Laura on Thu, 20 May 1999 19:48:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Hypnosis of an Unresisting Nation - Interview with Bora Cosic

The Hypnosis of an Unresisting Nation
Interview with Bora Cosic
By Ton Crijnen
First published in the Dutch Newspaper Trouw, April 28, 1999
Translation: Laura Martz

The gentle face grimaces; the twinkling eyes suddenly go dull. "When I see
the NATO bombs hit on TV, I'm consumed by conflicting emotions. Now I
understand what writers like Thomas Mann, Stefan Heym and Bertolt Brecht
went through. Fleeing to the U.S. to avoid the Nazis, from afar they had
to watch the cities of their childhood burning like torches under the
carpet of bombs being spread over Germany by their American hosts. It
served, then as now, a morally justified purpose: the fall of a
dictatorship. But in Hamburg, Berlin and Cologne it was not only the
executioners who died. Children and other innocents were killed too. The
same is happening today in Serbia. So don't expect me to applaud when the
cruise missiles strike. As much as I hate Milosevic."

Begun as an avant-garde tearaway - Tito banned his first novel Bora Cosic
(pronounced Tsositch) is now one of the most important writers in Serbia.
Every pupil there knows his books, which have titles like "House of
Thieves" (1956) and "How Our Piano Was Repaired" (1968). And readers of
the German translation of the essay collection "The Baroque Eye" (1997)
will understand why. Since 1992 Cosic has lived in Berlin, in self-imposed
exile. He does so to protest "the Serbian aggression" in Bosnia. In his
spacious flat where books and modern art set the scene, he observes wryly,
"I embody the only remaining Serbian opposition."


You are not entirely alone. In the meantime 27 Serb intellectuals have
raised their voices. Even Draskovic is grumbling.

"But none of them has the courage to call the beast by its name:
Milosevic. And as long as you don't do that, his position of power will
remain intact. And there's another reason this protest will not keep him
awake at night. The 27 were speaking for no one but themselves. There's no
movement standing behind them. The real, political opposition has sold its
soul to the devil. People like vice president Vuk Draskovic and Zoran
Djindjic, who led the opposition to Milosevic two years ago, are in fact
even more nationalist than the president himself. Have you ever heard
either of these gentlemen protesting Milosevic's struggle for a Greater
Serbia? On the contrary, the core of their critique was in fact that he
wasn't working effectively enough. Now, too, Draskovic's protest is
motivated by pure pragmatism."

And the rest of the intelligentsia?

"They give themselves over to an infantile patriotism, walk around with
targets on their chests. And what's worse, they're even pinning them on
the children. The Serbian people are behaving like a collective Medea
offering up her own children. When Milosevic had been in power a short
time, a lady announced on Radio Belgrade that her spouse agreed she should
offer her body for the pleasure of 'the great leader of the nation.' Back
then you could still dismiss that as an isolated case of psychoneurosis.
But now everyone has turned themselves over to him, as in a collective
hypnosis, without resistance. Even Tito didn't accomplish that. I don't
understand my people any longer."

Is that really so strange? By systematically referring to the legendary
battle at the Field of Blackbirds, June 28, 1389, against the advancing
Turks, and to underline that the small, brave, innocent Serbia 'as so
often in its history' must once again defend itself all alone against a
superior power, Milosevic is laying bare ancient nerves.

"That's right. Even my most critical friends prove sensitive to it. A
family member who was one of the first to join Tito's partisans said 'It's
just like in World War II; we're standing alone again. And this time even
the Russians have abandoned us.' He didn't stop to think about the true
reason for this isolation. And the regime is careful not to disabuse him
and the other seven million Serbs of this dream."

Where does the David and Goliath idea originate from?

"It is a blend of delusions of grandeur and inferiority complex which you
sometimes see in small nations that historically have had to compete
against larger and more powerful nations. Deep in our heart we know we
were never as brave and morally pure as we tell ourselves we were. Our
leaders collaborated with the Turks, and the Yugoslavian partisan struggle
against the Nazis was the fiercest outside Serbia. This realization leads
to many Serbs being more interested in myths than in historic reality. We
soften the pain of our defeats by shouting loudly that no conqueror has
ever succeeded in stealing our soul. In that respect we are like the Jews.
A people that thinks, like us, that it was chosen by God above all others
and that it lives in a holy land."

The West has swallowed the Serbian myth whole for a long time.

"And added new ones. Like the unconquerable strength of the Serbian
soldier. That illusion also plays a role in the discussion over deploying
NATO ground troops."

The famous Serbian ballad 'Knezeva vecera' describes the meal of the holy
prince Lazar and his twelve knights on the eve of the Field of Blackbirds.
A reference to the Last Supper. Is that how Serbs see themselves? As a
people that, through vicarious suffering, is saving Christian Europe from
the sin of unbelief (Islam) and from immorality (the American way of

"That every Serb always feels that way, I'd venture to doubt. But in any
case, it is served up to him by his political, intellectual and spiritual
leaders. And at moments such as this, it is effective. The whole
population is in the grip of an almost hysterical notion of victimization:
the 'evil' West that is seeking the destruction of the once again
innocently suffering Serbian nation."

Strange, these religously slanted emotions in a nation that is one of the
most a-religious in the Balkans.

"Religion has played a decidedly non-dominant role for a long time. Yet
something of it has remained in the nation's unconscious. You see it again
now with Kosovo. Most Serbs have never set foot there, consider it tiefste
But when patriarch Pavle speaks of Kosovo as 'the holy heart of Serbia
that we will therefore never give up,' no one contradicts him. On the
contrary. Suddenly I'm hearing people who always claim to be rationalists
saying 'Give up Kosovo? I'd rather give up my heart.'"

How does it affect you?

"It doesn't. Kosovo is a piece of land. And land is a neutral idea.
Qualifications like 'holy' and 'historic' are rubbish. Do you think the
ground in Kosovo knows who is walking over it? That it's saying, 'No
Albanians can walk over my back, only Serbs'?"

When you talk about Prince Lazar, you speak of the prince who, according
to legend, voluntarily chose defeat in order to be received into the
kingdom of heaven. Is this the core of Serb self-deception: that at
decisive moments in history they have dedicated themselves again and again
to what's morally right, without regard for life and property?

"By seeing ourselves as heroes and victims of European history, we elude
any critique. Now, too, it offers the Serb population of little Yugoslavia
the chance to close its eyes to the fact that it has called down 'heavenly
judgment' upon itself. The Serbs are being punished because they look on
with dry eyes as their own soldateska, together with Milosevic's mafia,
burned Croatian villages to the ground, shot dead children in the streets
of Sarajevo, murdered Muslim men from Srebrenica in cold blood, raped
women in Vukovar and are doing it all over again in Kosovo. Now that the
bill is being delivered at their door in cruise missiles, the nation
screams bloody murder and plays the holy innocent opposite the 'criminal

For the last 15 to 20 years, the myth of an innocently suffering Serbia
has been a recurring theme in the writings of prominent Serb novelists,
historians, theologians and philosophers. According to nationalist authors
like Dobrica Cosic, it's high time for Serbia to avenge its humiliation
and restore its medieval position of power in the region.

"Slobodan Milosevic made clever use of that after 1989. In swapping
threadbare Marxism for an adapted form of nationalism, he sensed the
people's current feelings and handily exploited them. He developed a Serb
variant of the Nazis' Blut and Bodem theory and offered the people the
carrot of a homogeneous Greater Serbia bound together by ethnicity,
language and religion. To make that dream a reality, everything that does
not fit into the mold of that homogeneity is ethnically cleansed. It
happened in Bosnia, now it's happening again in Kosovo."

And with great brutality, analogous to the famous poem 'Gorksi vijenac'
(1847) by the Montenegran prince-poet Petar Njegos, who the Serbs also saw
as their greatest poet. It applauds the brutal mass murder of the
Islamized Slav population by orthodox Christians. Do you think that this
early account of an ethnic cleansing, which is so popular in Serbia, is
the kind of breeding ground where new atrocities can arise?

"Difficult to say. I do know that a criminal like Zeljko Raznatovic
(Arkan)  with his paramilitary band of thugs, responsible for outrages in
Bosnia and probably also in Kosovo  is an admirer of Njegos. And it turns
out he's not the only one whose heart begins to stir with black emotions
at the reading of Njegos' description of ethnic cleansing as a bloody
baptism leading to the rebirth of Serbia as the most powerful nation in
the region. Bloodshed as a sacrament for the purpose of the spiritual and
physical well-being of the people has a long history in my country."

In the historical novels of vice president Draskovic, a dagger keeps
reappearing, the dagger of Milos Obilic, the Serb nobleman who murdered
the victorious sultan Murad I after the battle of the Field of Blackbirds.
The dagger functions in Draskovic as a metaphor for the historic animosity
between Serbs and non-Slavs (read the West). Does that animosity really

"Only in Milosevic's propaganda machine and in conservative circles inside
the orthodox church, which are mainly addressing their competition in the
Vatican. But in cities like Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis, the intelligentsia
has long maintained close ties with kindred spirits in Paris, Berlin,
Vienna and Prague. Acting as if Serbia has always stood with its back to
the rest of Europe is a sheer falsification of history."


Laura Martz
Post Box 15569
1001 NB Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel./Fax: +31-(0)20-6644756

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