Yugoslav wars – A snapshot of European past or future?

Flag of Yugoslavia, Belgrade

Photo: Pescanik

Were the Yugoslav wars the final European wars of the twentieth century, or should they be understood and studied as the first wars of the twenty-first century? Historians love these games and debates about chronology, and especially question whether a specific century is longer or shorter than the nominal 100 years. Historians also enjoy searching for evidence that would show whether a historical phenomenon belongs to one or another period, and whether it marks an end or a beginning. To locate examples of such tendencies of historians, one would only have to recall the countless debates about the nineteenth century or the discussions about the century to which the First World War belonged.

However, these debates, apart from being appealing to the general public, are also important for our understanding of the processes and the crystallization of fundamental features of a certain period. Such debates are also ultimately important for our understanding of the present because it is with the present in mind that we evaluate a historical period and thereby mark out the processes and determine when one thing ended and another began. It is this last point that makes it worthwhile to re-examine the Yugoslav wars. When concluding our consideration of these questions, regardless of the point in time that we select as the beginning or the end of an era, this chosen moment in time becomes a juncture of European history and one of its possible periodizations.

I said that it is important to return to this question now. This is because many occurrences in today’s Europe both hark back to and promote the very ideas that had triggered the bloody Yugoslav wars. The EU crisis, Brexit and the division between the “old” and “new”, the “Eastern” and the “Western”, the “North” and the “South” – these are reviving the arguments that in the 1980s foreshadowed Yugoslavia’s unhappy demise. Therefore, today’s analyses of these arguments are important not only for the study of European history of the twentieth century, but of the twenty-first century as well.

In Yugoslavia in the early 1980s, we began to hear that our nation was better than the neighbouring ones, that our country was older, our alphabet more perfect, our history more heroic, our victims greater, and our footballers the best. At first, we found these sentiments funny. In time, it became embarrassing, and, finally, dangerous. Then the war started. These sentiments might sound trite, but all the studies now show that the arguments that were used to break up Yugoslavia were not much deeper or more complex than those listed above.

Departure from ideals of the twentieth century

This is why I have been finding it difficult to listen to everything that has been discussed by the united Europe in these recent years. The arguments employed for Brexit or those in the American elections painfully resemble those in Yugoslavia of the 1980s. From “We want our country back” to “Let’s make America great again”, to everything that was said in the Dutch or French elections, the pronouncements in Budapest, Warsaw, Prague and Barcelona – all of these reflect a departure from the great ideals of the second-half of the twentieth century: the ideals of integration, open borders and an open society; the welfare state; the protection of minorities; the right to diversity, and so on. Is the abandonment of those ideals only relapses and anti-modernizing reactions to the rapid changes in our globalized world? Has the pendulum of European history only temporarily swung away from integration, co-operation, solidarity and unity? Does this mean that the concepts of reconciliation are outdated and that peace is no longer a priority?

The Yugoslav wars appeared to be “ancient” wars for territory, built on old and ostensibly spent arguments and fake news. Many of us were embarrassed back then, ashamed that our country was waging a backward war for new borders at a time when Europe was uniting. We felt defeated that after all the European and Yugoslav experiences in the twentieth century, we were once again seeing occurrences of ethnic cleansing, torture, rape and genocide. We accused our elites of being retrograde, and our societies of being backward and anti-European. We used to say that fake arguments such as these would only be accepted “only here”, “only in the Balkans”…

We thought that the wars of the 1990s proved that “we” had failed to overcome the vicious circle of ethnic hatred, beliefs in the superiority of one’s own nation, as well as the idea that there was a “final solution” for “the other” or “others”. As historians, we analyzed how it had been possible, in such a short time, to upend the previous model of the collective Yugoslav memory, one that had been constructed for decades and that was founded both on “brotherhood and unity” and on reconciliation after the Second World War. We asked how it was possible that historical “oblivion” had been able to transpire so quickly and with so little resistance, to run into the narrow national, ethnocentric, paranoid memory models that were focused on threats to the nation and the need for revenge against all those who had “stabbed us in the back when push came to shove”.

For historians, it was as if they had been witnessing an experiment, watching a “live” broadcast of the changing of the memory model, and seeing how quickly the collective historical consciousness could be altered, and how little it took for such change to be effected… We could almost feel the ideas moving from the “heights” of academic and intellectual institutions, to the media, to local authorities and to “ordinary people” who were to become combatants. The responsibility of historians for the production of these wars was immense, because the Yugoslav wars were largely built on forgery, the abuse of history, the emphasis of differences and conflicts, as well as on “forgetting” what we had in common.

We were almost able to track how ideas could be disseminated, how society would receive, adapt and change such ideas accordingly. We also saw the transfers that we had learned in school by analyzing European history, especially the history of the 1930s. We were able to test theories about the elites and the masses, as well as theories about the impulses of individuals and the society as a whole. We wondered if it was possible, after the experience of the Holocaust and all that had happened in Yugoslavia in the Second World War, for everything to be repeated. Might it really be true that people do not learn anything from history? Inevitably, the question is raised: What good is the knowledge that we collect, analyze and interpret? Once again, this put the role of our scholarship, its function in society, as well as its responsibility, under scrutiny.

The dark side of history

We wondered, if all of these could happen in Yugoslavia – a country grounded in an anti-fascist narrative, and where there was no doubt about who was or was not a collaborator, what would happen if such ideas appeared in societies where fascism was not clearly rejected and the limits not clearly set out. And how was it possible that many “warriors” in the Yugoslav wars had put on the uniforms of precisely those armies that had been defeated in the Second World War? Many historians argued that the Second War had merely been resumed, or had even reappeared. There were debates on whether the ideology on which they were based was fascism or something new. Have we returned to that dark part of history, or have we never come out of it?

There was also a very unpleasant, but also very European question: Is it possible that the ideas that had led to the war could have been kept restrained or at least dormant only under a totalitarian regime? Does one kind of totalitarianism prevent another kind of totalitarianism? In other words, is a totalitarian state that does not engage in ethnic massacres better than another that does not? Are there better and worse kinds of totalitarianism, or are they all the same, as claimed in the European Parliament’s Resolution? Ever since I began to hear stories about politics and to learn about Yugoslav history, it has been said that as soon as the one-party monopoly is abolished and a multi-party system emerges, national and nationalist parties would triumph. This would in turn mean the end of Yugoslavia and the beginning of the war. I could not accept these arguments, because they would mean that democracy in a multinational federation was not possible, and that Yugoslavia and democracy would not be incompatible. And again I was wrong, because it was kind of what eventually happened.

The belief that socialism was better than what we managed to create post-socialism was also shared by the famous 1990s Belgrade graffiti artist, who wrote: “Come back, Comrade Tito. Everything is forgiven.” This graffiti implied that for many people, because of the Yugoslav carnage of the 1990s, the memory of communism became a memory of a “golden age”. For many, especially the young, it is still the case to this day. I was thinking about this intensely after the Arab Spring wars erupted in many countries that had hoped for democracy. Once again, the question was raised about the possibility of the transition of power and democratic capacities. Today’s tendencies in some former Eastern European countries are again bringing up these same issues, and it looks as if they would only have to overthrow the imposed anti-democratic regime in order to return to what they had before. But what exactly was there before? The answer to this question requires a serious re-examination of European history.

This is why I opened this article with those questions. The chief question is this: In today’s Europe, does the re-emergence of arguments from pre-war Yugoslavia mean that the Yugoslav wars marked not an ugly, regressive end of the twentieth century, but the beginning of the twenty-first? Returning to the games of chronology mentioned from earlier, we can justifiably argue that the Yugoslav century lasted from 1918 to 1991, or for as long as the country existed. This is not, however, because the formation and dissolution of this or any other country is a good framework for historical periodization, but because Yugoslavia was understood as a symbol. In 1918, it symbolized the victory of new ideas about people’s self-determination and the demise of the great European empires. In the Second World War, it was a symbol of partisan, anti-fascist resistance and victory. In the Cold War, it was a symbol of the “third way”, an attempt to build a different kind of socialism and non-alignment. It gave hope that the European nations’ integration could be a project of reconciliation and that a multinational federation could be a solution to earlier conflicts and bring peace to those involved. It also supported the belief that a multi-confessional community could indeed be functional, and that disagreements between the developed north and the less-developed south not only could be resolved, but that they could even be motivating for both sides. Furthermore, those who move more quickly and those who are slower could find a middle ground and move in unison. These were Yugoslav attitudes in the twentieth century.

And then, at the time of the economic and political crises of the 1980s, first there appeared doubts, followed by arguments – which European historians and theorists believed were unproductive – that nationalism was historically outdated, and that the arguments that called for disintegration, secessionism, favouring the national over development were impossible on the eve of the twenty-first century. Because of the Yugoslav wars, some of the greatest names in the field of social sciences returned to the subject of nations and nationalism, with the basic question of whether this was an old or a new phenomenon.

An interesting historiographical question also arose: Was Serbia, which carried the greatest responsibility for these wars, some sort of precedent in European history, that is, an incident of sorts? And consequently, was Yugoslavia a special case? Some found it easier to believe that the answer to both questions is affirmative, and that a special historical road led this country – formed twice in the world wars – to break up for the second time. They liked to believe that Yugoslavia was entirely unique because it would then follow that this cannot happen anywhere else. This analysis provided a historical interpretation and some consolation, a hope that these kinds of ideas would no longer occur to those countries that are more developed, more literate, more urbanized, more modern, more democratic, and so on. Therefore, paradoxically, we found the thought consoling. It carried some historical optimism, a progressive faith in improvement – an improvement that would make the return to the arguments that sparked the Yugoslav wars impossible.

This begs the question: What can we conclude about history in general, and European history in particular, from the fact that lately those tired arguments were not only heard in the most developed countries of the world, but that they also triumphed in societies that we consider to be the most developed, which reached the highest rates of urbanization, literacy, living standards, education, democracy? How did the fake arguments of Brexit manage to captivate a majority of the voters? How is Trump’s reign even possible? Does this prove that the Yugoslav wars marked the beginning of a new era, that they were the vanguard of a new world, not the relic of the old? Are Brexit and Trump signs that we should redefine old socio-political theories? And by the same token, should we redefine our view of contemporary European history?

Journal of Modern European History, Minchen, vol. 16, 2018-2, pp.153-158.

Translated by Ivica Pavlovic

Peščanik.net, 29.11.2018.

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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) – 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

Dubravka Stojanović (Svi tekstovi)