Nationalists don’t just steal people’s lives and whatever money they can get their hands on. Most of all they steal history and culture. They hijack and destroy it. One example is my favorite song from Ex-Yugoslavia.

People here aren’t just enjoying an obviously popular song. It’s 250.000 Beogradians cheering Sarajevo’s most famous band, Bijelo Dugme, remembering the last summer of Yugoslavia and celebrating a common cultural heritage.

It’s almost as if this song about the spring holiday Djurdjevdan makes them forget the long cold and bloody winter that followed that last summer.

Probably Yugoslavia’s Most Successful Song

The song was made famous by Bijelo Dugme and its then frontman and composer Goran Bregović who is said to have written the Serbocroatian lyrics for the traditional Romany folk song Ederlezi.

This version first appeared in the 1988 movie „Dom za vešanje/Time Of The Gypsies“ (the English title has nothing to do with the original) by Emir Kusturica. It’s one of his finest works and put him in one league with the top European directors of his time.

The song became the probably greatest hit in the history of Yugoslav music.

That was before the Bosnjak Kusturica went a bit loony and turned into an ardent Serb nationalist, creating one Disneyland „traditional“ Serb village after another.

Djurdjevdan Gets Hijacked

That would be another story entirely had not somebody else hijacked the song in the past few years. That somebody does a lot more harm than screwy Kusturica.

This is the widow of a rapist, murderer, mugger, war criminal, thief and gangster revered by many as national hero – Željko Ražnatović who went by the name of Arkan and was commander of the paramilitary unit Srpska Dobrovoljačka Garda.

Among other things he and his fellow thughs slaughtered 100 patients at the hospital of Vukovar.

His exploits made him so popular with many Serbs that his and Ceca’s wedding were broadcast on Serbian TV in 1995.

Arkan was shot dead in Beograd in 2000 and that made his now widow Ceca even more famous than before. She has since become an icon with nationalist Serbs.

The Legacy of A Rapist and Murderer

In some of her concerts she calls hers and Arkan’s children on stage, showing them off, reinvoking the memory and legacy of her late husband. Her son shows the Serbian salute on these occasions, the „tri prsta“ (the three fingers).

It is the same sign you see people make in Ceca’s video above. It is the sign of Serb nationalists.

While Ceca primarily lives off Serb nationalists, her fan base has apparently extended beyond that. Somehow she seems to manage to satisfy her nationalist fans and not to alienate the rest and she is rather careful not to cross certain lines.

Ceca has concerts all over Europe all the time and has even appeared in Australia.

Successful And Dangerous

Her Croatian counterpart, Marko Perković „Thompson“, is way more obvious. His concerts are usually rallying points for Europe’s Neonazis – if he’s allowed to have them at all. Authorities have banned several gigs in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany.

Ceca’s strategy is the more successful one, not just in economic terms. Refraining from being too overtly fascist makes sure that her political agenda reaches far more people than just the die hard nationalists Thompson can usually address.

Djurdjevdan has become one of Ceca’s most popular songs and makes her a lot of money. Many of her younger fans don’t have any idea that it’s a traditional Romany song and think it’s traditional Serbian Music or Turbo Folk.

From being a symbol of the last summer of Yugoslavia it’s become a song for Serbia’s ultra-rightwingers celebrating what they think is their national identity.

This could be called tragic irony. What you can not call it is a coincidence.

A Myth Is Born

Numerous Serb sites give an alternate version of the origin of the song. They claim the song was created spontaneously when Serbs from Sarajevo were put on a deportation train to the Ustaše concentration camp in Jasenovac in Croatia.

As this happened on May 6th 1942, Djurdjevdan, they started singing that song, the story goes. Goran Bregović wrote a new arrangement for the song 40 years later in memory of the 3.000 or so Serbs deported that day, these sites claim.

With the exception of the fact that apparently several thousand Serbs were deported to Jasenovac on that date, everything else is almost certainly a work of fiction.

You do not find that story other than on Serb nationalist websites and blogs. The blog linked to at this place by the way is a very good example of how nationalism and religion are inseparably linked on the Balkans.

Not The Most Likely Story Ever Heard

It seems a bit unlikely that people crowded into freight train cars about to be transported to their certain deaths in Jasenovac spontaenously come up with well versed lyrics and perhaps even a new tune to sing along to.

This touching story doesn’t become any more likely if one considers what other conditions had had to be met in order for it to work out.

There must have been somebody on the train who had pencil and paper on him and managed to write down the lyrics in an overcrowded car amidst all that noise and chaos.

Somehow the notes were either smuggled out of a concentration camp or were hidden so well that they weren’t discovered until after the liberation of the camp – which the guards had mostly destroyed in the days before the Partisans arrived.

And rather miraculously, the whole thing was all but forgotten about for 40 or so years in order to turn up as a song in a movie that had nothing to do with the incidence in the first place.

This is in stark contrast to the stories about those songs victims in and of concentration camps did write and that survived the war. In each of these few cases, the circumstances that led to the creation of the song are known as well as the names of those who wrote music and lyrics.

And the legacy of these songs of defiance and resistance that did make it out of the horror has been kept alive in an unbroken tradition over the decades. The songs have been performed publicly by survivors and their children, by artists, unionists and antifascists.

„Dachaulied“ by Jura Soyfer is probably the most famous of these songs.

A song with a comparable story ist „Zog nit keyn mol“ or „Partizaner Lid“ which was to become the anthems of many Jewish Partisans in Eastern Europe.

In this case, too, the origins of the song can be traced back to Hirsch Glik, who wrote the lyrics as an inmate of the Vilna Ghetto in 1943, inspired by the news of the heroic uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

That Jewish Partisans had adopted it the same year is a fact verifiable by numerous historical interviews.

Don’t Leave It To The Nationalists

I am not aware of whether Ceca believes in the nationalist mythology around one of her most popular songs. Not that it would make any difference.

A song that once at least implicitly stood for the belief that ethnicities didn’t matter has been stolen. It has lost its innocence.

If it wouldn’t belittle the thousands of women that have been raped during that horrible war I would go even further in how I judge this theft and perversion of what once was Yugoslav popular culture.

Rather I choose to go along with many Bosnians, Serbs and Croats I know. We are not going to let Ceca and the likes of her take away our favorite song.

We are not simply letting her and others turn what’s the memory of the last summer of Yugoslavia to many or a just a great song to other fans into a symbol of aggression and hatred.

We will sing it with defiance.