The tragically easy path to 'ethnic cleansing'

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The Independent Online
WHEN I WAS very young, I stayed in a small town in Slavonia called Ilok. I was desperate about Mira and her brown legs. She was compassionate but elusive, and she said to me: 'My heart is a tramcar] The passengers change, but the conductor remains the same.'

Mira was a Serb, but the conductor (whom I hated) was a Croat boy with a motorbike. Every evening, the young Croats and young Serbs collected in the square to gossip, smoke, admire bikes and flirt. As night fell, a small boy went to the river-meadows and blew a trumpet, signalling to the pigs of Ilok that their tea was ready. They galloped through the town after him, each turning off to its own Serb or Croat sty.

That Ilok is dead now. People who have been there tell me that the Croats have been driven away, or are hiding behind locked doors, pretending not to be in. Serbian refugee families, chased out of their homes in the Osijek region or Bosnia, are squatting in some of the abandoned houses. At weekends, sinister types who have driven up from Belgrade or Novi Sad in search of loot, wander around with guns. 'Ethnic cleansing' has taken place.

That foul expression is new: a triumph of Serbo-Croat journalism and propaganda. But the fact that we all understood what it meant showed that the idea had been around, under other names, for much longer. It amounts to this proposition: that a majority can live more 'healthily' by casting out a minority that is in some way alien.

But 'ethnic cleansing' is not as old as the human race. Through much of recorded history, minorities which offended kings and princes were dealt with in one of two ways: they were massacred, or they were enslaved. Collective expulsion was quite rare. The most obvious exception, in Europe, was the treatment of the Jewish diaspora, and even there the main expulsions began only in the late Middle Ages.

Not until our own criminal century did 'ethnic cleansing' become a recognised means of policy. Modern nationalism, in its worst form, constructed a false analogy between sociology and medicine: the collective body of the nation had to be purified of infections by 'the others'. Roman Dmowski preached that a true Pole was a Catholic Slav: the nation could not attain its destiny until scrubbed clean of Ukrainians, Belorussians and, above all, Jews. But the Turks, during the 1914-18 war, were the first to put such ideas into practice. The Armenians were driven out and massacred. Then, in 1923, came the wholesale expulsion from Anatolia of the Greek population, which had lived there for some 3,000 years.

Hitler, who called his doctors 'biological soldiers', destroyed Europe in the name of that false medical analogy. In the course of his 'cleansing', the Jews were first driven out and then, because there was nowhere else left to drive them to, put to death. But it is easy to forget that the Allies subscribed to much the same fallacy. They blamed the failure of the Versailles settlement between the wars on the size of the foreign minorities left within the new national boundaries. Churchill and Roosevelt assumed that a strong and stable nation-state ought be 'ethnically homogenous'. So it came to the post- 1945 settlement, and the biggest forced movement of populations since the barbarian invasions. Not counting the deportation of entire nations within the Soviet Union, something between 10 and 12 million men, women and children were driven out of their homes between 1944 and 1947.

'Operation Swallow', sweetly and deceptively named, was Britain's part in all this. It began in February 1946 and ended a year later. By that time the British authorities had supervised the 'transfer' of 1,360,821 German civilians from their homes in what had become part of Poland to the British zone of Germany. The Germans travelled in railway cattle-trucks and unheated carriages. Remarkably few died on the way, though on two trains which reached Marienthal in December 1946, 20 people were taken off dead and 147 cases of first-degree frostbite were recorded. After all, people said at the time, this was nothing compared with what the Germans had done to civilians under Nazi occupation.

Churchill had said that 'expulsion is the method which, as far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting . . . I am not alarmed by the prospect of the disentanglement of populations, nor even by these large transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions than they ever were before'. The Germans who lived in pre-war Poland and Danzig, and those in the Oder-Neisse territories now ceded to Poland, added up to more than 11 million. After 1947, fewer than a million remained. Something under one million Germans, many of them children, died or were murdered or simply vanished on the way to the West.

But Poland was not like Bosnia or Slavonia. Hardly any Poles had lived in the Oder-Neisse territories before 1945: this was not so much 'disentangling' as straight replacement. Czechoslovakia, in contrast, suffered that intimate tragedy that happens when different peoples live together for centuries, and are then encouraged to part in hatred. First, the Bohemian Germans, drunk on Nazi propaganda, turned on their Czech neighbours. After the war, the Czechs fell on the Germans in the next farm or street. Some 2.5 million were expelled, and there were massacres and death marches.

The Germans had been part of Czech history. It was one of those queer, grumbling relationships like that between Poles and Jews - or Serbs and Croats. Neither community understood or liked the other, but neither could imagine life without the other. Europe used to be full of that sort of thing. Now it is growing rare. Eastern Europe used to be rather like the old American eastern seaboard: a salad- bowl of immigrant groups jostling along together. Now 'ethnic cleansing' is reducing it to a Midwest of melted- down dullness.

The historian Raul Hilberg, meditating on Gentile attitudes to Jews, identified three stages of rejection: 'You shall not live among us as Jews. You shall not live among us. You shall not live.' Forced assimilation, then expulsion, finally, the gas chambers. But I do not think that one stage must lead to the next, as Hilberg implies. The question is how prejudices, static for centuries, can be so suddenly upgraded to the point of explosion.

It needs pathetically few bad people to mislead a community. It needs only a misfortune which allows them to say: 'They deserve no pity. They brought it on themselves.' The community which is on top always imagines that those others underneath are 'content in their simple way', and when they protest, it panics about treachery.

And the sundering, when it happens, is so quick. Serbian Mrs Markovic was a neighbour and even a friend of Croatian Mrs Jovanovic. Now she watches the Jovanovic furniture being thrown into a lorry, and is amazed at her own lack of feeling. She gives her friend a cake for the journey. But, inside, she is thinking: 'A Serbian family is moving into that house tomorrow. That's one thing less to worry about.'