Who stands to benefit from a “reworking” of history?

One of the photographs made during WWII made its way around the world. It displays the moment when, on May 22 1942, Partisan commandant Stjepan (Stevan) Filipović, a noose around his neck, fists held up high, hailed freedom and called the gathered people to take up arms and begin the fight against Fascism. This photograph, life-sized, has found its place in the United Nations building as a symbol of resistance to Fascism. A monument to this revolutionary was erected in Valjevo in 1961.

When “new” revisionists showed up during the 1990s, this monument was targeted as well. It was defaced with offensive messages and plastered with swastikas. The bust of Stjepan Filipović in Valjevo, at the site of his death, was torn down in 1991. It was a reaction of anti-Communist sentiment that grew after it became obvious that neo-Četnik political organizations in Serbia would be tolerated and instrumentalized by the Milošević regime-

After the defacement, the monument was renewed. However, it was destroyed again in 2004, after which the bust was forgotten for several years in the offices of the local utility company. The monument was targeted by Fascist resentment again on August 13, 2009 when the base of the bust was defaced with a swastika, hand-drawn by a local supporter of the neo-Nazi organization Nacionalni stroj.

Stjepan Filipović was captured in December of 1941 by so-called legalized Četniks. Today, he is no longer an important historic figure in Serbia. In the meantime, history textbooks in Serbia have undergone many changes, leading to the both Partisan and Četnik movements being treated as Antifascist in 1993, with the Partisans placed only slightly ahead.

How did Četniks become the only true anti-occupation movement?

The latest generation of textbooks, in use since 2002, has undergone a new revision. History textbooks for the finishing years of primary schools (published in 2002) and secondary schools (published in 2006) show events of the Second World War in a different way to the ones from the Communist period. The greatest change came in the textbooks’ relationships to Četniks and Partisans, as well as the regime of Milan Nedić.

General Milan Nedić, President of the Government of Serbia during the occupation, is presented as a man “with a substantial reputation among the Serbs” who has, as it is said, “salvaged the biological substance of the Serbian people” considering that “Germany is too mighty and that, in order to prevent further harm to the Serbian people, the occupier must be collaborated with. Due to dreadful vendettas against the civilian populace, he opposed all unthinking resistance to the occupying forces”.

The greatest change, however, came in the depiction of Četnik commander Draža Mihailović and his troops. Četniks have, according to the new textbooks, been framed as representatives of Serbian national interests and the inciters of Antifascist resistance, who were defeated in the war due to the Allied betrayal. Četniks are depicted as the only true anti-occupation movement, as “the core of the Serbian popular resistance”, which has, “…unlike the Communists who had intended to divide the Serbian ethnic space, encompassed Serbia, Montenegro, the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of Dalmatia including Dubrovnik and Zadar, all of Syrmium including Vukovar, Vinkovci and Dalj, Vojvodina, Kosovo and Metohija and South Serbia (Macedonia)”.

The Četnik and Partisan movements are represented as equally valuable resistance movements. The textbook states that both were created synchronously, but with the first part off the text dedicated to the Četnik movement while Partisans come into the picture several pages later. Also interesting is the comparison between the biographies of Josip Broz Tito and Draža Mihailović – while the latter’s biography says he was educated in France and was an avid lover of French literature, Tito is presented as a “notorious agent of the Communist International”.

In the second edition of the 8th grade elementary school textbook, published in 2006, Četniks and Partisans were both represented as having collaborated with the occupying forces. In the 2002 version, the Četnik collaboration is hardly mentioned. On the other hand, Partisans were depicted as having no interest in preserving the people (unlike Četniks and supporters of Nedić), but had entered collaboration with Germans to defeat the Četniks.

Partisans were also represented as enemies of Great Britain and a force that had the goal of preventing an Allied landing in the Balkans. “The Partisan high delegation suggested to the Germans cooperation in the mutual interest. And the mutual interest of Partisans and Germans at the time was to prevent a British landing on the Adriatic coast”. It is stated that Partisans had held about 40 meetings with the Germans, as well as that the Partisan delegation had travelled “with Ustaša passports and a German escort”.

Selective representation of war crimes

An important issue that was thoroughly revised in textbooks is that of war crimes. In the finishing-grade elementary school textbook from 2002, it is said that Partisans in liberated territories have “arrested, harassed and shot not onl those under suspicion for collaboration with the occupiers, but also those who were potential class enemies”, while Četniks are only said to have “taken part in a merciless civil war”, never mentioning their crimes over non-Serb civilians in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The 8th grade textbook also never mentions Četnik crimes over non-Serbs, but only “Communist helpers“. Partisans are said to have left “dog graveyards” – unmarked mass graves of their opponents – in their wake, and that people feared the Partisans whose “kangaroo courts sentenced people to death while never batting an eye (…) Public and hidden murders of both luminaries and ordinary people, revenge murders, as well as executions of the Communist Party members who have opposed the killings were everyday occurrences”.

Newer textbooks present Serbia as being on the losing side in the war since the Četnik movement was defeated in WWII: “In the Second World War, Serbian citizenship was destroyed, the national movement broken up and the intelligentsia done away with”. By equating the defeat of Četniks with the defeat of Serbia, the fact that Serbia was on the winning side as an important ally, along with other Yugoslav countries, has been erased.

Historian Dubravka Stojanović says about the textbook changes: “Political revolutions often carry with them a ‘change of history’, that is a new construction of memory necessary to grant the new order a historical identity. The order established in Serbia after 2000 undertook a number of moves needed to secure itself desirable ‘ancestors’. These interventions into history primarily pertained to a revision of WWII.

The change of relationships to the main parties to this event achieves two main goals in a new redefinition of history: it removes the positive depiction of Partisans who were the ancestors of the previous regime and, perhaps even more importantly, the remains of positive representations of Yugoslavia are annulled. This is why it is precisely the year 1945 is key to a new interpretation of history, because all historical phenomena that are undesirable today stem from that year. Since it subsumes the liberation of Yugoslav countries from occupying regimes that had divided the former state during WWII, as well as the creation of a newly unified state based on new ideological principles, textbook authors thought it extremely important to make numerous factual and interpretive changes to the year.

Thanks to these changes, it was possible to change the chronology and make it seem that, ultimately, the Četnik army in Serbia was defeated by the Red Army and not the National Liberation forces, which supported the claim that Communism was imported into Serbia “riding on a Russian tank”. This way, those who had collaborated with the occupiers during the war are once again abolished of guilt and their defeat is easily explained by defeat at the hands of the then-greatest military power in the world. These “interventions” distance Serbia further away from the possibility to face its own history rationally and understand its present.

“A new history”

The new history presented in textbooks has also led to the passing of several laws that equate Partisans and Četniks. The term “national reconciliation”, that is, accepting the results of the reinterpretation of history is used with increasing frequency. A statement by Milan Parivodić, Minister of Foreign Economic Relations on the occasion of adopting a draft Law on Rehabilitation at the November 24, 2005 Government session before the Law was sent to the Parliament for adoption is an example of the advocacy of national reconciliation. Parivodić calls the Law one of “vital importance, as it affirms the historic reconciliation among Serbs worldwide and all Serb citizens”, adding that the Law “lays the foundations for a new moral reunification” and is “a prerequisite of a more successful future”.

In December 2004, the Serbian Parliament adopted amendments to the Law on the rights of fighters, disabled veterans and members of their families, that equate the rights of former Partisans and Četniks and establish the “Ravna Gora Memorial Order 1941”, on par with the “Partisan Memorial Order”. The Law was passed in rapid procedure, with the explanation that it is based on a historical truth and that it is necessary to equate the rights of all who have fought the occupiers, Fascists and Nazis. When asked by a journalist what scientific facts are used to justify this political decision, one of the MPs of the ruling majority answered that even elementary school textbooks say so.

A Law on Rehabilitation was passed in Serbia in 2006, regulating the rehabilitation of persons who were, without due trial or administrative ruling, deprived of life, freedom or some of their fundamental rights for political or ideological reasons since April 6 1941 to the day of the Law coming into force, while holding residency on the territory of the Republic of Serbia (Art. 1.). The same year, a request for the rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović was submitted by his grandson Vojislav Mihailović. The first hearing was held in 2010 and the court ruling rehabilitating Draža Mihailović is due to be announced on May 14, 2015.

In December 2011, a new Law on Rehabilitation came into force, regulating the rehabilitation and legal consequences of rehabilitation of persons who were deprived of life, freedom or some of their fundamental rights for political, religious, national or ideological reasons to the day of the Law coming into force: in the territory of the Republic of Serbia, without a court or administrative ruling; outside the territory of the Republic of Serbia, without a court or administrative ruling by military and other Yugoslav bodies, if those persons held Serbian citizenship or residency in Serbia; by a court or administrative ruling by Yugoslav bodies; by a court or administrative ruling by military and other Yugoslav bodies, if those persons held Serbian citizenship or residency in Serbia.

In 2009, the County Court in Niš rehabilitated former Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia Dragiša Cvetković, who had signed the accession of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact on March 25, 1941. The Court annulled a decision by the State Commission of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia of September 15, 1945, proclaiming Dragiša Cvetković an enemy of the people and war criminal, along with all the consequences stemming from the judgement. The same year, the County Court in Šapac made a ruling rehabilitating two quisling gendarmes, Bogdan Lončar and Milenko Braković, killed during an attempt to stop the uprising in Serbia in 1941.

Revisionism – reckoning instead of dealing with the past

In late November 2011, the Senior Court in Belgrade passed the Ruling rehabilitating Prince Pavle Karađorđević, annulling the September 1945 ruling by the State Commission for the Determination of Crimes, proclaiming Pavle a traitor and criminal. The suggestion to rehabilitate Milan Nedić was submitted to the County Court in Belgrade on July 3, 2008 by the Serbian Liberal Party, Serbian Writers’ Association, the Serbian Assembly “Dveri” Association and the Association of Serbs in Croatia. In March 2014, the Senior Court in Belgrade declined the request to rehabilitate Milan Nedić, with his great-grandson announcing a process against the state of Serbia before the European Court of Human Rights.

In Serbia, not only laws and textbooks were changed; so were the names of schools, streets and squares, monuments were torn down, holidays commemorating the Antifascist movement were cancelled. Stjepan Filipović is only one example of historic revisionism in Serbia. Out of several streets and schools bearing his name, only one street and one school remain called by his name today. The scool in Opuzen, Croatia, Stjepan Filipović’s hometown, changed its name in 1990 and the Stjepan Filipović Memorial Park was removed in 2010.

This kind of relationship to historic events and persons and the “reworking” of history make it impossible to engage with the truth necessary for dealing with the past. The revisionism of WWII events leaves room for the strengthening of nationalist and Fascist sentiments in Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries. Without a clear picture of the events of the Second World War, we cannot have a clear picture of wars in former Yugoslavia. The rehabilitation of WWII war criminals leaves room for the rehabilitation of war criminals from wars in former Yugoslavia. Without a rational view to the past, we can understand neither the present, nor a common future in the European Union.

This article was published thanks to co-funding from the Europe for Citizens Programme.