During 2010, thanks to the Belgrade Center for Human Rights and Vojin Dimitrijevic, a group of historians received the unique opportunity to ask the citizens of Serbia what they know and think about history. The results of this survey could be reduced to one sentence from the 19th century, by the French sociologist Ernest Renan, who said that the national being is based on a wrong understanding of one’s own history. We have recently published a book about this survey, called News from the Past. This title points to the fact that our past is constantly changing according to the will of our regimes, which also change.

We have created a questionnaire with 120 questions. Strategic Marketing traveled around Serbia and asked these questions, using a representative sample. It turned out that what citizens think about history is the consequence of current political messages, as well as the messages they have been receiving during the last twenty years. Answers to the question Who was the most important person in world history are very interesting. 21% of citizens answered that it was Nikola Tesla. Tito was in the second place, followed by Hitler, while Jesus Christ received only 5%. We told the citizens that questions about national history and national heroes will follow, but they still named our people when asked the explicit question about important people in world history. They perceive our people as the most important in the world. This is a really troubling fact, because it points to self-obsession. Tesla received 21%, while Einstein received only 2%. Tito received 19%, while Karadjordje took the third place with 12%. This shows that, in the abovementioned case, propaganda failed to do its job.

In this book, I talked about the image of Others, and I paid special attention to the image of Turks. 48% of answers were about Turks. Everything that happened before and after Turks in national history is much less important. The question is why? I offered the answer that the Turks were that ideal Other, compared to whom we look good. On the other hand, Turks are the constant excuse for everything that went wrong. From dirty streets to the lack of democracy, everything is the result of 500 years under Turkish rule. We still don’t wonder why we couldn’t change this some two centuries later.

It is interesting to say that the Kosovo battle received 22% of votes as the most important event in national history. On the other hand, the uprisings and liberation from Turkish rule received only 10%. Thus, the defeat left a far deeper mark than the liberation. I have to stress that there was a question about what was the most tragic event, but people still chose the Kosovo battle as the most important one. Actually, people here constantly live in one and the same moment. We live in the moment of the Kosovo battle, for us, it did not end in 1389, it still hasn’t ended. And in this regard, it does not matter whether NATO bombing took place in 1999 or in 1945. The US is the enemy and is the same in all times. This is the understanding of history as something motionless and immobile, which is contrary to its constantly mobile nature.

My colleague Sanja Petrovic-Teodosijevic analyzed the answers to the question whether Gavrilo Princip was a hero or not. 53% believed he was, 38% did not. The divided picture about the Second World War was analyzed by our colleague Olga Manojlovic-Pintar. She focused on the issue of Milan Nedic. One third of citizens said that he was a collaborator, one third had a positive image of Nedic, while one third claimed they did not know. Olga Manojlovic-Pintar analyzed this, and her conclusion was that the level of ignorance was high, but that the need not to know was even higher. Answers to the question whether Draza Mihajlovic was a collaborationist or anti-fascist were similar, there was a 50/50 division. These are the consequences of the messages sent by the regime after 2000. They have managed to divide the Serbian society into two parts, sending a purposely blurred image and completely wiping out the awareness of fascism and anti-fascism.

89% of citizens said that life in former Yugoslavia was better than today, while 69% said that they regret that former Yugoslavia fell apart. When answering the question what was positive about former Yugoslavia, they gave rational reasons, there was nothing emotional or nostalgic about it. They spoke about better standard of living, about a bigger state, about being respected in the world, about the possibility to travel. This is very important to all of us working on this project – to reveal the issues on which propaganda failed to leave a trace, and these are – the image of Josip Broz Tito and the image of former Yugoslavia. However, what is interesting is the fact that 49% of citizens said that the creation of Yugoslavia was a mistake. It is important to say that we deliberately formulated this question in this mythical key. We asked if they believed that the creation of Yugoslavia was a mistake, and they immediately recognized the question to which the government gave them the green light to answer – yes, it was a mistake. Thus, they answered as they were expected to, but when asked a question regarding their personal experiences, personal memory, what they remembered was the complete opposite. Ignorance is the strongest concerning the wars which took place during the nineties. This is the so-called engaged ignorance. About 10% knew about the three year long siege of Sarajevo, about what took place in Sjeverin, Ovcara, Medacki dzep, etc. We asked them about crimes committed by Serbs as well as about crimes committed against Serbs, and in both cases people said they knew nothing. This is the real proof that they do not want to know this, and that the need not to know is stronger than what they certainly do know. What surprised us was the fact that almost 30% of citizens still believed Slobodan Milosevic was a positive change in Serbian history. Milosevic’s ideology is still strong, and it is not of crucial importance whether SPS is a coalition partner in the government or not. What is crucial is that we remained in the same ideological key, which does not question Milosevic’s policy. Thus, many citizens do not have a negative perception of him.

Radmila Radic, an expert on the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church, wrote a very interesting analysis entitled “Belonging without believing”. In the Serbian society, 85% of citizens claim to be believers and members of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, all the questions that we have asked show a very high level of ignorance regarding exactly the issues of faith and church. Citizens don’t know anything about Christianity, nothing about the church itself, but they want to belong to this collective and recognize the message sent by the authorities that they should be Orthodox. 73% of citizens do not know whom Hilandar belongs to, that it is a part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Only 4% know that the Serbian Orthodox Church exists under that name only since the 20th century. Only 26% know that Nikolaj Velimirovic lived in the 20th century and citizens place him in different centuries, starting from the Middle Ages.

Our most important conclusions go in several directions. One is that 30% of citizens kept repeating that they did not know the answer to a question. In most of the cases, we offered them multiple-choice answers. Why didn’t they know the answers? Part of the responsibility lies with all of us who work in the field of history, especially in education. It is obvious that history is being learned the wrong way, mostly by heart. But, a much more important conclusion is what Olga Manojlovic called engaged ignorance. It is what we hear very often in everyday speech – we forget everything very quickly. Now we have scientific proof that we are erasing from our memory things we surely knew in order to fulfill the expectations of the authorities. A third of the citizens display an authoritarian personality.

The most painful conclusion is that the young generation (between the age of 18 and 29) showed the weakest results. They showed not only the poorest knowledge, although some of them have barely left school, but also the strongest predisposition towards stereotypes and preconceptions. Furthermore, a large number of highly educated respondents revealed themselves as creators of myths, especially those regarding the size of the Serbian state, namely the imaginary image of its size. A highest percent of educated respondents said that both Dubrovnik and Thessaloniki were once part of a Serbian state, like for example, Dusan’s empire. A much lower percentage of respondents with primary education had the same opinion. This shows that the citizens with highest education are the ones who create and spread the national myth, which was born amongst the middle class in the 19th century.

The wars of the nineties are based on the idea about the oldest, greatest nation, the victim of genocide, the nation which never waged a war to conquer. This historical message did not change. When members of right-wing organizations beat up homosexuals or murder Brice Taton, they have this idea in their heads. They believe Serbia to be the center of the world. They know nothing about the rest of the world. This is partially because they never traveled abroad, but this is also the image they have received through education, as well as through the public discourse of our intellectuals. They are the product of this mythomania we so frequently discuss in Pescanik. This survey reveals that the Serbian society wants to believe this, because this is the so-called nicer truth.

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In the second part, we will discuss an interesting case from my favorite golden age of Serbian democracy (1903-1914), the case of Novakovic brothers. This is important today because of the charges filed by the mother and sister of the late Prime Minister Djindjic concerning the armed uprising of JSO. The case we will talk about is paradigmatic for this current moment in Serbia.

We will talk about a case that was researched by our late colleague Olga Popovic-Obradovic. She described this case in her book The Parliamentary System in Serbia, 1903-1914. She studied this case, which lasted for four years, very scrupulously, as a professor of law.

As early as 1880, Serbia had the Law on the freedom of association. On the basis of this law, the first parties and several hundred citizens’ associations were created, as a form of civil society. The mythomaniac historians usually don’t go further than this fact – that in the year 1880, we had a perfect law. This is true, but still, this story talks about its realsubstance. We do have the law, even the institutions, but the power lies somewhere else.

A year after the May Coup in 1904, when the last members of the Obrenovic royal family were killed, two young army officers, Milan and Maksim Novakovic founded, what we may call, the first serious Serbian political NGO, called the Society for the legal solution of the “conspirators issue”. They were soldiers, but they believed that the officers who carried out the coup, murdered the king and queen as well as other citizens on the streets, cut the king and queen into pieces and threw them out of a window, should be removed for the Serbian army, mostly because they were officers who swore an oath to the king who they afterwards brutally murdered. They also believed that, regardless of the political qualification of this event, it was a murder, and that Apis and his friends should stand trial for murder, after being discharged from the Army. Regardless of the fact that the murder of the king and queen was qualified as a positive event, as was the case at the time, the conspirators had actually killed several people during the coup.

Needles to say, by asking that question, they delivered a strike into the heart of the system, because it was clear, that all the way until the World War One, the power was in the hands of the officers who carried out the coup. This is why we can compare this case with October 5, and this is why we always come back to the question – what really happened on October 5.

This NGO was established in 1904 and banned only two years later. All the press and the entire opposition stood up and asked for an explanation why the Association was banned. The reason the authorities gave was that it jeopardized the constitutional order of the state. Needles to say that brothers Novakovic did not jeopardize the constitutional system, but the conspirators actually did. It was immediately evident that things would not go well.

Brothers Milan and Maksim Novakovic were killed in 1907. I analyzed the Serbian press from those days, and what I found impressive was the fact that every paper printed the same headline: “Milan Novakovic kills his brother Maksim in prison, then commits suicide.” Again, we can see this pattern of murder-suicide, which reappears as the state-patent solution to embarrassing problems. However, the next day, the truly free press started asking unpleasant questions. The first question was – what were they doing in prison in the first place? Why were they arrested? The next question was – what were they doing in Belgrade, when they should have been in Nis? Namely, they were transferred to the Belgrade Central Prison. The third, and the most important question was – why were they armed? How was it possible that arrested members of the opposition sit in jail with weapons and then shoot each other? Thus, the very next day, the press started ridiculing this story, and it soon became evident that it was a political assassination. During the very next session of the Assembly, when the Minister of Police entered the Assembly hall, the opposition started yelling – Murderer, murderer! The press kept on digging, and soon found out that, during the night brothers Novakovic were murdered, the Minister of Police, Head of Belgrade and Police and the Chief of Gendarmerie were present at the Belgrade Central Prison. Thus, the three key police officers in the country were present when, under unusual circumstances, two leading opposition members were assassinated.

Then a battle that was subsequently led in the Assembly, in the media, in court, began. Several interpellations were initiated from the opposition MPs demanding that the Assembly qualifies this act as a political assassination and that the Minister of Police be held accountable. But, the majority in the Assembly immediately reacted the same way it always did, claiming that it had no jurisdiction in this case, that the Minister should not be held accountable, and that the court should decide whether to deal with this question. Olga Popovic-Obradovic, who worked on the legal analysis of this case, showed that by initially refusing to discuss this issue, the Assembly actually invalidated the institution of interpellation, which is the main tool MPs use to fight the government. The Assembly simply ignored a proven interpellation that proved that the Minister was present at the scene of the murder, which by itself made him responsible. Furthermore, Olga Popovic-Obradovic managed to prove that this behavior totally invalidated any role of the Assembly, although the Constitution that was in power at the time claimed that the Assembly was the heart of the system and that Serbia was a parliamentary monarchy. This, as well as other actions of the authorities, showed that the Assembly was nothing but, as MPs used to say at that time, a garden filled with potted plants, voting as the Government asked them to.

After the Assembly decided there was nothing to discuss, the Minister of Police, naturally, remained in position. In 1908, the court, which was apparently truly independent at that time, started an investigation which clearly proved that there was no murder-suicide, but that the Minister of Police Nastas Petrovic gave the order to kill the two prominent members of the opposition. The court asked the Assembly or the government to file a charge with the State Court, where Petrovic was supposed to be held responsible on the basis of ministerial responsibility. Based on this court decision, the opposition MP Stojan Ribarac reinitiated in 1910 the interpellation, asking the Government to decide before which court the Minister, whose responsibility was already proven at a lower instance, should stand trial. The Government answered that it did not believe there was any kind of responsibility to answer for. One of the key members of the Radical Party, Stojan Protic, said that the Minister was forced to give the order to fire because it was done in self-defense. The government kept to its story, regardless of what was proven in the court of law.

The only remaining option was for the Assembly to file charges before the State court. This idea appeared in the Assembly in 1911. The entire public, all the media I was able to analyze, all the press, members of the opposition, even some members of the government who were free Radicals, believed that the Assembly had to pass this request to the State Court. However, the key argument that was accepted was the famous statement by Minister Petrovic himself, which in a real sense showed his understanding of the institutions. He said: “You know what? The court proved I was guilty, but after that court decision, the people reelected me, and the people take precedence here.” This shows the real position of the institution of the court. The people or the majority outvotes you, and the entire system, the Constitution, all the institutions, procedures, even independence itself, fall apart immediately, because, what is important here is – how the people choose to vote. Needless to say, the people will vote as the government instructs them to.

And this is how this story ends. The case never reached the State Court, and Petrovic kept his position as the Minister of Police. Everyone knew he gave the order to kill the Novakovic brothers, everyone called him a murderer and the entire issue remained unsolved – the same way all issues remain unsolved in our country. This is one of the greatest problems our country faces. Nothing is solved here. Whenever we have an established system, we try to destroy our own institutions. This is something these authorities are doing, the same way as it was done at the beginning of the 20th century. A recent example was the case where the Constitutional court ruled that it was unconstitutional for someone to hold more than one public office, and what the government said was – never mind, we will amend the law. Thus, the government itself undermines its own institutions and its own laws. This is highly dangerous for any society, especially for one which does not have clear coordinates, like our own. It is the feeling we spoke so much about in Pescanik, the feeling many citizens of Serbia have, that the power lies somewhere else – not in the Assembly, or in the government.

Do the citizens really believe Mirko Cvetkovic is the one in power? Every day, we feel there is someone else behind the decisions, both big and small – how will the resolution on Kosovo look like, how was Djindjic assassinated, what is behind the JSO insurrection, and, finally, what was October 5? Citizens sense that a group of people, who, in reality, may be making these key decisions, exist somewhere, and that feeling is what the members of the opposition noticed and formulated at the beginning of the 20th century.

In this country, we always had uncontrolled factors, who were not part of the institutions or the constitutional order, but who were actually pulling all the strings. And this is why, whenever Srdja Popovic speaks about the armed insurrection of JSO, we should always speak about October 5 as well, which is something that he, of course, does. What was the role of the conspirators? What happened on October 5? Was October 5 a revolution, expressing the free will of citizens or a coup which saved the program, but removed the person who was starting to become a problem for this program – Slobodan Milosevic? Were the people who came into power after October 5 the ones who were able to continue this program, but, first of all, preserve the continuity of these uncontrolled factors? It is a terrible thing to live in such a society, feel constant legal insecurity, have no trust in your own state, its institutions and laws. The undeniable experience of our history is that such systems lead to new revolutionary changes.

This situation, like the one in 1910, cannot last too long. We cannot have potted plants for MPS, the institutions and laws that we now have, and this uncontrolled group of people. At some point, this uncontrolled group of people will decide to openly take the power into their own hands. This is the most scary thing in such situations. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was solved by the Thessaloniki Proceedings. The proceedings were bogus and Regent Aleksandar used them to rid himself of Apis and his comrades by sentencing them to death, thus solving the problem of uncontrolled revolutionary factors. After the Russian revolution, Russia no longer had influence in Serbia, and Aleksandar was given the opportunity to get rid of these factors, who were often associated with Russian interests. It was a special moment, and Aleksandar chose to execute these men in order to protect his seat of power, not save democracy in Serbia. What I am trying to say is that this cannot last too long. This is like an animal carcass where the rate of decomposition cannot be stopped: it cannot stop at 20% of decomposition. This is a cancer eating at the heart of all of the institutions, all citizens, who naturally loose all of their trust in the order and the state. If the state believes that it is gaining something by keeping silent about an issue or by refusing to initiate a necessary lawsuit, it is mistaken, because it is not protecting itself, but, on the contrary, seriously endangering itself.

Translated by Bojana Obradovic

Peščanik.net, 28.11.2010.


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Dubravka Stojanović
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) i Populism the Serbian Way (2017).
Dubravka Stojanović

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