Misunderstanding Yugoslavia

Basil Davidson

  • Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War by Susan Woodward
    Brookings, 536 pp, £35.50, May 1995, ISBN 0 8157 9514 9

Someone was heard complaining, the other day, about the ‘absurd confusions’ of the recent war in the Balkans. Very well: but why absurd? Or when have such confusions been anything save absurd? In this respect, at any rate, the unmaking of Yugoslavia can be seen as par for the course. It happened to me on a chill April morning, 55 years ago, to be sitting by a roadside outside Belgrade waiting for transport during another absurd confusion. Nothing at all had damaged me, which was quite fortunate, for a few hours earlier during that morning’s bombing I had been sheltering in the cellars of the Hotel Majestic, as it was pleased to call itself, along the way from the Kalemegdan Fortress. Now I was outside the city on the old road going south into Bosnia, and Belgrade behind me hovered beneath a shroud of dust and smoke as Hitler’s bombers swung into their stride again. Having begun at dawn, they would continue until late the next day, there being nothing to stop them. Thousands of Belgrade citizens and others with them were dead or about to die: as many as 17,000 according to a subsequent estimate. Other thousands were walking south in a blind search for their army, for any fighting unit they could join. Two such men had come to a halt beside me. They were in loud and angry argument. The younger of them was cursing as only enraged Serbs know how to curse. Their defenceless city should never have been reduced to ruins. But, criminally, it had been – and by whose fault? He cursed the generals and their political bosses. He cursed all manner of traitors, cowards, fools, whoever. I felt for him – who wouldn’t, as things were? – but the other man tried to comfort him. To me very memorably, even in that highrise confusion, this other man said: ‘We’ll find the Army. We’ll reach it even if we have to go to Greece, to go as far as Solun’ – as far as distant Salonika to which an earlier army had retreated in 1914, during the Great War against the Austrians and their emperor, Franz Joseph.

These two lost souls among a multitude would never find their army, for it had disappeared in demoralised chaos. I got away without many pains, that time at least, and came back on the end of a parachute some two years later to witness the making of the very different Yugoslavia of Tito and his Partisan brigades, who had emerged in narrow victory from heroic defensive battles among the peaks and chasms of Montenegro, but still faced two more years of pitiless warfare before the Germans ran – those who were still able. And then, considering what had gone before as well as the crass defeat and misery we see today, a kind of miracle ensued. After the early Fifties, and for the next thirty years, as Susan Woodward explains in this careful and even-handed book, Yugoslavia was ‘a relatively prosperous, open and stable society’. And in this new society the South Slav peoples acquainted themselves with many happier aspects of the modern world. Schooling flourished for the first time. Health and other public services got amazingly better than anything imaginable before. And a capacity for peaceful tolerance gained the upper hand over fear or hatred and held it. I am admittedly offering the view of someone fond of the place; but floods of tourists and travellers saw that same view, not least because this people in its great majority had refused incarceration within anyone’s ‘evil empire’, and had pushed their bloodstained past so far behind them that it looked like they might never go back to it.

The how and the why of their return will long remain a matter of baleful disagreement. It is the case, even so, that the Yugoslavia of the Partisans and the struggle for liberation from Nazi-Fascist invasion and occupation was a remarkable success and a moral achievement: a relatively open society held together, as Woodward says, ‘not by Tito’s charisma or by political dictatorship or repression of national sentiments, but by a complex balancing act at the international level and an extensive system of rights and of overlapping sovereignties’. To which one has to add, allowing for the frailties of human nature, that the Yugoslavia of the Partisans was held together by a powerfully patriotic discipline administered with a usually dogmatic and often ruthless force. Yet that force was effective over peoples not in the least given to submission, much less to being bullied, because of its association with a proud and still sharply vivid memory of the common fight against the overwhelming odds of Fascist barbarism. These terms may have become suspect and sentimental, but they will stand. It is sometimes supposed that the Wehrmacht of Hitler’s time was less brutal in its operations than the SS and its understrapping torturers. This was never true in Eastern Europe, and least of all in Yugoslavia after the invasions of 1941. There the German Army tortured and burned and killed with the worst of them, and the evidence for this is horribly complete. To measure the astonishing degree to which the ethos of Yugoslavia’s self-liberation could overcome hatred and revenge one needs perhaps to have seen the depths out of which it had to climb. That it did so Woodward, no kind of sentimentalist, is able to confirm. Why then this ferocious disintegration? Why its appalling speed and evident irreversibility? The reach-me-down answer has come in terms of ‘ethnicity’ and its passions.

The recourse to ‘ethnicity’ as an explanation is pseudo-scientific nonsense. It is possible, if fairly meaningless, to claim that most Albanians, like many Greeks and most Magyars and some Romanians, derive from ethnic stock originally different from those of their Slav neighbours. But that is about as far in this matter as you can sensibly go. Otherwise these various jumbled-up peoples differ from each other in their purely cultural characteristics, the most influential of which have been linguistic and religious. Even these degrees of difference have been less substantial than instant commentators routinely tell us. The Slav language of Slovenia, way up in foothills climbing to the Alps, is certainly very different from the Slav language of Croatia, but the latter differs from the Slav language of Serbia in no more profound or misunderstandable ways than the English of Yorkshire differs from the English of Devon. Other than this the cultural difference between Croatia and Serbia is that between Croat Catholicism – of recent years, admittedly aggressive and proselytising – and the gentle Serbian Orthodoxy of Byzantium. Between these two major communities the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ can have no sense at all. The conflict here is one of rivalry for material resources in land or trade or money. And this is what has lain at the root of the horrors, not least in partly Muslim Bosnia, where the language is in no way different from Serbo-Croat save in a few survivals from Ottoman Turkish, but where the grim impoverishments of recent years have brought ever more painful consequences.

Susan Woodward has found the motivating causes of the disintegration in economic circumstance and its ferocious pressures. This makes for dry reading but comes as a considerable relief after the balderdash about ethnicity with which we have been lavishly belaboured. ‘Yugoslavia’s dissolution,’ Woodward insists, ‘began with fundamental changes in the international environment. The attempt, led largely by the International Monetary Fund, to salvage the international monetary system in the Seventies through massive global lending of recycled petrodollars came to a halt after 1979. Banks retreated. The interest rate of the US dollar skyrocketed, and, with it, the foreign debt of all countries owing debt in those dollars.’

For the Yugoslav financial authorities, and very soon for their political authorities as well, this ‘forced import of crisis’ – and it was substantively an import no matter what local irresponsibilities came along with it – posed problems too difficult to avert or solve. The failure was no doubt lamentable but was shared by almost all the countries of the Third World to which the Yugoslavs were now said to belong. ‘With seriously depleted foreign reserves, failing exports and an increasingly intractable foreign debt of about $20 billion,’ Woodward says, ‘the Government had no choice but to focus all its attention on foreign liquidity’ in an attempt to stave off the banks and somehow survive. How should they do this? The creditors knew their answer. No matter what might happen to export prices while everyone else was attempting the same thing, these feckless peoples must ‘export or die’. The search for liquidity by attempting to service a debt which none of the major creditors had any intention of forgiving or even seriously reducing could only mean an ever more swingeing austerity in everyday life. Woodward shows what this now meant: ‘The Government sought every possible way to cut domestic consumption and to squeeze foreign currency and exports out of the economy. Food subsidies were abandoned. Prices of gasoline and heating fuel, food and transportation rose by one-third in 1983. All imports not critical to production were prohibited, including all consumer goods,’ and this in a country far from recovered from the profound impoverishment of the war years and their near-starving aftermath. A ferocious fall in living standards duly followed, most painfully in the ‘least developed’ republics of the south: Montenegro, Macedonia and parts of Serbia. Access to credit was quickly blocked by soaring inflation. There emerged an underclass of jobless and skill-less workers concentrated in urban areas, precisely where food was hardest to find even when money to buy it was to hand. ‘Wage and income restrictions, price increases and unemployment among young people and women sent average household incomes plummeting to levels of twenty years before.’ After 1984 inflation rose by 50 per cent a year, and very soon by much more. The outlook had become unrelievedly desperate and everyone knew it: except, it seemed, the remote creditors calling for their money.

This was when the federal solidarities built during the Second World War at last met their defeat. The republics of Yugoslavia began to act towards each other as though they no longer belonged to the same country. Installed bureaucracies, whether or not elected, began to behave as sovereign dictatorships. Ancient hatreds regained an instant venom. Revisiting the largely Serbian Vojvodina in 1984, I found old friends in open economic warfare with next-door Croatia, their traditional client for pork and other meats. Incredibly as it then seemed to me (and also to them, for the most part), these meat-producers felt that they must insist on their Croatian customers paying them in hard currency, meaning the Deutschmarks of which, perhaps needless to say, the Croats had none to spare. Then it was deadlock but soon it would be worse, much worse. The utterly disgraceful siege of largely Croat Vukovar by a Yugoslav Army now effectively an instrument of Serbian chauvinism was part of what followed, and was accompanied elsewhere by Croat aggressions no more forgivable.

The economist Michael Barrett Brown convincingly argues in The Yugoslav Tragedy [*] that the failure to cancel the petrodollar debts – not simply to reschedule them, which means merely that the country pays later at the same unrelenting rates of interest – was essentially the motor of this collapse; Woodward says the same thing. Once the slide into ‘ethnic warfare’ had developed, it proved impossible to stop or even to slow down. Cultural resentments ripened into self-justifying hatreds. Old forms of violence acquired new names and uniforms, or else revamped the old ones. Thus, as Woodward explains, by the autumn of 1991, ‘paramilitary gangs, foreign mercenaries and convicted criminals roamed the territory under ever less civil control.’ The debt-driven criminalisation of political life now stalked the South Slav lands as it did much of Africa at about the same time. Various thugs and monsters, often under the flags and slogans of Fascist groups active during World War Two – the Croat Ustashe, Serbian Ljoticevtsi, Nedicevtsi or sundry other ‘chetniks’ – came back from Western exile, well financed and eager for long forestalled revenge. They filtered their poison into this nightmare scene and sometimes found credible figures to lead them, while supposedly disinterested figures in the West hurried to explain the ‘feelings’ of these dreadful spooks and to give them house-room.

There was now little to choose between Serbian and Croatian ‘activists’. Prevailing sentiment in the West, and above all in what was still West Germany, may now have been ‘pro-Croat’ and therefore ‘anti-Serb’ – recklessly projecting the Serbian politician Milosevic as an all-purpose personification of cynical barbarism – but only evidence tailored according to prejudice made this possible. In the German case the prejudice was revived from their débâcle in Yugoslavia of 1945 and, especially in southern Germany, was influenced by Vatican and similar sources of religious propaganda. Woodward recalls that local strategists and politicos ‘chose targets and managed media coverage so as to shape international opinion and local sympathies’. The Croatian Government, for example, placed sharpshooters on the walls of Dubrovnik, a truly handsome and unblemished city, ‘to draw fire from the federal’ – read Serbian – ‘armed forces, attracting a world attention that even the total destruction of Vukovar could not obtain. The Croatian and Bosnian Governments placed mortars and artillery batteries within the walls of hospitals for the same purpose, drawing fire from Serb gunners to gain international reaction.’ Anything that could generate war hatred was rehearsed and played out. ‘All sides used attacks (and mutual recriminations of blame) on cultural monuments, on civilians in breadlines, on wedding and funeral parties, on busloads of orphans and on international troops, to mobilise sympathies and hostility at home and abroad.’ Deploying every ingenuity of the damned, these ‘ethnic’ propagandists ate three times a day and thought themselves very clever.

It cannot be said that they have failed to get away with their lies. There has been a fearful degradation here, and Woodward, it seems to me, fails to bring this home. This is not in the least because she turns away from painful facts, or fears to put the blame where her evidence should place it: she is in all such matters unflinchingly true to her material. She shows very clearly where the new Slovene leaders preferred their own short-term gain at their neighbours’ cost, how those of Croatia found a well-provided patron in the Germany of Kohl and company, and how the Serbs, feeling isolation creep up on them, behaved according to sacred precedent and took ‘Western hostility’ as a matter of course. In all this, rather surprisingly, only the Macedonian leaders seem to have behaved with a sensible restraint, even in face of absurd claims that most or many Macedonians are really Greeks or, when seen from Sofia, just as surely Bulgarians. One hopes without much conviction that they will reap their reward.

The sap and savour of South Slav life and community, however cut down or twisted in these years, is largely absent from Woodward’s account. My own contacts are nowadays rare and spasmodic because friends have gone to ground or simply vanished, but such as they are they suggest an immense gulf between the mass of people – whether of one ‘ethnicity’ or none – and the ‘leaders’ who now claim to speak for them. Correspondents give the impression of feeling themselves to be ‘outside this story’, and in some essential sense not responsible for it. Perhaps this is always the case when mindless militarism stamps across the scene. But in these republics there is a background that gives a different perspective. The Yugoslavia of the liberation war was in many ways a tough and terrible place, yet the peoples who resisted the invasions of 1941 and what followed on those invasions certainly felt themselves to be fully ‘inside that story’ and entirely responsible for their resistance, whatever it might cost. This is why the Partisan movement, however distracted by Communist Party dogmatism and the gross corruption which eventually derived from it, could give rise to the tolerance and success, unique in Eastern or Central Europe, displayed by Yugoslavia through many years alter 1950. It has become fashionable to forget this, and it will be a fair bet that rather few readers of our newspapers will know anything about it: nonetheless every year since 1990, in Yugoslavia as was or is, has brought its often anonymous and as often repressed calls for peace and reconciliation, demonstrating that very large numbers of ‘ordinary people’ have been anything but swept away by ‘ethnic’ or other opportunist gambles.

Nothing may be as instructive, in this story, as the nature of the official propaganda on all sides, which has been distinguished by its utter and absolute irresponsibility. This was in no sense the case among the Partisans. If there was little mercy for systematic killers among the Croat Ustashe and their German mentors, there was no great hatred for the majority on the ‘other side’: they were regarded rather as victims or fools. In September 1943 I was with the Partisan Third Corps when it took the Croat-held town of Tuzla in northern Bosnia by storm. After days of fighting the enemy lost several hundred killed and as many wounded; there were also, according to my notes, rather more than two thousand Croat prisoners. These prisoners of war were conscripts of the Croat Independent State promoted by Hitler. After that tough battle these prisoners lost their weapons and their footwear, boots being rarer in the Partisan Army than weapons. But they did not lose their lives or their liberty: they were quickly set free and sent home with the advice, cheerfully enough conveyed, that they waste no time in getting themselves rearmed and captured again. After that grim war Tuzla managed to grow into a flourishing town, and repeated calls for peace and reconciliation which have come from there during these last few years have seemed to me to recall and revive the Partisan experience of bratsvo i jedinstvo: the ‘brotherhood and unity’ for which the Partisan brigades had fought.

Woodward could usefully have given some attention to these matters arising from fairly recent history. It may be that her dark conclusions, if she had, would be a good deal lightened. Few of the figures now on the scene, war criminals or not, will be long remembered: when they are gone there will be space to recall the multitude who have remained outside the story. I think that Woodward herself also thinks something like this, but it is sometimes hard to tell because this unquestionably competent analyst writes in a prose so wilfully opaque that one longs for an edited version.

[*] Spokesman, 90 pp., £25 and £4.99, 8 April, 0 85124 590 0.