- The Nonconformists: Culture, Politics, and Nationalism in a Serbian Intellectual Circle, 1944–1991
In the 1990s, Serbian nationalism turned deadly. The question still motivating historians is why? Where did this potent brand of nationalism come from? Was it simmering beneath the surface ready to explode? Was it ingrained in the Serbian ethos? Defying conventional wisdom, Miller answers these last two questions with a resounding “no.” In his innovative study of the development of Serbian nationalist thought from the 1940s to the 1990s, he persuasively argues that Serbian nationalism developed as the intellectual antidote to Communism. Indeed, it was an ideological response to the real and perceived problems that Serbs faced in Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia.
The Nonconformists sets out to examine the evolution of Serbian nationalism through a prism as intuitive as it is unlikely—writers and artists, figures typically associated with radical politics but less often with the political right. Miller explores how the cultural politics of Communist Eastern Europe created a situation in which certain members of the intelligentsia began to align their arts with a politics reminiscent of everything that culture should not be—repressive, censored, and unyielding. The landscape that he maps centers on three Serbian intellectuals from the same cultural milieu—Dobrica Ćosić, a novelist and well-known supporter of Slobodan Milošević; Mića Popović, a painter; and Borislav Mihaljović Mihiz, a playwright and literary critic.
Miller opens his study with portraits of these intellectuals during the early decades of Tito’s Yugoslavia, through which he analyzes the nuanced shifts in each man’s art and politics as the economic, political, and social landscape of Serbia transformed. He draws from methods of political and intellectual history, as well as cultural analysis, art history, [End Page 591] and literary criticism, producing a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. He then integrates these elegant portraits with the book’s middle chapters, which explore how, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, each intellectual—and by extension, a segment of the Serbian elite—became disillusioned with Titoism’s repression, intolerance, and failed promises of social equality. The moment and causes of disillusionment differed for each man, but the results were the same—a turn toward some form of Serbian nationalism.
But this nationalism, Miller contends, should be considered a process, rather than a fixed category. Although the eventual outcome is no mystery—a form of nationalism that set the stage for carrying out genocide—Miller does not rush toward this conclusion. Instead, he disaggregates the intellectual processes that contributed to the radicalization of Serbian national ideology throughout the 1980s. Most prominently, he explores how the intellectual movement for freedom of expression, tolerance, and anti-corruption dangerously combined with an emerging Serbian complex of victimization. Miller points to Kosovo as the catalyst for this convergence, turning the intellectual debates political and becoming the principal symbol of Serbian victimhood. Thus did it transform the movement “from a pure—perhaps overly pure—emphasis on the principle of free expression to a cathartic embrace of Kosovo as a reaction of all the ills faced by Serbia and even Yugoslavia” (277). Miller emphasizes that it is not his intent to create sympathy for the nationalists but to understand why some Serbs viewed Milošević and the radical nationalist movement as a solution to the oppression that they felt in Yugoslavia. He does so superbly.
The Nonconformists is not a fast-paced book; it is nearly impossible to skim. Every chapter—indeed, every page—contributes to Miller’s narrative about the processes of nationalist transformation. By examining the gradual shifts in this transformation, Miller convincingly demonstrates that radical nationalism was neither intrinsic to the Serbian psyche nor a fait accompli. Those who believe Miller’s argument (as I do) will agree that this process is destined to continue. “Perhaps,” as Miller concludes hopefully, the next ideological turn will be toward something “more humane.”