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Beyond the Action-Hero Version of Serbian History

An effort to change the way history is taught in Serbian schools runs aground.

by Dejan Kozul 8 November 2011

BELGRADE | The most important person in history was Nikola Tesla. The first person on the moon was from the Soviet Union. The Cold War is still going on. According, at least, to a significant percentage of Serbians who took part in a survey on history conducted in spring 2010.


Those disturbing results were the seed of a project to change the way Serbians think about history, which resulted in the publication last year of a book titled News From the Past.



The project’s aim was nothing less than to lift “the curse of history” that plagued Serbia and its neighbors in the 1990s and has colored political thinking since, said Beba Djuraskovic from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, which spearheaded the effort.


The questions in the survey, posed to 1,000 adults, were chosen from the primary school curriculum, on topics that are reviewed in high school, according to Dubravka Stojanovic, a historian and one of the book’s multiple authors. (See box, “History’s Bunk,” below.)


Dubravka Stojanovic
“The fact that school education leaves almost no trace has to worry us,” she said.


It’s not just schoolchildren getting their facts wrong that concerns researchers. They say the results highlight the narrow perspective too many Serbs bring to the subject of history.


The book, which is structured as a teacher’s guide, examines the issues of Serbian identity, religion, fascism, communism, and the wars of the 1990s. It locates the source of a prevailing ethnocentrism in poor teaching and an impoverished public discourse.


Those involved in the survey say they were most concerned by answers like the one about Tesla, a Serb who pioneered the use of electricity. The next most important people in history, the respondents said, were Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and Adolf Hitler. Five percent named Jesus Christ.


The choices suggest that respondents’ view of history is a result of contemporary political messages that distort the role of some figures. Politically aligned media during the 1980s and 1990s were full of references to Serbia’s imperial past and its perceived 20th-century role as the guardian of Christian European values. Those references persist in history textbooks.


“There is a picture of an unbeatable Serbia that fights only in righteous and defensible wars, that is the protector of Christianity from the Turks,” co-author Radina Vucetic writes in News From the Past.


That line of argument also gave the Orthodox Church a central role, writes another author, Radmila Radic. She links the church’s rising influence to the resurgence of conservatism, traditionalism, and, eventually, nationalism during the social crises that surrounded Yugoslavia’s breakup.




Serbia’s is the politics of manipulation, Stojanovic said – each successive political regime tampered with the country’s history, razing monuments and changing street names.


“It’s more dangerous to do work about the Middle Ages than about the wars of the ‘90s,” she said. “The myths are based in this past, and without them we’re afraid to live in the modern world.


“I call it the modern Peter Pan syndrome. As a nation and as a society, we’re afraid to grow up and we want to stay in this idealized past forever. This is a serious problem.”


News From the Past was sent to the Education Ministry, universities, and almost 100 schools all over Serbia, but its authors have received no response. Officials with the Education Ministry did not respond to TOL’s requests for comment.


The book was also presented, along with the survey results, at a series of roundtables over the winter and spring with teachers, students, journalists, activists, and academics in major cities.


Djuraskovic, the project coordinator, said the efforts seemed to have had little impact. “We couldn’t stimulate them to continue with the debate,” he said.


Nikola Milikic, a history student at the University of Belgrade who attended a lecture by Stojanovic on the survey results, said the audience was stunned but asked few questions.


The only notable reaction among students, he added, is a growing curiosity about why Serbians know so little about their own history. “Serbians perceive people from our national history as the most important in the world,” he said.


Former high school civics teacher Jovan Samoilov locates the cause in an ossified school system in which innovation must come from teachers, who are reluctant to provide it.


“ ‘Will I be paid more than I am right now?’ This is how they think about anything new,” Samoilev said. “History textbooks and the system insist on factography and this is what is expected at the university. I had a problem finding a compromise between new methods and the whole lazy system.”


That kind of inertia, he said, leaves a vacuum that is filled by misleading media images and public chatter, which helps explain the woeful survey results.


“It shows that we didn’t learn much from history and that fascism is growing stronger, and other answers show the strong influence of the church in the secular Serbia of the 21st century,” Stojanovic said.


History’s Bunk

Selected answers to some questions posed to 1,000 adults in Serbia by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights.


1. The most important event in world history was:

World War II 19%

World War I 5%

Discovery of electricity 4%

Discovery of America 4%

Fall of the Berlin Wall 3%

Moon landing 3%

Dropping of the atomic bomb 3%

Both world wars 3%

Appearance of Jesus Christ 3%

End of World War II 2%

Victory over fascism 2%

French Revolution 1%

Don’t know 23%


2. The most important event in Serbia’s history was:

The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 22%

Uprisings against the Turks 11%

Liberation from the Turks 10%

The fall of Slobodan Milosevic 6%

World War II 5%

Creation of an independent state [after the uprisings] 4%

14th-century Serbian empire/the medieval Nemanjić dynasty/life of St. Sava [founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church] 4%

1999 NATO bombing of Serbia 3%


3. The first person to reach the moon was from:

United States 51%

Soviet Union 42%

Canada 1%

Don’t know 5%


4. Which country was most responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia?

Croatia 52%

Slovenia 17%

Serbia 5%

United States 5%

Don’t know 19%


5. Which politician was most responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia?

Slobodan Milosevic 31%

Franjo Tudjman 28%

Stipe Mesic 5%

Milan Kucan 2%

Janez Drnovsek 2%

Don’t know 27%


6. Are you interested in history?

Very much 22%

Somewhat 7%

Not much 11%

Not at all 60%



Dejan Kozul is a freelance journalist in Belgrade.


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