'A delayed victory by Hitler': Britain's response to Bosnia has uneasy resonances for Germans, says Steve Crawshaw

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FROM afar - across the Channel, that is, and down the autobahn to Bonn - one can only watch with astonishment. We are, it seems, seriously expected to believe that this flurry of British government activity, concerning a couple of dozen victims from Sarajevo, reflects the deep official concern for all Bosnia and the horrors taking place there. From here, it seems quite extraordinary.

The Germans, with embarrassingly good manners, watch bemused as Britain pats itself on the back for organising the evacuation of one five-year-old child and a handful of other victims. And, to crown it all, Britain then complains officially that it is receiving too few telegenic and therefore vote-winning victims.

German newspapers quietly report the arguments that have surrounded the PR exercise in London. But, for the most part, they tactfully avoid comparisons with Germany's record, which would make Britain's made-for-prime-time-TV operation even more transparent than it already is. For Germans, the arrival in London of Irma, and now a few more, does not symbolise the official desire to help Bosnia. Rather, it vividly illustrates the attempt by Britain to wash its hands of the larger questions that continue to force themselves to the forefront.

First, the humanitarian issue, which Downing Street seems so keen to trumpet, as though it was leading - leading] - the rest of Europe. Germany, with little publicity, has this year already agreed to take several hundred seriously wounded from Sarajevo alone, with more to come. Since last year, Germany has taken and agreed to take 17,000 assorted cases of special need from Bosnia - including internees, rape victims and the severely injured. That is in addition to all the other refugees who have arrived in Germany from former Yugoslavia, who have 'merely' fled the fighting or been ethnically cleansed. These total around 350,000. The British figure over the same period is fewer than 6,000 (a total that Britain has dared to boast of; proportionate to population, Britain is almost at the bottom of the list). Meanwhile, Germany stands accused by many in Britain of being ungenerous to foreigners. As has rightly been observed, it's a funny old world.

I vividly remember being telephoned by a silky government voice in London last summer, when I had recently returned from Sarajevo, at a time when Messrs Karadzic and Milosevic were whipping the Bosnian war into top gear. The voice explained how generous Britain was being to Yugoslav refugees. He knew it wasn't true; I knew it wasn't true; he knew that I knew it wasn't true. I never understood why he made the call. But 'Britain helps the needy' was the official line.

This latest cynical operation is a high- profile side-show - distracting the audience with a set of bleeding-heart fireworks, while the sordid business is wrapped up elsewhere. Bosnia, in other words, where the coexistence of different ethnic groups, made possible by mutual tolerance, is being destroyed.

In Germany Britain's let-it-go-hang attitude is met with blank incomprehension. Theo Sommer, of the liberal weekly Die Zeit, this week accused Lord Owen, 'the self-obsessed former foreign secretary', of making one concession after another to the Serbs. The Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic - whose main weakness, if it can be called a weakness, was that he was too trusting at an early stage - is equally bitter at what he regards as the British betrayal.

In an interview with Stern magazine this week, Mr Izetbegovic, when asked about Lord Owen, sighed. 'Ah, Lord Owen, he is an Englishman, that says everything. Do I need to be more explicit?' Stern: 'Yes, you do. Do you mean to say that there are only perfidious Englishmen?' Izetbegovic: 'Of course, there were some far-sighted statesmen, like Churchill, for example. But Owen unfortunately does not belong into this category. He is one of the English politicians in the style of Chamberlain.'

British officials are inclined, with that effortless superiority which only they have quite mastered, to imply that Germany has a nave attitude to events in the Balkans. And yet London's understanding of Mr Milosevic, and of the way the war would clearly go, has been minimal at every stage.

One July evening last year, on the last day of the much-trumpeted London Conference on Yugoslavia, British officials talked of the 'diplomatic triumph' that had allegedly forced Mr Milosevic to make concessions and opened the way for peace. And yet at the very same time that the British lion was thus whimpering, a relaxed Mr Milosevic was sitting in a Knightsbridge hotel with a tumbler of whisky in his hand, cheerfully telling me that he did not need to change a single policy, nor did he plan to do so. Now those same politicians seek to brush off criticism by pretending that they understand the complex Balkan realities, while the British public - provoked by mere moral outrage - does not.

But not every country has lost sight of the connection between morality, politics and long-term stability. In Germany there is an acute awareness of the parallels with Germany's own history, which heightens the perception that action is needed, if there is to be any hope for a just and stable future.

In a programme shown this week, a German television crew followed Marek Edelman, one of the few survivors of the Warsaw ghetto, on a recent trip to Bosnia. The comparison between the failure of the West to act against Germany then and the failure to act against the unleashers of the war in Bosnia today was explicit. Mr Edelman described what was happening as 'a delayed victory by Hitler - a victory from the grave'. He argued: 'I thought that something had been learnt, that the Munich Agreement had made people learn. But I was wrong.' We saw shots of Mr Edelman in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. He commented: 'Then, too, we were alone. We had no military help - that was our misfortune. The world looked the other way.'

With each week and month that goes by it becomes more and more difficult to undo the hideous mistakes which the West has already made in the former Yugoslavia. The soothing and intelligent- sounding noises coming out of Whitehall, even as the disaster gets worse, seem absurd. The message that will be sent by a Milosevic victory will, for example, be obvious to the dozens of minor warlords in the former Soviet Union, each of whom would happily use force to change a border or two and 'protect' their own people.

Still, perhaps when some of those other wars break out, the British government will send an aircraft to fetch back some telegenic children for emergency operations in the UK. Then we can all go 'Aaaah' while those children's families, houses and countries are destroyed - and feel grateful that we have such wise and generous leaders.