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The Nonconformists

Nick Miller

Chapter 11. The Legend of Simina 9a in Serbia’s Modern History

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1Dobrica Ćosić was the most important intellectual figure in Serbia’s nationalist revival; he was a prolific writer and speaker, where Popović and Mihiz were merely very productive and truly sporadic, respectively. But Mihiz and Popović led Ćosić to his final destination, as a revivalist and a nationalist. Mihiz, who changed little intellectually over the four decades treated in this book, led the way—without his critical attitude towards Titoism and his healthy vision of the Serbian nation as a valid and valuable moral center in Serbian and Yugoslav public life, Ćosić would have had no exemplar. Popović was the first to follow Mihiz and, in spite of Ćosić’s reputation, probably preceded Ćosić as a Serbian revivalist. The themes that would come to dominate Ćosić’s work, in other words, were those that Mihiz had always embraced and those that Popović translated into a useful vision for Ćosić.

2It is thus no surprise to note that of the siminovci, the people I have called “nonconformists” and who provide a unifying focus for the book, Ćosić was the exception to all of the rules in the beginning. While most of them were willing to consider the possibility that communism could bring positive results in Yugoslavia, none of them was the fiery true believer that Ćosić was. Others, like Popović, Stojković, and Mihajlo Djurić, did travel a path from the left to the nation; but Ćosić’s path was the most remarkable. It is my argument in this book that he was ultimately led to his destination by a disappointment whose boundaries and whose nature were conditioned by the ideas and cultural production of his peers. The fact that he ultimately dominated the Serbian intellectual opposition renders an understanding of the other nonconformists’ roles more rather than less imperative, regardless their fade from view by the late 1980s.

3I fear that the story has left many issues open, not all of them easy to resolve. Here’s one attempt at a generalization: together, Dobrica Ćosić, Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz, Mića Popović, and dozens of other Serbian intellectuals invented an identity for Serbs emerging from the communist era. They engaged in a project which Ćosić might have referred to as the engineering of a spiritual renaissance. They also consciously offered themselves, and encouraged others to offer them, as bearers of a special collection of truths, gleaned from a lifetime of experience as freethinkers, as a collective model for Serbs seeking to fit a failed era of social, political, and cultural experiment into their understanding of their more distant past.

4Beyond that, questions abound. One involves the siminovci themselves. They were but a subset of that generation of Serbian intellectuals, but they clung to the notion that they were special. They presented themselves as bearers of the “most serious values” of their generation, in the words of Mića Popović. The validity of the nonconformists’ claims to special status—Were they really freethinkers? Was there really anything meaningful in their shared origins? Did their experience with communism really bless them with any sort of special knowledge of the system’s workings and failures?—must be considered, as must the reasons why those claims were accepted by their peers, bestowing upon them a special credibility which made their world view inspiring to others around them. This, I suppose, is the “influence” question, and is one that is inherently difficult to answer, no matter the context. But, if their influence is difficult to assess, there is an alternative way of evaluating their importance, and that is to take the obvious for granted—these were influential men—and move on to the question of what we can learn from their experiences, from the trajectory of their intellectual engagement over the entire period of the communist experiment in Yugoslavia.

5What was the meaning of Simina 9a? Were its inhabitants just accidental travellers down a similar path to the nation? Or did Simina 9a itself—a two-year long experiment in bohemian coexistence in trying times—play a role in forging these personalities and their approaches to communism in Yugoslavia? There is only one certain answer to that question: the idea of Simina 9a appeared in certain conditions and remained active and relevant so long as those conditions existed. In other words, in 1974 Ćosić chose to give life to the idea that Simina 9a had meaning when it was important for him to propose to Serbs that there was such a thing as an authentic freethinker in Serbia. That notion was taken up by others—including other siminovci, but also journalists and other writers—and turned into something of a local legend until a time when it no longer told a story that was considered important for Serbs to hear, which was when the war broke out. So, for approximately fifteen years, the story had meaning and was told with purpose. The siminovci, cast as nonconformists, heretics, or people without compass, offered a usable history for a generation of Serbs contesting communist political power in Yugoslavia. Once that power was gone, the “legendary Simina 9a” was never referred to publicly again, except in memoirs written by its principals. Beyond that? Were the siminovci really representatives of the “most serious values” of their generation? Instead of attempting to answer the impossible question, I will, like any good academic, attempt to reduce it to some usable components. What did the siminovci share, what did they not? What made their intellectual development unique? What can they tell us about the nasty Serbian 1980s and 1990s? What can they tell us about their own—and others’—descent into an obtuse and exclusivistic nationalism?

6Several points matter. First, they shared little at the beginning (in 1946) and a lot at the end (1985, let’s say). They themselves have made much of their diverse origins, and there is no reason to question them on this point. The little that they shared, however, seems important: they were contrarians. Only Ćosić, the “lightning rod,” the “true believer,” the measuring stick for the others’ nonconformity, lacked that streak. But in the end, they all converged on a position that they expressed in their cultural and intellectual lives: that Serbia had lost something precious under the impress of communism (or the Tito regime in particular), and that it was the role of culture and cultural figures to guide Serbs’ back to that which was lost, which was their cultural essence. The fact that Ćosić became the leader of this pack of nonconformists inspires a vision of him, the complete conformist, being picked at by the work and ideas and daily coexistence with men he loved until he finally went over to them, like the reformed smoker of the American popular imagination.

7Second, they tell us something critical about Serbia’s 1980s and 1990s. They tell us, first, that Serbian nationalism is not bred into the genetic code of Serbs. These were all men who were willing to let communism have its chance—even Mihiz, who was the single inveterate opponent of the ideology among the siminovci. They also tell us that even as nationalists, which they unquestionably were by the late 1960s in most cases, they were reactive rather than essential nationalists. I mean by this to draw a distinction between the nationalists of the western imagination who are, simply, nationalistic, and the nationalists of the real world who respond to real conditions. These guys did not re-read the Kosovo cycle, or The Mountain Wreath, and derive their actions as intellectuals, cultural creators, and political actors from lessons learned centuries before. They responded directly to what they saw happening to Serbia under the Tito regime. In other words, they need not have been nationalists. This simple conclusion wreaks havoc with many of the platitudes that have been applied to Serbs over the past two decades.

8Their descent into nationalism demands comparisons with other intellectuals in similar conditions, throughout Eastern Europe, who started out on the same path and ended up on humanistic, universalist positions. After all, what differentiates the trajectories of Ćosić and, say, Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel is not their beginnings. They all recognized the unpleasant realities of Stalinist governance in their milieus. They all identified the absence of truthful communication as the key problem in that style of governance (“Truth” would be their shared goal.) Yet by the end of the Stalinist day, Michnik and Havel were understood to be humanists, Ćosić a bloodthirsty nationalist. Why? I would suggest that the conditions in which they all operated determined their ends. They all sought Truth. But Michnik and Havel were absolved of the need to tell ethnic truths by the fact that their societies did not suffer the burden of ethnic lies. The promises of Polish or Czech communism had nothing to do with nationalism; the betrayals of those regimes were betrayals of ordinary working people. Can we say the same about Serbia or Yugoslavia as a whole? Hardly. The Tito regime promised an end to nationalism, and it failed. And it told lots of lies in the process of failing. The descent of Serbia’s intellectuals into an exclusivistic nationalism was structurally predetermined. This is not at all to say that under different conditions, Ćosić, for instance, would have been like Havel. It is to say that under different conditions, other Serbs would likely have risen to relevance.

  • 1 Commonly-cited examples of the modernist approach include Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (...)
  • 2 Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and N (...)

9Theory can help us. Serbs have rarely drawn the attention of theorists of nationalism. Nonetheless, even if Serbs have not been christened this or that sort of nationalists by theorists, they have emerged from the 1990s with two sets of descriptors attached to them by journalists, scholars, and politicians, and those descriptors conform to the general outlines of current theoretical discourse. Serbs are either the captives of “ancient hatreds” or the manipulated victims of modern state-builders. By now most of us no doubt laugh at the notion that ancient hatreds were the catalyst to the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and nod approvingly at the suggestion that nationalism was merely a piece of Slobodan Milošević’s strategy in his consolidation of power in Serbia during the 1980s. Thus for most of us the Serbian nationalist movement of the 1980s and 1990s confirms the position of the “modernists” among nationalism theorists, who argue that nationalism and national identity are functions of the actions of modern states.1 I would argue now that we should neither uncritically accept modernist conclusions regarding Serbian nationalism nor dismiss out of hand variations on the disreputable “ancient hatreds” (or in theoretical terms, primordialist) approach. It is the perennialists, who believe that national identity (variously defined) has existed either continuously or on a recurring basis throughout history, who provide the real competition for modernism.2

  • 3 Nenad Dimitrijević, “Words and Death: Serbian Nationalist Intellectuals,” in Andras Bozoki, ed., I (...)
  • 4 Eric Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (Unive (...)
  • 5 Bogdan Denitch, Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia (Minneapolis: University of Min (...)

10There exist many treatments of Serbia and its recent nationalism with implied theoretical commitments. Antinationalist Serbian intellectuals support the modernist version. Nenad Dimitrijević, for instance, has argued that communist regimes “turned toward the past” in order to “compensate for [their] own inability to thematize reality.” “Nationalism,” for Dimitrijević, “was the only form of ideological communication that offered common ground for the regime and its subjects.”3 Eric Gordy asserts that the Milošević regime exploited “nationalist rhetoric” in order to attain and maintain power.4 Bogdan Denitch blames the nationalist leaders of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia for “having unleashed and mobilized nationalist separatism and hatreds…”5 These are all responsible, well-argued analyses with which I disagree. Sometimes the approach is taken too far, however, as in the case of The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s by V.P. Gagnon, which appeared in 2004. Gagnon argues that ethnicity, whose existence he does not deny, had nothing to do with the wars of the 1990s. Instead, Slobodan Milošević concocted ethnic crises in order to derail truly reformist agendas in the Serbian party (he also examines the Croatian case). Gagnon is not making the common argument that Milošević nurtured an ethnic nationalism that otherwise would have been muted; he is arguing, it seems, that the very existence of ethnic nationalism was a ruse, that even that which others have credited as political creations did not really exist. His argument is too complex and requires him to reinterpret much of the 1990s tendentiously. For us, he has simply taken the “nationalism is a political creation” approach as far as it can go. The general tendency of most observers of the Serbian situation in the 1980s and 1990s is to argue that the primary force at work was the state, from which we should infer that nationalism was a handy but artificial tool for politicians.

  • 6 Tim Judah’s The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (New Haven: Yale Universit (...)
  • 7 Branimir Anzulović, Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide (New York: New York University Press, 1 (...)
  • 8 Eric Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Pre (...)

11In other places we find a near endorsement of the priomordialist position. Perhaps the most popular book about Serbia to emerge from the collapse of Yugoslavia was the journalist Tim Judah’s The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia.6 Judah’s thesis is that history is alive for the Serbian people. Although Judah makes no theoretical claims, he does ultimately offer an antimodernist vision. While he endorses the modernists’ claim that power in Serbia manipulated historical images to gain and maintain power, his book really discusses how and why those images resonate with Serbs. Although this would seem to make it a nice antidote to the modernist’s love affair with the notion that all nationalist tradition is invented, in fact, he turns most of his evidence to a simplistic demonstration of how the ugliness of Serbia’s present was well-nigh preordained by its past. A second book that emerged from the 1990s with some influence was Branimir Anzulović’s Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide,7 which offers a litany of historical examples of Serbs’ slide into genocidal mania. Anzulović, like Judah, has the opportunity to show how the simplistic modernist paradigm fails before the evidence, but he misses it thanks to his inability to resist the propagandist’s urge to reduce all and sundry to the theme of Serbs’ genocidal nature. Other examples of this approach include the recent book by Eric Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation, an otherwise sophisticated book that argues a straight line development of a genocidal mentality from the Kosovo cycle to Njegoš and bases it on a misreading of the source texts.8 If primordialists believe that national character is constant and unwavering, then Judah, Anzulović, and Weitz are primordialists. And so are the dozens of politicians and journalists who have put forth similar arguments in order to justify policy choices or to simplify a complicated situation.

12Do the siminovci tell us anything useful, theoretically speaking? The picture that emerges from my project is sloppy—probably too sloppy to be confined by a single theoretical approach, which is, actually, one of my points. I can hardly use my subjects to define “Serbian nationalism” in the 1980s/90s. They were one loose-knit circle of intellectuals who collectively accomplished one limited but critical task: they provided a set of images that informed a Serbian self-definition as a degraded people, humiliated, divided, in need of cultural and political renewal. As such, they were, I suppose, part of a broader nationalist event, along with the political force who eventually coopted their ideas and influence, Slobodan Milošević. “Serbian nationalism” was a multifaceted work in progress throughout the 1980s and 1990s, more like a process than a singular phenomenon.

13As one component of a nationalist movement, the work of the siminovci was limited to (1) creating—in words and pictures—a portrait of a divisive (fratricidal) Serbian people; (2) arguing that “bolshevism” had degraded the Serbian nation by exploiting Serbs’ essential divisiveness; (3) preparing Serbs for the appearance of a leader who could overcome their recent heritage, both mundane and exalted, of degradation. It seems to me that this is something we can work with. Perhaps the first step would be to clarify exactly what this simple outline excludes, which is the possibility that the modern Serbian nationalist movement was the creation/manipulation of Slobodan Milošević (which would be a crude modernist position). In fact, the movement preceded its embrace by the politician. It may be true that the movement would have gone no-where, it may be true that the politician thereafter manipulated it, but the movement existed, independently. Thus the most extreme modernist variations are irrelevant in this case.

14The fact that the movement existed independently does not make it possible to eliminate the more general modernist approaches—for instance, it does not render Eric Gellner’s global version, or Ernest Hobsbawm’s dismissive modernism, inapplicable. But it does force us to consider narrower aspects of the modernist approach more carefully, and it may well demonstrate the implicit weakness of the more general modernist case. Because the movement led in part by the siminovci (and obviously others) fueled the politics of Slobodan Milošević, it is important in its own right. The most critical aspect of the movement becomes its authenticity—as opposed to its invented, its imaginary, or its contingent quality. When Eric Gordy argued that Milošević used nationalist rhetoric to maintain power, he provided us with our entree. Was it rhetoric? The key is to determine how invented or imagined these traditions were/are. If they are more real than imagined, we must work with that destabilizing fact.

  • 9 Svetislav Basara, Looney Tunes: Manično-paranoična istorija srpske književnosti u periodu od 1979. (...)

15In this context, I would argue as follows. First, the negative responses of my subjects to developments in Yugoslavia were originally rational (as opposed to hysterical, unreasonable, or fantastic). Till 1968, their criticisms were directed at particular and real abuses by the Tito regime. In other words, for those Serbs like Ćosić who counted on Tito to render nationalism irrelevant in Yugoslavia, the constitutional amendments passed between 1971 and 1974 and the Constitution of 1974 were a clear surrender. And Popović was right that the regime had failed miserably to provide for Yugoslavs, and the existence of guest workers really did indicate that failure. Mihiz, as always, stands apart in this sense, since he was never really disillusioned by a regime he never really liked. But the early responses of Ćosić and Popović to the Tito regime appear lucid and only potentially nationalistic. The alternative would be to describe them as either thoroughly deluded (which they were not) or manipulated from the beginning (which is an occasional accusation: a Serbian novelist named Svetislav Basara has written a novel entitled Looney Tunes, in which a character known as the Great Dissident [Ćosić] gets his orders in secret from a faction within the party9). But the original logic of their opposition to Titoism renders the argument that these men, and others like them, were either irrational or incited by others with ulterior motives (politicians vying for power) untenable.

16Second, their focus was culture, and they were above all creative; there is no evidence that they sought power, although one could be forgiven for suspecting that Ćosić would not have minded leading his people at some point, in some way, as he would in 1992–93. In this sense I would argue that, regardless the outcome of their work, their intent was to force Serbs to look inward in a search of their own shared historical cultural traditions for continuity with their past. Their goal was to inspire cultural regeneration; their belief was that this regeneration would revitalize and strengthen their community. The results of their engagement were certainly to contribute to a violent series of reckonings throughout former Yugoslavia, but my purpose here is not to assign blame, it is to examine the nature of a nationalist event. This one focused on cultural continuity rather than political empowerment or the simple desire for personal power on the part of its movers.

17Third (relatedly), their work was introspective rather than aggressive. While it is part and parcel of all examinations of national movements to note that nations define themselves against the “other,” and the Serbian movement of the 1980s certainly involved the “essentialization” of Albanians, Croats, and Muslims, it seems to me that the primary concern of Ćosić, Popović, Mihiz, and many other participants in the Serbian movement was to essentialize Serbs—as degraded, requiring a revival, as having been moved backward on the civilizational scale by evil bolshevism. Once thus essentialized, or possessing an understanding of their role in their own degradation, Serbs could move on to the more essential task of rebirth. For Ćosić, the goal remained becoming modern; for Popović it became to regain lost dignity; for Mihiz, it was to maintain Serbia’s preexisting ties to modernity.

  • 10 As was the case with a petition issued by a group of Serbian intellectuals in 1986 bemoaning the f (...)

18Fourth, we must recognize that Ćosić, Popović, and Mihiz not only argued for continuity with a Serbian past (nationalists always make this argument), but also that their work cannot be understood without the presence of that past. They did so in different ways, but never really as manipulators or propagandists (yes, they had their propagandistic moments—one thinks of May 1, 1985, or Ćosić’s showy self-deprecation, but those moments do not define their project). Their work is best understood as reflecting the creative integration of older (even “ancient”) images singular to Serbian culture with Serbian modernity, as part of a process of addressing entirely modern problems faced by that nation. The resonance of Ćosić’s fratricidal metaphor with a broad audience of intellectuals and ordinary people in Serbia must be attributed to a great degree to the similarity of his imagery to that of the Kosovo cycle, where internecine struggle, individual sacrifice, mendacious betrayals, and collective punishments and suffering first entered the Serbian cultural canon, never to leave it. Whether consciously or not—and I suspect it was unconscious, since Ćosić never explicitly endorsed or exploited the medieval Kosovo imagery in his work—the influence of a thoroughly premodern cultural corpus is obvious and is frankly impossible to imagine as an invention. Popović’s Scenes, which initially avoided romanticizing (nationalizing) their subjects, became ever more national as the painter embraced the same imagery of division and betrayal that Ćosić adopted. From another perspective, we can see that Mihiz did not romanticize his characters, did not propose that they provided models for modern behavior. He modernized “Banović Strahinja” rather than allowing the romance of history to take over. This is a distinction that was lost on other intellectuals of the nationalist revival.10 Mihiz explicitly chose to update Banović Strahinja, and he did so to modernize a piece of poetry that was beloved by Serbs, but he did not do so as a way of “nationalizing” moderns in the usual romantic way. He chose instead to impose a modern and universal understanding on that which was ancient. The combination of unimagined grievances, integrated ancient/modern imagery, and cultural focus seems to me to indicate that these men reflect deep continuities in a nationally Serbian historical experience.

  • 11 Hobsbawm once allowed that Serbia was an exception to the modernist rule. See Nations and National (...)
  • 12 “…to focus on nationness not as substance but as institutionalized form; not as collectivity but a (...)
  • 13 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.

19The point in nationalism theory where my case contributes is thus where modernism has become most seductive: in the notion that nations are “invented” or “imagined.” My case study cannot be explained by Hobsbawm’s “invented tradition,” which serves as the basis for his argument that modern states piece together national identities in order to homogenize their diverse societies. There is too much continuity—which even Hobsbawm has conceded—in Serbian identity over centuries to satisfy his belief that almost anything will succeed in the process of homogenization if it has the force of the modern state behind it.11 Rogers Brubaker’s modernist argument that nations are a contingent category fails the Serbian case for the same reason.12 Benedict Anderson’s more positive formulation, that nations are “imagined communities,” is quite different than Hobsbawm’s and obviously Brubaker’s. Anderson argues that all communities “larger than primordial villages” are imagined because their members will never know each other personally; thus, their connections are imagined.13 He describes the historical process by which older (but also imagined) communities gave way to the modern national variety: the decline of religious community and the dynastic realm, coupled with the emergence of a popular press, made the imagined community of the nation possible. The success of Anderson’s appealing image has led to the simplistic application of his idea, often as virtually interchangeable with Hobsbawm’s. In fact, while Anderson sees nations as modern, he never argues that an imagined community has no continuity with previous ones, nor does he argue that imagination is necessarily just a tool in the hands of modern statebuilders. Unlike Hobsbawm, Anderson allows for the possibility that nations follow logically, without explicit human agency, from earlier types of identity.

  • 14 Andrew Wachtel, Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia (...)
  • 15 Wachtel, Making a Nation, 3. I make the same point regarding nineteenthcentury Serbian, Croatian, (...)

20In his study of twentieth-century Yugoslavism, Andrew Wachtel offered the view that “the nation [is] not [a] political entity but [a] state of mind, an ‘imagined community’” a la Benedict Anderson, which means for him that national identity is always “up for grabs.”14 Wachtel agrees, though, that the identity must resonate with the population: “…elites cannot merely impose national consciousness; rather, they propose a national definition, basing it on existing and invented traditions, and the chosen population accepts, modifies, or rejects the definition.”15 This would seem consistent with Anderson’s formulation, and the end result for the subject of Wachtel’s inquiry, Yugoslavia, bears out that the Yugoslav definition did not resonate with Serbs in the end. But there is one insurmountable if arcane problem with Anderson’s definition, and that is his argument regarding the place of the nation in historical development: in the Serbian case, the community/tradition in question preceded the death of monarchy and the advent of print culture, which Anderson considers prerequisites.

  • 16 Anthony D. Smith, The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism (...)
  • 17 Smith, The Nation in History, 64.

21The one existing theoretical perspective that can successfully accommodate the Serbian case is, unsurprisingly, the result of mediation between the current extremes in nationalism theory. Anthony D. Smith has proposed what he calls an “ethnosymbolic” approach to the study of national identity and nationalism. “Modern nations are not created ex nihilo,” Smith explains; “they have premodern antecedents that require investigation in order to establish the basis on which they were formed.”16 The ethnosymbolist agrees that some nations are modern and that nationalism is a modern ideology, but rejects the blanket argument that there is no relationship between preexisting ethnic identities and modern national ones. Instead, in Smith’s formulation, “recurrence, continuity, [and] appropriation…are the ways in which the past is related to the present, and it may be an ancient and self-remembered past that must be recovered and authenticated.”17 Smith emphasizes the legitimacy rather than the inventedness of myths, memories, and symbols; an identity cannot be invented out of whole cloth provided by the state, it must instead be founded upon a structure that will support the weight of continuous or intermittent historical traditions within a given group.

22Ethnosymbolism helps us to explain Serbia’s 1980s without resort to emotionally satisfying but also reductionist and horrifying interpretations that argue that Serbs are captives of their history; it also enables us to avoid the unconstructive argument that nationalism in Serbia was somehow illegitimate, the product of state manipulation. As neither an absolute nor a fiction, nationalism in Serbia in the 1980s becomes a legitimate—if ugly—part of Serbia’s long history, but one which can be explained rather than essentialized. The siminovci were not the only nationalists in Serbia in the 1980s. But, as cultural revivalists who were disinterested in political power, they provide an opportunity to extract something positive from the general Serbian experience of extremism and horror (to which they unquestionably contributed). Their existence assures us, perhaps paradoxically, that there is a potential better future out there for their people. Serbs are neither modernist putty in the hands of powerful elites nor primordially genocidal. If the traditions that were put to use by Ćosić, Popović, and their colleagues produced horrors, the project for the Serbian future is to find traditions, myths, and/or symbols that will allow for a different outcome: a new revival, built on a different but equally legitimate understanding of the Serbian past.

  • 18 Dragović Soso, ‘Saviours of the Nation,’ 206.

23There have been other works on this general topic, and I ought to point out that mine is not the only one adopting (even if implicitly) this particular theoretical perspective. Jasna Dragović Soso’s ‘Saviours of the Nation’: Serbia’s Intellectual Opposition and the Revival of Nationalism (2002) surveys the broader landscape of Serbian intellectual engagement and the growth of nationalism in the 1980s. Her even-handed treatment is by far the best available, but we do differ. She expresses surprise that the Serbian intellectual elite embraced Milošević, whose antidemocratic politics and persecution of intellectuals before his ascent to the leadership of the party in Serbia would seem to have disqualified him in the eyes of those intellectuals.18 She attributes their support of him to his studied wooing of leading intellectuals, rather than to the explicit appeal of his policies and his rhetoric. Dragović Soso thus questions why Serbia’s intellectuals failed to respect the democratic norms that they apparently espoused. She does not address what I view as the real process at work. Instead of being failures at democracy, my principals (and, I would argue, a majority of Serbia’s nationalist intellectuals) were actually engaged in a creative process all their own, not conditioned by the demands of democracy but rather conditioned by their perceptions of the nature and needs of the Serbian nation. In others words, a desire for democracy did not drive the nationalist revival, the national revival was a goal in and of itself, producing its own imperatives. Thus, when people like Ćosić argued that Serbs were in essence democratic people (as he did, on numerous occasions), he did not mean that they were Western parliamentarians to the depths of their souls, he meant that their souls were one, that they both understood and required a collective sense of unity, that within their nation they were democrats—not that between their nation and others they were fundamentally democratic. Working this theme over the course of two decades, Ćosić and others literally created a new national identity for Serbs, rooted in and growing out of their collective twentieth-century experiences. This was a creative process, not a reactive one. We should not be asking how it is that Serbian intellectuals claimed to be democratic and acted otherwise, or fell short of their goal. We should be asking about their self-image, even their self-essentialization as democrats. This book is an attempt to do so.


  • 19 Mirko Kovač, “Izmedju čoveka i Mesije,” Naša borba (Belgrade) October 12–13, 1996).
  • 20 “Ne sme proliti nijedna kap krvi!,” Naša borba (Belgrade) November 24, 1996).
  • 21 David Albahari, Mrak (Belgrade: Narodna knjiga/Alfa, 1997); Basara, Looney Tunes.

24Ćosić has been the subject of ridicule throughout the 1990s, as Serbs and others try to alternately explain the wars or distance themselves from them. Mirko Kovač, a Serbian writer who opposed Milošević, wrote in 1996 that “a nation that desires lies found in Dobrica Ćosić a writer without rival.”19 Several months later Ćosić was shouted down as he spoke to demonstrators against Milošević’s theft of yet another election: “for shame!,” “leave…!”20 As the 1990s passed, more and more sophisticated arguments emerged, especially in literature. They built on the original accusation of sycophancy that was leveled at Ćosić by Danilo Kiš in 1986, “The Poet of the Revolution on the President’s Boat,” which cuttingly memorialized Ćosić’s trip around Africa on Tito’s “Galeb” in 1961. In this vein, Svetislav Basara (mentioned above) and David Albahari wrote novels in which Ćosić (explicitly in Basara, implicitly in Albahari) actually takes orders from the Serbian party, enabling it to transmit its new vision to the Serbian people.21 Ćosić did not help himself with such self-parodying acts as his membership in the student opposition group Otpor in 2000, and his constant reiterations of the assertion that he merely “tried to tell his people some truth.”

  • 22 Dobrica Ćosić, Za preporod Srbije sa novim ljudima u novom društvu (Belgrade: Naš Dom, 1999) 9–10.

25Of course, there is a much more serious side to this reckoning, one that has to be accomplished. Presenting Ćosić and his work as I have done (I hope, in other words, dispassionately) in this book tempts one to fail to state the obvious. Whether it is possible to assess Ćosić’s influence on Serbian political and cultural life, it is more than possible to run down the list of tragic choices he made, from his clinical and not fully explained visit to Goli Otok to his cheerleading for people like Ranković and Krcun over Djilas; his nurturing of Karadžić in Bosnia, his endorsement of Milošević over Ante Marković in 1990–91, his failure—obvious and tragic—to acknowledge the crimes of the wars that he helped prepare in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But Ćosić has always been most effective when speaking most broadly about matters of the spirit. So, instead of ridiculing or ignoring Ćosić, people like Basara and Albahari and Kovač and others like them ought perhaps to take his advice—predictable, applicable, and exasperating all at once: “The fateful question is with whom to begin the rebirth of Serbia?... Serbia needs capable people with new ideas and visions of a new politics for an educated, civilized, and democratic society. And such people are mostly outside current political parties, people who do not aspire to power but rather are the weapons of rebirth.”22 The validity of these sentiments from 1999, so similar to sentiments that Ćosić had issued ten and twenty years before, cannot be denied. Let’s hope that the response this time is more humane.


1 Commonly-cited examples of the modernist approach include Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), E.J. Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991). Regarding Eastern Europe, add Rogers Brubaker’s Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Miroslav Hroch’s Social Conditions of National Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

2 Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) 159–165. Perennialists include John Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982; Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Anthony D. Smith in his many books and articles.

3 Nenad Dimitrijević, “Words and Death: Serbian Nationalist Intellectuals,” in Andras Bozoki, ed., Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999) 123

4 Eric Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1999) 11.

5 Bogdan Denitch, Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994) 150.

6 Tim Judah’s The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). For more extensive comment, see Nick Miller, “Beyond Journalism,” in East European Politics and Societies v. 13, no. 3 (Fall 1999) 609.

7 Branimir Anzulović, Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide (New York: New York University Press, 1999). I reviewed this book for H-Net in 1999 (

8 Eric Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). Weitz’s first hardcover edition broadly and lengthily asserted that the brutal passages of The Mountain Wreath drew their force from the Kosovo cycle; the problem is that the Kosovo cycle is not mentioned in The Mountain Wreath; nor is the Kosovo cycle brutal. This sort of misuse of evidence that he apparently had not actually read was surprising is a book of its stature, but the fact that no expert on Serbian history read it (according to the acknowledgments) before publication was depressingly telling. Weitz addressed the problem in the paperback edition of the book.

9 Svetislav Basara, Looney Tunes: Manično-paranoična istorija srpske književnosti u periodu od 1979.–1990. godine (Beograd: Dereta: 1997).

10 As was the case with a petition issued by a group of Serbian intellectuals in 1986 bemoaning the fate of the Serbs of Kosovo; one prominent victim of Albanian excesses was memorialized as the new mother of the Jugovićes, another as the new Deacon Avakum.

11 Hobsbawm once allowed that Serbia was an exception to the modernist rule. See Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 75–76.

12 “…to focus on nationness not as substance but as institutionalized form; not as collectivity but as practical category; not as entity but as contingent event.” Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed, 16.

13 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.

14 Andrew Wachtel, Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) 2.

15 Wachtel, Making a Nation, 3. I make the same point regarding nineteenthcentury Serbian, Croatian, and Yugoslav nationalisms in Between Nation and State: Serbian Politics in Croatia before the First World War (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997) pp. 30–33.

16 Anthony D. Smith, The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism (Hanover, NH: The University Press of New England, 2000) 63.

17 Smith, The Nation in History, 64.

18 Dragović Soso, ‘Saviours of the Nation,’ 206.

19 Mirko Kovač, “Izmedju čoveka i Mesije,” Naša borba (Belgrade) October 12–13, 1996).

20 “Ne sme proliti nijedna kap krvi!,” Naša borba (Belgrade) November 24, 1996).

21 David Albahari, Mrak (Belgrade: Narodna knjiga/Alfa, 1997); Basara, Looney Tunes.

22 Dobrica Ćosić, Za preporod Srbije sa novim ljudima u novom društvu (Belgrade: Naš Dom, 1999) 9–10.

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