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Why the Balkans Are So Violent

Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War

by Peter Maass
Knopf, 305 pp., $25.00

Nearly five years ago, I was taken to see the Svarc Hospital in Karlovac, a key military garrison town which defended the southern edge of the Habsburg Empire against the Ottomans until the end of the First World War. In July 1991, Karlovac was again a front-line town, this time just inside Croatian-held territory. The hospital was perilously close to the now-defunct Republic of Serbian Krajina, the Serbian enclave inside Croatia. Indeed, it was the first large building in the line of Serbian fire.

Seeing a civilian hospital severely damaged by heavy artillery was shocking enough; but I was there to investigate the claims of Croatian civilians, mainly peasants from the two adjoining regions of Kordun and Banija, that they and their compatriots had been the victims of atrocities by Serb paramilitary fighters during a recent offensive.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had finally succeeded in picking up the bodies of many dead Croats left lying in the streets under a scorching summer sun for an entire week. The mortuary at Svarc had just received three of them in a refrigerated truck when I arrived. I climbed the steps at the back of the truck and gazed upon three disemboweled bodies, one female and two male apparently, all in an advanced state of putrefaction.

At the age of thirty-three, I finally smelled the stench of a European atrocity, a part of our history which had fascinated me since my teens. This fascination was in no sense morbid. I was brought up trying to understand how, a mere two decades before I was born, the German and Soviet states could indulge in uninhibited violence against so many millions of people. While nothing before or since may compare with the extent of their crimes, they were not a mere historical aberration but part of a tradition. Modern Europe has a shamefully forgotten history of atrocities and massacres which, to judge by the wars of Yugoslav succession, has yet to be comprehended or exorcised.

The Balkan peninsula has long been known for its exceptionally violent culture. Yet every time a brutal war breaks out in the region, European and American observers—journalists, diplomats, and humanitarian workers—can hardly believe what they see. Early in Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, Peter Maass, a Washington Post writer, describes his first encounter with a victim of “ethnic cleansing,” a Muslim woman who had walked for a month and a half from her home in the Bosnian town of Foca to Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast:

I wrote it down in my notebook but I didn’t believe it. How could she have been on the run with two children for forty-five days? During World War II people wandered for that long, even longer, but Bosnia’s war was a small-time affair, a few people killed, a few thousand refugees, it would be over in a couple of months, when the politicians would come to their senses again. She wasn’t marching from Russia to Poland. The year was 1992, not 1942, and Bosnia had smooth roads and fast cars with antilock braking systems and double-overhead cam engines. What was going on?

It seems odd that a newspaper correspondent arriving in the former Yugoslavia should have been quite so amazed by what he found. The war in Croatia had begun almost a year before the event he describes, and though it was not as destructive as the war in Bosnia, all the central features were present: gruesome mass murder, violent transfers of populations, the destruction of cities by artillery, and a death toll of some ten to twenty thousand people. Maass’s incredulity reflects the shock that anybody feels when they encounter unspeakable cruelty, but it also suggests that he was not fully prepared for the job he was about to do.

He is by no means the first journalist to arrive in the Balkans unaware of what awaited him. As far back as July 1876, John MacGahan, a gifted American reporter working for the London Daily News, traveled to the Bulgarian-inhabited provinces of the Ottoman Empire to inquire into stories of alleged massacres committed by Turkish troops during the Bulgarian Uprising of April 1876. These had been furiously denied by Disraeli, who was determined to prop up the decaying Ottoman Empire in order to resist the encroaching influence of both Russia and Austria in the Balkans. MacGahan was skeptical about the reports. Like Maass, he suspected that they were greatly exaggerated. He also assumed there was probably some truth to the claim that Bulgarians had been equally guilty of committing atrocities.

Even though he started visiting villages where atrocities had been committed some two months before he arrived, he uncovered nauseating evidence in the remote mountain village of Batak. He rode toward a plateau, he writes,

with the intention of crossing it, but all suddenly drew rein with an exclamation of horror, for right before us, almost beneath our horses’ feet, was a sight that made us shudder. It was a heap of skulls, intermingled with bones from all parts of the human body, skeletons, nearly entire, rotting, clothing, human hair, and putrid flesh lying there in one foul heap, around which the grass was growing luxuriantly. It emitted a sickening odour, like that of a dead horse, and it was here the dogs had been seeking a hasty repast when our untimely approach interrupted them…. We looked again at the heap of skulls and skeletons before us, and we observed that they were all small, and that the articles of clothing, intermingled with them and lying about, were all parts of women’s apparel. These, then, were all women and girls.1

MacGahan’s account had a significant effect on the debate between Disraeli and Gladstone over the British government’s policy toward the Eastern Question. Until MacGahan’s reports were published, Disraeli had unconditionally supported the Ottoman Empire’s suppression of the Bosnian and Bulgarian uprisings. Maintaining Ottoman power, he thought, was essential to prevent the expansion of the Habsburg Empire and Russia into the Balkans. When Gladstone, armed with MacGahan’s ammunition, led an attack in Parliament on this policy, Disraeli felt he had to distance himself from the Sultan’s actions. The Ottomans thereby lost their only international ally for a short but crucial period.

But MacGahan could not explain what had led the Turkish irregulars called Bashi-Bazouks and indeed the regular Turkish troops to act so mercilessly. A passionate Slavophile, he had simply believed that Turks, and Muslims in general, were by nature immoral. His work on the Bulgarian Uprising began a genre of descriptive writing about atrocities which has become a considerable industry during the last century.

Like MacGahan, most of the chroniclers of Balkan wars remain unable to explain what causes this type of violence. Maass, after describing many Bosnian Serb atrocities that read as if they could have come from Mac-Gahan’s account, quite rightly dismisses the theory that the wars in the former Yugoslavia are simply a product of “ancient hatreds.” But he replaces it with another which is equally superficial:

The rise of Serb nationalism is similar to what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Anti-Semitism was always a strong factor in Germany, as in most European countries, but Hitler pumped it up until it became a violent force. The Holocaust was the outcome. No one would suggest, though, that the Holocaust was an inevitable outcome of German anti-Semitism. Without Hitler’s evil genius, it would not have happened. Likewise, without the evil genius of Slobodan Miloševic, the wars in Yugoslavia could have been avoided. Yes, Serbia contained plenty of nationalist troublemakers, just as Germany contained plenty of anti-Semites, but none were as clever as Miloševic, none could have accomplished what he accomplished. Whipping a nation into a nationalist frenzy, controlling what had been a feisty media, organizing a war successfully, keeping outside powers and internal rivals at bay—these are not easy tasks.

To support his argument, Maass quotes Warren Zimmermann, the former US Ambassador to Belgrade, and the British academic Jonathan Eyal. Neither of these men would deny the importance of Miloševic and his cynical manipulation of nationalist sentiment. But both, I suspect, would reject Maass’s claim that the wars in the former Yugoslavia can be adequately explained by Miloševic’s personal ambition. As Zimmermann’s forthcoming book, Origins of a Catastrophe, will demonstrate, Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian President, for one, also bears substantial responsibility.2

And it would still be wrong merely to shift the blame onto two men instead of one. There are fundamental differences between the imperial expansion of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the collapse of a failed multi-ethnic state in the Balkans. Germany’s annexation of Austria and its occupation of Czechoslovakia and Poland are not analogous to the attempt of the Serbian leaders to dominate a centralized Yugoslav state and the decisions of the Slovenes and Croats to loosen the federation and then to secede from it.

Still, in discounting the theory of “ancient hatreds,” Maass has identified the most persistent and dangerous myth that clouds our understanding of the Balkans. Many commentators, some from the Balkans themselves, have encouraged the notion that the peninsula’s inhabitants are incorrigibly violent, mired in the blood of five centuries. It is true that the primitive codes of honor which have survived into the modern period in many parts of the Balkans contribute to and partly account for the vile practices which invariably emerge during Balkan wars.3 The most significant of these practices is the launching of vendettas against an entire family or clan in vengeance for the crimes of a single member. But a culture of blood feuds, also familiar from the Scottish Highlands or the American Appalachians, is not sufficient to cause mass atrocities in Bulgaria or Bosnia. Mass killing in the Balkans has always taken place in times of political and constitutional crisis whose origins are thoroughly modern. Specifically, they have been caused by the steady degeneration of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the nineteenth century and the political consequences of imperial collapse in the twentieth century.

The first serious conflict to challenge Ottoman rule in the Balkans broke out in February 1804 after the Christian Serb peasants had suffered three years of intolerable arbitrary violence under the rule of the Muslim Dahis, the four self-appointed leaders of the Janissaries in the pashalik, or Ottoman administrative district, of Belgrade. The Janissaries were the strike force of the Ottoman army. Founded in the middle of the fifteenth century, the Janissaries were originally “culled” as boys from Christian families. They were converted to Islam and swore personal fealty to the Sultan. Most important, they were not allowed to marry to they could not pass on janissarial privilege to their issue. The last cull (devsirme) took place in the middle of the seventeenth century, at which point the degeneration of the Janissaries as a fighting force began. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, they had become an unruly threat to Ottoman stability, ignoring their military commitments and drawing on the Empire’s coffers to feed their now extensive families. Most of the Janissaries in Serbia were, in fact, Muslim Slavs. But their only loyalty was to personal greed.

  1. 1

    Januarius A. MacGahan, The Turkish Atrocities in Bulgaria (Geneva, 1946), pp. 44-46.

  2. 2

    Warren Zimmermann,Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers (Times Books, forthcoming).

  3. 3

    These are incidentally no different from the culture of the mafiosi in southern Italy. Indeed, historically they are closely related.

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