Commentary Magazine

Wartime, by Milovan Djilas

Hero’s Story

by Milovan Djilas.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 470 pp. $14.95.

Wartime is a compelling story of civil war, of the internecine fighting among Yugoslavs of differing loyalties that began after the German invasion of April 6, 1941. In that “deadly vortex,” as Djilas calls it, Serb fought against Croat, Muslim against Christian, village against village, clan against clan. It is also a story of resistance and liberation, of the efforts of the Communist Partisans under Tito to defeat the Nazis while at the same time fighting against various fascist and non-fascist collaborators.

Djilas, who was a close aide of Tito’s during the war, suggests that the “official” Titoist version of the Partisans’ heroic exploits is, if not exactly wrong, then at least a distortion and simplification of what actually took place. Though he honors the courage of the Partisans, he also knows that those years provide material not only for a national epic but also for a darker saga—on the order of Macbeth, perhaps—a tale of suspicions and betrayals, where all of Yugoslavia “floated upon a wild and violent sea,” a tale that focuses less on the struggle against the invader than on the flaring up of inveterate hatreds. “Revenge,” Djilas once said in speaking of Montenegro, his native land, “is its greatest delight and glory.” The Yugoslavia of Wartime is Montenegro writ large.

The most notorious of the revengers were the Ustashi—Croatian fascists who were bent on slaughtering as many Jews and Serbs as they could get their hands on. Ranged against them in the civil war were both the Chetniks (Serbians loyal to the government-in-exile in London) and the Partisans (Communists loyal to the Soviet Union), though to speak of fascists, loyalists, and Communists in this connection is not quite accurate, since the actualities of the situation turned peasants into Chetniks one day, and into Partisans the next.

All did their share of killing, so that it is hard to estimate how many of the 1.7 million Yugoslavs who died during these years were killed by fellow countrymen, and how many by Germans. In Djilas’s family alone, one brother was killed by a Montenegrin militiaman fighting under the Italians, another was tortured and killed by a member of the Serbian police working with the Gestapo, a pregnant sister was murdered by Chetniks, and Djilas’s father was shot by an Albanian nationalist. As Djilas says, “There is immeasurably more bad blood in a fratricidal war than in any war between countries.”

Caught up in this infernal machine, the Partisans sometimes behaved as ruthlessly as the Ustashi and the Chetniks. But unlike the others, they directed most of their energies toward killing Germans rather than their fellow-countrymen. As a result, they eventually gained the upper hand, winning support from the Allies and allaying the suspicions of the peasants, who had at first distrusted their well-advertised association with the Soviet Union.



In recounting all this—including the major role he played in the Partisans’ abortive negotiations with the Germans during the course of the war—Djilas has given us an important historical document that illuminates one of the darkest and most confusing episodes of the World War II period. But Wartime is more than a historical memoir; it is also a disinterested meditation on what Djilas calls a “historical tragedy.” Acknowledging the madness of war and continually making us aware of its “bloody and insane devices,” Djilas nevertheless refuses to indulge in facile anti-war pieties. Under certain conditions, he says, making war is a responsible and just action; what is more, it often brings out the best (as well as the worst) in people. “Some men,” Djilas says, “would never show all they are capable of, were it not for war.” If part of this book’s power lies in the unvarnished tale itself—the story of the Partisans’ long march to escape encirclement by the Nazis—part lies also in Djilas’s ability to rescue from oblivion men and women who conducted themselves honorably under intolerable conditions—not only fellow Partisans but also individual Chetniks and Italians. Djilas even speaks of the heroism of the German army in retreat. Only for the Ustashi does he reserve complete contempt.

Praising the many brave individuals he encountered during those years, Djilas is also praising himself, for he is clearly proud of his own war record. Indeed, one of the most attractive things about this memoir is the way in which the author’s sense of his own dignity shines through, untainted by pomposity, self-righteousness, or vindictiveness. Djilas avoids the common autobiographical strategy—invented by Augustine and perfected by Rousseau—of attacking oneself in order to make oneself look better. Though he does criticize some of his actions, he never parades his anguish or guilt.

If Djilas does not go in for self-laceration, he also does not go in for punishing others. He is, in fact, remarkably generous toward the Partisan leaders—men, after all, who subsequently became his bitter enemies. Though he does judge men for their particular actions, there is a sense in which Djilas—as both actor and chorus in this tragedy—feels that those caught in the net of the civil war were acted upon, were passive victims of an inexorable fate. Describing a particularly ruthless act of the Partisans, for example, he says that “everyone was struck dumb by the reality of what they had helped to create. It was as if something terrible had happened to them.” And, as befits the recollection of tragedy, Djilas is cautious about straining after conclusions, about trundling out half-baked Nietzschean reflections on man, war, violence, etc., the kind of rhetoric that marred his own earlier autobiographical work, Land Without Justice, and that pervades the work of that other warrior-writer, André Malraux.

Finally, then, Wartime is a book about a hero, for if anyone deserves to be called heroic it is Djilas. He has spent more than twelve years in jail—three years before the war, when he was tortured for his Communist convictions, and more than nine years after, when the Partisans imposed their own brand of tyranny on Yugoslavia and he was relegated to unperson status because of his attacks upon the “new class.” Djilas is proud of his ability to stand up well under torture, but he is even prouder of his civil courage—the courage, as he says in Memoir of a Revolutionary, “to defend one’s own opinions and ideas to the bitter end. . . .”

And yet there is something about the career of this remarkable man—novelist and revolutionary, guerrilla fighter and autobiographer, vice president of Yugoslavia and embattled anti-Communist—that should give us pause. At the end of Wartime, Djilas does reach after a conclusion, and it is a puzzling one. Reflecting upon his disillusionment with revolutionary idealism, he says that “with my present outlook, I would not have been able to do what I had done then,” and then goes on to voice the hope that “in the end monolithic ideological revolutions will cease, even though they have roots in idealism and idealists.” But what, given the realities of the Yugoslav civil war, would he have done then? Does he mean that he would not have joined the Partisans? Or does he mean that he would not have been such an unquestioning Communist—one who, as he ruefully admits in Conversations With Stalin, “referred many times in discussions to the crystal clarity of his [Stalin’s] style, the penetration of his logic, and the harmony of his commentaries. . .”?

Wartime is a great book, an extraordinarily balanced, restrained, and judicious work of autobiography and history, but Djilas—we should keep in mind—did not reach his “present outlook” until his middle or late thirties. If such a decent, sensible, courageous, and intelligent man could have been a fanatical Stalinist for such a long time, what hopes can we really entertain that ideological messianism will ever cease?

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