The obituary that appeared on Sept. 13 in the New York Times would have done proud even the bravest of World War II resistance leaders. Father Momcilo Djujic, the last surviving ""vojvoda" -- warlord or duke -- of the Serbian nationalist militias known as Chetniks, was described as "a fierce foe of the Nazis, Fascists and Communists," as a fighter in "epic World War II battles" and as having committed numerous "acts of wartime bravery," including the rescue of downed American pilots. Mentioned only in passing was the fact that the 92-year-old former priest, who had lived openly in this country for 50 years, had been accused of war crimes in his native land and that he "encountered charges" of collaboration with the Fascists. Only at the end did the obituary even allude to the role that Djujic played as a kind of godfather to Serbian ultranationalist politicians at the outset of the recent Yugoslav conflict.
The myths that Serb nationalists have created about their past are legion, but none has been more important to recent politics than the notion that the Serbs conducted a valiant and unrelenting campaign against the Nazi occupation. This myth, like most, has elements of truth, and it was received with a certain sympathy in the West. But it is also a highly simplified vision of World War II in Yugoslavia. The beneficiaries of the distortion were men such as Djujic, whose excesses during the war Americans still are tempted to overlook.
The Chetniks, in fact, may have begun as a legitimate resistance force but degraded quickly into something far less honorable. In Djujic's region, the fall of Yugoslavia to the Axis and the creation of the so-called Independent State of Croatia saw the beginning of genocidal massacres of the local Serbian population by the Croatian puppet government known as the Ustashe. While Djujic's force seems to have arisen as a self-defense movement, it was infected from the beginning with a Greater Serbian vision similar to the one that Vojislav Seselj, Arkan and Slobodan Milosevic pursued half a century later. The royalist Chetniks quickly began to see their first priority as defeating the Communist-dominated and multiethnic partisans, and this decision led to collaboration between the Chetniks -- Djujic included -- and the Italian and German occupation forces. The Allies eventually renounced the Chetniks as Quislings.
That Djujic's forces attacked Croatian civilians is not much in doubt, though the histories of the period have been sufficiently politicized that it is hard to assess his individual culpability. Communist Yugoslavia sought his extradition in 1988. The extradition request, however, was never acted upon, as the Justice Department regarded the evidence submitted by the Yugoslavs as badly inadequate. Still, at least some of the allegations of atrocities by Djujic's troops are clearly more than communist fabrications. And though Djujic was dismissive of charges that his forces killed civilians, even some of his friends and admirers are quite candid about his past. As one prominent Serbian American put it, "The way he talks, he never claimed that he walked into a Croatian village and brought them food. . . . I believe he was pretty brutal."
And Djujic never denied who he was or played down his role. In one interview in 1990, in response to an accusation that his forces had been responsible for 1,400 deaths, he said indignantly that "I'd be ashamed if I had killed such a low number of those bloodsuckers. I think that I killed in combat some five to six thousand communists and Ustashes."
Among devotees of Greater Serbia, Djujic became a living link between the Serb struggle of the past and Serbia's fight today. In 1989 he promoted a then-obscure Serbian ultranationalist dissident named Seselj to the rank of vojvoda. His blessing conferred enormous legitimacy on Seselj, who subsequently led a paramilitary group in Croatia, founded the Serbian Radical Party and became a senior member of Milosevic's government. While Djujic eventually renounced Seselj, this was not in response to human rights abuses in Kosovo or atrocities in Bosnia. What caused Djujic's public apology to the Serbian people for his previous sponsorship of Seselj was the latter's willingness to be "turned into a loyal associate and accomplice of President Slobodan Milosevic" -- whom Djujic regarded as "Tito's successor" and a compromiser of Serbian national rights.
Djujic, in short, was no anti-fascist hero. He was, rather, an example of all that was dangerous in ultranationalism. The fact that this country knowingly welcomed him here says more about the selectivity of our outrage at wartime atrocities than it does about the merits of Djujic's struggle. It would have been healthy if the vojvoda's death had been an occasion for the reexamination, not the reiteration, of historical mythology.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.