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Radovan Karadzic led Bosnian Serbs down an atavistic path back into the dark past

World View: This was a Serbian version of the Fascist urge that produced Mussolini and Hitler

Peter Popham
Friday 25 March 2016 22:24 GMT
Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic sits in the courtroom for the reading of his verdict at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia
Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic sits in the courtroom for the reading of his verdict at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (Getty)

In late-1991 I spent a few days under bombardment in Croatia reporting on the civil war for The Independent, then moved on to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, to see if something similar was brewing there.

The locals were expansive, charming, bibulous and comprehensively reassuring. “What? Serbians, Bosniaks and Croatians turning on each other and killing each other?” The idea was laughable, I was told. This was a modern, sophisticated town full of mixed couples and families, where the bloody borders dividing Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim which had scarred the Balkans for centuries had been swallowed up and forgotten in happy modernity: first Tito, then European liberalism, had buried the region’s ugly history.

Yet within months the siege of Sarajevo was under way. Europeans, raised to believe that the age of European wars was over, struggled to comprehend what was happening. But the Bosnian Serbians could not have picked up their guns and trained them on their Muslim and Croatian neighbours without believing they were doing something right and necessary.

The man who provided that belief, Radovan Karadzic, is now beginning the 40-year sentence handed down this week in The Hague. Charismatic, theatrical, a poet with something of the prophet and much of the charlatan about him, Karadzic was the right man in the right place, infusing his Serbian brethren with an intoxicating belief in their high racial destiny, involving a millennial conflict with the Muslims who, under the banner of the Ottomans, had inflicted that never-to-be-forgotten defeat at the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389.

It was atavism pure and simple: a Serbian version of the Fascist urge that produced Mussolini and Hitler. And given the murder of nearly 8,000 Bosniak men at Srebrenica by soldiers infused with Karadzic’s beliefs, who knows what genocidal atrocities might have ensued if the West had not finally intervened, and if the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke had not bashed heads together sufficiently hard at Dayton, Ohio, to force the warlords into a reluctant peace?

Yet when Karadzic was finally arrested in 2008, there was no jubilation among the Bosniaks. That’s because, as a political analyst in Sarajevo told me at the time: “Karadzic is no longer on the scene, but his ideas and his life work are on the verge of becoming reality.”

The grandiose vision of a Greater Serbia had been killed off, but the paranoia, narrow pride and clannishness that Karadzic embodied found miniature realisation in Republika Srpska, the ethnic entity which, along with the Muslim-Croat Federation, survives to this day, jealously guarding its enclaves, ensuring that the Bosnian Republic, so prematurely recognised by Europe in April 1992, never had a chance.

We make a mistake if we see Karadzic as a unique monster. Figures like him are springing up and prospering right across the world, wherever the old state structures nourished by the post-war order totter. The viciousness of the historic divisions in the southern Balkans lent a fire-and-brimstone quality to the Karadzic rhetoric, just as the medieval touchstone of fundamental Islam justifies the barbarities promulgated by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of Isis. France’s Marie le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega Nord each know how to apply the flame of rhetoric to the blue touchpaper of atavism. Each is as different as the clans to which they appeal, but all appeal to blood and soil. Civilisation as we know it was an awakening from such nightmares. These people lead us back into the dark.

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