The Balkans produce more history

Montenegro votes for independence – why did Yugoslavia collapse?

.. than they can consume locally. (Though I can’t find a source, the epigram is always dated to 1912 and attributed to Saki, who lost his life a little later in one of the export waves.) (Update: commenter Jim below has run down the quotation – it was Saki, in 1911, but not on the Balkans.)

Montenegro has voted for independence from Serbia. The breakup of former Yugoslavia is now just about complete except for Kosovo.

Anybody who claims to understand the Balkans hasn’t been there. Experts, when pressed for a simple explanation of the collapse of Yugoslavia, stare gloomily into their slivovitz. I went on a dozen missions to Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and (a lovely contrast) Slovenia and organised a few projects in Albania, Serbia and Macedonia, so I’m neither a rank amateur nor a expert. Let me bore you with my tourist class Theory.

The “ancient ethnic hatreds” explanation doesn’t wash. The Balkans weren’t significantly more warlike and violent than the rest of Europe for centuries. The machismo is par for the Mediterranean (cf. Crete). Living under empires, with the peculiar exception of Montenegro, nurtured cultural as opposed to civic identity. But what experience have Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, or Romania had of democracy? Outside Yugoslavia, you see every shade of misrule after the collapse of Soviet hegemony, but not civil war.

More recent events generally have more explanatory power than remote ones. One big recent difference is the course of Hitler’s war. Over most of central and eastern Europe, this took the form of conventional warfare, conducted with great brutality and indifference to civilian suffering, but essentially by uniformed armies. Partisans in Russia were objects of deep suspicion to Stalin; survivors were expediently made heroes afterwards, but remained secondary in both fact and legend to the Red Army.

In Yugoslavia, partisan warfare dominated; and it was a civil as well as a liberation war. John Keegan, in his History of Warfare (pp 51-55), points out the uniquely destructive effects on society of the application of the theory of popular warfare by Tito, and the response by his Croat and Cetnik foes and the Wehrmacht. In popular war, there are no civilians. It is essential to make an occupied village commit to your side, by implicating villagers in executions and looting. An enemy village that has made the “wrong” commitment is punished, savagely. The French and the Czechs still remember Oradour and Lidice with horror – but these were the sole examples in each country. In Yugoslavia, hundreds of villages met similar fates, not all at German hands. Keegan gives the Yugoslav casualties of the partisan war at 1.2 million, one of the highest rates among the combatant nations. So postwar Yugoslavs inherited a huge pool of bitter memories, not just those of suffering and cruelty they shared with every survivor of occupied Europe, but of betrayal and enmity between neighbours on a unique scale.

Tito’s postwar policy to deal with this was repression in a Freudian as well as a political sense. The horrible episode was glorified in propaganda and education, and its methods inculcated to successive generations of army conscripts. Remember how the Serbs fooled the near-magical technology of the USAF in Kosovo. Arkan and Mladic were simply applying what they had been taught.

Tito’s “Yugoslavia” was a lie in a way that Stalin’s “Russia” or Mao’s “China” were not. When his iron hand in a velvet glove was removed, there wasn’t any alternative memory or vision of Yugoslavia to fall back on.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “The Balkans produce more history”

  1. A few comments:
    First, there was civil war in Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union, one that still is simmering, as well as war between Armenia and Azerbijan (SP?) that's not too far from a civil war. Also, war inside of Russia w/ Chechnya. But, on a different note, several books by Slavenka Drakulic (Cafe Europa, Balkin Express, They would Never Hurt a Fly, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed) are good for getting some idea of the Balkins, and are also highly readable.

  2. I think you are right. My grandfather was Serbian, although he left before the first world war. Nonetheless, he had many connections with more recent immigrants and my father told me that the bitterness over the horrors of what happened in WWII ran very deep, and perhaps more important, they ran deep on each side. Both Serbs adn Croats (the main ethnic groups) were aggrieved by the atrocities of the other.
    My understanding of this conflict hearkens back to when I was growing up and every few years hearing on the news that a local bombing of someone's house was attributable to their membership in a Serbian or Croation national organization. Obviously, Tito ruled with an iron hand but even he could not abolish feelings.

  3. What experience does Lithuania have with democracy? Well, from ca. 1526 until the final partition in 1795, the kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were elected by the nobility. The nobility comprised between 7 percent and 10 percent of the population. Thus a greater share of the populace voted in this elected monarchy than voted to elect the British parliament. The share of electors in the UK did not exceed that in Poland-Lithuania until after the Great Reform Act of 1832.
    All unrelated to the Balkans, but the "no democracy in Central European history" meme requires correction from time to time.

  4. OK, I understated the level of conflict within the former Soviet Union. But there's still a great difference. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, not a civil war, unless you think that the Soviet Union was a nation. The Chechnya and Abkhazia conflicts are straight separatism. My apologies for forgetting about the violent post-independence power struggle in Georgia between factions. But I've spent some time in the Caucasian republics too, and I maintain that the psychological dimensions to the conflicts are quite different from, and more straightforward than, those in former Yugoslavia.
    The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has very little connection with modern Lithuania. My point wasn't about democracy, but the acceptance of the continuity of the state under very poor conditions.

  5. I have no expertise in the subject of Yugoslavia and I am sure you WWII theory of why it ended up with such terrible civil wars is a lot of the story. However, my recollection from reading Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (from around 1941) is that even before WWII there was plenty of inter-communal hatred and potential for violent conflict, from a variety of historical patterns and events, built into the Yugoslav polity. This is probably even more true if you adjust for West's various biases and around-the-edges fictionalizations. (I should note that, while there are reasons to be suspicious of the literal accuracy of some things in the book, even apart from matters West admittedly fictionalized for good reasons, it merits the claims of some that it is one of the all time great books. Everyone who can spare 50 hours or so should read it.)

  6. Yugoslavia's entire political existence can be likened to a bunch of unrelated, unhappy foster children being thrown together under the control of a dysfunctional parent. That's true. But one has to ask one's self, why is it that Yugoslavia did not devolve the way Czechoslovakia did? And why was Slovenia able to exit without the same level of bitterness and sheer bloodthirsty brutality that attended the exit of the other states?

  7. "why is it that Yugoslavia did not devolve the way Czechoslovakia did?"
    The ethnic distribution of military resources allowed one ethnicity to actually believe it could keep the others in line? IIRC, the Yugoslav military was almost entirely Serbian, with munitions stores located in Serbia. I'm not sure that was the case in Czechoslovakia.

  8. It's naive to think that you can root the collapse of ex-YU in the experience of a few definable years, particularly when the cultures are (it seems) so varied. In historiographical terms, your theory is very 19th-C: 'great men, battles, and speeches.' The truth, of course, is much more complex: rhythms, layers, 'invisible' political processes, cultural exploitation, etc.
    In general, I tend to admire Tito for the way he reined in an almost impossibly complicated situation that – clearly – could have continued to spill blood well past WW2. However, he did engage in some pretty rough stuff, for example, 'disposing' of certain problems (say, urban leftist intelligentsia) by actively recruiting for the armed forces among this milieu, then sending them off to fight with basically nothing – in other words, to die. The rump nationalists he both empowered and suppressed (like Milosevic) continued this program 'by other means' – for example, by 'liberalizing' emigration policies then, through manipulation of passport polcies, stranding the beneficiaries abroad. In one sense, this was great, because it gave rise to a very rich and wonderful expat community. On the other hand, it also continued a trend that left large parts of ex-YU (especially Serbia) without a solid leftist intelligentsia for a few or more than a few generations running. This is what we saw the results of in Serbia's belligerence: a profoundly politically imbalanced society. That's what we see in its political operations now, a tremendous lack of choice: even the leftmost politicians are still hopelessly right-wing. Yes, I know distinctions like left/right are crude (what do you want in a blog comment?!).
    There are other deep issues, for example, the sophistication with which the Communists leveraged religious iconography and popular myth, particularly (again) in Serbia. That experience and tendency has now bled over into the way that organized criminal 'heroes' have continued in this vein – you'll see it in contexts like gravestones and monuments, which can be quite funny (gangster hero at a cafe table with a bottle of Coke and an ashtray – filled each day with fresh cigarettes by his devotees, etc.).

  9. As I undestand it, one of the issues that brought the ethnic conflict to the fore was Milosevic's desire to push the interests of a single ethnic group, Serbs, in a way that Tito never did, for whatever else you can say about him. Milosevic's strategy, as I understand it, was to station Serbs broadly throughout all regions of Yugoslavia and to prefer them in such things as academic appointments and various other patronage positions. Predictably, other groups pushed back, but by that point, it had become important for the good of the Serbian power structure for Yugoslavia to hang together. Milosevic was always controversial with non-Serbs.
    Nonetheless, I think the original premise is correct: Tito was able to keep the disparate ethnic feelings in line but he did not unify the ethnic groups or Milosevic would never have been elected or would not have pursued the policies that he did if they didn't tap into a wellspring of nationalist sentiment.

  10. and maybe the wwII conflict was one of the consequences of the austro-hungarian empire and cultural, political and religious emity between the subjects of the empire from the western european roman catholic culture and the subjects of the empire from the eastern european orthodox culture

  11. Re the Austrian Empire. My GF left Serbia with his brother around 1895 after their remaining six siblings and both parents died from contaminated milk. When my husband told this story to a Croatian colleague of his, she told him that the imperial authorities engaged in similar acts of terrorism more than occasionally. Whether there is a basis for the nationalist paranoia displayed by Balkan groups or not, I think this anecdote does show that they are, in fact, a fairly paranoid bunch. It never even occurred to me that they could have been poisoned, I had always assumed it was a natural catastrophe.

  12. Here's a suggestion:
    The only reason people go on about the Balkans is because they're in Europe and thus close to home for Western Civ.
    The world is FULL of people who hate each other and wish they could go their separate ways. Look at Iraq right now. Look at Rwanda. Look at Ethiopia/Eritrea. Look at East Timor (which having split off from Indonesia a few years ago is now making everyone who helped in that oh so proud by heading towards civil war). Many of the former Sov republics are now dictatorships and lets see what happens when the ruler for life in these various places goes to meet his maker.
    Heck Northern California claims to be a separate state (Jefferson), and pretty much every blue state would love to toss the South out back to the confederacy.
    Hating the idiots who live near you (and identifying said idiots by their differences in language/color/religion/clothes/what they watch on TV) is the human condition; and trying to wipe them out as soon as you think you can get away with it, likewise.
    The real question of interest is is there anything useful we can say about the mechanisms that stop this from occurring.

  13. and maybe the wwII conflict was one of the consequences of the austro-hungarian empire and cultural, political and religious emity between the subjects of the empire from the western european roman catholic culture and the subjects of the empire from the eastern european orthodox culture

  14. At the risk of being accused of pedantry:
    The epigram comes from Saki's "The Jesting of Arlington Stringham" in The Chronicles of Clovis, collected in 1911. But it wasn't the Balkans.
    'It was during the debate on the Foreign Office vote that Stringham made his great remark that "The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally." It was not brilliant, but it came in the middle of a dull speech, and the House was quite pleased with it. Old gentlemen with bad memories said it reminded them of Disraeli.'
    Stringham's attempts at making jokes end badly.

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