- The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia by Tim Judah
Yale, 368 pp, £19.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 300 07113 2
Oh those awful Serbs! Until recently no one cared or knew much about them in the West and now almost everyone has an opinion about them and it’s most likely to be unfavourable. Karadzic and Mladic – icons of inhumanity – are taken as embodiments of the soul of their people. Even before the wars in the former Yugoslavia started, American newspapers are offering analyses of the Serbs. A New York Times editorial on 4 April 1989, for instance, described Yugoslavia’s Roman Catholic republics as ‘the country’s most advanced and politically enlightened region’ now undeservedly threatened with ‘bullying’ by a block of Orthodox Christian republics. It was an open-and-shut case: a struggle between industrious Roman Catholic Slavs, whose culture and traditions are a part of civilised Europe, and the Byzantine East, where laziness and violence are the rule. Later on, during the war in Bosnia, it was the Bosnian Muslims who were praised for their affinities with the West and for being unlike Muslims elsewhere.
Before long, Western newspapers and Balkan nationalists were using much the same language. With complete assurance, editorials, columns and op-ed page articles purported to locate characteristics that have supposedly been present for centuries in these little-known Balkan peoples. For many Western commentators talking about the Serbs was a way of defining their own cultural superiority. Offering their readers crude morality plays, they conveniently overlooked the possibility that their own diatribes resembled the nationalist rhetoric they so deplored. Most absurd of all was the idea that there are two kinds of nationalism: the ‘Post-Modern nationalism’ of Slovenes and Croats, tolerant, democratic and nonaggressive, and Serbian nationalism, which is intrinsically expansionist, authoritarian and violent. To anybody able to read the nationalist press in Serbia and Croatia this is laughable. The best proof of the fact that Serbs and Croats are one and the same people are the almost identical idiocies their super-patriots spew out every day.
Once it was clear that the West agreed with local nationalists that the peoples of the former Yugoslavia had nothing in common, it followed that the break-up of the country was something to be encouraged. The inconvenient fact that the Serbs were the largest ethnic group, and the only one with significant numbers scattered throughout the other republics, was never seriously addressed. Instead, they were dismissed as the jailers of Yugoslavia, the perennial trouble-makers, the sort of people who couldn’t be reasoned with, who didn’t understand anything more subtle than the carrot and the stick. Again and again a columnist would say that the stick was all the Serbs understood, whereupon a letter to the editor or an op-ed page article would argue that a carrot should be offered.
Even the new Croatian Constitution, as Tim Judah points out in his fine new book, which demoted 600,000 of Croatia’s Serbs to minority status by making the new country the ‘national state of the Croatian people’, was not so alarming as to postpone Croatia’s recognition. Serb fears of Croatia were wildly exaggerated, the journalists said, as if they themselves would take in their stride the news that they were no longer American citizens, but were from now on members of an Irish, Jewish, Chinese, or other minority in an Anglo-Saxons-only state. If the Serbs had complaints, it was said, they should have worked within the system. Even when thousands had been fired from their jobs merely for being Serbs, and the streets and schools named after the heroes of the Anti-Fascist resistance had been renamed after the Fascists responsible for the mass killings of Serbs in World War Two, they were supposed to hold their breath and wait for Susan Sontag or Bernard Henri Levy to take up their cause.
Vol. 19 No. 16 · 21 August 1997
Charles Simic is a scintillating writer, but his review of Tim Judah’s book was blustery (LRB, 31 July). Western politicians and commentators were hardly to blame if Serbian warmongering obscured the reality of a Serb Problem in Yugoslavia. As for that ‘dreadful bias’ in the Western media, does Simic really believe the coverage was at odds with events on the ground? How can anyone, considering the recent carnage and continuing misery, scorn, as Simic seems to, the notion that around 1990 the Serbs ‘should have worked within the system’ instead of assailing it? Which Western ‘enthusiasts of the break-up’ wanted Bosnia to be an ethnic theme-park? This imputed ambition is known to me only from Serb, Croat and Bosniak agitprop. And Croatia’s 1990 Constitution did not redefine the republic as a national state: this definition was present in the Titoist Constitution of 1974.
Vol. 19 No. 18 · 18 September 1997
Charles Simic was certainly given licence to plead the Serbian cause by way of reviewing Tim Judah’s book on the subject (LRB, 31 July). I was reminded of a meeting with the poet in the mid-Seventies, when he came to read for the creative writing programme I was directing at the local college. After a fine reading, some of us repaired to a colleague’s home for a nightcap, where, after a drink or two, someone divulged to Simic that I was Turkish. Whereupon Simic got up and delivered the most vicious and bigoted diatribe against my people, the gist of which was that Turks are the most brutal people on the face of this earth.
I tried to respond that it was not accurate to equate the Turks with the Ottomans, whose rule over the Balkans was no harsher than their heavy hand over the Anatolian Turks. Besides, the Janissaries who were responsible for the alleged brutality were not Turks at all but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Circassian, Albanian, Bulgarian or Greek boys ‘culled’ from their homelands before puberty and trained for statesmanship as well as for war. I pointed out that the Ottomans had recognised soon after engaging in hostilities with the lesser Slavs that youths whose origins were Serbian proved to have prodigious talents for mayhem, pillage and bloodshed. After all, I asked, wasn’t Vlad the Impaler, also known in fiction as Dracula, the national hero of the Serbs? Vlad had the turbans of an Ottoman peace mission nailed to their heads because they failed to remove their headgear in his presence – a gratuitous cruelty which precipitated the Ottoman conquest of his homeland.
But Simic was not listening. The other two poet-profs sat like stones, faces closed. They either agreed with Simic (after all, history shows us that it has never been politically incorrect to rag on the Turks), or else they did not want to become involved in a Balkan conflict History repeats itself. The turn has come for Serbian chauvinists to take the world’s disapproval and contempt. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Simic doesn’t like it.
An interesting note in Lord Kinross’s The Ottoman Centuries informs us that in their search for robust and aggressive boys in the Balkans, the Ottomans never took into their Janissary corps those boys who were the sons of Serbian pig farmers: boys of this particular background were too brutal and brutish even for the Ottomans. Charles Simic tells us in his poems that he’s descended from Serbian pig farmers.
Charles Simic writes: So, I’m supposed to hate all Turks! That must be why I listen to Turkish music, cook Turkish dishes and have Turkish kilims on my floors. I have no recollection of the event. I may have said plenty about the brutality of the Turks in the Balkans and was probably unpersuaded by Ms Gün’s claim that for five centuries it was never the Turks, but always the local Balkan boys disguised as Turks who massacred their own people. As for Dracula being the Serbian national hero, she’s got the wrong country. It’s a long way from Transylvania to where I was born.