Phenomenology of Denial
CULTURAL MODEL THAT REPRODUCES ITSELF
By Vladimir Petrovic
There have been and there will be much talk about the phenomenon of
crime denial within the debate about the need to confront the past. And no one has ever
said something in favor of this utterly disgusting mental exercise managed, from time
immemorial, by individuals and collectives unwilling to bear psychological and physical,
material and moral, legal and extra-legal consequences of their crimes. True, many a book
has been written in the attempt to clarify the phenomenon of crime denial. Some of them
have been translated into Serbian such as the excellent and comprehensive study
"About Denial" by Stanley Cohen. And yet, we are still waiting for a
satisfactory explanation for widespread denial.
Unfortunately, Cohen has not included Serbia in his research. And there
is so much to add to the topic in the Serb context. Systematic deletion of the segments of
the past that is not, after all, so glorious and pleasant to one's ear is not a novelty in
Serbia, the same as pressures on few individual opposing the trend. So, contemporaries
were strongly accusing Vuk Karadzic of revealing the ghastly details of the massacre
conducted by Serb rebels once they entered Sjenica. Milan Milicevic said it was great
shame that he /Karadzic/ shared this information with the famous German historian, Leopold
von Ranke. To this, Karadzic retorted, "True, that's a shame for Serbs but doing it
was also shameful. And the things that have been done should not be hidden from
However, not many followed Karadzic's example in this regard. According
to Dubravka Stojanovic, Serb history has been perceived as a kind of military training.
Therefore, it has been both recorded and lectured in the spirit of apologetics of
nation-state, complete identification with the predominant ethnic community and spread of
hatred for minorities and neighbors. Serb crimes have been hushed up, whereas those
committed by others exacerbated. And in all this, politicians have been trying to catch up
with intellectual elites. Nothing changed after the World War II the victims of which have
been arbitrarily and misguidedly assessed for decades - all this resulted in the
terrifying bidding over the number of killed, which was turned into propaganda mechanism
for preparation of a new war.
This new war cruelly contradicted all those ascribing the success of the
policy of crime denial only to poor flow of information. The crimes committed during
ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration have been thoroughly and promptly documented, almost
simultaneously with their commitment. And yet, this information neither prevented new
crimes nor changed the political climate of the community of executioners. This
information either met disbelief or its significance was ignored. The people ascribing
denial of crime to the skillful war propaganda were also denounced. The wars are now over,
Milosevic is no more either in power or among the living, but an entire Phalange still
persistently denies crimes or justifies them.
But the things are even worse than that in Serbia. For, paradoxically,
denial has some advantages. An individual's inability to face up the crime he has
committed or the crime committed on his behalf testifies that he is ashamed of it, sees it
as something utterly rotten and wishes it had never happened at all. Is that the case in
Serbia? I wouldn't say so. "Knife, barbed wire, Srebrenica," crowds are shouting
in stadiums. "Ratko Mladic cuts throats clean," says a graffito on the railway
station. Those creepy examples taken from the anthology of modern Serb popular lyrics
testify of worrisome truth: many people know exactly what happened. And they regret not.
On the contrary, they regret that the crime is over. That's the worst outcome of the
cumulative warring propaganda according to which denial of crime is nothing but benign
pastime of chauvinistic intellectuals. Their denial to look the truth into the eyes is
after all just a weird testimony that the truth exists, that they know about it and are
ashamed of it. True, that's an embarrassing testimony of the same moral universe we all
Therefore, deniers are not the real problem here. Were they not
operating in the society plunged into the crime they would have sooner or later creep
under the stone from which they had crept out. This is why in Serbia - unlike in France,
Germany or a number of other countries - denial of crime has not become a crime itself.
Instead of going to jail, deniers are bestowed literary awards and granted appanage.
Denial has become a cultural model that reproduces itself and denies all those who thought
that the change of generations would bring about a change. Instead of a change, new verses
are added to the old ones such as the Belgrade Syndicate's popular song "Beef"
picturing a young, autarchic Serbia and its distorted perception of the world's
expectations from it. "No chance that I give up Gucha, kaimak and plum brandy/ and
tolerate Croats, Borka and gay parades/ Fuck those Levy's documentaries/ I am not ashamed
of my origins!" In the country where many "bravely" look the truth into the
eyes and accept the "bitter kismet" of crime for the sake of attainment of their
ethno-nationalistic goal, the problem is not in denial of crime but in active or passive
support for crime. Rather than investigating the phenomenology of crime we should,
therefore, investigate the origins of people's enchantment with brute power and the misery
it inflicted. What force makes people identify themselves with the policy of crime by
their own free will?
Probably a part of the answer lies in the fact that Milosevic's strategy
of "uninvolvement in the war" devastated Serbia ethically and in the long run.
That war by proxy - in which Serbia was and was not involved - has dangerously distorted
perceptions of many citizens. Immersed in its own problems and lost in economic chaos,
Serbia has Biblically hardened. "For hardened is the heart of those people, and
hardened are their ears, and they closed their eyes not to see, their ears not to hear and
their heart not to understand" (Matthew, 15). The political elite used this fog to
finalize the project of national homogenization and missed no opportunity to involve as
many people as possible into the complot.
Fortunately, the success was incomplete. When ten years after the end of
the war in Bosnia the Serb state broadcaster aired the video showing Scorpions'
atrocities, people were shocked and disgusted. Practically no one dared to openly question
the authenticity of the recording, let alone approve its content. Though the initial
response was short-lived, the very fact that people reacted gives raise to the hope that
the political elite is the one that obstructs confrontation with the past and that
fascination with brute force would fade away faced with its brutal manifestation once this
elite is gone.