Unfashionable Victims

Charles Simic

  • 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in