Serbia: History to Order

Serbian politicians still view history teaching in public schools as an instrument for shaping historical memory and national consciousness in order to fit pre-determined national goals and purposes. This is why history textbooks remain one of the most reliable sources for study and analysis of dominant political concepts in Serbia.

History textbooks have been revised twice in Serbia since the beginning of the wars in former Yugoslavia. It first happened during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, in 1993, at the height of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It happened for the second time after Milosevic’s downfall in 2000. In both cases, changing history textbooks was politically motivated.

Prince Milos Obrenovic, hero of the two uprisings against the Ottomans.

Prince Milos Obrenovic, hero of the two uprisings against the Ottomans.

The first time it was dictated by the need to adjust past history to fit the one currently unfolding. The regime sought to place the ongoing war in a historical context, intended as a justification of sorts. The textbooks changed a second time as a result of a hit-or-miss search for a new democratic identity, believed to be attainable primarily through a complete rejection of all preceding paradigms that, in the lingo of the day, were linked to an “anti-people regime,” and thereby becoming “obsolete history.”

Serbia is among the few Balkan countries that have retained the state’s monopoly over the publication of history textbooks. The government still does not operate open contests for writing them. Textbook writers’ interpretations of two turning points in 20th-century Yugoslav history – the two world wars and the Yugoslav states that were created after each war – are like a litmus test for ideological changes in Serbia. An eager search by Serbian political and intellectual elites for new ways of defining themselves is reflected through changes in the way they have been interpreted over the past 15 years.

The first casualty of all those revisions was the concept of Yugoslavia. The most important task of Milosevic’s textbook writers was to depict the history of the Yugoslav peoples as a history of conflict. If conflict was the natural state of affairs in the Balkans, any notion of togetherness was bound to be viewed as a negation of that concept. Instances of inter-ethnic cooperation were thus purged from the newly written history textbooks. Being a part of Yugoslavia had to be represented as something that virtually had nothing to do “with us.” An eighth-grade history textbook from 1993 states: “The Yugoslav idea was not widespread in Serbia at the beginning of the 20th century” – because Serbs’ victories against Ottoman Turkey in the two Serbian Uprisings nearly a century before “had created conditions for an independent political and cultural development.” This manner of eliminating something from history just because it did not fit the current agenda amounted to the fabrication of one’s own past. Representing Yugoslavia as a product of chance and somebody else’s decisions further disabled Serbian public opinion from being capable of rationally confronting recent Serbian history, the causes of the collapse that took place at the close of the 20th century in particular.

Nevertheless, if the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 was stripped of its historical context, under Milosevic the interpretation of the first World War itself and the creation of Yugoslavia remained basically unchanged. Milosevic’s ambivalent propaganda, vacillating between interpreting his policies as a defense of Yugoslavia, on one hand, and representing them as a struggle for a state in which “all the Serbs would live,” on the other, did not go as far as renouncing the very ideal of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia Out of Context

The textbooks that came about after Milosevic’s fall introduced even broader changes in the interpretation of World War I and the creation of Yugoslavia. For example, in the 12th-grade text, these two historic events are completely separated from each other. A number of issues, such as the very Proclamation of Unification, on 1 December 1918, found their place in the book only after all the lessons dealing with international developments between the two world wars, including the Balkan pact of 1934, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or the advent of abstract art. The creation of Yugoslavia is taken out of the context of World War I. This cannot be justified and it is likely that it was done in order to disassociate Serbian military victories, somewhat mythologized by the pathos with which they are depicted in the book, from their end result – the creation of a common Yugoslav state – which is nowadays deemed unfortunate by the ruling Serbian elite.

A more recent eighth-grade text, published in 2005, goes a step further. The interpretation of the unification in this book boils down to ideas and rhetoric that even Serbian leaders who took part in the creation of Yugoslavia had, in spite of accusations of standing for Serbian hegemonic aspirations, never explicitly formulated, and which Serbian historians, even those critical of the unification, never treated as the only view of Yugoslavia held in Serbia. In other words, the authors of today’s school history manuals have written a program of Serbian unitary hegemonic rule in a language more open and bold than that of any historical document on the subject of unification.

The unification is referred to, in this textbook, as “annexation of southern Slav regions of Austria-Hungary by the Serbian state.” It states further that “to the politicians in Serbia ‘unification’ meant primarily ‘the unification of all the Serbs.’ ” The origin of the common state of southern Slavs is seen in this way: “It was thought that the only means of completely resolving the Serbian national question was the Yugoslav program. Namely, the future larger state was going to be a state of the Serbian people in which they would live together with the Croats and the Slovenians.”

Furthermore, overstepping their bounds as textbook authors, the writers openly favor a solution known as Greater Serbia. As a historical foundation for this position they have introduced a myth according to which a secret agreement, signed in London in April 1915 between the powers of the Entente and Italy, offered Serbia the so called Greater Serbia, whose territory, according to that agreement, would have spread out to the Adriatic littoral south of Zadar. In spite of the fact that the London agreement contains no such thing, this myth is occasionally brought up in public, most often in the guise of a missed opportunity.

In the 12th-grade text one can read the following: “In the second year of the world conflict, a chance for Serbian unification through the creation of Greater Serbia presented itself […] The allies were offering Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slavonia, Srem, Backa, Southern Dalmatia, and Northern Albania.” After a public outcry caused by this outline of a greater Serbia, never mentioned in the London agreement, a new eighth-grade history textbook still stated with regret that “even though the London agreement represented a danger to the Yugoslav agenda, it did offer a good solution of the Serbian question.”

Ideological Confusion

The alterations in the interpretation of World War II are even more drastic. The history textbooks of the ’90s reflected the reigning ideological confusion during the Milosevic era. In the interpretation of the communist partisan and the nationalist Chetnik movements, a curious ambivalent amalgamation took place between the old communist and the new nationalist ideology that came into its own in the early ’90s. The spotless image of Tito’s partisan movement became mechanically coupled with a virtually ideal image of Draza Mihailovic’s Chetniks, both movements being put on an equal footing as antifascist. The drama of our civil war within the world war was completely sidestepped by the above operation, the two sides’ problems, goals, and agendas remaining unexplained for the purpose of establishing a superficial balance.

The only instance of collaboration with the occupying Germans cited in the 12th grade textbook features the partisans negotiating with the occupiers, while no instances of Chetnik collaboration are mentioned. During the communist era, the Chetniks were portrayed as an entirely collaborationist movement. In a more recent text for the eighth grade, reacting to the criticisms leveled at the text, Chetnik collaboration is admitted, but only with Italian forces. Moreover, that collaboration was justified: “The Italian occupation was the best ‘wartime solution,’ ensuring the bare survival of the Serbs, especially in Lika, northern Dalmatia, and Herzegovina, while the Italian soldiers were the least of all the evils the Chetniks had to cope with.”

Mihailovic is portrayed, in a brief biographic vignette, as a man who was educated in France and who loved French literature, while Tito is equally briefly introduced as “a notorious agent of the Comintern.”

Writing about war crimes against civilians, the authors claim the partisans “imprisoned, tortured, and put before firing squads, not only those suspected of having collaborated with the occupiers, but also those of whom they thought as potential class enemies,” while the Chetniks were only sporadically involved in the “merciless civil war.” Their crimes against non-Serb populations in Croatia and Bosnia are not mentioned.

Of the collaborationist government of Milan Nedic in Belgrade the authors say that its main goal was to ensure “the very biological survival of the Serbian people” and praise Nedic’s assistance to Serb refugees from the pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia. Intent on preserving an essentially positive image of this regime, the authors do not mention prison camps such as Sajmiste and Banjica in Belgrade through which approximately 60,000 people passed. Nor do they mentioned that over 90 percent of Serbian Jews were arrested under Nedic, and that as early as 1942, Belgrade was declared Judenfrei.

As for the units commanded by the militia leader Dimitrije Ljotic, which contributed to the high level of efficiency set by Nedic’s armed forces, the Gestapo, and the Waffen SS by carrying out most of the arrests, the new textbook says only that “their ideological fanaticism was greater than that of the communists,” without even mentioning their collaboration with the Germans.

“It’s Textbook Stuff”

This drastic altering, not only of an interpretation of the past but of the historical facts, goes to show that history teaching in Serbian schools is a political activity par excellence. The Milosevic regime’s ideological ambivalence helped keep its perspective on the historical past hovering somewhere between the communist and the nationalist interpretations, often mixing the two together. Post-Milosevic power holders have, in spite of their democratic rhetoric, kept history as a foundation of their own legitimacy.

It can, of course, be argued that every transition seeks its own historical foundation, and that the teaching of history has been a victim of ideological soul searching in the majority of post-communist countries. What is particularly worrisome in the case of Serbia is identification with antidemocratic forces in the past, and, particularly in the case of World War II, with those that were on the defeated side. The logic which changes an anti-Yugoslav stance and anticommunism into anti-antifascism is all too clear, and can be a dangerous addition to the ideological and political peregrinations of Serbia. More worrisome yet is the concern that history instruction may continue to be vulnerable to manipulation, and that history textbooks may begin to function as a kind of ideological vanguard. Tellingly, the re-interpretations of the creation of Yugoslavia and of World War II mentioned above defied the normal route by finding their way into schoolbooks before ever being considered by professional historians. Ultimately, the history textbooks seem to have become guideposts to policymaking in Serbia.

When the Serbian parliament passed a law in 2005 giving equal veterans’ rights to former Chetniks and partisans alike, a journalist asked one well-respected member of parliament from the ruling coalition what known historical facts the law was based on. The politician replied that it could all be read in schoolbooks.


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