The Gospel According to Cosic

DANIEL BERGER

January 02, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

What does Serbian nationalism seek? How does it explain its atrocities?

Is Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic -- who just warned the U.N. to restrain Bosnian Muslims from defending themselves -- the principal war criminal, architect of the mass murders, rapes and evictions, mentor to Slobodan Milosevic? Or is he the peace-maker who schemes to unhorse the villain Milosevic and bring Serbia into the community of nations?

On the principle expounded by an old professor that 90 percent of intelligence can be done in New York Public Library, I went to the Enoch Pratt Central Library. Fiction Department. C shelves.

Dobrica Cosic fought in Tito's Partisans, joined the Communists, served in the Yugoslav parliament and the Serbian Communist Party Central Committee. Then, in 1968, he quit to write novels reviving Serbian nationalism. They were set in the Serbian army in the 1914 war, exploring Serbian identity in that context. None was set in Tito's multicultural Yugoslavia. Communication under communism was like that, requiring much of writer and reader.

Two of his books were on the Pratt's shelf. I read ''A Time of Death,'' second part of a tetralogy that is his masterpiece, published in English translation in 1978. It had last been taken out in 1988.

This is a stirring, profound novel of Serbs fighting for survival against Austria's invasion in 1914. It echoes Leo Tolstoy's ''War and Peace,'' and suggests Stephen Crane's ''The Red Badge of Courage.'' Every character is Serb. All others are offstage; the only Croats are voices over the hill in Austria's army. There is no Muslim, Jew or Gypsy. The Allies betray Serbia. Here are excerpts, from different characters, outlining Cosic's view:

''Everything has always been against us, Your Highness. Nobody has helped us to survive during the last few centuries. We have survived only thanks to our own patience and our will to survive. Nothing else has helped us.''

''At no time in history have there been favorable circumstances for a final decision on the Serbian question -- that is, for uniting the Serbian people.''

''Now don't forget . . . Field Marshal Potiorek has written in one of his vindictive communiques that the Serbs are a dirty, stinking, rascally race. You must remind the Serbian officers of this. You must remind them constantly, if you don't want to end up as the groom of an Austrian sergeant major.''

''From the racket they're making, you'd think the war was over. . . . They don't talk like Bosnians. Then what are they? They're swearing just like Serbians, the Bosnians don't swear like that. It's only the Croats who swear at us like that.''

''Look here, I'm a Serb. I'm a Dacic from Prerovo, and no one on this earth is going to lord it over me while there's breath in my body. I'll bend my neck to no man. I want my freedom, so that I can do whatever comes into my head. Now leave me alone to sleep a bit longer.''

''You know, Dragovic, when I had to choose my life's vocation, I believed that my generation had a mission: the liberation and unification of the Serbs, for which our people have yearned for five centuries.''

''We are a peasant army, that means a defensive army: one that doesn't fight for victory and glory, but for homes and children, meadows and sheepfolds. People will fight for their own name and their own grave. Such an army can do everything, but only when it is fighting for survival, when it sees and knows for what it must die.''

'' . . . when a small country defeats a big one, when a weaker army crushes one more powerful than itself, can any good come of it in the future? No, it cannot. The victor will be savagely punished for transgressing the law of this world. Can Serbia have any hope of peace, after defeating the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Vengeance awaits us, inescapable vengeance.''

''After these victories we'll no longer be an unhappy people, I'm deeply convinced of it. Our songs will be different. We'll have to change our manner of swearing! We'll no longer be malicious, cunning and petty. Perhaps we'll be haughty and licentious, but after so much suffering we have the right to be haughty if we

want to! A Serb will no longer feel like a man of an inferior race, a Balkan vis-a-vis the Europeans. Europe won't despise him any more.''

* * * Can this explain the torture, starvation and murder? No, it just sheds a little light on the denial that atrocity occurred.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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