(Anti)Revolutionary Shift in Memory
Filip Mitričević, June 10th 2018.
This text represents an extract from a presentation given by the author at a conference held in Zagreb in May of 2018.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, Eastern Europe stepped into a transitional period during which it went through a complete transformation of political, economic, and ideological paradigms. After 45 years under communism and the Soviet Union, these countries started their Euro-Atlantic ‘’inclusion’’ into the liberal-democratic and capitalist model. This process was followed by an intense sense of anti-communism. Some 25 years later, this process has, if anything, only intensified further. It seems that the whole Europe, and especially Eastern Europe, is slowly - or not so slowly - turning right.
Now, we can even observe how the notions of history of this new, unified, Europe are being shaped on some very strong ideological standpoints. And that ideology is quite often in the service of complete denunciation of those few decades under the socialist regimes, complete denunciation of socialist ideology, and even left wing politics. We also see how different revolutions in European history are now valued on a completely different scale and put on the completely opposite sides of the spectrum, when it comes to their recently imposed value.
It is an official politic of the EU to look at both fascism and socialism as two totalitarianisms from the opposite sides of the political spectrum. Thus, condemning socialism to a solely negative perspective; condemning, but also emphasizing only its crimes and mistakes as if those negative aspects were the only ones; making it equally as “bad”, if not even worse than fascism. Therefore, they are completely erasing one of socialism’s greatest achievements – World War II fight and victory over fascism as the only totalitarian ideology.
Debate on the true nature and especially manifestations of socialist ideology is one that won’t ever go away, probably. But, when imposing a certain value or characterization to a political stance, our analysis needs – or at least, it should tend to be – all encompassing. I will not venture into this discussion at this moment, but I cannot pass on the opportunity to paraphrase a prominent Croatian historian, author, and social figure in general, recently departed Slavko Goldstein, when he writes that we can call communism a one party system, or a political dictatorship, or whatever, but never totalitarian. Because socialist ideology is not only represented by rigid political and social dogma and Stalin, by also by the Paris commune, the Second International, up to modern Euro-communism. Whilst fascism was nothing else but totalitarian. It never had even a glimpse of democracy in its roots and it was not set as an ideology serving the goals of freedom, social justice, and equality. Therefore, communism and socialism can never be the same.
But, the main issue with this modern European perspective of the two totalitarianisms is that it impedes with our notions of historical events such as the French Revolution, the October Revolution, or the pan-European wave of national revolutions in 1848, but also World War II and its aftermath by giving us a purely ideological and political lens through which we are supposed to look at history. What it does, is distorting our image. What it also does, is pushing us toward a set of values that we should know are not good.
Where do we fit in all of this? We as the former country of Yugoslavia, and we as our independent nations and countries of Serbia, Croatia, etc. As we all know, our history was not that of the rest of the Eastern bloc countries. Through World War II, the decades which followed, and especially in our transition from one system to the next, we diverged to a different historical path. Somehow, we ended up at the same point as they did in 2018.
I decided to use Serbia as an example for a post-socialist society in which anti-communism with its anti-revolutionary attitude is shaping and articulating social values. Moreover, how the end result of this process is a rapid decay of identity based on anti-fascist struggle and also the ever growing fascistization of our society. Observed from aspects of historiography, education, politics, official memory, monuments, or even pop-culture, this topic could easily occupy volumes upon volumes of analysis. But, I considered it to be really important to do a presentation of a brief overview that could eventually instigate a much broader look.
As we all know, Yugoslavia broke up in extremely violent circumstances brought upon by ideology of extreme nationalism. Even though we are able to trace a certain thread of nationalism during the last stages of existence of the former country, transformation of the dominant narrative was quite abrupt and violent unlike for the rest of the Eastern bloc countries.
More or less hysteric in its manifestations, anti-communism in Serbia is a constant since the 1990is, evolving to an ideological and political mainstream, violently clashing with the former system of values, completely negating the past, and trying to ‘’rehabilitate’’ the old(er) and, ‘’true’’ or ‘’appropriate’’ tradition.
Then again, how are we supposed to disconnect ourselves from the quite unequivocal historical truth that this revolution came from the anti-fascist character of the partisan movement? Are we to try to simply forget this aspect of our past and turn to some other, more ‘’appropriate’’ traditions, such as our Medieval history? Are we to try and give that notion of anti-fascism to some other, again more ‘’appropriate’’ movements and figures? Are we to completely negate the anti-fascist character of the socialist resistance during World War II? Or, are we, in fact, allowed to say that fascism was not so bad, and if bad it was not as nearly as bad as the horrors of socialism and its revolution? Looking at the ongoing social, political, and academic processes in Serbia, my answer would be: all of the above.
Let’s start with an overview of Serbian historiography in the last 25 years. We can observe a very strong shift in topics, content, and also the voice used. Attention of many Serbian historians went to the obscurely analyzed alternatives to the partisan movement. We are able to observe a historiographical rehabilitation of the chetnik movement and their leader Draza Mihailovic. Almost countless apologetic martyrologies were written in order to try to historically wash their sins. Also, the second main purpose of their efforts is to discriminate the Communist party and the partisan movement from ever being a political or antifascist movement, calling it basically a “revolutionary, anti-Serbian, at this stage even anti-Yugoslav, communist, dogmatic group of thugs, thieves and usurpers’’. Some authors, among whom we must underline Kosta Nikolić, are trying to negate any other purpose of existence for the Communist Party and the partisan resistance movement but that of creating revolutionary chaos and disorder, anarchy and left wing ideology, directed solely against the interests of the Serbian people and the Karadjordjević dynasty. Communists and their propaganda are blamed for the defeat in the April war of 1941, and they are also accused of falsifying their alleged anti-fascist character based on the fact that they waited with the armed resistance until the German attack on the Soviet Union. Nikolić uses the argument the there was never any intent of the partisan movement to be an anti-fascist movement, and that it was a cleverly disguised socialist revolution from the start.
Continuing to the official Serbian history school textbooks, we are able to observe how this ideological “academic” stance is being translated into educational practices. History textbook authored by Djordje Djurić and Momčilo Pavlović, published in 2017 by the State institute for publication of school textbooks, intended for the senior grades of grammar schools, never includes the Communist party in the list of important political parties during the early years of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, but simply calls it a ‘’revolutionary movement’’ propagating a violent change of regime and taking over the power. Thus, the sanctions and ultimately the ban of the Communist party instigated by king Aleksandar in 1920 and 1921 are characterized as well deserved. Going on the circumstances of World War II we have the chetnik movement being labeled as the first anti-fascist movement, in its roots a royalist, pro-Yugoslav group, trying to keep the people from the retaliations of the occupying regime and to keep the old values of Kingdom of Yugoslavia still alive. On the other side, the partisan movement was described as rash, anarchistic, revolutionary movement, trying to overthrow the royalists by acts of revolution and a civil war. Even though they are defined by their pro-Yugoslav character, that aspect is put under a question mark, being that their intents are primarily – again – revolutionary. Of course, partisan movement won simply because they were able to cleverly fool the western allies into supporting their cause.
On the political and judiciary side of this process we have the official legal rehabilitation of Dragoljub Mihailović, already finished, and an ongoing process in the case of Milan Nedić. Both of them being represented as victims of a totalitarian, dogmatic regime seeking to punish all pro-Serbian and anti-revolutionary figures of World War II.
In effect, this has set in motion a series of processes when it comes to the official memory on World War II. We are finding ourselves in a situation where World War II monuments from the times of socialist Yugoslavia are disappearing or are being completely neglected and devastated; where we are met with an ever increasing number of monuments carrying chetnik iconography; we are dealing with initiatives to change the name of the city of Zrenjanin, not to commemorate the inappropriate legacy of the antifascist socialist revolution, but to commemorate Serbian struggles during World War I, our liberation and unification through the name of king Peter I; we are dealing with the parliamentary initiative to rename the Military academy by the name of Dragoljub Mihailović; and why are we bombarded with pop-culture content of chetnik iconography.
Main consequence of all of this is can be summed within a result of a survey my colleague Andrija Popović and I conducted for a research some year and a half ago. It shows that a vast majority of young people, under the age of 25, with most of them being students of the faculty of philosophy in Novi Sad, failed to recognize that Yugoslavia emerged from World War II on the winning side. And, at the end, as a result of all of that, we are dealing with scenes like this on the streets of Belgrade in 2018:
In the atmosphere of utter denunciation of any kind of internationalism, national identity is being associated with those moments or aspects of the past which create a rather absurd notion of its supposed “purity”, either in political, ideological or ethnic sense. So, what tops the enemy list? Yugoslavia. But, if we are to pinpoint the true pain spot, well, we actually cannot blame Yugoslavia as a general occurrence. We had one, ruled by a Serbian dynasty, deriving from the primarily Serbian struggle during World War I. So, it’s the second Yugoslavia, which arose from a socialist revolution of Yugoslav nations deriving from their struggle to liberate themselves from a fascist occupation. We, also, cannot blame anti-fascism as a notion, because even though that sounds quite appealing for some, that king of revisionism would not be accepted either by the public or by the international community. What are we left with? We are left with the socialist revolution which brought upon the second Yugoslavia.
What can be the final conclusion for all of this? A prominent Serbian sociologist Todor Kuljić says that every memory of public and collective past hides the danger of politicization. The past is not changed and memory is not influenced without a reason. Nationalist narrative deals not in demythologization, but in with open criticism of ideology. Conclusions are made pars pro toto: only the worst aspects are taken from socialism, while the good ones are completely negated. Socialism and its revolution are not mentioned in the context of anti-fascism – which Croatian historian Vjekoslav Perica calls the single greatest historical moment and achievement of South Slavic nations – but they are mentioned in the context of totalitarian anti-national enemies condemned to a status of unwanted heritage. By this ideological salto mortale performed by historiography and the official memory, our antifascist legacy is not even in danger anymore, it is almost completely lost. By wanting to forget one, we inadvertently forgot the other.