Amid mounting public tension driven by months of delay, the Municipal Court in Belgrade has declared an official date of death for Dragoljub "Draza" Mihailovic.
The commander of the Serb-nationalist, royalist Chetnik movement during World War II, Mihailovic led forces against Josip Broz Tito's Communist Partisans -- as fighting against the Axis Powers gave way to a bitter civil war.
With the conflict raging, Chetnik forces hunted and killed not only their opponents, but Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and others on Yugoslav territory. Historians say tens of thousands were murdered by the Chetniks because of their ethnicity.
In 1946, with Tito at the helm of post-war Yugoslavia, Mihailovic was captured and tried. He was found guilty of war crimes, collaborating with the Axis Powers, and agreeing a ceasefire with the Nazis. He was reportedly shot on Belgrade's Ada Island. A protracted search for his grave in recent years has yielded nothing definitive.
Nevertheless, the court said it had determined July 31, 1946 to be the day Mihailovic's died, based on an examination of official record..
But today's ruling is far more than a just a belated death certificate. It is a precondition for the possible legal rehabilitation of one of the most divisive figures in modern Serbian history.
Essentially a state pardon, rehabilitation would allow for a new funeral to be arranged and would extend greater social benefits to Mihailovic's descendants.
'Flawed' Revision Of History
Most historians, however, insist the move would mean a flawed revision of history, or at least a selective reading -- one that could set a dangerous precedent for official reinterpretation of the region's highly charged past. The prospect has already fanned tensions both within Serbia and beyond its borders.
While some characterize Mihailovic's trial as biased, most Western scholars -- and many in Serbia -- consider his dealings with the Axis Powers and his oversight of ethnic massacres to be incontrovertible facts.
Ranko Koncar, a historian at the University of Novi Sad, maintains that casting doubt on these points is indefensible.
"This [rehabilitation push] is not a simple revision of historical judgments. Revisionism is nothing unusual in historiography, but only when new documents emerge that either complete or contradict existing scholarship or shed new light on past events," he says. "In this case we are dealing with a politically-motivated revisionist project inspired by a Serbian nationalist reading of twentieth-century Yugoslav history."
Branka Prpa, the director of Belgrade's city archives, says the rehabilitation of Mihailovic would serve nationalist elements in the country that look to the Chetniks for historical inspiration.
He says such elements could seek to "negate the anti-fascist tradition… and say, 'Like Chetniks, we stand for Greater Serbia.'"
Initial court proceedings have spurred protests and a warning cry
from leading Serbian NGOs.
But other scholars in Serbia disagree, arguing that Mihailovic has been misunderstood by history and unfairly victimized.
The debate also reverberates in Serbian society.
While both World War II and Tito's Yugoslavia are now in the past, the Chetnik-Partisan split within the country is not. While many nationalists tend look favorably upon the Chetniks, many liberals and leftists take pride in the Partisans' struggle against the Nazis.
A neo-Chetnik movement emerged after the break-up of Yugoslavia, where it had been banned, and it is not uncommon today for Serbs to describe grandparents killed by one side or the other.
Mihailovic, then, is a national hero and "Uncle Draza" to some, while for others, both in Serbia and surrounding countries, he is a hated villain.
In the 2000s, several laws on the rehabilitation of Chetniks were enacted as a stated attempt to help heal historical wounds. They have remained controversial, and some have recently been overturned. Nevertheless, over 1,500 rehabilitations have been granted.
Mihailovic's case, however, was apparently kept at arm's length until a 2010 petition by the general’s grandson, Vojislav. Serbian authorities ruled that the facts of Mihailovic's burial must first be established before the courts revisit his trial.
While official Belgrade has been tight-lipped, critics accuse the nationalist government under President Tomislav Nikolic of tacitly supporting the effort.
Speaking to RFE/RL ahead of the announcement on October 5, Bojan Dmitrijevic, a member of the national commission tasked with investigating the circumstances surrounding Mihailovic’s death, conceded that some in the Justice Ministry may have viewed the grave search as "introductory work," considering eventual rehabilitation a given.
“1941-1945,” an upcoming television series co-produced by Serbian public broadcaster RTS, is also arousing suspicion.
Its director, Rados Bajic, has referred to Mihailovic as a "martyr" and says his series will "talk about the great national injustice that was done to the patriotic movement of the Serbian people led by Draza Mihailovic."
Speaking to RFE/RL in July, Bajic said that "all the relevant people in Serbian society and politics," including “Serbian Orthodox Church dignitaries,” have been "very supportive" of the project.
Concerns Beyond Serbia
Cedomir Antic, is a historian at the Balkan Institute of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, an institution with close links to the state. He is among several experts who point to Western honors bestowed on Mihailovic as proof of his innocence.
"Dragoljub Mihailovic's movement -- when we talk about the unit he was leading and when we talk about him and the people under his command -- never made any kind of agreement with Germans nor Italians," he says. "The units of [his] Yugoslav Royal Army in the Fatherland saved 524 airmen and parachutists, mainly American and British, but also French and even Russian. [U.S.] President [Harry] Truman in 1946 awarded Mihailovic with a medal. In 1943 [French] General Charles de Gaulle awarded Mihailovic with a medal. None of these medals were taken back."
But Marko Attila Hoare, an expert on modern Balkans history and the Chetniks at London's Kingston University, believes it's not so simple.
"The point about Mihailovic's Chetniks was that they were opportunists," he says. "They tended to collaborate with both sides, so [the rescue of U.S. pilots] didn't really represent any kind of anti-fascist commitment. They did rescue these American pilots, but on other occasions they rescued German pilots and handed them over to the Germans."
Hoare also says the rehabilitation of Mihailovic would be a "divisive move" beyond Serbia, and the possibility has captured headlines in Croatia and Bosnia.
In March, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said rehabilitation would be a "bad step."
There are also concerns in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Chetnik insignia were used by Serb paramilitary units during the 1992-95 war.
"We are seriously worried about sovereignty and peace in our country and we are afraid because we don’t know whether the atrocities and deaths which we experienced 20 years ago are behind us forever," the Movement of War Victims, a Bosnian NGO, said of potential rehabilitation.
With the date Mihailovic's death now officially recognized, rehabilitation hearings are set to begin right away, on October 8.
There will hardly be a disinterested party in the Balkans.
Writing and reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash in Washington with reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Branka Mihajlovic and others in Belgrade