Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Serbia and the Serbs in World War Two

‘Serbia and the Serbs in World War Two’, a collection of essays edited by Sabrina P. Ramet and Ola Listhaug, was published this autumn by Palgrave MacMillan. It examines the World War II history of Serbia and the Serbs from different perspectives. My own chapter examines the relationship between the Partisan movement and the Serbs.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction by Ramet:

‘War has a way of etching itself into the long-term memory of a nation, leaving permanent scars that serve to remind members of the nation of their past wounds, their past defeats, their past victories, and some- times of missed opportunities. World War Two, as the bloodiest war in European history, has left scars in every nation it touched – some deeper, some more painful, but everywhere scars, which affect not only those who lived through it, but also their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren. One of the reasons why these scars won’t go away is that, six-and-a-half decades after the end of the war, there continue to be debates in many European countries concerning the war. Leaving aside John Charmley’s pointed criticism of Winston Churchill and praise for Neville Chamberlain – which go against con- ventional wisdom about the comparative merits of these two British prime ministers – the debates have been the most lively in those states in which Axis-collaborationist regimes functioned during the war years. Whether one thinks of Norway or France or Croatia or Hungary5 or Romania, one can find debates about the role played by the local ‘quisling’, the incarceration and extermination of Jews (and, in the Croatian case, also of Serbs), the role played by the Churches (especially the leading religious institution in each country), and the question as to whether the Axis satellite may be considered to have been an authentic national state or not and, if not, whether it should be understood as a betrayal of the national tradition.

These same debates continue in Serbia today, but with an intensity which surpasses what one can find elsewhere in Europe. In Serbia, a law was passed in 2004 declaring that the Chetniks of Draža Mihailovic, who had collaborated with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War Two, were nonetheless ‘anti-fascists’, and granting state pensions to surviving Chetnik veterans. Again in Serbia, there has been talk of rehabilitating Milan Nedic, who headed the Axis-collaborationist regime in Serbia during World War Two, culminating in a formal petition filed with the District Court in Belgrade in 2008. Again, in Serbia, one finds history textbooks in use in the schools which present Nedic and Mihailovic in a favourable light. And further, Serbia, as Dubravka Stojanovic recounts in her contribution to this volume, was the only European country not to send a representative to the commemoration in 2005 of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and sent only a low-level delegation to the main commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day in Moscow that same year.

This nationalist-inspired historical revisionism has both divided and confused Serbs, as shown, for example, in the fact that, in a survey conducted in early 2009, 34.44 per cent of respondents were in favour of annulling the 1946 verdict against Draža Mihailovic (in which he was found to have been a traitor and Axis collaborator), 15.92 per cent were opposed, and 49.64 per cent said that they did not know what to think.

But such revisionism is not innocent; it is an example of what Jean- Paul Sartre called bad faith. As Sartre wrote in his 1943 classic, Being and Nothingness:

“Bad faith does not hold the norms and criteria of truth as they are accepted by the critical thought of good faith. What it decides first, in fact, is the nature of truth. With bad faith a truth appears, a method of thinking, a type of being which is like that of objects; the ontological characteristic of the world of bad faith with which the subject suddenly surrounds himself is this: that here being is what it is not, and is not what it is. Consequently, a peculiar type of evidence appears – non-persuasive evidence. Bad faith apprehends evidence but it is resigned in advance to not being fulfilled by this evidence, to not being persuaded and transformed into good faith … Thus bad faith … stands forth in the form [of a] resolution not to demand too much, to count itself satisfied when it is barely persuaded, to force itself in decisions to adhere to uncertain truths.”

In the case of Serbia, bad faith about World War Two means praising Nedic ́ for having allegedly saved Serbian lives by collaborating with the Germans, while, at the same time, praising Mihailovic ́ for having allegedly fought against the Germans – thus adopting a position that Serbs were on the right side, regardless of which side they were on! Bad faith, in the Serbian case, also involves discounting evidence of Chetnik collaboration with the Germans and likewise of the Nedic ́ regime’s complicity in crimes against Jews and other persons. But bad faith is not without its consequences. As Sartre warned, although bad faith ‘does not believe itself [to be] in bad faith’, by the same virtue it ‘does not believe itself [to be] in good faith’. A person or regime which is in bad faith, thus, occupies a treacherous promontory from which the danger of falling is ever-present, and from which the plunge threatens to take one deep into trauma.

Already in the Miloševic era (1987–2000), there were elements of revisionism about the Second World War. But the big push for the rehabilitation of Axis collaborators, and with that the opening of a debate about World War Two, came only after the fall of Miloševic in October 2000. In Serbia today, the interpretation of World War Two and of Axis collaboration and the facts themselves are under debate, with certain political parties and groupings having a vested interest in the outcome of this debate. In this sense, one may say that, in Serbia, World War Two has not yet ended.’

Introduction; S.P.Ramet
The Collaborationist Regime of Milan Nedić;  S.P.Ramet & S.Lazić
Employment of Labor in Wartime Serbia: Social History and the Politics of Amnesia; S.Rutar
Vojvodina Under Hungarian Rule; K.Ungváry
Delusion and Amnesia: Ideology and Culture in Nedić’s Serbia; O.Manojlović-Pintar
The Collaborationist Administration and the Treatment of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Serbia; J.Byford
Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović: ‘Lackey of the Germans’ or a ‘victim of Fascism’?; J.Byford
Allies or Foes? Mihailović’s Chetniks during the Second World War; M.Jareb
Relations between the Chetniks and the Authorities of the Independent State of Croatia, 1942—1945; N.Barić
The Partisans and the Serbs; M.A.Hoare
The Serbian-Croatian Controversy over Jasenovac; P.Kolstø
Revisions of Second World War History in Contemporary Serbia; D.Stojanović
The Reevaluation of Milan Nedić and Draža Mihailović in Serbia; S.Lazić
Conclusion; O.Listhaug

Monday, 5 December 2011 - Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Marko Attila Hoare, Serbia | , ,

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