Right-wing Ideas, Miloš Crnjanski and a New Reception

Svetlana Šeatović, PhD, Principal Research Fellow
Institute for Literature and Arts

Right-wing Ideas, Miloš Crnjanski and a New Reception

In a series of treatises and the few monographs about him, Miloš Crnjanski – an author and one of the most prominent figures in Serbian interwar culture – has been, until recently, very cautiously discussed in the context of the development of right-wing ideas in Europe and their incorporation into literary works. Crnjanski has been accused of being very sympathetic towards fascism, primarily as a public figure, journalist and reporter whose writings did not show a critical view of right-wing ideas. The ideological contextualization of his works written in the late 1920s and early 1930s came later. This rather superficial view of the relationship between right-wing ideologies and the literary oeuvre led to his debates with Marko Ristić and Serbian leftist intellectuals in the 1930s.

After many decades, Milo Lompar, a superb connoisseur of this author’s opus, wrote an excellent study that explains the crux of this right-wing vs. left-wing conflict in which Crnjanski had found himself.[1] Lompar focuses on Crnjanski’s place in Serbian culture, using the author’s correspondence, previously little (if at all) known political articles, and his relationship with Andrić and Krleža, exploring the writer’s spiritual being or sensibility. According to Lompar, Crnjanski managed to capture the “vector of the times. ˮ Cross-referencing various streams of biographical information and cultural facts, Lompar’s study also highlights the historical developments in which Crnjanski lived with more or less ease, always retaining his “subversive position in both the bourgeois and the left-wing, communist world, in particular situations and throughout the entire era. ˮ The debate in culture and society that Crnjanski had first with Marko Car in 1929, after the publisher Srpska književna zadruga refused to publish his travelogue Ljubav u Toskani (Love in Tuscany) and the 1932 debate with the authors under the Nolit publisher that led some intellectuals to issue a public appeal against his ideas, deepened the polarization of the literary scene on the widest ideological level. Having reached their peak, these ideological debates, in the guise of cultural and publishing issues, inevitably pushed Crnjanski towards Miroslav Krleža and the 1934 debate surrounding the text “The Slandered Warˮ (Oklevetani rat). Crnjanski’s attempt to defend the heroic halo of the Serbian position in the Great War was seen as an extreme right-wing idea rather than an unambiguous, elementary national position, and the confrontation snowballed into a clash between the left and right. This confrontation cemented Crnjanski’s reputation in literature, culture and the general social context as a right-wing figure and fascist, damaging his status in the Serbian literature of the first half of the 20th century. Leftist ideologies were being promoted in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia under the guise of pacifist ideas, while Milos Crnjanski, a right-wing author and nationalist, stood at the opposite pole of the spectrum. Sadly, after World War II, this position cost Crnjanski decades of exile, the political stigmatization of his literary opus in the school curricula and history books of what was then called Yugoslav literature. This perception began to change very slowly after the author’s return to Belgrade in 1965. Although Crnjanski would long bear the scarlet letter of a right-wing intellectual, nationalist and fascist, at least his pre-1934 works again became the subject of academic interpretations, including a doctoral dissertation, defended at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb in the early 1970s.[2]

It would take decades, the experience of civil war, and the most recent migrations of Serbs from the western parts of former Yugoslavia for the oeuvre of Miloš Crnjanski to undergo a new literary-historical, critical and general social reception. Despite the excellent reception and the shift in the attitude of the society and literary scholars towards an ideologically unbiased assessment of his entire opus, Crnjanski continued to be seen as a Serbian nationalist writer – in other words, a rightist. It was only Milo Lompar’s study and the slightly earlier books, more sociological in nature, by Zoran Avramović[3] that tackled the question of the labels and epithets that had been assigned to him without any real political or documentary basis. The evidence that allows a deeper and more systematic understanding of Crnjanski’s ties to the evolution of fascist ideas in Germany, Spain and Italy became accessible to the wider readership only in the last few years. After the Legacy of Miloš Crnjanski published his remarkably important writings and official reports, scholars and the wider public gained access to invaluable evidence that can reveal the author’s views, impressions and descriptions of Germany and growing National Socialism. Crnjanski worked in Berlin as the press attaché in 1928 and 1929, which gave him new insights into the current political events in Germany. In 1934, he launched the journal Ideje (Ideas) in Belgrade, which was quickly labeled as a right-wing publication and banned in 1935. Then came his direct encounter with German and Italian fascism from 1935 to 1941, while he worked as a correspondent of the Central Press Bureau (CPB) in the diplomatic mission in Berlin (from December 1935) and in Rome (from 2 May 1939 until the capitulation of Yugoslavia in April 1941).[4] As a correspondent of Vreme (Time) magazine, he visited Spain twice[5]: first in 1933, and then in 1937, shortly after the Spanish Civil War had broken out. He sent reports from Franco’s central military command but also traveled to Andalusia where he met the other, communist side of divided and war-torn Spain. His reports show more sympathy for Franco’s troops than the opposing communist side. During his work in the diplomatic mission in Rome, as a correspondent, he showed a lot of understanding and sympathy for ideas that can be described as national but also socialist in terms of state organization, as well as for catering to the needs of all social strata. The new findings stemming from his recently published political articles and diplomatic writings and reports have become a part of the new understanding of Crnjanski’s oeuvre, especially in 1930-1941.

However, the mosaic of the rich material and the possibility of comparative analysis with Italian literary and culturological sources are missing one piece of the puzzle: Crnjanski’s correspondence with the Italian authorities since his role as the attaché for culture and press in Rome must have entailed constant communication with them. While that is one of the objectives of this research, the Covid-19 pandemic has thwarted our plans for investigating the archives of Rome to add to the extensive collection of reports, articles and diplomatic missives that could provide deeper insight than superficial and lightly passed judgments. According to such judgments and the clichés that have so far prevailed in the relevant literature, Crnjanski admired Franco, was in awe of Mussolini and enthusiastically followed his appearances on the balcony of Palazzo Venezia, the headquarters of the fascist party at Piazza Venezia, and wrote about National Socialism in Germany without critically distancing himself from its notions.

These “clichésˮ in the understanding of Crnjanski and the attitude towards right-wing ideas still need a lot of wide-scope culturological and historical research of the evolution of right-wing ideas in Europe and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. First of all, it should be borne in mind that some of the most prominent Italian interwar writers were rightists, but in Italy, their opus never carried the sort of stigma – not even after World War II – that Crnjanski’s bore in Serbia. However, Italian literary historians and culturologists sought ways to avoid exploring the relationship between those authors and the fascist ideology. Crnjanski had a chance to see prominent Italian authors as self-declared proponents or sympathizers of fascism (Gabriele D’Annunzio, Eugenio Montale, Luigi Pirandello, Giovanni Papini…). Besides their ideological views, Crnjanski would have probably understood even more clearly nationalist ideas watching those still living, classic authors of Italian literature, a literary tradition to which he was devoted, especially since he was fluent in Italian and could read the original works. Hence all of the political, ideological and literary developments that Crnjanski followed during his diplomatic service in Rome must be analyzed more carefully. Unfortunately, not a single document from this period has survived: shortly before he would leave the diplomatic legation in Rome, Crnjanski burned all of his writings and documents.

The development of interdisciplinary studies and some forms of awakening and strengthening of the right in Europe in the early 21st century have led to the emergence of increasingly courageous studies, statements and interpretations of fascism. In 1995, Umberto Eco published his English-language essay “Ur-Fascismˮ (also available in Serbian translation).[6] An important text by Enco Traverso has also appeared in Serbian.[7] His study offers a modern understanding of the rise of right-wing movements in Europe in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In her work Storia della cultura fascista (The History of Fascist Culture), the Italian historian Alessandra Tarquini offers an overview of the wide scope of fascism in the entire Italian society from its emergence in the early 1920s to its downfall in 1943.[8] The study sees fascism as both an ideology and a form of culture or lifestyle defined by old and new myths. It carefully assesses the relationship between the ideas of fascism and nationalism, a distinction not usually made in Serbian scholarship, especially when it comes to Crnjanski, although these are, in fact, very different ideological strands that often come under the same umbrella term – the right. Finally, the most recent study by Francesco Giubilei, a young historian of culture and literature, entitled Storia della cultura di destra (The History of Right-Wing Culture, 2018) paves the way for understanding the perception of right-wing culture after World War II.[9] The study was motivated by the increasing sympathy of the Italian society for right-wing parties but it is remarkably important because its insights remove the patina covering the “tacitˮ or “ossifiedˮ clichés about fascism and the culture that produced superb literary works between the two world wars. These recent contributions can indirectly help us to reconstruct the period in which Crnjanski worked as a diplomat and witness of all strands of ideology and culture. Recent scholarly assessments of fascist and right-wing ideology in Italy could serve as auxiliary literature in the interpretation of some ideas in the opus of the Serbian author and a starting point for analyzing the relationship between ideology and culture in the Serbian context. Miloš Crnjanski was particularly fond of Italy and its culture, as evidenced by the fact that, during his return journey to Belgrade in 1965, he asked to travel through Italy to breathe in the smells and see the sky that had inspired him since his early days, during the Great War, and immediately after the war, when he tried to find peace in Tuscany in the early 1920s. Traveling through Europe and returning to Belgrade, Crnjanski was both a witness and victim of the ideological trends of the 20th century. Milo Lompar notes that Crnjanski was marked by a feeling of “being alienˮ and alienated as an author on the periphery of the Serbian cultural scene but that his personal experience of “being an alienˮ resulted in the cosmopolitan Story of London (Roman o Londonu). On the heels of this complex understanding of Crnjanski, literary and historical scholarship now have an opportunity to – drawing on extensive evidence and a clearer understanding of fascism in Italian culture and its interplay with literature – offer a new reception. Historical evidence has paved the way for a comprehensive literary, social, historical and ideological assessment of Crnjanski and some other Serbian literary figures (Stanislav Krakov, Dragiša Vasić, Vladimir Velmar-Janković).

The most recent, very extensive (with over 800 pages) study by Gorana Raičević[10] brings new information about the author’s relationship with Prime Minister Milan Stojadinović (1935–1939). Based on his work Embahade (Embajadas), until now, Crnjanski was believed to have spared only Milan Stojadinović from ridicule during his diplomatic service in Rome. Using the correspondence between Crnjanski and Stojadinović (19521956), Gorana Raičević shows that Crnjanski, as the London correspondent of Stojadinović’s economic journal in Argentine, was never obsequious to his boss, despite his financial troubles, but instead highly critical of him. Her study lays bare the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to new methodological perspectives of Serbian literary scholarship and a new understanding of Crnjanski’s life and work, both of which were marked by ideological tensions, conflicts and sometimes exaggerated and unfounded labels of the author as a rightist. Right-wing ideas in 20th-century Europe, Miloš Crnjanski in the epicenters of their power, and a new reception of fascism and the Serbian author in those tumultuous times all open a vast field of research and unlock the potential for understanding the era and its actors from an almost century-long distance.

[1] М. Ломпар, Црњански – биографија једног осећања, Београд: Православна реч, 2018.

[2] А. Петров, Поезија Црњанског и српско песништво, Београд: Вук Караџић, 1971. The monograph is Aleksandar Petrov’s published doctoral dissertation “The Poems of Crnjanski in the Evolution of Serbian Poetryˮ (3 December 1971, Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb). The dissertation promptly came out as a book, which quickly sold out. This was the first instance of Crnjanski being the subject of a doctoral dissertation, and it was plagued by many controversies associated with the political events of 1971. For more details about its scholarly reception and the relevant social situation, see the author’s note in the third edition: А. Петров, Поезија Црњанског и српско песништво, Београд: Сигнатуре, 1997, pp. 378380.

[3] З.Аврамовић, Црњански о националсоцијализму, Београд: Белетра, 1990; Политика и књижевност у делу Милоша Црњанског, Нови Сад: Академска књига, 2007; Одбрана Црњанског, Нови Сад: Орфеус, 2013.

[4] For more details see: Б. Симић, Милан Стојадиновић и Италија. Између дипломатије и пропаганде, Београд: ИНИС, 2019, pp. 156-157; С. Мићић, Од бирократије до дипломатије. Историја југословенске дипломатске службе 1918-1939, Београд: ИНИС, 2018, pp. 393-402.

[5] М. Црњански, Путописи I, ed. Н. Бертолино, Београд: Задужбина Милоша Црњанског, БИГЗ, СКЗ, LʼAge d’ Homme, 1995; Путописи II, ed. Н. Бертолино, Београд: Задужбина Милоша Црњанског, БИГЗ, СКЗ, LʼAge d' Homme, 1995. For a more extensive analysis of Crnjanski’s travelogues and reportages: С. Јаћимовић, Путописна проза Милоша Црњанског, Београд: Учитељски факултет, 2009.

[6] U. Eco, „Ur-fascism“, The New York Review of Books, 22 June 1995. Serbian translation: U. Eko, Ur-fašizam, trans. Aleksandra Nedeljković, Beograd: Fakultet za medije i komunikacije, 2019.

[7] E. Traverso, Bauci fašizma, trans. Olja Petronić, Beograd: Fakultet za medije i komunikacije, 2019.

[8] A. Tarquini, Storia della cultura fascista, il Mulino, Bologna, 2011.

[9] F. Giubilei, Storia della cultura di destra, Giubilei Regnani, Roma-Cesena, 2018.

[10] Г. Раичевић, Агон и меланхолија. Живот и дело Милоша Црњанског, Нови Сад: Академска књига, 2021.