Monday, June 9, 2014

WHO WERE THE SERBS OF 1914? - Interview with Miloš Ković / Lessons of the Golden Age / "Reiss Institute" April 2014

Reiss Institute
Novi Standard
April 2014

Aleksandra's Note: Many thanks to Nebojsa Malic, President of the REISS Institute for Serbian Studies, for translating this interview with Miloš Ković in "Novi Standard" into the English language. Although this was originally published in April 2014, it remains very much relevant today.

Aleksandra Rebic



Lessons of the Golden Age

“At the time when it is important to mark the centenary of World War One, Serbia is sending very mixed signals,” says historian Miloš Ković (Милош Ковић). “If we get a repeat of what happened last year with Njegoš [1] , that would be very harmful.”

Milan Rakic: diplomat, soldier, patriot and poet
Ković is the editor of “Serbs 1903-1914″, an upcoming three-tome history whose first volume, “Intellectual History,” is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2014. The idea for the book came from the publishing house Clio (Клио). Ković says this only shows that if the state refuses to properly mark the centenary of the Great War, the society – private publishers, citizens, filmmakers and writers – will do so on its own. He says the book will be a collaboration between several dozen leading experts from our most important academic institutions, spanning the generations from aged academics to young researchers. Ković specifically singles out the invaluable assistance of Leon Kojen, Slobodan Antonić, Miroslav Timotijević and Clio editor Smilja Marjanović-Dušanić.
The first volume will deal with political ideas, science, literature and art. The second will examine the Serbian society and its politics, and the third will address the great powers, Serbia’s neighbors and key events. Ković says it is no easy task to describe Serbia as it was in 1914; seen from the outside, it was a homogeneous, mostly illiterate society with a small but influential middle class. But on the inside, he says, it was a very complex and layered society. This project, says Ković, was designed to ask the right questions, and weed out the wrong ones. Interview by Gordana Popović.
GP: What do you consider to be the right questions?
MK: I would say the current irritation with Great War revisionism – which is obviously taking place – is entirely inappropriate. I won’t say the revisionism doesn’t matter – for example, the accusations Christopher Clark makes in “Sleepwalkers” demand a rebuttal – but is it really a priority for us right now to worry what the others are saying, to answer their accusations, or should we examine ourselves and answer the questions pertinent to us instead? Will we beg the descendants of the aggressors to “forgive us for hitting us” [2], thus dishonoring our ancestors, or will we turn to the issues important to our survival?
Who were the Serbs in 1914? What were the ideals these peasant patriots took with them to the trenches? Who were these people, who suffered beyond human endurance to achieve unbelievable victories, these soldiers and their commanders such as Živojin Mišić? Most importantly, what were their values, enabling Serbia to give such heroic and steadfast resistance?
We intend to focus on answers, describing the Serbs of that time, both in Serbia and the neighboring countries and the Diaspora. We will describe them as they were in 1914, their culture and society, literacy, women’s rights, relations with the Orthodox Church, the level of military training, and the country’s foreign policy at the time.
GP: Can you, as a historian, tell us what the Serbs were like in 1914?
MK: When we read our ancestors’ letters, we seem to understand the “mental toolkit” they were using. However, as L.P. Hartley put it, “the past is a foreign country.” We need to make an effort to understand these people, because we are separated from them by a century that has changed us. The XX century was a great dis-continuity for the Serbs, as we went through several states, and every 40-50 years changed our symbols, anthems, and even national designations. We no longer live in a society of peasants who owned 2-4 acres of land, with a 10-13 percent of people being middle class.
That was an age of a great generation of Serbian politicians, statesmen, writers and scientists. It is amazing that all those people existed together in one place, and one wonders if that will ever happen again. Not for nothing was this time called the Golden Age of Serbian history, though Serbian historiography is still conflicted about that.
GP: Conflicted about what?
MK: Some historians claim that in this period, Serbia had chosen nationalism instead of “modernization”. Like some German and Anglophone historians, some Serb historians are trying to blame Serbian history and tradition for what happened in 1914, and even what would happen in 1941-45, or 1991 onward. They are looking for a “heritage of evil” that supposedly drove Serbs since the Oath of Kosovo – through the hayduk rebellions and epic poetry, Garašanin’s Outlines and Njegoš’s Mountain Wreath, the works of Jovan Cvijić and policies of Nikola Pašić – to act as aggressors and ethnic cleansers, culminating in the Balkans Wars. According to these theorists, the history of the Balkans Wars is a history of atrocities against Albanians. And then they extend that “continuity” all the way to Srebrenica.
GP: What is your take on that position?
MK: It is non-scientific and an anachronism. It is trying to create an academic discourse out of the current political needs of great powers, which are hostile to Serbia and the Serbian people. So they object to Serbia not being “modern” enough, while using “modernization theory” as a simple tool of colonial submission. To be “modern” means to reflect the cultural, and even anthropological (often overtly racist) standards of the West, aping everything they do.  This theory, a worn-out trope of American sociologists from the mid-XX century, has become a new religion here, patterned after the Marxist dialectic materialism.
In practice, it is a tool of colonial conquest of those peoples that fail to sufficiently please the powers in Brussels, Washington or Berlin. Christopher Clark, the author of “Sleepwalkers” – who isn’t just a random historian but teaches at Cambridge – has posited Serbia’s alleged responsibility for the Great War as part of a greater picture of the entire Serbian history as leading up to Srebrenica. That is a textbook example of anachronism. As the great French historian Marc Bloch put it, the greatest sin for a historian is to impose his own values and political criteria of his time onto the study of the past.
GP: Is that your principal objection to Clark’s work?
MK: It is but one of the objections. Clark has not said anything new. He used the well-known archival materials, and his only contribution to “refreshing” or “renewing” the debate was to bring the media discourse of Eternal Serbian Guilt into academic historiography.
GP: You described the period between 1903 and 1914 as the age of great statesmen, thinkers and politicians in Serbia. How so?
MK: As Radovan Samardžić put it, it was a time when great men walked the tiny Serbia. It was a time when at the University of Belgrade, Bogdan and Pavle Popović and Jovan Skerlić taught the history of Serbian and world literature, Jovan Cvijić taught geography, Branislav Petronijević taught philosophy, Tihomir Đorđević taught ethnology, Veselin Čajkanović taught the classics… Milutin Milanković taught applied mathematics. He moved from Vienna to Belgrade in 1909, taking a major pay cut, to author his world-important scientific works here. At this time, living abroad, are Mihajlo Pupin and Nikola Tesla. History is being written by Slobodan Jovanović, Stojan Novaković, Mihailo Gavrilović, Stanoje Stanojević – to mention just the greats. In literature, we have the golden age of Milan Rakić, Jovan Dučić, Vladislav Petković Dis, Sima Pandurović…  This was also when the young theologian Nikolaj Velimirović first made his appearance.
GP: How do you explain the patriotism of that time?
MK: These people were not divided into “citizens” and “nationalists,” such a division at the time would have been completely absurd. The modern idea of nationalism, which arose from the XVIII century Enlightenment ideas, had always been inseparable from national sovereignty and democracy. The best answer to your question would be Milan Rakić, one of the key entries in our lexicon. He was born to a reputable Belgrade bourgeois family, received a European education at a very young age, and continued his career as the Serb consul in Priština, which was a high-risk posting at the time – one of his predecessors, Luka Marinković, was murdered there. Then he was a volunteer guerrilla in the 1912 war. He was a patriot in 1914 precisely because he was an authentic representative of bourgeois Belgrade at the time. That is why he wrote his poem “At Gazimestan” (На Газименстану), which is not only a revival of the Vidovdan idea, but a decanting of that very ancient wine into a flawless modern form.
GP: You argue that literature was the key ideology of that time?
MK: Yes, because for those people, as Pаvle Popović says, literature was everything that was in written form – whether a treatise on political theory or one about natural laws. When Serbia and Montenegro liberated Old Serbia in 1912, there was a revival of the Vidovdan – i.e. Kosovo – idea within the modernist, bourgeois thought (literary modernism is very different from the term as used by the “theory of modernization”) . The best Serbian literature magazine of all time – Serbian Literature Herald (Српски књижевни гласник) was founded in 1901 and flourished in this era. Its purpose was to find a place in Europe’s heritage for Serbian national politics and culture. Almost all the founders of the SLH were educated and had lived in the West. They truly knew Europe – unlike today’s cultural and political “anti-elite”, whose “knowledge” comes solely via cable TV and seven-day tourist trips…
GP: But other forms of arts flourished as well?
MK: During this age, Serbian impressionists, for the first time in art history, match the current European achievements – especially the work of Nadežda Petrović. Sculptor Ivan Meštrović did his best work at this time, and he was a key player in the Vidovdan revival, giving it a Yugoslav meaning. This was also the time of great painters Paja Jovanović and Uroš Predić. In music, this was the age of Stevan S. Mokranjac and Josif Marinković. Wherever you turn, you see a flowering – but this was also the case all over Europe. Culture was flourishing all over Europe, and Serbia was a part of that.
GP: You’ve also argued that this was the time of the artistic avant-garde?
MK: In Serbia it was the young Stanislav Vinaver, whose time was still to come. Predrag Palavestra noted that the torch-bearers of modernism in Belgrade at the time were university professors, such as Bogdan Popović, Jovan Skerlić, Slobodan Jovanović,  Jovan Cvijić. These were people educated in the West, enjoying a stable existence and regular paychecks, and gathering around the leading magazines – Serbian Literary Herald and Delo.
Across the Drina there is the “Bosanska Vila” and its authors are younger, more modernist and willing to experiment with art: Dimitrije Mitrinović, Vladimir Gaćinović, Pero Slijepčević, Risto Radulović. Their existence isn’t as secure, compared to the Belgrade modernists, as they are politically and socially alien in the Catholic, feudal, German and Magyar Austria-Hungary. So their work is by definition more radical, and they are more eager to rebel. As Milorad Ekmečić noted, they considered Jovan Skerlić – who called for gradualism, evolution, and improvement of human nature through art – an “aged teacher”, and demanded action instead.
GP: And Gavrilo Princip emerged from that milieu?
MK: The Austrians preserved Ottoman feudalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Princip’s parents were serfs. Serbia was a country of yeomen farmers and universal suffrage, while the fathers of the Young Bosnians were serfs, i.e. physically enslaved. From such an environment, the humiliating, anti-Serb, colonial Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina, sprung the people like Princip, Nedeljko Čabrinović and Trifko Grabež, but also broadly educated people like the young Vladimir Gaćinović.
GP: How will you present Princip and the “Young Bosnia”?
MK: We will try to place them back in the European context where they belong: the revival of leftist romanticism at the end of the XIX and the early XX century. But we will also return them to the Serbian national tradition, because Gavrilo Princip belonged to what Isidora Sekulić and Miloš Đurić called at the time the “Vidovdan thought” – he grew up hearing the gusle and epic poetry. The Young Bosnian were inspired not just by the Yugoslav idea, but also the Kosovo Oath and Serbian traditions.
GP: What can the experiences of that time teach us today?
MK: Back then, Serbia was far more of a dependency of Austria-Hungary than it is a dependency of the EU today. Yet it resisted the dictates coming from Vienna. How was that possible? How was it possible that Serbia succeeded in freeing itself from the economic stranglehold of a much more powerful and encircling neighbor, during the 1906-11 Customs War? Because it has economic experts and ministers such as Kosta Stojanović and Laza Paču, people who embodied both education and patriotism, courage and responsibility.
The leading Serbian intellectuals who were educated in the West and knew it well, upon returning to Serbian began advocating for better ties with Russia. This was not an economic interest, since the economies of Serbia and Russia were both primarily agricultural and not very compatible. But Russia was ready to help and back Serbia in times of need. Those statesmen did not advocate Serbia adopt a Russian czarist model of government, but preferred democracy as practiced in France, England, or America. Yet they championed a turn towards Russia, especially after the belligerent Austrian approach to the 1908 Annexation Crisis. Why? Because their experience told them, as Milo Lompar succinctly observed, to tell apart Western values from Western interests. This is a skill our present-day cultural and political “elites” never mastered.
[1] Last year’s bicentennial of the bishop-poet’s birth was almost entirely ignored by the government of Serbia.
[2] A paraphrase from a popular satirical film “The Balkans Spy,” where a character tells a victim of torture the torturer would “forgive you for hitting you”.
(Interview [originally] published in the Belgrade daily Politika,  April 19, 2014, via Novi Standard; translation by the Reiss Institute)
Link to the original article in "Novi Standard":милош-ковић-ко-су-били-срби-1914


If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at


No comments: