical lectures. He holds a meeting with the 1990s wars ideologue, the cult writer of Serbian nationalism, the creator of the myth of Serbian fate in World War I – Dobrica Cosic. Emir Kusturica is shooting a film and organizing an academic panel. Poets in their interviews offer new interpretations of the event. Armistice Day on November 11 was used for declaring war. Historians have once again leapt to confirm their nation-building role. My dentist, with my mouth clogged with all sorts of devices, taking this incredible opportunity that only he can enjoy, was explaining this whole business to me, just like the taxi driver who drove me back home. World War I penetrated every pore of our society, as they used to say.
What happened? Nothing really. A book was published in London, The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, in which the author, as the Serbian public learned, called Gavrilo Princip a terrorist. Then a Canadian historian promoting her new book said that Young Bosnia should be compared to al-Qaeda. And the historical frenzy could begin. Everyone jumped at the opportunity to be outraged, the media is constantly urging the government to respond, Serbian diplomats are called out for doing nothing. It remains unclear just what the government should do – ban the British book? But these authoritarian impulses are a different matter.
You wonder why two historiographical books should launch such an avalanche of emotions and push a country to the highest level of combat readiness and emotional preparedness “for the worst”? We might even proudly conclude that we live in a society which closely follows world historiographical trends and energetically debates footnotes? Are there not hundreds or thousands of books, by some accounts as many as 25.000, written on World War I, and no one ever got excited about one of them? So why would these two they cause such an uproar and why now? Weren’t tens and hundreds of thousands people killed in this country recently, just fifteen years ago, and no heightened emotions were registered? Doesn’t this country have other more pressing problems?
Well, this is where the explanation lies. Not only is this a way to divert attention from serious problems, which is a well-known maneuver of populist regimes in times of crisis. But because these incidents on the seemingly peripheral terrain of the past represent some of the fundamental elements of ideology, otherwise hidden or suppressed because of the necessity of euro-integrations and expectations of getting the date, or whatever. While the new government present themselves as modernizing, pro-European, often citing Max Weber a role model in understanding society, the real political messages are now discharged through the valve of World War I. Not as an outlet, but as the essence. This is not only a way of venting frustration and anxiety, but something much more important – a wink from the authorities signaling that the old and well-known path will not be abandoned, that the nationalist agenda still has no real alternative, and no one should worry. In other words, it is not as if the stuff with Europe is real politics, and this playing with historical emotions is a mask, but the other way around. This is not a symptom, but a metastasis.
Why World War I? It is an event like no other for national homogenization in Serbia. It has all the necessary potential for “closing the ranks”. All the mythemes are there: a great victory of a small nation, heroic battles, massive losses, calvary and resurrection, a symbiosis of the people and the state. The image of the other is also ideal: a knife in the back from the neighboring Bulgarians, treachery from unreliable Croats fighting on the side of the enemy. On top of that, as the myth goes, the Serbian people reach out, create Yugoslavia and enable others, namely Croats and Slovenes, to cross over to the winning side. In other words, an ideal event for achieving all that is necessary for a nationalist order and values.
This potential was used several times politically. It was used in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to silence everyone else. Then the narrative was then used during communism up until the early seventies, when the Yugoslav crisis entered its final phase. Then in 1972 Dobrica Cosic’s A Time of Death was published, forming the mythical matrix. But it was too soon. Actual space opened up after Tito’s death, when Yugoslavia entered into a deep economic crisis in the early 1980s. Since then, events have been piling up: in 1983 a play entitled The Battle of Kolubara, based on the aforementioned Cosic’s novel, during which the audience gets up and creates the impression of participating in the mythical battle. Two years later, in 1985, came the publication of A Book about Milutin, a digest of Cosic’s multi-volume novels, a concentrate of fatal self-destructive images of a victimized, misunderstood and mislead people, selling half a million copies in 40 printings. Then followed a torrent of new plays, novels, history books, reprints which articulated a new ideology and set the stage for Milosevic’s rise to power. However, right before the Yugoslav wars broke out, the First World War was suppressed in favor of World War II, which could serve as a more successful and deadlier basis for the showdown with Croats. After the change of government in 2000 World War II, as I mentioned, still remained in focus, as it gave historical identity to the new anti-communist government, so instead of Croats the new archenemies were now Tito’s partisans. This lasted until a month ago.
The excitation launched by Clark’s book reached its peak during Armistice Day, which is a new holiday in Serbia introduced last year. The new narrative was centered around two symbols. One is Natalie’s Ramonda, which is worn on the lapel since last year instead of the British poppy. The explanation of the new practice stated that it was an endemic plant, but history quickly interfered in botany and internet chat rooms and other media started talking about a plant that only grows on Kajmakcalan, the fiercest battleground of the Salonika front. It is also said that the plant has an unusual property of being a phoenix-plant which, even after it dies, can be revived if you water it. The parallel with the mythical idea of Serbian history is unambiguous, but that should be read as a promise for the future.
Another symbol was made of Milunka Savic, a Serbian woman warrior, a Joan of Arc, who was reinterred on this year’s Armistice Day. The president used this opportunity to hold a fiery speech, saying that the warrior was “courageous when she needed to be, invincible and standing tall, always there to lend a hand, but still she was pushed aside when others thought that, being great and strong, she might get in their way.” If we ignore the blatantly tacky style of the speech, it remains unclear whether this “great and strong” refers to the warrior or to Serbia. Either way, both symbols, the Ramonda and Milunka, say that Serbia might be, and is, down at the moment, but will again be “invincible and standing tall.” In his lengthy and unusually fervent historical paper published in a leading daily on Armistice Day, the president dealt with Clark’s book and, as he said, with the revision of history, ritually repeating that Serbia must not allow the reinterpretation of World War I, that it cannot remain indifferent, that it has no right to stay silent…
The shift in the use of history in Serbia during the last six weeks has its internal and foreign policy reasons. But they essentially come down to the same thing – the conflict and struggle between the pro-European and anti-European blocks currently going at the highest political level in Serbia. I believe this explains how it is possible for two historiographical books to cause such an uproar in an otherwise obtuse public discourse and provoke the use of excessive force, to use the military term. This is why I began with the premise that this is not about books, or about World War I, or even about the populist gulling of the public, but an essential issue. Only an essential issue could cause such an emotional outbreak and urge everyone to take a stand. This is a kind of implicit referendum on Europe, one in which everyone can speak their mind freely without jeopardizing loans and other “benefits”. This is why for me the attitude to new thinking about the First World War represents a condensed frustration with European integrations, an expression of helplessness and anger, of an inferiority complex, of feeling endangered before the great, unknown European world. This is evident in the president’s history paper, where he repeats the militant mythical arguments: “Serbia is a usual suspect”, “Someone is bothered by Serbia”, “the reconciliation which is insisted upon today must not thread over small nations”, “the courageous and righteous Serbian people will not bow down before the power of money and extortion…” In all this I am not hearing “Christopher Clark”, but Europe or, more precisely, the West, which condemns Serbia, which threads over small nations, attacks using the power of money and extortion…
For those of us who professionally follow cultural and educational currents, such a situation is not surprising. All the analyses of the situation in these areas after Milosevic’s fall clearly indicated, that the nationalist, revisionist and retaliatory discourse held ground exactly in this field, especially in the field of historical memory. And while a number of Serbian governments after 2000 filled numerous European forms and with greater or lesser success jumped over or bypassed the obstacles on the path to European integration, moving from phase A to phase B, the field of education remained untouched by deeper reforms. There, in the background, remained hate speech, often called identity. This space called identity is actually a compound where old emotions and never forgotten political agenda are stored, waiting for a new opportunity. This is why talking about history has nothing to do with the past but with the future, and why substantive activity in the areas of culture, social sciences and education will determine whether Southeast Europe, and Europe itself, would be able to re-imagine (invent) its community as a democratic and peace-making one, or be faced with new conflicts.
From the regional conference “His story or history – Europe in the trap of populism”, Thessaloniki, 13-15 December 2013, Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe.
Translated by Ivica Pavlović