Drinking Coffee with the Father of the Nation. Dobrica Cosic and the Mediocrity of Evil

A few years ago, a sophisticated hoax suggest that Dobrica Ćosić won the Literature Nobel Prize. While a group of usual suspects of the Serbian did propose him for the prize,  the idea was luckily absurd. He wrote an number of novels, but they are far from the novels by better Yugoslav writers of his time. His first novels were in the dominant socialist realist style. His later novels were epic in tracing the Serbian people and their suffering in the creation of Yugoslavia. Some translations where published, his works rightful drew little interested outside Yugoslavia. When I talked to him for my research in 1998, it was less his literature I was interested in, but rather his politics.

When I stepped into the house of the friendly elderly man in his crumbling, yet still impressive villa in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje, I thought I was meeting a man whose life and political influence was waning. Little did I know that he would live another 16 years and through his books, statements and close contacts to nearly the entire political elite maintain the aura of a national sage.

Dobrica_Cosic

The opportunity to meet him in May 1998 was unique, he had been reluctant to speak to Western researchers or journalists, skeptical of their intentions (rightfully so) and busy writing his own memoirs. I guess my topic–his engagement with human rights activists in the 1980s–was sufficiently innocuous, to not make him reject the conversation outright, as was the help of a friend of a friend in arranging the interview. When I went to visit him in his villa I was aware of his historical role and responsibility. He had come into conflict with Tito and the Yugoslav leadership in the late 1960s over the increasing decentralization, became a ‘dissident’ who remained in his villa close to the center of power. As a writer, he moved from socialist realism to nationalism as he endlessly described Serb suffering and began challenging the wisdom of Yugoslavia altogether. He helped bring together a group of intellectuals, some loyal to the Communist rule, other critical, to formulate Serb grievances. He became a supporter of Milošević and his President for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. However, he also fell out with Milošević and was toppled by the Radical Party in the following year and was thus able to remain credible to the opposition and also the shrinking number of nationalist supports of Milošević. When I met him, he had settled into his new role, the “Father of the Nation”, an intellectual above party politics who would turn his allegiances with the wind like so many other Serbian institutions (i.e. the daily Politika). He regularly dispensed his wisdom, published his successful political pamphlets and became the mediocre sage to whom politicians of all stripes went to seek “advice.”

There was nothing striking about him. He was a friendly old man who invited us for coffee and we could discuss his role during the 1980s. There was some vanity in which he remembered the centrality of his own person during the Yugoslav period and his own role as a dissident. In fact, it became clear that he continued to see himself as a dissident, outside of the mainstream back in 1998. Although he had lost his office as president in 1993, his ideas had become mainstream, and, as fellow traveler Vojislav Koštunica noted, “Dobrica Ćosić had always connections to people who were active in the political life, although Ćosić was practically expelled from the party. He had influence and connections, which protected us.”

The significance of Ćosić arose not from any radical nationalism. Rather, he represented the quintessential path from an eager socialist Yugoslav to a Serb nationalist, a journey in which he was not alone but which few others experienced as publicly and promoted as effectively. In our conversation he claimed that he foresaw the disintegration of Yugoslavia already in 1956-7 when he realized in conversations with Edvard Kardelj , the leading Slovene member of Tito’s inner circle, working on the party program that he was a nationalist who only saw Yugoslavia a transitional construct. It seems hard to view Kardelj as a Slovene nationalist, but the gradual alienation from the Yugoslav project took hold with the fall of Aleksandar Ranković, whom he placed together with other dissidents such as Milovan Djilas. For him, and many other Serb intellectuals, the 1974 and the decentralization of Yugoslavia that preceeding it promoted nationalism of the others and oppressed Serbia. His engagement in a democratic and national critique was thus no inherent contradiction. He was eager to note that the Committee for the Freedom of Thought and Expression he helped found in 1984 defended all Yugoslavs, Slovenes, authors of the Muslim declaration, including Izetbegović and in his words also “Šiptari”, using the derogatory term Albanians. In 1983 he published a non-literary bestseller Stvarno i moguće (The Real and The Possible) which was banned after selling some 10,000 copies.  The weekly NIN called (not meant as a compliment) it for having all ingredients of a bible for Serb nationalists.

When the Serbian academy began drafting a memorandum of the state of Serbia and the Serbian nation in 1985, Ćosić was close to many members involved in its writing, but rejected the suggesting of being the initiator or main author of the text.  As we talked in his living room, he both defended and criticized the text: “It is an unfinished study, a critique of Titoism and the extraordinary hard economic, moral, political state in the 1980s. But it was critique from the socialist and Yugoslav perspective.” Despite its critique, Ćosić was eager to defend in arguing that it was neither a blueprint for ethnic cleansing (which is correct), nor that it deserved to be suppressed. However, the memorandum reflect many themes of Ćosić’s writing during this period, as well as other Serbian intellectuals. It considered not only Serbs threatened in Kosovo, but elsewhere and argued that Yugoslavia would either need to be centralized or that otherwise Yugoslavia would cease to be the best state solution for Serbs. Thus for the first time, the idea of rejecting the Yugoslav project became a (implicit) possibility.  Although Ćosić argued that his biggest mistake was to argue for Yugoslavia when others began pursuing nationalist agendas, his claim was insincere. His Yugoslavia would not have been accepted by others and the dividing line between national equality and dominance of one over others is often in the eye of the beholder .

After I ended the interview with Ćosić, I felt  uneasy. There was much I disagreed with him, yet his demeanor made him hard not to find a pleasant conversation partner. My friend who helped with the interview noted at the time that he seem like a friendly grandpa (and she was very critical and aware of his role in promoting nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s). At the time, I came to understand that dangerous ideas do not originate form raving madman, but from mild-mannered intellectuals who are harder to ignore or dismiss. It is now, with greater retrospect that I also understand that the success of Ćosić was his mediocrity. He was neither a great writer, nor a brilliant thinker. His success came from reflect opinions that were widely held by others. Being both an insider of the Communist regime and later in the Milošević era, as well as an outsider gave him access and credibility more than most others. His criticism of Titoism and Yugoslavia was more radical than many intellectuals that suffered no or fewer consequence, yet he was no Djilas. His challenge was a paradox, a return to the pre-1966 more dogmatic era, while demanding greater freedom of speech. Calling for freedom of speech, but supporting later one the repression of Albanians in Kosovo when exercising this right. His inconsistencies reflected the times and made the moderate and mediocre face of nationalism. His support for Milošević and break with him later made him respectable for the regime and for the opposition. And thus it was less his ideas as such, than his position that provided him with legitimacy. As he cultivated his image of the “father of the nation”, he tried to synthesize the different ideologies and ideas that competed over the nation and nationalism. After his death, I can only hope that he will be irreplaceable, as the area of “fathers of a nation” should better be over in Serbia and elsewhere.

 

 

 

I have written in greater detail about Ćosić in my monograph about Serbian nationalism from the death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević.

 

3 Responses to Drinking Coffee with the Father of the Nation. Dobrica Cosic and the Mediocrity of Evil

  1. costamagna says:

    Reblogged this on dr. costamagna.

  2. m says:

    “also understand that the success of Ćosić was his mediocrity. He was neither a great writer, nor a brilliant thinker. ”

    Florian, i do not think that you are the person who can make this call. Off course you can while writing your blog, but i do not hink that adds to your credibility

    • Florian Bieber says:

      Dear M,

      I don’t see why I should not have my opinion on this matter. Others might disagree, which is fine. Having read his novels and political writings at the time, I do feel, I am able to have a pretty well informed opinion on the matter.

      Florian

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