In the photo above showing vehicles of one army leaving a territory as another army enters, who are the invaders and who the invaded? Which is the civilized army and which the barbarian? Which are the “merciful angels”?

The necessary “othering” of your enemies, so as to dehumanize them and ease the conscience of you, the attacker, no matter how convinced you are of the rightness of your cause, is a common trope in studies of violence and warfare now, including in the mass media. And nowhere is the theme of transforming the enemy into someone less civilized, and thus less deserving of humanitarian considerations, more commonly met than in scholarly and popular accounts of the Yugoslav wars – and in not a few articles on Transitions over the years.

The most prominent “other” in Western popular culture these days seems to be the vampire and her/his near relation, the morbid goth beloved of fashionably disaffected teens. In a new book by University of Wisconsin Slavicist Tomislav Z. Longinović these two cultural worlds are brought together in a work of cultural criticism that is also a stinging attack on the justification behind the American-led military operations in Serbia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

As I read it, Longinović’s thesis is that the dread legend of the vampire, long associated with places where Christian Eastern Europe rubbed up against Islamic civilization, in the hands of multinational media became a useful tool with which to blacken the Serbs. The Western media and military viewed all the nations that had made up Yugoslavia through a Gothic lens, but the Serbs were the worst, the furthest from the ideal of a truly civilized people. There is something in this, it seems to me: It is undeniable that much of the Western media portrayed Serb leaders as demonic, or vampiric, creatures for whom mass bloodletting was no obstacle in their lust for power: Milošević above all, and his henchmen Mladić and Karadžić. Longinović mentions the incident in 2007 when a Serbian photographer hammered a stake into the dead dictator’s grave in a parodic reenactment of the classic ritual for keeping the vampire firmly in his grave.

One might easily associate this “othering” with the Orientalist tendency described by Edward Said. However, elsewhere, Longinović has analyzed what he calls Balkanism, a distinct category of thought located at the “blind spot of Europe as it races westward, a location where hybridization with the cultures rooted in Islam marks Europe itself with a sign of the oriental” which he explicitly associates with the historical and literary persona of Dracula.

The association between Serbia/Kosovo and vampires goes back at least to Bram Stoker himself. In Dracula, the count tells his English visitor Jonathan Harker of the “great shame of my nation, the shame of Cassova” in a presumptive reference to one of the two great medieval battles of Kosovo in 1389 and 1448 (Longinović omits “of my nation” and silently emends Cassova as Kosovo). But the linkage between the vampire of popular culture and the portrayal of Serb leaders in the mass media can easily be stretched out of shape. I would quibble with this connection at least on the ground that the element of sexuality and seduction lies at the heart of our attraction to vampires. Maybe I’m just a prude, but I don’t find Milošević erotic in the least. But enough of that. Vampire Nation goes on to a discussion of topics in Yugoslav literature somehow apposite to the main theme, less so to this blog. I will let others more knowledgeable than I opine on how successfully Longinović applies critical theory to historical analysis. In any case his book makes a provocative addition to the literature on the Yugoslav wars.

NATO photo

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

More Posts