Against nationalist intolerance
by Filip David - interviewed by Slobodna Bosna
Filip David, with a number of other Serbian intellectuals including Mirko Kovač, Nebojša Popov and Lazar Stojanović, has signed an open letter warning against the imposition on Serb society of an ‘ideological model that leads to national intolerance, and to Nazism as its ultimate logical outcome. An ideological model is being applied which seeks to excuse the destruction of life during this last war and those that preceded it. ’
SLOBODNA BOSNA. What is the nature of the cultural model to which your letter refers? What did you want to achieve with your appeal to the Serbian public?
FILIP DAVID. Our intention was to warn against the appearance of extremist groups such as Obraz, St Justin and others, which are active among young people of nationalist orientation and whose patrons include university professors, theologians, members of the Church hierarchy and the military. Since they enjoy this powerful protection, they feel they can act with impunity. They are very active here in Belgrade, and the problem is that there is no longer any organized resistance to them.
One gets the impression that during Milošević’s dictatorship independent intellectuals had a greater presence in public life, and that the role played by such key institutions as the Academy (SANU), the Orthodox Church and the Army in the Yugoslav tragedy was more openly questioned.
This is a consequence of the illusion that Milošević’s departure marked a new start. One must remember, however, that Milošević and his regime were products of a cultural model and mentality with a long tradition in Serbian history: what Rade Konstantinović called ‘provincial philosophy’. He describes its nature in his famous book [Filozofija palanke] and shows how that type of thinking leads to xenophobia, isolation and fear of the other. Serbian culture is frequently engulfed by waves of passionate emotion that sooner or later end in Nazism. After the fall of Communism, Milošević used this cultural model to reach out towards another totalitarian idea, that of traditional nationalism. On 5 October we managed to get rid of Milosević, but the cultural model has remained. This explains why we felt we had to do something.
What are the role models that inspire the Serbian youth?
There is first of all the late Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović, who is greatly admired here in Serbia in both ecclesiastical and secular circles. Everyone quotes him, but few know what he has written. If one looks through his works, however, one finds that Nikolaj is a triumph of ‘provincial philosophy’. He wrote, for example, that Serbia never was and never should become part of Europe; that Europe is the fountain of all evil and heresy; that Europe is ruled by Satan and the seeds that Satan has sown: i.e. the Jews. He wrote that culture was worthless and that washing and being clean was one of the worst sins, since in his view it was internal purity that really mattered, and this could be harmed by external cleanliness. The Bishop also wrote a series of anti-Semitic texts, the worst of their kind ever written in this part of the world. This is now being offered as spiritual authority in the education of the young.
A few months ago some people close to the government came out with the argument that people whose name does not end with ‘-ić’ should be excluded from political life. How do you explain that?
Yes, indeed, they said that the best Serbs derive only from certain areas, and criticized a presidential candidate [Miroljub Labus] for seeking support among the ‘inferior’ national minorities. This cultural climate has produced also the new history textbooks, in which the word war appears twenty times as often as the word culture.
Your letter has provoked strong reactions. Many Academicians and Church leaders have accused you of attacking the Serb people.
Some churchmen have argued that criticizing the Church is an attack on the faith. Under Milošević it was said that those who were against Milosević were against the state and the nation. The clerics are now reacting in the same way. They insist that we have more to offer to Europe than Europe can give to us. Some SANU members have also responded, for example Nikola Milošević, who described our letter as a form of Nazi-Communist rhetoric and criticized us for protesting against streets in Belgrade being named after Ljotić and Nedić, while accepting Lenin Boulevard. He does not mind the fact that a square will display Ljotić’s name, or that streets are being called after national traitors.1 (1. Dimitrije Ljotic (1885-1945) led the fascist Zbor movement in Serbia. Milan Nedic (1885-1946) was the quisling president of German-occupied Serbia from August 1941 to October 1944)
This approach is shared by many Academicians, including Milorad Ekmečić and Dobrica Ćosić. Ćosić is a major influence on the political group surrounding Koštunica. Members of the Academy and the Church hierarchy, the same people who aided Milošević in his rise to power, continue to hold dominant positions in public life. Milošević is gone, but they have not ceased propagating the same ideas.
To what extent is this nationalism different from the kind Milošević used to start the war?
We are dealing with a different sort of nationalism: these nationalists really believe that theirs is the only rightful path. There is also a resurgence of nationalism among the Orthodox clergy; this tendency has grown enormously in importance since Milošević’s time. We are dealing here with a highly emotional ethnic nationalism; and when emotions rule, arguments are of no avail and people cannot be persuaded to think otherwise. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that ‘our nationalist programme is based not on arguments but on emotions, so no arguments can prevail against it.’ It is difficult to tame and dispel hatred. Hatred is fed from all kind of sources and grows at awesome speed before exploding. We are faced with the danger that this hatred may grow within extremist circles and become the kind of monster we have already seen in action. There are many people who think like us, and who wish to sign our letter; but the danger derives from the fact that the number of those who think differently is very much larger.
Serbian television has been running a series about the Chetniks, which rehabilitates them and presents them as liberators of the Serb nation. What effect will this have?
This is the stuff of ‘provincial philosophy’, of inability to see the past in objective terms. It is impossible to negate the fact that the Partisan movement was anti-fascist and liberating in its nature. The new revisionism, however, claims that Draža Mihajlović and his movement, which collaborated throughout with the Nazis, was the main force of liberation; that Ljotić and Nedić sacrificed themselves for the Serbs in order to save them from physical extinction. They say that Nedić was a ‘Serb mother’ and that Ljotić was one too, and that it was the Partisans who committed most crimes. If these trends continue, Serbia will end on the side of those who lost World War II.
This interview has been translated from Slobodna Bosna (Sarajevo), 5 December 2003