The years of World War II—when thousands of Yugoslav workers, peasants, intellectuals and students joined the Communist-led Partisans—provided the foundation for the myth of the post-war Communist regime. Small forests were torn down just to print hundreds of thousands of pages extolling the virtues or condemning the crimes of the Yugoslav Communists in WWII. Memoirs and war diaries, historical studies and exhibitions, popular songs and films all focused on Communism. Even the most popular children’s story from post-war Yugoslavia, Branko Copic’s The Hedgehog’s House, is widely perceived to be an allegory of the partisan struggle against the Nazis. The primary sources from this period are daunting and the hagiography that accompanies them is stifling.
It is largely for these reasons that I have hesitated researching this period. At first I had (naively) hoped that my research could simply pass over this period, or at least cover only the most essential parts of the history. Initially, I wanted to focus on the inter-war period to track the origins of the different strands of Communist thought in Yugoslavia. As my research progresses, however, I am continually being pointed in the direction of WWII. And I am now slowly realizing that the partisan experience was not just a founding myth for the Communist regime, it was a real and important moment in the bringing together and synthesizing of the different strands of thought that made up Yugoslav Communism. The Communists were able to shape the partisan experience in such a way as to draw in these different strands under their own hegemony. Frequently, this meant appropriating (implicitly or overtly) theological concepts from different religious traditions.
Sociologically speaking, it is understandable that WWII was such a formative moment for Yugoslav Communists. Military service is a common way for states to forge a collective identity. The Ottoman Empire, for example, used the military for just this purpose. Bringing together people from different national and religious communities into a single institution, Ottoman reformers thought they could create a more universal sense of belonging amongst their population. The Communist partisan experience of WWII intuitively operated along a similar logic. Partisan units made up of intellectuals and workers, Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and atheists, men and women, became small and isolated communities of believers hidden in the mountains and forests of an occupied land.
From the perspective of an intellectual historian, however, it was not just a common Yugoslav or Communist identity that was forged. The partisan experience was also an important moment in the creation of Communist ideology and language. What emerges most clearly when one reads the memoirs and war diaries of people like the Montenegrin Communist Milovan Djilas, the Serbian Orthodox priest and communist sympathizer Vlado Zecevic, the surrealist Koca Popovic or the Catholic socialist poet Edvard Kocbek, are the different ways in which these figures tried to communicate the existential, spiritual experience of ‘partisanism’ (partizanstvo).
It is clear to me now that in my research into the theologico-political aspects of Communist thought the partisan experience is going to be a central moment. What happens to the various strands of left wing thought during the years of WWII? How are the themes common to most partisan writings—in particular the themes of community, belief, faith, sacrifice, salvation—treated by thinkers from different intellectual and religious traditions? Finally, how exactly was the Communist party able to draw upon and shape these different strands of leftist thought?