The Contested Country
'The Contested Country" offers a timely, smoothly written and extensively researched account of ethnic conflicts in Yugoslav history. It includes much that may be of use to readers seeking to untangle the fighting that recently broke out between independence- minded Slovenia and the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army.
Author Aleksa Djilas' background confers special credibility: He is the son of Milovan Djilas, a leader of Yugoslav communism who became a major dissident and critic of the Marxist tradition and who was long silenced and imprisoned.
Djilas explores the controversies between national groups that have made Yugoslav history intimidating for outsiders -- a factor contributing to the surprise with which most foreign commentators greeted the Slovene declaration of independence and the subsequent military attack from Belgrade last month.
These quarrels leave the impression that the nations in Yugoslavia (Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians and Albanian and Hungarian minorities, of both Christian and Muslim religion) are, more than any other Europeans, victims of history.
In the constellation of impassioned nationalisms described by Djilas, two stubborn, ugly questions remain central and are addressed with the intent of providing a final, authoritative analysis.
Both held over from the Second World War, these bloodstained topics involve the historical reputation of the Serbian monarchist guerrillas known as Chetniks -- a term that has reappeared with terroristic associations in the current Yugoslav fighting -- and of a Croatian nationalist organization that assumed power in Croatia between 1941 and 1945, the Ustashi. The latter name has also reappeared in the latest conflict, though as an insult rather than a reborn movement.
Both Chetniks and Ustashi were ferociously anti-Communist. Both, as Djilas admits, engaged in atrocities against "enemy" ethnic groups -- Croats and Muslims for the Chetniks, Serbs and Jews for the Ustashi. Both pursued collaboration of various kinds with the German and Italian occupiers after the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, as detailed by the author.
However, Djilas' writing itself illustrates, consciously or not, the differing fates suffered by the two groups. The murderous Serbian Chetniks came to be seen, particularly in the West, as victims of the Communist Tito, while the savage behavior of the Ustashi has been used to label the whole Croatian nation as "genocidal" -- a terminology the author perpetuates.
Djilas supports this double standard at numerous points in his narrative. Too often, this book has the flavor of an anti- Croat polemic. Most troubling is his habit of including provocative generalizations and charges against the Croatians with no footnotes or other attributions.
For example, he claims that, long before the war, the Ustashi had formulated a plan for the genocide of all Serbs -- at a time when the Ustashi were, as he notes, in something of a common front with the Communists against the Yugoslav monarchy, and were considered "national revolutionaries." This is a serious charge for which no evidence or source is provided, and which contradicts other statements in his book.
Elsewhere, he asserts that the Serbian minority in Croatia was compelled by the Ustashi to wear blue armbands with the letter "P" for Pravoslavac, indicating Orthodox faith. This inflammatory bit is unsubstantiated by previous scholarship and is given in this book with no source. [Author's note, 2009: Letter "P" armbands were reliably reported to have been imposed on Serb villagers in Bosnia under the Croatian pro-Nazi regime.]
In the end, Djilas' work supports the view of those who, even when repelled by Tito's communism, came to the conclusion that his multiethnic Partisan movement was the only workable alternative to the politics of ethnic revenge embraced by both Chetniks and Ustashi. Tragically, as Djilas concludes, "the Communist solution of the national question in Yugoslavia was destined to be only transient."
The lesson here is that almost nobody of Yugoslav origin writing on these themes seems capable of complete objectivity; yet no author reared outside the region could be expected to write with full authority. This book stands as a major contribution to the debate, but does not rise above the debate -- it seems, finally, an argument for the Serbian side, rather than the dispassionate, definitive account for which all parties are waiting, especially today.