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Denial and Repression of Antisemitism

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Jovan Byford

Chapter Seven. Conclusion

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“The only thing worse than perpetrating a crime is trying to rationalize it. The only thing worse than committing a sin is offering an excuse for it. The only thing worse than doing violence is trying to justify it. The only thing worse than waging war is believing that war can be just. There is nothing for which an individual or a people should be held responsible more readily than the belief that they bare no responsibility.” (Radovan Bigović, 1994, p. 11)

1The main aim of the present study has been to explore the dynamics of repression and denial constitutive of the rehabilitation of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović over the past twenty or so years. It has examined a variety of discursive and rhetorical practices of social remembering and forgetting which enabled the favorable representations of the controversial bishop—which had been confined, during the communist period, to the relatively marginal group of nationalist clergy gathered around Father Justin Popović and to the Serbian diaspora in the West—to penetrate the public sphere and come to dominate memorial discourse within mainstream Serbian Orthodox culture. The continuing adulation of Nikolaj Velimirović has been shown to involve routine repression of his antisemitism and a whole host of strategies of denial, the aim of which is to justify, play down, and rationalize his lamentable stance towards Jews.

2At first sight, various components of repression and denial explored in this study might seem to be in contradiction with each other, especially as willful forgetting of controversial biographical details often appears virtually side by side with their explicit denial or justification. As the preceding chapters have endeavored to show, the coexistence of the two processes can be attributed to the fact that they are functionally related. Aspects of denial, such as emphatic and outright rejection of accusations of antisemitism, or the refusal to engage in the debate about Velimirović’s contentious views, serve the purpose of shifting attention away from the embarrassing topics, thereby facilitating the repression of controversy. Conversely, one of the principal strengths of the martyrdom myth, which lies at the core of the repression of Velimirović’s antisemitism, is that its routine nature provides the rhetorical means for denying antisemitism in response to direct accusations. The compatibility of the two processes is ultimately to be found in their common objective, namely to ensure that Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović is remembered in a favorable and complimentary fashion, free of controversy and debate.

3In exploring the different aspects of repression and denial, preceding chapters have demonstrated an important aspect of memorial discourse, namely its variability. Portrayals of Nikolaj Velimirović lack consistency and narrative coherence. In the language of everyday remembrance, the claim that Velimirović spent the whole of World War II in the “dungeons of Nazism” quietly coexists with the allegation that during the same period he rescued a Jewish family from Nazi capture. Velimirović’s controversial Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window are said to consist of “mere notes,” which the bishop never intended to publish, while virtually simultaneously being praised as his most important work of almost divine significance. This fragmented and disjointed nature of memorial representation reveals that social remembering is not determined by the requirement for narrative constancy and structural unity typical of formal historical accounts, but by the immediate rhetorical and argumentative needs of the memory-maker and the locally contingent demands of moral accountability management.

4The overwhelming concern with presenting Nikolaj Velimirović in a positive light, which determines the discourse of his remembrance, reflects the argumentative nature of social memory. As Irwin-Zarecka (1994) notes, the “vicissitudes of remembrance” are contingent upon the interplay between two forces: one which constructs and maintains the “morally purified narratives, both ideologically and practically,” and its opposing force, located in rival memories, which demands reevaluation and calls for “full moral accounting for the past” (p. 129). In the context of the controversy surrounding Velimirović’s remembrance, the accounts of his personal history are at the same time accounts for his contentious beliefs. Hence, representation of Nikolaj Velimirović in Orthodox culture is determined by the nature and the content of the ongoing ideological confrontation with liberal public opinion. Remembrance of the bishop in the context of his adulation is not a neutral activity, but a “tool for politically charged intellectual debates” (Irwin-Zarecka, 1994, p. 129).

5In focusing on the rhetorical aspect of remembering, the present book also argued that in investigating post-communist rehabilitation of controversial historical figures, inquiry should not be limited to the three-pronged question: “Who wants to remember what and why?” It should also address the issue of how specific memories and visions of the past are constructed and told so as to make them appear acceptable and preferable to alternatives. Study of memory ought to explore how accounts of the past continuously and effectively undermine alternative and competing versions, and shed light on the ways in which specific memories impose themselves upon the audience as the rational, reasonable, morally preferable, and, above all, historically accurate representations of the past.

6Furthermore, the role which the creation and maintenance of Velimirović’s non-prejudiced image plays in determining the structure and the content of his remembrance points towards an important aspect of prejudice emphasized by discourse analytic research. The language of intolerance and discrimination does not consist simply of negative attitudes towards and stereotypes about minorities, but also includes the argumentation surrounding the expression of prejudiced views and the way in which talk is organized rhetorically to avoid or deny attributions of racism (Billig, 1990; Rapley, 2001; Wetherell & Potter, 1992). For this reason, the study of intolerance should focus not merely on dominant representations of the racial, national, or religious “other,” but also on the rhetoric of justification, denial, and rationalization by means of which the label “prejudiced” is evaded when talking about that “other.” By exploring the representations of Jews in Serbian Orthodox Christian culture—through the prism of Velimirović’s remembrance—the present study looked not only at how Velimirović or his supporters talk about Jews, but also at the multitude of rhetorical strategies which the bishop’s admirers, as morally accountable agents, use in the context of his remembrance in order to construct themselves, their hero, and in some cases even the whole of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian people as being devoid of prejudice. In doing so, the study exposed the broader ideological implications of collective remembering. By legitimizing and normalizing the discredited ideological tradition of anti-Jewish prejudice, denial and repression of Velimirović’s antisemitism perpetuate social inequality and reproduce existing power relations, while at the same time protecting the dominant group’s ideas, symbols and authority against the detrimental charges of intolerance.

7In a recently published essay, the author David Albahari (2004) reflected on the differences between antisemitism in Canada and Serbia. The principal difference, Albahari argued, lies not in the frequency or intensity of anti-Jewish prejudice, but in the fact that in Canada, unlike in Serbia, there are efficient “legal provisions” in place which—although incapable of eradicating antisemitism altogether—at least make politicians and public figures accountable for antisemitic statements or actions. Albahari proposes that in order to create a comparable climate of public accountability in Serbia, the country’s elite institutions, above all the Serbian Orthodox Church and the state should respond more decisively to manifestations of intolerance towards Jews. However, in the conclusion to the essay, Albahari also provides advice to the representatives of the Jewish community in Serbia. He advises them to

[r]ecognise the inevitability of different interpretations (as in the case of antisemitic claims in the work of Bishop Nikolaj) because religion and culture, just like history often have two points of view which, apparently, must coexist. What is good for one side might not be good for the other, but if both sides are aware of what this means for the other side, and respect the differences, then coexistence is possible. And this is what Serbia needs the most: quiet coexistence, marked by mutual respect accompanied by the readiness to understand others so that they would understand us. (Albahari, 2004, p. 95)

8Evidently, in order to facilitate “peaceful coexistence” between Christians and Jews in Serbia, Albahari proposes a compromise solution: the Church should stand up in defense of the Jews in the face of increasing antisemitic attacks, while in return Jews would turn a blind eye to the favorable “interpretation” of Bishop Nikolaj’s antisemitic views, and accept it as an intrinsic aspect of Orthodox Christian religious dogma and “culture,” which “must” be tolerated in the name of liberal openmindedness and inter-cultural understanding.

9The examination, in this study, of the representations of Nikolaj Velimirović in Serbian Orthodox culture has hopefully demonstrated the impracticality, unfeasibility, and undesirability of this particular “conciliatory” approach to the reduction of antisemitism. The heroworship of Nikolaj Velimirović and the favorable interpretation of his controversial work within Orthodox culture are not peripheral to the problem of antisemitism and are therefore not something that can be simply overlooked for the sake of mutual respect. Remembrance of Nikolaj Velimirović and his uncritical reverence are the most powerful ideological sources of anti-Jewish prejudice in Serbian culture, from which much of contemporary antisemitism derives legitimacy and authority. In drawing the distinction between the type of antisemitism that the Church ought to condemn as unacceptable and that which the Jewish community ought to accept as inevitable, Albahari failed to recognize the fact that, in reality, no such distinction exists in contemporary Serbia.

10Also, the reference, in Albahari’s essay, to Christian antisemitism as an immutable aspect of Orthodox Christianity, which Jews must learn to accept and tolerate, illustrates the way in which the problematic definition of Serbian-Jewish relations constructed through the remembrance of Nikolaj Velimirović has become accepted as normal and unavoidable even outside Serbian Orthodox culture. This acceptance of the inevitability of Christian antisemitism is detrimental to interfaith dialogue, above all because it ensures that the re-evaluation of the doctrinal stance towards Jews in Orthodox Christianity remains off the agenda of Christian-Jewish relations.

11During our four-hour interview with Deacon Radoš Mladenović in the summer of 2003, which was held on the balcony of the house in Kraljevo once inhabited by Nikolaj Velimirović, the deacon described his recent encounter with the head of the Serbian Church, Patriarch Pavle:

Pavle, our patriarch and holy man, recently visited the town of Vrnjačka Banja, and I went there to greet him. I asked him: “Your Holiness, how are you?” “Very well,” he replied and said to the nuns, “Bring the refreshments, serve the deacon.” The nuns from Žiča knew that Bishop Stefan granted me the privilege of one glass of brandy each time I visit him at his cabinet. So they brought in the coffee and asked: “Your holiness, how about a shot of brandy for the deacon?” the patriarch remained silent. “Your Holiness, shall we bring the brandy for the deacon?” Still there was no reply. In order to break the uncomfortable silence, I said: “Your Holiness, in my village they say that a coffee without a brandy is like a dead man without a candle.” “That is the point, deacon, my brother,” the patriarch then said, “the greatest sin is not when you commit one, but when you seek to justify it!”

12This was one of several anecdotes featuring the Serbian patriarch which Mladenović recounted during the interview. Its point was to present the head of the Serbian Church as a devout and saintly figure whose uncomplicated way of thinking reflects the traditional wisdom and wit of the Serbian common man. And yet, the anecdote which was a source of great amusement to the deacon, inadvertently summarized the principal problem associated with the remembrance of Nikolaj Velimirović in Orthodox culture, which was the principal topic of our conversation and of this book.

13The “problem” with the persistence of Serbian antisemitism in Orthodox culture does not lie in the “sins” of Bishop Velimirović. Although much of the current public debate between different “memory communities” in Serbia revolves around whether or not Velimirović was an antisemite, this issue is of little practical importance. Velimirović lived and wrote in the first half of the 20th century, reaching the pinnacle of his career in the period between the two World Wars. This was a period when conspiratorial antisemitism was at the peak of its worldwide popularity and anti-Jewish slurs were in Billig’s (1987) words the “polite currency of gentile conversation” (p. 250). Also, contempt for Jews was a routine feature of Christian theology, liturgical practice, and Church life throughout Christendom. In 1938, a Vatican encyclical, which, somewhat paradoxically, was critical of the passing of antisemitic laws in Italy, argued that “Jews put to death their Savior and King” and invited upon themselves “the wrath of God” and “divine malediction, dooming them, as it were, to perpetually wander over the face of the earth.” The same document accused Jews of promoting revolutionary movements that aim to “destroy society and to obliterate from the minds of men the knowledge, reverence and love of God” (cited in Goldhagen, 2002, p. 85). These words are virtually identical to those that Velimirović wrote six years later in his Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window. He, just like the authors of the encyclical, inhabited the world before the post-Holocaust political morality justifiably imposed limitations on expressions of intolerance and pushed antisemitism onto the margins of political discourse. Thus, the fact that we find the language of antisemitism in Velimirović’s writing is not unusual, although it does cast a shadow over his integrity, because a considerable number of his contemporaries, who may not have been as educated, knowledgeable, and eloquent as Nikolaj is said to have been, but who were just as devoted to their religion and their people, adopted a more commendable stance towards Jews, and took a political stand which, in contrast to that of Velimirović, was unequivocally anti-fascist.

14The main “problem” with contemporary Christian-Jewish relations in Serbia lies not in what Velimirović was “really” like, but in his remembrance and his uncritical adulation. It is to be found in the attempts to justify and excuse his stance towards Jews and present them as normal, acceptable and even necessary. The reluctance by church authorities to address the controversy surrounding his writing obscures the boundaries between the extreme and the mainstream in Serbian Orthodox culture and in doing so facilitates the promulgation of anti-Jewish prejudice and feeds political extremism. Moreover, because of the large amount of cultural space occupied by the commemoration and celebration of the life and work of Nikolaj Velimirović, the problematic interpretation of Christian-Jewish relations, which has become entrenched in memorial discourse, is no longer a latent aspect of Serbian Orthodox culture. It is not just a dormant characteristic of religious ceremonial concealed in the text of the Holy Liturgy or in esoteric theological writings inaccessible to the majority of the faithful. Justifications, trivializations, and denials of antisemitism, which contribute to its legitimization, have become weaved in the routine of remembrance and entrenched in the commemorative speeches, books, articles, sermons, and everyday talk devoted to Serbia’s new saint and the country’s most popular religious author and spiritual authority.

15By revealing the ideological and rhetorical dynamics behind the collective remembering of Nikolaj Velimirović, the present book attempted to deconstruct the widespread claims that Bishop Nikolaj could not have been an antisemite because “he was in Dachau,” because there is “no antisemitism in the Orthodox Church,” because he “saved Jews” or because in talking of Jews he “merely quoted the Bible.” Through the analysis of the rhetoric used in the preservation of Velimirović’s reputation, it has tried to undermine the prevailing myths of remembrance, infuse memorial discourse with subversive meaning, and challenge an objectionable and damaging dimension of contemporary Serbian Orthodox Christian culture.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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