Historian Jelena Djureinović, PhD parses the trajectory and the many facets of historical revisionism in Serbia.
Assorted presidents, collaborators, and royals also make an appearance.
Support the Podcast
Become a monthly patron on Patreon:
Make a one-time contribution via PayPal/credit card:
Episode Transcript (and More)
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
At the very end of last year, a street in the village of Desimirovac, in the Kragujevac municipality, in Serbia, was named after the World War II General Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović. Representatives of an outfit called the Movement for the Reconstruction of the Kingdom of Serbia said they “want every city in Serbia to get a square or street with the name and memorial of General Draža Mihajlović.”
I’ve already discussed historical revisionism on the show, in Episode 10, “Croatia’s History Illness” with Hrvoje Klasić and in Episode 13, “Croatia’s Political Tragedy” with Ivo Goldstein. Croatia is not the only country dealing with historical revisionism; it takes places all over the Balkans. Today we’re going to look at Serbia.
Every regime renames streets as part of its memory politics. The previous regime’s narrative must go so that the ruling regime can reinforce its own legitimacy and power. After all, history is written by the victors. As elsewhere, in Serbia the renaming of streets is one of the many ways new interpretations of history gain the upper hand, from politics to pop culture.
I’ve invited Doctor Jelena Djureinović to help parse historical revisionism in Serbia and its many facets. She is the author of the 2019 book The Politics of Memory of the Second World War in Contemporary Serbia: Collaboration, Resistance and Retribution where she analyzes the ways in which the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland AKA the Četniks, including and especially Draža Mihajlović, have been rehabilitated and romanticized in Serbia.
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: The Partisans as led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia became criminalized and then various collaborators are positively reevaluated and rehabilitated as national heroes and become victims of communism.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jelena is a fellow alum of Central European University, where she got her master’s 13 years after me, in 2013; her doctorate in history is from the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, Germany. She is also a fellow podcaster: Kulture sećanja u dijalogu, or Memory Cultures in Dialog, a podcast of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund, tackles issues of collective memory, remembering, and forgetting; one in eight episodes so far in in English. And as of last year, she works at the University of Vienna where she focuses on memory politics in today’s authoritarianism and populism, particularly in the post-Yugoslav space.
Assorted presidents, collaborators, and royals also make an appearance.
Before we get to it: Like all the past and upcoming episodes of Remembering Yugoslavia, this episode is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia monthly on Patreon. A special thanks to Bojan for his generous contribution.
Becoming Dr. Jelena Djureinović
PETER KORCHNAK: Doctor Jelena Djureinović, walk me first through your own personal history. How did you get here? And to studying historical revisionism in Serbia?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: I was born in Zenica in then Yugoslavia, today Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1986. We actually lived in a small village called Bistrica. And it’s kind of a long way from there to now working at the University of Vienna.
As soon as the war started, so in spring of ‘92, part of my family got stuck because there were already road barricades and everything there. And some of us got to Serbia. I think it’s important to emphasize that it wasn’t about Serbia as our nation state or something like that. We didn’t have any relatives in Serbia, my whole family, all of my relatives, we all kind of come from Bosnia. Serbia is not something we have relation to at all. But it was the closest place to get to. And as many other people, my family also thought that this would be something like some kind of small troubles that would last for a few months.
We moved first to Apatin in Serbia, in the north of Serbia, in Vojvodina. And then to Novi Kneževac, a small town in the eastern part of Vojvodina, and then I went to high school and studied in Novi Sad. In college, I studied journalism and media studies, actually.
Sometime towards the end of my high school, and at the beginning of undergrad studies, something started happening such as the changes to the veteran law in Serbia that equalized the communist-led Partisans with the Četniks. And this was happening, like this big, really strong wave of historical revisionism, as I was at the same time getting politically socialized in a way. And this was something that really seemed hard to understand. How is it possible that suddenly you just read in the newspaper that a law declared a defeated movement from the Second World War antifascist, equal to their enemies, actually?
And then later, another topic that I was always interested in was the problem of far right, in the post-Yugoslav space. A few years after my undergrad, I ended up applying for and getting into the nationalism studies program at the Central European University, then in Budapest, today, unfortunately, in Vienna. I’m a historian, by training now. I have a PhD in history.
Serbian Historical Revisionism According to Jelena Djureinović
PETER KORCHNAK: I like to start with definitions. So what do we talk about when we talk about historical revisionism in Serbia today?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: A very simple and short way to explain it would be that it is a politically motivated revision of history. The political nature of it is crucial for [the] understanding of historical revisionism, because it is not just a revision as a very usual phenomenon in history writing because new sources appear, new paradigms, new approaches become dominant, and so on. In the case of Serbia, and of course, in and in other contexts, where we have the issue of historical revisionism, it is most evident in the case of the Second World War in Serbia. So the historical period, which is very well documented in historiography, there’s an abundance of primary sources, and, basically, there is no new knowledge that would drastically change our understanding of the war and its actors. So, it is the interpretation of the known facts and primary sources and documents and everything that changed. And the facts that are not adequate for some contemporary political purposes, such as the issue of domestic collaboration, of course, are simply ignored, or even, to go a step further, denied.
So, if we talk about historical revisionism in the Serbian context, I would say that the main motivation of it is anticommunism and the main subjects of it are collaboration, resistance, and postwar retribution against the defeated forces and the enemies of the Partisans.
PETER KORCHNAK: The defeated forces here is the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland, better known as the Četniks. Led by General Dragoljub Draža Mihajlović, the Četniks were the exiled royal regime’s military force cum guerrilla army in occupied Yugoslavia. They were headquartered in Serbia’s Ravna Gora region, from which they derive their other moniker, the Ravna Gora Movement. They were not only staunch royalists but also Serbian nationalists. After first fighting the German occupiers for a few months in 1941, they switched sides and collaborated with them and their puppet regime as well as with the Italians in fighting Tito’s Partisan resistance; they also carried out massacres of Croats and Bosnian Muslims in a bid to establish a homogenous Greater Serbia within Yugoslavia. They lost. After the war, many of the survivors that didn’t flee abroad were prosecuted, jailed, or, like Mihajlović, executed by the new Communist Party-led regime.
The Partisan-led People’s Liberation War was one of the socialist Yugoslavia’s founding myths. In that discourse, Četniks were indeed a defeated force, reactionaries, nationalists…the all-around bad guys. But, even though they could not be discussed in the open, their support continued below the surface of official discourses.
Jelena Djureinović on the History of Memory Culture in Serbia
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: The Yugoslav memory culture was based on the Partisan myth, so called Partisan myth. It was based on the People’s Liberation War, which was, at the same time not only the struggle of the Yugoslav partisans against the occupation and collaborators, but also [a] parallel socialist revolution.
And I think, in some of your previous episodes, you’ve talked also about the Yugoslav memory cultures there. It was very all encompassing, especially a bit later, when there were big memorial complexes built and [the] film industry that was working really hard on producing different movies related to the People’s Liberation War, celebrating the heroism of it and everything.
Of course, there was some kind of counter memory that existed. There are many examples of people interacting also with Partisan monuments, especially countryside in different ways, if nothing, sometimes just by damaging or destroying some Partisan memorials.
PETER KORCHNAK: The late 1980s marked a turning point.
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: What happens in the 80s, after Tito died, is that during the overall crisis of Yugoslavia, the counter narratives become more visible in the public sphere completely openly. Especially if we talk about Serbia, it is related also to the rise of Serbian nationalism in the public sphere. Both nationalism and the memory of the defeated Second World War forces, those things existed, of course, before the 80s, they didn’t suddenly came come to being and exploded, they just became more visible in the public and more dominant. And the overall crisis of the legitimacy of the regime, the economic crisis, and everything also kind of helped these narratives to find popular support. So already in the late 80s, there are some commemorative practices celebrating, commemorating victims of communism, that always, since the very beginning, included the defeated military and political movements of the Second World War.
PETER KORCHNAK: What happened after socialist Yugoslavia disintegrated?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: And then in the 90s, like already at the beginning of the 90s, when the political parties started forming before the first multiparty elections, the political opposition to then Socialist Party of Serbia of Slobodan Milošević emerged as the parallel anticommunist community of memory. While the regime of Slobodan Milošević kind of appropriated the Partisans in this mix with Serbian nationalism, from below we have various commemorative practices emerging that focused on victims of communism. At the same time, if we talk about the Serbian context, this also includes the defeated forces of the Second World War, such as the Četniks and other collaborationists.
What happens then, in 2000, after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, is that the political coalition that comes to power is the former political opposition of course, and the anticommunist memory politics basically becomes the state policy. Basically, the Partisans were no longer the appropriate historical reference for the political elites after the fall of Slobodan Milošević. And they had already been involved in bottom up memory politics and memory work that celebrated these different actors that were opposed to the Partisans.
So at the beginning, the official memory politics of the first decade after 2000 really resembled other post socialist states across Central and Eastern Europe, meaning that the Partisans as led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia became criminalized and then various collaborators are positively reevaluated and rehabilitated as national heroes and victims of communism.
Četniks as my main case study and as the most important subject of revision as well, they come here into play as both victims of communism and as a movement constructed into a national antifascist movement.
Now, of course, we have new dynamics related to the rise of authoritarianism, and since 2012, and the Serbian Progressive Party, which is now in power, where we have a different dynamics where the Partisans are appropriated in a very similar way as during the 90s as a Serbian army.
Jelena Djureinović on Memory Work from Below
PETER KORCHNAK: Long story short, in the course of 40 years three different interpretations of the same established historical facts about World War II have been the prevailing discourse. What I find interesting in your work is that revisions of history haven’t always happened top-down, at the elite level, by political parties or individual politicians or intellectuals. Significant interpretations and reinterpretations of history have been taking place from the bottom up. Who is doing this memory work from below?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: When talking about memory politics, many people just look at the dominant revisionist memory politics that comes from the state actors. And then when studying bottom-up memory politics, people always turn to this anti-nationalist, liberal, and leftist opposition to the dominant narratives.
But these narratives and this memory politics is not something that came out of nowhere. It does have a wide support, of course in society. So I wanted to see what happens really, how is this memory politics performed at some bottom-up level. And if you look at the development of the anticommunist memory culture in Serbia since the late 80s, it has always been also strongly bottom-up oriented.
And there were all of these local commemorations happening across Serbia and memorials being built that we don’t even know about because they are never in mainstream media. I try to map the most important actors, bottom-up actors, and we have different actors there. Of course, some of them are there for purely political purposes, such as some smaller political parties and some far right groups.
But then there are also people who have [a] very direct connection to the topic, in the sense that they either consider themselves victims of communism or their parents or grandparents were either persecuted or executed in the postwar period and so on. But even with these actors who have the direct connection, it is, again, always also about the defeated military and political actors of the Second World War. For example, there is the Association of Victims of Communism and Political Prisoners that I really studied because they organized some of commemorations in Belgrade.
What is really important is that we have the support of the Serbian Orthodox Church since the late 80s. There is no anticommunist commemoration that goes without a memorial religious service. Many of them, especially for some of the more prominent actors, such as Dragoljub Draža Mihajlović of the Četniks involve very high representatives of the Church.
Other holders of some kind of symbolic power are the Royal Family Karadjordjević, who I really love to call the pretenders, the throne pretenders. So they are always involved and appear at different commemorations and so on.
And at the end, I would also add that this is not something marginal. The state, the official memory politics since the year 2000, has not produced any memorials to victims of communism or the Četniks. If these memorials exist, they are at the local level. I mapped dozens of them across Serbia. And if they had some kind of official support, that only happened when there was someone from a certain political party such as the Serbian Renewal Movement of Vuk Drašković, who was the mayor of the town or president of the municipality or something like that or the village, and then they financed it. If you look at Belgrade, there are no official memorials that would really illuminate the official memory politics of the first decade after the fall of Slobodan Milošević. The whole landscape of memorials dedicated to the Četniks and victims of communism comes from below.
PETER KORCHNAK: Memorials and monuments are an obvious method for pushing a historical narrative. What about other manifestations of revisionism?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: As with any other any other examples of official memory politics, it kind of spreads across the institutional, legal, cultural, and media spheres.
But what interesting to see really, especially now looking at the first decade after the fall of Slobodan Milošević is that, there are no official memorials. Also, no new holidays, some and not really prominent street names, named after the Četniks, for example.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Kragujevac example from the open is indicative. The original push was to rename a street in the town proper after Mihajlović. But the best the monarchist activists could do is have a small previously nameless street in Desimirovac, a nearby village in the Kragujevac municipality, named after the general.
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: So what happens is that some of the references to socialist Yugoslavia and People’s Liberation War were removed, erased from the public sphere, but they were not replaced with these completely opposite actors and symbols, such as the Četniks especially.
So it would be easy to expect the state authorities, the political actors of the first couple of years after 2000 to build a large monument to Dragoljub Mihajlović in the middle of Belgrade or to Serbian victims of communism. But this did not happen and some of the bottom of initiatives that aim that it failed because they didn’t get state support.
However, the narratives and memory politics really spreads across different spheres, which means that there are different museum exhibitions, either permanent or traveling, that supported the dominant narratives.
And then also different media discourses were really, during the first 10 years after 2000, they were really promoting historical revisionism. And then there were different series of articles published by certain newspapers that really focused on individual stories of suffering of Serbian people under communism. And you always had this image of innocent victims of communism that was promoted through different channels.
And then the image that was constructed was that also people of Serbia, civilians, suffered the most in the postwar period. And it was especially the particular image of peasants that were left without anything, that were persecuted for no reason, and so on, just because they had a bit of land.
Revisionism in Serbia’s Legal Sphere
PETER KORCHNAK: What about the legal sphere? At the outset you said it was a new law that inspired you to study historical revisionism in Serbia. What kind of changes are we talking about?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: I think what is really interesting was the legal rehabilitation possibility that was introduced in 2006. Rehabilitation laws were supposed to help people who were prosecuted or persecuted or victimized in any way because of political and ideological reasons to be rehabilitated, but not collectively as some of legislation in some post-socialist countries did, where they simply rehabilitated everyone who was sentenced in show trials. In this case, it wasn’t only about trials, it was also if someone was imprisoned, if someone was deprived of any rights. So it was very broad.
Basically, the legislation very obviously aimed at rehabilitating the defeated Second World War forces. And as soon as it it was passed, the requests were filed for rehabilitation of the most prominent actors of the Second World War, including the head of the collaborationist administration Milan Nedić, the fascist Dimitrije Lotić, and Dragoljub Mihajlović of the Četniks, for example.
The court allows [the] revisionist interpretation of history to just simply be presented there without interruption, without intervention by someone, which means that different people who request rehabilitation in the case, such as in the case of Dragoljub Mihajlović, invite historians who will provide the interpretation of history that will serve the positive outcome of rehabilitation.
The significance of legal rehabilitation is that it institutionalized existing political rehabilitation of these actors, especially Dragoljub Mihajlović, he was rehabilitated, others such as Milan Nedić were not.
It draws the line between, Milan Nedić was really a collaborator, while the Četniks were not, and that’s why they can do a habilitated and he cannot.
So I think, practical consequences of rehabilitation for most of the people I interviewed as well, family members, descendants and so on, barely exist. It is very complicated to get any kind of compensation. Rehabilitation is a piece of paper, it doesn’t really change anything in the public discourses or in anything.
When Dragoljub Mihajlović was rehabilitated you know, nothing happened. But it did make his rehabilitation, the existing political one, very formal and institutionalized, recognizing him as a victim of communism and victim of historical injustice.
But I think what is probably a very interesting example of the whole circus, media circus surrounding it was that the government, established a special commission whose only task was to search for the remains of Draža Mihajlović during the rehabilitation process. And their work was followed daily by all media. And every two days there was an article saying that they came to some breakthrough. They found the secret archive that no one had opened for 50 years. Then they went to London to get this archive, then there was another one in some village near Belgrade, then they went to Moscow.
Then they found in Ada Ciganlija in Belgrade, the mass grave with Mihajlović’s remains. It turned out that the bones were from animals. That’s, for me, the best example of this kind of engagement with history in this kind of way for daily political purposes and for the purposes of mobilization, political and national mobilization.
Serbian Royalty and Pop Culture
PETER KORCHNAK: You mentioned the Serbian royalty whom the Četniks fought for and whom the Serbian Orthodox Church supports. I can’t imagine the restoration of the monarchy is a goal of this revisionist memory work but it did cross my mind.
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: That’s very connected to this. TV series and movies are a great example for [sic] it, some of them produced by the national television during the last 20 years were portraying the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as this interwar heaven on earth.
When we look at some some of the TV shows made about the Second World War and the Četniks, when they show the time, slightly before the outbreak of the Second World War, we see these people in summer in countryside, roasting some meat, women are really beautiful, and everyone is dressed up nicely, [the] weather is nice, everyone has plenty of food and everything, and you know when people are good, and that’s where the narrative of the Četniks also comes from. Because they, as people often refer to them the King’s army, and they were representing the government in exile.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia is the heaven that was then destroyed by communism, not even by the occupation, the Axis occupation, but by communism.
PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of pop culture: the theme of ‘communism destroyed the kingdom’ also appears in music, specifically narodna muzika, or folk music, which is very much associated with, let’s say, a certain milieu.
One of the most illustrative examples is “U šumici kolibica mala,” or “In a Small Wood a Small Hut.” Mihajlović appears as Uncle Draža; the royals in exile address the nation; and Tito, and by extension communism, was bad for Serbia.
The simple couplet rhyme goes, roughly: “In a small wood a small hut, in the hut Uncle Draža’s sleeping. Outside a hut there’s a radio, the Queen is speaking from London. Uncle Draža, uncorrupted soul, King Peter listened to your words and beat his chest about what Tito did to Serbia.”
The tune, with its folk music arrangements, is featured on the Serbian emigre Milan Miča Petrović’s album released in 1978 in Canada. During socialist Yugoslavia, the ideas the song espouses could openly be presented only outside the country. With independent Serbia’s political environment being more permissive, if not supportive, the song has been covered by domestic performers, most recently in 2019.
I’m going to play the song strictly to illustrate the discussion of Serbian historical revisionism in my, an audio medium. That is, the song appears here solely for education purposes; I neither endorse nor approve the song’s message.
“U šumici kolibica mala” by Milan Miča Petrović
PETER KORCHNAK: Other than the media circus and the pop culture products like movies or music that are out there for public consumption, how does this memory work impact an average Serb living their everyday life?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: Well, I think one of the goals of the anticommunist memory politics and historical revisionism of the post-Milošević period was also to convince the people that there is no alternative to capitalism and that the Serbian neoliberal nation state is the best form of political order and statehood that exists.
Why I’m saying that it is because there are still many people who lived in socialist Yugoslavia there are many people who remember it positively. Many people have ancestors who fought in the Partisans, and some of them are still alive.
So it was about showing that Yugoslavia was something negative, that this experiment of state socialism was something very negative. And of course, it is very directly connected: through rehabilitating some of the defeated Second World War forces Yugoslav state socialism is delegitimized. And this happens through criminalizing the Partisans, who become criminals and perpetrators.
I think it is hard to measure the actual impact on the ground. But I think the aims were kind of like this, to show that there is no alternative to what we are living in the post-Yugoslav period. And that any kind of attempt to create the alternative to the nation state and to the Serbian nation state was a terrible mistake that costed [sic] lives and everything. That’s why the victims of communism narrative.
PETER KORCHNAK: In my conversation with Doctor Jelena Djureinović we also touched upon the parallels in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina and we also talked about how Serbian revisionism interacts with the Croatian one. This discussion is in the extended version of this episode available to my Patreon supporters. You can find it at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia.
The Future of Historical Revisionism in Serbia
PETER KORCHNAK: Where do things stand now? And what’s next for these phenomena?
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: I think that both current and future challenge is the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism tendencies in many countries, including Serbia, contribute to further transformations of memory politics. And what we were talking about today was about historical revisionism mostly motivated by anticommunism. Now, there are more complicated issues happening in memory politics, where the very same actors who were involved in the anticommunist historical revisionism and rehabilitation of the Četniks now present themselves as the bulwark against historical revisionism and celebrate the Partisans.
So I think if we look at many countries where right-wing populist are in power, we have this turn to the national pride, to celebration of the national pride, where all historical events and periods are appropriated to serve the narrative of national heroism. And at the same time, as we can see it in Hungary or in Poland and in Serbia, of course, we have this narrative of the nation being the eternal underdog throughout history, and that there’s always some kind of conspiracy going on against it and so on.
So, I think this is something which becomes more and more widespread globally, and which is not related to [the] post-socialist context. Unfortunately, I cannot be an optimist about it. Historical revisionism becomes [sic] fully mainstream in most countries.
PETER KORCHNAK: The naming and renaming of streets is a topic I plan to return to on the show. For now, let it be said the revisionists aren’t done. And if Jelena’s gloomy prediction holds, things are going to get even worse.
Sure, everyone is entitled to their opinion and a Mihajlović street here or a Četnik monument there isn’t going to break the world in and of itself. But it can be one of those give-an-inch-they-will-take-a-mile things. I’m always cautious about slippery slope arguments but that’s pretty much what could be happening here. Normalize the victimhood narrative first, then go after the alleged perpetrators. The peril is real.
Every nation tells itself a story about itself. How it came about, who its enemies are, how it suffered and overcame throughout history. And that story evolves over time. It seems nowadays every nation in Central Eastern Europe is a victim, but that’s another story. What fascinates me about the case of Serbia, as well as Croatia, is how, thanks to nationalism, the same peoples went from being on the winning side in World War II to being victims in the space of a generation.
Ernest Renan was right: “suffering in common unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.”
And so the challenge of historical revisionism is really one of nationalism. That too, is a whole another story.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia:
JOŽE PIRJEVEC: They still remember Tito as a person who tried to overcome this terrible gap between rich north and the poor south.
PETER KORCHNAK: More than a generation after Tito’s death, biographies of the statesman keep appearing. Why is that? And how are they all different? What else is there to say about Tito?
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: biographies and biographers of Josip Broz Tito.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And if you like the show, give us a star rating or write a review wherever you listen to podcasts, like Apple Podcasts for example.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens, Puh, and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons; other music used solely for educational purposes under the fair use doctrine.
I am Peter Korchňak.