Here I am [on the Peščanik programme of Radio B92] after a prolonged absence. But I simply couldn’t find the time before, because our history is speeding up, being produced in amazing quantities on a daily basis. Or, to be more precise, history is changing from one day to another, and I simply fail to remember it all, to write it down. During the past few weeks history was made by a judge in Niš who rehabilitated Dragiša Cvetkovic, and by state prosecutor Slobodan Radovanovic, who has set up yet another commission that is actually called the Commission for Exhumation and that, they say, will set about digging up the mass graves of the Communist terror. Finally, yesterday we had President Tadic meeting President Medvedev. In other words, at all levels – state, national and international – everyone has been making history, mainly that of the Second World War. Perusing our media one gets the impression that the Second World War is a matter of life and death for contemporary Serbia; that there is nothing more important for it than the Second World War.

Today we shall speak, of course, about 20 October [1944]. It is incontrovertible that Partisan units, led by the First Proletarian brigade, entered Belgrade together with the Red Amy, defeated the Germans – I am using neutral terms – and that the Germans then left Belgrade. These are the facts. My own position is that this was liberation. I always have a ready answer for those who speak cynically about the liberation, or who smile knowingly, or who tend to place it in inverted commas. OK, do you mean that it would have been better if the Germans had remained? If it wasn’t liberation, then what was there before it was better. In fact, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that many who make fun about what happened on 20 October do so in good faith, because they are ideologically closer to what was there before than to what happened on 20 October. This is my interpretation.

But we must take a look at what has been happening to 20 October over the past few years, in order to understand what happened yesterday. On 20 October 2000 we had the acting mayor of Belgrade, Milan St. Protic, declaring – this was only a fortnight after 5 October [fall of Miloševic] – that it had not been liberation but occupation, and that he as mayor would not celebrate the day. Radmila Hrustanovic, who came after him, did celebrate it, and regularly visited the relevant monuments. She was followed by Nenad Bogdanovic of the Democratic Party, who said something similar to St Protic, albeit not quite so bluntly: that it was a controversial date, and that he himself would not commemorate it. Radmila Hrustanovic continued to mark it, as a kind of private festivity of her own.

20 October thus quickly ceased to be a festive day for Belgrade, and the main holiday was switched to April, when prizes are given to various achievers. What used to be the October Award now became the April Award. Then came new school history textbooks, which mainly focussed on revision of the Second World War, and in which – I have again checked this – the arrival of the Partisan units and the Red Army, as well as the day of Belgrade’s liberation, appear under the heading ‘Offensive against Serbia’. It says here, and I quote: ‘In the Second World War, the middle class was annihilated, the national movement destroyed, and the intelligentsia crushed.’ This is the last sentence of the relevant text, printed in bold, making it clear that Serbia was in fact defeated in the Second World War. This appears in the textbook used by the eighth grade of primary school.

Then came the year 2005. Koštunica’s government passed a Law on Equalisation of the Chetnik and Partisan Movements, following which judges began a mass rehabilitation of Chetniks in various small places. As state secretary Slobodan Homen told us on the last ‘Impression of the Week’ [a talk show]: ‘We have agreed that there are two equal anti-fascist movements and that everyone committed crimes.’ He repeated this mantra three times. In 2005 we also had the impressive celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War Two. As we know, Serbia and Montenegro [then a common state] did not send a delegation to Auschwitz, where the whole world assembled to mark the liberation of that concentration camp. Also, we sent only a low-level delegation to the central celebration in Moscow, making it clear that we did not wish to participate in it and had not been on the winning side.

And then something extraordinary happened, on 20 October 2007 in fact, when a now famous issue of Politika came out with half of its front page taken up by a picture of the liberators, the Partisans and the Red Army, entering Belgrade. This was a great shock, because it was contrary to the law, to the declarations made by the mayor who was not celebrating the day, and to a holiday that no longer was. People wondered if Politika had gone crazy, but this was not the case, of course, its editor then being Ljiljana Smajlovic. What had really happened was that we were waiting for the Russian vote on Kosovo [at the UN]: this was a way of honouring the Russians, so that we could get – among other things such as NIS [Serbia’s state oil company, 51% Russian-owned] – the famous veto that was expected but never came.

Next, with the current government in place, a hysteria was unleashed linked to a search for Draža Mihajlovic’s bones. It began sometime in the spring of 2009. As one of my witty female colleagues said, all the newspapers are carrying the weather forecast, the TV programme, and the latest news about Draža Mihajlovic’s bones. Then this summer came the parallel campaign of hunting for the mass graves of Communist crimes committed after 20 October 1944. According once again to ‘Impression of the Week’, the number involved ranges between 80,000 and 200,000 dead. We witnessed once again the phenomenon of having indistinct photocopies waved before the cameras. The numbers game took off: Vlasotince 700 and so on – all this reminding us of the end of the 1980s, when burial sites were being dug up in Croatia too.

The state prosecutor, Slobodan Radovanovic, then announced the formation of the new commission for the exhumation of mass graves, following which Dragiša Cvetkovic, the man who signed the Tripartite Pact, was formally rehabilitated. It was said that there was nothing controversial about this, since he and his comrades-in-arms were trying to save the Serb people, which was praiseworthy. As part of the atmosphere of euphoria, billboards suddenly sprang up: 65 years of liberty, the slogan ‘Belgrade remembers’, a romantic TV spot, and finally a fitting public show. I watched in fascination the show being performed at the Sava Centre. It lasted an hour and was dedicated to the liberation of Belgrade. OK, let’s see what was celebrated in it. Soldiers who might have been Partisans – they were wearing caps but without the star – appeared in only one scene. The song ‘Through forests and hills’, which we all used to sing, strongly associated in our minds with World War II, accompanied the scene. As for the rest, it is hard to say what ideology inspired it. There is only one explanation: that an instruction had been given that no one should know what actually happened and who actually arrived, but that the show should also please the Russians.

The high point occurred at the very start. President Tadic appeared to give a speech, and what happened? The accompanying music was that of ‘March to the Drina’. And who stood behind President Tadic? A Solunac [WWI soldier]. Neither the music nor the Solunac had anything to do with Belgrade in 1945. A sphere bore present-day Russian and Serbian flags, with their eagles and crowns. I don’t need to tell you that these flags were not carried by the soldiers who entered Belgrade. The Red Army carried its own red flag with hammer and sickle, and the Partisans carried the Yugoslav flag. This was a flagrant and deliberate falsification at the level of symbols. The only talk throughout the show was about Russian-Serb friendship, overlooking the fact that it was aYugoslav army that entered Belgrade. The First Proletarian Brigade was made up of members of all Yugoslav nations; the Soviet army too was multinational. It was clearly felt necessary that the show should nationalise the actual events, by turning the soldiers who in 1945 entered Belgrade into Serbs and Russians; and that it should forget about the flags they waved, which should be replaced with contemporary flags.

The only thing that was real in the films shown was linked to the Red Army. We had Stalingrad, Belgrade, Berlin, Moscow. The Red Army was thus included in the show, and it seems that it was also in Belgrade on 20 October 1945, which is fine. But who was there on our side, along with the Red Army? If we wished to be cynical, we might say the little ballerinas dancing Swan Lake. They were our sole representatives, for what else was there that was ours? We had the TV spot that played for days, with a young man who might have been a Partisan, but shown only from behind. He has the right sort of cap and a brownish uniform, so he is probably a Partisan. What is he doing? He has won a girl wearing a very bourgeois, flowery summer dress. She is not a Partisan and they are kissing. It’s a jolly love scene, showing perhaps the nicest part of the liberation of Belgrade. For its liberation was a very bloody affair, with 20,000 people dying on both sides. It was a heavy battle, not a romantic story. The TV spot and the kissing of the girl with the flowery dress were accompanied by the song ‘Dark Night’. This is a beautiful Russian song, but it has nothing to do with World War II, which I think is why it was chosen.

So the liberation of Belgrade was credited to the Russians, but not to the local army too. The 7.30 News said: ‘The Red Army and our liberation army entered Belgrade on that day.’ So, this is now called our liberation army, which is yet another attempt at nationalisation. The true name of that army – the People’s Liberation Army – was omitted. The show revealed what was going on. It revealed an ostensibly mischievous approach to politics. The idea was that the show would fool the Russians. We sort of winked at them, dangling before them the prospect of letting them have that boulevard and their Zhdanov. As a matter of fact, neither Zhdanov nor Biryuzov were anywhere to be seen. Their photos were not shown. And why not? In order to avoid showing also the photos of Josip Broz Tito and Peko Dapcevic. This is why we were shown anonymous Partisans and ladies in flowery dresses – to prevent those concrete people from appearing. If I were a Russian I would be angry that there was no mention of Zhdanov, or of Birjuzov, who in the end died in 1965 on the Avala, on another 20 October. […]

It has been clear ever since 2000 that the revision has to do with what is called the search for an ideal ancestry. It was necessary to break with the Communists and with Yugoslavia. It was necessary to find an ancestor who fought both of them, which means that the ideal time is that of the Second World War, during which Serbia provided thousands of such ideal ancestors, with Draža Mihajlovic being perhaps the most suitable ideal ancestor of all. If we take away from him his collaboration and his war crimes, then maybe he can be seen as an anti-fascist force.

It is not enough, however, to excuse the grandfathers of those who are now in power, to rehabilitate them, nor will the search for the ideal ancestor suffice. We are dealing here with something that is deeper and far more dangerous for society. Olivera Milosavljevic put it very well when she said that it is about the normalisation of fascism. As state secretary Homen repeated nervously: we have agreed to have two equal anti-fascist movements, both of which committed crimes. This is the normalisation of fascism that is informing our public opinion. The idea that Communism and Fascism are the same, and that their crimes are the same. This is why the commission for exhumation was set up, and why there is constant talk about Communist crimes – in order to place fascist crimes in the context of totalitarian movements in general. And this is why it is important constantly to repeat that fascism and Communism are not the same. Communist ideology was not centred on crime. It contained many aspects that led to monstrous deeds: first suspension and then seizure of private property, leading finally to famine. In contrast to fascism, however, crime did not form the essence of Communist ideology. The essence of fascism or national-socialism was racism, the idea that the Other – be they Jews, Roma, Slavs or anyone else potentially – should disappear. This was its essential idea at the level of ideology, the level of crime.

One should not, of course, ever try to justify what happened here after 1944. There is no excuse for summary executions based on no evidence, and for mass graveyards. No one can excuse that. But it was a revolutionary situation. The country was emergingd from a civil war that continued even after the end of the Second World War on other fronts. What happened was thus a continuation of the civil war, and a facing down of the political enemy, which involved also mass crimes. This is an integral part of all revolutions. […] In all European countries after the end of the Second World War, people were hanged from the nearest lamp-post. In France, for example – the way they dealt with their collaborators was equally frightening. It was thus not simply an attitude of the new Communist government. It was how European countries dealt with collaboration after the war. Fascist crimes, on the other hand, derived from a deep-rooted racist ideology which presumes that one should kill the Other, who is marked out as the enemy, because of their race, religion, name, speech. That is the essence.

During the Second World War, the Chetnik organisations by and large applied that ideology. We don’t have to say the Chetniks were fascists, if we don’t want to. But what matters was the ideology and what happened on the ground. What was done in Croatia, what was done in Bosnia to Croats and the Muslims, especially in eastern Bosnia, was ‘ethnic cleansing’. This was the programme of a so-called homogeneous Serbia, which should be ‘cleansed’ of other nationalities. The idea was that the Other would be removed. The same idea guided the wars of the 1990s. Herein, in my view, lies the key to the revision of World War II history. It is not just about our grandfathers and our ideal ancestors, about the need to create one’s own tradition. It is being carried out also in order to justify the 1990s. To be able to say that the crimes were all the same. To be able to say about the 1990s the same as about World War II – that they all killed, and are therefore all guilty. The ruse about 20 October, the message to the Russians, was in fact a cover-up, to hide the essence of the programme of the 1990s.

This is why I think that the exhumation of graves, and the hysterical search for Draža Mihajlovic across Belgrade, is a way of suppressing the question about the mass graves of the 1990s. As we can see, these are no longer talked about; there is no commission for exhumation of those graves, no further investigation on part of the prosecution; all that stopped in 2001, when we had the refrigerator trucks, the lakes and the graves. That is all over and done with. We are now digging up these others, in order to bury for good the wars of the 1990s. So that we don’t have to face up to them, instead switching our attention to something that is in fact perfectly irrelevant.

As for the Russian policy, Milorad Ekmecic gave a good description of it in his book Ratni ciljevi Srbije 1914. [Serbia’s war aims in 1914]. He writes that every big power must have an area in which it shows off as a great power. It does not matter which particular area, it only has to do with other great powers, because it is there that it displays its muscle. The more contested the area is, the bigger the muscle. The Balkans is simply such an area for Russia. Our side, in my view, doesn’t understand this, because of its ignorance of great-power foreign policy, diplomacy, and above all Russia. If we were to ask people what they know about Russia, I think that it would all be about great love, as in the famous moment in Aleksandar Popovic’s Mrešcenje šarana [The Spawning of Carps], when those people in 1948 after the break with the Cominform conducted deep political conversations about how to behave in that situation, whether to support Tito or Stalin. And then, unfortunately, someone started to sing a sentimental Russian song, and they all joined in, weeping. And they all ended up on Goli Otok. This well illustrates, I think, our understanding of Russia. It has to do with unbridled emotion displayed at such trivial levels as that of Russian love songs – which in themselves are beautiful, of course – but without a deeper understanding of the subject.

This is the essence of the relationship within which we are seeking to conduct our delinquent child policy. I don’t know what our politicians are up to, whether they are trying to enhance Serbia’s value for the European Union by having ‘strategic’ discussions with Russia. Whether they are trying to imitate Tito. But the Cold War is over, it’s not possible to play a game between two superpowers. The question is: do we want to join the EU or not? The non-aligned idea is simply not on, but the people here don’t understand that. I keep repeating here on Peščanik that as a result of a wrong understanding of our place, an overestimation of our importance, an unrealistic understanding of Russian interests in the Balkans, we are simply rushing into the unknown by relativising the question of fascism and anti-fascism. We are introducing additional confusion into a society which already has serious problems with that dilemma.

Latinka Perovic has written several books about Russian-Serbian revolutionary relations. She says that we are a kind of a Russian ideological colony. We receive these Russian concepts, these Euro-Asian concepts, that are anti-European, anti-individualistic, anti-intellectual, anti-urban, which speak of society as a collective of those equal in poverty, etc. But when Russian authors of such books come to Serbia, they are astonished by the extent to which we have understood it wrong, taken it all too literally. No one listens to them in Russia, and few have heard of their books and ideas , and then they come to Serbia where people have learnt it all by heart and are determined to apply it immediately. Anything. Socialism – tomorrow. Anarchism – tomorrow. Any of the great Russian nineteenth-century concepts. We are thus a kind of a Russian spiritual colony, which, barely understanding it, goes to extremes. Russia is very serious about its foreign policy in regard to Europe and the United States, and prefers to avoid conflicts. We don’t understand this and apply everything to the maximum. And then we are surprised and complain yet again that the world doesn’t love us. A spiritual colony then, which uncritically receives everything that comes from Russia and implements it with disastrous results. But why should we prefer this Russia, and why at the several moments in our history when we had the option to join Europe did we instead follow the Russian path? Svetozar Markovic called this Serbia in the East. This is that Serbia in the East, the anti-Western choice made unfortunately several times in the past.

From Peščanik website, 23 October 2009

Translated by Bosnian Institute, 26 April 2010

Pešč, 24.05.2010.

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Dubravka Stojanović, istoričarka, magistrirala 1992 („Srpska socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918“), doktorirala 2001 („Evropski demokratski uzori kod srpske političke i intelektualne elite 1903-1914“) na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu. Od 1988. do 1996. radi u Institutu za noviju istoriju Srbije, pa prelazi na Odeljenje za istoriju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, gde 2008. postaje vanredna, a 2016. redovna profesorka na katedri za Opštu savremenu istoriju. U saradnji sa Centrom za antiratne akcije 1993. radi na projektu analize udžbenika. Sa Milanom Ristovićem piše i uređuje školske dodatne nastavne materijale „Detinjstvo u prošlosti“, nastale u saradnji istoričara svih zemalja Balkana, koji su objavljeni na 11 jezika regiona. Kao potpredsednica Komiteta za edukaciju Centra za demokratiju i pomirenje u Jugoistočnoj Evropi iz Soluna, urednica je srpskog izdanja 6 istorijskih čitanki za srednje škole. Dobitnica je odlikovanja Nacionalnog reda za zasluge u rangu viteza Republike Francuske. Knjige: Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socijaldemokratija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (1994), Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o “zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije” (2003, 2019) – Nagrada grada Beograda za društvene i humanističke nauke za 2003; Srbija 1804-2004 (sa M. Jovanovićem i Lj. Dimićem, 2005), Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (2008), Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije (2010), Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek (2011), Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (2013), Rađanje globalnog sveta 1880-2015. Vanevropski svet u savremenom dobu (2015), Populism the Serbian Way (2017), Pola veka XX veka. Zbornik radova povodom 50 godina Biblioteke XX vek (ur, 2021), Prošlost dolazi. Promene u tumačenju prošlosti u srpskim udžbenicima istorije 1913-2021 (2023).

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