Slovenes and Serbs
by Taras Kermauner
Taras Kermauner, author of some seventy books, is a noted Slovene philosopher and dramatist. On the eve of Yugoslavia’s break-up, his Letters to a Serbian Friend caused a veritable storm in Belgrade. This interview was published in the Belgrade weekly NIN on the occasion of its seventieth anniversary.
NIN: More than a decade has passed since you started a critical exchange with Serbian intellectuals. Would you have written your Letters if you had known what would happen?
Kermauner: Not a single quotation from my book was correctly cited in the Serbian press. Much fun was made, in particular, of my Euro-Slavism, i.e. my proposal that we should leave behind Stalinism and ethnic nationalism and go forward together into Europe. The self-imposed blindness of the Serb intellectuals, whether Milošević’s supporters in the Party or the dissidents, was such that they saw only what they wished to see in order to realise their model of a national state. This direction could not but lead to inter-national holy wars typical of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Milošević fused an archaic ethnic policy with pseudo-socialism, with the dictatorship of a ruling nation. The Slovenes resisted this for civilisational and national reasons. They were lucky in not having a war. It proved subsequently that nationalism for the Slovenes was above a matter of self-respect, a slogan rather than reality. They did well by promoting a small-scale capitalism, a choice that reflected their caution, and found their purpose in life in market competition. The Serbs found theirs in a renewal of tribal medieval heroism, the Slovenes in the revival and development of a rational economy of the kind promoted by Janez Bleiweiss and the neutral state of Joseph II. For the Slovenes the national state was the means of self-defence against Milošević’s general regression, i.e. an instrument of civil society and the universal human values that prevailed in Western Europe at the end of World War II. But however critical I may be of the Slovene option, the contemporary Serb one is even worse. Sooner or later the Serbs will follow in Slovene footsteps, just as the Slovenes have followed the Italian example.
You said in 1991 that ‘Serbia will not succeed with its irredenta’ in Croatia, though ‘the Croats are not innocent’. How come that the Slovene and Croat political leaders succeeded in realising their aims and the Serb leaders did not?
During the 1990s the Serbs were evidently convinced in the mission of Serbdom, in the magic pseudo-values of Orthodoxy, in the holy cause of war and sacrifice - they were, in other words, closer to a tribal understanding of man. The Croatian Communist party reacted in a similar way to the Slovene: it rediscovered and returned to its Social-democratic tradition. In contrast to Kučan’s reformism in Slovenia, there was no sign in Serbia of Tučević’s Social-democracy of before World War I. Civil Croatia gathered around Račan, as well as further to the right around Gotovac. This blocked the Tuđman option, which was very close to Milošević’s. In Slovenia there was no such figure as Milošević or Tuđman - no one there wished to accept the role of a charismatic leader. What the Slovenes want is to succeed in the capitalist market - each if them holds a mobile telephone in one hand and a calculator in the other. They all want to become shareholders, half of them wish to play the market - real comedy, but not as bad as affirmation of the national Holy Grail based on territorial conquests.
Is post-Milošević Serbia capable of self-reflection?
I doubt it. There is too much self-criticism that becomes translated into self-destruction, self-pity, masochism - an enjoyment in despair and victimization that may be good as literary inspiration but is certainly bad for society. The Serbian cultural prophets and politicians would do better by beginning a general overhaul of the interpretation of their history. In my Letters to a Serbian friend’, the first of which was addressed to Dobrica Ćosić, I tried to redirect the Serbian dissident intellectuals towards auto-reflection, away from any attempt at military rectification of alleged historical wrongs committed against Serbia by the world, and by the West in particular. I experienced a real shock when I read the attacks on my letters in the Serbian press, especially since those attacks were so passionate, so blinded by fury, organised as a straightforward military exercise, without any sense of auto-reflection. I unfortunately failed to stimulate auto-reflection among the Slovenes either, though their blindness was less passionate, but hence more sly, which is typical of Slovenes, since we are true hypocrites.
Slovenia and Serbia enjoy quite friendly relations today. But things will never be the same, will they?
No, things will never be the same. Today they are two equal and independent states, which can work well together. This pleases me greatly, though eighty-five years ago the situation was quite different. Serb disappointment with the Slovenes derives primarily from the fact that the Serbs expected an unconditional Slovene support against the Croats, just like in 1918-1941. The Serbs basically thought of Slovenes as a second-rate nation. Ćosić’s group, which in 1986-7 declared itself as ‘anti-Milošević’, informed me at the time of their new concept of Yugoslavia. The Slovenes were supposed to give up their language, which would be used only in everyday speech and for lower levels of cultural life. The Serbs would further assume political leadership, while the Slovenes would look after the economy. This excessive aggressiveness, a real blindness, derived from the assumption that we Slovenes were completely - i.e. spiritually, materially and politically - dependent on the Serbs, as if we were their servants. We know from history how servants behave: sooner or later they have enough, whereupon they rise as one and burn down the lord’s mansion. The Slovenes ‘burned down’ Yugoslavia as a common state, and proposed to the Serbs to make a new state in which they would be equal partners. The Serbs did not agree to this, and neither did the Croats.
Edited extract from a lengthy interview published in NIN (Belgrade), 27 January 2005.