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The Nonconformists

Nick Miller


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  • 1 Prominent examples of this tendency include virtually all of the noteworthy books on Yugoslavia’s (...)

1By now the general outlines of a historical analysis of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s have emerged. First journalists and then social scientists had their say. The journalists have moved on to new topics; social scientists continue their work. Historians, typically more methodical, have begun to contribute to the scholarly debate. They do so at a time when the majority of work on the collapse of Yugoslavia has perpetuated three tendencies: it places politics at the center of the interpretation, it relies too much on historical analogy, and it ultimately describes rather than explains. These are all natural inclinations, given the predominance of journalists among the early interpreters of the collapse. The first tendency needs little more than to be stated: any perusal of the books written in the last ten years on the Yugoslav situation will demonstrate that the vast majority treat the collapse of Yugoslavia as a function of power relations in the state.1 Thus we have been consumed by the way that Slobodan Milošević came to power, relations between Serbia and Slovenia, comparisons of the validity of the grievances of the various ethnic groups, the wars themselves, and other such topics. In such discussions, Serbian nationalism is a fixed entity, a given that is never critically analyzed.

  • 2 Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (New Haven: Yale University (...)

2The second tendency, to rely too much on historical analogy, serves the first: for many commentators, explanation consists of illustrations of the ways that Serbian behavior today mimics Serbian behavior of earlier eras. On the most general level, the ubiquitous “ancient hatreds” approach serves as an excellent example. But one of the most popular recent histories of the Serbs all but presents Serbian history as a series of comparative vignettes: Milošević acts as Ilija Garašanin or Prince Lazar did in earlier times, Biljana Plavšić becomes the Kosovo Maiden, the past and the present become virtually identical, and understanding is left to the reader’s imagination, which has been corrupted irreversibly by the images presented by the writer.2 The picture that emerges from such an approach is of a Serbia captive to its own history, of Serbs incapable of change, of Serbs who are not rational beings.

3The third tendency follows from the other two: if Serbs simply are what they always have been, and what they always have been is a xenophobic and aggressive people, and the 1990s are just another example of all of that, then the outsider merely must describe that situation rather than explain it. Such an approach, it now seems to me, has led to unsophisticated and reductionist treatments of Serbia and Serbs, who appear in most interpretations as fundamentally nationalistic, self-absorbed, and self-serving, tending towards authoritarianism, unable to escape their past, and incapable of living with the nations with whom they share(d) territory.

4I am critical of these tendencies. In examining the work of three influential Serbian intellectuals from different fields, I will argue that cultural processes are too often ignored in favor of political ones; that Serbian intellectuals do work within a historical context, but that they are not slaves to the past; that Serbian history is not a continuous reiteration of static themes. My subjects are Dobrica Ćosić (a novelist), Mića Popović (a painter) and Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz (a literary critic). These three men were part of a circle of friends who began the postwar with open minds about the promise of the new communist order and who wound up by 1974 as inveterate opponents of the regime and nationalists. The group included Ćosić, Popović, Mihiz, Mihailo Djurić, Pavle Ivić, Živorad Stojković, Vojislav Djurić, Dejan Medaković and several others. I focus on Ćosić, Mihiz, and Popović for various reasons. Ćosić was central: he was one of Serbia’s most popular novelists, credited with being the father of Serbian nationalism, and advisor and spiritual guide to Kosovo Serb activists. No informed student of Serbian nationalism or intellectuals could exclude him. The other two I chose for different reasons. Popović was a painter, and the simple fact that he expressed his opposition to communism and eventually his profound nationalism via the canvas rather than the written word appealed to me. But, ultimately, it would be Popović’s contributions to Ćosić’s worldview that would make him an essential part of my analysis. Mihiz, a close friend but ideological opponent of Ćosić and, to a much lesser degree, Popović, would differ from the other two in his intellectual development; he is the constant in the story—never much of a friend of communism and always a sincere nationalist.

5These were intellectuals whose creative and political trajectories indicate that nationalism was more than a tool for cynical and needy politicians and less an ancient bequest than an unsurprising response to real conditions in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Their initial attitudes toward the communist regime varied widely, from the profound if muted hostility of Mihiz to the conditional embrace of Popović to the enthusiastic participation of Ćosić. Initially, they all—even Mihiz—had certain hopes for the revolutionary communist movement in Yugoslavia. In each case, those hopes were universal and humanistic; they applied equally to all citizens of the new Yugoslavia. In their very humanism the seeds of failure sprouted, since the Tito regime was unwilling or unable to satisfy this one’s desire to develop a new universalist culture, that one’s faith in the regime’s commitment to social justice.

6A critical part of my analysis of these men and their shifting ideological commitments will be their relationship to the creative and destructive goals of communism. Ćosić saw communism as a means to the complete transformation of Serbia, Yugoslavia, and the people who populated it. His Jacobin faith in the creative possibilities of communism led him to the conclusion that much of what actually existed in Serbia and the rest of Yugoslavia had to be destroyed, which sets up the key to understanding the differences in my three subjects as well as the key to understanding their responses to communism over the succeeding four decades. Mihiz, for instance, rejected Ćosić’s belief in the need to destroy the Serbian cultural and political inheritance in order to create an entirely new world. Instead, he would come to argue that the greatest crime of communism was in fact its need and desire to destroy the old—which was precisely what drew his friend Ćosić to the ideology. Until the late 1950s, Popović existed in an undefinable zone between Ćosić and Mihiz; when he settled on a style of painting, it was an almost nihilistic form of abstract expressionism that responded to his desire to destroy everything. Soon thereafter he adopted a hyperrealistic and engaged style. My point is that one underlying motivating factor for my three figures is their understanding of communism’s destructive and creative impulses.

7For all, the moment of truth came in the late 1960s, but for different reasons: for Ćosić, the moment came between 1966 and 1968, after the fall of Aleksandar Ranković and as Albanian nationalism grew in Kosovo; for Popović, it came as students demonstrated at the University of Belgrade in 1968, emphasizing the failure of the regime to provide job opportunities; for Mihiz, it came when the Tito regime did not do enough to combat Croatian nationalists in the late 1960s. Whatever the cause of the revelation, each nonetheless drew the conclusion that Titoism was an empty promise. For each of them, the events of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to the notion that Serbs were especially poorly treated in Yugoslavia. Ćosić, undoubtedly the most important of my three subjects in terms of general influence, framed the Serbian nation as “fratricidal,” divisive within and therefore open to manipulation from without. In haphazard fashion, through the late 1960s and 1970s, my subjects (as well as others) came to constitute a self-designated moral opposition to the Tito regime. Typically, these oppositionists insisted that Titoism was responsible for the degradation, humiliation, division, and weakness of the Serbian people and emphasized the need for a Serbian revival. They viewed it as their task to reconnect the Serbian people with the “truth” of their past, their current situation, and to convince Serbs of the need for a national revival.

8Each nonconformist contributed uniquely to the Serbian revival of the 1960s to 1980s. In some cases, they produced virtual monuments to that revival. Ćosić paved the way with his public rejection of the League of Communists’ policies in Kosovo in May 1968; Popović’s “Scenes Painting,” a cycle he first exhibited in 1971, portrayed critically the lives of ordinary Yugoslavs and arguably culminated with “May 1, 1985,” which depicted the fictional martyrdom of a Serbian peasant by Albanians and the Titoist regime in Kosovo; Mihailo Djurić’s public criticisms of the amendments to the Yugoslav constitution in 1971 became a cause celebre of the free speech movement in Serbia thereafter; linguist Pavle Ivić first came to public notice in 1967 with his aggressive rejection of Croatian nationalist language politics and later acted as a vocal advocate of Serbian interests; Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz was one of the co-founders of the Committee for the Protection of Artistic Freedom in 1982. Individually and collectively, these figures provide a remarkable prism through which to view the consolidation of a Serbian revivalist nationalism in the post-war period.

9I originally intended this book to fully outline the contours of the intellectual life of post-war Serbia, in order to draw conclusions about the role that intellectuals played in the development of nationalism in Serbia. I wished to describe how Serbia’s intellectuals had contributed to the collapse of Yugoslavia and the horrors of the wars of 1991–1999. Embedded in those summary statements are some assumptions that have been regularly accepted by observers of Serbia and Yugoslavia: that Serbian nationalism destroyed Yugoslavia, that Serbia’s intellectuals bear the majority of the blame for the development of that nationalism, that Serbian nationalism is built on an old and perhaps ineradicable foundation, and thus that there was something inevitable about Serbia becoming aggressively nationalistic and warlike. I questioned none of those assumptions in the beginning, and still believe that the first two are valid with qualifications. As my work progressed, though, I realized that the idea that there was something inevitable about Serbia’s fate was nothing more than a ticket to a vapid interpretation of Serbia’s postwar history.

10Luckily, in 1996, as I was doing research on this project in Belgrade, a Serbian friend loaned me a book. It was an original catalog from a banned 1974 exhibition of the Serbian painter Mića Popović, with text by the Serbian novelist Dobrica Ćosić. Ćosić was bound to be a central figure in any study of Serbian intellectuals and nationalism, so I knew of him and had spent much time reading his essays and novels already. I barely knew of Popović at that point, although I had seen and disliked his painting “May 1, 1985.” Ćosić’s catalog notes described a group of young men who gathered after the Second World War in a Belgrade flat (on Simina Street, 9a), a group of “nonconformists” (neistomišljenici) who lived a bohemian existence while debating the important questions of the time and who happened to become some of Serbia’s most influential intellectuals and cultural figures. Ćosić strongly implied that the postwar interaction of the young men explained the success of the mature adults. Furthermore, that group of young men had by 1974 become consistent and often sophisticated nationalist opponents of the Tito regime in Yugoslavia. My landlord showed the catalog to me because he thought it illuminated the Serbian condition: the inhabitants of Simina 9a (siminovci) had led Serbia to the light of democratic thought and action, they had returned to Serbia its soul. While I was, and remain, unable to accept such a characterization, I did like the bare facts. I also found myself liking Mihiz and Popović and their work, which gave me a nice respite from the dominant (and for me unlikable) Ćosić and most of the rest of the Serbian intelligentsia.

11To varying degrees, and with one important exception, previous work on Serbia after 1945 reflects the tendencies I outlined above, and it follows similar patterns: Milošević used ancient images to gain and keep power; ancient loyalties determined modern grievances; and so on. But is it enough to state that Milošević built his authority with the assistance of Serbian intellectuals who were nationalists, or is it perhaps more important to know why Milošević could be sure that the nationalism of those intellectuals resonated with the Serbian population? Do comparisons of the grievances of Serbs, Albanians, Croats, et al., help illuminate anything, or is the better question how did Yugoslavs respond to such grievances? Which factors conditioned those responses? How were those responses expressed? In other words, what was the nature of the nationalisms that emerged? That they responded differently goes without saying. As I read more about and by Ćosić, Mihiz, and Popović, I concluded—against my initial inclinations—that Serbia’s modern nationalism could actually be understood and not just taken for granted but beyond the grasp of reason.

  • 3 Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University o (...)

12In approaching this topic, I have tried to employ Tony Judt’s approach: “In seeking to explain something that is intrinsically unattractive, to which the reader would normally respond with distaste, one is not excused from the obligation to be accurate, but neither is one under a compelling obligation to pretend to neutrality.”3 I will try to be a fair-minded guide to readers of this book. I will attempt to bring as much balance to this exposition as the material will bear. However, I am not capable of the sort of empathy that would produce a completely positive assessment of my subjects and their work, because I do not believe that a positive assessment is deserved. In the 1980s, all three of my subjects participated in the creation of one of the most intolerant and narcissistic national movements that I know of. They did not carry guns, only one of them manned a soapbox as a tribune of the nation, but they did propagate ideas which helped create a modern Serbian national identity, an identity that most Serbs embraced, and an identity that helped lead Serbia to ruin.

13I have been working on this book for over a decade, and I have accumulated many debts. For their support, I thank Michael Blankenship, Peter Buhler, Henry Cooper, John Cox, Murlin Croucher, Charles Jelavich, Carol Lilly, Peter Mentzel, Jane Ollenberger, Paul Pajić, Momčilo Pavlović, Pedja Marković, Ljiljana Smajlović, Djordje Terzin and his lovely family, Adele Thomsen, Vladimir Tismaneanu, and Driek Zirinsky. Among those people, I gratefully single out Vladimir Tismaneanu, whose personal and professional support really did make this book possible. I can’t thank him enough. This book would not exist without their help, whether personal or professional. I also owe gratitude to several institutions. In Belgrade, the staffs of the Archive of Yugoslavia, the National Library of Serbia, and the Institute for Contemporary History made research a breeze. Indiana University’s main library was heaven sent. The International Research and Exchanges Board, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Boise State University Office of Research Administration all provided financial assistance without which I could not have accomplished the necessary research. In addition, I would like to thank the following journals for allowing me to use portions of my articles on this subject: Slavic Review (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies) for “The Nonconformists: Dobrica Ćosić and Mića Popović Envision Serbia,” 58:3 (Fall 1999) 515–36; East European Politics and Societies for “The Children of Cain: Dobrica Ćosić’s Serbia” (Summer 2000), 268–87; Nationalities Papers for “Mihiz in the Sixties: Politics and Drama Between Nationalism and Authoritarianism” v. 30 no. 4 (December, 2002), 327–51; and Contemporary European History for “Postwar Serbian Nationalism and the Limits of Invention,” v. 13, no. 2, 2004, 151–69;. Finally, I have never regretted putting my manuscript into the hands of Linda Kunos of the Central European University Press. She has been professional, attentive, thoughtful, and competent to a fault. I thank her and the staff of the press for their excellent work.

14I have dedicated this book to Lynn and Nicky Lubamersky, because they are a lot more fun than a silly bunch of self-important Serbian intellectuals.


1 Prominent examples of this tendency include virtually all of the noteworthy books on Yugoslavia’s collapse: Jasna Dragović Soso, ‘Saviours of the Nation’: Serbia’s Intellectual Opposition and the Revival of Nationalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002); Susan Woodward, Balkan Tragedy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995); Sabrina P. Ramet, Balkan Babel and Nationalism (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, several editions) and Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia, 1962–1991 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992); Lenard Cohen, Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995). Eric Gordy’s The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999) does examine cultural phenomena, but in a completely different way than I do, and Andrew Wachtel, in Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), does so as well, but he treats the question much more broadly.

2 Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). Branimir Anzulović’s Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide (New York: New York University Press, 1999) is another book that relies on a heavy-handed rendering of the connections between Serbia’s distant past and its present.

3 Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992) 8.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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