Serbia’s Quest for a Usable Past

Tr@nsit Online

In post-Milošević Serbia 19th century ideas and symbols have been revitalized and incorporated into new identity discourses and value systems. These fall into two sets: one that contributes to a process of re-traditionalization and another that underlines modernization and aspects of history linking Serbian society to “modern European traditions”. The 19th century provides a source for both a romantic-traditionalist-nationalist ideology and a modern-“mondialist”-“European” one. The article focuses on the negotiation of national identity as well as on ways in which the legacy of the 19th century is used to posit “Europeanness” in a society in the process of EU accession.

Serbia’s Quest for a Usable PastThe efforts to create a new image of Serbia after the dismissal of the Milošević regime in 2000 are essentially linked to these two ideologies. They are articulated by various social and political subjects which are sometimes sharply opposed. On the one hand, there are the proponents within civil society of the “first” and “second” Serbia, along with “traditionalist” political parties and movements such as the Democratic Party of Serbia or the Serbian Radical Party, Obraz. On the other, there are the pro-European parties such as the Liberal Democratic Party or the Serbian Democratic Party. Often, political parties try to combine both ideological sets, as seen in the common political slogan “Both Kosovo and Europe!”. In such combinations, “Europe” is equated (or reduced) to EU membership and the economic benefits it would bring.

“Reconciliation” between nationalist and European positions is not, however, exclusively motivated by economic arguments. As anthropologist Stef Jansen (2010, p. 35) warns,

In the post-Yugoslav context, contrary to what one may intuitively expect, reconciliation has actually long been a major priority for nationalist elites. Their focus was squarely on the intra-national level. Often aimed at dissolving oppositions between fellow-nationals associated with opposed ideologies in World War II, these efforts effectively amounted to programs of national homogenization that can be understood as attempts to erase antagonism by establishing discursive closure.

In post-2000 Serbia, one can observe the effort both to “reconcile” Serbia with “Europe” after the wars in the 1990s, as well as to “reconcile” different parts of the Serbian population and political elite. The first reconciliation is carried out via discourses of modernization and democratization, traditions stemming from the 19th century. The second reconciliation draws on more recent, 20th century history. The very different, often opposing ideas about national identity in Serbia result not only from internal political constellations, but also from EU-centred discourses and strategies. This explains the unpredictable forms taken by Serbian identity politics, in which very different political, moral and ideological standpoints are “reconciled” and united.

In search of new national symbols: Serbia after 2000

After the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation, which coincided with the end of socialism in Eastern Europe, Slobodan Milošević’s nationalist politics dominated Serbia for another decade. Combining extreme nationalism with elements of socialist ideology and claiming to be protecting the Serbian people while simultaneously saving Yugoslavia, Milošević effectively made it impossible after the “democratic change” in 2000 to use socialist symbols in Serbian identity politics. This may be one reason why the socialist Yugoslav legacy in Serbia is strongly marginalized: its traces have been almost completely eradicated from public spaces, despite the fact that Serbia is considered (and perceives itself) as a successor of Yugoslavia in various political and social domains. The period after 2000 was characterized by intense efforts to establish new symbols, iconography and identity markers. “A state without symbols is like a man without clothing,” said Radoš Ljušić, a historian and Member of the committee for national holidays. “There is no country in the world that does not have its symbols. It is embarrassing for the Serbian people to celebrate two centuries of Serbian statehood with the anthem ‘Hey, Slavs’”. Hej Sloveni was considered inappropriate as a national anthem for at least three reasons, or rather, it was inappropriate for everyone in Serbia for a different reason: it was the Yugoslav, and not specifically the Serbian anthem; it was closely connected to the socialist period; and it was the anthem used during the Milošević regime. Hence the concern after 2000 to introduce a new set of national symbols that included an anthem, national holidays, a flag and a coat of arms. The struggle for independence from Ottoman rule in the 19th century, in the course of which the foundations of the “modern Serbian state” were laid, provides plenty of material for a new symbolism of Serbian statehood. Often referred to as the “golden age of Serbian democracy” (Stojanović 2009), the 19th century has become an important source for the national imagination of post-socialist and post-Milošević Serbia.

Explaining the reasons for taking the legacy of the 19th century as the basis for a new, post-2000 Serbian national identity, Ljušić stressed both the wish of the Serbian political elite to conform to European values (and to become “reconciled” with “Europe”), and a wish to avoid 20th century symbolism. The latter is seen as a problematic and contested part of Serbian history that does not contribute to intra-national reconciliation:

Our idea was not to take anything related to the Middle Ages, since no state in Europe has taken an event from the Middle Ages as its central commemorative day. Mainly it is events from the 19th century that have been chosen. 20th century events were also inappropriate, since they are too contemporary and thus acceptable for one part of population and not for the other. Therefore we […] had to find something from the 19th century. (Quoted after Kovač 2003).

Reconciliation with “Europe”: Giving up the Middle Ages

The leading idea of the committee for national holidays was “to choose a national holiday that will be acceptable for the united Europe” (Kovač 2003). The 15th February was chosen as the Statehood Day of the Republic of Serbia and celebrated for the first time in 2002. The date is related to two events – the beginning of the first Serbian uprising against the Ottomans in Orašac (Serbia) in 1804, and the signing of the first Serbian constitution in 1835 in Kragujevac. The latter date is widely perceived as marking the beginning of a modern, European Serbian state. “The 1835 constitution incorporated legislation from the most developed European states, while some of its parts also referred to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a legacy of the French bourgeois revolution,” wrote a journalist of the newspaper Politika in 2010. In public discourse, the modern, European character of 19th century Serbia is often connected to the post-2000 Serbian state. “The history of the modern Serbian state began in this place,” said then prime minister Zoran Đinđić at the celebration of Statehood Day in Orašac in 2002. “Our ancestors, just like us, wanted the state to be founded on human rights, equality and the protection of private property.” In 2003, the Chair of the Serbian Parliament, Nataša Mićić, stressed that with the constitution adopted 168 years ago the Serbian elite of that time had tried to include Serbia in European developments. One of the most important tasks of the current elite, she added, was to adopt a constitution that would live up to the one of 1835. According to Vojislav Koštunica, then president of the federal state of Serbia and Montenegro, “on this date almost two centuries ago, our ancestors started their path of liberation and Europeanness.” On the same occasion in 2008, then prime minister Mirko Cvetković emphasized that “Serbia today, as in 1804, when its modern statehood was built, must choose the right path and face the dilemmas involved in speeding up its development and coming closer to the developed countries.”

The modernization narrative and the European character of Serbia is regarded to be more in accordance with “European values” than other available sets of symbols from the Serbian national imaginarium. Members of the Serbian elite involved in the creation of new national and state symbols openly “admit” that meeting European expectations has been their main concern, while politicians justify political actions as conducive for Serbia’s accession to the EU, largely characterized by conditionality (cf. Hammond 2006). Referring to Statehood Day, Ljušić said that, “we were able to justify such a choice to Europe, since we did not chose a date that exclusively refers to national military history, but also to statehood and constitutional history” (quoted after Kovač, 2003).

In addition to the favourable image of Serbia presented to “Europe”, practices and discourses relating to Statehood Day are also oriented towards the national situation. Statehood Day is conceptualized in such a way that it provides an opportunity for “reconciliation”: first, it refers to two moments in Serbian history – the beginning of the uprising against the Ottomans and the adoption of the first Serbian Constitution in 1835; additionally, it coincides with the Christian Orthodox holiday of Candlemas (Sretenje). Finally, in 2006, Statehood Day was merged with another important national holiday – the Day of the Serbian Army, commemorating the First Serbian uprising in 1804 which enabled the formation of the modern Serbian state and army. As Ana Hofman notes, the “National Day compiles three important events from the national past, proving the crucial role of the constitution and the army in building the nation. Moreover, Sretenje, a religious holiday celebrated on the same day, emphasizes a symbiotic relationship between religion and nation, perpetuating the historical link between identity and religious affiliation (Wanner 1996, p. 139). The well-known state-nation-people triad was remodelled to one posing constitution-army-church as the main pillars of the modern Serbian state.” (Hofman 2011).

The combination of these two 19th century events represents an act of reconciliation between two opposing concepts of statehood and national identity. The 1804 uprising symbolizes the heroic nature of the Serbian people and their love of liberty, and is part of a broader discourse of resistance to the five-century long “Ottoman-Turkish yoke”. The central figure of the symbolism of 1804 is Karađorđe, the leader of the uprising and the founder of the Karađorđevići dynasty. The adoption of the constitution in 1835, on the other hand, symbolizes the citizen-oriented, modern and parliamentary organization of the Serbian state, with the division of powers and concern for human rights. The central figure in this set of discourses is Miloš Obrenović. Both Karađorđe and Miloš Obrenović serve as metaphors for two (opposed) types of political behaviour – the one belligerent and revolutionary, the other statesmanlike and diplomatic (Antonijević, 2003).

The ambiguous character of the new Serbian Statehood Day and the fact that it entails two opposed sets of political symbols and ideologemes posed certain problems regarding the organization of commemoration in the early 2000s. The first celebration in 2002 gave Radoš Ljušić the impression that “the government feared commemorating the revolutionary aspect of Statehood Day [i.e. the 1804 uprising], and organized only a small celebration in Orašac, afterwards moving to Kragujevac [the city where the 1835 constitution was adopted], where the central celebration was held” (quoted after Kovač 2003).

In the subsequent years, the coexistence of the two sets of narratives and value systems have appeared less problematic: the liberating-revolutionary aspect of Serbian national identity was re-emphasized in 2006, when Statehood Day was merged with the Day of the Serbian Army, and with the independence of Kosovo, proclaimed in 2008. Despite insisting on a symbolism perceived as inappropriate for “Europe”, political discourses of that time were very often framed in relation to “Europeanness”. As in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina several years earlier, the conflict with Kosovo was framed in terms of the “eternal conflict” between Christianity and Islam (Stojanović 2009). The 2008 celebration was held in Orašac, only two days before Kosovo proclaimed its independence. The then Serbian prime minister Vojislav Koštunica drew a parallel between the struggle against the “Turks” in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the First Serbian Uprising in 1804, and the current situation. In Kosovo, Serbia was defending much more than its independence, he stressed. The recognizable patterns of the antemurale Christianitatis were employed in this discourse, the same ones that played an important role in negotiating the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo during the Milošević regime. As Maria Todorova reminds us that the antemurale metaphor is a trope used in various parts of Europe and in different historical periods:

Before America became the new antemurale Christianitatis in the wake of 9/11, this was one of the most important European mental maps which in different periods shifted from one European region or nation to another: Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Croatia, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, the Balkans, Slavdom, Central Europe, etc. have all saved Europe. This was not something confined to journalistic or purely political rhetoric, but has been very much part of the scholarly discourse as well. (Todorova 2005, 76).

Europe is a stable point of reference in the political claims of Serbia’s jurisdiction over Kosovo both in the discourses before and after 2000. For example, in a 1990 text from the magazine Duga, the issue of Kosovo is positioned in a broader, European framework: “The truth about Kosovo and Metohija has not changed much over time, so that even today Muslim fundamentalism, persistently knocking at the door of Kosovo and Metohija, is trying to approach Europe. It is hard to believe that Europe is not aware of this. Even those in Europe who do not hold Serbia close to their hearts know very well that this old Balkan state represents the last barrier to the on-going onslaught and aggression of Islam”(Saric 1990, quoted after Bakić-Hayden 1995, p.926). In 2009, then president Boris Tadić stated that he was “convinced that Kosovo has no future in the European Union as an independent state but only as part of Serbia, a part of our country for which Serbia is responsible.” In his eyes, “Serbia now has perhaps an even greater responsibility than ever to make Kosovo a European region”.

Intra-national reconciliation: Giving up the socialist legacy

Another intra-national reconciliatory aspect observable in practices of commemorating Statehood Day in Serbia after 2000 concerns the attitude towards the recent, socialist past. Socialist symbols and holidays are excluded from these practices because of their perceived contestedness and ideological load. The law regulating national and other holidays in Serbia adopted on 10 July 2001 abolished the previous Statehood Day established by Milošević: this had been held on 28th March, the date Serbia “regained its integrity” by the abolition of the autonomy of the provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The same regulation also abolished the socialist National Day of Serbia celebrated on 7 July (the date of the uprising against fascist occupation), with the comment that “in our history we have more significant days that are also less ideologically burdened” (Hofman 2011).

The exclusion of the socialist and Yugoslav legacy as inappropriate and “not representative” of modern Serbian national identity allows direct continuity to be established between pre-WWII monarchist Serbia and the post-2000 state. “After fifty years of non-freedom in the 20th century, Serbia has returned to itself and to the world and is once more starting from the beginning,” emphasized Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević at the celebration of the Statehood Day on 15 February 2002.

Setting up distance from the socialist past and excluding the socialist legacy from narratives that maintain or recuperate national identities is a common trait throughout post-socialist Europe. The violent disintegration of the Yugoslav federation made these processes even more intense in the Yugoslav successor states. These processes are closely related to historic revisionism and the reinterpretation of events and involvements in WWII, since in post-socialist societies the antifascist legacy cannot be separated from the succeeding decades of socialism. Rejection of the socialist legacy combined with revisionist reinterpretations of the history of WWII have significantly contributed to strengthening nationalism in Eastern Europe. As Dubravka Stojanović shows, anti-communism and the revision of the past were employed in Serbia as tools for nationalism both during and after the Milošević period. It may even be argued that these tendencies increased after 2000 (Stojanović, 2009). In the political discourse, Milošević’s regime is regarded as communist, and consequently the “democratic changes” of 2000 are presented as a victory of the “democratic opposition” over communism. This opposition thus becomes a legitimate carrier of the national idea. “This way,” Stojanović maintains, “the political parties that formed the new government in Serbia [in 2000] could present themselves as the ‘real fighters for the national cause’, which was a new ideological trap for people in Serbia. The new elite kept the people locked in the nationalist interpretation of the present, past and future.” In December 2004, the Serbian Parliament passed a law granting former members of Četnik units the right to state pensions and thus made them legally equal to partisans (the Četniks collaborated with fascist occupiers and fought against partisans). The Serbian government led by the Democratic Party put a great deal of effort into discovering the site where Draža Mihailović, the leader of the Četniks, was buried after his execution by Yugoslav communists in 1945. The rehabilitation of the Četnik movement and its leader has become a priority for many politicians, scholars and cultural workers in the last decade.

Historical revisionism and the neglect of the socialist past are essentially related to an “intra-ethnic reconciliation” and a continuing urge for national homogenization in the former Yugoslav societies since the 1980s. It would be misleading, however, to entirely neglect their relationship to discourses and values emerging in a broader context, in the framework defined by the European Union. In this framework, socialism is regarded as an essentially non-European legacy that hinders Eastern European societies from fully integrating into “democratic Europe”. The socialist past of these societies accounts for their paternalistic treatment by “core Europe”, even in cases where they are members of the EU. For example, the President of the European Parliament, speaking in 2008, said that, “the current Slovenian presidency of the EU is the best testament to the fundamental change that has taken place in this region over the past two decades. This is an extraordinary achievement, when you consider that less than 20 years ago Slovenia was part of communist Yugoslavia.

The paradigm of the two European 20th century totalitarianisms, in which socialism is equated with Nazism, is strongly present in the united Europe; its acceptance is perceived as a condition for establishing the foundations of a common “European” morality and conscience. On 2 April 2009, the European Parliament passed the Resolution on European Conscience and Totalitarianism, which had been preceded by the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism of 2008. The latter established 23 August as “a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, in the same way that Europe remembers the victims of the Holocaust on January 27th”. These resolutions equate communism to Nazism and condemn communist ideology as having been “directly responsible for crimes against humanity”. As stressed by Kristen Ghodsee (2012), “the Prague declaration calls for an ‘adjustment and overhaul of European history textbooks’ and the creation of an ‘Institute of European Memory and Conscience’ at the EU level. Similar and highly controversial institutes in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and equally controversial museums in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Hungary support this idea.” (Ghodsee, 2012)

The equalization of Nazism and socialism not only has a huge silencing effect on people living in former socialist societies (ibid.; Petrović 2012), keeping “the experience that shaped the lives of three to four generations in Eastern Europe […] frozen in an ideological straightjacket” (Todorova 2002, 15). In Serbia and other post-Yugoslav societies, the rejection of the socialist legacy has also caused a rise in historical revisionism about WWII and the marginalization of antifascism as a value, despite its being regarded as a foundation of a “common European identity” (see Ifversen and Kølvraa 2009). Serbia was the only European state not to officially attend the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Nor did it send a high-level delegation to the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Victory Day in Moscow in 2005, as all other states did (cf. Stojanović 2009). The marginalization of the antifascist struggle (as closely related to socialism, but also as essentially Yugoslav) is also connected to the ambiguous attitude towards the Holocaust in Serbia proper during WWII. This is most visible in the case of the Staro Sajmište (Old fairground) site in Belgrade, which served as an extermination camp for Serbian Jews. Despite its historical relevance and centrality in Belgrade’s city geography, the Staro Sajmište has been left to deteriorate. Another example is the rehabilitation of Milan Nedić, the Serbian prime minister during the Nazi occupation, who is today acknowledged for having “saved the lives of thousands of Serbian expellees” (according to historian Čedomir Antić in Politika, 8.3.2011). In fact, his Quisling government bears responsibility for the extensive and rapid extermination of Serbian Jews (David 2012).

Neglecting and condemning the socialist past is a trait shared by the political elite in Serbia and European institutions and their representatives. This negative attitude produces paradoxical ideological and political outcomes: it encourages the traditionalization of Serbian society and the strengthening of radical nationalism, since the political actors who advocate a “return to tradition and Orthodox roots” see socialism as a period in which tradition was marginalized and prohibited in the public sphere, or at best shaped into a “new, modern” form by the communists (Hofman 2011a). At the same time, these actors perceive the European integration and the “modernization” of Serbia as detrimental to the (newly discovered) traditional essence of Serbian identity.

Conclusion: In search of a usable past

The legacy of the 19th century nation state is today regarded as an “appropriate” and “unproblematic” part of Serbian national imagery. The employment of this legacy in the symbolism of Serbian statehood is paradigmatic for contemporary Serbian identity politics: the spectrum of historical events included in the celebration of Statehood Day and the wide range of political discourses make it possible to unite or reconcile very different and often opposing approaches to Serbian identity. It offers multiple images of Serbia in order to meet the expectations of the European Union and to feed nationalistic sentiments within the country. The commemoration of Statehood Day as a major national holiday should thus be seen as a quest for a usable past capable of providing the basis for much-needed national unity, and for presenting Serbia as a part of democratic Europe. It is a reflection of a politics that strives to satisfy all — something that cannot be done without relativization, denial and the avoidance of responsibility. This type of politics is also applied to the recent wars on the former Yugoslav territory in the 1990s, best illustrated by the monument erected in central Belgrade in 2012 on the 13th anniversary of the NATO bombardment, dedicated to “the victims of the wars of the 1990s and the defenders of the homeland in the wars from 1990 to 1999”. It is a “memorial site that intends to intervene in national memory and to satisfy all the commemorative needs of Serbian society concerning the wars of the 1990s” (Ilić, 2012).

The narrative of Serbia’s modernization in the 19th century is also a manifestation of nostalgia for an idealized past characterized by modernity and prosperity, in contrast to a present that lacks these achievements. Talking about Statehood Day, Serbian historian Predrag Marković commented that “we were the first to have a state, we were the first to have a constitution, we were the first to have democracy, and now we have to acquire all these things again […] As a great writer would say, it seems that we lost the 20th century. In the 19th century we achieved these great things, but then we lagged behind”. These words exemplify a nostalgic discourse that can be summarized by the phrase: “When Serbia was Europe”. However, this phrase is used much more often to refer to the socialist period, by men and women who experienced socialism and who believe that the Serbia of that time belonged to Europe more than the Serbia of today. But there is no place for their voices in the public sphere, where traces of collective memory of socialism are being eradicated. Just as in other parts of post-socialist Europe, citizens of Serbia cannot refer to their socialist experience when negotiating their rights and their visions of the future without being accused of nostalgia, irrationality and ideological blindness (Petrović 2012, Ghodsee 2012a, Todorova and Gille 2010).

Yet bridging the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries and omitting the 20th century does not mean that 20th century events do not play significant role in making up Serbia’s “European face”. “European Serbia” is ideologically construed through intense revisionist and relativizing discourses, through contested and problematic commemorative practices characterized by a denial of responsibility. In this respect, Serbia’s “Europeanization” differs little from what we have witnessed in other Eastern European societies. In Serbia, a society that has never made a radical break with the politics of Slobodan Milošević, there is political consensus over the absolute priority of EU integration. Post-Milošević Serbia is a society advancing on “its way to Europe” (it was granted EU candidate status in March 2012), but also one where the nationalist ideas of the 1990s still flourish. These contradictions are not only a reflection of the uneasiness with which Serbs deal with the burden of their past. It is also a symptom of broader processes that exceed the particular Serbian context and reflect contemporary European anxieties about identity, the past and the future.


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Tanja Petrović works at the Scientific Research Center
of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana.
With kind support of the Bosch Foundation.


On 5 October 2000, after massive protests of citizens of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević was ousted after 11 years of ruling Serbia and forced to accept defeat on elections that took place on 24 September.

Glas javnosti,February 2, 2004,

At his Gazimestan speech on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo on 28 June 1989, the then president of Serbia Slobodan Milošević stressed that “six centuries ago, Serbia heroically defended itself on the Kosovo Plain, but it also defended Europe. Serbia was at that time the bastion that defended European culture, religion, and European society in general”. The same metaphor was repeated several years later, in the 1990s, but then it referred to the contemporary situation in Europe and to a need to protect the continent from an “Islamic onslaught.” Dragoš Kalajić, a Serbian journalist and painter stated that “the fact of Islamic onslaught on Western Europe by peaceful means, by means of mass immigrations, threatening to turn European nations into national minorities within their own states, only accentuates the importance of the Serbian struggle for the overall defense of Europe, European culture and civilization”(Kalajić 1994, as cited in Bakić-Hayden 1995, p. 925)., January 3, 2009.

For a detailed discussion of the social relevance and the political consequences of the delegitimization of the socialist legacy in the former Yugoslav societies, see Petrović 2012, Kurtović 2010; for the broader East European context, see Buden 2009.

See interview with Serbian writer Filip David from 26 August 2012,

Speech by Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament, at the international conference New Paradigms, New Models – Culture in the EU’s External Relations, 13 May 2008, Ljubljana;

See and

B92, 15.2.2010.