Desimir Tosic (1920-2008): in memoriam

Dejan Djokic
20 February 2008

Desimir Tosic died on 7 February 2008, in John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, aged 88. He was a unique and somewhat unconventional figure in modern Serbian history. Tosic 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.
Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, London. He was formerly lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the editor of Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea (C Hurst, 2003 and University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and author of Elusive Compromise: A History of Interwar Yugoslavia (C Hurst, 2007)

Also by Dejan Djokic on openDemocracy:

"Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (17 October 2001)

"A farewell to Yugoslavia" (10 April 2002)

"Serbia: monarchy and national identity" (30 May 2002)

"Ex-Yu rock" (6 August 2002)

"Serbian presidential elections" (17 September 2002)

"A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)

"The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (13 March 2003)

This obituary was first published (with proper diacritics on personal names and titles) in EastEthnia on 9 February 2008
Although formally a politician, he was more of an enlightened educator whose ideas often clashed with the party line, despite his unquestioned overall loyalty to the Democratic Party (DS), of which he had been 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 Draza Markovic, a leading communist politician in pre-Milosevic Serbia, with whom Tosic went to high school in the 1930s. Another former leading communist, and later the first important east European dissident, Milovan Djilas, was a figure Tosic admired and wrote about.

Born in 1920 in Bela Palanka, southern Serbia, in what was then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Tosic moved to Belgrade in the 1930s to complete his secondary education. The capital was politically highly polarised at the time, but Tosic 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, Tosic supported General Mihailovic's resistance movement, like many of his fellow Democrats, but already at the time and even more so in his post-war writings, he was critical of both Mihailovic and Tito; he was also highly critical of the role of the monarchy in the interwar period, highlighting the counterproductive policies of King Aleksandar and his "successor" Prince Pavle. As a Mihailovic supporter, Tosic 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, Tosic 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 Milosevic took control of the party.

In emigration, first from Paris and then from London, Tosic gathered like-minded younger Serb refugees around a group that called itself Oslobodjenje (Liberation), meaning liberation from all forms of dictatorship. He edited the Nasa Rec (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). Tosic 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 antagonise Tito's régime.
Also in openDemocracy on Serbia and the region:

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)
Marko Attila Hoare,

"Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian,
"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Neven Andjelic, "Serbia and Eurovision: whose victory?" (25 May 2007)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

Juan Garrigues, "Kosovo's troubled victory" (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, "The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

John O'Brennan, "Kosovo: the hour of Europe" (14 January 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia chooses a future, just" (5 February 2008)

Timothy William Waters, "Kosovo: the day after" (18 February 2008)

Tosic was a believer in a democratic and federal Yugoslavia, as well as in a united Europe. Together with Vane Ivanovic, he was an early member of Jean Monnet's European Movement. Tosic, Ivanovic and Bozidar Vlajic (one of the pre-war 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 democratisation of Yugoslavia. Other members of the DA included Ilija Jukic, Branko Peselj (both of the Croatian Peasant Party), Franjo Sekolec, Miha Krek, Nace Cretnik (Slovenes). Three surviving members are Adil Zulfikarpasic, Nenad Petrovic and Bogoljub Kocovic.

In 1990, at the end of communist rule, Tosic 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, Tosic provided a rare direct link with the original Democratic Party of Ljuba Davidovic 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 Djindjic's inner circle. Elected to the federal Yugoslav parliament in 1992, Tosic joined Dragoljub Micunovic's Democratic Centre - a breakaway group, which eventually returned to the party fold in 2004.

Throughout the 1990s Tosic 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. Tosic opposed Serb policies in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, but he also spoke out against the 1999 Nato bombing of Serbia.

Desimir Tosic 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 Dragovic-Soso, Dejan Jovic and myself. As a historian of inter-war Yugoslavia, I found in Tosic what Alexander von Humboldt must have found in the 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 article, published a week before he died, was his review of my book on inter-war Yugoslavia.

Tosic's energy, critical thinking, deep knowledge, wisdom, moral integrity, sharp words and disarming, warm smile will be sorely missed - by his family (wife Coral and daughters Ana and Nada); his many friends; but especially by Serbian society, still emerging from the traumas and upheavals of the past several decades.

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