bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
A critical re-examination of history
by Olivera Milosavljevic

A Critical Re-Examination of History

Olivera Milosavljevic

Review of Latinka Perovic, Ljudi, dogadjaji i knjige [People, Events and Books], Helsinški odbor/Helsinki Committee, Belgrade 2000.


Latinka Perovic mentions at one point in her book that ‘books may sow illusions, but they may also confront the truth’. We have witnessed a surfeit of the former kind during the past decade, while those of the latter kind have been quite rare. This book is one of the rare ones. In it, Latinka Perovic shows that it is possible to tell the (here) most unwelcome truths in a calm tone. Only once does she depart from her consistently moderate style and then quite intentionally: for what has been repeated over the past ten years, and appeared so melodious to the ears of the widest layers of society and its elite, can indeed be described only as ‘delusion’. So it is probably no accident that this book should be appearing now, in the year 2000, after a decade of delusions about the possibility of an isolated Serb happiness and now that the process of degradation of state and society has been virtually completed. What is to follow should come as no more of a surprise to sensible people than what has already occurred did, since as Latinka Perovic notes it was announced in advance.

Worst choice

Aware of how hard it is for anyone from the sphere of politics to ‘win a place in any profession’, and of the fact that the transition can be made only once in a lifetime, on condition that one becomes as she says a ‘rigorous professional’, Latinka Perovic maintains that the essence of historical science and method is ‘first to identify and then to follow [historical] processes in depth’, even at a time when historical truths, as she writes, are received as insults. This book is precisely a result of her efforts to illuminate those fundamental processes [of Serbian national history]. By refusing to seek superficial and hence inaccurate answers - since she knows that neither did history begin ten years ago or fifty years ago, nor before then was there paradise on earth - Latinka Perovic tells us why the present period ‘did not fall from the sky’; and why the previous ideology, far from being an ‘accidental detritus’, ‘sprang from the nature of Serbian society’. As a great 19thcentury scholar, Latinka Perovic reflects upon a whole range of themes that eventually come together in the form of a harsh answer to the key question: why here, at the end of the 20th century, the worst of all possible choices should have been made, and why as such it should have found plebiscitary support from the masses and from the elite.

Latinka Perovic writes about the historian’s task and the meaning of history; about history and politics; about the roots of narodnjaštvo [populism] and socialism in Russian and Serbian society and the relationship between the two; about the [Serbian] Radical Party’s populism; about Slavophiles and Westernizers; about patriarchal and modern values; about Serbia and Europe; about one hundred and fifty years of anticipating a ‘collapse of the West’ that never occurred; about national interests and national programmes; about war and defeat; about the army and politics; about responsibility and elites; about ‘Echoes and Reactions’ [a rubric in Politika] and the academicians; about the regime and the opposition. She insists that Yugoslavia was a vital interest for the Serb nation, so that it was ‘politically insane’ to gamble with the Yugoslav state, and was precisely in the Serb national interest to ‘give up imperial ambitions’. She knows that the war could have been avoided. Having studied the past, she is able to state that ‘we do not have a developed democratic tradition’ and that ‘we did not have an urban society before Communism’. She had the courage to write bitterly in 1991 that ‘we are interested only in territory and do not care about the people’, a message summed up in the sentence (paraphrasing Milosz): ‘There will be Slovenia, but there will be no Slovenians’. In all her chosen themes, indeed, she thinks in a way that is the precise opposite to that which, thanks to the fantasies propagated by numerous intellectuals, has become a widespread social consensus - a pseudo-truth constructed exclusively for domestic purposes.

Seeing clearly

Inspired by the conviction that the primary task of the elite is to foresee the future, Latinka Perovic does precisely that - unerringly, even when quite unwittingly. In doing so, she not only fulfils the duty of a responsible person to say publicly what any sensible individual can see, but at the same time she also negates all those delusions which for the past ten years have surfaced in the question: ‘What is happening to us?’ - as if what is happening to us springs from some unknown source. Although she writes primarily as a scientist, one can discern an experienced politician in the often repeated sentence that we need ‘agreements, pragmatism and compromises’, rather than ‘shameful’ force and arrogance. At the time when Latinka Perovic wrote these words, however, in April 1991, the public wished to hear other intellectuals and their war trumpets. This is why no one heard the rest of her sentence, which is that ‘history always comes to claim its own: those who use destruction and repression as weapons in their struggle against others will in turn fall victim to them.’ And history has indeed come to claim its own today, nine years later. She wrote in 1992 that Serbia was facing extensive militarisation, a long war and total economic collapse; in 1993 that its perilous isolation was conducive to ‘either a slow degeneration or a desperate explosion, to be followed by frustration and apathy, with all personal and social philosophy summed up in the sentence: "Things could be worse!".’ Seven years later this is precisely what has happened. In 1994 she wrote that ‘the dream of the final unification of Serb lands will end in a deep division of the Serb people’; that ‘where the future is conceived on the basis of the past, the future itself is in jeopardy’; that ‘indifference to war waged elsewhere has a high price’. Six years later the price was six times higher. In the winter of 1996, when others were counting the hours to the fall of the regime and all those intellectual visionaries, unpersuaded by persistent failure to abandon their divinations, were wrongly proclaiming that the regime was on its last legs, Latinka Perovic warned against euphoria, writing that this was indeed the beginning of its end but ‘not yet its collapse’, and that the opposition’s failure to link the existing situation directly with the war meant ‘wasting time’. So we lost another three years.

Awkward truths

This book testifies to the fact that during the past ten years Latinka Perovic has not occupied the easy position of a mere critic, but has had the courage to recommend the most unpopular solutions as the only proper national aim. This was an ‘economically modern and prosperous Serbia, politically democratic, open towards other South Slav peoples - with firm guarantees of rights for parts of the Serb people living within their states.’ In 1994 when she wrote this, however, economy and democracy lay at the foot of the list of ‘national interests’, the other South Slav peoples were first on the list of national enemies, and the rights of the Serb people outside Serbia were identified with the territories on which they lived and recognised only while it seemed possible to annex those territories. Predictably enough, almost nobody understood such a programme then, and doubtless most still do not understand it even today.

Latinka Perovic does not write about others, barely mentioning the Croats or the Albanians, and the international community only in response to questions. She writes about us [Serbs]: about what we wanted and have consequently got; about what we can do but will not; about what follows from the fact that we do not. As she says, the ‘first duty of a moral individual is to tell their nation unpleasant truths’ - and that is just what she does without embarrassment.

Latinka Perovic avoids circumlocutions when she writes about the war. In contrast to many in our society who even today do not dare to say that the war aims were murky, Latinka Perovic rightly insists that there was an aim that entranced the nation, and that the war aims were clearly presented: revision of the existing borders; exchange of populations, ‘which is simply a euphemism for ethnic cleansing’; re-composition of the Balkan area and, if need be, sacrifice not only of this but also of the next generation. She concludes that ‘killing was part of the logic’, since it was known from the start that such an aim could not be realised without war.

She writes about nationalism in the same manner too. She argues that the victory of nationalism ‘has endangered the very survival of the nation’; and that ‘nationalism in all its forms wishes to present us as worse than we were, not as members of certain nations but as individuals’. She judges the national strategy of ‘our obscurantists’, around which a consensus was formed, as a ‘series of historical abortions’. She notes that the failure to understand that there were other nations living in Yugoslavia represented not only an atrophy of tolerance, but also a preparation for the ‘arrogant position according to which we should destroy Yugoslavia if we could not rule over it.’

The question of responsibility

Today it is popular and tempting to amnesty nationalism, its aims, and war as its means, while at the same time naming only one person as the guilty party. Since Latinka Perovic has never written what is popular in our country, because for years what is popular has been only what is comforting and confirms that we are the best in the world, she also treats the responsibility of the elite in the most uncompromising manner. She notes that the existing regime in Serbia, which has matured on the basis of widespread mass support, was supported ‘without any hesitation whatsoever’ by the scientific, spiritual, military and political elite; that its project was ‘the future as a renewed past’; that the Serbian Academy, for example, accepted a servicing role on behalf of Slobodan Miloševic; that the Serbian elite took upon itself the role of spreading ‘the Serb truth’; and that half-baked intellectuals used the pages of Politika to ‘spread hatred and consolidate the policy of war’. It is, therefore, one of the most striking and accurate of Latinka Perovic’s conclusions that: ‘Europe does not represent a trauma for the Serb masses. It is a trauma for the Serb elite, manifesting itself as a complex of persistent backwardness.’ This means that our defeat is not just the defeat of ‘a nationalist delusion’, but a historic defeat. It is only those like Latinka Perovic who from the first moment resisted the suicidal policy who today can address the question of responsibility. This is why her message that ‘no one can say that they did not know about Vukovar and the three-year siege of Sarajevo, about the camps and the columns of people removed from their natural and emotional world, about the barbarous destruction of material and cultural wealth’ is met with irritable silence. Her assertion that the criminals are saving their skins by ‘identifying themselves with the nation as a whole’, while the Hague Tribunal seeks to ‘rid them of that option’, is drowned out by the deafening clamour about the ‘world conspiracy against the Serbs’; and no one in this society appears to understand her when she says that ‘in order to prove that we are alive, it is indispensable that we draw a line between ourselves and the crime’. It is no accident that those like Latinka Perovic who have least reason for saying this are the ones to speak up. Her book concludes with the statement that resistance to the existing nothingness must begin with a re-examination ‘in which every one must first ask themselves certain questions’.

Not long ago a representative of NSMW, which means ‘the New Superior Male Wisdom’, announced that in our domestic historiography there exists something called FSNH (the Female School of National History), whose founder is Latinka Perovic. While it is obvious that only in a mind cemented by chauvinism can history be divided into male and female, it is also obvious that sooner or later the current represented by Latinka Perovic will prevail in the discipline; and when that happens it will be possible to speak authoritatively, openly and without fear about the national past, even if such truths are ‘perceived as insults’. If this current happens to be dominated by women, that will only make it easier to answer the question of who it is who so desperately clings to the patriarchal and traditional models from which nationalism as the father of historical ignorance derives. It will then be possible to speak also of a Latinka Perovic school, though not as a female but as a scientifically founded historical approach.

This review article has been translated from Republika (Belgrade), no. 240-41, 1-31 July 2000.


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