Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000)
Copyright © 2000, Ivan Colovic, all rights reserved
In the past years of political and social crisis in the former Yugoslavia, which have culminated in the disintegration of the federal state and armed conflict, ancient political myths have been renewed and given new life. Mythical topoi, figures, and characters have become conspicuous, even dominant features of public discourse. They are the largest and most important components of the thematic and stylistic repertoire of the language of contemporary ethnic nationalism.
On the one side, political programs and projects have appeared which forcefully resurrect or popularize national myths (such as the myth of the battle at Amselfeld). These myths then become essential factors in national identification and mobilization, if not the condition for the continued existence of the Serbian people.1 On the other side, one can discover a logic of mythical imagination beneath seemingly rationally-founded and pragmatically-guided political ideas, such as the idea of national interest. In any case, the analysis of the political myths which have been resurrected in this region presents itself as a key to understanding the political and social processes at work in war-ravaged former Yugoslavia.
I will limit myself to reconstructing an initial overview of one important aspect of Serbia's present-day political mythology: its time-space coordinates. In doing so, I will limit myself to the material from Serbian sources to which I have access, namely the Serbian media and those parts of the former Yugoslavia under Serbian control.
One often hears the opinion that one of the causes of the war in the former Yugoslavia was that the militant nationalists had succeeded in imposing a cult of the past upon society. Through the mass media these groups convinced people to devote themselves once again to a distorted national history—under the spell of which they would lose sight of their true present and future needs. This thesis is partially correct. In several instances a connection to the ideological past has been explicitly sought from within the horizon of the present. This renewal of ancient myths is politically motivated by the desire to construct a putative continuity between certain ideas and goals.
One can clearly see that in contemporary political debates, people are not so much concerned with returning to the historical past as with leaving real historical time. The language of ethnic, militant nationalism has the effect that events in the present time (Jetztzeit) are suddenly no longer located in the present and future, but also not in the past. This language offers a mythical, anti-historical perception of historical time. Time is brought to a halt in a certain way and transformed into the eternal present or the eternal return of the same. In light of this, the wars being waged by the Serbians are a continuation of past history—or more precisely, its mere repitition.
As a result of this mythical perception of time, not only have the soldiers from earlier world wars—the Ustasha and Chetnicks—reappeared or been resurrected in public discussions, but also glorious ancestors and heroes of all epochs, including mythical or legendary figures from the history of the Balkans. Our political and military leaders are surrounded and protected by an entire retinue of the most important names from national history and folklore.
Another method of conjuring up the ancestors consists of giving them the possibility of incarnation in our present leaders and heroes. Dusan, Obilic, Karadorde, and Veljko2 can decide for themselves in whose form they would like to return to live amongst the Serbians, whereby of course— if we are to believe the most powerful in the media and the most popular folk singers—only our most highly esteemed political bosses, from Milosevic to Raznatovic, are appropriate for these purposes. In order to spare our heroic ancestors from unwanted idleness, the political mythology does its best to find appropriate reincarnations of the heroes' eternal opponents, so that the Musas and Brankovics, Turks and the Latins3 are firing away once again on our television screens and in the columns of our newspapers. This mythological renewal is not limited to Serbia either. The Croatian media, under the control of the Tudjman regime, is constantly suggesting to its consumers that the fathers of the Croatian nation, from King Tomislav to Ban Jelacic,4 are addressing their people with the voice of the Croatian president.
The latest appearance and reincarnation of glorious forefathers are not just the platitudes of contemporary, trivial political propaganda and political folklorism—they are rather phenomena which are invoked by persons with indubitable scientific, political, and literary authority. They stress the mobilizational and political value of supra-temporal experience and of the reincarnation of folk heroes. This is supposed to prove that the genuine foundations of ethnonational and militaristic designs lies in the deepest dimensions of the so-called soul of the people, the mystical, supra-historical realm where the living, dead, and not-yet-born members of the ethnicity are bound together.
In this sense politicians and publicists such as Radovan Karadzic or Dragos Kalajic are propagating today the "calling" of legendary heroes during the struggle, which Cajkanovic in his time called "klicanje predaka" (the calling of the ancestors). Kalajic arbitrarily attributes this custom to the Slavs, whereby he fails to consider the facts referred to by Cajkanovic which make clear that this custom is wide-spread.5 The "genuine Slav sees himself as a link in the chain of tradition and a carrier of the entire tradition of ideas and deeds, duties and responsibilities of all the generations of his ancestors. On the stage of this sensibility is not just one person but his entire people with him. This is also were the ancient custom of Slavian warriors has its origin—preserved and proven on the battlefields of the present—that in the heat of battle, during a blitz attack the glorious ancestors are called upon, to, among other things, join the fight."6
The psychiatrist and poet Jovan N. Strikovic offers a combined neurological and pyschoanalytical explanation for the atemporal unity between the ethnicity and the phenomena of the reincarnation of predecessors. He comes to the conclusion that the Jungian theory of archetypes has a biological correspondent. He interprets these archetypes in a particular way as key historical events, but primarily as representative figures from the history of an ethnic collective, which always stay the same in the collectivity, and that in physical, biological terms as part of the central nervous system of individuals, the "collective mind": "According to a phylogenetic law," writes the author, "the psychic structure of a person also carries the mental stages of the ancestors corresponding to those who formed his anatomical substrate. At a certain level of spiritual development of a nation personalities appear who make their mark upon entire epochs. They are then no longer merely metaphysical 'substance,' they represent a concrete psychic substrate which has developed in the nervous system of every individual in this nation whose ancestors survived the 'psychic trauma and the agony' in the sense of an overexcitement of the individual and collective mind and have created a mental image in the form of a material impression."7
The argumentative foundations for the explanation and high estimation of mythical temporality, the appearance of heroes and reincarnation of forefathers, the promiscuity of the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born are sought most frequently today in the pseudo-scientific ideas of biological-racial inheritance, a type of mythological genetics. According to the genetic logic, the same blood has always run through the veins of the members of the people. Their eternal blood is the basis of ethnic identity, unity with the hereafter, and the inexorable destiny of the entire people.
The myth of the existence of ethnic or racial blood, born in Europe in the course of the nineteenth century, was spread not all too long ago under the veil of psychic-anthropological research, in particular in the practice of measuring skulls. Today, one can still find pseudo-scientific ideas about genes which provide the semblance of rational and scientific foundation. According to these theories, the genes are carriers of inheritable characteristics; they preserve and pass along from generation to generation the qualities, inclinations, and talents which are unique to a people. Even the love of decameter— the traditional meter of Serbian folk epics—and to playing the Gusla —the traditional single-stringed musical instrument—become abilities which are preserved and passed along in the genes. The author would like to illustrate this thesis with newspaper reports on childrens' lives in a refugee camp nearby Benkovac. The leaders of the camp prepared a small artistic program for the journalists' visit which was conducted by the children, including one five year-old. The program included, among other things, one song in ten-line verse which begins in the following way:
"Obukli smo SMB odelo
These line inspired in the author of the reportage the following thoughts: "In all probability these children know neither what a decameter is nor did they use it consciously, as they recited the song. They are born with it, it is written in their genetic code. "8 What guarantees the political and poetic success of Radovan Karadzic from the very beginning, and what explains and legitimizes his success at the same time, is the alleged fact that he has inherited the patriotic and artistic genes of his great namesake and national poet, Vuk Karadzic, although the two names are not related. In a documentary film by the BBC with the title "Serbian Epics," Karadzic is shown in the birth house of his famous namesake with Gusla music playing in the background. However, the part of this documentary which leaves behind the longest-lasting impression is the scene in which the present-day Karadzic draws viewers' attention to a detail in the portrait of the old Karadzic which reveals the remarkable effects his genes have had upon him: the double chin of the old Karadzic is exactly the same as his alleged successor.
Our contemporary political mythology offers a particular perception of space as well. It is inseparably bound to the mythical perception of time. Put more precisely, mythical space represents merely one aspect of mythical temporality, for this mythical space comes into being only when historical time is brought to a standstill, i.e. when historical events are projected from the diachronic to the synchronic axis.
This mythical space is constructed as a network of symbolical places: cloisters, towers, battlefields, sacred rivers, mountains, and forests. The most essential place in this mythical topology however is the grave. Its symbolism is two-sided, corresponding to the dual symbolism of the plant whose roots drive down into the underworld, but whose stem rises up to the sky to meet the sunlight. In the political mythology, graves simultaneously symbolize both the seeds of national renewal, which has as its necessary precondition the prior experience of sacrifice and death, and the roots which bind the people to ancient soil of the fatherland.
The symbolism of the grave as both tomb and root has acquired special meaning today, in a time of ethnic war over territory. The reason for this is the renewal of ideas about ethnic space and the sovereignity of the ethnic group in its territory. These ideas have established themselves as a type of morbid geopolitics whose most essential factor is the presence of ancestral graves in the territory in question. The idea that Serbia is everywhere where Serbian graves are located is repeated in various forms today. This logic explains and complements the political slogan: "All Serbians in one state." The mythologically-founded geopolitics makes no distinction between the living and the dead, and claims that a common ethnic space of living and dead Serbians is self-evident.
Such conceptions—or more precisely, such mythopolitical notions of time and space—correspond to the selection of acts, feelings, and ideas which are assigned the greatest meaning in the political scenery. This scenery is determined by mythical coordinates and is normally designated "heavenly Serbia." The most valuable act one can perform here is voluntary death for the people, the personal sacrifice necessary for the renewal of the people—a principle developed from the magical interpretation of the Christian formula: there is no ressurrection without death—and its morbid establishment of territorial roots. Among the feelings, that of ethnic membership is esteemed most highly; this includes the cult surrounding the symbols of this membership (traditional culture, folklore, religion, alphabet, costume) and the denigration of all things different or foreign. In the realm of ideas, representations of national unity and harmony should be mentioned as well as the ethnic essence which predetermines the individual's destiny, and finally representations of the genetic purity and moral health of the people; however, all of these ideas are to a greater or lesser extent contained in the most important mythopolitical idea, the idea of nature.
Nature is the greatest goddess of political mythology and not ours. The abandonment of historical time and construction of mythical space have merely one goal: the return to nature, the return to natural society and natural people. Our current political mythology gives new life to the images of the idyllic, patriarchal village. The same is true for the image of the farmer— embellished with ancient names and aestheticizing names like Ratar or Seljani—as a symbolical being who avoids all that is foreign and draws his spiritual and moral strength from his connection to the soil, folk culture, and the belief in the forefathers.
On the topic of Serbians and Russians as the emissaries and agents of a Slavic renewal, or a "Slavic cultural revolution," Dragos Kalajic writes that this upheaval would usher in a return to the values of the "traditional organic community," which would of course "necessitate an all-encompassing return to the land and the village, the renewal of its vitality and fertility, and of happiness and joy in life." According to this author, the nihilism of the past two centuries consists in "the systematic destruction of the village and its culture along with the transformation of free peasants into dependent proletarians, uprooted and without a soul, humbled in the casemates of the new Babylons."9
Like Kalajic, Momcilo Selic sees salvation in the return to nature. However, he does not advocate the return to the village, but rather the revival of natural humans and natural human communities, from the family to all of humanity. "Natural entities" such as the family, the brotherhood, the tribe, the nation, the white race, and humanity are according to him the foundation of "the individual surrounded by God." The natural substance of all these entities is "our blood," and this is the most important guideline of proper ethnic behavior, through which it becomes self-evident "to mutually aid and support one another without reference to the personal characteristics of the members of this community (one helps one's brother even if he is not the most noble person, and same holds true for father and mother, uncles, aunts, godfather, etc.)."10
The Serbian warriors live and act in harmony with nature as well. They are distinguished by their exemplary physical and moral health, for they have preserved and strengthened in themselves the natural impulse to hate the enemy and to destroy him. The ideal of the natural person finds its highest realization, however, in the fusion of peasant and military virtue in the shape of the peasant-warrior. According to this ideology, life in peace as well as life outside the village deforms natural human vitality. Therefore, a life full of danger under the constant threat of attack by the enemy is much healthier: a life full of contradictions, the life of a warrior. Based on her competence as a biologist, Biljana Plavsic comes to the conclusion that "...the Serbians in Bosnia, and in the border regions in particular, have maintained and sharpened the ability to recognize danger for the nation early on and to develop the mechanisms for its defense. In my family it was said that the Serbians in Bosnia are much better than those in Serbia... I am a biologist, and therefore I know that those species which live next to others and are constantly threatened by others have the best possibility to adapt."11
This healthy, pure, resistant, folkish, and militant nature has its most dangerous foe in its antipode, anti-nature. Anti-nature appears in this political mythology on three different levels. It appears at the level of the family in the form of ethnically-mixed marriages, in which children are born who wreak havoc upon the natural order of things and upon the mythical notion of the fateful opposition between "us" and the others, "our blood and that of foreigners," as is said. Ethnically-mixed marriages are more common in the city than in the country. That is one of the reasons for the contempt and open hostility of the contemporary mythology towards urban centers. From the political-mythological standpoint, there are further more serious forms of the betrayal of nature, namely artificiality and falsity. These terms apply to the coexistence of cultures, religions, and peoples, to democracy, cosmopolitanism, and pacificism.12
The myth of natural life in the present mythopolitical version also contains the topos of the corruption of the city—of Sodom and Gomorrha—and its necessary collapse, just like the destruction of Babylon. The suffering of cities in the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia is interpreted as an inevitable consequence of their alienation from nature and the biological and moral corruption of its citizens. According to this mythology, Vukovar, Mostar, Sarajevo and other destroyed and burned cities have received the just punishment of God for the inhealthy, tolerant life in them which is equivalent to incest and lechery.
From the viewpoint of this mythical political naturalism, the Yugoslavian state (the first and the second) are unnatural constructions. The unnatural marriages, families, and cities are not just the consequence of centuries of foreign occupation—they are also the result of that artificial construct, the Yugoslavian state, a repulsive cocktail of peoples, religions, languages, and alphabets. The downfall of Yugoslavia, just like the decline of its cities, is not the result of the failure of incorrect policies, but rather the consequence of the realization of the fatal destiny of unnatutal human communities.
This type of destiny is, according to the predictions of the new messengers of apocalypse also awaiting the current world power number one—the USA. This country is also an unnatural construct, a victim of supranational rulers who have transformed the USA, according to the words of a Serbian journalist, into "a rat hole, nothing short of a modern-day Babylon, the most hated state in the world." They wanted to erect upon an unnatural foundation an empire of evil, the new world order, "in order to transform the entire world into an unnatural jumble."13
At the end of this attempt to briefly introduce the contemporary political mythology in Serbia using the examples of mythopolitical representations of time and space, I would like to offer a few comments of the obvious necessity to subject this mythology to critical analysis and judgement. One reason for the critical analysis of political myths is the scientific (wissenschaftliche) relevance of this work, another is the societal need to counter these myths with rational political and social ideas.
Critique of political mythology presupposes the examination of the conditions under which it comes to dominate political communication, as well as the determination of societal functions which it then overtakes. In this respect the present situation in Yugoslavia confirms certain observations which various critics of political myths have made before. I am referring here primarily to the connection between the expansion of the mythopolitical imagination and periods of profound social crisis.
The French sociologist Roger Bastid expressed the following opinion at the beginning of the seventies: "The majority of anthropologists think that myths are responses to societal turmoil, to tension in the social structures. They are screens upon which different groups project their collective anxieties...."14 Raoul Girardet confirms this assessment as well at the end of his monograph dedicated to French myths and political mythologies: "In the mythological systems whose structures we attempted to determine," writes Girardet, "there are not any which are not connected in a direct way to crisis phenomena: the brutal acceleration of the process of historical evolution, the rapid disintegration of cultural and social environments, and the breakdown of the mechanisms of solidarity, all of which structure communal life."15 The task of the critique of political mythology is to recognize and to explain the socially useful functions of myths in times of social crisis, and to separate these functions from the effects, consciously produced using myths, which then drive the war machine of militant nationalist demagogues. In general, the role that irrational and imaginary elements play in societal symbolic exchanges needs to be pointed out, as well as the fact that the need for the establishment of rationality, where it is the condition of organized social coexistence, cannot end in the radical and completely unrealizable suppression of all forms of irrationality in the society. In modern society, such needs have a legitimate and important place. Today the problem of irrationality and the mythical appears primarily as a problem of its social locus and its appropriateness. Myth has extended itself in political discussions beyond the proper medium which would guarantee balance between rational and irrational moments in the societal structure. This proliferation of myth became possible and in a certain sense unavoidable at the moment when the most massive reduction of rationality that has ever occured in the history of the Balkans took place.
Serbian political myths—in particular, the myth of ethnic nationalism which has been discussed here, with all its "barbaric," "primitive," or "exotic" elements—must actually be familiar to Europeans. In order to understand this it is not necessary for them to send an anthropologist on a difficult field mission to research primitive peoples, or for them to leave their own cultural milieu with the goal of describing and interpreting a mentality allegedly peculiar to Serbia or the Balkans.
Serbian political myths can be understood without problem if they are "read" in the context of the political history of modern Europe. These myths do not belong to a stage of history which has already been overcome or which is no longer directly relevant, and they are not delayed echoes of a distant past—rather they intertwined in the context of contemporary Europe. It is often said that Europe, by not energetically opposing the formation of ethnic states in the Balkans, has betrayed its republican ideals. Reasons given for this are the sluggishness, short-sightedness, and irresponsibility of Eupopean politics, its inability to defend the vital interests of European democracy, or its lack of interest in the destiny of peripheral societies. The reasons for the extremely cautious and hesitant way in which European politics has reacted to the militant, ethnical nationalism in the Balkans can, however, also be sought in the fact that the developed European states, which the Serbian myths described here celebrate, is by no means a matter of the past, but rather one of the essential pillars of the existing social order.
According to Jean Baudrillard, the politics and praxis actualized in the present military conflicts as "ethnic cleansing" represent the logical manifestation of the zeitgeist currently dominating all of Europe. "It is said," writes Baudrillard, "that if things continue in the same way in Sarajevo we will find ourselves in a similiar situation. But we are already in it. All European countries are going the way of ethnic cleansing. It is the genuine Europe which exists in the shadow of its parliaments, and Serbia represents merely the shock troops. It is unnecessary to react to all the passivity and helplessness, to call into our memories, for we are dealing with a program which is now logically unfolding, whereby Bosnia represents its new limits."16
Several essays in the recently published anthology Racisme et Modernite17 discuss the importance of the ideology of ethnic nationalism in Western Europe and the political institutions of individual states which are founded upon it. The essay by Czarin Wilpert, co-worker at the Institut für Soziologie, contains several indications that in Germany, for example, the ideology of the unquestionable importance of ethnic identity continues to thrive. This ideology has its institutional basis in the discrimination which affects all those who are not ethnic Germans; the right to nationality is based exclusively upon ethnic membership. "Unfortunately," writes Czarina Wilpert," the sacred character of the German nation with its inherited and unique culture has not been called into question. This ideology pervades all institutions which decide who may and may not belong. "18
John Rex comes to similiar conclusions about the importance of ethnic nationalism in Great Britain, and in other Western European countries as well. He discusses how in his country a "ghettoization of Black and Asian communities"19 is produced. In his opinion, the anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic attitudes widespread in Britain today are similar, because "Europeans today dismiss all Muslims as fundamentalists." From this Rex concludes that "the European political way of thought will accept the idea of a truly pluralistic society society only with great resistance." What is true for Great Britain, where minorities have a right to live only as second class citizens, also holds for Germany, "where the ethnical nationalism of the people is still survives and excludes foreigners," and for France, "where the existence of minority cultures is perceived as something hostile to the state."20
A genuine understanding and an appropriate interpretation of Serbian political myths cannot be looked upon as an isolated phenomena; it must be undertaken within the context of contemporary Europe. The tradition of humanistic critique of political mythology, primarily of nationalist and related myths of the present, is very important in this regard, as are the experiences of anti-racist movements. The unbearable messages that these myths convey are merely variants of similar messages with the same meaning which have long existed in other European languages and which are passed along in different parts of Europe today with less pomp and circumstance than yesterday. But their seductive power and easy manipulation make them as dangerous as ever. In the chaotic war in the Balkans at the end of the twentieth century and in the myths which accompany and legitimate it, the symptoms of a particular type of insanity which is all too familiar and seemingly widespread in Europe—namely the insanity of ethnic purity—can no longer be denied.
1. The poet Ivan Negrisovac expressed the conviction that "in its search for new spiritual content the Serbian people must devote itself in particular to the renewal of the old forms of spirituality (Geistigkeit)." The most important part of this is the battle at Amselfeld: "The myth of Kosovopolje plays a decisive role both in the formation of Serbian spirituality and in the maintenance of the Serbian people."
2. Dusan was the emporer of Serbia in the middle ages; Obilic was a legendary figure in battle of Amselfeld in 1389; Veljko was a legendary Hajduke (resistance fighter during the Ottoman occupation); Karadorde was the the leader of the uprising against the Ottomans in 1804.
3. Musas and Brankovics are figures from Serbian folk epics; Turks and Latins stand for the clash between the Ottoman and the Serbian-Christian army at Amsfeld in 1389.
4. King Tomislav was a Croatian King in the Middle Ages. Ban Jelacic was a Croatian prince in the nineteenth century.
5. Compare "Klicanje predaka" and "Nekoliko opste pojave u staroj srpskoj religiji," in: Veselin Cajkanovic, Mit i religijja u Srba, SKZ 1973, p. 237 and 269. Regarding the traces of the "calling of the ancestors" today: "Folklor i Politika" in: Ivan Colovic, Bordel ratnika, XX Vek, 1993, p. 34.
6. Our Ideas, Belgrade. June 1993, p. 22.
7. Politika, Belgrade. Oct. 9, 1993.
8. Vojska Krajine, April 1993.
9. Our Ideas, July 1993.
10. Duga, Belgrade. July 4, 1992.
11. Borba, Belgrade. July 28, 1993.
12. Sreten Vujovic gives several examples of this type of attitude "towards the city from the pen of our old respected scientists," which confirm "that the ideological roots of the current aversion to big cities and cities in general" can be found in "romantic nationalism and in patriarchal world views." For our purposes, the representations of unnaturalness are of particular interest, i.e. the "destructivity," "perversity," or "mechanization" of city life, which are quoted in several examples by Vojovic. Such representations are located in, among other places, his extremely negative attitude toward city life, and particularly toward the Carsija (a Turkish word for city, meaning here in particular the cultural life of the city). "The Carsija," writes Cvijic in his book The Balkan Half-Island, "had a destructive influence on almost all the Balkan peoples, primarily for the reason that in peaceful times it lead the society and recruited the intelligentsia from it with petty morality, but monstrous egoism." Slobodon Jovanovic holds a similar opinion: "the peasant population is protection against the onesidedness of urban industrial culture, which completely mechanizes life and develops an all-too prosaic, rational worldview which is petty bourgeois" (compare Sreten Vuovic, "Rad grad i gradanski sloj," Republika, December 16, 1993, Belgrade").
13. Petar Pavlovic, in Pogledi, Belgrade. August 1993.
14. Roger Bastid, Le Reve, la Transe et la Folie, Flammarion: Paris 1972, p. 62.
15. Raoul Girardet, Mythes et mythologies politiques, Seuil, Paris, 1986, p. 178.
16. "Without Pity," Borba. February 8, 1994.
17. Racisme et Modernite. Sous la direction de Michel Wieviorka. Editions La Decouverte, 1993.
18. Czarina Wilpert, "Les fondements institutionnels et ideologiques du racisme dans la Republique Federal d'Allamagne," in: Racisme et Modernite, p. 235.
19. John Rex, "Strategies antiracistes en Europe," in: Racisme et Modernite, p. 334.
20. Ibid, p. 341.
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