Tag Archives: Denial

Denial and the rhetorics of Serbian victimization.

One of the most effective ways for Serbian nationalist propaganda to get into the minds of normal people has been, over the last three decades, the invocation of Jasenovac and of Serbian victimhood. The rhetorics of victimization was presented in a way that actually represents an abuse of memory of the Serbian victims of past oppression. Victimization was used in order to install a climate of fear, to present the Serbs as a nation under continuous threat and thus to whitewash as self-defence the wars of aggression conducted by the Serbs in the 1990s. For Serbian nationalists, thus, Serbian victims became no more than an asset, a useful tool of propaganda.

Even nowadays, this mentality dominated by the idea of victimization is what prevents many decent Serbs with no sympathy for nationalism to fully aknowledge the degree of harm caused by the Greater Serbia nationalists.

On my post on Holocaust Memorial Day, a reader, signing as Svetlana, wrote a comment about a bitter exchange of arguments between Owen and I and a Greek reader, Nikos previously published in the same thread. Her comment to a certain extent is illustrative of how the rethorics of victimization distorts the ability or the will to assess Serbia’s responsibilities for the violent break-up of Yugoslavia.

here is an excerpt: (…) somehow I feel that there will never be any understanding for serbian victims. The comments for this article should talk about all the victims of all nationalities and to be equally treated by everyone and not just always to point to Serbs as the main war criminals. Mladic should be arrested, no doubt about it, but now I somehow suspect that it is not Serbia that does not want to arrest Mladic, in my opinion some bigger factors are involved, because for some people it would be better to leave Serbia in dark, isolated, marginalized… so they could do their business as usual there.(…)

I am not at all questioning Svetlana’s good faith, I am just quoting her, in order to introduce the comment written as a reply to her by Owen, which focuses on victimization and on the patterns of argumentation used by those who believe that should not face the extremely negative legacy of Greater Serb nationalism.

I have been reading Owen’s comments in other blogs for years and I am very happy to receive his support and have him regularly following my blog and writing comments here. I am publishing Owen’s comment in full. In case some parts seem to lack context, please consult the post where the comment was originaly published :

Svetlana, I must take my share of criticism for the way in which the discussion moved on from discussing Sarah’s initial post honouring Aristides da Souza Mendes by way of commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.

The problem was that I saw in the way Nikos expanded his original comments yet another effort to take discussion of criminal atrocities into the area of subtle propaganda for the EU to allow Serbia to move on and in.

As Sarah has said, our experience of exchanges with Serbians – hers considerably greater than mine – has been sufficient for us to have a reasonable idea now here an apparently open-ended discussion is heading. I observed to Nikos that the regrettable outcome of so many discussions with so many Serbians is that I have become much more focussed – closed-minded, with entrenched views, whatever – because I have wasted so much time beating around the bush as a result of taking the initial remarks at face value. Sad, but some of us have to use our time and energy carefully.

That’s not to write off all Serbians, far from it. I know that Sarah like myself has Serbian friends and acquaintances whom we not only like but intensely admire. But when engaging in discussion with Serbs and Serbians on the internet – on blogs, at places like Wikipedia, etc. – I so often find myself aware of a pattern emerging that reveals a single overriding concern on the part of my interlocutor, the aim to persuade me that Serbia is being victimised and discriminated against and I and the world should treat Serbia with more consideration and tolerance.

Of course I know about Jasenovac and the atrocities there. It is true that what happened at Jasenovac is not widely enough known and acknowledged outside Former Yugoslavia as a horror that stands alongside Srebrenica and the other atrocities in the wars of 1991-1995. But there are reasons why even those who are aware of Jasenovac are distracted from showing adequate respect for the memory of the victims.

Most of us communicating on the internet were born after the Second World War. We tend to speak of what we know. I know that Srebrenica was the single worst atrocity on the continent where I live since WWII. Events in Former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s were profoundly shocking to myself and others who had grown up with the idea that even if the commitment to “Never Again” was unlikely to eradicate war and conflict the one thing we should not expect to see in our lifetimes was the spectre of ethnic extermination. Srebrenica was only the culmination of horrible events that unfolded before us in places like Eastern Slavonia, Prijedor, Central Bosnia and the Drina Valley (not ignoring atrocities perpetrated on a smaller scale but no less importantly in places like Gospic and during the exodus from the Krajina).

For a long time when trying to discuss these atrocities and the reality of what had happened the inevitable response from Serbians, with the exception of an honourable and honoured minority, was that no massacre had taken place, that the scale of atrocities was vastly exaggerated, that Muslim and Croat atrocities were on a much greater scale than those blamed on Serbs, etc.

Over time as more facts have been confirmed the arguments deployed have gradually changed. There is still denial, but absolute denial is much less in evidence and attempts to downgrade the scale of what happened are much less blatant. In the case of Srebrenica that’s perhaps thanks to the evidence of the Scorpions video, though Natasa Kandic remains a target of hatred for forcing it onto the public’s consciousness. And also perhaps an appreciation of the overwhelming public acceptance outside the Balkans of the facts relating to the wars of the Former Yugoslavia wars as established in legal proceedings which however imperfect have succeeded in bringing to light an extraordinary volume of evidence that is now seen as beyond question.

So the argument has shifted but its central focus remains the same, the unfair treatment of Serbs and Serbia. Many Serbians now acknowledge that Srebrenica was a terrible atrocity (albeit little is said about events elsewhere – Omarska doesn’t seem to register much and Ovcara seems to remain difficult to accept). But that’s about as far as it goes. After a brief acknowledgment of Srebrenica the discussion moves rapidly on to Serbia’s problems and suffering. There’s no real outrage, no condemnation of the fact that the principal perpetrators have succeeded in avoiding justice for so long. I never hear concern expressed for the families of the victims. Above all I hear about the suffering of Serbians denied the right to be part of a prosperous, contented Europe (and occasionally complaints about the situation of Serb refugees in Serbia – a legitimate concern but usually expressed in a context of assigning uncritical blame). Serbians appear to be outraged by the notion of conditionality. The country that has protected and paid pensions to the indicted war criminals considers it has moved on.

The agenda is always to make the outside world aware of its mistreatment of Serbs and Serbia. And that is the problem. So much obvious intelligence and wide-ranging knowledge is relentlessly applied to the task of persuading the persion at the receiving end that Serbia must be allowed to cast off the burden of any outstanding responsibility for the recent past.

Jasenovac has become part of the scheme of justification, as an instrumental reference. And that’s why people who are aware of what happened there may appear to pay less attention to Jasenovac than the scale of what happened there demands.

The motives behind the work of the hopefully now defunct Jasenovac Research Institute were made clear by the activities of its officers elsewhere. That was perhaps one of the most transparently cynical attempts to exploit the reality of the suffering of the victims of Jasenovac and their survivors by using an association with other Holocaust victims to cloak apologist propagandising in a false respectability.

I often sense the presence of a similar, if less intense, cynicism in the references to Jasenovac that I’m offered as a sort of balance to comments about Srebrenica and other atrocities. To be frank though possibly unfair, it is difficult to detect the pain experienced by other victims in many of these references. Where there is a sense of genuine anger it often seems to spring from a resentment at being treated unfairly. But at least that anger is genuine. What I find most disturbing is when the references are almost incidental and appear intended simply to confirm a communality of victimhood rather than remind me of the terrible suffering of the individuals killed and otherwise abused by the Nazis and their Ustashe and Chetnik associates.

Svetlana, I don’t quarrel with your reference to Serbians as hospitable people. My problem is that Serbian hospitability seems to be conditional on the conduct of your guests. We’ll get along fine as long as I don’t disagree with you. I’m not going to be mealy-mouthed and pretend that I’m not criticising because that’s precisely what I have been doing up to this point.

As far as you personally are concerned I know almost nothing about you and your personal motives so the above is not directed at you. Nevertheless I think I’m still entitled to challenge your lack of insight in accusing Sarah of unfairness towards people who don’t share her attitudes. I very much hope that the profound respect for truth and justice she observes is, as you put it, what Europe is, and what democracy is.

You’re right, Europe should be proud of all its diversity and let people be different, their difference informed by that fundamental respect for one another.


Filed under Bosnia, Culture of denial, Duty of memory, Genocide, Nationalism, Serbia


But Visegrad is still home to the Ivo Andric library, the finest collection of his books in the world. The librarian, Stojka Mijatovic, offered us a volume, a gift. “We have taken so many books from Muslim houses we hardly know what to do with them,” she said.

The Bridge on the Drina, the famous book by Ivo Andric was recently translated into portuguese. There was an older translation, but it had been sold out long ago, so it was possible to get it only in libraries, and even so, in the Lisbon public library the book was in such a shape that it readers were not allowed to take it home.
This translation has the merit of having been made directly to portuguese, unlike what usually happens with most books written in foreign languages spoken not widely known in Portugal.

Despite the merit of the publishing house in promoting universal literature by providing their readers with good quality direct translations, there is something wrong about this portuguese edition. On its cover, one

can see a photo of an old bridge, and those acquainted with ottoman architecture will recognize its style. However, this bridge is not THE bridge on the Drina, and it is unlikely that the small river that passes beneath it is the Drina. This reveals the lack of zeal with which the publishing house produces its covers, but it also has a reflex on the perception that the reader will have on the content of the book itself, as it is probable that most of its readers never heard about the Drinabefore, and it is highly probable that even if they did, they don’t have a mental image of it, and even less of the bridge itself (here is a picture of the real bridge)

Much more disturbing was the description I was given of the book’s launching event, held last year at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon, not long before Christmas.
I didn’t go, so I am relying on the description given to me by a girl who was there. It may not be wise to talk about events that we didn’t witness ourselves, but there are ways to valuate the credibility of our sources. In this case, her description was made in the presence of other participants in the event. who did not denie her version. On the contrary, their uneasy silence was a very clear, albeit tacit, confirmation of the version that I will now reproduce.
The event was a success. Lots of people attended it, and the book got a reasonable media attention. The translator, a serb living in Portugal, was very proud of his deed, because it seems that translating Ivo Andric is a very hard task and the portuguese language is not an easy language either. Two more persons spoke at the event: the serbian ambassador in Lisbon, and a portuguese Professor of Literature.
The serbian ambassador spoke of Andric as if he had been a serbian citizen, thus ‘nationalizing’ Yugoslavia only Nobel Prize.
Nobody mentioned that Visegrad, the town where the bridge stands, was ‘ethnically cleansed’ in 1992 and is now a ethnically pure serbian town. This ‘small’ detail was unworthy mentioning in such a pleasant event about a book that describes inter-ethnic relations in Bosnia under ottoman and austrian rule. Nowadays there are no inter-ethnic relations to describe in Visegrad anymore and the bridge itself, damaged during the war is on UNESCO’s black list of endangered world heritage cultural monuments.
The brige was also nationalised, that is serbianized, as the Grand Vizir who ordered its construction was an orthodox christian taken by force by the ottomans to join the janissaries. Thus it became a serbian bridge, not an ottoman bridge, despite the fact that its architectonic style and construction technique leave no room for doubth.

The girl was shocked. When the event occurred, she had recently returned from Mostar, where she had been working as a volunteer (I didn’t ask what she was doing, I never ask anything, I just listen). She wanted to lean more about BiH, and that was the reason she decided to attend the book’s launching event. But Bosnia itself was hardly mentioned. As she told me, she felt she was too isolated there to say anything, and anyway she wouldn’t know what to say in such a surrealist environment where, apparently, only herself seemed to be shocked.

It was denial in its purest form.

Here is a description of what happened in Visegrad in 1992. Sensible souls should take a deep breath before reading it, but still read it. If you get easily impressed, don’t read it all, this small excerpt will probably be enough:

“””(…) But the bloodiest arena was the bridge itself. The structure is visible from almost every balcony and window in Visegrad, which climbs both sides of the valley. Its cobblestones are a stage at the foot of an amphitheatre; the executions were intended to be as public as possible. (…) At the end of June a Visegrad police inspector, Milan Josipovic, received a macabre complaint from downriver, from the management of Bajina Basta hydro-electric plant across the Serbian border. The plant director said could whoever was responsible please slow the flow of corpses down the Drina? They were clogging up the culverts in his dam at such a rate that he could not assemble sufficient staff to remove them. (…)”””

(Blood Trail of Butchery at the Bridge, by Ed Vulliani, published originally in the Gardian in March 11, 1996).

Photo: The Drina in a rainy day. My picture, taken in October 2007.


Filed under Art, Bosnia, Culture of denial, Genocide, Nationalism, Portugal, Uncategorized, Violence