What Germany Can Teach Serbia About Confronting Genocide

Decades after the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, Serbia is still choosing abnegation over atonement when it comes to the genocidal policies of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in the 1990s. His heirs have vigorously pursued Milosevic’s Greater Serbia project, now under the name “Serb world.” Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin openly stated last July that “the task for this generation of politicians is to form a Serb world—that is, to unite Serbs wherever they live.”

Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the strongest target of such expansionist aspirations. It is in the news again, going through its worst security crisis since the 1995 Dayton Accords. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader and member of the country’s tripartite presidency, took explicit steps for the secession of one of the country’s two entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. Backed by Russia, China, Serbia, and some anti-Muslim populists within the European Union who openly support him, Dodik has escalated the already fragile situation and pushed the country to the brink of renewed violence, without robust international pushback—yet.

Meanwhile, in Serbia’s capital of Belgrade, a graffiti war has been raging over a mural of the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic painted last July on a residential building. In a monthslong tit for tat, some citizens and NGO activists called for the removal of the mural. Buckets of white and black paint were splattered over the mural many times, after which masked supporters of the wartime general repainted and then guarded it. At this point, a specialized facade-cleaning company is needed to remove the mural. No one dares to do the job.

The activists Aida Corovic and Jelena Jacimovic, who had thrown eggs at the Mladic mural, were arrested by state police who had come to guard it. A banner with the inscription “We won’t forget the genocide in Srebrenica” was also burned after one protest. In another grim development, an additional mural—of Chetnik commander and World War II Nazi collaborator Dragoljub “Draza” Mihailovic—was added next to Mladic’s. As a response, stamps of Mladic’s face and the tagline “Convicted for genocide” appeared on numerous trash cans around the city.

Worship of war criminals has been a sad reality in Serbia but also in Bosnia, Montenegro, and Slovenia. In Croatia, graffiti expressing hateful anti-Serb slogans and glorifying fascism was removed six days after appearing on Nov. 18. Shocked by the size and number of murals to war criminals that he saw in Republika Srpska, Valentin Inzko, the now departed high representative for Bosnia, assessed that “the situation is so awkward that a ‘tourist’ map of top Bosnian cities with murals of war criminals can be made.” Just before leaving his post, he made a milestone decision by imposing a law against genocide denial in July 2021.

In stark contrast to the celebration of convicted war criminals in the region, in Republika Srpska genocide survivors are not even permitted to install monuments at the Trnopolje, Omarska, or Visegrad town concentration camps, where war crimes were committed.

But Bosnians are not running away from acknowledging the crimes committed in their name, even when they occurred while defending the country against military aggression. In mid-November, in Bosnia’s capital of Sarajevo, a new memorial to the primarily Serb victims who were killed by a unit of the Bosnian Army in 1992 and 1993 at the Kazani pit, located on the outskirts of the capital, was revealed. Fourteen members of that brigade were convicted of murder during and just after the war, and Nov. 9 was adopted as a day of remembrance for the Kazani victims.

No government in Serbia has taken honest steps toward reckoning with past war crimes and reconciliation and adopting its own version of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung—the German word used for processing the past in post-World War II Germany.

In her book Learning From the Germanspublished in 2019, Susan Neiman, a Jewish American philosopher living in Berlin, wrote about what other nations can learn from the multifaceted ways in which Germany has dealt with its past. Neiman sheds light on how initial denialism slowly turned into historical reckoning across society. It is not a perfect blueprint for all, but there are certainly lessons to consider. Considering Serbia, her book is a reminder of the vast amount of work that remains for both politicians and ordinary citizens to do.

Many surveys of Serbians confirm sentiments of conscious denial of the Srebrenica genocide, pretending nothing happened, blaming all sides, or general apathy. The Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) recently presented “Zone of (Non)Responsibility,” a collection containing more than a hundred excerpts from print and other media that talk about Srebrenica.

This digital archive shows several phases of the official policy of denialism regarding the Srebrenica genocide since 1995. The report explains how after Milosevic’s regime was overthrown on Oct. 5, 2000, an ideologically heterogeneous coalition came to power, led by Zoran Djindjic.

Some progress was made in dealing with the past at the time, but Djindjic was assassinated in 2003. According to the HLC report, those first years after Milosevic’s fall were full of missed opportunities, as “the nationalist part of the intellectual elite openly defended those accused of war crimes and significantly contributed to the spread of the narrative of the [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] as an anti-Serbian court.”

In June 2005, thanks to the HLC, a video from July 1995—filmed near Trnovo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a paramilitary unit known as the “Scorpions” first abused and then shot six captured civilians from Srebrenica, several of whom were minors—was shown on television in Serbia. The public reacted with demands for the arrests of the men in the video. Yet despite a serious initial reaction by the state with the recognition that the crime was committed by a police unit, soon the authorities qualified the Scorpions as a criminal group—separating them from the government of Serbia and its regular forces.

After that video was broadcast, then-Serbian President Boris Tadic announced and attended the genocide commemoration at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center. It was the first time that a Serbian official was at the commemoration. Tadic stated on July 11, 2005, in a public address that he was going to Srebrenica to pay his respects “to the innocent victims of the crime that took place there.” He added: “We must show the distance between citizens and criminals. The future of Serbia depends on that.” As president of Serbia, he was “going to show how Serbia treats war crimes committed against the Bosniak people.”

But the project of establishing trust and cooperation—a goal Tadic claimed he was seeking—hasn’t come to fruition. Indeed, current Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic denies the genocide in Srebrenica, while his regime supports and promotes war criminals reaffirming the idea that Serbs and Serbia are threatened by the recognition of the genocide.

Some private citizens have done what the state refuses to do. Despite no official commemorations in Serbia, and notwithstanding obstructions, the “Women in Black” NGO holds a commemorative performance in the center of Belgrade every year. Since 2015, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights has been organizing the lighting of candles for the victims of Srebrenica genocide on Belgrade’s streets. Turnouts to these events remain depressingly minuscule, and government representatives never participate.

War criminals, meanwhile, are still successfully hiding around the country. Several dozen convicted ones are slowly being released from prisons after serving their sentences abroad, and they’ve gotten cozy rewards on return to Serbia.

“I think the denial was related to hiding the bodies of the victims in mass graves, with the logic of no body, no crime,” Hariz Halilovich, a Bosnian Australian scholar who coined the idea of an eleventh phase of genocide—triumphalism—wrote in an email. “The celebration of genocide and its ‘folklorization,’ presented the crime as a popular (evil) act committed not only in the name of the people (Serbs), but also by the people as a whole. And if everyone is to blame, then no one is to blame.”

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt genuflects in front of the Ghetto Heroes Monument, dedicated to those Jews who were killed during the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, in Warsaw, Poland, on Dec. 7, 1970.BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

No nation enjoys probing violent episodes from its past. Historical responsibility didn’t come overnight in postwar Germany, where extremism is not fully eradicated either. But while confronting hateful ideologies from within is never an easy task, it is much more difficult when the bigotry is still actively harbored from the very top, as is the case in Serbia.

It took Germans a long time to take responsibility for the Holocaust and Nazism, and many kept rejecting acceptance of responsibility for the evil committed in their name. Neiman reminds readers of Learning From the Germans that in the first decades after the war ended, Germans, including the descendants of the Nazi armed forces, thought they were the war’s worst victims, and the majority followed then-West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s “informal taboo: forget and be silent,” she writes.

But the German public’s civil engagement, starting in the late 1950s through the early 1990s, was the crucial factor for slowly changing the situation on the ground. Thanks also to so-called Nestbeschmützer, or “nest-foulers”—primarily artists, intellectuals, and others who kept on probing the arguments used for collective amnesia while calling for acknowledgment or irrefutable facts that older generations had refused to discuss—the debate about Nazism in Germany was slowly shaken up. The author Aleida Assmann argues that such a “movement developed in resistance to the dominant political culture,” Neiman writes.

Moreover, some of Germany’s leaders took crucial public decisions throughout the decades after 1945. In 1951, Adenauer acknowledged Germany’s responsibility for Nazi crimes, agreeing to moral and financial compensation to the victims. In what is now known as the “Warsaw Genuflection,” West German Chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees at the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto on Dec. 7, 1970. At the time, half of West Germans rejected Brandt’s gesture.

In 1985, West German President Richard von Weizsacker called the day World War II ended a “day of liberation,” which so many Germans previously thought of as a day of defeat or surrender. That new vision became a national consensus in the 1990s, but with that speech, he replaced the notion of loss with victory by giving a new collective vision for what used to be seen as capitulation.

Neiman claims that factors such as reunification and Western pressure pushed Chancellor Helmut Kohl toward political efforts to confront the past. And “without Kohl there would be no national memorials. … He was an opportunist, but not a cynic; he wanted the next generation’s blessing,” Volkhard Knigge, the longtime director of the Buchenwald Memorial, told Neiman.

Moreover, myriad historical exhibits, theater productions, cultural events, films, and books condemning the Nazi past contributed to empathy for victims and more discussions on national shame.

Those galvanized many more efforts and grassroots initiatives that seemed small but were powerful for creating empathy for victims. In the process, Germany also began to use public space in new ways, built museums and memorials for victims, included educational material against racism in schools, and paid more than $90 billion in Holocaust reparations to more than 800,000 survivors in the past 70 years. To this day, 100-year-old Nazis are still put on trial to keep the memory and warn of the eternal dangers of such ideologies.

Serbia does almost none of these things. Indeed, Belgrade denies access to reparations for almost all of the victims who suffered at the hands of Serb forces, even at the risk of stalling the timetable of its accession process to the European Union.

Milica Kostic and Sandra Orlovic, reparation experts who previously held leadership positions at the HLC, write that the European Parliament, European Commission, and other international organizations have acknowledged the “lack of access to reparations, as well as Serbia’s discriminatory legislation and practices towards victims of the most egregious violations”—but they haven’t pushed for genuine transitional justice mechanisms. Kostic and Orlovic criticize the EU’s “lack of a firm commitment to reparative justice” as a “conscious political decision.”

They also point to financial considerations as a factor: “While compensation for so many victims would indeed have an astronomical price tag, the EU’s decision to simply avoid the issue without considering less expensive reparation models demonstrates a concerning lack of understanding of reparative mechanisms, at best.” The same unhealthy dynamic continues with the delayed war crime trials in the country.

While major government organizations in Germany commissioned research to examine the country’s Nazi past, the Bosnian Serb government of Republika Srpska appointed a “truth commission” in 2019 to deny the Srebrenica genocide.

This high-level official denialism was once more on display at the recent celebration of the unconstitutional Day of Republika Srpska on Jan. 9. Key Serbian leaders, including Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and parliament speaker Ivica Dacic, were in attendance, as well as Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Joanikije, who leads the church’s diocese in Montenegro. Convicted war criminals such as Vinko Pandurevic, recently awarded a commemorative medal by the chief of the general staff of the Serbian Armed Forces, were among other VIP guests.

Germany paid compensation as “the price for acceptance into the Western community,” Neiman writes. Conversely, Serbia is resisting the smallest gestures. Vulin, the Serbian interior minister, asked in a recent interview what Serbia would gain from eventual EU membership if, as he said, it meant that “we must give up the truth about our people, accept the Srebrenica genocide … and abandon the Republika Srpska.”

A serbian soldier smoles a cigarette as he guards Bosnian prisoners

A Serbian soldier smokes a cigarette as he guards Bosnian prisoners on Aug. 14, 1992. ANDRE DURAND/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

It’s clear that Serbia has a long way to go on its redemptive journey. But, though it may seem an insignificant minority, there are brave people in Serbia who deserve credit and support, all the more since they expose themselves to danger in an atmosphere that stifles free speech and condemns public empathy. As the longtime human rights activist Natasa Kandic wrote in November, “We upset the authorities with persistence,” adding, “We have shown that there is no consensus on war criminals and heroes.”

News about projects and interviews with artists from Serbia are published and shared across borders more easily through social media. The play Srebrenica, Kad mi ubijeni ustanemo (“Srebrenica, when we killed ones rise”) by Zlatko Pakovic, produced by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, is the first play in Serbia that focuses on the recognition of the Srebrenica genocide.

There were insulting campaigns and attempts to prevent the performances when the play premiered in 2020, but more than 6,000 people in the region have seen it live on stage or during online screenings. “New crimes of old proportions will be committed in our region if we do not extinguish their cultural source,” Pakovic stated in interview for Al Jazeera Balkans. He believes that the Serbian cultural elite is essential for dealing with the past because elites helped pave the way for genocide.

Much like some children in post-World War II Germany, some young Serbs now wonder publicly about their parents’ actions in the 1990s—if they cheered or were horrified, whether they rejoiced or condemned past horrors.

“If they condemned—why didn’t they do something more? Why did they let it all happen like that?” That was part of a frank, chilling take in an Al Jazeera Balkans interview with Boris Lijesevic, a young director from Serbia. “The younger ones … suffer from blind and deafening nationalism, hatred toward neighboring nations under the guise of patriotism. … I still do not know how to deal with the fact that my compatriots did great harm to others. It makes me feel guilty, responsible, but also angry.”

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) assists Margot Friedländer

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) assists Margot Friedländer, a Holocaust survivor, off the stage at a ceremony commemorating Kristallnacht and other historical events at the Bellevue presidential palace in Berlin on Nov. 9, 2021. ADAM BERRY/GETTY IMAGES

Today, social scientists are studying the role of both pride and shame in shaping national identities. One such study of German and American college students showed that there is greater agreement when it comes to events that evoke shame than those that evoke pride among participants from both countries.

The results symbolize a significant shift because previous studies have shown a much greater bias toward positive in-group collective memories. The same research also confirmed how some shameful events could become a source of pride, depending on the ways a group overcomes them. The American participants brought up slavery and its abolition, and German students, for example, mentioned the postwar division of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.

Changing individual consciousness is one thing; changing national consciousness is a more daunting endeavor. Marking Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) on Nov. 9, 2021, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier highlighted the date at a commemoration event as both a “bright and dark day” in German history. (Since Germany became a nation-state in 1871, this date marks the proclamation of Germany as a republic at the end of World War I, the Nazi-coordinated Kristallnacht pogroms against Jews, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.) It was not the first time that citizens were urged to reflect on that date “with all its contradictions,” he said.

Fast-forward to the Western Balkans today, where an ongoing secessionist push in Republika Srpska, old nationalist ideologies, and a new form of genocide denialism in Serbia have kept the region from taking such steps toward reconciliation. Nenad Dimitrijevic, a professor at Central European University, argues: “We in Serbia are incapable of meeting the requirements of human rights, democracy, and decency today because we are unwilling to confront the truth about the crimes committed in our name yesterday.”

Instead of confronting racist ideologies, building empathy toward survivors, and honoring the innocent victims of past regimes, the current regime embraces victimhood, continues historical revisionism of a well-documented genocide, and intimidates those who advocate for confronting Serbia’s violent past. The persistence of the “Serb world” aspiration shows that those fighting against new violence still have a very long process of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung ahead. As Neiman writes, “As the failure of denazification showed, it cannot be imposed from outside.”

The hope is that Serbia’s own “nest-foulers” will be Belgrade’s new national heroes one day.


Riada Asimovic Akyol is a Bosnian journalist based in Washington and the creator and host of the podcast “Dignified Resilience.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the AtlanticNewlines, Al Jazeera, Al Monitor, and the Nation. Twitter: @riadaaa

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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