Friday, May 9, 2008

Thoughts About Serbs

David Binder, Liberty No 1773 - Vol. XLIX - July 10, 2000

I have been thinking about Serbs for almost six decades - not every day, to be sure - but more and more in the last 30 years.

The first time I became aware of the people called Serbs was in 1942. Here in Illinois. I was 11 years old and I was already passionately interested in the course of World War II. My father was the foreign editor of The Chicago Daily News and his whole activity was devoted to the war. My brother had enlisted in the Army Air Force and my sister was soon to join the Navy.

One day in the corner drugstore I picked up a comic book called War Comics and the main story in it was about the Chetniks of Draza Mihajlovic fighting the Nazis in Serbia and their bravery and self-sacrifice in battling the better armed Germans. I was dazzled. There was Col. Mihajlovic with his beard and wire-rimmed glasses. Here were people inside occupied Europe who dared for the first time to resist the mighty war machine of Hitler... not in France, not in Poland, not in Czechoslovakia, not in Holland, not in Scandinavia, but in Yugoslavia, in the Balkans. I talked with my father about those brave Serbs. Later in the war I read a bit about Tito and his Yugoslav Partisans. But it was Draza's Serbs who remained most vivid in my memory.

My oldest friend in Yugoslavia, Aleksandar Nenadovic, the editor of Politika when it was still an estimable paper, once said to me: "In Yugoslavia you can do many things against the Serbs, but in the Balkans, you cannot do anything without the Serbs." This aphorism rang true to me then. It rings true to me today and it will always ring true, because of how many Serbs there are, because of where they are, and because of who they are.

Shortly after that I was in Belgrade again and on a Saturday I knocked on a door on the second floor at No. 8 Ulica Palmoticeva. Milovan Djilas invited me in. He was meeting the author Dobrica Cosic and the poet Matija Beckovic, as he did every Saturday evening for political discussions." I had barely sat down when Cosic and Beckovic indignantly challenged me: "Why don't you Americans tell the world how we Serbs are being persecuted, how we are being repressed by the Croats, by the Albanians?" I was taken aback and after reflection I responded. "Look. For 40 years you have been telling us you were Yugoslavs. We learned to deal with that. Now, all of a sudden, you tell us you are Serbs. That is very confusing for Americans and maybe for other peoples." Djilas smiled across the room at Beckovic and Cosic. "Binder is right," he said.

I believe this confusion has deep historical antecedents. If we go back to 1883, everything was relatively simple. The United states and the Kingdom of Serbia signed a commercial treaty and thus began diplomatic relations - the first with any Balkan nation. The two peoples became allies in World War I and President Wilson frequently expressed his admiration for the Serbs. But there was a catch, a tempting trap. In the name of self-determination, Wilson promised the creation of something called Yugoslavia, with the valiant Serbs in the lead in the person of their king.

Why think about Serbs? Or anybody else in the South Slav space? After all, the Balkans never was central to the national interests of the United States. However, the peculiar evolution of the collapse of Yugoslavia and the increasing involvement of Americans by way of NATO in the present and future of far off Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians has created in this new world of virtual realities what I would call a virtual essentialness of Serbia: the country we love to hate, for the moment, and which we cannot begin to understand, because we are unwilling to try.

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