Last Chance for Bosnia?

Unfinished Peace: Report of the International Commission on the Balkans

Aspen Institute Berlin/Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 197 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Just before World War I the Balkans erupted in two consecutive conflicts. In the first Balkan war in 1912, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro—all of which had won their independence from Turkey—joined to drive the Turks from Macedonia, the last Turkish foothold in the region. A year later, in 1913, the Serbian and Bulgarian victors fell out between themselves. In a short and savage war the Serbs defeated the Bulgarians and seized most of Macedonia as a virtual colonial dependency.

The violence of the two Balkan wars made a deep impression on the peace movements of Europe and North America, ignorant as they were of the much greater carnage that was about to engulf Europe. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, then in its third year, appointed an international commission which would travel to the Balkans, dig out the facts, and present them to an inert Western public. The commission’s report was completed six months before the outbreak of World War I. In 1993, at the initiative of Morton Abramowitz, the current president of the Carnegie Endowment and a former US ambassador to Turkey, the report was republished in the midst of the Bosnian war. George Kennan, in a lucid preface to that later edition, tied the events of 1912 and 1913 to the Bosnian tragedy of today.1

The commission’s 1914 report has the sting of recognition. It describes atrocities in appalling detail—rape, genital mutilation, the roasting of corpses on spits, the slaughter of inhabitants of entire villages. It catalogues widespread ethnic cleansing and the wholesale production of refugees. It tallies the economic disaster visited on all sides by the wanton destruction, noting ironically that at least the Bulgarian economy was assisted by the opening of an artificial leg factory. The report’s grainy photographs of murdered soldiers, drowned civilians, and mourning women in black would fit easily into any current text on Bosnia.

The commission’s mandate was to gather facts, not to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, the perceptive and humane Frenchman who served as its president—Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, a politician active in the peace movement—had some sharp comments in his introduction to the report. He criticized the European powers for their dithering, and predicted that “all this horror will not cease to exist as long as Europe continues to ignore it.” He absolved the Balkan peoples—“not less good or less gifted than other people in Europe and America,…martyrs rather than culprits.” The “real culprits,” he charged, were the nationalist leaders, “those who mislead public opinion and take advantage of the people’s ignorance to raise disquieting rumors and sound the alarm bell, inciting their country and consequently other countries into enmity,” scoundrels “who by interest or inclination, declaring constantly that war is inevitable, end by making it so.” In concluding his account of the crimes and tragedies described by the commission, d’Estournelles wrote: “In reality there is no salvation, no way out either for small states or for great countries except by union and conciliation.”


Given the striking similarities…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.