WORSE THAN DENIAL
By Vladimir Petrovic
The debate on the need to confront the past has been and shall be
deliberating the phenomenon of denial. And no one has ever said anything nice about this
extremely disgusting mental exercise practiced, from time immemorial, by individuals and
collectives unwilling to bear psychological and physical, material and moral, legal and
social consequences of their crimes. True, many books were written in the attempt to
clarify the phenomenon of denial. Some were even translated such as Stanley Cohen's
excellent and in-depth study States of Denial. And yet, we are still waiting for an
appropriate explanation of the phenomenon's omnipresence.
Unfortunately, Cohen's research bypassed Serbia. And there would have
been much to say about the topic in the context of Serbia. Systematic blue pencil of
segments of the past - not so glorious or pleasant to the ear - is nothing new in Serbia,
the same as pressure against a handful of individuals opposing such a trend. Vuk Karadzic
himself was severely accused by his contemporaries for publicizing ghastly details about
the massacre following Serb rebels' conquer of Sjenica. In his criticism of Karadzic,
Milan Milicevic said it was a crying shame that he /Karadzic/ had shared the information
with famous German historian Leopold von Ranke. To this, Karadzic retorted, "True,
the shame falls on Serbs; however, no matter how shameful, actions must not be hidden from
However, few were those who followed Karadzic's example in this context.
The Serbian history was perceived, as Dubravka Stojanovic put it, as some sort of
pre-military training. Therefore, it was written and taught as an apology for the
nation-state, total identification with predominant ethnic community and intolerance for
minorities and neighbors. The crimes committed by Serbs were hushed up, while those
committed by others were blown out of proportion. And here politicians were running a
close race with the intellectual elite. Even the WWII changed nothing. For decades,
victims have been referred to arbitrarily and misleadingly. The catastrophic outcome of
the bidding with the number of killed was the propaganda machinery preparing a new war.
That new war brutally contravened all those ascribing the success of the
policy of denial solely to the poor flow of information. The crimes committed in the
course of ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration were thoroughly and promptly documented, almost
simultaneously with the events themselves. And yet, information about those crimes has
neither prevented new ones nor changed the political climate in perpetrators' communities.
People either disbelieved such information or paid little attention to it. Besides, those
ascribing denial to the skillful warring propaganda were denounced. The wars are over,
Milosevic has been neither in power nor among the living for long, but a whole phalange
still persistently denies the crimes or justifies them.
Things are even worse. Paradoxically, there are advantages to denial. An
individual's inability to face up the evil deed he committed or the one committed in his
name, testifies that he is ashamed of that crime, takes it as something bad and wishes it
had never happened. Is that so in Serbia? I wouldn't say so. "Knife, barbed wire,
Srebrenica," yell football fans. "Ratko Mladic cuts throats in split
second," says a railway station graffito. Those frightening examples in the anthology
of the contemporary Serb popular lyrics testify of a troublesome truth: many people are
aware of what really happened. But have no regrets. On the contrary. They regret that the
crime was not brought to the end. And that's the most dreadful consequence of the
cumulative warring propaganda, according to which denial is nothing but a benign amusement
for chauvinistic intellectuals. Their refusal to look the truth into the eye is just a
weird proof that the truth exists, that they see it and are ashamed of it. And that proves
- embarrassingly - that we share the same universe.
So, deniers are not the real problem here. Were they not operating in
the society imbued with crime, they would, sooner or later, crawl under the rock from
which they came. Therefore, unlike in France, Germany and other countries, in Serbia
denial is not a crime. Denial gets you literary honors rather than imprisonment. Denial
has become a cultural model that reproduces itself, and challenges those who thought
generation change would bring about a change. Instead of a change, old verses are enriched
by new ones such as those of the popular song by the Beef band. The song is about the
young, autarkic Serbia and its totally distorted perception of what the world expects of
it. "I would never give up Gucha and kaimak/And tolerate Croats and gay parades
instead. / Fuck all those Levy's documentaries/I am not ashamed of my origin," sings
the band. In the country where many 'courageously' look the truth into the eye and accept
'the bitter inevitability' of crime for the sake of ethno-nationalistic goals, denial is
not the problem but either active or passive support it gets is. Research of the origins
of exaltation with brute force and the suffering it effectuated is, therefore, what we
need more than the study of phenomenon of denial. What is it that makes people identify
themselves with the policy of crime by their own free will?
The fact that Milosevic's strategy of "not being at war" has
ethically destroyed Serbia in the long run may partially answer the question. That war by
proxy, in which Serbia did and did not partake, dangerously distorted perception of many
of its citizens. Absorbed in its own problems and lost in economic collapse, Serbia has
turned almost Biblically callous. The political elite profited of the overall fog in the
attempt to complete the project of national homogenization and not miss a single
opportunity for drawing as many as possible people into its complot.
Fortunately, it did not succeed in full. When the Serbian state-run
broadcaster aired the videotape of the Scorpions' massacre, ten years after the end of the
Bosnian war, shock and repugnance were the initial response. Hardly anyone would openly
question the authenticity of the recording, let alone publicly approve its contents.
Though this initial response died soon, the fact that it happened in the first place gives
birth to the hope that the political elite is the one that stands in the way of
confronting the past, and that its fascination with force would freeze in front of that
force's terrifying manifestation.