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The Writing on the Wall

In response to:

A Conglomerate Country from the November 7, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Deak seems to have made a serious effort to understand Yugoslavia’s national problems in his review of Ivo Banac’s The National Question in Yugoslavia [NYR, November 7, 1985]. I am convinced of Professor Deak’s good will by having seen in a previous issue of The New York Review that, unlike many others, he is conscious of the enormity of the Massacre of Serbs in the puppet state of Croatia from 1941 to 1945. Professor Deak probably knows that this Massacre explains many things in Yugoslavia’s fate: the reluctance of the monarchist guerrillas in the civil war to sacrifice more Serbian lives, the recruiting possibilities of the communist guerrillas in that war, among Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, the depression and helplessness of the Serbian nation in our time. To discuss Yugoslavia’s fate without reference to the Massacre, as people often do, makes things utterly complicated. If the Massacre is mentioned at all, this mentioning is usually followed immediately by an attempt to show that Serbs must be as guilty. It is tempting, but it is not always sound, to look for parallels. (Incidentally, Professor Deak is wrong at one point when he looks for a parallel. There are not “many Orthodox who claim to be Croats”; there were some between 1941 and 1945, but these had a knife under their throat. There are practically no more Catholics who claim to be Serbs; there were some before, notably in Dubrovnik, but they belong to a generation which is now very old and dying.)

I don’t know whether Professor Deak finds Banac’s “unrelenting indictment of Serbian rapacity, intolerance and duplicity” enough to explain the Massacre. Probably not, judging by the skeptical tone of the paragraph which starts with: “Perhaps Banac is too hard on the Serbians; perhaps, too, I have been unduly impressed by Banac’s catalog of the many injustices committed between 1919 and 1921.” Professor Deak should be especially skeptical toward Banac’s sympathies for the Serbian Social Democrats who under Dimitrije Tucović showed a Leninist inclination: they voted against war credits in 1912 and 1914 because for them Serbia fighting Turkey was a “colonialist” power, and Serbia fighting Austria-Hungary was an “imperialist” power. Professor Deak would immediately recognize the characteristic bent of mind from the very style of Tucović’s writings: this has nothing to do with “protesting consistently and intelligently.” Incidentally, the Yugoslav Communists, heirs to Tucović, adopted from the early 1920s the policy of breaking Yugoslavia, as a fruit of Versaille and of the “imperialist war of the Serbian bourgeoisie.” The idea of breaking Yugoslavia is crowned by the decisions of the fourth congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party (Dresden, 1928). According to these decisions Yugoslavia was to dissolve into independent states—Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia (Serbia was not mentioned). Only with the beginning of the Popular Front policies in the middle 1930s, a move toward unity, with federalism, was made. How can this possibly explain the support communist guerrillas received during the war, support received mainly from Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia?

Perhaps a clue for one possible explanation of the Massacre can be found in the very words “rapacity, intolerance, duplicity.” The fate of Serbs resembles the fate of Jews, not only in their being led to the slaughter at the same time in so many numbers, but also in their being branded with the same denigrating words. I would like to push this analogy with anti-Semitism a bit further. Adapting Hannah Arendt’s argument about anti-Semitism (the argument, inspired by Tocqueville, from the very beginning of the Origins of Totalitarianism), perhaps the hatred and contempt of Serbs among their neighbors can be explained by the Serb’s lack of power, more than by anything else. This hatred grew stronger as Serbian power in prewar Yugoslavia declined, and Serbs kept only some trappings of power, uniforms, and the memory of their glorious past. But power they did not have.

Stojan Dobrosavljević

Belgrade, Yugoslavia

Istvan Deak replies:

It is distressing to hear that there are only a few Greek Orthodox left in Yugoslavia who claim to be Croats, and practically no more Roman Catholics who claim to be Serbs. These people of the “wrong” religion or of the “wrong” nationality once formed a minor link between the two great masses of Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Now, apparently, this link, too, is gone, and the peoples of Yugoslavia have traveled a bit further down that terrible leveling road that has been beckoning to the nations of Eastern Europe for the last hundred-odd years.

What was once a colorful ethnic, religious, and cultural mosaic of Catholics, Protestants, Uniates, Orthodox, Jews, and Moslems, of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenes, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Germans, Romanians, and many others has become a dour world where the rule of one nationality gives way to that of another at the state border. (Or, as in the case of Yugoslavia, where the border of each federated republic also increasingly marks the end of one ethnic group and the beginning of another.)

Instead of itinerants and peddlers of the most varied nationalities and cultures, the traveler now meets with surly border guards whose principal occupation is to confiscate literature printed in the language of a native national minority. Instead of national minorities, there very often tend to be no minorities at all (because they have been liquidated in one way or another); at best, one finds oppressed minorities. In Romania, for example, where there is a vast Hungarian minority, members of the latter group are know officially as “Romanians of the Hungarian tongue,” and the government is doing its damnedest to put an end to this anomaly.

Admittedly, Yugoslavia is still far from adopting the oppressive measures of Romania, but the writing is on the wall, with members of its component nationalities, especially intellectuals, throwing historic blame on their counterparts and professing mortal fear for the survival of their own group. The list of past horrors is indeed infinite, since there has not been a single regime in Eastern Europe, not even post-1945 democratic Czechoslovakia—generally so admired in the West—that has not perpetrated horrible injustices against its minority populations. No matter whether the regime has been of the left, the center, or the right, its minority policy has been largely hypocritical and brutal. And the process is not over; wherever significant minorities can still be found, local communist governments are attempting to make them disappear. Never mind that these regimes claim to live in fraternal alliance with neighboring communist countries inhabited by the co-nationals of their own native minorities.

The peoples of Eastern Europe have always been deeply immersed in their own history. As a historian, I should admire them for their commitment to the past. As one born in those parts, I simply wish that this concern with history would lead to an admission that all were guilty. Finally, I would like to congratulate Mr. Dobrosavljević for having written so openly, from Belgrade, about so many things, including the past deeds of the Yugoslav Communists. The fact that he dared to request that his piece be published allows me to repeat what I wrote at the end of my article on Ivo Banac’s fine book: “If there is any hope in Eastern Europe for more fraternal relations among diverse peoples, Yugoslavia, in spite of everything, may represent that hope.”

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