Books: Not naturally bloodthirsty

Steve Crawshaw on a survey that puts paid to myths and cliches about the Serbs
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The Independent Culture
The Balkans 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers By Misha Glenny Granta pounds 25

In some countries, an understanding of history seems almost an optional extra. Reporters delude themselves (I know; I've done it) that it is possible to write about current events even when knowledge of What Came Before is minimal. In the Balkans, however, nobody could for even a single moment labour under such a delusion. Ask a question about events today, and, likely as not, the answer will begin with a reference to an event several hundred years ago ("What you must remember is ..."). Different ethnic groups quote history to make irrefutable (and mutually contradictory) points.

All too often, historical generalisations have served to obscure, rather than to illuminate. Misha Glenny, former BBC correspondent in the region, and author of the much-praised Fall of Yugoslavia, notes in his introduction to this wide- ranging Balkan history: "Generalisations about the peoples who inhabit the region, and their histories, were spread by media organisations that had long ago outlawed such cliches when reporting from Africa, the Middle East or China. The Balkans apparently enjoy a special exemption from the rules against stereotyping."

"Buried ancient hatreds" became a standard phrase in recent years which Western politicians trotted out to explain why (regrettably) nothing could be done. Violence was reckoned to be in the local genes. In Glenny's words, "History was used as an excuse for one of the most shameful cop-outs that the world has seen."

Admittedly, Balkan history includes more than averagely grisly moments. ("Men were roasted alive, hanged by their feet over smoking straw until they were asphyxiated, castrated, crushed with stones, and bastinadoed," runs one typical description of how troublesome Serbs were dealt with in 1814.) But Glenny unravels many of the misconceptions that still affect our perceptions of Balkan politics today. "Dazzled as we are by cliches about Balkan tribalism and other modern mythologies, it is worth noting that nationalism was probably the least important force pushing Bosnia steadily towards centre stage of the Balkan drama."

This 700-page work will no doubt become an important work of reference. Its central argument that the Great Powers fouled up whenever they became involved in Balkan politics in the past is unanswerable. In that respect, the explosiveness of the Balkans merely reflected the nature of imperial politics. In Glenny's words, "The Balkans were not the powder keg, as is so often believed: the metaphor is inaccurate. They were merely the powder trail that the great powers themselves had laid. The powder keg is Europe."

Sometimes, the book wears its authority too conspicuously on its sleeve. Thus (to take just one of many examples) most readers will be able to live without the knowledge that the Macedonian Central Revolutionary Committee was known to its members as the Makedonski tsentralen revoliutsoneren komitet. (And those who can't, did not need to be told.)

Sometimes, there is a daunting abundance of facts; sometimes, there are too few. In the 1980s, before the rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic, Serb newspapers (seen at the time as "bold" and "taboo-breaking") reported on the harassment of the Serb minority in Kosovo. In the minds of Serbs, that harassment was an important prelude (and implicit justification) for what came later. In that sense, the allegations are of crucial significance. Glenny dismisses them in one casual sentence: "The stories of rape, murder and intimidation were without foundation." Many outside observers (and a few Serbs) would agree. But a line or two of evidence would be welcome before making such a sweeping and disputed generalisation.

Glenny's argument that the great powers were responsible for much of what went wrong is powerfully delivered. Cynicism in regard to the Balkans was historically par for the course. Now, Glenny argues, a different problem has arisen. "In contrast to most Balkan crises this century, the great powers (under their bland new title, the international community) did not cause the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Once they did intervene from 1991 onwards, however, they frequently made matters worse."

It is at the very least arguable that, in reality, it was the failure to intervene more decisively that made things so bad. Paradoxically, it was the negative role played by the great powers in the 19th century that made Western politicians wary of getting involved in what they saw as a Balkan quagmire.

The lesson was thus learnt, but in the wrong way. As Glenny himself puts it: "This imagined Balkans - a world where people are motivated not by rational considerations but by a mysterious congenital bloodthirstiness - is always invoked when the great powers seek to deny their responsibility for the economic and political difficulties that the region has suffered as a consequence of external interference."

The Western refusal to take tough action against the monstrous Milosevic has often been attributed to a cynical policy of laissez-massacrer. Cynicism may have played its part. But Douglas Hurd, then Foreign Secretary - and one of the most important advocates of a "steady as she goes" policy - was also deeply influenced by his (mis)reading of Balkan history. He repeatedly told aides at the time that he did not wish to repeat the mistakes of the past; in doing so, he merely compounded those mistakes. Not until 1995 - four years after the Balkan wars began - did the horrific slaughter of 7,000 people at Srebrenica persuade the world that a tough strategy was finally needed.

This is not a book for optimists. No sensible book about the Balkans can be. There is the mess of Kosovo, where Serbs continue to be driven out of their homes and killed; despite and because of the Nato victory, Milosevic is still in power (and no credible replacement waits in the wings); an unbelievably bloody war in Montenegro lurks around the corner. And still, the rest of the world just shrugs.