bosnia report
New Series No: 35 August - September 2003
Culture, nation and territory - III
by Ivan Colovic

Clash of civilizations


The strategists and propagators of the Serb Kulturkampf , the war for the preservation of Serb culture and hence also of the nation's fighting potential, like to view it through the angle of European and world geopolitics. They are particularly interested in variants of the theory of the world being a stage for the conflict between cultures or civilizations, and some of them like to evoke its best known advocate: Samuel Huntington. The importance with which our national workers, and especially the historians among them, treat new theories of the clash of civilizations is shown by the decision of SANU to organize, in 1997 in Belgrade, an international conference on the theme: 'Meeting or clash of civilizations in the Balkans'.[i]


If, in accordance with the theory of a clash of cultures, antagonisms, conflicts and wars are viewed as the consequence of deep, unbridgeable and irreducible cultural differences, then the wars at the end of the 20th century in which the Serbs took part acquire a new and planetary dimension. They are no longer territorial wars between former Yugoslav republics, but rather the eruption of a new locus of the global clash of civilizations. Those who interpreted the war in Bosnia in this manner find confirmation in the often quoted statement by Huntington that the 1991‑5 war in Bosnia‑Herzegovina is but 'an episode in a permanent clash of civilizations'. However, in contrast to Huntington, who even when writing about 'Islam's bloody frontiers' does not treat Islam and non‑European civilizations with derision and contempt, his followers among the Serb nationalists refuse to acknowledge some of them - and the Islamic one in particular - as civilizations, treating them instead as forms of barbarism. As noted by Mirko Đorđević, Huntington's Serb followers, having grasped only his basic idea, simplify it further before applying it to our situation, so that one gets a caricature of an already poor theory. Their interpretation of the concept of the clash of civilizations is as a rule, therefore, reduced to an alarming description of a clash between civilization and barbarism. In this conflict, the Serbs are seen as playing a heroic role in protecting European and Christian values, which at the end of the 20th century became threatened by a new Islamic onslaught, a new Asiatic invasion of European soil. The struggle for the Serb national territory, as measured by the Serb ethnic and cultural space, is thereby given the additional meaning of defence of Europe as an area reserved for Christianity.[ii]



The 9/11 attack on New York and Washington encouraged these alleged defenders of European civilization to remind the Europeans and the Americans yet again of the old and the new Serb contributions to the war against Eastern barbarism, and to castigate them anew for not properly recognizing this, because of an incorrect assessment of their own interests or because of a stupidity that the common enemy was able to use and abuse. According to Đorđe Kadijević, the three most important attacks by Asia against Europe were the burning of the Alexandria library in 640, the capture of Constantinople in 1453, and the 'return to Europe of the Asiatic hydra' during the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. In all three cases, Kadijević writes, 'the same Asiatic hordes attacked European civilizations', while in the last two their success was 'aided by the Latin West with its malicious refusal to help'.[iii]


The theme of not recognizing the true ally in the war between civilization and barbarism - i.e. the motif of the dastardly refusal to help the Serbs who man the front line - lies at the centre of the presentation of a conflict that, albeit fought within the same civilization, is at least as dramatic as the clash between civilization and barbarism. This is the conflict between the authentic values of European civilization - which is apparently to be found today only in its birthplace, the Balkans - and the false culture of the European West, alienated from the true European spirit. The authentic European civilization is imperilled not so much by the external enemy, but by its alienation from its own self, its loss of memory. The Serbs derive the strength to persevere in the struggle against barbarism from their national culture, which they have turned into an invincible citadel of their identity, to which they withdraw after a military defeat and which they leave to wage new wars for territory. Western nations, in contrast, having underestimated the defensive capacity of their own national Christian cultures, have allowed them to degenerate, which is why today they lack an effective defence against foreigners. 'One of the greatest weaknesses of Western civilization is its internal degeneration, caused by the growing strength of communities that belong to a foreign civilization', writes Milorad Ekmečić[iv]



This degeneration of Western and especially West European civilization has been described at some length by Čedomir Popov. 'The barbaric products of its own civilization', he writes, 'overwhelm it, suffocate it, destroy its conscience and its consciousness, its reason and its emotions. They enslave its culture, politics and economy and take away its soul in return for buttered bread sprinkled with opium, sweet but destructive vices, loss of memory...'. This dramatic description of the fall of the European spirit, in which we unexpectedly encounter also buttered bread, serves to highlight the civilizational merits of Milošević and the Serb nationalists ‑ who, naturally, appear as 'Serbia' for short ‑ and to justify the war they were fighting in April 1999, when Čedomir Popov was penning the lines quoted above, against the degenerate West. The description ends with an evocation of the catastrophe that would ensue if 'Serbia' were to lose the war. 'This is what Serbia is confronting and what it is sacrificing itself for', writes Popov, 'defending, of course, first of all itself, its people, its state and its nation.    If it succeeds in gaining support for this struggle in the world, and especially in Europe, that will give a strong boost also to others who love freedom and humanity. If it loses, mankind will come under threat. This is why its struggle has a universal significance [and] why its defeat could mark the beginning of the creation of a universal empire based on slavery.' [v]


The philosopher Mihajlo Marković was thinking along the same lines as bombs were falling on Belgrade and other parts of Serbia.   In his view the main aim of the bombing was destruction of the Serb national spirit, which if realized would have catastrophic consequences for humanity. 'If NATO were to succeed in destroying the magnificent spirit of the Serb people', warned Marković, 'the consequences would be quite horrific ... Mankind would return to a state worse than the original anarchy described by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.' [vi]


The recent wars in the Balkans encouraged also the philosopher Mihajlo Đurić to ponder gravely the fate of humanity and of European civilization. In his view, in these wars Serbs were the victims of Europe, which has become separated from its roots, from its own authentic spirit. 'We should be concerned not only because we as a people are threatened with annihilation in our own land', says Đurić  'The world as a whole is imperilled; our suffering is only one example, perhaps the most painful and dramatic, of the nihilistic essence of the contemporary world. We are deeply affected by our fate, the terrible tragedy that has happened to us, but we must not forget that the whole world is in trouble.'[vii]



However, the world, or at least Europe, need not be entirely lost, and our philosopher tells where salvation lies. 'Our European future', he writes, 'can be creatively transformed only by reclaiming our Greek past.'   His advice to Europe to build its future by seeking inspiration in antiquity would not be included here, were it not for the fact that Đurić includes it in his scenario of the Serb Kulturkampf.   Europe, in his opinion, can find the preserved precious remains of the Greek past in Serbia, which is its heir and guardian. If Europe were to turn towards its Greek past, 'in that setting and under those symbols it would be able to regain its old glory, acquire a new bright illumination and together with it our authentic Serb inheritance, especially the precious Kosovo bequest of our great mythological past, which in the largest possible manner is inspired by Greek epic poetry and Greek tragedy.  'Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen for now, this possibility of returning to itself, so Europe once again lost the chance during the recent Balkan wars to recognize itself in the Serb cultural heritage. The worst of all is that during these wars, and especially the one in Kosovo, it took part in the destruction of Serb cultural monuments, of the Serb heritage. This heritage, Đurić alerts us, 'was the main target of the criminal demolition and destruction conducted by NATO during its recent undeclared war against the Serb people and the Serb land. With that act of madness contemporary Europe struck a mortal blow against its own self.'[viii]


Towards inter‑cultural dialogue

Parallel to this promotion of a nationalist cultural model in which, as shown above, culture is reduced to being an instrument of defence of the nation and its territories against internal and external enemies, there exists in Serbia also a critical current of thought which has produced a large number of articles, reviews and studies on the nationalist manipulation of culture. This production attests to the belief of its authors - as well as of those active within the 'civic' parties and institutions, the people who organize debates on culture and politics or publish the proceedings of such meetings - that advocacy of political change which would make Serbia part of the international community of democratic, peaceful and prosperous countries demands also a confrontation with the nationalist perception of culture.


The text above has been translated from a longer essay in Republika (Belgrade), no 288‑289, 1‑31 July 2002.   Ivan Čolović is one of the best known contemporary Serbian intellectuals, the author of eight books in the fields of urban ethnology, ethno-linguistics and political anthropology.   He established in 1971 and still directs the influential imprint Biblioteka XX vek, which now runs to over one hundred volumes.   He was also one of the founders of the Belgrade Circle, a leading focus of democratic intellectual opposition throughout the Milošević years.   He  spoke at a Bosnian Institute forum in November 1999, and his Politics of Identity in Serbia, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, was published in 2002 by C. Hurst & Co., London






[i]. The proceedings have been published as Susret ili sukob civilizacija na Balkanu, SANU (Belgrade) and Pravoslavna reč(Novi Sad).

[ii]. See Mirko Đurić, Znaci vremena, Belgrade 1998, p. 133.

[iii]. Politika, 27 October 2001.

[iv]. Susret ili sukob civilizacija na Balkanu, p. 49.

[v]. Čedomir Popov in Evropa na raskršću. Novizidovi ili ujedinjena Evropa?, International round table, Belgrade, 28-29 April 1999, SANU 1999, p.41.

[vi]. Mihajlo Marković in Evropa na raskršću, p. 74.

[vii]. Conversation with Mihajlo Đurić in Politika, 24 February 2001.

[viii]. Concluding passage of a paper presented to SANU on the Origin and Future of Europe, Politika, 24 March 2001.


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