Ivo Banac in Sarajevo. CREDIT: Irfan Redzovic
Ivo Banac in Sarajevo. CREDIT: Irfan Redzovic

War and Reconciliation in the Twentieth-Century Balkans

Sep 3, 2014

What are the remedies for the endless cycles of violence in the Balkans? Croatian historian Ivo Banac examines various solutions that have been tried and found wanting, to some extent, and concludes with another possibility.

Ladies and gentlemen, I too would like to thank the organizers of this extremely important meeting, the Carnegie Council, the American University, and, needless to say, this magnificent library, the Gazi Husrev-bey Library. And I too, at the beginning, have to say this is going to be very impressionistic because though war has been one of the important features of 20th century Balkan history and we can talk a great deal about it, reconciliation has been less than pleasant and the amount that I can assign to it is probably going to constitute a bit of a disappointment.

The restoration of friendly—or at least tolerant—relations after an estrangement, most notably after an armed conflict, period of autocratic rule, or war has rarely been an attainable political aim on the Balkan Peninsula. The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, the two world wars, the wars of Yugoslav succession, as well as various bilateral conflicts that have occurred in between, have all tended to promote the least favorable portrayal of the adversary, whose flaws are seen as lasting and indelible. The enemy's features are perpetuated in however imperfect national memory, which serves as the fluid of revanchism. The redoubtable Serbian novelist Dobrica Ćosić recognized this tendency in a sentence he assigned to General Živojin Mišić, the commander of the Serbian First Army, in a fictionalized discussion with the staff officers before the decisive Battle of Kolubara in December 1914: "People do not remember suffering because they like to remember pain and defeat, but because of revenge; because they wish to gain hatred that gives strength for victory. People must hate in order to survive. People remember suffering in order to have the strength to hate."1

This is hardly welcome news for the sort of discussion that we are having. George Kennan, for his part, saw this trait of character in the Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, which the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace produced in 1914. Kennan detected "a tendency to view the outsider, generally, with dark suspicion, and to see the political-military opponent, in particular, as a fearful and implacable enemy to be rendered harmless only by total and unpitying destruction. And so it remains today," Kennan concluded in 1993.2

The educational systems and nationalist propaganda of the interwar period certainly perpetuated images of hostile neighboring nations, to which hostile classes were added after 1945. Any critical account of these images, with their myriad associations and meanings, would be discouragingly predictable and I really do not propose to enter into this subject. Far more promising, it seems to me, is an examination of various remedies to the cycles of violence that have been tried and, to some extent, found wanting.

One remedy is the regime of restrictions. Not only are certain signs and symbols consistently criminalized, but whole fields of inquiry are closed to examination in favor of certain "politically correct" narratives that are officially promoted and perpetuated. The communist regimes, in their initial phases, practiced this remedy with various degrees of consistency, but the intrinsic weakness of their approach was that the "enemies" acquired political coloration that was effectively identical to the old nationalist stereotypes. If the only Italians that you encounter in primary school texts are all brutish fascists who deserve to be destroyed, then the mental image of Italians will remain negative and only to a degree at variance with the 19th century fictions on age-old Venetian depredations and such.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially, the communist-era images of Ottoman tyranny, which were uncritically accepted from the old nationalist regimes, were inevitably transferred to the whole Muslim community. The vaunted slogan of "brotherhood and unity" rang hollow in the context of constant reminders of Muslim perfidy, enforced not by vulgar propaganda but by the most distinguished national classics, for example Ivan Mažuranić in Croatia with his account of a supposed Muslim tyrant; Petar II Petrović-Njegoš's The Mountain Wreath, which really portrays a built-in and inevitable mutual distruction between the Christian Balkan population and the converts to Islam; and, more recently, various novels of Ivo Andrić. The Bridge on the Drina, I think, in this context served a particularly nefarious purpose, that famous account of the impalement on Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge has to a significant extent become a symbol of the Ottoman presence in the Balkan Peninsula.

A good example of how communist "internationalism" can evolve into assimilationist nationalism can be seen in the Bulgarian policies toward the Pomaks, the Bulgarian-speaking Muslims mainly of the Rhodope region. As Maria Todorova, herself a champion of assimilationism has pointed out: "All Balkan countries (Turkey included) resorted to similar solutions in trying to solve their minority problems in the new context: (forced) emigration and assimilation. The failure of these policies and the subsequently unresolved minority issues are essentially the sources of existing and potential crisis points in the Balkans: Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Transylvania, Thrace."3 In other words, if you do not assimiilate or forcibly remove the minorities in given national states then you're going to have unavoidable conflicts and wars.

This sort of thinking legitimizes the anti-minority policies that were pursued by the Bulgarian and Romanian communist regimes throughout their years in power and the Yugoslav communist regime until 1966 and again after 1981. Before 1966, you had numerous cases of forced emigration of Bosnian Muslims and Albanians and, of course, after 1981 a particularly restrictive regime was imposed in Kosovo and on Albanians in Yugoslavia, in general. It turned out that the communist restrictions provided the appearance of historical inevitability to the older nationalist war against all particularisms that stood in the way of a modern national state. Nationalism triumphed over communism even before the regime collapse at the end of the 1980s and became the dominant form of modernity in the 20th century Balkans.

I should add, simply as a personal aside, that the regime of restrictions has been frequently favored, though not consistently, in many of the post-communist societies of Eastern Europe. But those of us who have been involved with human rights activism, liberal activism, have found that it is important to challenge this particular approach.

We had a case in Croatia several years ago—it's an ongoing case—where a particularly nefarious and very popular singer who has introduced a number of fascist themes in his songs was repeatedly banned by local administrations, not permitted to use public premises for his concerts and so on. We thought that this sort of an approach really makes a hero out of him, as in fact happened, and therefore we tried to urge an entirely different approach, namely that he should be permitted to use those premises that are not under the control of the state and that in this sense, his influence would ultimately be lessened. Wherever this second approach was tried, this is exactly what happened. But it is a very tough lesson to teach in this part of the world.

The preferred remedies of the post-communist period have been educational schemes and participatory measures that have met with limited success. Unlike the accomplishments of the joint German-Polish Textbook Commission, which devised mutually acceptable historical textbooks for use in both countries, in Poland and in Germany, the dominant narrative in the school textbooks, especially in history and civic education, has changed only to a small degree in the Balkan countries after the fall of communism and the harsh nationalist regimes of the 1990s.

The deplorable situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is made worse by the ethnic interpretations of history in the areas of dominant regional majorities, I must say not only in Republika Srpska, but also in the Federation. There are many cases of actual apartheid education in the same school district, with children being educated in a uninational setting, in shifts, within the same school building. Still, the most critical systemic omission, notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the absence of a method that would protect the right of individuals to make claims against their territorial governments, something that was present in European judicial practices really since the Osnabrück treaty of 1648.

I'm not going to go into the record of the Hague tribunal. As an agency that contributes to reconciliation, this record has been checkered and incomplete for various reasons, simply because certain cases were never tried and certain cases were never completed. The seriousness of the tribunal, of course, is going to be determined particularly in the ongoing cases against Karadžić and Mladić.

The efforts of the civil society NGOs in fostering reconciliation have floundered on one-sided "confronting the past" measures, which have in certain cases actually provoked new civic conflict. I have in mind the case of RECOM [Regional Commission for Establishing the Facts about War Crimes and Other Gross Violations of Human Rights Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia]. RECOM's "tool kit" approach to transitional justice that "offers truth, justice, reconciliation, stability, democracy, peace, and accountability" has not succeeded in bridging (for example, in the case of Kosovo, but not only there) the demands of one side—in this case, the Albanians for recognition of Milošević-era Serbian policies of expulsion and extermination—and the demands of Serbs for recognition of demographic losses in their "usurped" ancestral land. To the contrary, the RECOM was challenged by victims who refused to play the "apolitical" victim role. I quote from a very influential, recent article by Anna Di Lellio and Caitlin McCurn: "Instead of conforming to the mold of a submissive victim, they were far from homogeneous. They were highly opinionated, political, divisive, and unyielding."4

I do not mean to suggest that all NGOs that deal with reconciliation are equally ineffective. In fact, you probably received this little handout for a wonderful book, soon to be published in New Haven, by Edina Bećirević, Genocide on the Drina River. The author is involved in an extremely successful NGO called the Center for Justice and Reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. So it can be done, if done properly.

An important sidelight of the RECOM failure has been the transitional justice activists' inability to engage the cooperation of the clergy. We discussed this to some extent today. It simply has to be noted that the religious communities remain largely impervious to reconciliation structures, though not necessarily to reconciliation discourse. Unlike the pre-modern period, when regional identities were fundamentally confessional, the 19th- and 20th-century national movements had brought forth new secular identities. Nationalism was the new public cult, which changed everything, including religion.

Precisely because nationalism became the dominant modern, secular ideology, its most obvious effect in the spiritual sphere was the "secularization" precisely of religion. Instead of preaching the Gospel, or even the holy war against Islam, as was the case in the cycle of wars since the 17th century, the Balkan churches—Orthodox and Catholic—were increasingly preaching the sacred national cause. For its part, the Islamic community adjusted accordingly, limiting its own universalism to the secular national community that developed out of its confessional confines. The "desecularization" of religion, which in part implies the return of the three Abrahamic confessions to a universalist agenda and with it to greater openness to other religious communities, remains one of the most promising areas for the reconciliation process. But that is not something that is taking place to any significant degree at this moment.

Finally, one cannot overlook the political actions of leaders of states. During the past decade, important symbolic actions were pursued by the regional heads of state (or prime ministers) in atonement for the misdeeds and crimes of their co-nationals or predecessors. Though stiffly choreographed and frequently awkward in content it cannot be claimed that these actions were entirely futile. They reinforce, however, the growing culture of memory that in the opinion of many is the basic prerequisite in the prevention of conflict.

But there is another approach. Ivo Andrić—I just described him not particularly favorably—who was more responsible than most distinguished authors in perpetuating negative national stereotypes and conflicted modes of interpretation of Balkan history, at the end of his life opted for a slightly different way: "Not death, but forgetting resolves everything. Forgetting, moreover not only of concepts, words, and faces, but of everything that exists and lives. The forgetting of body and the forgetting of time. Forgetting, in order to catch one's breath and continue to live in body without memory, with spirit without name. Forgetting, which is death with the right to hope."5

Borges was even more explicit, but with a typical twist, in his "Legend of Cain and Abel." It's a famous story, but let us quote it again:

Abel and Cain met each other after Abel's death. They walked through the desert and recognized each other from afar, because they were both very tall. The brothers sat on the earth, made a fire, and ate. They remained silent, in the manner of those who are tired at the end of the day. A star appeared in the sky, one whose name nobody can remember. By the light of the flame, Cain noticed the mark of a stone indented in Abel's forehead and the bread he had raised to his lips fell before he could eat it and he asked whether his crime had been forgiven.

Abel answered: "Did you kill me or did I kill you? I already cannot remember, and here we are, together like before."

"Now you must have forgiven me," Cain said, "because to forget is to forgive. I will, too, try to forget."

Abel replied softly:"That's right. While the remorse lasts, so does the guilt."6

But how can one, even under these terms, forget in Sarajevo, particularly on this anniversary? Thank you very much.

1Dobrica Ćosić, Vreme smrti (Belgrade, 1972), vol. 2, p. 332.
2George F. Kennan, "The Balkan Crises: 1913 and 1993," in The Other Balkan Wars: A 1913 Carnegie Endowment Inquiry in Retrospect (Washington, D.C., 1993), p. 11.
3 Maria Todorova, "Identity (Trans)formation among Bulgarian Muslims," in The Myth of 'Ethnic Conflict': Politics, Economics, and 'Cultural' Violence, ed. Beverly Crawford and Ronnie D. Lipschultz (Berkeley, Calif., 1998), p. 474.
4Anna Di Lellio and Caitlin McCurn, "Engineering Grassroots Transitional Justice in the Balkans: The Case of Kosovo," East European Politics and Societies, vol. 27 (2013), no. 1, pp. 129-148.
5Ivo Andrić, Znakovi pored puta (Sremski Karlovci and Novi Sad, 2002), 3rd ed., p. 14.
6 http://www.babelmatrix.org/works/es/Borges,%20Jorge%20Luis-1899/Leyenda/en/37347-Legend?tr%20id=1282

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