Wednesday, July 13, 2005


There's nothing I really have to add to everything that has been said about the massacre ten years ago. I spent a fair amount of time in Yugoslavia for Human Rights Watch during the late 1980s and early 90s, in all parts of what was then still one country, from Slovenia to Kosovo. I was present at a number of Milosevic rallies in Serbia, and travelled with Jeri Laber, the head of Helsinki Watch, to some demonstrations that turned out, seen in retrospect, to have been the beginning of the Croatian phase of the war. We were present at police stations and armories looted of their weapons that started getting real use not long after; we drove late one night through the Croatian countryside, finding trees downed across the roads. I spent many, many hours with nationalists in Croatia and Slovenia and Kosovo urging breakup and many, many hours with the polished, travelled, cosmopolitan Yugoslav intellectual elites that feared breakup more than anything else.

I must have been young and very naive - I never really believed, until the fighting started in earnest, that all this would lead to open war, and then massacre, ethnic cleansing, Srebrenica, and the rest. I heard the warnings, but it all seemed unreal to me. Yugoslavia seemed far too civilized. I don't just mean its intellectuals and elites - I spent much time talking to peasants and farmers from all over the country, and they no more seemed likely to get into a fratricidal, genocidal war than northern and southern California.

The Serbs before the fighting started and even once it was going? When I saw the crowds at the Milosevic rallies in Belgrade, they struck me not so much as inflamed as sullen. And the sullenness I took, I now see, as essentially passive. But it wasn't. It was sullennness that blossomed into a very active resentment, that expressed itself in violence of an extraordinarily deliberate kind - not the explosion of mad political passion, but instead a cold blooded, cold hearted decision about what was "necessary." There was that strongly "logical," "necessary" sense on the Croatian side in the early part of the war, too, that created the conditions for their own acts of ethnic cleansing, yes. But on the Serb side the resentment seemed much more a force. It reminds me, today, of the attitude of one of those racist Italian football hooligan groups (someone wrote a book about them), who sing their theme song, "no one likes us, we don't care." Which is essentially resentment and sullenness, but passive - until you give them a bunch of automatic weapons.

The late Christopher Lasch wrote, in his last long book, The True and Only Heaven, in favor of a certain form of populism. He praised it for representing the relatively good sense of the common man against elites that would remake and remake and remake him according to their passing, authoritarian and often totalitarian fancies. He was, however, well aware of what populism, in the hands of demogogues, can lead to. So he spent a good deal of time in that book arguing for what he called the "spiritual disciplines against resentment." The resentment he had in mind was, I believe, very close to the resentment that I sensed so strongly among the Serbs who backed Milosevic. There were no disciplines, spiritual or otherwise, to defang, temper, and denature that resentment in Serbia. It is the same resentment, too, that seems to animate Muslim extremists today.

1 comment:

HappyClam said...

I was in Croatia early in the war and in Bosnia during the Srebrenica massacre. I, too, was regularly shocked by the capability of the Southern Slavs for hate, since they were so incredibly nice and hospitable to me.

The notion that the hatred engendered in the Serbs under Milosevic is similar to the wackiness of Salafist muslims is interesting. I very much felt in the Balkans that the hatred was a kind of "mass hysteria" or group-think run amok. It seems to spring up when people stop thinking for themselves and go along with the emotion of a crowd (ref Elias Canetti).

I am not sure but it seems that the Islamic radicals may have some of the same thing going on.