Moral in life, dismissed in memory Posthumous attacks scorn dissident Djilas as being against the Serbian cause


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The books of Milovan Djilas, searing critiques of communism that made the writer one of the best-known dissident intellectuals of the century, are nearly impossible to find in the city where he lived and wrote.

Djilas goes ignored in biographies of Serbian writers and is condemned in current history texts for his role as a Partisan commander in World War II. The current portrayal of him reflects the intellectual and political distortions that grip the country.

It illustrates the failure of many Serbs to come to terms with their past and free themselves from orthodoxies. And it is a reminder that living a moral life does not guarantee even posthumous triumph.

"Morally, of course, he won," said Miladin Zivotic, who along with Djilas founded a dissident group, the Belgrade Circle. "He is the greatest figure in our political history, but in the current climate he has no influence."

Many Serbian intellectuals mingle historical fact with mythology and romance to glorify Serbian history, culture and society. In this game, Djilas, who before his death in 1995 was an outspoken critic of Serbian nationalism and the Bosnian war, has been tagged as opposed to the Serbian cause. Such attacks have overshadowed his work and his years as a dissident, nine of them in prison.

Students are told that Djilas oversaw saw the murder of Serbian Chetnik irregulars, now glorified as the precursors of modern Serbian nationalism, who vied with the Communist Partisans during the battle against the German occupiers.

"Djilas committed a lot of crimes" in World War II, said Tihomir Pavlovic, general manager of the Beletra Publishing House. "He killed many Serbs. Under the Communists he helped draw up the borders that gave Serbian land to Croatia. Any Serb who betrays the Serb people, who kills other Serbs, is not a good Serb."

Such stories about Djilas have filtered down to the current

generation, who are often quick to vilify him as an enemy. And, while most students and intellectuals are united in their opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic, they continue to embrace this brand of Serbian nationalism.

The image of Djilas within Serbian society came as a shock to his son, Aleksa, who returned in 1993 after 11 years abroad, most spent studying in the United States.

He said he had given up trying to challenge all of the lies about his father that are scattered throughout political essays, history books and nationalist tracts.

"Everything he did in life has been turned against him," he said. "But the worst is not the attacks, but that no one defends him. When people find out I am his son, they often speak in a tone of superiority, as if I should be ashamed of who he was."

None of this would surprise Djilas, who repeatedly warned against the corrosive effect of orthodoxies.

"The intellectual inheritance of the people is also being confiscated," he wrote in 1957 in "The New Class," his seminal work. "The monopolists act as if all history has occurred just to let them make their appearance in the world.

"They measure the past and everything in it by their own likeness and form, and apply a single measure, dividing all men and phenomena into 'progressive' and 'reactionary' classifications. In this fashion they raise up monuments. They elevate the pygmies and destroy the great, especially the great of their own time."

Pub Date: 1/19/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad