Professor Lea David, a Professor of the Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa, writing in the journal History and Politics in the Western Balkans: Changes at the Turn of the Millennium, addresses an aspect of Holocaust memory discourse in Serbia. Through examination of agendas within Serbian Holocaust discourse, she argues that Holocaust memorialization in Serbia is utilized in a way which is far from the human rights’ ideal of preventing future human rights violations. On the contrary, David concludes that Holocaust discourse is being used as a form of ‘screen-memory’ to conceal the true role that Serbians played in the 1990s Balkan Wars. Instead, the Serbian political elite has hijacked Holocaust imagery and symbolism to present Serbians as righteous victims and justify a new nationalist ideology.
David begins by noting that during Communist rule in the former Yugoslavia, the Holocaust was mostly ignored and neglected by the government. When marked at all, it was in the context of the wider ‘anti-Fascist’ struggle which did not single out the genocide of the Jews. Under the government of Milosevic in the 1990s and early 2000s, Serbian suffering in the Holocaust began to be commemorated within Serbia. The focus of Serbian Holocaust remembrance is the Jasenovac concentration camp, which was operated not by Germans but by the Croatian Ustasa. But Serbian officials continued to show indifference to non-Serbian victims of the Holocaust and did not participate in any international Holocaust memorialization events.
Professor David focuses her study on the sudden adoption of Holocaust discourse in Serbia from 2005, when the UN established International Holocaust Memorial Day and the EU made membership contingent upon Holocaust remembrance. In the same year, the EU’s Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) recognized the Jasenovac Committee of the Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church as an example of excellence in educating about the Holocaust. The Jasenovac Committee was part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a body that had become increasingly powerful through the 1990s and emerged as a right-wing nationalist force by the new millennium.
From 2005, David notes, all Holocaust discourse in Serbia was directed by the Jasenovac Committee, so as to keep Holocaust education within the bounds of Serbian memory. The Holocaust was the context in which the massacres of Serbs took place, with Jewish and Roma victims remembered as ‘our brothers in suffering’. Enabled by monk Jovan Culibrk, the Jasenovac committee immediately made ties with Yad Vashem, who did not realise what Holocaust memorialization would be made to serve in Serbia. The Serbian political elite then hijacked the images and symbols of the Holocaust in order to equate Serbian victims with Jewish victims, and promote Serbian righteous victimhood as enduring throughout the 1990s wars. In this way, the Holocaust serves as a screen-memory, used to repress another aspect of history which the Serbian political elite does not wish to be seen.
Having established Serbs as victims of the Holocaust, the Serbian government then moved to sideline the roles of Serbian Communist partisan fighters and to rehabilitate quisling Cetnik members and other right-wing figures. As part of their nationalist resurgence, Serbian responsibility in the 1990s wars is deliberately ignored. Holocaust discourse is utilized to close off every arena for public debate about the wars, which are only mentioned to reinforce the image of Serbs as victims.
International human rights’ bodies intended that Holocaust memorialization would go hand in hand with addressing human rights violations of all types. But in Serbia, Holocaust discourse is not promoted as a way of grappling with human rights abuses. Holocaust discourse is used as a tool to improve Serbia’s international image, but domestically it is solely utilized to promote Serbian nationalism. The Holocaust is only remembered as a screen-memory, in order to contextualize the suffering of Serbian victims as being on a par with the Jews and to justify a new right-wing mindset to sideline the 1990s wars.
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