Dossier 14-15: Birth, Nationalism and War

Publication Author: 
Stasa Zajovic
September 1996
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In late eighties, with the consolidation of nationalism as the state ideology in Serbia, the propaganda directed against women grew stronger. It is well known that in periods of acute crisis, economic repression or marked repression, women are called to turn back to "home and family"; they are referred to as "the angels of the home earth", as ideal mothers, as faithful wives… Such propaganda, among other things, aims at postponing or preventing social tensions, outburst of social discontent caused by mass lay-offs of working men and women. Women are the first to be fired; it is demanded that they hand their jobs over to men. At the end of eighties and the beginning of nineties, when over a half of enterprises were suffering severe economic losses, preparations started for mass lay-offs, mostly of employed women.

For that reason, in early 1990, demographers and physicians, wholeheartedly supported by regime-sponsored mass media and institutions, offered some "very interesting legal proposals concerning women". Although these false promises lacked any realistic basis, some of these "projects" must be singled out for their cynicism and underestimation of women.

Projects Devoted to Wives and Mothers

In February 1990, Ivan Knajter, a physician and self-proclaimed demographic expert, proposed "legal innovations designed to help the reaffirmation of the family". He suggested the imposition of taxes on unmarried or divorced men and women over the age of thirty. According to the explanation of the project author, the tax would consist of 10 percent of the salaries of these unfit persons. The goal of the project was to "prevent the disastrous decline in birth-rate in Serbia"; it is not clear why it would be so important whether children are born within or outside marriage. The said "expert" suggests that "persons who refuse to accept voluntarily matrimonial duties should be forced to do so". This idea never occured even to Stalin! In his times, the model of the "woman-hero of maternity, under the benignant moustaches of uncle Joseph" was launched. Hitler required German women to place their bodies at disposal for the renewal of the Aryan race. And both of them considered themselves collective fathers, either of the working class or of the nation.

In order to avoid suspicion as to his own "moral-political pedigree" and due to the necessity of choosing among the possible collective fathers of the nation in Serbia (the president of the Republic, the head of the Church or the commander-in-chief of the Army), Knajter wished above all to win the favor of women. He states: "Once she is married, the wife would be considered employed, with all the social security benefits. The marriage would be her working place".[1] He forgot just a trifle: who would provide the salary? Social security, special state funds, labor unions, the husband, a provider, or perhaps the father of the nation? In the end, he reveals another argument to justify the project, apart from the "prevention of the disastrous decline in birth-rate": "This proposal would have opened many new working places". Of course, working places for men, who would only later be mobilized and sent to the front to defend the mother-nation, while she, in the meantime, would give birth to cannon fodder. In Nazi Germany, on April 7, 1943, the "cleansing women" started, that is, mass firing of employed women. Fathers and sons of the nations everywhere agree with Hitler in his idea that, "in politics, one has to win the support of women, since men spontaneously follow them". Unfortunately, this is not true; as a matter of fact, exactly the opposite holds, particularly in militarized societies.

Maternal Mobilization - Saving the Nation from Extinction

The development of this propaganda may be divided into two phases, although they are constantly intertwined. The first phase started as early as the middle of eighties. It consists of the preparation of various projects aimed at the "suppression of the white plague". The second phase is the propaganda about childbearing for patriotic reasons, that is, for the enhancement of national security.

At the beginning of the "first phase", demographers followed territorial principles, asserting that in central and eastern Serbia, as well as in Vojvodina, the birth-rate was dropping at an alarming rate, while in Kosovo it was rising disturbingly. At this time, demographers had not yet introduced the ethnic criterion. The imbalance of the demographic development was explained instead either by economic factors or by changes in the system of values. As a solution, mostly administrative measures were offered, the model "ideal family – three children" was popularized, etc.

The demographic discourse - in accordance with the expansion of the nationalist ideology - soon acquired a repressive, racist character. Starting with January, 1990 to this day, all draft bills resort to the "ethnic principle". The January 1990 Resolution on the Renewal of the Population, as well as the May 1990 amendments, suggest a double population policy - pro-natality for Serbia and Vojvodina and anti-natality for Kosovo. It was immediately clear that different demographic situations were used, on the one hand, in order to spread nationalist hatred, and on the other as another instrument of patriarchal separation of and discrimination against women on the ethnic basis. Feminists of Belgrade expressed their protest and indignation: "Coercive measures of population policy are applied in countries where human rights are violated daily, where the state deliberately encourages ethnic and racial intolerance. The introduction of coercive managements in the already poor network of gynecological facilities in Kosovo is impermissible, since the right to medical services is a civilizational, not an ideological issue. Such repressive measures fail to bring about the 'desired' results, nor can they serve as the substitute for changes in the economic, social, and educational spheres. If women really enjoyed the opportunity and the right to choose, the population problem would not exist. Instead of administrative measures of population policy, the differences in demographic development should stimulate the creation of conditions where women will win their reproductive rights".[2]

Official documents started multiplying - for example, the resolution on the Renewal of the Population - among which "The Warning" should be singled out for its neo-Malthusian, racist character. Nine "significant" national institutions composed this document. The ruling party, the Socialist Party of Serbia, adopted "The Warning" at its congress as one of the three official documents. "The Warning" openly points to the "threat" that minority peoples pose to the majority, that is since "Albanians, Moslems and Gypsies, with their higher birth-rate, deviate from national, humane reproduction, [they] threaten the rights of other peoples".[3] That is to say, women of the above-mentioned nations (and not men, who still do not bear children!) participate in the "general conspiration against the Serbian people"; they bear children out of separatist, fundamentalist reasons, and thus Serbian women should bear children out of patriotic and moral reasons: "The will to bear children should be mobilized".[4]

The newly formed parties joined the appeals of demographers, physicians and state institutions to maternal mobilization. In relating to women, almost all the parties failed the democracy test; their ideas are imbued with militaristic language. The program of the Association of All Serbs of the World, for example, published before the first multiparty elections, the following proclamation: "In these difficult times for our state, not bearing children, as a national behavior, will be considered treason". In the same vein, the Serbian Popular Renewal suggested the foundation of a fund for Serbian women who have four or more children. In the style of all nationalist moralizing babble, the party's leader Mirko Jovic also urged: "To equalize children born out of marriage with those born in it constitutes a form of special war against the Serbian people". Nationalist are fond of speaking about honesty, going back to the roots, and medieval idyll; thus, the 1990 program of the Serbian Renewal Movement provides that one of the goals of its policy is "the restoration of the family, the return to customs, the ensuring of conditions for an honest living. The Serbian Renewal Movement will place its capabilities at the service of the renewal of the Serbian character, striving for the flourishing of those virtues of the Serbian man that will soon become a part of the Serbian moral code". Feminists replied to these Serbian politicians worried about the extinction of the nation with the following: "To all the guardians of the Serbian morality we suggest that they examine the model of parthenogenetic procreation (conception without sin) and to clone themselves into innumerable Serbian copies. We suggest cooperative financing of this genetic engineering. It may be assumed that young Serbian fetuses will be immediately christened, then incited and trained for hatred and war against the numerous enemies of the Serbian people".[5]

Moral condemnations: the Extremely Misogynous Character of the Propaganda

Generally speaking, this propaganda is imbued with strong moral condemnations and hatred against women. "The Warning" accuses women of not having children out of "conformism and selfishness". Marko Mladenovic, an official demographer, in one of the famous pathetic statements about the "biological death, the gangrene, the tragedy", reveals the time-old desire of men to usurp women's procreative power: "Our man does not have children because happiness for him means having fun, a car, or a summer cottage. This is egoism".[6] Then this enraged militarist joins cradles and guns together: "How to save Serbia! In 15 or 20 years there will be nobody to work, give birth and wage war".[7]

The Church enthusiastically joined the expansion of this "emotional plague of fascism", as Virginia Woolf termed it in 1940: "Those who care for enjoyments, fun, summer holidays or furniture are more numerous than those who care for having children".[8] Or, "today many Serbian women kill their children by abortion. Feminists are in favor of killing unborn children. Fortunately, they have nothing to do with the being of the Serbian people".[9] Some are particularly furious because, in spite of all the obstacles, the connections between the feminists from Belgrade and Zagreb still exist, and these latter are "gravely" accused: these feminists from Serbia are very well connected with feminists from Zagreb, who "propagate the extinction of the Serbian people".[10]

Apart from hatred and condemnation, the Church also envisions natural punishments for women who do not bear children: "Women who bear children seldom get cancer. And the more children they have, the more they are immune to this horrible disease. Spinsters and women who prevent childbirth are by 40 percent more often afflicted by cancer, particularly breast cancer, than women who have children".[11]

Patriotic Mobilization

The father of the nation (this time embodied in the president of the Republic), Slobodan Milosevic, in his "historical speech" at Kosovo Polje in June, 1989 declared: "If we are not very good at working, we are excellent at fighting". This was the beginning of actual preparations for the war. He had chosen the right place - "the cradle of the Serbian people", but also the place of the great collective defeat. The offended honor of the fatherland will be revenged by military raids, since "we must not forget that once we used to be an army - large, brave, proud. Nowadays, six centuries later, once again we are fighting and more battles are ahead". At the same place, and after the Battle of Kosovo, the cult of the heroic Jugovic mother was born, the mother who offers her sons to the death. War trumpets are heard all over the country, while nationalists demand that maternity hospitals become recruitment centers: "For each Serbian soldier who fell in Slovenia, Serbian mothers must give birth to a hundred new soldiers".[12]

It is no longer enough to bear children in order to prevent the extinction of the nation, but sons are now needed for the defense of the fatherland and the struggle with "enemy peoples". Nationalist demographers, linking childbearing to war, accurately calculate the pace of the enemy's advancement: "The last Serbs will defend themselves from the Kalemegdan fortress, in the year 2091. But this last battle may also happen earlier, having in mind pessimistic prognoses".[13] Later on, the same demographic "mathematician" has come to an even more precise calculation, with an unmistakable admixture of racism: "In the Balkians there are nations multiplying at rabbit's rate, with 10 or 15 children per family. In fifty years they will reach Belgrade".[14] The similarity with Nazi Germany is no coincidence: "It must be made possible to each German woman to have as many children as she likes, since, if not, in 20 years the Third Reich would be left without the divisions necessary for the survival of our people".[15]

The racist and militarist logic that "we must be more numerous than them" is also followed in Montenegro: "Eastern Orthodox population lives in the municipalities with low birth-rate, while where Albanians and Moslems are in the majority the birth-rate is high. The issue of birth-rate is all the more important having in mind that Montenegro's neighbors are three states whose intentions are suspicious".[16]

The propaganda is not restricted to mass media. Institutions, lavishly supported by the state, with nothing to offer but repressive measures, keep springing up every day (councils, boards, commissions, committees for the population renewal). Some of them, like the Fund for the Protection of Mothers and Offspring (founded in Belgrade in January, 1993) insist most on financial help, that is, membership fee as the best means to "supress the white plague". This makes one think that out of this fund "all the Serbian people will arm itself so that finally all Serbs may live in the same state".[17]

Some of them have a more "modern" point of view and consider the problem in terms of the laws of the market: "Bearing children is like any other industry: the quantity of output is proportionate to the amount of capital investments".[18] Since for this "eminent" expert, the woman is a body that is possessed, and the man is the owner of the belly and the children, in his misogyny he forgets about the laws he refers to: "Although pregnancy was brought about by the sexual intercourse between the woman and the man, talking in the capitalist sense, we would say the following: at the moment of conception, the foetus is in 50 percent the property of the woman and in 50 percent of the man. But as the pregnancy progresses, man's investments decrease, since all the invested capital is the property of the woman".[19]

The misogynous attitude of the majority of demographers, physicians and politicians even makes them forget the official opinion of the regime that "the unjust sanctions are to blame for everything": "Poverty and the sanctions are not to blame. We used to be even poorer than we are, and still our predecessors had 7 or 8 children".[20]

A colleague of this demographer, afforded enormous space in official media, wrote: "The sanctions and the war cannot be an excuse. Earlier, birth and marriage were the most sacred act to every woman. And nowadays mothers advise their daughters not to marry, not to have children, to be egoists. During our 35th Gynecological Week we ascertained that the reasons why women do not have children are 85 percent egoistic, 26 percent masked egoism, and only 8 percent genuine economic reasons".[21]

But this was too much for the President of the Republic, who corrected them, reminding them that in their national and misogynous trance they must not forget that "the sanctions are killing our unborn babies".[22] Since in militarist societies it has always been assumed that "maternity is the counterpart of war, or war is the symmetrical complement of maternity" (E. Badinter), all this is accompanied by the appropriate language and rituals. Nicole Laroux illustrates by the example of Sparta how "delivery is associated with war, the infantry-man with the woman in childbirth. The word ponos, denoting "pain", is used both for a young man training in strengthening his body and for a woman suffering labor pains. Maternity is seen as similar to battle".[23]

In Nazi Germany, medals were awarded to "good, fertile mothers" who gave birth to and reared the castle of warriors. In Serbia, in Kosovo Polje, since June, 1993, the Church gives medals to warriors and mothers with four or more children: "We have established the Jugovic Mother decoration in order to encourage bearing more children in our people". Last year they awarded 16 golden and 14 silver medals. Since they were not satisfied with the "performance", they admonished: "In earlier times, mothers were able to send as many as nine sons to the emperor's army, so that they could fight for freedom of their country and of their Orthodox faith. We have such mothers today, too, but very few".[24] Since in June, 1994 "only" 27 medals were awarded. Serbian women bear increasingly less children, and Serbian men are increasingly unwilling to go to war.


[1] "Borba", "Politika", March, 1990.

[2] Open letter to the public from the Second Session of the Women's Parliament, June, 1991.

[3] "The Warning", June 30, 1992, p. 2.

[4] Ibid, pp. 5 and 2.

[5] The Belgrade Women's Lobby, October, 1990.

[6] "Politika", March 5, 1993.

[7] Ibid.

[8] "Borba", June 30, 1993. The statement is by Artemije, the episcope of Rasa and Prizren.

[9] "Politika", March 27, 1993. The statement of Vasilije, the Orthodox bishop of Zvornik and Tuzla.

[10] S. Adasevic, in the Radio-Belgrade II Channel program "Reserved for…", April, 1994.

[11] "May God Help Serbs to Unite, Believe in God, and Multiply", the message by the bishop Nikolaj, placed as posters in the streets of Belgrade, October, 1992.

[12] Rada Trajkovic, the president of the association "Homeland", July, 1991.

[13] M. Mladenovic, "Politika", March 5, 1993.

[14] M. Mladenovic, in the Radio-Belgrade program "Reserved for…", April, 1994.

[15] Rita Thalmaum, "Être femme sous le IIIe Reich", p. 137.

[16] "Politika", July 20, 1993. A statement by Radovan Bakovic, professor of the Faculty of Philosophy in Niksic.

[17] "Vreme", May 31, 1993.

[18] M. Mladenovic, radio program, "Reserved for…", April, 1994.

[19] Frances Kissling "Yo aborto, tu abortas, todos callamos", feminist paper "Voz de la mujer", Mexico, May, 1990, No. 4, p. 24.

[20] Radmilo Jovanoc, physician, in "Politika", May 10, 1994.

[21] S. Adasevic, in the radio program "Reserved for…", April, 1994.

[22] S. Milosevic, in the text of the abolition of Danica Draskovic and Vuk Draskovic, July 1993.

[23] Nicole Lraux, "Le lit et la guerre", in the journal "L'homme", Jan./Mar., 1981, XXXI.

[24] "Borba", June 30, 1993, A statement by Artemije, the episcope of Rasa and Prizren.