Serbia’s willful historical blindness

Can Serbs come to terms with the collective guilt or responsibility about the deeds of their past government which committed genocide and ethnic cleansing?

A random news article I recently read that had nothing to do with the US election came from Serbia where its Justice Minister told journalists that the country was set to criminalize speech that would deny the existence of genocide. This is not uncommon. Serbia aims to join several European countries in making it illegal for its citizens to deny  genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In Serbia, though, this act was prompted not by any sense of coming to terms with the past, but by bureaucratic demands from the European Union. More importantly, the law  exempts Bosnia genocide where 7,000 Bosniaks were killed by Serbian forces in July 1995.   Far from appearing to face its past then, the country only debases the meaning of the act and makes a mockery of the memory of those killed in the Bosnian war. This piece of news, though it looked peripheral at first, reminded me of Tynset, a novel written in the 1960s by German writer Wolfgang Hilldesheimer.

In Tynset, the nameless narrator spends the late nights leafing through the phonebook and randomly dialing numbers of his unknown neighbors. When these men answer—-it’s always men who pick up the phone after midnight—the narrator has only a few words for them: “Sir, they know everything, everything. I would advise you to leave immediately while you still have time,” he tells them. From behind his darkened window, he then watches those he had called gather their belongings and leave in haste in the middle of the night. Little by little, he extends his calls and reaches for distant people and hears them desperately scrambling to leave their homes. One of them memorably asks, “Do I have time to pack a few things?” “No, I’m afraid not,” the narrator replies.

A haunting book in the post-World War II Germany, Tynset is the account of a tormented insomniac who appears to play the role of an anonymous voice of moral conscience in a country of “…retired criminals, now too old for prosecution.” For those unknown people who heed his warnings through the phone and flee their homes, the narrator says that “they all had something in their conscience, which makes them much preferable to those who lack any conscience whatsoever.” He never names any specific crimes carried by the people he calls and hasn’t the faintest idea of who they might be, but he is deeply disturbed by the silence of the country in the wake of the century’s most horrific war. By choosing random names in the phonebook and then hearing the anonymous voices of guilt on the other end of the phone, he conveys to us the inescapable notion that all society is responsible for the unspeakable atrocities committed on its behalf.

Collective guilt or responsibility for crimes and genocide committed on behalf of society by a regime or a government is an elusive topic that scholars have wrestled with since the end of the Second World War. One of the most basic principles on the ethics of collective guilt was brought forth by Karl Jaspers, a German scholar, who suggested that one bears responsibility to the degree one has participated in the deed. The strict definition of guilt then rests within the confines of criminal culpability—-only those who have committed a violation are guilty. What, then, the citizenry should feel is a responsibility through collective participation, namely in the form of political engagement. Citizens who participated in the political process that brought and maintained such a regime or government bear a collective responsibility for acts committed on their behalf. “Do we Germans have to be held responsible for offenses that other Germans committed? Yes, to the extent that we permitted that sort of regime to exist in our country. No— to the extent that many of us with the deepest conviction opposed that evil and did not [morally comply with it],” wrote Jaspers.

The notion of political guilt was forcefully echoed by Zoran Djindjic, prime minister of Serbia from 2001 until his assassination in March 2003, in the wake of the discovery of a mass grave in Serbia, containing the bodies of 86 Kosovar Albanians killed by Serbian forces during the summer of Kosovo war in 1999. When Djindjic made the case against Slobodan Milosevic in 2001, he argued that Serbia had to collectively come to terms for the crimes committed on its behalf. “We have to reconstruct our own past through this legal process [against Milosevic], because not only is [he] a part of our past, but so are we, and that Milosevic would not have become what he is without us,” he declared. Djindjic knew that laying blame for Serbia’s catastrophic past only on Milosevic’s regime was not enough, but that all Serbs would sooner or later have to deal with the consequences of death and destruction brought to their neighbors as they, the Serbs, sat and allowed Milosevic’s regime to exist throughout the 1990s.

But the societal awareness that Djindjic called and wished for in 2001 is still lacking in Serbia. The country’s wartime generals and criminals have laid down arms and hung their uniforms, and are now nursed peacefully into retirement by a society engaged in comparative victimization rhetoric. I tested this once when I had met Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2012, in September of 2009 during an exchange we had in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To my question of whether as a Serbian official, like Djindjic before him, he felt any responsibility or burden at all for the crimes committed on behalf of the nation he now represented, Jeremic confronted me with what had become, and still is, a standard answer in Serbia’s political rhetoric: “All sides have committed crimes.”

As in Tynset, where the society remains silent in the narrator’s distressed moral conscience, Serbia is still in denial and or afflicted with—-what the famous German psychoanalyst Margarete Mitscherlich once called—-“the inability to mourn.” But a more adept term would probably be “active forgetting,” borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch.” Nietzsche called for an abandonment of history because the “past returns as a ghost and disturbs peace.” In other words, our pasts are replete with tragedies and crimes that were we to actively remember them, they would preclude us from being happy and living a normal life. Denying our role in the tragedies of the past is a way then to normalize it and or erase it from our future moral conscience.

This is why the inability to come to terms with tragic pasts compelled post-war German governments to instill in citizenry a shared feeling of “collective mourning” through institutions like National Remembrance Day and German Unity Day. On these days, citizens were asked to adorn their window sills with lighted candles for victims and their fellow countrymen in the East separated by the Berlin Wall. Through initiatives like these, the governments tried, by decree, to impose on their citizenry acts that symbolized some form of collective responsibility. But forced acts like these are political and often an abdication of the responsibility that should come from a deeper awareness in society.

That enlightenment starts not in parliaments but in schools and classrooms where children and youth should learn the unqualified truth of their country’s past. In today’s Serbia, a whole new generation of children crouch over history textbooks that glide over the country’s recent past using comparative victimization method to explain the catastrophe and the genocide that Serbia unleashed during the 1990s. Otherwise, the truth will eventually break free and the state will bear the responsibility for its willful blindness.

No one, for example, has described more powerfully the failure of Germany to teach the truth to its immediate postwar children than W.G. Sebald, who, upon receiving a prize for his literary work later in life, delivered the following remarks: “Born as I was in 1944,” he said, “I did not for some time perceive or understand any of the destruction that was present at the beginning of my life… and our terrible past…Even at university I learned almost nothing of recent German history [which was] stricken with a premeditated blindness…Only when I went to Switzerland in 1965 and year later to England, did ideas of my native country begin to form in my head.” That premeditated blindness is what has been driving Serbia as well in nursing its young generation.

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