bosnia report
New Series No: 35 August - September 2003
Nation, culture and territory - II
by Ivan Colovic

The fortress of language


National art, cultural heritage and Serb literature offer means for preservation of the national identity, national energy and spiritual unity of the Serb people. The most important role, however, is allocated to the Serb language. The idea of language as the foundation of national identity, which acquired new political importance in the 1980s during the consolidation of ethno-centric movements in the former Yugoslavia, achieved in the 1990s in Serbia - and especially after the wars of 1991‑9 - the status of a cult. It is rooted in the belief that language is the essence of national being; that it is the bond that keeps the people together, the foundation on which it constructs its independence and its state, the national fortress that resists all the changes, threats and snares that the people and its state confront in the course of history. This idea is dear to many Serb writers and linguists. It forms the leitmotif, for example, of the articles on nation and culture penned by Matija Bećković, politically the most influential Serbian writer of today. In the gnomic, sermonizing style that is his hallmark he describes the exceptional and almost fortress‑like role that language plays in national defence. 'The magic of the language hides the secret of survival and of salvation.'; 'the spirit displays the greatest resistance, and a crushed language the greatest resilience'; 'language is the only thing that has escaped the scythe in Kosovo, for language does not burn or melt, nor can it be cut or shot.'; 'it was not just the whole people, but the whole language, guardian of its being, that [after the Kosovo battle] found refuge in the Montenegrin wilderness.'[i]


This evocation of the myth of a post‑Kosovo resurrection of the Serb nation from its indestructible language suggests that the same path to national salvation is on offer also today, after new defeats, new ruin and new persecutions. Milovan Danojlić, Bećković's colleague and ally in the poetical‑political war of defence of the Serb nation from its internal and foreign enemies, sees in Serb poetry and language a magic means of resistance and survival, a kind of secret and invisible weapon that can be used to great effect against the present‑day occupiers of Serb lands. 'At a time when our national being is in danger', Danojlić counsels, 'when we are deluged on all sides by stray variants of the English language, the poets return to the only treasure that SFOR or KFOR cannot seize, and that those who have invaded our soil can never fully master: they return to their native tongue, their secret and inalienable asset, their magic formula, their firm and eternal support.'[ii]


Politika is always willing to publish readers' letters that spring to the defence of the Serb language, as the most important element of national and state security, and that condemn irresponsible attitudes towards it. 'The issue of the language is never peripheral', writes one reader; ' those officials who neglect this damage their own people. While the Croats are busily finalizing their own identity by way of language, territory and customs, we waste our time on other let's say quasi‑ political issues, which by their nature are transient, while language remains a fundamental and eternal question for the Serb people.'[iii]



The views held by contemporary poets are not sufficient, however, to establish the credibility and hence persuasiveness of the idea that language is the essence of national being and a bastion of state defence. For this to become true beyond doubt it must acquire the veneer of ancient wisdom passed on through generations. It consequently came to be ascribed to the mythical founding fathers of the Serb nation‑state - Nemanja and Sava - and at the end of the 1990s texts appeared in the Belgrade press quoting their alleged views on language.   These texts were intended to show that they, too, knew that the secret of the Serb people's survival lay in protecting their language from foreigners and foreign words, and that they were able to articulate this knowledge just as beautifully and ardently as some of their distant progeny to be found among our contemporary poets. Over the past few years there has been a spate of articles in Politika referring to an alleged covenant concerning the language, penned on 13 February 1200 precisely, which the ailing monk Simeon (previously Nemanja) left to his people and his son Sava. The celebration of St Simeon's day, organized by the Serb Orthodox Church at the patriarch's palace in 1998, led one of its reporters to quote Nemanja's alleged language covenant because 'it remains valid to this day'. What the monk Simeon is alleged to have said about the language is strikingly similar, indeed, to what many nationally minded Serb writers and linguists write today on the subject. 'My children, guard your language as you would your land', Simeon wrote to Sava and to the Serbs, out of concern for their future. 'Language can be lost just as castles, land and the soul can be lost. But what is a people without language, land or soul? If you take a foreign word, you will not make it your own, but you will lose part of yourself. It is better to forfeit your grandest and strongest castle than the smallest and most insignificant word of your language.' Nemanja then tells the Serbs that if they have kept their language, they need not worry about military defeat, since such defeats are never final. This is not because by preserving its language the nation continues to live as a national collectivity, but because the language will inspire it with the strength to engage once again with the unfinished task of territorial and political unification. 'When the enemy breaks down your walls and towers', says Nemanja, 'do not despair, but maintain close watch over the language. As long as the language remains untouched, you have nothing to fear... Emperors come and go, states fall, but language and people are what remain; sooner or later the conquered part of the land and the people will return to their linguistic and national homeland.' [iv]



The actual composer of Nemanja's supposed testament was the journalist Mile Medić. Apart from this one about the language, he has written several other 'Testaments of Stefan Nemanja': about the land, blood, graves and bones, song and music, and Serb names. Nemanja appears in them as a distant ancestor and teacher of [World War II fascist] Dimitrije Ljotić and other activists in the sphere of 'blood and soil' politics. Medić worked hard to invest his literary concoctions with the aura of authentic historical documents - for example, by having them printed in an archaic form of the Cyrillic script and embellished with copious illustrations taken from frescoes found in mediaeval monasteries. He succeeded in having this stuff accepted as 'Nemanja's Epistles to the Serbs', and they have now become regular fixtures in programmes of a patriotic nature organized in schools, churches and military barracks, including the St Sava Academy in Belgrade. Mrs Medić, who wrote an afterword to the collection published by her husband of all his 'Nemanja Testaments', reports on her husband's success: 'I know you found this confusion delightful ', she says in this afterword, written in the form of a letter to the beloved author and husband. The confusion that this pseudo‑Nemanja caused in the minds of his readers is for her the proof that his work represented  'a direct continuation in contemporary literature of Nemanja's literary tradition, which was long ago so unjustly and brutally interrupted.' This must mean that Medić's work really is authentic, albeit in a higher sense: though not written by Nemanja himself, it is written in his spirit, which is presumably far more important. For neither Nemanja nor Mile Medić speak for themselves or in their own name, but are rather the medium through which the Serb people itself speaks.  So it is hardly surprising that the people recognizes itself in these texts, and does not care whether they derive from the 11th or the 21st century, or whether they were written by Stefan or by Mile. As Mrs Medić writes, in these texts 'contemporary readers have discovered themselves and their own roots, and have identified themselves, you and Stefan Nemanja with the entire Serb people'.[v]  Anxious maybe that this 'delightful confusion' may have to end, Mile Medić was moved to increase it. In later editions of his 'Language testaments' he quotes their supposed source: 'the Hilandar Charter'. Those who these days quote this pastiche habitually refer also to this false source, which as a result has become a real forgery.[vi]


Poets as sentinels


The idea that language is a nation's foundation and its last refuge supplies the ground for a cult of the language, and also for a cult of national creativity, especially in regard to poetry and poets. The political and military aspects of this cult are highlighted by their incorporation into state and army rituals. Thus the ritual accompanying the gun salute from Kalemegdan on 16 June, which is Army Day, includes also a reading of patriotic texts. According to a Tanjug report, in 1998 a captain and an infantryman 'read out: Major Dragutin Gavrilović's legendary speech to the last surviving defenders of Belgrade in 1915; Bishop Danilo's address from The Mountain Wreath; passages from the theoretical treatise In Praise of the Army by André Gavet; the speech delivered by Prince-Bishop Petar Petrović Njegoš on the eve of the battle of Martinići ('Free mountains do not beget cowards'); and Matija Bećković's poem 'The Field of Kosovo'.[vii]

A poem turned into an icon may also play a part in the military‑religious ritual. This happened, for example, to Dobrica Erić's 'Ode to Defiance' presented by the Orthodox clergy to the naval fleet commander in Bar on 19 May 1999, at the time of the war in Kosovo and the [NATO] bombing of Serbia and Montenegro. According to the Politika reporter in Bar, 'Erić's poem, mounted on a background decorated with Orthodox motifs and set within a frame measuring one metre by half a metre' was brought to naval headquarters by the representatives of the archbishop and the parish of Bar, and hung there in a conspicuous place.' [viii]


In the political rituals devoted over the past few years to the celebration of nationally important poets, less stress has been laid on their works and far more on their mortal remains, their graves, and the monuments in places where they were born, lived or died. Unlike their works, legacies of this kind may easily be connected to a particular territory by moving them around, or by erecting monuments and other varieties of memorial.   Linking Serb poets - nationally defined - to some territory has a specific political and symbolic meaning when the territory in question is considered to be part of the Serb 'ethnic space' but lies outside of Serbia. This was demonstrated with the transfer of Jovan Dučić's mortal remains on 22 October 2000 from the US city of Libertyville to Trebinje in Bosnia‑Herzegovina. In preparation for this event, the national elite exerted itself maximally in an effort to reduce the otherwise complex and contradictory nature of Dučić's work to its nationalist dimension. A few days before the ceremony, Slobodan Rakitić wrote that: 'Dučić's poetry contains what is most beautiful in the Serb nation, what embellishes the Serb national spirit.'[ix]


Preparations for the transfer of Dučić's remains to Trebinje had been going on for several years, but it was finally implemented two weeks after 5 October 2000.  This led certain of the speakers at the ceremony for Dučić's reburial to point out the coincidence between the return of democracy in Serbia and Dučić's return to the Serbs: i.e. to stress, as Matija Bećković did, that 'Dučić and freedom had arrived together'. The importance of this symbolic coincidence was not missed by the new FRY president Vojislav Koštunica, who hastened  to make a personal appearance  at Dučić's second funeral. His gesture of kissing the poet's coffin was noted, as was the praise he won from Bećković for being 'not only the first national representative for half a century to have been christened, but also the first to cross himself'.[x]



The primary significance, however, of the transfer of Dučić's remains and the construction in Trebinje of a church‑cum‑mausoleum to house them, lies in their symbolic demarcation and consolidation of an area of Herzegovina which - despite the war - remains outside Serbia as part of Serb 'ethnic space', of the 'Serb lands'.  Dučić, or more precisely monuments erected in his honour, had served in previous years too to mark symbolically what were claimed as  'Serb lands'. It is not true, therefore, that one had to wait for 'freedom to come' and power to change hands in Serbia before Dučić could 'return to the Serbs'.  His 'return' began with the advent to power of Milošević, and was part of a political strategy created by 'national workers' in the field of culture, as they rallied to the regime's ambitious plans for re‑distribution of the former Yugoslav territories.


A monument to Dučić was erected in Trebinje just before the end of the war, a copy of the poet's bust (sculpted by Risto Stijović) installed at Kalamegdan in April 1993, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death.  In 1996 the bust in Trebinje was joined by a large bronze statue of Dučić sculpted by Darinka Radovanović. The bronze statue too acquired a copy, which in 1997 was placed in Sombor [Vojvodina]. Speaking of this dispersal of Dučić's monuments to border points of the Serb 'ethnic space', Dragomir Brajković offered the thought that the poet's work too had been formed in close contact with that space and created to serve its symbolic cementation. 'Dučić's poetry', Brajković said, 'from the Adriatic Sonnets to the poems about the Montenegrin littoral, from the Imperial Sonnets to the images of Dubrovnik, covers and infuses the totality of the Serb spiritual space, just as the monuments erected in his memory crisscross and permanently conjoin it. The two statues, one erected in Trebinje and the other in Sombor, link symbolically the northernmost and the southernmost Serb cities through Dučić's own charisma.' [xi]



When describing this symbolic integration of the Serb space through Dućić's monuments, Brajković mimics in fact the poet Rajko Petrov Nogo, who credited Matija Bećković with the idea of turning Dučić into a symbolic guardian of Serb lands in spe [hoped for], since it was he who 'discovered in Sombor, where the poet went to school, the copy of Darinka's statue from Trebinje, and thus joined up the Serb north and south'. But Nogo sees other poets and other monuments too as markers of the Serb 'ethnic space', though he clearly prefers gravestones to all other forms. In his eyes they so to speak mark out the ethnic territory in a deeper and more reliable way than ordinary monuments beneath which there is no grave, no mortal remains of a poet, so that they lack the magic power ascribed to these. The transfer of Dučić's remains from the United States to Trebinje (where it was meaningfully pointed out that his embalmed body appeared exceptionally well preserved) greatly increased the poet's symbolic potency, which up to that time had been incarnated solely by his 'empty' replicas; it has now attained the kind of power possessed only by the few great men of Serb literature whose mortal remains rest in mausoleums.  These monuments of the highest order, of the highest power, are singled out also by the fact that they lie not in graveyards but on higher ground, if not mountain peaks.  With the two other chief markers of Serb ethnic territory already in place, Dučić's transfer permits Nogo to say: 'Let them shine like beacons: Branko [Radićević] on Stražilovo, Njegoš on Lovćen and Dučić in Crkvina.'[xii]


Dučić and his embalmed body in their role as suitable markers of the 'Serb south' had a competitor in the poet Aleksa Šantić and his mortal remains. According to the writer Nepo Šipovac from Nevesinje, for the Serbs of Herzegovina it is 'Šantić [who] appears as the marker of Serb spiritual space, its integrative, magnetic representative'. This was proved in the last war, since 'among our fighters and people Šantić was far more present than any other poet, including his Mostar brother Jovan Dučić from Trebinje'. 'This is why', says Šipovac, 'during the armed conflict I tried, together with friends and colleagues, to "transfer" Šantić to the Mostar‑Nevesinje battlefront, but the military operations prevented this. We managed it three years ago, by bringing him here, to Nevesinje.' Šantić, nevertheless, was sidelined. Šipovac admires the mausoleum in Trebinje, but does not fail to add that Dučić owed this 'most beautiful final resting place [to] his sudden fame'. Šantić's case was not helped even by the fact that 'the Šantić family derives from Nevesinje, as does that of President Koštunica, who wrote about our poet a few years ago in the journal Hrišćanska misao [Christian Thought].'[xiii]


In addition to the dead celebrities whose monuments and graves serve as sentries on the frontiers of the Serb land, their descendants, the contemporary poets, also act as watchmen of the Serb ethnic space. Their poems too stand in a direct relationship with Serb ethnic territories, and their integration into a single cultural - and it is to be hoped also state - area. According to Nogo, Serb poets regularly meet in Trebinje to celebrate 'Dučić poetry evenings', in order to demonstrate the spatial extent and unity of Serb poetry and culture, which greatly surpasses the political and state unity of the Serb people. 'They all arrived, Dučić's many literary descendants', Nogo writes, ' on a visit to Dučić - to the Dučić poetry evenings - in order to fashion a mountain wreath out of Lovćen and Leotar, Avala and Stražilovo, Ozren and Romanija, Dinara and Šara.'   Nogo pays homage to the many patriotic poets who took part in these events, thanks to whom there still remains 'a common poetic archipelago', a symbol of the unity of the Serb space.   But he cannot resist posing at the end what for him must be the main question: that of political and state unity. All the work of the Serb poets, he believes, has always served that aim. 'After all these misfortunes, when - if ever - will this single spiritual and cultural space finally become a single state?'[xiv]



[i]. Matija Bećković, Služba, pp. 49, 76, 132.

[ii]. Milovan Danojlić, Književne novine, 15-30 November 2001.

[iii]. Dr Ivanka Krasojević-Kostić, Politika, 16 March 1998.

[iv]. M. Kuburović, 'Simeon the Monk's language testament', Politika, 27 February 1998.

[v]. Mile Medić, Zavježtanja Stefana Nemanje, 3rd edition, Belgrade 2001, pp. 119-21.


[vi]. See, for example, Z. Radosavljević's 'The invasion of foreign words', Politika, 20 July 2000, and Dobrica Erić's 'Stefan Nemanja's Testament', Politika, 27 January 2000.   Erić is the publisher of Medić's book in which this forgery appears (Mile Medić, Najezda stranih reči na srpski jezik [The invasion of the Serb language by foreign words], Nolit, Belgrade 2000).   The most recent reference to this 'testament' is found in the 'Appeal for Protection of the Language' published in Politika on 1 February 2002 by Miroslav Krstić, a member of the 'Movement to Defend the Purity of the Serb Language' which, the author informs us, was set up 'in 1994 on St Vitus's day in the Belgrade city library'.   Speaking on behalf of the Movement, he asks for 'understanding and support, in the spirit of Stefan Nemanja's testamentary injunction for protection of the language, addressed to his son Rastko but also to us all (ALanguage, my son, is stronger than any battlement@).'

[vii]. Politika, 16 June 1998.

[viii]. Politika, 20 May 1999.

[ix]. Quoted in Z. Radosavljević, 'Oči na dva sveta', Politika, 19 October 2000.

[x]. Matija Bećković, 'Ave Jovanu Dučiću', Politika, 28 October 2000.

[xi]. Politika, 17 November 2000.

[xii]. Politika, 23 September 2000.

[xiii]. Zbilja (Belgrade), 8-10, 2001, p.10.

[xiv]. LMS, November 2000, p. 330.


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