Are you a partisan or a chetnikë Teaching History in Kosovo Serbian Schools

13 shkurt 2017 16:34

Does anybody care how Kosovo students learn the history of the Second World War? They should, because that war still provokes heated debates on who did what to whom. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, in the Balkans, peace is the continuation of war by other means. Or, to put it simply, the war has not ended yet, and not just in Kosovo or former Yugoslavia. The whole former Eastern-sphere is having trouble in dealing with its past. See, for example, what is happening right now with the struggle of Poland with its own history.

We researched how Kosovo teachers approach the Second World War in the classroom, and wrote how among Albanian teachers we detected a general weakness of critical thinking, lack of depth in the teaching of the Holocaust, as well as omissions and embellishments. But what about Serbian teachers? Here are some of the findings of the report that we have done in close collaboration with our colleagues, though we are the only ones responsible for this article.

In the northern part of Mitrovica, Serbian teachers believe that they live in a “new” normal. As one said, “We are living under occupation. Otherwise everything would be normal, like in other parts of Serbia…” Who are the occupiers? NATO, Americans, and the EU among others. The reaction is ignoring reality: Serbian-language schools in the Republic of Kosovo have names that still refer to pre-1999 names and locations. For example, the Gimnazija u Vucitrnu sa privremenim smestajem u Kosovskoj Mitrovici (Vucitrn High School temporarily based in Kosovska Mitrovica).

In classrooms, with the exception of a teacher in Graçanica, they refer to Albanians as Shiptar, a derogatory name equivalent to the N word. This hate speech reflects how the history of the Second World War in Kosovo is summarized in Serbian textbooks: Albanians accomplished the project of Greater Albania thanks to Fascist Italy, thus they were all Fascists, and expelled all the Serbian population. Here the good and the bad are neatly defined by ethnicities, like the Indians and cowboys. But this is not a spaghetti western. This is real life.

This historical script, which feeds a poisonous nationalism, is manipulative, and wrong. Serbian textbooks never ask why the Kosovo Albanian population welcomed the Italian occupiers as liberators. But they should recognize that since 1912 the Kingdom of Yugoslavia had treated Albanians as savages to be either completely assimilated or exterminated, as historian Ivo Banac persuasively writes.

The reports of Italian officials who arrived in Kosovo in 1941 describe a mass of illiterate Albanians under the thumb of Serbian local elites and police. Thousands had been deprived of schools and their livelihood by an “agrarian reform” that was really a violent land robbery and that, as Serbian historian Vladan Jovanovic writes, had destroyed “the foundation of Albanian existence.” Without this context, the expulsion of Serbian and Montenegrin colonists cannot be understood.

This expulsion was not an indiscriminate assault against the Slavic population. As a recent Italian scholarship that is finally debunking the myth of “Italiani brave gente” (Italians good people) tells us, there was violence on both sides, and self-serving Italian and Albanian politicians pushed for the expulsions. Just check the book by Davide Rodogno and Luca Micheletta.

The 2014 textbook by Rados Ljusic and Ljubodrag Dimic’s Istorija (p. 201), says that, “The terror of Albanian voluntari caused the expulsion of 90,000 Serbs. From 1941-1944, 10,000 Serbs were killed in Kosovo and Metohija.” Rather than playing with numbers, they better consult archival sources, including their own. The Chief German Officer, Hermann Neubacher and the Serbian Commissariat of Refugees, provide the figures of respectively 40,000 and 48,000, as a solid history of the war by Jozo Tomasevich tells us.

Do textbooks matter? Maybe not in the short term. We learned that Serbian teachers’ lectures are based on their politics, rather than books. The students too come to the classroom with views received from their families. This oral history produces an imaginative re-writing of history, given as factual, which demands a stark choice: one can either be chetnik or partisan. One teacher always begins his class with the intimidating questions, ”Where was your grandfather during the war? Who was your grandfather?” No neutrality is allowed, nor criticism.

The old civil war continues today in the form of a mild domestic dispute: the pro-chetnik teachers dream of Serbia, and the pro-partisans dream of a pre-1974 Yugoslavia, in which Serbia dominated. The consensus is that while all Serbs, whether partisans or chetnik, fought on the right side, as antifascists, “all Muslims,” another word for Albanian, were Fascists. As far as falsification of history goes, this is a masterpiece of fake history.

First, Albanians from Kosovo did join the partisan movement, as historian Ali Hadri shows. They were a smaller number than Serbs, because they did not trust a movement dominated by their former oppressors. Even Serbian leaders such as Milovan Djilas and Aleksandar Rankovic recognized this fact at the first Congress of the Communist Party, in May 1945. But many more thousand Albanians were also forced to join from January to April 1945 during the mass mobilization for the Sremski Front. Part of those who went were massacred along the way and in Bar. Those who rebelled and didn’t go were killed in Drenica. Serbian historians should understand this tragedy, because they complain about the mass mobilization of the Serbian youth for the same Sremski Front.

Second, the Serbian nationalist chetniks were not antifascists. As historians Matteo Milazzo and Jozo Tomasevich show, they began as a resistance movement and became collaborationists with the Axis. And they spread terror among civilians, targeting Muslims, and especially in areas under Italian control.

Finally, when Serbian teachers teach the Holocaust, they place it mostly in Croatia, at the Jasenovac camp, and lump together the killing of Jews and Serbs. They see the quick extermination of all Serbian Jews as the sole responsibility of Nazi Germans, the ustaše and the Šiptar.  This is yet more troublesome revisionism. True, Serbs were considered sub-human by the Germans and killed without restraint, as Timothy Snyder and Mark Mazower write. But this cannot be a pretext to deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The Germans did send to their death Jews detained in Pristina, but many Jews also managed to escape to Albania and there they were all saved, as Yad Vashem recognizes.

The Second World War is a traumatic past. But to quote James Baldwin about American history, “the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” 


13 shkurt 2017

Abit Hoxha & Anna Di Lellio