November 28, 2002
History in the Balkans
is the collective
memory of a society. Individuals can be manipulated by
tampering with their recollections (see Christopher Nolan’s
but doing this to societies is much easier. Personal memory
is at least derived from human senses, unreliable as they
may be. History is based on written interpretations of events
that the authors most often did not witness themselves, which
makes it even less reliable by several orders of magnitude.
important distinction must be made here. The society itself
cannot manipulate its own memories. For this to happen, there
needs to be an outside force, something above the
society that would rewrite history through some form of coercion
or deception: the State.
course, a desire to control the society to such an extent
that manipulating its very memories becomes necessary falls
squarely in the domain of demented totalitarians. History
is not yet re-written daily, as if in some sort of Orwellian
nightmare, but it is being re-written with alarming frequency
and to great extent, in order to suit political purposes.
Balkans has exemplified the consequences
of Imperial conquest, the true
nature of democracy and a promise
of things to come. Little wonder, then, that it can also
serve as a case study for widespread manipulation of collective
that abuses of history in the Balkans began with the collapse
of Communism in 1989 would be just as wrong as the Communist
dogma that history began in 1945, or the ludicrous neocon
notion that it has somehow "ended."
Instead, one could note with reasonable accuracy that manipulations
occurred in the process of creating the Balkans states in
the mid-to-late 1800s. The newly established states had a
vested interest in constructing a national identity that emphasized
territorial, cultural and even racial continuity with the
Middle Ages, thus strengthening their existence and claims
first Yugoslavia (1918-1941) was a product of massive historical
engineering that attempted to lump three distinctive societies
into one nation. To say it ended very
badly would be an understatement. The second Yugoslavia
(1943-1991) was also founded through historical engineering,
of an even
more ambitious scope. Its end result was also bloody and
even as the second Yugoslavia was being torn apart, its successors
were relying on historical
engineering to establish their legitimacy. Thus
the vicious circle continued.
specific example is the way various actors chose to explain
the wars which ripped through the western half of Yugoslavia
between 1991 and 1995. In Serbia, they are seen as wars against
illegal secession of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia from
Yugoslavia. Croatian authorities call it the Patriotic
War and insist it was a struggle against Serb occupation
of Croat territories.
also claims that the Serb occupation was a result of a rebellion,
fomented and aided from Belgrade, as one anonymous witness
of the Hague Inquisition is also
alleging this week. Zagreb thus claims a Lincolnian right
of suppressing a rebellion – one which has been proven
imaginary and illegitimate.
Serbs also erroneously claim the "Lincoln defense"
in respect to the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia,
and especially Kosovo. Yet the United States were a voluntary
union of independent states (until Lincoln redefined
it, in his own bit of historical engineering), while the Yugoslav
"federation" was a Communist edifice of political
Muslim leaders insist on framing the war as one of Serbo-Croat
aggression and genocide – with the Croat
component played up or down depending on the circumstances
– in which the only two constants are the absolute villainy
of the Serbs and the absolute innocence of the Muslims. This
theory wears thin with the passage of years and the ravages
of truth, but it has nonetheless become a cornerstone of Muslim
and Imperial Apologists
manipulation in the Balkans has never been limited to the
regional actors. Austria-Hungary was especially active in
propagating various pseudo-historical myths between the 1878
Congress of Berlin and the end of World War One. Nazi Germany
indulged in historical engineering when it partitioned Yugoslavia
in 1941, as did Churchill and Stalin when they agreed to share
influence at a Yalta lounge in 1945.
to explain the Balkans cataclysm of the 1990s has been one
of the most profitable cottage industries for pseudo-historians
and quasi-experts in the West, until the aftermath of Black
Tuesday brought about a rapacious demand for books on Islamic
terrorism instead. Widespread ignorance about this corner
of Europe offered endless opportunities for quick money and
easy recognition through penning not-so-cheap pamphlets and
crude propaganda tracts.
predominant thrust of these works can be seen from five pieces
that are by no means easy. Among the most notable is Laura
Silber and Alan Little’s Yugoslavia:
Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1996), a collection of
interviews interspersed by commentary, constructed around
the thesis that Slobodan Milosevic was chiefly responsible
for the destruction of Yugoslavia. While correlation does
not imply causation, it is worth noting that the Hague Inquisition
and most of the Imperial establishment share this view.
radical Imperial elements tend to blame the entire Serb people;
Tim Judah’s The
Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia,
(Yale University Press, 1997), and Kosovo,
War and Revenge (2000) are written along those lines.
far the most scholarly-looking, and therefore most insidious,
are Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia:
A Short History (New York University Press, 1994)
A Short History (HarperCollins, 1999). Armed with
a host of Austrian, German, Turkish, Albanian and Croatian
sources, Malcolm literally creates a distinctive history for
both Bosnia and Kosovo that directly supports their modern
rulers’ claims to independence. Malcolm ignores all facts
that do not support his argument, making his "histories"
highly misleading. Needless to say, they have provoked furious
response, but continue to sell – not least because they
seem to the only histories available.
one non-historical work has true historical value. Richard
End A War (Random House, 1998) describes this Imperial
legate’s efforts to conquer the Balkans. It is by no means
De Bello Gallico, though its author’s ego easily
matches the famous Roman, but it does represent a first-hand
account of Empire’s shenanigans in the Succession Wars endgame.
Though pompous, ignorant, crass and often painfully trite,
To End A War is best when Holbrooke recounts the actions
of major players at the Dayton peace talks in November 1995.
The book also openly admits that US intervention in the Balkans
was part of a strategy to reassert US leadership (i.e. dominance)
in European affairs. It is a paradox: an attempt at manipulating
history that reveals it instead.
pseudo-histories have many more avenues of influence besides
the easily challenged books, from popular
culture to daily news reports. The "trial"
of Slobodan Milosevic before the Hague Inquisition is nothing
but a giant
exercise in historical engineering. In fact, attempts
to rewrite history occur in the Balkans on a daily basis.
the UN Secretary-General deliriously rambles
about "overcoming the legacy of the past" in Kosovo,
that’s rewriting history. So is, after a fashion, the indictment
of Albanian militants for murders of other Albanians – "alleged
victims" of a "war of liberation." When Serbia’s
PM Djindjic complains
about government officials using the Hague Inquisition for
political purposes, he is not merely a hypocrite: he is also
trying to cover up his own political manipulations – i.e.
rewriting (recent) history.
enough, no one will know if their own memories are real, if
what they recall ever really happened.
tend to get in the way of good fiction, though. It is entirely
obvious from both the words and deeds of official Belgrade
that it never opposed secession in principle or in practice
(except in Kosovo, which was a special case), but merely insisted
on the Serbs’ right to secede as well. Croatia was hardly
"occupied" by Serbs who actually lived in those
disputed territories – that is, until they were expelled
en masse in 1995. By the same token, over a million
Serbs who are a constituent nation in Bosnia can hardly be
who claim Kosovo as their own and detest "Serbian occupation"
have no historical leg to stand on, nor do the NATO interventionists
who in the spring of 1999 committed a clear act of aggression
while acting against a fabricated
all honesty, the 1991-95 conflicts should rightfully be called
the Yugoslav Succession Wars, as they centered around territory
in dispute after Yugoslavia’s demise was tacitly accepted.
On the other hand, events in Kosovo, Macedonia and the Presevo
valley (southwestern Serbia) since 1998 suggest a barely disguised
Albanian expansionist campaign, with the ultimate aim of achieving
an enlarged Albanian state
in the southern Balkans.
Properties of Truth
recover from their recent calamities, let alone prosper, people
in the Balkans – anywhere, really – need to know who they
are and what happened to them. The collective schizophrenia
caused by historical manipulations makes it virtually impossible
to find those answers. Modern Balkans is an edifice built
by force and lies. Both the local rulers and the Empire rely
on both to justify their existence and ever-growing power.
order to be free, one must own oneself. And what is oneself
without memories? Just so, for a society to be free, it must
own its history. As long as that history is a forgery, that
is impossible. After two centuries of statist manipulation,
this is as good a time as any to face the facts.
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