• Email
  • Print

Bosnia in Our Future

One day, soon, I want to hijack Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac, Jacques Santer, and all the other leaders of the European Union, on the way to their latest summit, and I want to fly them to a neighborhood of Sarajevo called Ciglane. There I will drive them, past the graveyards, to the Café Herc, or perhaps, because it has more room, to the Café London. Just for an hour—since I know how busy their schedules are—I will have them listen to a small group of articulate, English-speaking Sarajevans. Have them listen, not, as they might expect, to yet one more plangent appeal for help, but to the sheer bottomless contempt and bitterness of people who don’t expect anything from them anymore. Nothing except empty words.

After three and a half years, this acid bitterness, so deep and tired that even the black humor of the earlier siege time hardly surfaces anymore, extends to almost everyone. To anything in a blue helmet, of course. To all the endless foreign visitors on their Sarajevo safaris—“How I hate foreigners,” someone said, when I first entered the Café Herc. But now the bitterness extends even to some of those journalists, intellectuals, and aid workers who came early and really tried to help; even to their own Sarajevan friends who have left; even, worst of all, to themselves, for being forced into this humiliating role of victim. Yet somewhere very near the bottom of the pile is this thing which still calls itself Europe.

Then, when I have got our European leaders safely back to their comfortable offices in Brussels or Paris or Barcelona, I should like to see if they can still go on smoothly delivering their soft, prefabricated speeches about our Europe of peace and progress and ever-closer union.


Most people brought up in Western Europe during the cold war have imbibed, consciously or half-wittingly, a Whig interpretation of European history. European history since 1945 has been told to them essentially as a story of progress toward more prosperity, more freedom, more democracy, more unity in something now teleologically called the European Union. What is more, in the 1970s and 1980s people in Eastern Europe increasingly came to believe this story. This is one of the reasons why, in 1989, they voted communism away and set out to “return to Europe.” Nineteen-eighty-nine was thus the greatest triumph of this idea—but also, it now seems, its apogee.

For since then we have, in the south-eastern part of Europe, gone almost all the way back. Amid the ruins of a Croat village in the Krajina, an old farmer takes us to look at a pile of rubble and twisted metal. It reminds me for a moment, quite uncannily, of the remains of the Berlin Wall. But this is all that is left of an eighteenth-century Catholic church, razed to the ground by Serb forces on October 5, 1991; less than two years after the fall of the Wall. We then saw the rapid descent to atrocities not seen in Europe for fifty years. Atrocities which do not merely reproduce but also, so to speak, elaborate upon the already formidable repertoire of European barbarism from 1939 to 1945.

Not just war without quarter, massacres of civilians, camps, systematic rapes, and the mutilation of corpses, but also new refinements of the old European art of ethnic cleansing and the refined psychological torture of the siege of Sarajevo—to name but two innovations. Only the worst horror of them all—the systematic attempt to exterminate a whole people, as in the holocaust of European Jewry—has so far been lacking, although there have been attempts at systematic extermination of Bosnian elites and men of military age. Now, in the Croatian Krajina, we see a familiar last act: Serbian men, women, and children, fleeing on their tractors from villages where their people have lived for hundreds of years, punished for the sins of their compatriots—just like the Germans from the Sudetenland and Silesia in 1945. Nemesis.

Early in the siege of Sarajevo there appeared on the wall of the half-ruined post office the familiar Serb graffito: “This is Serbia!” Someone scrawled underneath: “No, you idiot, it’s a post office!” The Polish writer Konstanty Gebert has written a whole book about Bosnia based on that line, on the defense of the post office. But I want to add a line of my own: “This is Europe!” For all these things have been done by Europeans to other Europeans in Europe. That in itself should be enough to remind us that the story of recent European history that we have been telling ourselves and our children is little better than a fairy tale. And yet our politicians go on telling it.

The double-think is truly surreal. “War in Europe has become unthinkable,” say our leaders. Crash go the shells into Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and a thousand other towns and villages.


Of course, the war in former Yugoslavia, though entirely comparable in brutality with all but the ultimate horror of the Second World War, is not comparable in scale. But in two respects our own relationship to it is worse. In the Second World War, most people in the countries fighting Nazism did not, at the time, know the full extent of the horrors; and anyway, we were at war with Nazism. But here, sitting in peace and comfort, we have watched it all on our television screens. The Warsaw ghetto in installments, every night at nine. Death brought to us live.

If there was the question then—“Why did the heavens not darken?”—there is even more of a question now. Why did all this coverage, these harrowing accounts by brave reporters, fail to mobilize West European public opinion? Is it because of the Rambo loop? The young male fighters we see charging across our screens, with black headbands and cross-slung ammunition belts, partly model themselves on Rambo, but also look to the viewer like Rambo: that is, fiction. Reality, partly modeling itself on virtual reality, is taken for unreal. Or is it the sheer complexity of the story? “Bosnia is our Spain,” says Bernard-Henri Lévy. But this is so much more complicated, and even Spain, as Orwell reminded us in his Homage to Catalonia, was complicated enough. The French writer Alain Finkielkraut has told us to identify with the Croats; but Croats, too, have now been ethnic cleansers. And so on.

Worse still, we have not just watched from our ringside seats while people are murdered and Bosnia torn apart. In the summer of 1991, Monsieur Jacques Poos, on behalf of the European Community, proclaimed that “the hour of Europe has dawned,” that America should kindly leave this problem to us Europeans. As foreign minister of Luxembourg, he also informed the peoples of disintegrating Yugoslavia that small states have no future. Ever since that aptly ridiculous moment, the states supposedly united in what is now called the European Union, and especially Britain, France, and Germany, have been directly involved in what has happened. At least since the imposition of the arms embargo on Bosnia, we have directly affected the military balance of this war and become, willynilly, a party to the destruction. Not just we Europeans, of course. Plainly the UN bears its own specific responsibility, and the US and other non-European states, too.

The point here is not to pick over, once again, the whole tortuous diplomatic and military history of the four years from, as it were, Jacques Poos to Richard Holbrooke, deploying the documentary CD-ROM now available with David Owen’s memoirs to demonstrate that the Germans were most to blame here, or the Americans there. Nor is it to distinguish, as one clearly should, between particular politicians, officials, and UN commanders.

The point is simply to restate a few bald facts about Europe’s failure. During the last four years we have failed to prevent the destruction and partition of a once peaceful and still beautiful part of Europe, with some quarter of a million people killed and more than three million made homeless. To many a professional soldier’s profound frustration and anger, British and French soldiers have had to sit there on the ghetto walls while the people inside were humiliated and shot. Worst of all, there was the supposed UN “safe area” of Srebrenica, where Dutch UN soldiers this summer stood by (if not worse) while Bosnians of military age were taken off to be killed. 1 In the nearby region of Tuzla, you can speak to some of the few who got away, and visit the helpless, hopeless refugees from the town we betrayed.

Apart from the valiant but largely vain efforts of Hans Koschnick, the EU administrator of Mostar, the EU as such is represented in Bosnia only by its monitors, known locally as “the ice-cream men” because of their ludicrous uniform of white shirts, white pullovers, white trousers, and white plimsolls. Cricket umpires whom no one obeys. Yet when all is said and done, the ice-cream men seem less a caricature than a pretty fair representation of the external policy of that thing called Europe, which looked so bright and hopeful just four years ago.


Now for the excuses. First, there is the diplomat’s eternal refrain: “What would you have done?” “What was the alternative?” Well, of course we never can know “what would have happened if…” For example, if we had done nothing—including, that is, not stopping anyone from getting arms—then it is possible that Bosnia would have been simply obliterated, partitioned between a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia, as the post-communist opportunist Slobodan Milosevic (who started the process) and the post-communist nationalist Franjo Tudjman (who has come out on top) discussed at their secret meeting in Tito’s villa at Karadjordjevo in March 1991. But it is also possible that the Bosnians would somehow have defended more of their territory, as they somehow defended most of Sarajevo in 1992. We can only make an informed guess.

Many of the “what was the alternative?” arguments, however, actually come back to the question of political will in the West, and specifically in Western Europe. Few soldiers will disagree with the proposition that what has now been done militarily to stop the worst of the siege of Sarajevo could have been done militarily three years ago. All along, the professional soldiers were saying that we needed a large force—on the order, say, of sixty thousand men—to stop the fighting in Bosnia. If that is what we are proposing to put in now, why did we not do it then? Ah, because there has been “a process of ripening,” one is told, and because it needed three years of our masterly diplomacy—and economic sanctions—to detach Milosevic from the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. But Karadzic himself says that ten thousand men could have stopped him.2

And then we get to the point: that we were simply not ready to do it then. But who is “we” in this sentence? The talk turns to the reluctance of parliaments, to how public opinion would have reacted to our soldiers coming back in body bags. Actually, the British and French publics are probably less sensitive to the famous body bags than the American public, so long as they can be persuaded that the end is good and the means patriotic. But nobody even tried to persuade them. Whatever you think of Margaret Thatcher, you can’t help wondering what might have happened if she had still been in charge.

In the second line of excuses, there is a whole regiment of arguments from cultural prejudice. Here are the old saws about ancient hatreds and atavistic tribes. “We can’t stop people who want to kill each other,” I recently heard a senior EU official say. Here is the view that, after all, what else can you expect of the Balkans? This is a view particularly associated in the United States with the work of Robert Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts), but implicit in many other analyses and commentaries. Unfortunately, too, the idea of “Central Europe,” revived in the 1980s (not least in the pages of this journal3 ) as a political-cultural distinction against the Soviet “East,” has now been turned southward against “the Balkans,” in effect trying to make it easier for Poles and Czechs to get into the EU by suggesting that Croats, Bosnians, or Bulgarians belong to a different continent. Cultural determinism as an instrument of foreign policy. And then there is the view, quite widespread among the Western diplomats and soldiers involved,4 that each side is as bad as the other—meaning, in particular, that the Bosnian government side is no better than that of the Serbs or Croats. So a plague on all their houses.

Plainly, it is important not to fall into the opposite mistake: selective idealization rather than collective demonization. To suggest that Bosnia was, as it were, a Switzerland invaded by a Nazi Serbia; that Sarajevo in 1990 was a hotbed of European genius, like Vienna in 1900; that the victims must always be guiltless because that makes things morally and aesthetically easy for their foreign supporters; and that the current Bosnian state is a model multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-everything liberal democracy. “Sarajevo, shining white,” to quote the words of a poem which Julie Christie read out at the beginning of a Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly meeting in Tuzla in October. This is the story that some Bosnian politicians will still try to tell you, but it is not the story that Messrs. Kohl, Chirac, and Santer will be told when I have sat them down in that café in Ciglane.

With a self-restraint and honesty that is, in the circumstances, remarkable, the surviving liberal intellectuals of Sarajevo (who are obviously, by definition, not typical, here as everywhere else) tell a much more subtle and therefore more convincing story. They are the first to be ironical about the ideological flag of what they call “multi-multi-multi” which has been hoisted over their city.

In crude summary, the story they tell goes something like this. For centuries Bosnia was, as everyone knows, a unique meeting place of east, west, and south, Orthodox, Catholic, Bogomil, Muslim, Jew, of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule, and, from the late nineteenth century, of self-consciously national Serb and Croat. Coexistence was often fragile. People respected rather than accepted the other’s customs. And of course coexistence was punctuated in the first half of the twentieth century by two horrible periods of war and conflict along both ethnic and political lines. After 1945, however, under Tito’s iron roof of “brotherhood and unity,” not only was coexistence restored but mixing advanced. To this mixing many factors contributed, not least urbanization, secularization, and some assimilation to a Yugoslav identity.

Naturally, this process went furthest in the city of Sarajevo, and furthest of all among the younger generation, who had their own zany version of post-‘68 youth culture. An editor of the monthly Dani tells me they are fighting for “democracy, human rights, and urban culture,” and when I query the term “urban culture,” he shoots back, in English: “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” It may not have been the world’s most creative or exciting place: many of the most talented people left. But it had genuine beauty and charm, a civilized style of life, with the café raised to an art form.

However, and here’s the rub, all of this was still under the political roof of an undemocratic, Titoist Yugoslavia. If you talk to the Croat Catholic Cardinal Puljic of Sarajevo, or to one of the spiritual leaders of the Muslim religious community, they both start by explaining how their communities were oppressed under communism. The contortions of Tito’s own nationality policy only made things worse by identifying the Bosniak5 part of the population as a national group called Muslims with a capital “M” (as opposed to the faith, with a small “m”). So here, as elsewhere in communist Europe, there was at once the assimilation and the exacerbation of ethnic/cultural/religious differences by communist rule and repression.

The end of communism was therefore bound to be a critical moment, and there was always only a small chance that the repressed grievances and tensions between the different traditions and communities could ever, even in the most favorable circumstances, have been peacefully negotiated into a stable democratic state. After all, even in the peaceful, prosperous, democratic West, Switzerland is still a great exception. Look at Belgium. Look at Canada. This was true of Yugoslavia as a whole, but above all of Bosnia, which had a Bosniak plurality, but no majority.

Even the slim chance that still existed was, however, then denied them. Tito’s heirs, and specifically the post-communist politicians of first Serbia and then Croatia, either adopted a manipulative nationalist program in order to gain and retain power (Milosevic) or used manipulative postcommunist methods of gaining and retaining power in order to realize a nationalist program (Tudjman). As they pulled Yugoslavia apart, they of course found Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat leaders ready to join them in the enterprise, and Bosnian politics, especially in the country outside Sarajevo, rapidly divided on these lines. The West, and specifically the EU, then recognized the independence of the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and, yes, Bosnia-Hercegovina, without beginning to think through what it would need to turn this unique and delicately balanced historic entity into a workable independent state.

Of course, Alija Izetbegovic and his Bosniak-led Party of Democratic Action (SDA) were not blameless in this whole process. Of course there are many nasty, corrupt, manipulative, and authoritarian aspects of the present SDA regime. Perhaps if you are a UN commander or a civilian negotiator it is the Bosnian government and army representatives who are the most slippery to deal with (as British and French soldiers and diplomats will hasten to tell you). But to jump from that current experience to an assertion of moral equivalence between the three sides is to lose sight of their real differences and to forget how we got to where we are now.

There is an important difference in the degree of responsibility between the Serbian and Croatian regimes, but there is a difference in kind between the responsibility of the Serbian and Croatian regimes, on the one hand, and that of the Bosnian regime on the other. Bosnia was the victim of aggression, first from Serbs and then from Croats. So also with the results. Bosnia and the Bosnians have suffered most, lost most, and are still most likely to lose more.


It is important to grasp that the reality on the ground today is a Bosnia split three ways: between areas of Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat, and Bosnian government control. This reality is best represented on paper by an internal UNPROFOR map entitled, pithily, Warring Faction Update. It shows that the Bosnian Serbs—with their “Serb Republic” para-state—control some 48 percent of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina, in an unwieldy shape, like two lungs (see map), almost cut off in the middle at the so-called Posavina corridor. The Bosnian Croats control some 21 percent, with the Hercegovinan part relatively coherent and conveniently contiguous to the Croatian fatherland, and then some awkward enclaves in the central Bosnian government region. Bosnian government forces themselves actually control less than one third of the territory, and theirs is much the most fragmented part.

Their capital, Sarajevo, is still encircled, with the Serbs still in the surrounding hills and, in the suburb of Grbavica, just a stone’s throw across the river Miljacka. Their main portion of central Bosnia is still separated by Croat-held territory from the Bihac pocket in the northwest. And then there is the remaining enclave of Gorazde—Bosnia’s Leningrad—separated from Sarajevo by some 25 miles of Serb-held land. Following the terms of the cease-fire, I was able to visit Gorazde, courtesy of a US Embassy armored Land Rover, but there was still nothing like safe access for ordinary Bosnian civilians. Some call this territory “rump Bosnia,” but at least a rump is one piece. This fragmented territory is also landlocked. Some supplies come in by air (including arms purchased with Arab money), but for the most part they have to come by land through Croatia—and the Croatians have apparently been taking a large cut of the incoming money, goods, and arms.

In theory, the Bosnian government and Bosnian Croat parts are united in a “Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina” created in last year’s Washington Agreements (and now relaunched in the first agreement to emerge from the Dayton, Ohio, peace talks). But the evidence on the ground is of a continued, almost total division, with the Croat parts run by the parastate of Herceg-Bosna, which has its own insignia, police and armed forces closely linked to the Croatian Army. Its children are taught from Croatian schoolbooks, and since Croatia’s parliamentary elections in October, it even has its own “diaspora” representatives in the Zagreb parliament. In a wood outside the Bosnian Croat exclave of Kiseljak you suddenly come upon two dirty trailers, two disheveled frontier policemen: it’s a Bosnian Croat-Bosnian government frontier post. The EU administrator in Mostar, Hans Koschnick, will tell you how all the peaceful pressure that the EU has so far been able (or willing) to exert has not brought the Bosnian Croat authorities in the western half of Mostar even to let people pass freely across the Neretva River from the pulverized and miserable Bosnian eastern half of the divided city. Even though Croat forces supported Bosnian ones in the recent campaign, they reportedly twice went back to fighting each other. And President Tudjman’s generous offer, in an interview with Le Figaro, to help “Europeanize the Muslims” hardly makes things any better.

If you look at the population figures you find that, through war, murder, flight, and expulsion, the ethnic separation, like the territorial, is already far advanced. For example, in the 1991 census only 55 percent of the population of the Tuzla region was identified as Muslim; today’s UNHCR estimate is 96 percent. The Bosnian government maintains a commitment to a multi-ethnic state. There are Serb and Croat members of its presidency. A Serb general on the Bosnian General Staff is always produced to talk to foreign visitors. The Croat cardinal insists he will stay in Sarajevo and serve all the Catholics in all of Bosnia-Hercegovina. But the fact is that the Bosnian government parts are becoming increasingly Bosniak, or, to use the misleading term, Muslim. As for “muslim” in the religious sense, I did find some anecdotal evidence of the growth of religious belief—“in times of trouble, man remembers his God”—but nothing remotely resembling fundamentalism. (“I consider myself a muslim,” one historian told me, and, as if on cue, someone came in to refill his large glass of local grape brandy.)

What one does find, however, is something that may be described as Bosnian nationalism. For example, the insistence on calling the language “Bosnian.” Entirely understandable, since one could hardly now expect them to call it Serb or Croat or “Serbo-Croat,” but also rather absurd—for if ever there was a region where the Serb and Croat variants of the common language really were intertwined, together with some regional enrichments, it was Bosnia. In a way, this is a reductio ad absurdum of nineteenth-century nation-building through language. But then, if everyone around them is separating out into national states, with nationality defined in a neo-Herderian way by that combination of blood, language, religion, and culture which supposedly makes a Volk, what else are they to do?

Moreover, they are defending themselves with a growing army. (Who was it who said that a language is a dialect with an army?) They try to make up in numbers of soldiers for their still chronic lack of heavy weaponry. In Gorazde, we were told that of the approximately 57,000 people crammed into the enclave, as many as 10,000 were now bearing arms. Before the war, the Bosnians were not famed as fighters. Nor, before the Second World War, were the European Jews. Some Bosnians say despairingly that they are fated to become Europe’s Palestinians. Others are determined, however wild or unlikely it may sound, that they should become Europe’s Israelis.

Contemptuously dismissing my suggestion that Europe might still have anything to offer them, a Bosnian editor listed the three things that they now need: a strong army, help for economic reconstruction, and American support.


And so to Dayton, Ohio, where, once again, for the what?—third? fourth?—time this century, America is trying to resolve a European conflict which Europe has failed to resolve for itself. Just what will emerge from the intricate peace talks is not clear at this writing. Of course I hope—against hope—that the now solemnly relaunched Bosnian-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina can begin to exist on the ground and not merely on paper; that some sort of loose confederal relationship with the Serb-controlled parts can be established; that Radovan Karadzic can be denied his vision of a Sarajevo divided “like Berlin when the Wall was still standing”; that largescale Western economic aid channeled through Federation and confederal institutions can help bring the pieces together again; that firm insistence on the formal territorial integrity of Bosnia will mean the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats do not only see their future as inseparable from their neighboring fatherlands; that the refugees I met in Tuzla and Gorazde, often still grouped by their villages and towns of origin, can have some realistic prospect of one day returning to those towns and villages without fearing for their lives; that, in short, the sheaf of agreements being negotiated may be something other than a diplomatic fig leaf for partition.

But I am afraid, after what I have seen of devastation, bitter enmity, three-way partition, and ethnic cleansing already far advanced, that I find it very hard to believe. Above all, though, it is quite unrealistic to suppose that this knitting together can even begin to be achieved in the course of a single year. If the local parties to the Bosnian conflict expect that American troops, and therefore the entire planned implementation force from NATO and other nations will be out before the end of 1996, then they will surely spend this year preparing for a final round of partition. People in Bosnia are quite well aware of Congressional doubts, the date of the next presidential election, and the long history of Washington’s short foreign-policy attention span.

What follows from this is not that the United States should stay in Bosnia for decades. Why on earth should it? What follows is, first, that during the coming year the Western powers should also try to ensure that the Bosnian government and its forces are equipped to defend something remotely resembling a workable unit within the larger territory. For if things do go wrong, the Bosnian Croats will have triumphant Croatia behind them; Serbia will at least not wholly abandon the Bosnian Serbs; but the Bosnian government and its now, perforce, mainly Bosniak people will have no one but themselves, some Arab money and—perhaps—us.

Second, Europe should prepare to take over the leading role in providing the international roof under which the different communities in Bosnia might live side by side, and then perhaps, gradually, over many years, grow together again. But alas, here, too, I simply don’t believe that it will happen. On the flight out to Zagreb I read Helmut Kohl telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “We will make the process of unifying Europe irreversible in the next two years or so.” On the flight back, nearly three weeks later, I find the West European papers full of passionate debate about European Monetary Union.

Here in Western Europe there is no sense of urgency about what is happening just an hour’s flying-time away; no sense that there is any contradiction between the claim that Europe is peacefully, irreversibly uniting and the fact that at the very same time a part of Europe is being brutally, and, one fears, really irreversibly, torn apart. The slow, tortuous process of political and bureaucratic negotiation at the EU’s next intergovernmental conference, scheduled to open in 1996, is supposed to produce improvements to the Union’s so-called Common Foreign and Security Policy. But I’m afraid we can already guess what that will mean for Bosnia. More ice-cream men.


If a Swiss diplomatic observer had gone to sleep after the Congress of Berlin, which assigned Bosnia-Hercegovina to Austria-Hungary in 1878, and awoke now, he would of course find much to surprise him in the institutionalized cooperation of West European states. Here, he might exclaim, is a permanent Congress of Berlin! So far as the diplomacy around Bosnia-Hercegovina is concerned, he might wonder about the role of the UN, and about Mr. Carl Bildt representing the EU. But a great deal would seem very familiar.

In the so-called Contact Group, he would see the representatives of the same powers—France, Britain, Germany, and Russia—pursuing their national interests (mostly more indirect than direct) through their national diplomats and national armies, in what he would probably still call “the Eastern Question.” Turning to The Times (the London Times, of course) he would read, in a leading article, of a new Franco-British entente “forged in the Bosnian War.” The only difference is that he would have to substitute the United States for Austria-Hungary.

To him, what has been happening on the ground would probably also make more sense, although as a Swiss he would not like it. “Ah yes,” he would say, “this crazy modern passion for carving out national states has obviously proceeded apace. I remember when the Serbs started it…”

In other words, it begins to look almost as if the entire twentieth-century European story of post-imperial federations and communist multi-national states was merely an interval in the process of separating and molding peoples into nation-states. In Western Europe, we did it earlier, by and large, through conquest and assimilation. In Central Europe, the first half of the twentieth century saw the job largely done by war, the redrawing of frontiers, and ethnic cleansing on a huge scale (although Czechoslovakia remained to be finished off). Now this part of southeastern Europe is following suit; catching up, one might almost say, with modern Europe.

Obviously, this thought can be pushed too far. There are quite specific reasons why the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia were pulled apart as they were. And even in the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia still fragilely holds together as a multi-ethnic state. There are successor states of the former Soviet Union where ethnic groups still co-exist. Nor does it follow that Bosnia is our future. What we have witnessed on our television screens over the last four years is precisely the simultaneous theater of continued peace, normality, and even further (though halting) steps of integration in one part of Europe, and bloody disintegration in another.

Before 1989, Europe was like Berlin: divided between East and West by a single Wall. Now Europe is like a great American city, with prosperous and (relatively) peaceful neighborhoods such as Georgetown or the Upper East Side of Manhattan living side by side with violent and miserable ghettoes. This should shame us in Europe, just as that should shame America. But somehow we live with it.

Yet this simile, too, is misleading. For the final twist is that the formation of post-communist nation-states with clear ethnic majorities, through policies that combine the philosophy of Fichte with the methods of Stalin, probably does not condemn them to the fate of being Europe’s permanent slums. They are not necessarily fated to remain backward countries, with corrupt one-party regimes maintaining their hold by television brain-washing, xenophobia, and force. for example, were it not for its intense involvement in Bosnia on behalf of the Croats there, I should say that Croatia would have a fairly good chance of evolving into a reasonably liberal, pluralistic, and democratic nation-state over the next ten years. It might even, in the still longer term, develop a genuine acceptance of minorities and, who knows, eventually, a civic rather than an ethnic definition of nationality.

With the Polish experience in mind, Konstanty Gebert sarcastically puts the lesson thus: “If you want to ‘return to Europe,’ first do your ethnic cleansing, then wait a generation.” One can also put it more mildly. Trying to describe the ethnic and cultural mélange of Sarajevo before the war, the painter Edo Numankadic said to me: “We were Europe before Europe.” Hyperbole perhaps, but with an element of truth. The democratization of Yugoslavia, and of Bosnia in particular, would, had it worked, have been an unique example of a part of Europe moving peacefully from a multi-ethnic society under an undemocratic (first imperial, then monarchic, and then communist) political roof to such a society within a democratic system.

That it failed there does not mean it has to fail everywhere, or that we should give up trying; let alone that we should accept ethnic cleansing as a necessary evil. But it does seem to be the case that almost nobody in Europe has yet been able to avoid the painful path which has led through the formation of nation-states to—if one is lucky—the securing of human and civil rights by a democratic nation-state, and thence—if one is very lucky—to the peaceful cooperation and integration of those nation-states.

So my hijacking of European leaders to Ciglane is not just about confronting them with Europe’s failure and Europe’s continued responsibility. Properly understood, Bosnia does, I believe, compel us to reexamine some of our most basic assumptions about the shape and direction of recent European history.

November 16, 1995


The Foul Balkan Sky? March 21, 1996

  1. 1

    See the recent Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Report, Vol. 7, No. 13 (October 1995), on “The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping.”

  2. 2

    Karadzic says this in the superb documentary series “The Death of Yugoslavia” made by Brian Lapping Associates and reviewed by Michael Ignatieff [NYR, November 2]. (The accompanying book, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, by Laura Silber and Allan Little, will be published in the US in January by TV Books/Penguin USA.) Of course one cannot take anything Karadzic says at face value, and this may be one of rather few examples of his making an understatement. The point is that he felt, rightly, that no serious effort was being made to stop the Bosnian Serbs militarily.

  3. 3

    See Milan Kundera’s “The Tragedy of Central Europe” [NYR, April 26, 1984] and my “Does Central Europe Exist?” [NYR, October 9, 1986].

  4. 4

    For a recent example see the article by General Charles G. Boyd in Foreign Affairs (September/October 1995).

  5. 5

    Bosniak” is a historic term which has now been revived by the Bosnian government to describe the nationality of the non-Serb, non-Croat citizens of Bosnia. I use it in preference to “Muslim,” because “Muslim” immediately suggests to the Western reader a kind of religious identity and culture which really does not seem to be characteristic of much of this population. Interestingly, a leader of the muslim religious community, the deputy reis, told me that he objected to the term “Muslim” being used to describe all members of the nationality, however secular, rather than being reserved for the believers.

  • Email
  • Print