Onward to the First World War!
When we made arrangements for this panel six weeks ago I proposed the topic entitled “The Second 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; the 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 were in full swing, the war was just about to begin and we faced the great uncertainty of the first global military conflict, with Serbia surrounded by enemies.
This is why the topic of my paper had to be changed, so instead of the Second World War the reader will now be learn 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 chosen wisely.
What is the main point? The First World War 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, homogenising, closing the ranks. No one was to be left out. For days every newspaper printed “news from the past” on its front pages. The head of state is delivering historical lectures. He held a meeting with the 1990s war ideologue, the cult writer of Serbian nationalism, the creator of the myth of Serbian fate in the First World War, Dobrica Ćosić. Emir Kusturica is shooting a film and organising an academic panel. Poets in their interviews offer new interpretations of the event. Armistice Day on November 11th 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, took this incredible opportunity that only he could enjoy and explained this whole business to me, just like the taxi driver who drove me back home. The First World War 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 began. 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 may wonder why two historical 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 about the First World War and no one ever got excited about one of them? So why would these two cause such an uproar and why now? Were not tens and hundreds of thousands people killed in this country recently, just 15 years ago, and no heightened emotions were registered? Does not this country have more pressing problems?
Well, this is where the explanation lies. This is a way to divert attention from serious problems, which is a well-known manoeuvre of populist governments 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 European integration and expectations of getting the date, or whatever. While the new government presents itself as modernising and pro-European, often citing Max Weber as a role model in understanding society, the real political messages are now discharged through the valve of the First World War. 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 signalling 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 the First World War? It is an event like no other for national homogenisation in Serbia. It has all the necessary potential for “closing the ranks”. All the mythical themes are there: a great victory of a small nation, heroic battles, massive losses, cavalry 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 neighbouring Bulgarians and 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 used under communism up until the early 1970s, when the Yugoslav crisis entered its final phase. In 1972 Dobrica Cosić’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 Cosić’s novel, during which the audience gets up and creates the impression of participating in the mythical battle, premiered. Two years later, in 1985, came the publication of A Book about Milutin, a digest of Cosić’s multi-volume novels, a concentrate of fatal self-destructive images of a victimised, misunderstood and mislead people, selling half a million copies in 40 printings. Then a torrent of new plays, novels, history books and reprints followed 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 favour of the Second World War, which could serve as a more successful and deadlier basis for the showdown with Croats. After the change of government in 2000, the Second World War 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 centred 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 from botany and internet chat rooms and other media started talking about a plant that only grows in Kajmakcalan, the fiercest battleground of the Salonika front. It is also said that the plant has an unusual property of being a phoenix which, even after it dies, can be revived if watered. The parallel with the mythical idea of Serbian history is unambiguous, but that should be read as a promise for the future.
Milunka Savić, a Serbian woman warrior, a Joan of Arc, who was reinterred on this year’s Armistice Day also became a symbol. 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 “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 the First World War, 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 historical 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 the First World War 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, treads 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 a 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 (or invent) its community as a democratic and peace-making one, or be faced with new conflicts.
Dubravka Stojanović is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade. She deals with the history of Serbia and the Balkans in the 20th and 21st century.