How willing are Milosevic's executioners in Kosovo?

Perhaps the Serbs are in the grip of a lethal compulsion and will not stop until restrained
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The Independent Culture
WHEN IT started, "ethnic cleansing" by Serbian troops and police in Kosovo had a political purpose, the creation of "lebensraum" or living- space for Serbs. But now the daily accounts of atrocities committed against ethnic Albanians harden public opinion in Nato countries, invite an invasion by Allied troops and make the eventual indictment of Slobodan Milosevic as a war criminal more and more likely.

Why, then, do the Serbs go on with their terrible work?

Our parents and grandparents, participating in or watching the last months of the Second World War in Europe, could, had they known what was happening, have posed a similar question. Why did the Germans carry on with the murderous death marches of Jews in the last three months of the conflict, when it was obvious that their country was on the brink of total defeat? Sometimes the columns of dying prisoners were driven along roads which the invading Allied armies would traverse only a few days later.

In his remarkable book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, published in 1996, Daniel Goldhagen, a professor at Harvard, records that on these marches, the Germans beat the Jews for any reason and for no reason whatsoever. When describing one march of Jewish women, Goldhagen concludes: "The German guards knew that the march could not go on for ever, but at no point did they resolve to stop the slaughter, eagerly killing Jewish women until the last moment."

Are the Serb troops and police in Kosovo in the grip of the same lethal compulsion; will they not stop until forcibly restrained? Now they have begun, will they go on with their work of executing men and raping women, burning down their houses, stealing their goods, whatever the consequences? Could we find that even if Nato troops were advancing through Kosovo, yet still, in the unoccupied areas, the slaughter would continue?

I know that history does not repeat itself. But how extraordinary it is to find that the German death marches were carried on despite commands to desist. Himmler sent couriers to the columns with orders expressly forbidding the killing of any more Jews. The guards were to dispose of their wooden canes. If in danger of capture, records were to be destroyed. The prisoners were to be released into the woods. Why? Because Himmler was negotiating with the Americans and did not want continuing killings to undermine his efforts. I wonder whether Milosevic might find himself in the same position, negotiating at last with Nato, yet unable to halt the terrors he had deliberately provoked.

The great theme of Goldhagen's book is to show that it was ordinary Germans as well as Nazi party zealots who cheerfully (one can say cheerfully) staffed the concentration camps, made up the police battalions that systematically murdered Jewish civilians on the Eastern front and provided the guards for the death marches. He examined one group. More than half of the members were older Germans, who were no longer fit for military service. Only three had SS or Nazi affiliation. In general, Hitler's executioners were not specially chosen and trained.

He also dismisses the notion that those who committed genocide did so because they were coerced, or because they obeyed state orders unthinkingly, or because of social pressure, or because of the prospects of personal advancement, or because they did not comprehend or feel responsible for what they were doing, or because they could not understand the enormity of the task upon which they were engaged. No, they went about their sadistic, lethal business because, in the German imagination, the Jews had been demonised. After the war, a commander of a German police battalion wrote from prison to his wife, and asked: "What else could we have done when confronted with demons at work, engaged in a struggle against us?"

Have ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo been demonised in the same way? Shall we find that ordinary Serbians in army or police uniform, with no history of political activity, have been engaged in "ethnic cleansing", or shall we see that the perpetrators were specially trained elites?

It will be crucial to discover the psychic state of the Serbian population, for that should be a major consideration in planning a post-war settlement. Churchill said that the Allies' aim was "to prevent Germany, and particularly Prussia, breaking out upon us for the third time". Nato's objective must be to prevent Yugoslavia, and particularly Serbia, breaking out upon us again.

Goldhagen has recently argued that to achieve this, as with Germany, the defeat, the occupation and the reshaping of the political institutions and prevailing mentality of Serbia is morally and, in a practical sense, necessary. But think what this would mean. The Second World War Allies defeated Germany in its heartland. They insisted upon unconditional surrender - no negotiations, no agreement. For a while the German state itself disappeared and was replaced with Allied military government. The country was completely disarmed and demilitarised. All Nazis were removed from public office. Only then was democracy encouraged and political activity allowed to start up again.

Nothing like this is yet contemplated in Nato councils. It is barely conceivable that we shall see British and French tank squadrons spearheading a drive on Belgrade. Unconditional surrender is a rarity. The equivalent of chasing Germans out of Eastern Europe would be expelling the Serb population of Kosovo. I doubt if we have the stomach for that. Yes, there is a widespread wish among the Nato countries that those accused of crimes against humanity should stand trial. Removing Milosevic supporters from office - how practical would that be?

No, no, Mr Goldhagen, I am tempted to say, you published an arresting, original and persuasive analysis of the Holocaust, but you cannot translate your findings into policy towards the Balkans in the last year of the 20th century.

Yet the extraordinary thing is that Serb action in Kosovo is relentlessly driving public opinion in that direction. Refugees' accounts of their expulsion have been utterly heartrending. We believe that we are learning the truth. Memories of the Second World War come flooding back. We shall soon wish for leadership in the style of Roosevelt and Churchill. Can the Serbian troops and police stop themselves from committing atrocities? That is the question.