Historical nationalist hatreds and the outbreak of violence in former Yugoslavia.

Autor: Łukasz Krzyżanowski


This article examines the extent to which historical nationalist hatreds present in Balkans can be seen as the cause of ultimate violence in former Yugoslavia. The point of departure is the question for historical roots of nationalisms in Balkans. This is followed by a brief introduction to the issue of multiculturalism and cultural policy in Yugoslavia as well as historical divisions of Balkan societies. The article also questions the role of historic tensions between ethnic or national groups in construction of nationalism. How the Balkan nationalists used the history to legitimate their claims? Was the extreme violence in former Yugoslavia simply a revenge for the past? These are some of the uneasy questions this article is trying to address.Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia shocked world public opinion with their extreme brutality and exceptional violence, not seen in Europe for many years. In fact most of us got used to scenes of barbarity shown on the daily news from remote parts of the globe. However in the last decade of the Twentieth Century, Europe had witnessed the scenes of ultimate atrocities, those that we used to associate with ‘third world’, in its own backyard. During conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, were murdered, and many more were forced to leave their homes and inhabit refugee camps in order not to share the fate of those who had been killed. This leads us to ask the question about the causes of the extreme violence in former Yugoslavia. Within this essay the role of nationalism and its historical background in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia will be considered.
The first part of this essay will be dedicated to brief explanation of the term ‘nationalism’ as according to Ernest Gellner’s perspective. In the second part, the characteristics of the policy of Yugoslav towards national groups, the issue of multiculturalism and its implication for the development of Balkan nationalisms will be taken into consideration. The third part will discuss the role of history in constructing nationalisms by some national groups in the Balkans. Finally the influence of the social and cultural reality created by nationalist hatreds on the outburst of violence that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia will be considered.
To examine the role of nationalism in the outbreak of war and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia it is necessary to trace back in history the roots of nationalisms in the Balkans. It is also important to take into consideration myths that were based on the certain interpretation of the history and used by one or another nationalistic ideology to support and legitimise its claims. Within this essay the role of the nationalism and its interpretations of history in the beginning of mass violence in last decade of Twentieth Century in the Balkans will be examined. As the subject is very broad it is necessary to say that only some parts of this complicated issue will be considered in this paper. Being conscious of our limitations in answering, it is still worth asking a question: what was the role of history and nationalisms in the conflicts in former Yugoslavia?
The expression: “historical nationalist hatreds” used in the title of this essay needs to be deconstructed. Within the whole essay these are understood as different nationalist ideologies that were present in Yugoslavia well before its collapse. In some cases their roots can be found even in the Middle Ages. As there is no social phenomenon that appears “out of the void”, also sources of nationalisms in the Balkans can be traced back in the history. Because of many definitions of “nationalism” existing in social sciences, it is necessary to specify the way in which this term will be used in this paper. For this purpose Ernest Gellner’s definition might be useful: “Nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones (..) There is a variety of ways in which nationalist principle can be violated. The political boundary of a given state can fail to include all the members of the appropriate nation; or it can include them all but also include some foreigners; or it can fail in both these ways at once, not incorporating all the nationals and yet also including some non-nationals” (Gellner 1983: 1). This was exactly what took place in Yugoslavia. Different ethnic groups inhabited not only their provinces but also constituting significant majorities among the populations of other Yugoslav republics. On the one hand, the provincial border did not include all members of a certain group, and on the other hand, it included members of other ethnic groups (MacDonald 2003: 462). This situation was clearly against the principles of nationalism – ethnic homogeneity of the political unit, which can be afforded only if “ it either kills, or expels, or assimilates all non-nationals” (Gellner 1983: 2, 134). This provides us already with possible effects of turning the nationalist doctrine into practice. In fact it might be said that all of these took place in the Balkans.
The establishment of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia – a communist state created after the Second World War despite its new political character did not change much in the borders crossing the Balkans. Most of the provincial and international borders followed borders existing earlier when the Balkans were part of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Creating provinces which would more efficiently reflect the ethnic background of inhabiting populations was not an important issue in the communist country. It did not have an intention of creating nation-states from its six republics – “in fact, all federal republics of Yugoslavia, except Slovenia, were left with nationally mixed populations in various proportions. As a consequence of following the borders of the multinational Austria-Hungary, approximately 30 per cent of Serbs and 20 per cent of Croats were in 1946 left out of ‘their’ respective republics, Serbia and Croatia” (Pavković 2001: 133-134). At the beginning the state tried to integrate all provinces in order to create a Yugoslav identity which would be above the provincial or national boundaries. This found expression not only in the equal recruitment of party officials from different national backgrounds but also in an attempt to create one common, Yugoslav culture – the idea of Yugoslavism (Pavković 2001: 134). This was the interactive model of multiculturalism – assuming that all cultures within the Yugoslav territory should interact with each other and benefit from those encounters. It also simply included a rejection of cultural and national differences existing in population of Yugoslavia – “Communist Party of Yugoslavia itself transcended or rather systematically ignored and denied any cultural boundaries among the Yugoslav nations” (Pavković 2001: 137, see also Pavković 1995: 129). Maintaining the purity of national cultures and preventing it from influences of other Balkan cultures was not a focus point on that stage of policy. Foreign influences were not a threat as the attempt had been made to create one supra-national culture and one supra-national identity. This period of Yugoslav history can be seen as a period of assimilation policy in terms of nationalism according to Gellner (Gellner 1983: 2, 55, 106).
Within the 1950s the change in Yugoslav state cultural policy can be noticed. In 1958, mostly because of the Slovene communists rejecting the idea of creating one Yugoslav identity and common culture, the new Yugoslav policy towards national culture and Yugoslavism had been announced in the Programme of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. This included redefining Yugoslavism, now as an additional element to the existing national cultures (for federalist and integralist conceptions of Yugoslavia see Pavković 1995: 131-133). Since then national cultures had been given the right to develop but not to interact – the maintaining of culture uncontaminated by foreign influences became a key issue. This new policy created an approach of segregationist multiculturalism within Yugoslavia. This can be seen as a failure of the state’s attempt to reduce the importance of national cultures in favour of internationalist Yugoslav culture. The national cultures defended by nationalistic ideas were too strong for there to be “a melting pot of cultures” within the territory of Yugoslavia, which had been supposed to result in creation of common culture shared by all Yugoslav, no matter whether of Croat, Serb or Muslim origin.
The segregationist multiculturalism created a political and intellectual environment in which the national culture of a particular groups within a certain terrain – in particular Yugoslav republic – had been seen as being superior to other cultures. Therefore, there was a strong push towards purification of national culture from foreign elements. This can be seen as expulsion stage in terms of Gellner’s definition of nationalism, followed by extremely bloody period of extermination and ultimate violence (Pavković 1995: 2). Every national group in Yugoslavia started cultivating and developing its own culture in separation from other cultures and even in opposition to them. Highlighting differences became a key issue at that time. In that period to legitimise rights of the group to the inhabited lands, justify their feeling of superiority, many myths had been created and others had been simply revived by nationalists. The processes described above prepared the society or societies of Yugoslav republics for the nationalist doctrine that was about to became dominant in the Balkans in last decade of Twentieth Century – “under the communist regime segregating multiculturalism helped create both the target and the instruments – national myths and ideologies – for those incipient nationalist parties which in 1990 replaced the communist party in power” (Pavković 2001: 142).
This overview of the evolution of cultural policies in Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia from its creation to collapse provides us with evidence of the power of national cultures, and the environment in which nationalisms had been raised. Thus it might be worth looking at the ways in which nationalisms legitimised their claims in Yugoslavia. This will be done by analysis of some of the facts from Balkan history and the way in which they were interpreted by Balkan nationalisms.
Balkan nations have long history of resistance to foreign powers and struggle for independence (Mancev 1992: 10-11). The first successful liberation in the Twentieth Century began in 1912 with the first Balkan war and effected in liberation from Ottoman rule of Kosovo and Old-Serbia (land that is now Macedonia) by Serbian and Montenegrin army. However this liberation cannot be seen as having been carried out in favour of the whole population of liberated lands. Kosovo Albanians had resisted the Serbian and Montenegrin army and fought in support of the Ottoman army. The Albanians did not recognise Serbian rule as liberating, it was rather seen as an imposed authority and new enslavement of the nation. This was also strengthened by religious differences – Serbs were Orthodox while the majority of Kosovo Albanians remain Muslim. Firstly the liberation of Kosovo had been contested by them and secondly by Bulgaria, that claimed part of Old-Serbia territory due to vast majority of its population being Bulgarian. Despite these contests, Serb nationalists used the liberation of Kosovo and Old-Serbia by Serb forces as an argument to justify their rights to be a leader among Balkan nations. It is necessary to remember that especially in the case of Kosovo, the liberation of 1912 was a real liberation only for a part of its population – Serbs living in Kosovo (Pavković 2002: 227-228). One can notice that when the Kosovo Serbs had been liberated from the Ottoman rule, the Kosovo Albanians had had a new foreign rule imposed. This created tensions that resulted in four uprisings against Yugoslav rule conducted by Kosovo Albanians with the last one fought in 1998/1999.
The second of the series of national liberation in the Balkans took place in 1914. It began with kingdom of Serbia declaring the liberation of the Southern Slavs from the rule of the Austro – Hungarian Empire. In fact following the end of the Habsburg’s empire the new state had been created: the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes ruled by Serbian dynasty. This was the first time since Medieval Times when three Southern Slav nations had been ruled by one king. However this was very similar to the first liberation of Kosovo – not all of the population agreed with the political changes. The Austro – Hungarian regiment manned with Croats started an uprising against the new state, in Zagreb. The rebellion was soon put down by the Kingdom’s army and the rebels were killed. Despite the rebellion not being a serious threat for the new state it revealed the fact that internal tensions within the groups populating it can be as dreadful as the external enemy. For Croats, rebels from Zagreb became martyrs and gained a significant place in their national history. But there was another, possibly even more important effect of bloody pacification of uprising: “many Croats came to share in the ensuring years: that the Serbian politicians and administrators in the new kingdom were equally as foreign and oppressive as the previous rulers” (Pavković 2002: 229). This led to the idea of national liberation of Croats from the Serb rule and the will to establish an independent Croat state and revived the idea of Greater Croatia. This idea was fostered by, among others, a nationalist, right-wing group of Ustacha who started a fight to liberate Croatia from Serbian rule. Croat Ustacha managed to succeed and create the so called “Independent State of Croatia” under Nazi rule after conquest of Yugoslavia by Nazis in 1941. Ustachas tried to create a mono-ethnic state through mass murder, forced conversions to Catholicism and expulsion of Serbs, Jews and Roma people inhabiting Croatia and Bosna-Hercegovina. The massacres of Serbs during World War II are still a difficult element in history of Serb-Croat relations and were utilized by Serbian nationalists as an argument against Croats during the war in Former Yugoslavia. The partisan movement fighting against Ustacha was Serbian royalists Chetniks and communist partisans, also Serbs. Although the liberation of Croatia from Serbian rule was an effect of Axis forces invading Yugoslavia, it was used by Croats for creating a national myth of Croat Ustacha liberating their nation from the foreign regime. The Serbs built their myths on a completely different interpretation of the same history – Serbs began to show themselves as the only ones who fought against the Nazis and their Croat collaborators. Both images, created by Serbs and Croats were used by nationalists to justify their fight and claims in the conflicts following the collapse of Yugoslavia in the end of the Twentieth Century. Although nationalists based their legitimisation on misinterpretations of the history, it was to carry out real consequences. Selecting facts and even reversing them can be seen as characteristics of nationalist ideologies – “Nationalism has its own amnesias and selections which (…) can be profoundly distorting and deceptive” (Gellner 1983: 57). Among other national tensions in the Balkans in might be noticed that Serb – Croat tensions had a long history, as the ideas of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia had been clashing with each other since Nineteenth Century (Mancev 1992: 23).
Both Ustacha and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, that fought for the liberation of Macedonia from Serbian rule, showed clearly that the idea of Yugoslav state was not strong enough to overwhelm the aspirations of national independence manifested by groups inhabiting Yugoslav territory. In fact many of the nations finding themselves within the territory of Yugoslavia perceived this political structure as being imposed by foreign rule. This can explain the changes in approaches towards culture in Yugoslavia that were described above. The transformation from interactive multiculturalism to segregationist multiculturalism and finally the idea of mono-cultural states simply reflects the atmosphere present among the national groups that were supposed to be a part of Yugoslav society. Although “Tito aimed to satisfy each Yugoslav nationality’s bases collective claims while at the same time balancing them against each other to keep his own position of charismatic authority impregnable and ensure that no one national group overwhelmed the others”, it did not satisfy Serb nationalists, who began increasing their power and the position of Serbia in the Yugoslav state after Tito’s death (Hagen 1999: 54-55). The idea of Greater Serbia – creating a strong Serbia with all Serb inhabited lands dating back to the mid Nineteenth Century and shared also by the Chetnik movement, had been recalled when Slobodan Milosević changed his perspective into a nationalist one and supported nationalists’ claims (Hagen 1999: 56).
Even though the above facts are only a few examples of the complicated inter-group relations in the history of the Balkans, it is still possible to notice an important role played by nationalist hatreds in shaping the reality of the Balkans. The failure of the idea of creating one Yugoslav nation through interactive multiculturalism is only a significant expression of tendencies existing in the Balkans ever since. In fact most of Balkan national cultures had been formed in opposition to the culture of neighbouring group – to mention Serbs and Croats using one language but different alphabets.
Under dominating nationalist ideology no-one could remain ambivalent. The push towards self-definition was tragic for many mixed marriages in Yugoslavia and other inter-group personal relationships (Webb 1997: 200 – It is estimated that before the conflict 27 per cent of marriages in Bosnia were ethnically mixed). While staying ambiguous became a dreadful threat, many people were forced to confirm their membership of a particular group: “it was not unknown ‘for men to be forced to prove their loyalty by murdering a neighbour of a different ethnic origin’” (Gallagher 2003: 92). The extremely violent ethnic cleansings present in recent Balkan conflicts can be also seen as an expression of nationalisms. The intention that motivated i.e. the purge of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces was to clear the land from “foreign elements” (Silber, Little 1995: 246-247). This must be seen in terms of “struggling identities” due to the Serbian attempt to wipe out the whole Muslim community and any evidence of their centuries-long presence in this territory. The planned and systematic killing of group elites – intellectuals, educated people, businessmen etc. can be noticed in almost all ethnic cleansings (Gallagher 2003: 90 and thereafter). This leads to the conclusion that what had happened in former Yugoslavia was driven by nationalist hatreds; planned annihilation of all peoples. Forced expulsion and mass killings of men, women and children was possible as nationalist ideologies presented them as a serious threat to the nation on behalf of which it was perpetrated. Many sexual crimes during these conflicts can be seen as committed with the intention to disintegrate the perpetrated group – “investigation into incidents of rape in Bosnia estimated that 20,000 Muslim women had been raped by Serb soldiers as part of their campaign of terror” (Gallagher 2003: 90). It must have been obvious to Serb soldiers that their victims had no way back into their communities as “in full view of family members, neighbours or other detainees, (it) would be so traumatic and humiliating” (Gallagher 2003: 91). There is no doubt about the genocidal character of conflicts in Former Yugoslavia and the organized extermination that took place not only in “death camps of Bosnia” established by Serbs (Silber, Little 1995: 275, Rieff 1995, Gallagher 2003: 88-123). The above examples from Bosnia are only few among others that reveal the gruesome truth about violence between different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia.
The historical nationalist hatreds present in the Balkan history can be seen as a main cause of the ultimate violence in the former Yugoslavia. Only when we acknowledge the historical roots of the strong nationalist tensions, we will be able to understand some of the events in the Balkans, witnessed only very recently. Therefore it is possible to agree with Tom Gallagher’s thesis that horrific acts of violence can be seen as acts of revenge for historical injustices emphasized or created by nationalist ideologies (Gallagher 2003: 120). The extreme violence aimed at members of national groups other than the perpetrators’ one, can be seen as a radical implementation of nationalist principles and the hideous continuation of nationalist policies that by the time of war became dominant political ideas in Yugoslavia – confirming Gellner’s intuitions that violence is somehow imbedded in the nature of nationalism (Gellner 1983: 2). Although psychological and other than ideological factors cannot be forgotten, much of the evidence, some of which presented in this essay, seems to confirm the significant role of historical nationalist hatreds as the cause of violence in the former Yugoslavia (MacDonald 2003: 462-464). A complex explanation of the phenomenon of Balkan nationalisms and their role in the gruesome events in the former Yugoslavia, if at all possible, needs more research and is likely to be a fertile field of academic work for many future generations of scholars.

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