Tag Archives: Serbia

A new collection of often harrowing, sometimes very funny stories by Josip Novakovich

I think that Croatian-Canadian author Josip Novakovich (1956-) is the greatest living writer of short stories. He has also published powerful collections of essays and what I consider The Great Croatian Novel, April Fool’s Day.


This high esteem does not mean that I like everything he writes. Indeed, I hated the last story in his 2017 collection Heritage of Smoke, “In the Same Boat,” the only one not set in Europe or North America (but on the Pacific Ocean south of the US/Mexico border). And I didn’t much like the penultimate story, ‘Remote Love,” which centers on inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who was born in a Serbian village in what is now Croatia (but then was part of the Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire), attended high school in German in Karlovac, which is also now in Croatia, moved on to Vienna, Prague, and, eventually New York, where Novakovich’s story is set.

Enough about stories I disliked. I think that “Acorns” is a great work, centering on a UN translator who is disgusted by the complicity with Serbian genocide of the UN “peacekeepers,” has very harrowing adventures as a prisoner of a Serbian unit, and after finding her husband who has come searching for, spends months in a Bosnian unit. Living in the aftermath of rape is one important aspect of the story—not just for Ana.

The title story, which centers on an unexpected inheritance is the funniest story in the collection. The humor is not entirely dark, as, for instance that in “White Mustache” is. It recalls brothers who were swept up (drafted) by opposing forces during WWII, the fascist Utashas who outdid the Nazis in atrocities, and the anti-fascist partisans (chetniks). Both militias forced young men into their ranks (as later, in El Salvador). Let’s say that the narrator learns why his elderly relatives believe in ghosts…

“Be Patient” in which a child is overdosed with experimental (American) measles vaccine and gets her wish to adopt a dog only posthumously. “Dutch Treat” is an example of the maxim “No good deed goes unpunished,” when a Dutchman named Martin who had been among the UN “peacekeepers” unknowingly aided Serbians (Army of Srpska) to massacre Croatians at Srebrinca in 1995. In New York City he meets a man who remembers him from there and then. His aid gets him in very serious trouble in NYC.

“When the Saints Come” is more typical American short story fare about the dissolution of a marriage, though set mostly in Jerusalem. “Eclipse Near Golgotha” goes back the crucifixion of Christ, focusing on the unrepentant thief crucified beside Jesus. “The Wanderer” grew up in East Jerusalem and passes through Croatia.

“Strings” is a mock-heroic tale of multi-ethnic (Russian, Swiss-French, Croatian) students exterminating a rat. Soccer hooliganism provides a background for some more very dark humor in Ideal Goalie” and the sardonic, surprising “Crossbar,” which also involved grizzly bears given the Zagreb zoo by (Clinton-era) America.

There is a lot of displacement, a lot of wariness, more than a little violence in Novakovich’s stories. Though disdaining any objective history, the characters (OK, especially the Serbian ones) nourish ancient grudges against “Turks,” which they take out on Bosnian Muslims. (Bosnians converted to Islam during Ottoman times, but were not Turks.) This has continued with Albanian Kosovars (the vast majority of the people in Kosovo, though Serbs used to dominating everyone else within the Yugoslavia they claim to perpetuate as one region after another breaks loose).

Though I recommend stopping at page 182, there are alternately horrifying and moving stories before that point. In particular, I think that “Acorns” should have a very wide readership, by no means limited to those interested in what happened in Bosnia, since similar things continue to happen in “civil wars” in various places.

(BTW, after many years teaching in the US, the author of Shopping for a Better Country  moved on to Concordia University in Montréal in 2009.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Milovan Djilas and his Land Without Justice

Milovan Djilas (1911-1997) was a very brave man, who was the first and for a long time the foremost dissident from within a communist system. A committed communist from the eighth grade onward and the #2 official in Yugoslavia as it broke from subservience to the Soviet Union (but not from a local form of Stalinism), Djilas not only spoke truth to power, but spoke the most devastating of truths: that far from communism leading to the withering away of the state and an end of social inequalities it led to state apparatus monitoring and attempting to control every facet of life in communist countries and enriched a “new class” of party bureaucrats.


Djilas hoped that communism would bring a better, juster society. This was a hope that stimulated many to join communist parties. But I can’t think of anyone else who rose to high and proclaimed that the revolution and the communist party in power failed to deliver what he and they had hoped for.

It was certainly not that Djilas failed to understand that power was necessary to accomplish change. Nonetheless, when he was about to become president of Yugoslavia, he published a series of articles critical of how communism was developing in Yugoslavia. He dared to say that power had become an end in-itself (that is, that Stalin, Tito, et al. were more concerned about maintaining their power than in doing anything about the programs they espoused). He was removed from all his official posts. After publishing The New Class abroad (the book in which he examined the privileges of party members and managers who neither owned the means of production or labored) and speaking in support of the revolt against Soviet domination of Hungary in 1956, Djilas was charged with “slandering and writing opinions hostile to the people and the state of Yugoslavia.” He wrote the memoir of his youth in Montenegro, Land Without Justice before a nine-year imprisonment.

That was not his first imprisonment. He has been imprisoned for being a communist 1933-36. Nor was it his last. He was imprisoned again for publishing Conversations with Stalin in 1961 (another four years).

Djilas outlived his former comrade, dictator Josip Tito, and outlived the second Yugoslavia. Already in 1989, Djilas observed:

“Milosevich’s authoritarianism in Serbia is provoking real separation. Remember what Hegel said, that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce. What I mean to say is that when Yugoslavia disintegrates this time around, the outside world will not intervene as it did in 1914… Yugoslavia is the laboratory of all Communism. Its disintegration will foretell the disintegration in the Soviet Union. We are farther along than the Soviets.”

Djilas’s “autobiography of my youth”


I read Land Without Justice not out of respect for Djilas as a prophet, nor even out of interest in how someone who knew about the ruthlessness of communist dictators (including direct observation of Stalin) could dare to say that the new communist emperors had not clothes, but as part of my recent attempts to understand the savagery during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Montenegro was the last to split off from Serbia, which still called itself “Yugoslavia,” that is, the union of southern Slavs. In language and religion and stubbornness, Montenegrians are Serbian.)

The first third of the book details the inter-ethnic (and inter-clan) violence in Montenegro at the time of Djilas’s birth. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 in which the Kingdom of Montenegro expanded, expelling Ottoman rulers and slaughtering Muslims,. were followed by World War I in which Montenegro, allied with Serbia was decisively defeated by the (Austro-Hungarian) Hapsburg army in 1916. Djilas describes the often grisly murders of Muslims before and after the First World War, and the picking off and dismemberment of stragglers from the Austrian retreat in 1918.

Djilas was only five when the Austrian army passed through triumphant and only seven when it retreated, and much of what Djilas describes he could not have understood at the time, I frequently told myself. Yet, there are very clear memories of what he himself saw, too. And there is a continuity in the savagery that continued with guerrilla rebels against the postwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and, after the Croatian leader was assassinated in Parliament, the Serbian dictatorship that called itself the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Djilas himself was a leader of partisan forces in Montenegro opposed to the fascist puppet Montenegro during the Second World War, which is beyond what is covered in the memoir of his youth. He wrote about his WWII experience and his rise and fall as a comrade of Tito in other books, as well as his analyses of the new class.

Djilas was a great storyteller, and Land Without Justice is filled with the stories of others, including his violent family members, teachers, fellow students. The book is not impersonal — it does include accounts of what the young Djilas felt — but the first two parts seem more ethnographic (an observant participant) than autobiographical. The young Djilas is more an agent in the final third, after he has left his native village to board in town and go to school.

I think that one could substitute the name of other Balkan peoples in their own areas in Djilas’s lament that “everywhere on the roads wherever we went, there was sorrow—tombstones and graces, murder and misfortune, one after another. The murder of enemies was forgotten, but our own Montenegrin losses, especially if caused by a brother’s hand, remained fresh i memory. One no sooner passed a mound or put it out of mind than another waited around the bend. Every stopping place had a grave.” The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo required regarding all Muslims (however Slavic their ancestry) as “Turks,” killing them and dispossessing them, though much of the violence as between those not only of the same language and same faith, but same name.

“So it has always been here,” Djilas wrote.

“One fights to achieve sacred dreams and plunders and lays waste along the way — to live in misery, in pain and death…. The naked and hungry mountaineers could not keep from looting their neighbors, while yearning and dying for ancient glories. Here, war was survival, a way of life, and death in battle the loveliest dream and highest duty….. This land was never one to reward virtue, but it has always been strong on taking revenge and punishing evil. revenge is its greatest delight and glory…. Vengeance is a breath of life one shared from the cradle with one’s fellow clansmen, in both good fortune and bad, vengeance from eternity. Vengeance was the debt we paid for the love and sacrifice our forebears and fellow clansmen bore for us. It was the defense of our honor and good name, and the guarantee of our maidens. It was our pride before others.”

Individual and family honor had to be maintained by spilling of fresh blood — including that of many Djilas’s relatives, including his father (veteran of the Balkan Wars).

Zla_Kolata. by Pavoukjpeg.jpeg

(Zla Kolata, Montenegro’s highest peak photographed  by Pavoukjpeg)

The first part of the book chronicles many of those. I was struck in the last part that almost everyone Djilas mentioned — his teachers and classmates — had been killed during World War II or its immediate aftermath, and hardly any of them by foreigners (a substantial number killed by communist partisans and some “disappeared” for opposing Tito’s break from subservience to Stalin).

Early on, Djilas also describes how looting was irresistible, even to those who tried to dissuade others. In the mid-1950s, Djilas was not writing to explain the atrocities of the 1990s in Bosnia (and elsewhere in what had been Yugoslavia). Djilas considered himself a Yugoslavian, though he foresaw that after Tito (and, especially, with Milosovich’s dictatorship) violent fission would occur. Djilas was writing about days of Montenegrian independence and the first Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, though reading his memoir now, it seems that what he was writing relates only too well to the 1990s.

For me (someone more interested in the culture and history of the Balkans than most North Americans not of Slavic descent), Djilas’s memoir is too long with too many stories of too many individuals (particularly in the second part of the book). I’d have liked more about him. And I’d have liked some explication of what “communism” meant to him as a child and youth, especially since he describes a rural society without industry, and, therefore without a proletariat. One of the paradoxes of 20th-century history is that communist revolutions succeeded (that is, seized state power) only in societies that were predominantly peasant, not those with numerous industrial workers. And Montenegro was a clan-based peasant backwater even in comparison to other places where communists took power…

Also, I found some of the generalizations with which he closed each chapter rather too oracular. For instance, I am not sure what he meant when he wrote “Awareness and perseverance are not enough to help one resist and survive if the times in which one lives are contrary to those that are ahead. A man can fight anything except his own times.” Aside from its Hegelian cast, it seems to me that Djilas fought his own times (though not winning, I guess).

©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


The Great Croatian Novel: simultaneousoly slapstick and tragedy

Josip Novakovich’s novel April Fool’s Day does for the violent breakup of Yugoslavia what The Tin Drum and Catch-22 did for the Second World War and The Good Soldier Schweik for the first one — that is, show some of the absurdities of catacylsmic carnage — and duplicitous officialdom. Novakovich’s protagonist Ivan Dolinar was born on the first of April 1948 to a Croatian family in Nizograd, Yugoslavia at the time of Tito’s break from control from Stalinism (which, decidedly, did not mean a break from a Stalinist system that sought to crush civil society in any guise, including nationalism and religion).


Not having made it to America (as Novakovich did at the age of 20), Ivan could not avoid being drafted into the (Serbian-controlled) Yugoslav Federal army as communism was being swept away and ethnic mobilizations were producing something akin to the US war against secession (in the Serbian view) and a series of wars of independence (with vastly more rape and murder of civilians than the US one). Ivan has the misfortune to be dragooned not only into the remnants of the pan-national Yugoslav army, but, successively, into Croatian and Serbian militias. He is nearly shot by Croats and by Serbs. In this he recapitulates his father’s experience with the shifting tides of WWII (his father ”changed armies several times and joined the winning side too late,” and returned home with an arm and a leg in a potato sack… and proceeded to drink himself to death in the grand Slavic manner).

Attending medical school in Novi Sad, Serbia (as Novakovich did), he gets into serious trouble as a result of a joke by his (Bosnian Muslim) room-mate. Rather than being executed for sedition, they are sent to a labor camp. There, Ivan has a hallucinatory encounter not only with Marshall Tito (who gives him a cigar) by with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who gives him a fan). This section, in which what happens is no more or less absurd than at other times in Ivan’s life of potentially lethal misunderstandings, is my favorite, though I guess that the aborted execution as a traitor by the Croatians is even more absurd. And the death march is even more sinister. And… Job never had it so hard!

Job never endured either medical school or graduate school in philosophy, either. Ivan was almost through medical school when his studies were interrupted. After his incarceration, he was not allowed to re-enroll in medical school. He was only fit for philosophy (before becoming cannon fodder). And about how he came to marry Selma, the woman he loved in graduate school, don’t ask! You have to read it for yourself.

Vukovar shelled.jpg

(Vukovar, Croatia, author’s 2017 photo)

The very harrowing trajectory through the “ethnic cleansings” is rendered in exquisitely rendered English evocations of sights and sounds and smells. Ivan ends up a living ghost after being buried alive. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovering how that comes about, but the physician who pronounced him dead and promptly bedded the widow is a part of the remarkable novel that does not involve emerging or collapsing nation states. In temporal range (though not in number of pages!), April Fool’s Day is more like The Tin Drum than like the company my first paragraph put it in (or recognized that it belonged, as you prefer).

Novakovich is an astonishing writer (and not just in writing so powerfully in non-native English). In the essays collected in Plum Brandy he frequently wrote of searching for material. He found plenty in the internecine nationalist conflicts of the 1990s in the country of his birth, and put them into a harrowingly dark farce of survival against very long odds. What happens is sometimes slapstick and sometimes tragedy—often at the same time—and the voice of the dismayed narrator sustains the comparison to The Tin Drum I’ve made. His tale grabbed me and did not let me go — even after I’d read the last page.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


An Expat Croatian Looking Back

Having first read two books by Slavenka Drakulic[h], the second author on my journey of exploration of contemporary authors from the former Yugoslavia is Josip Novakovich (born in Daruvar in 1956). The reading list we received recommended his novel April Fool’s Day, but I started with his collection of essays Plum Brandy: Croatian Journeys (2003).


Novakovich emigrated from what was then the Croatian part of Yugoslavia to the United States at the age of twenty. He had studied medicine in Novi Sad (on the Danube in northern Serbia, its second largest Serbian city), studied theology at Yale and literature at the University of Texas. He started writing stories out of nostalgia for his homeland, and made regular visits there through the paroxysms of the breakup of Yugoslavia and independence that was less than utopian, thought about repatriating, and (as elaborated in some of the essays in Plum Brandy) concluded that just as he was a Croatian in America, despite being a native speaker of Croatian (which used to be distinct from Serbian primarily in orthography, but is diverging), he is regarded as an alien (in particular a rich American) in Croatia. (He feels that he cannot go home again to the communist, Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in which he grew up.)

The book only has 165 pages of text, split among three main parts. After an insightful introduction, “On Visiting Your Homeland,’ and a Prologue (about the owner of a Cleveland bookstore selling Croatian, Hungarian, and Slovenian books in a neighborhood in which the audience for such books was dying off, while their children dispersed to the suburbs and beyond), and before an Epilogue (on his son’s interest in the World Trade Center before and after 9/11), there are three main parts.

The first, titled “Sawdust Memories” contains six essays recounting and analyzing memories of his youth in Daruvar. The sawdust is salient, because his father made wooden clogs. Sawdust was a ubiquitous byproduct. There is also a meditation on wood, an exploration of the fascination of chess-playing in a place where politics was dangerous (so that fascination with strategy with sublimated) and a squib on bread. For me, the two outstanding essays from this section are “Grandmother’s Tongue” and “Our Secret Places.” Both relate vividly described particulars of his experience to more general insights into the Yugoslavia of his youth.

Novakovich’s family was Baptist, which not only made him stand out as suspect to the official atheism but as different (which for children always means “deviant”) from most Croatians (who are Roman Catholics). Like Slavenka Drakulic, Novakovich recalls finding a lack of privacy particularly onerous:

“Our ideologues regarded privacy as a bourgeois disease; everything was public…. Privacy was a disease (for Socialists) and sin and illusion (for Baptists)…. Precisely because both groups exerted or attempted to exert such total control over me, I desperately wanted some place to hide. But before I could worry about space, I had to worry about time.”

Since his father died when Josip was eleven, he doesn’t remember what his father sounded like. He describes his mother’s language as Sloveno-Croatian and regrets not listening more closely to his grandmother (now that as an adult writer, he is looking for stories to tell) or to his mother (who wanted to tell him about her experiences during the Second World War).

Given that both in the US and at “home,” males die younger than females, he concludes that language transmission is matrilineal, and is skeptical of any “pure” Croatian language:

I don’t even know what Croatian is, since it’s been changing under political pressures. It was always politicized: first it had to conform to Germanization and Magyrization, then to Yugoslavization (with Serb syntax and vocabulary), and now under the new nationalist government it’s been ‘ethnically cleansed’ to some archaic form (an invented “tradition”).

For me (and not, I think, just because I am looking ahead to embarking on a journey to the Croatian coast), the second set of essays, grouped as “Croatian Journal” are the most interesting and accomplished of the three parts (with the last being the least). The five essays are chronological (with dates of composition included—as they should be for the essays in the other two parts, too), but in no sense a continuous journal. They reflect on a series of visits during the attempt (greenlighted by the first Bush administration, and its Secretary of State, James Baker) by the Serb-dominant Yugoslavia to force the rebellious parts to be kept together. (Of course, I realize that the US fought a bloody war to prevent secession, not that I think it was a good idea…)

There are vignettes about casualties of the war (which, at least psychologically, everyone in the former Yugoslavia is, though the “ethnic cleansing” and most other atrocities were primarily Serbian—according to Novakovich’s accounts). Like Drakulic, Novakovich writes with personal pain about the inability of friendships between Serbs and Croats to survive the nationalist demand for loyalty to “blood” (ethnic ancestry).

I don’t know why “Letter from Croatia” (ca. 2000) is not in the middle section. It is the most sustained attempt to portray what post-civil war, post-Tudjman Croatia was like for someone used to living in America (who shared the local mother tongue).


A New York Times travel section piece on Hvar (pictured by me above) seems superficial in ways that focusing on specifics (like sawdust and bread are not). A two-page essay on why Croatians are not fat manages to say some things. I guess the story of not catching a train does, too, and appreciate the points of the story of finding the grave of a grandmother in Cleveland more in retrospect than I did while reading them.

I think there are some weak (low in insight) pieces and some repetitions, but overall, I found Plum Brandy not only interesting in showing me some Croatian and Croatian-American experiences, but in the general question of the gains and losses of migration and traditions in the world of many diasporas (that some call “globalized”), analogous to Richard Teleky’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Reflections on the Pathogens of Dehumanizing “Others”

Ever since the astonishingly inept US occupation of Iraq began, I have taken a special interest in books and movies about previous occupations and civil wars. I do not equate what the US has been doing in Iraq with the Nazi occupations of much of Europe, though I think that resentment of occupation by those regarded as “infidels” (believed to be inferior) is felt as more of an outrage (against the divine order) even than alien occupation is. And I think that there is great skepticism about the announced aims of any alien occupation.

I want to discuss a 1967 movie, “The 25th Hour” (directed by Henri Verneuil, based on a novel by Romanian C. Virgil Gheorghiu [1916-1992]) and a 1993 book, The Balkan Express by Slavenka Drakulic. Both are protests at being reduced to ethnic enmity and describe some lethal absurdities of such reductions. (What I’m writing does not hesitate about “plot-spoilers.”)

“The 25th Hour” (not the more recent Spike Lee movie with the same title) shows one earthy Romanian farmer, Johann Moritz (played by Anthony Quinn), who is recurrently reclassified and is penned up with the sheep and with the goats in puzzling-to-him succession. A local police sergeant (Jan Werich) covets Johann’s faithful wife, Suzanna (Virna Lisi) and when Jews of the region are rounded up and shipped off to dig a canal as a defense against possible Soviet invasion, the sergeant takes the opportunity to clear the field.


Johann does not consider the injustice of Jews being forced into labor camps (Romanian ones, this is two years before the Nazis took over Romania), only that he has been unjustly classified as a Jew. He knows that he is a Christian, but whether he is circumcised or not is not obvious. No one wants to commit himself that a mistake has been made.

Johann “escapes” with some other inmates, who have bought his way out in part because he has saved them by doing extra work. This “escape” (which involved being driven to Hungary by the camp commander) confirms that no mistake was made. The local priest and Suzanna have been trying to get Johann reclassified and returned, and since Jews can’t own land in the Iron Guard Romania, she has had to divorce him (while still refusing the slimy advances of the policeman).

Because he is a Christian, Jewish relief organizations won’t help Johann get out of Hungary. Soon, he is captured and tortured under the belief that he is a Romanian agent sent (with Russian gold left by his labor camp buddy) to spy on Hungary.

Next, he is sent to Nazi Germany as a “volunteer” worker—in a company including non-Magyars rounded up by Hungarian authorities in place of sending Magyars. The “volunteers” even have to stop and pick flowers to decorate the train that is taking them to a labor camp. (Is it necessary to provide a reminder that not all concentration camps are death camps—even if mortality rates are high in non-death camp concentration camps?)

Johann is fatalistic and works hard, though again maintaining that he isn’t one of the kind (this time, Hungarians), but is Romanian. An SS captain with particular commitment to Aryan race doctrine overhears one of these denials, and sees Johann as a model Aryan—so model an Aryan that he puts him in an SS uniform, lectures other officers about the original (unblond) Aryan type and Johann’s picture in SS uniform is widely circulated.

The temporary respite of being a guard rather than a prisoner comes with a high future cost. Johann springs a truckload of his “Hungarian” mates, shooting three Germans. Those he has helped tell the Americans that he saved them and is not a Nazi, but there are all those propaganda photos, and Johann is held for 17 months in the very same camp he was in (first as a prisoner, then as a guard) now run by the conquering US Army. The intellectual/novelist from back home (the character closest to that of author Gheorghiu) commits suicide, and then Johann is put on trial for involvement in genocide (despite having spent a year and a half as a Jew in a labor camp, and done as much as he could to help the inmates in the German labor camp).

There are a few more twists that I won’t reveal. I have to say that the casting of Anthony Quinn was particularly apt, since he was the actor for whatever ethnicity was needed in Hollywood of the 1960s. He sometimes played his own ethnicity (Viva Zapata, The Children of Sanchez”), but is best remembered for being “Zorba the Greek,” (and also played Aristotle Onassis and a Greek in “The Guns of Navarrone”) and also played Arabs (Lawrence of Arabia, Lion of the Desert), Russians (Shoes of the Fisherman), Italians (La Strada, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Stradivari), Jews (Caiaphas in “Jesus of Nazareth”) Spaniards (Behold a Pale Horse, A High Wind in Jamaica), a Basque (The Passage), and Kublai Khan (Marco Polo).

Asked if he knows why he is on trial by the Allied court after World War II, Johann says that he does not know why he has been anywhere that he has been placed during the previous eight years (and he has missed the Soviet occupation and partisan reprisals back home in Romania, to which he cannot safely return). It is not just that his individuality has been reduced to an ethnic type, but he has been through a dizzying succession of ethnic typifications involving forced labor because he is what he knows he is not (though after the inconclusive circumcision examination he begins to wonder if the authorities were right and previously unknown to him he was a Jew).


The way classifying Johann as an instance of “the enemy” by the opportunist Romanian policeman particularly interests me and provides an obvious link to some of what Slavenka Drakulic wrote about, especially the example a young woman who saw a chance to get an apartment (a very scarce commodity in Zagreb) that had belonged to a woman who had become a pariah for expressing disquiet about the demonization in both directions of Serbs and Croats (“The Woman Who Stole an Apartment”). Property of Jews in German and Nazi-occupied Europe was similarly annexed—as was the property of Japanese Americans on the west coast of the US and Canada when they were incarcerated in concentration camps as enemy aliens (citizenship being trumped by race/ethnicity). Joseph Losey’s film “Monsieur Klein” flashes to my mind for showing a profiteer who is surprised to find himself consigned to the kind (Jews) from whom he had been profiting in Nazi-occupied Paris.

The cosmopolitan Drakulic had a better education and a far more cosmopolitan outlook than Johann, Suzanna, or M. Klein. She was surprised by the collapse of communism in Europe (in general and Yugoslavia in particular), though How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, her brilliant collection of essays on the frustrations of everyday life for women in the Soviet Empire (and in Yugoslavia, the Stalinist state that allowed its citizens to visit noncommunist countries and shop in them) shows the basic failures to provide for the dignity and well-being of the people, women in particular. Already in that book, she stressed that although what seemed permanent structures of oppression melted, the attitudes of indifference to what the state did persisted. Civil society was not brought into instant or automatic existence by the fall of communism. The young generation (that of Drakulic’s daughter) had no engagement in civil society or politics (“a refusal to discuss or understand politics [w]as a form of rebellion against the then apparently immutable communist regime”).

The breakdown of the communist system did not end the rule of autocrats in general, and the increasingly Serbianist Slodoban Milosovich in command of the Yugoslavian army and state apparatus in particular.

Drakulic was appalled by the attacks attempting to prevent the secession of Slovenia, though soon the fratricide was Serbian/Croatian, and Slovenia was a place of refuge (to which she fled for a time).

Her essays chronicle the gradual realization of war impinging on and eventually eclipsing concerns about private lives, loves, careers, possessions—and homes and loved ones. She resisted stockpiling salt, which those who had survived World War II told her was important to stockpile, not just for use but for sale. (How many of us who have lived our whole lives in North America have ever had to think of such things?)

In “On Becoming a Refugee,” she recalled

“For a long time I had refused to leave my home, even to consider such a possibility. For months and months, I could hear the noise of war coming closer and closer, but nonetheless I still chose to ignore it. I know these symptoms of denial by heart now: first you don’t believe it, then you don’t understand why, then you think it is still far away, then you see war all around you but refuse to recognize it and connect it with your own life [but] in the end it grabs you by the throat… wait[ing] for something to happen, to hit you at last. You learn to breathe in death, death becomes your every second word, your dreams are impregnated by dismembered bodies, you even begin to picture your own death.”

Some of this is a pattern that is familiar from accounts of soldiers thrust into insurgencies (US memoirs of Vietnam, for instance), but in Croatia during the early 1990s, as in Iraq in recent years, this malaise extends to the “civilian” population, not just to those in militaries.

In the US, we are led to believe that the enmities between Serbs and Croats, between Sunni and Shi’ite are eternal. The communist Yugoslavia oppressed ethnic, national, and religious belief, just as the secular Baathist state of Saddam Hussein did. Tito was Croatian by birth and there were Croatians fighting alongside Serbs against the Nazis. In the war against Iran that (with US support—see the famed photo of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein), Shi’ite Iraqi (Arabs) fought against Shi’ite Iranians (Persians). If the most profound difference in the region was Sunni/Shi’a, the Shi’ites from southern Iraq would have joined their Iranian coreligionists. This did not happen.

Baghdad and Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo were multiethnic cities in which ethnic/religious differences did not lead to slaughtering each other.

Drakulic, the daughter of a former partisan who became an officer in the Yugoslavian army (and a communist party member) married a man of Serbian ancestry, so that when sides were arrayed, their daughter had to choose between her father’s and her mother’s “kind,” a kind that they had not felt themselves to be—being Yugoslavians.

“I was aware that he was from a Serbian family while I was from a Croatian one, but it didn’t mean anything to me, one way or the other. World War II was long over when the two of us were born and throughout my life it seemed to me that everyone was trying to escape its shadow, to forget and just live their lives.”

Draklulic’s father told her (when she had been playing with his pistol) that “war was the most horrible thing a human being can experience, and that we, his children, didn’t need to know what it looked like…. The brutal disruption of the tender fabric of his life, this is what he regretted deeply, the way a war snaps your life in half yet you have to go on living as if you are still a whole person. But, as I learned from his example [before having her own experience], you are not—and never will be—a whole person again.”

In 1991, a friend of hers wrote (and was excoriated for writing): “We are never going to get out of this nationalist discourse, Croatian or Serbian alike. We’ll never be able to build our future on that, we’ll be thrown back perpetually into the past, far back into the past.”

“In the new state of Croatia, no one is allowed not to be a Croat,” Drakulic wrote in “Overcome by Nationhood.” Though deeply distraught about it, “being Croat has become my destiny…. I am nobody because I am not a person any more. I am one of 4.5 million Croats. I regret that awareness of my nationhood came to me in the form of punishment of the nation I belong to, in the forth of death, destruction, suffering and—worst—fear of dying. I feel as an orphan does, the war having robbed me of the only real possession I had acquired in my life, my individuality. But I am no longer in a position to choose.”

Drakulic has the analytic ability and vocabulary to address (and protest) the reduction to one of a particular kind that has befallen her. Johann in “The 25th Hour” lacked these and had experiences of being cast in a succession of enemy “other” identities (that he didn’t understand).

Neither the movie nor Drakulic’s collection of essays or I provide solutions for how to avoid the virulent infections and reinfections of dehumanizing others, but all (I hope) provide experiences to think about.

And “bringing it on home,” from a recent New York Review article by Marilynne Robinson:

“Nativism is always aligned with an impulse or strategy to shape the culture with which it claims to have privileged intimacy. It is urgently intent on identifying enemies and confronting them, and it is hostile to the point of loathing toward aspets of the society that are taken to show their influence. In other words, these lovers of country, these patriots, are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love, and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate. Neither do they feel any need to answer the objections of those who see their shaping and their disciplining as mutilation.”


(Except for the last paragraph, this was first published in 2007 on Associated Content, a site bought and destroyed by the cretins who run Yahoo. ©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



Surviving Yugoslav communism

Before going to former-Yugoslave republis,, I followed recommendations to obtain three books by Slavenka Drakulic. All three are essay collections. The pieces in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed were written before and just after the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the fission of Yugoslavia into fratricidal ethnic conflict. (The following volume is about living through civil war, and the one after that examines war criminals “who wouldn’t hurt a fly” but…).


Drakulic wrote about the everyday difficulties women had under communist regimes geared to increasing heavy industry and totally unconcerned about what women wanted—beginning with sanitary napkins and washing machines, continuing through foodstuffs and dolls. Drakulic was a founder of the first feminist group in Croatia (while it was a part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia) and wrote for Ms. and The Nation. She is not a “post-feminist.” Nor does she have the kind of nostalgia for the products that were available during the communist era of “Goodbye, Lenin.” Indeed, despite some gallows humor, the second clause of the title—”and even laughed”—is not really delivered upon.

It is the relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily living, this view from below that interested [Drakulic] most. And who should I find down there, most removed from the seats of political power, but women. The biggest burden of everyday life was carried by them.” The bottom line on the communist “experiment” for Drakulic is that “deep down nobody believed in a system that was continuously unable to provide for its citizens’ basic needs for forty years or more.”

Communist regimes, across eastern Europe, “pushed the concept of a classless society further and further into the future—so far that nobody could perceive it or truly believe it.” A few privileged officials had access to consumer goods, while most made do with what was available. For instance, when the only hair dye that was available was red, half the women in Yugoslavia suddenly had red hair. I can remember the queue for chocolate ice cream in Prague (not 31 flavors to choose from, or even two as in “Strawberry and Chocolate,” but one—with a half hour standing in line to get that). Expectations were kept low.

The chronic shortages and queues for what was made available were onerous, but having no private space (never mind a room of one’s own to write—an apartment for the nuclear family was a boon Drakulic and her friends longed for (“The strange ability of apartments to divide and multiply”).

Drakulic is very aware that the system’s strictures were internalized. In writing about “a chat with my censor,” she realizes that what he said mattered far less than the self-interrogation in advance, wondering what she had done “wrong,” and the ongoing self-censorship to avoid trouble. (“The guilt I’m talking about is not a question of facts but of their interpretation”—and each individual had to consider what the most dangerous interpretations might be.)

Although communism was a god that failed, “the reality is that communism persists in the way people behave, the looks on their faces, in the way they think” (or fear to think!), Drakulic wrote in mid-1991. “In a way things were easier in pre-[Velvet-]revolutionary Eastern Europe. We had only to enter the tunnel, blame everything—all our private, as well as public, woes—on the party…. Somehow we slowly realized that we had to create our own promised land, that from now on we would be responsible for our own lives, and that there would no longer be any convenient excuses with which to ease our troubled consciences…. We have survived communism, but we have not yet outlived it.”


(confluence of Sava and Danube i Belgrade, New Belgrade in distance)

I think that this remains true, while for Croats (and, even more, for Bosnians), what lay ahead was very grim—being defined by ethnicity and civil war. That’s in the next book (not in the epinions database).

The essays are not integrated, but do not repeat details. Each reaches through low-level (everyday, undramatic) getting by to showing why communism did not work and how those living under the shield of ideology coped with little or no notion that things might be different (“You are trained in this part of the world not to believe that change is possible,. You are trained to fear change, so that when change eventually beings to take place, you are suspicious, afraid, because every change you ever experienced was always change for the worse”—so that “much as I desired the collapse of the old system” it was a frightening experience to have “the world I had thought of as permanent, stable, and secure was suddenly falling apart around me.”


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

The ordinariness of war criminals

I wonder if the cosmopolitan Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic[h] is heeded in the former Yugoslavia. What she writes in the three collections of conversational essays about the disastrous emergence of new countries from the wreckage of decades of communist despotism seems very acute to me. In Cafe Europa she asserted that to grow up from the dependency mentality inculcated by Tito’s state (and other Stalinist states), the peoples of Eastern Europe must learn to stop treating history as ”a washing machine” in which historical guilt can be laundered and absolved. ”We are falsifying the past, just as the Communists did when they came to power,” she decried.


(Mirko Savković’s portrait of Drakuli)

Responsibility for the atrocities committed by every side in the fission of Yugoslavia fought by the heretofore dominant Serbs (whose sense of entitlement seems to me not unlike that of Sunnis in Iraq) has been taken by practically no one. An exception who particularly surprises Drakulic is the biologist who became the third-highest-rank official in the Republic of Srpska (a particularly murderous Serbian regime north of Bosnia), Biljana Plavsich.

There are also chapters on the Yugoslavian/Serbian president Slodoban Milosovich and his pretentious, beribboned wife Mira, the Serbian (who fled to Russia and avoided trial in the Hague) who was an academic sociologist, and on the fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladich, but most of the chapters in They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague are reports from the trials for torture and slaughter of those of lower rank, not the ideologists like Biljana Plavsich and Mira Milosovich (or John Woo and Dick Cheney—and Donald Trump’s endorsement of waterboarding and harsher interrogation measures).

How could apparently sane and even quite ordinary people do what they did? The question raised by Nazi functionaries re-emerged in what the Serbs regarded as a war against secession (a definition of the situation explicitly encouraged by the first President Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker) and nationalists of other sorts (than Serbian) regarded as wars for independence (like the American Revolution, rather than the American Civil War). As in stories told by the other cosmopolitan Croatian writer I’ve been reading, Josip Novakovich, the horror is not just the viciousness of the atrocities, but that people who had been living in harmony under the yoke of universalism-proclaiming communism turned on each others with such excesses.

The mass murderers are not psychopaths, but are chillingly able to dissociate what they do from who they are. The “banality of evil” was the theme of Hannah Arendt ‘s Eichman in Jerusalem and Drakulic’s book takes its title from on of the Essays in Understanding that Arendt wrote earlier. :

“When his occupation ‘forces’ him to murder people, he does not regard himself as a murderer, because he has not done it out of inclination, but in his ‘professional’ capacity: out of sheer passion he would never do harm to a fly.” (I have repunctuated Arendt, who did not put “forces” or “professional” in quotes—the “forces” is the view of the torturers/murderers)

That systematic mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women was “no big deal” was the view of the (Serbian) perpetrators, as Drakulic elaborates in her bitterly jocular chapter “Boys Just Had Fun.”

Drakulic begins with crimes committed by Croatians, including the murder of one man who testified about atrocities and stayed in Croatia. He was murdered and his murderer acquitted. The chapter that has the same title as the book is about a Serb who murdered hundreds of prisoners.

Drakulic is very clear that Croatians and others in the former Yugoslavia want to erase the record of what they did to each other, while nursing grievances from the 1940s (and, in the case of Serbs, from the defeat by Turks in 1448). “Why write about the [civil] war?” is a question both Novakovich and Drakulic report being asked frequently. Her answer is that “more than a decade after the beginning of the war in the Balkans, it is essential that we understand that it is we, ordinary people and not some madmen, who made it possible. We were the ones who one day stopped greeting our neighbors of a different nationality, an act that the next day made possible the opening of concentration camps. We did it too one another”—and continues with her leitmotif (across many books) of the lingering collective irresponsibility of Croatians and others who grew up in communist dictatorships. The people of Croatia elected Franjo Tudjman twice, the people of Serbia twice elected Slodoban Milosovich, and she asks, “If Germans were responsible for supporting Hitler [who was not elected by the majority in a free election], why should not Serbs be responsible for supporting Milosovich and Croats for supporting Tudjman? Neither of them could have survived in power without the support of the people.” Moreover, denying that the people who re-elected Tudjman and Milosovich “didn’t know” (as many Germans claimed in regard to Nazi death camps) is impossible (not merely straining plausibility as in the Nazi case):


(Milosovich in 1995)

In voting for Milosovich or Tudjman people voted for the politics of ethnic cleansing. Could they claim, like the Germans, that they did not know? Both Croatia and Serbia are too small to use that as an argument. In the five years of war, too many people were directly involved in the ethnic cleansing [if only in appropriate property from neighbors who had fled or been otherwise eliminated] to be able to seriously claim that they did not know. They did know, and they went along with it, or at least they did not care about it…. it is necessary to learn that you had a choice—and that you made the wrong one….The trials of war criminals are important not only because of those killed. They are important also because of the living. In the end, what matters in regard to war criminals and why we should bother to take a closer look at them is one single important question: what would I do in their situation?

The book has a macabre epilogue in which the prisoners who are there for organizing the slaughter of those of different nationalities, get along fine, cook for each other, eat together, talk to each other, etc..

I wish that the question about what any of us would do within a war in which combatants don’t wear uniforms was without relevance here and now, only a historical curiosity, but “civil wars” are raging in multiple locations at present, including some in which US soldiers in uniform and mercenaries (Blackwell) are involved…


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray