Heroic struggle and resistance: Anti-fascist spirit in Banat 1941–1945

National liberation struggle, organized resistance and courage: A look at the anti-fascist movement in Banat during the Second World War. An investigation of the geographical, political and social conditions that shaped the struggle against the Nazi occupation, with an emphasis on the role of partisan units, local cooperation and the challenges of the lack of war materials. A depiction of the heroism and sacrifices of young fighters in the fight for freedom and justice.

Petrovgrad Ideology and Revision of History in Serbia

Struggle for Identity: Petrovgrad Ideology and Revision of History in Serbia

The revision of recent Serbian history and the restoration of capitalism began with Slobodan Milošević coming to power, but they intensified after the October 5th changes in 2000. For this endeavor to be accomplished, it was necessary to erase from collective and individual memory all values and events that had challenged capitalism in the past.

Every system has a desirable vision of the past; memory is a political resource used by ruling groups to strengthen their power positions. It is not autonomous or spontaneous but organized. Power cannot be seized and retained solely through force; it is necessary to secure the voluntary consent of the subordinate, and without cultural hegemony, it is not possible. If people's beliefs and values are in opposition to the needs of a system, then it lacks legitimacy and is unstable. David Hume warned that force is on the side of the subordinate majority; minorities rule through ideas.

To achieve these goals, the first Rehabilitation Law was passed during the rule of DSS in 2006, followed by the second in 2011 during the rule of DS ("Official Gazette of RS", no. 33/2006; 92/2011). The 2006 law contained almost no limitations regarding the right to rehabilitation, while the 2011 law contained some but insufficient. The 2011 law regulates the rehabilitation of individuals who were deprived of life, liberty, or other rights for political, religious, national, or ideological reasons until the date of this law's entry into force. Therefore, there is no time limit in the past. The basis for rehabilitation is that an individual was punished without a judicial or administrative decision.

Rehabilitation is possible even for individuals who were punished by a judicial or administrative decision if it was contrary to the principles of the rule of law and universally accepted standards of human rights and freedoms.

Petrovgrad Ideology and Revision of History in SerbiaThe right to rehabilitation is not granted to individuals who were deprived of life during armed conflicts on the territory of the Republic of Serbia as members of occupying armed forces and collaborationist formations during World War II. They cannot be rehabilitated, nor do they have the right to return confiscated property, members of occupying forces that occupied parts of the territory of the Republic of Serbia during World War II and members of collaborationist formations who committed or participated in the commission of war crimes.

Accordingly, according to the letter of the law, the right to rehabilitation is granted to individuals who were members of occupying and collaborationist formations, provided they did not participate in war crimes, i.e., they were not declared war criminals or participants in war crimes by a post-war authority decision and if they did not die in armed conflicts.

The legal consequences of rehabilitation for the rehabilitated individual and other individuals determined by this law are measures to remove and mitigate the consequences of null and void or incomplete acts and actions, including the right to a special pension period, monthly financial compensation (special supplement), health care, and other rights from health insurance, the right to return confiscated property, and compensation for material and non-material damage (rehabilitation compensation).

According to the Law on the Return of Confiscated Property and Compensation (restitution law), individuals who were members of occupying forces operating on the territory of the Republic of Serbia during World War II, nor their descendants, have the right to reclaim property or compensation. It is interesting to note that this law does not mention collaborationist formations ("Official Gazette of RS", no. 72/2011, 108/2013, 142/2014, 88/2015 - decision of the Constitutional Court and 95/2018).

Such absolutization of legal formalism is not accidental. Yugoslav communist anti-fascists had to be criminalized, while collaborators with the Nazis had to be glorified primarily because they were anti-communists. For the political and cultural hegemony of the new Serbian bourgeoisie, Nedić, Ljotić, Draža Mihailović, Nikola Kalabić, and similar figures are more useful than partisans; capitalism's interests are more important than the anti-fascist struggle.

The aim is to discredit the struggle for social justice and equality as a terrorist utopia. The Ljotić followers used to say, "Why did Karađorđe fight and struggle when he could peacefully trade?" According to revisionists, collaboration with the Nazis in the name of alleged protection of the Serbian people was the optimal political strategy, and the uprising was adventurism that angered the occupier.

If the Nuremberg trials were to be evaluated according to the criteria of a contemporary rule of law and universally accepted human rights and freedoms standards, all Nazi criminals would have been rehabilitated. The non-selective criteria contained in the Law allowed for the rehabilitation of Srem Ustaše, who committed horrific genocide against Serbs, Jews, and Roma during World War II. Projecting today's legal standards onto the wartime period leads to the favoritism of the rights of criminals over the rights of victims (Summum Ius, summa iniuria). The absolutization of legal formalism has led to the annulment of elementary justice.

A person who betrayed the national hero Žarko Zrenjanin to the Nazis was judicially rehabilitated in 2017, and immediately thereafter, there was an initiative to change the name of the city named after him. According to media reports, courts in Serbia have begun rehabilitating members of the Ustasha movement and the notorious SS Prinz Eugen division, and after a decision by the Administrative Court, the state is obliged to return their homes and fields! Of course, rehabilitation should support individuals who were persecuted after 1945 due to non-violent political activities or simply for expressing views different from those of the ruling Communist Party.

This phenomenon is called anti-anti-fascism by sociologists. Renewed capitalism needs to foster a culture of memory that does not challenge current power relations. Instead of proven heroes who died fighting for freedom, notorious traitors and historical figures known only for their collaboration with fascist occupiers are favored. Frequent rehabilitations of war criminals, Nazi collaborators, and traitors undermine the moral foundations of society. A society that cannot distinguish between good and evil cannot endure. Rehabilitations encourage immoral behavior; it turns out there is no sanction for wrongdoing. In Serbia, anti-anti-fascism is an integral part of neoliberal transition, whose goal is to establish a system in which ownership of all economic and natural wealth is in the hands of foreign and domestic capital. In order to push the country into a peripheral, subordinate position, the anti-fascist achievements such as public ownership of the means of production and self-management, social rights, must be erased.

For renewed capitalism to function smoothly, fighters for social justice and the partisan movement must be erased from collective and individual memory. The slogan of Yugoslav anti-fascism was "We won't give away what's ours." Today, neoliberals teach us that we must give up everything valuable to foreigners, and then we will be better off when we have nothing. In order for foreign companies to become owners of all valuable property in Serbia, the entire Serbian liberation political culture must be pushed into oblivion. Anti-anti-fascism is part of the neoliberal project whose goal is to once again push the working class into a subordinate position and have only the social role determined by big capital.

In Zrenjanin, there is occasional renewal of the initiative to change the city's name to Petrovgrad. The last wave occurred in 2017 when a group of owners of larger private enterprises, mostly trading ones, formed the association "Petrovgrad."

The historical name of today's Zrenjanin was Veliki Bečkerek. By the decree of the royal governors in March 1935, the name was changed to Petrovgrad. On the second anniversary of liberation, in October 1946, the city was renamed Zrenjanin. In both cases, the name was changed without democratic consultation. However, a referendum on this issue was organized in 1992. At that time, a two-thirds majority of voters who participated expressed opposition to the name change.

While in the early nineties, the initiative was launched by the ruling party SPS, which at that time did not completely abandon the socialist heritage, today, entirely different protagonists stand behind this endeavor: local capitalists, supported by some political parties (DSS, Dveri, SRS) and well-known intellectuals with a pronounced national orientation (academics Kosta Čavoški, Matija Bećković, Vasilije Krestić). Among the prominent members of "Petrovgrad" are former members of the League of Communists who did not stand out as critics of the regime during the socialist period but became prominent Serbian nationalists after Slobodan Milošević came to power. It is about a convert intellectual, parasitizing on nationalism and representing the main ideological service of capitalist circles in the city. Former communists are thus whitewashing their own biographies.

To achieve this goal, long-term preparations have been made. With the support of local capitalists, several sports clubs were formed under the name "Petrovgrad," including the Association of Breeders of Serbian High-Flying Pigeons SRB-797.

Right-wing circles in Zrenjanin cooperate with similar organizations and individuals in Serbia. Thus, the "Humanitarian Organization Svetosavlje" was the patron of the third edition of Boško Obradović's book, "Serbian Vow - Serbian National Issue Today" in 2010 (Serbian Assembly of Dveri, Belgrade, 2010). Svetosavlje is one of the founders of "Petrovgrad".

The initiators of the initiative opposed holding a referendum on changing the name, indicating that they consider the inhabitants of Zrenjanin inadequate to make a decision on what the city should be called. The intention of "Petrovgrad" was to change the name Zrenjanin by having the City Assembly revoke the decision from 1946, which shows the extent to which this initiative was characterized by an amateur approach. Namely, the names of municipalities and cities, the names of settlements and cadastral municipalities, and the way of their change, are determined by the Law on the Territorial Organization of the Republic of Serbia ("Official Gazette of RS", no. 129/2007, 18/2016, and 47/2018). An initiative to change the name of a settlement determined by this law can be initiated by the assembly of the local self-government unit, citizens, local community, and other interested community bodies. The proposal to change the name of an existing settlement is determined based on the previously obtained opinion of the competent territorial autonomy body and the assembly of the local self-government unit.

Therefore, the name Zrenjanin was established by the law adopted by the multiparty National Assembly and can only be changed by amending that law. The decision made by the single-party city government in 1946 has long ceased to have any legal effect; it has been derogated by the development of the legal system, and its eventual abolition would be entirely meaningless. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, a law can be proposed by any member of parliament, the Government, the assembly of an autonomous province, at least 30,000 voters, as well as the Protector of Citizens and the National Bank of Serbia in the areas within their competence. The competence of the local self-government unit in this matter consists of the right to initiate and give an opinion. The City Assembly of Zrenjanin cannot change the name of a settlement with its decision.

According to the Law on Local Self-Government, the assembly of the local self-government unit can, on its own initiative, call a referendum on issues within its competence. The assembly is obliged to call a referendum on a proposal submitted by at least 10% of voters from the total electorate in the local self-government unit, in the manner prescribed by law and the statute ("Official Gazette of RS", no. 129/2007, 83/2014 - consolidated law, 101/2016 - consolidated law, and 47/2018). A decision made in a referendum is binding, and the assembly of the local self-government unit cannot revoke it or change its essence through amendments and supplements for the next year from the date of adopting the decision.

According to the Statute of the City of Zrenjanin regarding the initiative to change the name of an existing settlement, citizens express their views in a referendum ("Official Gazette of the City of Zrenjanin", no. 7/19). The decision made in the referendum obliges only the City Assembly of Zrenjanin but not the proposers of the law or the National Assembly. Nevertheless, such a decision would have significant political weight because it would be highly problematic for the name of a large city to be changed without the consent of its inhabitants.

Since the Law on Territorial Organization does not provide for a mandatory referendum, in the procedure for changing the name of the existing settlement, the Zrenjanin Social Forum (ZSF) initiated an initiative to change this law in 2018. ZSF believes that it is necessary for the law to be supplemented with a provision stating that, before determining the proposal to amend the Law, a consultative referendum must be held in the settlement whose name is being changed. In that case, the National Assembly will have the necessary information on the citizens' views on this topic. Thanks to the existing procedure, frequent and undemocratic changes of names are possible, which can have significant harmful economic, social, and political consequences. The name of a settlement is its essential feature; it represents a significant part of the identity of a community and the people who live in it. Therefore, it is necessary for those most interested to have the right to vote in a referendum on whether they want a change or not.

The first task of the proponents of the name change was to establish control over cultural institutions in Zrenjanin to prevent the organization of programs that do not correspond to the ideological views of this group. This nationalist bloc used public resources abundantly for its activities, while opponents were forced to rent space for their events under commercial conditions.

The rationale for changing the name of the city is that King Peter I is a more significant figure than Žarko Zrenjanin. It is also emphasized that, allegedly, the name Petrovgrad was established in a democratic manner, unlike the name Zrenjanin.

However, the historical argumentation of the supporters of Petrovgrad is entirely unfounded. King Alexander introduced dictatorship in 1929 and dissolved all assemblies. It is not known when, and if, local elections were held in Veliki Bečkerek afterward, and under what electoral rules. The name Veliki Bečkerek was changed administratively, by the decree of royal regents, through an undemocratic procedure. Moreover, the occupying Nazi authorities never officially abolished the name Petrovgrad, as can be seen from official seals where both the names Gross Betschkerek in German and Petrovgrad in Serbian were concurrently used. Additionally, the Nedić government in December 1941 carried out a territorial division of occupied Serbia into fourteen districts. One of them was Banatski with its seat in Petrovgrad. Thus, Petrovgrad was the official name of the city continuously from 1935 to 1946.

In the campaign against Žarko Zrenjanin, the proponents of changing the city's name did not hesitate to question the moral integrity of the fallen national hero. In one publication issued by the Association "Petrovgrad," insinuations from anonymous bloggers are conveyed, accusing Žarko Zrenjanin of raping women and being convicted multiple times between the two world wars. Not even Nazi propaganda used such dirty tactics.

Serbian right-wingers deliberately ignore the fact that fascism was an exceptional historical phenomenon. German Nazism aimed to destroy or subjugate all peoples marked as inferior races in their ideology. Hitler himself was a great Serbophobe. In occupied Europe, only in Serbia, the rule of one hundred for one applied. When Wehrmacht units entered today's Zrenjanin in mid-April 1941, they first displayed the slogan "This land was and will remain German" on the city hall. Immediately, around 1,300 Jews were arrested, who on August 18 were led through the city streets to the Begej river and deported to Belgrade by barges, where almost all of them were killed. That was the darkest day in the history of our city.

While others watched quietly as the twilight of civilization approached, Banat communists organized resistance. In the plain, there were no conditions for guerrilla warfare. The only shelter was the cornfields, and the insurgents were doomed to death in advance. Banat executioner Špiler slaughtered thousands of civilians, arresting mothers with small children.

Today, right-wingers believe that people who gave their lives fighting against Nazi occupiers are not significant figures enough. What would happen if someone in France demanded that the cult of Joan of Arc not be respected because of her humble origins?

In ancient Greece, there was the cult of Kinegirus, an ordinary soldier who during the Battle of Marathon held a Persian ship with his right hand. When the Persians cut off his right hand, he held the ship with his left, and when they cut off that hand too, he held the ship with his teeth until they killed him. The Greeks valued Kinegirus as much as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle...

By pushing the Partisan movement and the fighters who died into oblivion, fascism is indirectly normalized, sending a message that the Nazi occupation of Serbia was like any other ordinary war. The name Zrenjanin meant that the economic and natural resources were owned by our people; in the renewed capitalism, all valuable property will mostly belong to foreigners. During the socialist period, the city of Zrenjanin was an industrial giant, managed by workers, agricultural land was used to feed our population, everyone could receive medical treatment and education. The communist poet Oskar Davičo sang:
“He remained in Pavliš”.
No. Zrenjanin walks the city
there is less and less sorrow.

Today, workers are poorly paid and disenfranchised, and our arable land is leased to foreign corporations or owned by domestic tycoons. The Zrenjanin City Assembly in 2017 leased almost 2,500 hectares of arable land to the German company Tenis for thirty years, while domestic farmers were thus put out of business. The Association "Petrovgrad" did not protest on that occasion.

Why does the new bourgeoisie of Zrenjanin need to change the city's name? It is not a random initiative; they glorify the monarchy to justify the existing social hierarchy. Class instinct drives them to adapt social symbolism to the needs of the production apparatus. The names of settlements, streets, and squares, etc., must express the needs, values, and interests of the ruling groups, classes.

Symbolism communicates who rules; capitalist exploitation and social symbolism favoring social equality and public ownership cannot coexist parallelly. Capitalism and the name Zrenjanin do not go together, as they represent entirely different political values. Capitalists use weak political organization of the working class to intensify the exploitation of employees to the maximum and thus increase their profits.

They have no intention of retaining workers in their companies by increasing their wages and improving working conditions; instead, they demand that wages be reduced in other companies, thus causing a social catastrophe in Zrenjanin. To withstand the competition of more powerful foreign capital, the domestic bourgeoisie develops ideologies based on pseudo-patriotism, trying to show that they are not exploiters but fighters for the national cause who correct historical injustices. According to them, socialism has harmed the entire nation, not just the ownership strata. The king cannot be questioned, just as the boss in a company cannot be. The king rules by the right of blood; he is not chosen by the people, just as employees in private companies cannot participate in management.

The Petrovgrad ideology is a way in which the ownership strata seek broader support and strengthen their social and political power. They thereby ensure voluntary consent of the subordinate to an unfavorable social position and undermine class solidarity. The idea of clerical nationalists and local tycoons to change the name of the city of Zrenjanin without the consent of its inhabitants has caused great resentment among citizens and the largest political mobilization since the changes in 2000. The action against it was led by citizens and civil society organizations, political parties joined in last. Thanks to the determination of the people of Zrenjanin, the current government did not support the change of name, which, for a while, weakened the pressure in that direction. Nationalistic circles in the city consist of conformists who carefully ensure that their Serbianism does not conflict with the authorities. They never express views on the Brussels Agreement or the national policy pursued by Aleksandar Vučić, which distinguishes them from academics who support them. Petrovgradians are focused solely on the past; their nationalism is not manifested by expressing views on current political issues.

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