Friday, 5 September 2008

Partisan Women: Bloodthirsty Harpies of National Liberation?

Since I started writing about my communist partisan grandparents, I have done some casual research into Yugoslav/Bosnian WWII history. One interesting recent book I came across covers the period 1941-43, and in particular the 'civil war' between the Partisans on one side, and the Chetniks - Serbian nationalist/royalist paramilitaries, predecessors of contemporary Serbian nationalists. The Chetniks, on account of very effective propaganda through a long-established and influential Serbian lobby in the West (descendants of the Royal family reside in England to this day)**, actually received Allied support until 1943, when Allied spies dispatched to both sides reported that the Chetniks were in fact collaborating with the Germans while the Partisans were fighting against them. The Allies officially (and grudgingly, given the Partisans' communist agenda) switched their support at the Tehran conference.

The feats of the Yugoslav Partisans in WWII are the stuff of legend. These were not mere warriors - they were a representative cross-section of the society that spawned them. They even included some of the greatest artists and writers of 20th century Yugoslavia, who immortalized the struggle in literature, film, and fine art. For those of us who grew up with these stories the names of places and battles reverberate with a mythological power - The Battle of Sutjeska, The Igman March, the Battle of Neretva...Through the haze of childhood recollection the protagonists of these tales are endowed with an almost super-human strength and cunning in overcoming their far more powerful Nazi opponents. But what if there is indeed a real dimension of this struggle that is, well, not super-human, but super-(man)?

It is generally accepted that in spite of their technological and military weaknesses early in the war, the Partisans had two main advantages over their enemies:
1. a small but very effective cadre of Spanish Civil War veterans from the International brigades who, unlike even many German troops, had valuable experience of modern warfare (the Spanish Civil War is arguably the first truly modern war, at least on European soil), and
2. broad popular appeal due to the fact that their founding aims were political rather than ethnic or religious, allowing them to draw recruits across national, ethnic, religious, and other boundaries.

There is one under-explored dimension of this second point: the role of women. Many people don't realize just how radical Tito and co's project of national liberation was, and how deliberate they were in taking measures to reshape society from top to bottom. Here is one interesting passage from Hoare's book:

"...The group of Bosnians most excluded from political life prior to the Axis invasion was the female half of the population, which represented a larger proportion of the country's inhabitants than Serbs, Muslims, or Croats. In his seminal study of the Chetnik movement, Jozo Tomasevich noted the role of women in the Partisan victory: 'One of the fundamental differences between the Chetnik and Partisan movements was in their attitude toward women. The participation of women in Partisan fighting ranks and mass organisations of the Partisan movement was of such importance that all Partisan officials agreed that without the women the Partisans could never have won.' [footnote omitted] ...Male supremacy over women was as much a part of traditional rural society as religious semi-segregation. In overturning the one the KPJ helped to undermine the other, for the dissolution of traditional boundaries between men and women and between Orthodox, Muslims, Catholics, and Jews was part of the same process of turning 'peasants into Bosnians', a process inimical to the Chetnik project that upheld traditional social distinctions." (Genocide and Resistance in Hitler's Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943, 285-86.)

On the point about 'turning peasants into Bosnians' my grandpa's story, as told in the previous post, is a case in point. How successful this was, well, my grandma may have a few things to say about it, but I think we're in overall agreement. (Apparently whenever people tried to psychologize my grandpa's behaviour, she would explain that, as a peasant at heart, he had no such thing as a 'psyche')

Nonetheless, it gets even more amusing. To anyone interested in this topic I would recommend reading the entire chapter in Hoare's book which chronicles, among other things, touching episodes of Muslim women shedding veils and other niceties in joining or collaborating with Partisan ranks. Here are some other interesting bits:

"The prominent role of women in the Partisan movement inevitably found a role in the demonology of its right-wing enemies. An Ustasha report on Partisan atrocities in Prijedor, following the capture of the town in May 1942, claimed: 'Women, both from Prijedor and from the surrounding area, played a particularly prominent role in these bestialities'. [footnote omitted]...The Ustashas' Department of Public Security claimed in an internal report of September 1942 that the Partisans 'are in many places bloodthirsty, particularly the female persons in their ranks.' [footnote omitted] For their part, the Chetniks distributed a pamphlet in eastern Hercegovina in late 1942 claiming that among the Communists were many 'fallen and unfortunate women and girls without morals' [footnote omitted]...Partisan women were therefore the polar opposite of true, martyred Serb women. In Draza Mihailović's view: 'Communist women are recognisable by the fact that they are immoral; using free love they approach and seduce our men, particularly those who place fun above duty.'[footnote omitted]" (288-89)

While I am having difficulty picturing my grandma as a bloodthirsty berserker harpy, I find it amusing to imagine the chill these fascists must have gotten to see women carrying guns and screaming communist slogans. One old Partisan anthem we all sang as kids is about a mlada partizanka - a young Partisan woman - who threw grenades at the enemy...

One could even argue that the presence of women helped turn the tide of the war not just quantitatively by inflating the ranks of the Partisans, but additionally in a qualitative way, by the effect on morale - building solidarity in the ranks irrespective of religious, ethnic, or gender differences, and demoralising their enemies, or simply scaring them shitless at the sight of this weird hybrid fighting machine.

This should in no way lead to any sympathy with the contemporary American project of nation-building or reshaping other societies: the partisans, who sought to reshape their own, were strategically precisely in the position of the mujahideen - the crucial difference being that they were fighting for unification and liberation, rather than segregation and imposition of strict religious codes. The crucial element lending to the effectiveness of their struggle, and to the unique position of Yugoslavia in the Cold War world after its break with the Soviet Union, is national self-determination.

Going back to the broader issue of political appeal and the enfranchisement of the excluded, does this not go some way toward explaining why the vast majority post-colonial national liberation movements worldwide - even those spawned without any direct outside superpower involvement - were communist or socialist? Doesn't any national liberation struggle, in order to be truly successful, require this kind of breaking-down of ethnic, religious, gender, and other boundaries?

This is precisely the way to unite the different struggles: workers, women, oppressed minorities... In order to effectively confront a common external enemy, a nation must first shed its own internal demons; and perhaps the reason why Yugoslavia broke apart in the end is because this work was never thoroughly completed. The decades of Tito's 'brotherhood and unity' only relatively froze the post-war breakdown, nationalism in particular was never properly dealt with...(And here it may be worthy to concede, grudgingly, Žižek's point about the Jacobins and revolutionary terror - the French republic they inaugurated remains intact 200 years later, and it looks like it will survive even Sarkozy - so perhaps the Partisans simply weren't extreme enough...)

One should equally not be deterred here by the fact that Capital - once the sole preserve of wealthy white men - has in the meantime found ways to accommodate, commodify, and even commandeer the rhetoric of multi-culturalism, human rights, equality, etc. This is in its nature, as Deleuze and Guattari argue - deterritorialization. Yet we should never forget that these are the fruits of hard-won battles against Capital - even against liberalism,in its earliest incarnation. Why simply give up on this legacy and allow liberal Capital to mediate its impact and reterritorialize the gains for political 'street cred'?

One thing that some people today are shocked to hear, for instance, is that Swiss women - Switzerland being the darling of Global Capital, hosting a number of multinational corporations way out of proportion to its size - only gained the right to vote in 1971, by a national referendum in which one-third of the all-male electorate voted against suffrage. (One Swiss canton only granted women full suffrage in 1990!) And even after suffrage many discriminatory measures remained in place for years, such as husbands' control over their wives' property and capital, the husband's right to decide on the couple's place of residence, etc. Switzerland, until fairly late in the 20th century, is like some perverse modern capitalist version of the Taliban. Isn't this the best proof that modernity alone, not to mention its capitalist variant, is no guarantee of freedom, equality, human rights, etc - and that simply imposing 'democracy' is a hollow gesture when it comes to true liberation?

Without overemphasizing the value of the democratic vote - one always has to wonder why a particular freedom is being granted at a particular time and to what end the political credit gained by those in power is being deployed. The end of colonialism is often seen as merely the transition or sublation to another form of colonialism - a version of what Hardt and Negri call Empire, what others have called economic imperialism (although 'Empire' goes beyond political economy, as a new incarnation of old state sovereignty); similarly, one could say that democratic reform is permitted when the power elite has sufficiently insulated itself from it, and this is ultimately the problem with gradualism.

But the answer to this predicament is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is rather, keep the bathwater, and throw out the baby - insist on change, democratic or otherwise, but insist on it, as Martin Luther King did, now. Not when those in power find it suitable to throw some scraps from the table. Seize the revolutionary moment, intervene to change the very coordinates of what is deemed 'possible', to put it in Žižekian terms.

**This same lobby/propaganda machine has in recent years caused much of the confusion surrounding the Balkan wars of the 1990s, ironically pulling many Western leftist intellectuals (notably Chomsky and Parenti) into the ranks of apologetics for military aggression and ultimately genocide, under the banner of Serbian nationalism. This is largely due to the grossly mistaken impression that people like Milošević- a rabid nationalist who inaugurated his tenure in 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo, by annexing Kosovo and Vojvodina and thus giving Serbia 3 votes in the 8-member national council, prompting the walkout in protest of Croatian and Slovene members - were somehow carrying on the legacy of Tito's Yugoslavia, rather than actively working together with the West to destroy it. One prominent and oft-quoted (ironically even by Chomsky) figure in this project was Gen. Lewis Mackenzie, a Tory politician in Canada and commander of UN forces in Sarajevo early on in the war, who gave testimony before the US congress in 1992 arguing against any intervention - even humanitarian aid - in the conflict, saying that "all three sides were equally guilty". Mackenzie was later revealed to have been on the payroll of a Serbian-American lobbying group while on a speaking tour following the publication of his book on Bosnia. Similarly, Diana Johnstone, who published a book supposedly debunking Serb atrocities in Bosnia, was refused further publication by In These Times - a leftist paper in the US for which she had regularly written - when the editors discovered that she was an old college friend of Mirjana Markovic, Slobodan Milošević's wife. (For the sake of comparison, just imagine a supposedly objective journalistic account justifying the Iraq war, presenting 'evidence' that there were indeed WMD in Iraq, that the Abu Ghraib photos were faked, there was no torture, the civilian death toll was exaggerated, etc - written by an author who turns out to be an old college friend of, say, Dick Cheney's wife. I actually had an e-mail debate about this with Chomsky, and I gotta say, Noam, I know it's hard to admit you were wrong, let alone taken for a complete fool, but sometimes you just gotta do it.)

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