Anatomy of a Murderer

Two types of explanation are regularly put forward concerning Slobodan Milosevic and the many misdeeds associated with his name. The first regards him as a man who is solely responsible for everything that occurred in the wars of Yugoslav secession and whose removal would return Serbia to sanity. The other contends that Serbs are a tribe of fanatic nationalists with a long history of violence against their neighbors and that his removal would not mean very much since someone equally rotten or far worse would immediately take his place. In their new biography of Milosevic, Dusko Doder and Louise Branson offer both of these explanations at different times, leaving it unclear how much weight the reader is to give one or the other. While they often suggest that Serbs have an insular, self-righteous, and delusional view of history, they also, as good journalists, tell a more complicated tale whose various implications and contradictions the authors do not seem to understand fully.

I was mulling this over when I happened to see a photograph of young Milosevic on the cover of a recent issue of a Belgrade weekly (see illustration on this page). In it he is nineteen and his future wife is eighteen. The two are sitting in the bleachers of a sports stadium, neatly dressed and attractive-looking. Here, one thinks, are two well-brought-up young people. They study hard in school, help old ladies cross the street, and are shyly in love with each other. There must be thousands of such snapshots, from all over former Yugoslavia, of innocent youths who ended up murdering their neighbors. Their faces give no hint of the horrors and tragedies of the last nine years, the hundreds of thousands exiled and killed, the cities and villages lying in ruin. Like so many others who were born in former Yugoslavia, I have difficulty believing that what happened really happened. I know of many explanations, but not one of them, as far as I’m concerned, tells the whole story.

The man whom the Western press and television regularly compare to Hitler was born on August 22, 1941, in Pozarevac, a town an hour’s drive east of Belgrade, best known for its penitentiary where many anti-Communists were locked up after the war. His father was an Orthodox priest and his mother a schoolteacher. Earlier that year they had moved with their three-year-old son, Borislav, from Montenegro to Serbia. The Nazis had occupied Yugoslavia in April after a coup by Serbian officers who overthrew the government on March 27 and nullified the neutrality treaty signed forty-eight hours earlier with Hitler. Jubilant crowds then roamed the streets of Belgrade chanting, “Better war than the pact.” Hitler reacted instantly. The city was heavily bombed on April 6 by the Nazis in what was called “Operation Punishment” and Yugoslavia was quickly overrun by the German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian armies.

My own father and grandfather regarded the coup as a heroic act in the noblest Serbian tradition. It was a…

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