Review of Bato Tomasevic, Life and Death in the Balkans: A family saga in a century of conflict, Hurst and Company, London, 2008
The former Yugoslav lands have produced an extraordinarily rich body of autobiographical and eyewitness literature. So much so, that this has even somewhat squeezed out the academic literature. Rather too many readers seeking an introduction to the region have begun with Rebecca West’s dreadful, rambling travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Rather too many English-language authors writing about Yugoslavia in World War II have relied too heavily on a small number of memoirs and diaries, so well worn from repeated use that they have virtually dissolved into general knowledge: in particular, the memoirs of Milovan Djilas and the war diaries of Vladimir Dedijer. Journalistic accounts still largely dominate the literature on the 1990s Bosnian war. For all that, memoirs can provide an accessible and vivid introduction to the region – provided they are taken with a pinch of salt. The English-language reader is, in fact, limited to the tip of the iceberg; the vast body of memoir literature available only in the former-Yugoslav languages comprises a goldmine for the historian.
Bato Tomasevich’s autobiography and family saga, Life and death in the Balkans, is rather special, in that the Montenegrin author was just old enough to remember the 1930s (his earliest memory is of the assassination of Yugoslavia’s King Aleksandar in 1934), fought and was wounded as a Partisan in World War II, was a relatively well-connected member of the Yugoslav establishment in the Communist era, played a minor, though not wholly negligible role in the drama of Yugoslavia’s break-up, and was an observer of the wars of the 1990s – all the way up to the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Tomasevic does not provide much in the way of grand analysis, or give the reader any greater insight into any of these episodes at the all-Yugoslav level. But in telling the story of a Montenegrin individual and his family, the author throws much light on the Montenegrin identity, relationship to Serbia and experience within Yugoslavia – particularly as regards the period up to 1945.
Nebojsa ‘Bato’ Tomasevic’s father Petar was raised on the heroic tales of his Montenegrin forebears’ battles with the Ottomans. A veteran of the First Balkan and First World Wars, he supported Montenegro’s union with Serbia in 1918. After that, fired by romantic Serb-nationalist ideals, he settled in newly reconquered Kosovo as a colonist, where he became a police officer. Despite this, Petar strove to build good relations with the local Albanians, even learning some Albanian and becoming blood-brother to an Albanian village headman. This policy was not well received by other members of Yugoslav officialdom in Kosovo, which sanctioned oppressive and discriminatory treatment of the Albanian population – which Bato describes.
Bato attributes his father’s exile from Kosovo to his friendly policy toward Albanians, as well as to his readiness to welcome into his home the relatives of a Communist killed by the Belgrade police. The book provides an insight into the nature of the early Communist movement; the Communists in interwar Yugoslavia were often the children of members of the national or local elite. Thus, the author recounts how his father, as a deputy police chief in the historic Montenegrin capital of Cetinje, where he had been relocated, confronted with his officers a Communist-led student demonstration, among whose leaders was his own daughter, the author’s older sister Stana: ‘The police were carrying truncheons, the students their schoolbags. When the two advancing columns met, Father raised his truncheon and struck his daughter. This was the signal for the rest of the police to lay into the students.’ (p. 116).
Nevertheless, as Bato tells the story, Petar and Stana ended up on the same side following the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941 – of those who rejected collaboration with the occupier. A considerable portion of the book is devoted to Bato’s memoirs of World War II, providing the reader with an insight into the oft-neglected history of Axis-occupied Montenegro. Although Petar had been a supporter of Montenegro’s unification with Serbia in 1918, his opposition to collaboration marked him out from the Chetniks – the principal Serb-nationalist armed movement in occupied Yugoslavia. The author describes in some detail Chetnik collaboration with the occupiers: ‘In all parts of Montenegro, including Cetinje, units of Chetniks were formed as part of Draza Mihajlovic’s [sic] movement. These were armed by the Italians and sent to fight the Partisans.’ (p. 177)
Bato’s family supported the Partisans; his brother Dusko survived their legendary battle with the Germans at Drvar in May 1944, only to be subsequently killed by the Chetniks. Stana was a prominent Communist, and Bato describes how he joined the Partisans by accident, when he tried to visit her on Partisan territory and was wrongly assumed to have come to volunteer – a misunderstanding he was too embarrassed to correct. Bato nevertheless entered the movement enthusiastically, but his memoirs are far from whitewashing the Partisans’ record, and he describes their execution of the Communists’ political opponents, not to mention the atrocities of their Soviet allies. As he recalls one fellow Partisan telling him: ‘Russians are good comrades, and when it comes to fighting no worse than Montenegrins, but they’ll drink anything that’s not water. Groups of them wander around at night and go into houses, especially out-of-the-way farms, looking for wine and brandy, and raping any woman in sight. Nothing is sacred to them. They don’t seem to care we’re allies. The peasants have started keeping guard and shooting any Russians that try to enter their houses. You can imagine what problems this causes !’ (pp. 341-342)
Even under the post-war Communist regime, the ties of kinship and locality counted for much. Bato recalls how he secured a coveted place to study English at the Philosophy Faculty in Belgrade, solely because he bumped into an old Montenegrin friend who worked as a clerk at that institution, and who pushed his application to the top of the pile. Bato eventually secured an enviable job in the Yugoslav diplomatic service in the UK. His standing with the regime benefited from the fact that his sister Stana was a high-ranking functionary upon whom Tito himself looked favourably. He claims Stana was made Ambassador to Norway on Tito’s personal initiative, and that when she created a stir by marrying a Norwegian man, Tito invited the couple to be his personal guests at his Adriatic retreat at Brioni, thereby ensuring her status and career did not suffer.
Bato himself, however, was not so influential that he could get away with marrying a foreigner; his marriage to an Englishwoman called Madge Phillips resulted in the swift termination of his diplomatic career. But he remained a well connected individual in the Communist regime, which ensured that he continued to play a significant role in Yugoslav affairs. Thanks both to his connections and standing and to sheer luck, he came into personal contact with various interesting historical figures, and not just Yugoslavs. They included the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha, British envoy to Tito’s headquarters Fitzroy Maclean, former Yugoslav Crown Prince Djordje Karadjordjevic and British Labour politicians Denis Healey and Hugh Gaitskell. He was a passenger on the plane that crashed at Munich in February 1958, carrying home Bobby Charlton and other members of the Manchester United football team following a European Cup match in Belgrade. But perhaps the most curious personal encounter of the book was Bato’s witnessing of the death by suicide of Milan Nedic, the former leader of the Serbian Nazi-puppet regime.
In the final section of the book, Bato recounts his experiences during the break-up of Yugoslavia and Wars of Yugoslav Succession. Following the publication of sections of the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in September 1986, he recalls the heated arguments he would have with old Serbian friends: ‘Instead of a modern Yugoslavia, many of them now wanted a Greater Serbia.’ (p. 452) He is forthright in describing the role of the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic in destroying Yugoslavia and promoting Serbian nationalistic hatred, though he has harsh words too for the Croatian regime of Franjo Tudjman. Appointed in 1990 director of the Federal TV station Yutel at the initiative of Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic, Bato attempted to promote Markovic’s vision of a united Yugoslavia, but was ultimately forced to flee Belgrade to escape prosecution by the Milosevic regime: ‘Serbian nationalists, it seemed, wanted to get rid of all those who in any way, however slight, obstructed the creation of their “Greater Serbia”.’ (p. 468)
Bato’s judgement on the War of Yugoslav Succession was that ‘The Partisans had now withdrawn before the onslaught of nationalism, and the resurrected Chetniks and Ustashas wanted to renew the war and, if possible, win the battles they had lost when fighting on the side of Hitler. They thought it was still not too late to achieve their goals of a greater Serbia and greater Croatia by means of violence and plunder, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps.’ (p. 483). He has no hesitation in identifying the policy waged by the Serb and Croat forces against the Bosnian Muslims as one of ‘genocide’ (p. 486).
Bato Tomasevic was raised on stories of his family’s and country’s battles with the Turks; his father was a Serb nationalist. Yet his family’s story, as he tells it, is one in which the politics of national chauvinism are consistently rejected: from the anti-Albanian racism of the interwar Yugoslav administration, through the Chetnik movement of World War II, up to the Memorandum of SANU, the regimes of Milosevic and Tudjman and the genocide of the Bosniaks. When so many choose to obfuscate the Yugoslav story, having it presented so straightforwardly by an eyewitness from such a background is a breath of fresh air.
As Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said, ‘The more closely the democratic system of state approximates to complete freedom of secession, the rarer and weaker will the striving for secession be in practice’. If you want to keep a multinational union together, the best way to do it is to grant maximum freedom to its constituent nations, which will then have no reason to secede. The benefits of full sovereignty for individual nations can be enjoyed alongside the benefits of a larger union; we can have our cake and eat it too. The Yugoslav union could have been saved if only Serbia’s political classes had been ready to accept its evolution into an eight-member confederation, with its constituent republics and autonomous provinces enjoying complete self-rule. Unfortunately, Serbia’s politicians and intellectuals preferred no union at all to a confederal union. The European Union, for its part, though still a confederation, has already integrated too far, to the point where the sovereignty and democratic rights of its constituent nations are being violated; the British government is rightly resisting further unwanted integration. For multinational unions, less is usually more:
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
These are factors worth pondering as we witness the British coalition government’s clumsy attempt to dictate to the Scottish people how their referendum on independence should be framed and organised. The government has rejected the idea of a three-question referendum, as favoured by Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party leader and First Minister of Scotland), in which the Scots would be permitted to vote not only in favour of independence or of the status quo, but also of a third option – ‘devolution-max’, or full sovereignty over domestic affairs but with continued membership of the United Kingdom, and a continued common foreign policy and defence. The government is instead insisting on an ‘all or nothing’ referendum, in which Scots would be forced to choose between full independence or the status quo, and on a deadline by which the referendum would be held.
At this rate, the British government might as well simply declare the United Kingdom dissolved. There is no surer way of persuading a constituent nation to secede from a union than by trying to bully its elected representatives in this manner, and restrict its citizens’ right to vote as freely as possible. David Cameron and his ministers will have only themselves to blame if Scotland’s voters, angry at being denied the right to vote freely without interference from London, react by turning in favour of independence. If they want to save the union, Westminster’s politicians should recognise the right of Scotland’s elected representatives to choose when to hold their referendum and on what basis it should be held. With the majority of Scots opposed to independence, there is every reason to believe that granting them the right to devo-max would be the best way to save the union.
I support devo-max for Scotland. I support the right of the Scottish people to have all the sovereign rights that other nations in Europe enjoy. If they want to be fully independent, I respect their right to be. However, I hope they will opt instead for having their cake and eating it. There is no reason why left-wing Scotland should be forced to endure government by right-wing Westminster; a sovereign Scotland will in all likelihood have more enlightened domestic government than the one the UK has at present.
On the other hand, the UK has, since 1997, been a major positive force in world affairs; first under Tony Blair, then under Gordon Brown and now under David Cameron. However regrettable his domestic policies, Cameron’s foreign policy has been almost impeccable; where Blair was a pioneer of progressive foreign policy, Cameron adopted his model and, if anything, improved upon it. It would be a loss for the world if the UK were to be diminished by Scotland’s secession. By contrast, Salmond’s peacenik, anti-nuclear record suggests that an independent Scotland led by him would be likely to obstruct rather than support progressive moves on the global stage by Britain and the West.
Over and above such cold calculations remains the fact that the majority of Scots, like the majority of English and Welsh, continue to identify, at least at some level, with Britain as a whole. Devo-max would best reconcile the self-identification of Scots as Scots with their self-identification – and the self-identification of the English and Welsh – as Brits.
Some fear that Scottish sovereignty would leave the Conservatives too overwhelmingly dominant in the rump UK. This might not be so straightforward. Comfortable dominance over Labour in a rump UK, and in an English parliament, might lead the English Conservatives to splinter, and see the re-emergence of a gentler, one-nation current of Conservatism in opposition to the currently dominant Thatcherites. At the very least, the establishment of an English parliament would help the English to understand and articulate their own national identity better, as the Scots already do. The Welsh may opt to retain a closer union with England than the other parts of the UK will, but that again is up to them.
PS I have purposely omitted discussing Northern Ireland in this article, as that is a whole different kettle of fish…
I am going abroad until 13 February, and shall probably not be able to post much while I am away.
Since Greater Surbiton was launched on 7 November, the site has had over seventeen thousand views. The largest number of views in a single day was 1,452, at the time of this post.
Several people have asked me why I don’t have comments on my blog. There are several reasons. Firstly, as it is, the blog is just about as time-consuming as I can manage. If I were to moderate and post comments as well, it would just be too much. Secondly, I am often depressed by the quality of comments on the blogs that I visit – the abuse, vulgarity, flippancy and repetitiveness. I have a low tolerance for these things and am not interested in dealing with them, but I don’t want to be in the position of having to censor comments. It’s better when people write considered responses on their own blogs than off-the-cuff remarks on someone else’s. I was pleased, for example, when Backword Dave wrote a thoughtful response to my first posted item. Of course, it’s different for blogs with multiple authors and lots of readers, like Harry’s Place or Crooked Timber, where the discussion is much of the point. But for me, the real pleasure has been to write about things I wouldn’t otherwise get to write about; I don’t necessarily want to have a public debate every time. All private comments sent to me are welcome, however.
I have a somewhat more positive view of blogging than Oliver Kamm, who maintains one of the most consistently high-quality blogs on the ‘net and therefore has every right to deplore the poor quality of a lot of what is out there. In general, despite such undeniably widespread poor quality, I favour something that facilitates global communication and the exchange of information. The democratic nature of blogging, whereby anyone can post or comment, is of course a double-edged sword. The amount of abuse and vulgarity in the blogosphere is lamentable. I make no apology for being rude to people with thoroughly obnoxious views – chauvinists, genocide-deniers, etc. – sometimes politeness would not be warranted. But I’m not proud of having sometimes exchanged actual insults. All credit to those who manage to be more consistently restrained than I am. Over here, I have at least tried to follow the advice of my friend Modernity, a much more experienced blogger than I am, who recommended to me when I began that I avoid fighting blog-wars.
Even worse than the vulgarity and abusiveness is the sheer mediocrity of a lot of what passes for discussion online. In the unlikely event that anyone reading this hasn’t already experienced it, the absolute lowest quality of debate that I know of can be found at the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ site. Reading the endless string of totally mindless off-the-cuff remarks that regularly appear there, one sometimes feels that democratisation of the means of communication has gone too far…
For all that, blogs provide a forum for political discussion that might not otherwise take place, and for investigative writing that might not otherwise appear. Readers will no doubt be aware of the excellent Harry’s Place, and its unique role in keeping track of Islamism’s followers and accommodators in the West and enabling issues relating to them to be debated publicly. This is one of the key topics of our day and what Harry’s Place is doing is absolutely crucial. Particularly so given the prevalence of what might humorously be called the ‘left errors’ and ‘right errors’ vis a vis Islamism: on the one hand, the view that Islamic extremists are the authentic voice of the oppressed, and that to condemn them is ‘Islamophobic'; on the other, the view that all Muslims are equivalent to the extremists. Both errors involve conflating moderate, conservative and extremist Islam. Harry’s Place does an excellent job in showing why this is not the case; a lesson that needs to be taken on board if the struggle against Islamofascism is to be won, and the Islamic world freed from the threat it poses.
I would also like to draw readers’ attention to the consistently excellent Srebrenica Genocide Blog, which meticulously keeps track of events, stories and research related to the Srebrenica massacre, and refutes the arguments of the deniers point by point. This blog exemplies what can be achieved by an informed blogger carefully investigating a particular, important subject, one that deserves careful attention but would probably not receive it anywhere else; certainly nowhere so accessible.
The explosion of blogs is part of the process of globalisation. Even a blog like mine, with a modest number of readers, is looked at all over the world. Judging by the ‘Clustermaps’ on many blogs, this is entirely common. I am happy to be participating.
PS I liked this when I discovered it by accident.
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