Dark deeds, doomed heroes

Heavenly Serbia

June 18, 1999

When the wars of the Yugoslavian succession began in 1991, Serbian nationalists liked to predict that Croatia would be reduced to what could be seen from the spire of Zagreb cathedral. Many of them may now be recalling the words of their 19th-century sage, Mitar Tarabic, who prophesied that a calamitous leader would plunge the nation into a hopeless war and inevitable defeat after which "there will be only enough Serbs to stand under a plum tree". Whichever way the conflict in Kosovo ends, it is clear that over the past decade the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic has led his countrymen from one disaster to another: the loss of ancient Serb settlements in Croatia, defeat in Bosnia, international isolation, near-universal moral obloquy, and now not only the total destruction of Serbian infrastructure but, almost certainly, the imminent loss of Kosovo as well.

As Branimir Anzulovic's Heavenly Serbia shows, the roots of this catastrophe are to be found in a particularly tenacious national myth centred on the fateful battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman invaders in 1389. According to this narrative, the Serbian king Lazar was offered the choice between worldly victory and the "heavenly kingdom": he chose oblivion and thus immortality. Thus was implanted the powerful myth of Serbia as the crucified nation, which was to be embellished throughout the grim years of Ottoman and later German occupation. It served to legitimate expansionist and ethnically exclusive programmes during the 19th and 20th centuries: first in Serbia proper against the Muslim population, against Albanians early in the 20th century, in the second world war against Catholics and Muslims within the desired "greater Serbia", and most recently against Muslims, Croats and Albanians in the 1990s. At the same time - and Anzulovic gives this less prominence than he should - the Serbs have suffered grievous violence, especially at the hands of the Nazis and their Croatian collaborators.

Heavenly Serbia singles out the Serbian Orthodox church for particular scrutiny. Anzulovic emphasises the links between the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the secular power, first under the Ottomans, and then after the revival of the Serbian state in the 19th century. The result was a uniquely virulent form of ethno-centric and sectarian "caesaro-papism". Ironically, the classic example of this came not from Serbia but Montenegro, Prince Bishop Njegos. The undoubted literary merit of his violent epic "The Mountain Wreath" has tended to obscure its murderous implications.

This is a now familiar tale. The merit of Anzulovic's work lies in its detailed exposition of the literary side of the Serb myth and its reinvention in the 19th century. For, as Anzulovic argues, traditional Serb folk memory of the Ottoman conquest was focused less on the saintly King Lazar and more on the nihilistic collaborator Prince Marko Kraljevic, whose treachery and brutality were extolled in verse and song. Marko represents in many ways the dark side of the "heavenly kingdom": he stands for opportunistic cooperation with the dominant power and ritualised bloodshed. The implication that Milosevic might be the heir not to Lazar but to Marko is not lost on the reader.

Yet Anzulovic reminds us of the existence of another Serbia: that of the late 18th and early 19th century and Dositej Obradovic, who, despite his linguistic nationalism, was an enlightened moderniser aiming to reconcile Serbia with the West. Indeed, he shares a name with the former army general and prominent Serbian opposition figure, Vuk Obradovic, who was among the first to break ranks with Milosevic and call on the Serbs to make peace with the international community. Conversely, the author rightly demands some humility from western Europeans. After all, the reconquest of Spain and the Crusades were attended by massacres and the colossal destruction of the Muslim cultural heritage. And as Mark Mazower has reminded us, Europe was recently a "dark continent", whose epicentre was many miles north and west of the Balkan peninsula.

In short, this book shows that it is wrong to conceive of Serb history and tradition in terms of a one-dimensional myth, be it positive or negative. There was nothing predetermined about the descent of the region into the mayhem of the past decade. The Serbian past contained the seeds of many futures, and the unpromising present by no means excludes happier outcomes in years ahead.

Brendan Simms is a fellow in international relations, University of Cambridge.

Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide

Author - Branimir Anzulovic
ISBN - 1 85065 342 9
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £25.00
Pages - 233

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