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#special issue: Transitional Justice

Nebojsa Milikic /// Beyond Monstrosity

(This text was initially written for my blog, hosted at www.b92.net. Before this text, I posted another one in which I tried to encourage cultural, policy and decision-makers to support artistic research of war crimes and their ideological backgrounds.)

(This text was initially written for my blog, hosted at www.b92.net. Before this text, I posted another one in which I tried to encourage cultural, policy and decision-makers to support artistic research of war crimes and their ideological backgrounds.)

In his essay Serbia versus Serbia, the Sarajevo-based theoretician Nebojša Jovanović posits a thesis that – similar to the constellation of the film Strangler Versus Strangler (where beyond a monster-strangler, an asocial and retarded outsider who kills out of his inability to comprehend social relations or accept the principles of exchange that constitute a social environment and an individual as a part of it, there exists an “insider” killer, a person who comprehends those relations and principles “beyond any doubt” and thus participates in the social and economic life) – the policy of the so-called second or “Other” Serbia was equally productive towards internal logic and economy of warfare – all the while sticking to the “safe investment” of pointing fingers towards its foul manifestations and consequences. Without further developing this thesis (it can be read in the essay, published in the Prelom magazine, no. 2/3) and with maintaining respect for the substantial achievements of the local anti-war movement which has developed and has been directed almost exclusively from the position of Other Serbia, we cannot continue to indefinitely hide the fact that those sworn enemies of the “Serbian cause” have always had one mutual, but also mutually repressed defining feature: they were against public property and worker self-management and for capitalism and privatization.

The causes and consequences of the tragedy which played out in former Yugoslavia and achieved its miserable peak in Srebrenica, cannot be analyzed and comprehended without analyzing the causes and consequences of such latent ideological similarities.
In David Albahari’s story Why, a strong-stomached reader is presented with an insight into possible psychological characteristics of war crimes and criminals. The person whose thoughts we as readers follow seems to, although grown up, still be “feeling his way” around reality, not recognizing even the most banal of existential and communication codes. When caught in the environment of war, he becomes a domestic rapist and a bizarre butcher. Even though he inappropriately focuses on the details and descriptions of humiliation and suffering of the powerless victim, Albahari still presents us with a semblance of the socio-economical landscape which allowed for such a massacre (as the mass crime in Srebrenica is still officially referred to in today’s Serbia) as a side-effect or a central means of a wider criminal endeavor. The environment which allows the asocial and retarded outsider to reach the victim as well as the crime scene, announces a world of small businessmen, once clerks and future entrepreneurs, clerics and lumpenproletariat, all raised on the social and economic scene of Yugoslavia’s endtimes, the so-called “reform” of the 1980s.
Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, tells us that ordinary men – quiet meatmen, postmen, salarymen – who were mobilized to the Hamburg reserve police battalion, have, after the daily routine (or, let us not say, “ration”) of killing Jews in Poland (because ammo was not to be wasted, the deed was to be done by a single bullet to the neck, while the victims were tied down on the ground – such methods were devised by Third Reich doctors who were only doing their own job when they came up with the most efficient and cheapest way of doing this job), indifferently commented upon the atrocities they were performing: “So, we earned our breakfast today.” In About Avarice, a book by the Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar, we can read that in centuries past, the most fervent prosecutors of Jews were those who owed them money. In the study Fascism by the local sociologist Todor Kuljić, it is pointed out that SS cadres directly benefited by removing Jews from their positions in the financial, commercial or other profitable sectors and simply occupying the vacant positions and functions of those who have up to then “exploited the German people”.

Is it really so hard to talk about the economic motivation beyond the monstrosity of crime and to think about the monstrosity of the very system which puts people against each other, exploits and humiliates them, kindling in them the desire to plunder, to accrue property, to achieve the petit bourgeoisie prestige, obedience and snobbery? Racism is, according to a rather interesting definition, “snobbery of the poor”. While the German capitalist elite did not seriously court racist ideas, its appetite grew in accordance with the benefits which Hitler promised: lower wages, dispensing with social rights, colonial expansion. The petite bourgeoisie and clerks who “only do their job” were left with a simple obligation to distance themselves from the “lesser race” in disgust – but they took the gold fillings from their dead bodies and used their hair for various products without disgust. Why would a thing like that be disgusting at all in an economic system which pronounces profit and gain to be virtues above all others, the highest degree of human mission on Earth? Everything below that – by the nature of things – belongs under ground.

During a recent conversation with Branislav Dimitrijević (art historian and at that moment still the Deputy Culture Minister of Serbia in charge of international relations) in Rex cinema, the topic of the new exhibition in the Jasenovac Memorial Museum was discussed (Jasenovac is a village in Croatia in which one of the most notorious WW2 concentration camps was located. The exact number of victims – mostly Serbs, Roma and Jews, but also Croatian antifascists – killed there by Croatian fascists called Ustashe, has still not been determined; estimates vary from 70.000 to 700.000 people). After the initially difficult discussion where all the usual observations and accusations were exchanged, one historian, a specialist working in the Belgrade Genocide Museum, brought forth data regarding the murders of Serbs which were not carried out in an organized manner by the Ustasha state, but rather by neighbors, at the doorsteps of their houses, and not so much because of national or religious differences, which was in those conditions certainly a beneficial circumstance generated by fascist ideology, but in order to take away their property, most often land.

It is not hard to remember that the more scarce the land, like for example in Herzegovina, the more brutal and frequent the murders were. In response to some puzzling looks from those present (because said specialist works in an institution which primarily deals with a genocidal fate or a genocidal nature of this or that people), he coyly added: “But if I wrote that, they would label me a Marxist!” Did this suppression of the economical factor and the cold “calculated” nature of war and crime not surface in the disgraceful “haggling” over the number of those killed in Jasenovac? Does decreasing the number of victims not hide the logic according to which Croatia gave way too much for the joint country? And does an increase in that number not hide the thesis that Serbia and Serbs invested a disproportionate amount of human resources into it, not getting nearly enough in return?

Can a value system which does not hold any moral or political obstacle to unlimited profits actually solve these problems without resorting to hiding and burying their economic component with an unclear conscience? As we know from the aforementioned book, out of around five hundred ordinary men from the Reserve Police Battalion 101, whose overwhelming majority participated in the killing of at least 83.000 Jews (except about a hundred of them whose duties in the formation did not include killing, or who refused it or evaded it on various grounds, which only goes to show that it did not “have to be done”) only three were convicted – one to eight, another to four, the third to three and a half years in prison. And when did that take place? In 1972. A system which considers savage fighting for profit a normal state of society can hardly have any moral credibility and even less “interest” to deal with all these alleged “excesses which took place under special circumstances”. This simply begs a question: is there democracy without economic democracy? Even if there is no good answer to the dilemma about what should be the researcher’s priority, whether it is the individual victim or the collective tribulation, individual responsibility or collective guilt, all possible means should be exhausted in order to clear up matters on every basis and to thus prevent, through insistence on the inconceivability and eternal surreptitiousness of mass crimes, the fascist from gaining enough leeway to, as Benjamin said, “process the data in their own way”.

That is exactly why we have to insist on publishing, discussing and analyzing all the facts, including those most particular as well as those most general, in connection with the criminal murder of thousands of exiled and disarmed people in Srebrenica. The mechanisms and principles which paved the way for this horrific event and made it possible are visible, accessible and analyzable to the degree which was rarely seen in history so far. Can mass crimes like the one in Srebrenica be understood and made clear without assuming that ethnic cleansing in this war was an effect of the clash between two opposed ideological principles – self-management and privatization? Mesmerized by memories of crimes past, inspired by fascist propaganda and left without a state infrastructure which could prevent or channel complicated social contradictions (which, of course, does not absolve anybody from personal or collective responsibility for what has been done), it would seem that the people resigned themselves towards implementing the logic of both systems, through self-organized and straightforward looting, pillaging, and murder for personal gain. The authorities that have been constituted in Republika Srpska during the war were, it now seems certain, a prime example of the most shameless privatization and pillage; thus, the only thing such an ideology could offer to the ordinary citizen i.e. the soldier, was the same as some medieval conqueror could have offered to his army: we (the authorities) get the real estate and business, and you, the ordinary folk, get movable goods and people. Does not the name Srebrenica (Silverton) itself indicate greed, love for silver and a combination of two motivations: to plunder the capital (whether it be weapons, a township, an entire military formation or personal belongings and money from the war prisoners) and to strategically eliminate the adversary, the competitor, which, when viewed through the lens of hysterical managerial rhetoric and business philosophy, is the governing principle of the so-called free market and the so-called entrepreneurship? If this point of view is tendentious, it is at least less improbable than the one in which only “madmen” and monsters could commit all that has been committed. The systematic and somewhat (organized) spontaneous nature of the crime in Srebrenica, the participation of officials, debtors, volunteers, the quasi-heroic scum, the “private initiative” and the state structures in the given ideological environment and under the silent auspices of the international community, tells us that, after three years of war, a consensus was reached: the thing needed to be over, in whatever way, in order for us to start living as all normal and ordinary people. But, just like Mother Courage laments – people are afraid of war ending just like gamblers are afraid of the game ending – because they may be left as losers or debtors. And that is where such a massive and systematic crime in Srebrenica came from – out of fear that the war will be over, that a time when crime could once again become abnormal would come. Is not Eilif, Mother Courage’s very son, caught right after the war has ended, committing arson and murder, upon which he comments, resigned like some defendant before the Hague Tribunal: I do not understand any of this, until yesterday the very same things made me a hero!
As opposed to the capitalist nature of concentration camps, which were mostly also work camps without the needles salary, food or funeral expenses, mass crimes in the field, where the state is more of a passive and kind patron than an involved actor, are more reminiscent of some feudal crusade, a war unto extinction, waged in order for all the mounting problems of feudal economic policy to be solved. But those two principles can easily “make a deal” in special circumstances, like for example those in the Eastern front, where aggression and cruelty were stimulated by hinting that the soldiers and officers will get their share of the conquered reservelebensraum. This war, allegedly fated to be waged by “crazy Balkan people”, was preceded by some special circumstances of its own. As can be seen from the statements by all the participants (both Croats and Serbs) in the film by Janko Baljak and Drago Hedl Vukovar – The Final Cut, the tensions and ethnic problems begun when workers started getting laid off from the big local factory Borovo. (The village of Borovo is also the place in which the war in Croatia actually begun). From there it was not really hard to get to the point at which workers who had suddenly become an “unnecessary surplus” in their own country and their own lives, start to fight for their lebensraum. Unfortunately, it was not a fight against the initiators of their marginalization as working men, nor against reformists that provided the reasoning for such a “normal” and “inevitable” change, nor was it directed against nationalists that processed this change in their own way. The seemingly contradictory growth of Serbian and Croatian fascist ideologies alongside such intensive use of antifascist (in S. Milosevic’s) and liberation rhetoric (in F. Tudjman’s propagandistic discourse) brought the liberal reformist bourgeoisie into a trap described by I. Silone as ”saving (the perspective of) capitalistic civilization from (the past of) socialistic barbarism”. The inevitable next step in this positioning is the emergence of a latent preference for the “fascist absurd” over the “socialist absurd” (quotes according to T. Kuljic’s Fascism, p. 64). The petite bourgeoisie, with its “normal” petite economic interests, suppressed all the achievements and complex experiences of Yugoslav socialism and self-management, calculating that it would easily rework and redesign the memories of WWII along the way, which seemed as a very lucrative strategy in those Berlin-Wall-Fall moments. Thus, an indirect precondition for the slaughter that was to follow had been provided. The WWII landscape and principal actors were resurrected, as in some photography by Jeff Wall (for example The Destroyed Room or The Dead Soviet Soldiers) but this time, the communist partisans were erased from the picture by democratic censors. The atrocities that followed were, to paraphrase a renowned Belgrade philosopher Branimir Stojanovic, “the reenactment of the WWII situation and all the ambitions it entailed, only without the partisans to confront and defeat them”. Much to the horror of stakeholders.

This draft list of speculative normality can be further enriched and more personalized (in order to, among other things, further highlight the potential qualities of Albahari’s plot) if we consider the case of my close relative, who was, even though psychologically unfit, sent to the front in 1990s, in order for his very own mother (courage) to get at least a small benefit by gaining the “right” to cheaper electricity. When her son was granted his regular leave of absence, he brought bed sheets with him, for his mother to wash. When the bed sheets were washed, they were spread out under a ray of that subsidized electrical light, which revealed that they were actually a huge fete tablecloth, richly embroidered with congratulatory messages and wishes intended for newlyweds, written in Latin alphabet, which made it obvious it was from a Croatian home. The mother was in a pickle – her son explained that there was no one nor nowhere to return the tablecloth to. It was too big for them, even if they put all of their tables together. And it could not be sold, because nobody would buy a tablecloth with Latin letters. The war economy had come to a dead-end.

The defeat of Serbian militarist philosophy in the 1990s allegedly hurts on the plane of national pride (as if it were not tenfold better to lose with such a philosophy than to win in such a war), but it actually hurts on the plane of losing one’s “bread”, because somebody who is better in manufacturing and dealing crime and death emerged on the free market of martial goods and services.

 

Translated from Serbian by Mihailo Tesic

 

Nebojsa Milikic (1964). From 1995 onwards engaged in art production, independent research, writing and social activism. From 2001 works in Cultural center Rex as the initiator and coordinator of projects.

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