In memory of Desimir Tošić

In an earlier post I reported the passing of Desimir Tošić and promised more. I asked my friend Dejan Đokić, who teaches history at Goldsmiths College, to prepare a text for the blog. Below is Dejan's text (and for those of you in and around London, SSEES invites you to the launch of his book on 19 February):

Desimir Tošić (1920-2008)

Desimir Tošić died on 7 February, in John Ratcliffe Hospital in Oxford, aged 88. He was a unique and somewhat unconventional figure in modern Serbian history. Tošić was a politician who placed ideas and ideals above personal and material gain. He was a contemporary of Yugoslavia’s turbulent life and its death(s), but wrote about Yugoslav history and politics with an honesty, balance, critical stance and deep knowledge rarely found among professional historians. Although formally a politician, he was more of an enlightened educator whose ideas often clashed with party line, despite his unquestioned overall loyalty to the Democratic Party (DS), of which he was a member since the late 1930s. He was a Christian believer who was among the loudest critics of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its role in politics. As an émigré he was equally critical of both the then communist regime and of backward-looking emigration; following his return to Serbia in 1990 his friends included many former communists. One of them was Draža Marković, a leading communist politician in pre-Milošević Serbia, with whom Tošić went to high school in the 1930s. Another former leading communist, and later the first important East European dissident, Milovan Djilas, was a figure Tošić admired and wrote about.

Born in 1920 in Bela Palanka, southern Serbia, in what was then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Tošić moved to Belgrade in the 1930s to complete his secondary education. The capital was politically highly polarized at the time, but Tošić joined the centrist Democratic Party. The Second World War and the German invasion interrupted his studies at Belgrade University’s Law Faculty. During the war, Tošić supported General Mihailović’s resistance movement, like many of his fellow Democrats, but already at the time and even more so in his postwar writings, he was critical of both Mihailović and Tito; he was also highly critical of the role of the monarchy in the interwar period, highlighting counterproductive policies of King Aleksandar and his ‘successor’ Prince Pavle. As a Mihailović supporter, Tošić was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to work in Germany. He survived the war only to find himself as a refugee in France. There he met his future wife Coral, with whom he eventually settled in her native Britain in 1958.

As an émigré, Tošić was opposed to Tito’s communist regime, but he was not a staunch, vindictive anti-communist. Unlike most Yugoslav émigrés, he never advocated a return to some ancien régime in Yugoslavia, and he correctly argued that the communists had genuine support in the country. In the 1970s, he wrote that when changes eventually took place, they should be carried out, initially at least, together with reformed communists. This is indeed what happened across most of East-Central Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but not in Serbia, where Slobodan Milošević took control of the Party.

In emigration, first from Paris and then from London, Tošić gathered like-minded younger Serb refugees around a group that called itself Oslobodjenje – ‘Liberation’, meaning liberation from all forms of dictatorship. He edited the Naša Reč (‘Our Word’) monthly between 1948 and 1990, with contributions from, among others, dissidents Milovan Djilas and Mihajlo Mihajlov, and academics such as historian Stevan Pavlowitch and economist Ljubo Sirc. Milovan Djilas’s son Aleksa, himself a political refugee, was a regular contributor in the 1980s. The group also published books, including the first Serbo-Croat edition of Milovan Djilas’s Conversations with Stalin (1986). Tošić was the animator and driving force of the organization, which spread itself across Western Europe, North America and Australia. Its activities were self-funded, as western institutions were careful not to antagonize Tito’s régime.

Tošić was a believer in a democratic and federal Yugoslavia, as well as in a united Europe. Together with Vane Ivanović, he was an early member of Jean Monnet’s European Movement. Tošić, Ivanović and Božidar Vlajić (one of the prewar leaders of the Democratic Party) were among the founders of the Democratic Alternative in 1963 – a group of pro-Yugoslav Bosniak, Croat, Serb and Slovene émigrés that called for the democratization of Yugoslavia. Other members of the DA included Ilija Jukić, Branko Pešelj (both of the Croatian Peasant Party), Franjo Sekolec, Miha Krek, Nace Čretnik (Slovenes). Three surviving members are Adil Zulfikarpašić, Nenad Petrović and Bogoljub Kočović.

In 1990, at the end of communist rule, Tošić returned to Yugoslavia to help re-establish the Democratic Party, of which he was to become one of the best-known members as well as its vice-president for a while. Leader of the DS youth section in the late 1930s, Tošić provided a rare direct link with the original Democratic Party of Ljuba Davidović and Milan Grol. This might explain why he was tolerated by the new party leadership in spite of his strong and outspoken criticism of Serbian nationalism and of the influential Orthodox Church, and in spite of not being part of the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić’s inner circle. Elected to the federal Yugoslav parliament in 1992, Tošić joined Dragoljub Mićunović’s Democratic Centre – a breakaway group, which eventually returned to the party fold in 2004.

Throughout the 1990s Tošić remained in Serbia, refusing to move back to Britain, where his wife lived permanently. He emerged as one of the bravest and most distinguished voices against war and nationalism. Although already advanced in years, he regularly published books and articles, gave interviews and took parts in debates across the country. His numerous writings offered fresh, non-nationalist perspectives on Serb-Croat relations, on the Second World War and on Yugoslav communism. Tošić opposed Serb policies in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, but he also spoke out against the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia.

Desimir Tošić was a man of enormous energy which he devoted, until the final weeks of his life, to preaching democracy. He was surrounded by younger people – political activists, students and scholars who sought his advice and whose work-in-progress he read vigorously. He was modest, never claimed to know much – even though his knowledge was enormous – and always treated others with respect and as equals. He was particularly supportive of younger scholars, including three British-based academics: Jasna Dragović-Soso, Dejan Jović and the author of this obituary. As a historian of interwar Yugoslavia, I found in Tošić what Alexander von Humboldt must have found in parrots of the extinct Amazonian May-por-é tribe: the last surviving voice of a society long disappeared. I am both proud and sad that his last ever article, published only a week ago, was his review of my book on interwar Yugoslavia.

Tošić’s energy, critical thinking, deep knowledge, wisdom, moral integrity, sharp words and disarming, warm smile will be sorely missed – by his family and his many friends, but especially by Serbian society, still emerging from the traumas and upheavals of the past several decades.

He is survived by his wife Coral (née Rust) and two daughters, Ana and Nada.

Dejan Djokić, London 9 February 2008


Richard de Boer said...

Thanks Dejan for this great obituary. Although he reached the age of 88, the death of Desimir Tošić still is a great loss. Regrettably I never met him, I learned about his writings via Bogoljub Kočović whom I met in Paris ten years ago. Since then I read and am indebted for Desimir's essays and -more recently- his frequent talks in B92's Peščanik radio shows. He dies at a moment when nazi-clerical mobs are intimidating the freedom of thinking different in Serbia. Indeed I feel the same as Dejan, he was the last surviving voice of a society long disappeared. A honorable gentleman, modest and calm but with a clear tongue and a progressive mindset. His works are indispensable for a clear understanding of the decades-long struggle for democratization in Serbia, the struggle between Vuk looking backward and Dositej looking forward. Hvala Desimire, rest in peace.

Richard de Boer said...

P.S. When I write 'Serbia' of course I also meant his knowledge of the several Yugoslavia's that preceded the present post-Yugoslav reality.

Eric Gordy said...

Richard, thanks for your comments. I've forwardded them on to Dejan in case he does not see them here.

Kirk Johnson said...

Thanks for the obituary; what a great tribute to an honorable and decent man. Thanks for making it available.

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