Prophet in the Ruins

In the middle of the Bosnian war, I went to see Milovan Djilas at his apartment in Palmoticeva in Belgrade. Years before, my parents had passed a copy of The New Class to some Yugoslav friends during a summer holiday in Dalmatia. Djilas’s book gave me my first encounter with the public power of words: here was a book so dangerous that my parents and their Yugoslav friends could not even discuss it in private. So when I showed up at his door thirty years later, there must have been some awe still in my expression. He opened the door himself, a compact old man with a distracted and melancholy air, wearing faded corduroys, the jet black hair he once had in his Partisan days now turned white, his once-erect bearing now stooped, his pace shuffling. His wife, Stefica, had died recently, and he was alone in the dark apartment with his books and his memories. He offered me vodka and when I declined, he recalled how he had turned down Stalin when offered vodka. “What kind of people are you?” Stalin shouted. “We were partisans,” said Djilas to me, with an ascetic smile.

He told me how he had set off at the war’s end in an American Jeep to establish the new border between Croatia and Serbia. “I was a Montenegrin, after all,” he told me, “and so I was supposed to be impartial.” What principle, I asked him, did he use to decide which villages should go to the Croats and which to the Serbs? “The ethnic principle,” he said.

As we talked, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries were laying siege to Sarajevo and the city was dying in the cold and the dark. I asked him why his country had been torn apart. Because Tito had failed to allow democracy in Yugoslavia, because he turned out to be “both the master and the slave of the privileged Communist class.” He said it all with the gloomy relish of a man who had lived long enough to see history prove him right. And nationalism? He insisted that it was not an intrinsic folk emotion but an alien virus, a language game imported from the German lands in the nineteenth century and used by politicians to consolidate a new form of authoritarian populism in the Balkans.

The West’s greatest mistake, he then told me, had been to “satanize” the Serbs. He knew well enough what evil deeds his people had done, but he also knew—and the Dayton process was to prove him right—that the only road to a Balkan settlement runs through Belgrade. He viewed the collapse of Yugoslavia with the Olympian calm of a man who had seen poverty, war, power, and the inside of a prison and had survived it all. His detachment broke down only when he spoke of the historical revival of the Ustashi in Croatia and the Chetniks in Serbia. “We must be the only country in Europe,” he told …

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