Can Serbia be as neutral as Switzerland?

«For us the Serbs are not a 'gang'"

On the occasion of the centenary of the First World War, anti-Serb stereotypes are circulating that seem familiar to us. The Swiss image of Serbia during the war offers an exciting contrast program.

By Thomas Bürgisser

History is the trump card this year, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. History has long been the trump card in Serbia. Both the Yugoslav communists and the Serbian nationalists, who have been setting the tone since the late 1980s, made use of historical content in order to make them useful for their ideological purposes.

A bizarre example of Serbian nationalist history politics can be found in the small Bosnian town of Visegrad. The film director Emir Kusturica, who has mutated into a Serbian nationalist, has a historicized fantasy city built here. The facades on the main street are adorned with a mosaic depicting the protagonists of the boy Bosnia: a group of militant Serb nationalists, from which the melancholy-looking Gavrilo Princip stands out as the central figure - the high school student who on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo became the heir to the Habsburg throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife had murdered and thus gave Austria-Hungary an opportunity to start the war against Serbia, which led to the outbreak of this "Great War".

Positive voices from French-speaking Switzerland

In Switzerland, too, the memory of the outbreak of the First World War is currently enjoying increasing attention. However, the anniversary is less easy to instrumentalize. How much more scandalized are the Second World War with country spirit and Réduit, looted gold and refugees or the myths about the Rütli oath and Marignano.

At the start of the anniversary at the beginning of this year, the book by the Australian historian Christopher Clark dominated the feature pages. In his study “Die Schlafwandler”, Clark tries to absolve the German Empire and Austria-Hungary of their main responsibility for war guilt and to give greater weight to the aggressive character of the Serbian expansion policy.

No matter what one might think of this thesis, the negative image of Serbia that Clark creates seems familiar to us. Clark is not afraid to compare the Serbia of 1914 with that of the Slobodan-Milosevic era. The national-ethnic character of the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s and Serbia's guilt for them serve as a basis for explaining the outbreak of the First World War.

Corruption and mismanagement, bloodthirsty and archaic conflicts, the delusion of a "Greater Serbia" to be enforced by force, which can only be brought to reason by the military force of the great powers: In today's Switzerland, these negative ideas are combined with the heavily battered image of the Serbian Migrant population added. Right-wing bourgeois politics as well as many media outlined a whole series of negative clichés of the «Yugos», including the Serbs, in the 1990s. Often they were blamed for drug trafficking, youth violence, abuse of social services and much more. At first glance, this negative image of the country and its people seems to be part of a longer tradition.

If we turn to the perception of Serbia in Switzerland around 1914, something astonishing becomes apparent. Indeed, when the war broke out, the hearts of many Swiss people were beating violently for Serbia. The historian Olivier Haener showed in his Lausanne licensed thesis “L'image de la Serbie dans la presse de droite en Suisse romande” from 1998 that at least in the right-wing bourgeois press in French-speaking Switzerland there was already strong sympathy for the small Balkan kingdom in the late 19th century . Which experts and journalists who had toured the country were enthusiastic about the social model of Serbia, which at that time was still largely an agrarian state. In the “Gazette de Lausanne” or the “Journal de Genève” they wrote hymns of praise for the “democratic and egalitarian spirit” of the Zadruga, the traditional, patriarchal family association.

For the conservatives, transfigured ideas about the peasant society of Serbia untouched by modernity corresponded to their own political program for Switzerland. In addition, there were defensive reactions by Francophone Switzerland against the increasingly powerful German Reich. Since Serbia was in a clinch with the (also German) Austria-Hungary, they conjured up an actually Helvetian-Serbian community of fate as early as the turn of the century.

But there was also sympathy in German-speaking Switzerland. In the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, when Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria conquered Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” was fascinated by the “heroic struggle” of the “small mountain peoples” against a powerful empire. In the Kingdom of Serbia, especially in little Montenegro, one saw parallels to the freedom struggle of the old confederates.

Imbued with the thought of love

Dozens of doctors and nurses from the Swiss Red Cross served in Serbian hospitals and military hospitals during the Balkan Wars. The reports of their experiences, which they published after their return to Switzerland, often speak of great sympathy: "We are the happy inhabitants of a small but free fatherland that also owes its independence to the bravery of its ancestors," wrote the Basel nurse Louise Probst, " could put us so well in the position of the oppressed Balkan states. " The Appenzell journalist and Red Cross activist Catharina Sturzenegger wanted to prove to the Swiss audience that Serbia was “literally saturated with the thought of love and mercy”, the people full of admirable “general spirit” and “patriotism”.

Neutral Switzerland was spared from the First World War. The war was, however, a great burden in many respects. Particularly in the first years of the war, a deep rift opened up between German and French Switzerland. In one part of the country they sided with Germany and the Central Powers, in the other with France and the Entente.

In his famous Zurich speech “Our Swiss standpoint”, Carl Spitteler, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, made a fiery appeal for social cohesion in Switzerland. You shouldn't allow yourself to be divided by the propaganda of the "passionate war press". The sympathies belonged primarily to the victims of the war - regardless of their nationality. “For us, the Serbs are not a 'band', but a people,” warned Spitteler in response to German defamation, “and a people as legitimate and respectable as any other. The Serbs have a glorious, heroic past. Her folk poetry is equal in beauty to any other, her hero poetry even surpasses it. "

Spitteler had long had an affinity for Serbian folk poetry such as the Blackbird epic, the mythically stylized legend about the battle of the Christian Serb Empire against the Turks in 1389. In his speech, however, he also referred to the reports of the medical aid missions: «Our Swiss doctors and nurses (... ) told us about the Serbs in a tone of sympathy and praise. " One pillar of the bridge that he tried to build between the different parts of the country was Serbia, which asserted itself in a struggle for freedom against the interests of the great powers.

The war propaganda of France, which was allied with Serbia, had no insignificant influence on the defensive struggle of the Balkan kingdom in French-speaking Switzerland being glorified as a heroic war of fate. Here the Lausanne professor of criminalistics Archibald Reiss was one of the most vehement advocates of the "Serbian cause". But in German-speaking Switzerland, too, the expressions of sympathy for Spitteler and the members of the Red Cross missions did not go unheard. Not only the negative stereotypes, but also the glorification of the Serbian peasant society as a primeval democratic and freedom-loving community say more about the attitude of the viewer than about the character of the object of investigation. When the Zurich doctor Gottlieb Hertenstein was quoted as saying that the Serbs were "heroes in war - but good, dear, good children in ordinary life who must be loved!", This shows a paternalistic feeling of superiority.

The Swiss image of Serbia during the First World War offers an exciting contrast to the ideas that prevail today. The breaks and changes that shape the collective perceptions of foreign societies in the historical process can be used as an opportunity to question such firmly established ideas in general.

History can, however, also be used as an opportunity to identify continuities where one would less suspect them. "Every patriot who walks on the land of his ancestors must be a Serb in his heart," said an article in the Serbian magazine "Geopolitika" in 2007. "For the Serbian people sum up in their fate all the sufferings which the rampant monster of the New World Order inflicts on the weaker by trampling on international laws and the right of sovereign nations to self-determination." This is no longer the enemy of 1914 who tortured Serbia: not Austria-Hungary, but the “West”, the USA and the EU. "Serbia had the audacity to resist," it says, justifying Belgrade's role in the civil wars of the 1990s. Author of the article: Valais SVP politician Oskar Freysinger.

Tyrannicide as a common motive

Freysinger is a member of the Serbian Writers' Association and is often quoted by the Serbian press for his statements against the EU, Kosovo ("The [Swiss] recognition of Kosovo is absolutely outrageous") or Islam ("the greatest danger to Europe"). The irony of fate: It was precisely a former immigrant from Serbia who had a significant influence on the image of Serbia of the well-known exponent of an anti-immigrant party: Freysinger has a long-standing friendship with the writer Slobodan Despot. Despot has been advising the Valais State Council as an external communications officer since 2013. The media outraged at the time that Freysinger had brought a “genocide denier” into the cantonal education department in the form of the nationalist-oriented despot, because he played down the 1995 massacre of the Muslim population of Srebrenica committed by the Bosnian Serbs. The serbophile tradition of right-wing journalism founded at the end of the 19th century in French-speaking Switzerland is thus continued via the Despot-Freysinger axis.

A central element of this story must be the murder of tyrants in the land of Tell. On June 28, 2014, on the anniversary of the assassination attempt on Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Despot wrote a post in his blog in which he glorified the assassin Gavrilo Princip and the protagonists of the young Bosnia as saviors: «They saw no other alternative to freedom than that Death. We miss you! " Underneath, Despot placed a picture of Emir Kusturica kissing a Princip monument on the cheek.

On page 25 of the next issue there will be an article about the Lausanne professor of criminalistics and Serbia expert Archibald Reiss.

If you value the independent and critical journalism of WOZ, you are welcome to support us financially: