Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95


Dr Branka Prpa



I will speak about a seemingly unrelated phenomenon. This is the rapid relativization of 20th century history that has been going on since the fall of the Berlin Wall and continues to this day. And it is actually related to the denial of crimes that happened in recent history.

History lies in a two-sided paradox. On the one hand, we identify the conscious destruction of history’s great moral issues, resulting in the intellectual irrelevance of the historian himself, who becomes unable to think not only about society, but also of his own scholarship. On the other hand, new readings of history, led by aggressive overzealous historians, have reduced history to a nihilistic category, in which nothing of what happened actually happened, and everything we used to know we no longer do. The result is that generations of schoolchildren are being poisoned by a subject called history. Textbooks and different history books have done whatever they could to legitimize irrational acts, hatred, revenge, violence, power and a sense of superiority in relation to the past. Agnes Heller in her book A Theory of History argues that we can accept the 19th century enlightenment proposition that religion poisons the human mind but, now in the 20th century, we accuse history of the same crime.

When we unravel this coil, we must come to a point at which the written history books became a tabula rasa, or when the historical experiences of the previous century drastically entered the manipulative process of revision. One phenomenon is instantly revealed in this reconstruction, and that is that all reinterpretations are useful for national-political manipulation and that, as a rule, they follow the political processes on the European continent, with the United States in the background. In other words, not to euphemize, they are ideological.

It all began, quite openly, with a revision of the reasons for World War II. Or rather, with the attempted relativization of German Nazism as a phenomenon separate from the 20th century totalitarianisms. The fall of the Berlin Wall, with the accompanying euphoria, did not bring the final reconstruction of Europe from the century of evil; it was used to revise not only national borders, but history itself as well. Ernst Nolte, the German historian, argued that fascism and Nazism were a “historical response” to the Russian Revolution of 1917, or to Russian Bolshevism-communism, suggesting that the Gulag preceded Auschwitz.

The French historian Francois Furet remarked that this is a clear case of historical revisionism aimed at diminishing the responsibility of German fascism. Especially when it comes to Nolte’s proposition that fascism has a “rational core” which is, as Furet noted, hardly applicable to the “final solution of the Jewish question”. One could argue that there are similarities with the totalitarian model which projects “higher goals”, but this is where simple analogy ends. Historical phenomena cannot be equated by getting rid of all individualization of history, achieved by individual nations and states. In addition to global unification, there are also attempts at reduction, reducing everything to consumption and material well-being as the ultimate end of human existence. The twentieth century, for this reason, can be summarized by Furet’s proposition that history has become all-powerful, reigning supreme, and that we have “finally lost the illusion of controlling it.”

In contrast to Nolte, another German historian stirred the polemical field in the 1960s among historians and the German public, but on completely different grounds. It was Fritz Fischer, who searched for continuity in the trends of 19th and 20th century German politics. His book From Kaiserreich to Third Reich: Elements of Continuity in German History, 1871-1945 traces the alliance of rulers, politicians, military top brass, industrialists, bankers, landowners, academics and intellectuals, as participants and accomplices in the creation of hard-line policies, far-reaching war objectives and antidemocratic tendencies. Fisher argued that aiming towards Eastern Europe, in order to create the Reich in the East, emerged as early as the German Empire. It led Germany into World War I, was latent during the Weimar Republic interregnum and resurfaced in the Third Reich to create World War II. By de-tabooing German history, Fischer clearly shows all the concealment and manipulation that was needed for this continuity - the result of the historic alliance of the German elites - to be inscrutable.
In this historical game of hiding the real aims, which has now been revived again, Gavrilo Princip caused the First World War, with Serbia as the instigator. The truth, on the other hand, is quite simple - Germany needed the allied Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to enter the war first, attack Serbia and open the corridor to Russia, believing it could defeat Russia the same way it did France. Just as German propaganda in those days claimed that the threat of Russia forced Germany into war, today again, in the new Cold War-style political propaganda, some Western historians are trying to resurrect the argument of German inculpability for the First World War.

Today we have reached a point of sinking into a civilization, which we can rightfully call a civilization of the Mind, with historical somnambulation. There are virtually no unknown facts about the two world wars in Europe, and yet this cognitive phenomenon has mysteriously drifted away and the answers that are offered are losing all credibility. This is the responsibility of revisionist historians and censorship of the truth. Another phenomenon should be added, and that is - what if the events unfolded differently and it was a mistake that something happened? The favorite subject of Serbian revisionist historians is March 27, the mass demonstrations in Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities provoked by the signing of the Tripartite Pact with Hitler. In their view, this was a great mistake which cost Serbia the war with Germany, countless casualties and destruction. Therefore, simply put, the anti-fascism of the people of Belgrade and Yugoslavia was a mistake! So we come, in this final aberration, to historians who believe it is their right to participate in the past by playing with a time machine, with people of another era, in the manner of higher arbitrators.

The easiest thing would be to denounce such history and such historians and their creations as faux-historian, or in Karl Popper’s parlance, as the misery of historicism. This, however, will not detract from them because there is one other enemy of the civilization of the Mind. Edgar Morin said that he (the enemy) is not barbaric, in the old sense of the term. This enemy does not have definite features which make him distinctive; they are instead hidden in a homogenization which, like a bulldozer, razes manifold cultural and political characteristics. This enemy is not ethnic, but hegemonic. He shows his face in a conjuncture of hegemony, homogenization and totalitarianism. Describing the same growing sense of anxiety, and setting himself apart from Morin, Furet wrote that for the first time we are “enclosed in a single horizon of history”, pulled towards standardization, in which the human personality is lost

Indeed, what is this single horizon of history, in which we are facing historical monsters and watching them be exonerated and celebrated? What can we say about Draza Mihailovic who was exonerated not because he was not guilty, but because of procedural errors at his trial 70 years ago? What can be said of Bleiburg, where the victims became executioners? Columns of Ustasha, Chetnik and Slovene Domobran units and the civilians who joined them all ended their blood-stained performance on former Yugoslav soil in their life and their death.

And what can be said about the places where there were only victims? Jasenovac, Staro Sajmiste, Banjica and many more. Those places are visited reluctantly. Politicians, church leaders... just as a matter of formality. One Islamic dignitary said in Bleiberg that this historic event gave birth to Srebrenica. Not the other way around.

In the end, the historian must ask, what is the mechanism that unites crime, revision and suppression? It is understandable that not every historian will shoulder the suffering of all humanity, but he must recoil at the abyss of the dead, those executed in a manner that escapes our understanding of the values and meaning of our existence. How is it that all the victims of this monstrous revision of the past became guilty? Albert Camus wrote in his Rebel that propaganda and torture unite people in forced complicity. “The triumph of the man who kills or tortures is marred by only one shadow: he is unable to feel that he is innocent. Thus, he must create guilt in his victim so that … when the concept of innocence disappears from the mind of the innocent victim himself, the value of power establishes a definitive rule over a world in despair.” But all this, as Camus claims, occurs only in a world without direction. And he wrote that half a century ago, after World War II. How could it happen again today? How is Srebrenica possible? How is the concerted abolition of 20th century crimes possible? How is forced complicity possible?

Every historian must give a true account of what happened in the past. We historians must do our duty, and our will should be universalized as the good will of Man. Everyone, after all, can live according to the ethical and moral standards of what he should be and how he should act. “We are,” in the words of Agnes Heller, “confined to a conjunction with other living beings with whom we share our lives. Indeed, the well of our past is very deep, and so is our responsibility. There is a desire that cannot be revoked by other desires, to participate in the responsibility of our community. We can live a dignified life. Why not try.”

This is the final sentence in The Theory of History, but it must also be a final sentence not only for the historian, but for every human being as well, because it profoundly establishes the meaning of our historical existence.

Agnes Heller, A Theory of History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982). Trans. Agnes Heller, Teorija istorije (Belgrade: Rad, 1984) p. 263.

See Mirko Djordjević, “Globalna vizija minulog veka, rasprave o totalitarizmu zapravo tek počinju“ (The global vision of the past century, the discussions on totalitarianism are actually just beginning). Republika no. p. 250.

Fischer, Fritz. From Kaiserreich to Third Reich: elements of continuity in German history, 1871-1945. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986).

Morin, Edgar, et al. Penser l'Europe. Vol. 1990. (Paris; Gallimard, 1987). Trans.  Edgar Morin, Kako misliti Evropu (Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 1989) p. 185.

Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Knopf, 1956) pp. 183-184.

Agnes Heller, A Theory of History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982). Trans. Agnes Heller, Teorija istorije (Belgrade: Rad, 1984) p. 443.

Dr Branka Prpa, historian
Born in 1953 in Split, Croatia. Graduated in history from the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade. She got her PhD from the same university in 1996 with a thesis titled "Yugoslavia as a modern state in the vision of Serbian intellectuals, 1918-1929." In 1987 she began working at the Institute for Recent History of Serbia. From 2001 to 2009 she was the Director of the Historical Archives of Belgrade. She was a founding member of the European Movement in Serbia in 1992. She published a number of papers and books related to national integration processes in the South-Slavic region, including the book "The Serbian-Dalmatian magazine, resurgent ideas of Serbs in Dalmatia, 1836-1848." Her field of expertise is 20th-century history, with a focus on Serbian-Croatian relations. She lives and works in Belgrade, Serbia.