Serbia’s Memories

Professor of philosophy at Trent University, Peterborough, Canada.

Though my family suffered under the Nazis, I have for some years now felt increasingly uncomfortable with talk about ‘The Holocaust’. My dead relatives, I suspect, would not feel honoured by the association of their fates with some neo-Biblical shibboleth, nor would they welcome the sentimental pieties whose chief effect seems to be the extension of an almost inexhaustible line of moral credit to the most racist and vicious tendencies of Israeli nationalism.

This year, these vague feelings unease have turned to disgust as ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day’ became an exercise in ‘holocaust denial’. As Western leaders vowed to fight Serb atrocities and massacres in Kosovo, they ignored that proverbial first casualty of war, the truth. Just as the Western powers allied themselves with Stalin to fight Hitler, today they fight the Serbs, not only with bombs, but with a distortion of memory and history that matches Stalin’s best efforts.

This is not to deny the reality of Serb atrocities, but only to put them in their proper place. To do this requires three things: (i) a nodding acquaintance with contemporary reality; (ii) a glance at recent Western policies in the area; (iii) an honest look at the past.

Contemporary Realities

If we are merely to judge the Serbs, we can use any principles we like. But we are not just judging the Serbs. We are literally waging an unprovoked war of aggression against them: they did not attack us, we attacked them. We did this, apparently, to make a better world, and, if that is our purpose, we ought to take a look at how the world actually works today. We can then ask whether our actions are likely to bring a higher moral tone to human affairs.

What then, are the standards according to which the world operates – not the ones it professes, but the ones it actually enforces? Here is my understanding of the real ‘international norms’. They are worthy only of a barbarous species, but don’t shoot the messenger.

First, killing hundreds of innocent people in a war is normally regarded as regrettable but quite acceptable. The US did this in Iraq. The Russians did this in Chechnya. Everyone did this in Bosnia, and NATO will do this in Serbia. In all these cases, it was known with absolute certainty beforehand that innocent people would be killed. No mainstream commentators suggest that these are war crimes; they are quite correctly considered an inevitable aspect of modern warfare. So these deliberate and intentional acts of killing the innocent should be judged, not as outstanding atrocities, but as part of the known, ordinary, expected consequences of war. Their moral status depends on the moral status of the wars themselves.

Second, quantity does matter. There is a certain internationally accepted proportion between the murder of innocents and the scale of the conflict. In World War II, killing several hundred thousand innocent civilians was entirely acceptable. In the Gulf War, killing a few thousand innocent civilians was quite ok; killing several hundred thousand would not have been. In a police action like Somalia, killing a few hundred would have been perfectly fine. Oh, a few moralists might have whined about it for a couple of weeks, but they don’t set international standards. Not only would the international community do nothing about it – that might be a matter of political expediency – they would not even condemn it.

Third, though these sorts of killings are quite deliberate and intentional, they are regarded as far less serious than the victimization of particular individuals. This is the difference between Pinochet and Hitler on the one hand, and Nixon or, say, the French Prime ministers who ran the Algerian war on the other. The former individuals implemented policies that carefully selected out some citizens of their countries and decided, through their bureaucracies, exactly what cruelties were to be inflicted on people. The latter merely pursued policies which deliberately caused the unjustified death and suffering of many thousands of people. The former are considered monsters. The latter are considered, at most, sons-of-bitches. The distinction seems to depend roughly on the specific nature of the intention: with monsters, unlike sons-of-bitches, the cruelties inflicted go beyond any rational political purpose.

Fourth, the so-called and grotesquely misnamed international community, as if displaying some awareness of its own barbarity, regularly condemns only two things: monsters and agressive war. The vilest societies, like Mexico, are passed over in silence, because that society’s evils are ‘systemic’, not monstrous, and not the product of warfare. No matter how long the suffering of the Mexican (or Brazilian, or Indonesian, or Indian) people persists, no one will ever suggest armed ‘humanitarian’ intervention to save them. This is not because the world is too stupid to realize the extent to which these people suffer. It is because war is regarded as the gateway to even greater suffering and chaos. The first international crime, in the eyes of the world, is agressive war, the unprovoked violation of a nation’s territorial sovereignty. Warfare to stop monsters is permitted, if at all, only because monsters threaten by their acts to drag the world even further into barbarism than it is already.

To summarize: In all its history, the world has come closest to enforcing only one rule: don’t send your troops over someone else’s border. In all its civilizing efforts, the world has managed only (a) hypocritically to deplore the outrages of its friends, but not its enemies, (b) somewhat less hypocritically, to punish the perpetrators of large-scale gratuitous torture and of grossly irrational attempts to wipe out races and religions. Merely to destroy peoples who stand in the way of your enrichment, like the American or Brazilian Indians, draws only those protests which positively reek of the intention to do nothing at all.

Now to apply this to ‘the former Yugoslavia’, we need to look at Western policies and Balkan history.

Western Policies

Yugoslavia is a road to hell paved with some good intentions, some bad ones, and much self-deception. As far as the good intentions go, the West has made the fatal mistake of promoting quite incompatible doctrines: human rights and ethnic nationalism. In so doing it has created a nightmare through which it wanders like a crazed Dr. Frankenstein, screaming outrage at the forces it has so carefully nurtured and unleashed.

Ethnic nationalism is distinguishable – though not by the Americans or their European sycophants – from what leftists call the ‘anti-colonialist’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ nationalism of the Algerians, Vietnamese, Egyptians, and many others. The latter is directed against the occupiers of an existing political entity. These occupiers are of relatively recent vintage – usually a hundred years or less. Anti-imperialist nationalism may go back further than that in special cases: perhaps in Ireland, where there is a more or less continuous but centuries-old history of conflict between the invaders and the invaded, or in colonies where the invaders may have been in the country for a longer time, but have always been a thin caretaker caste imposed on a much larger general population. Anti-imperialist or anti-colonialist nationalism seeks to rid a country that really is a country of foreign occupiers who really are foreign and really are occupiers. It seeks to reverse a conquest that manifests itself as an ongoing political regime serving the interests of a foreign power. It fights on behalf of everyone who was in the country prior to the occupation, regardless of race or ethnic origin. In Vietnam, for example, the Vietnamese fought to expel only the occupying Japanese, then French, then Americans, not any Chinese or other minorities who resided within their borders.

Ethnic nationalism is quite different. The Americans, guilt-ridden, insular, and ignorant, may see it as a variation on Black Power, an attempt to reassert the pride, history, and social agenda of an oppressed ethnic group or race. Neutrally defined, it is a movement which seeks to assert the real or imagined identity of a real or imagined racial or ethnic group to right real or imagined past wrongs. Of course, ethnic nationalism doesn’t have to be admirable, whether it is cozy British xenophobia or Hitler’s struggle for a Germany that united all Germans in a single state. Typically it looks back to a distant, often mythical past, like the ancient Land of Israel or the glorious days when Gothic tribes lived freely in the forest clearings of Europe. To endorse ethnic nationalism is to endorse the legitimacy of this backward glance to old myths and old injuries. In the last decade, the West has pursued a consistent and relentless policy of supporting ethnic nationalism in Yugoslavia. This started with the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. Once this step was taken, the idea that the West would somehow sponsor the establishment of a multiethnic republic in Bosnia became either an idiocy or a supreme expression of bad faith. Most likely it is the former. The inappropriateness of Western policy has escaped the Western press, at least, because it is peopled with deep thinkers who proclaim that ‘to understand the happenings in the former Yugoslavia, you have to go back to 1990’, or, nowadays, as far back as 1968. You have to go back a little further than that.

Why? Because to licence ethnic nationalism, as the West did when it recognized Slovenia and Croatia, is to licence the rediscovery – or the creation – of ethnic memory. Once you do this, you cannot set the rules for what those memories are made of. You cannot tell Croats and Slovenes to remember their ancient roots, but cut off Serbian recollections at 1986 to serve the convenience of their enemies. You cannot encourage a region to remember its ethnic identities yet prevent it from remembering all the evils, lies, and distortions that go with those identities.

That this is exactly what the West wants everyone, and especially the Serbs, to do, is disgraceful. America meekly applauds when ‘persons of colour’ remember what was done to them 400 years ago. The world sits in shamefaced reverence as Jews like myself are venerated for remembering what happened to them 50 years ago, and are encouraged to milk it for all it’s worth. And perhaps this is right. But then it cannot be right to shake your head when the Serbs dare to stretch their memories hundreds of years into the past, but especially to the very time in history, half a century ago, that we commemorate as we bomb their country. What is it that they remember?

Balkan History

What the Serbs remember is that (i) they were conquered by the Ottoman Turks and forced into virtual slavery for hundreds of years; (ii) Muslims were spared this fate, and constituted the bulk of the landowners; (iii) some of these Muslims were in fact Serbs, and converted in order to escape the penalties of retaining their Orthodox religion. Unsurprisingly this resulted in intense ethnic and religious hostility. There were frequent Serb revolts and, after the Ottomans were expelled, much ethnic violence. This violence, which involved shifting alliances among the Croatians as well as the Muslims and Serbs, was ugly, but far from genocidal in the narrow sense of the word: there were expulsions, but no one set out to exterminate a whole people. (Here and throughout it is to be understood that references to the misdeeds of peoples are used in the usual way, denoting a tendency, but nothing like unanimity. They don’t mean that thousands of Croats, Muslims, Serbs, or, for that matter, Germans, weren’t pure as driven snow.)

When the Nazis invaded, and Yugoslavia was destroyed, a ‘holocaust’ ensued. It is beyond dispute that (i) the wartime atrocities were instigated by both the Croats and the Muslims, not the Serbs; (ii) shortly afterwards, they were organized by the Croats with the widespread and enthusiastic participation of the Muslims, both Bosnian and Albanian; (iii) the scale and viciousness of these atrocities were a whole order of magnitude beyond anything the region had known in its vicious, atrocious history. Confirmation of these statements can be found in (a) almost any book on the region written before 1990 or so; (b) almost none after. If other words, all those who have written on the ‘tragedy of Bosnia’ have practiced an outrageous distortion of the history which is, quite precisely, what is called ‘holocaust denial’ when it relates to the Jews.

Though the Croatians were certainly the main culprits, it is worth specifying that both the Nazi General Staff and the Italian fascist civil authorities found Muslim activities too vicious! This was the case, not only in Bosnia, but also in Kosovo. In Tim Judah ‘s words: “Carlo Umilta, an Italian civil commissioner, wrote of what he saw: ‘The Albanians are out to exterminate the Slavs.’ In one region he found villages where ‘not a single house has a roof: everything has been burned. There were headless bodies of men and women strewn on the ground.'”

Historians of the region sometimes dismiss all this by saying that ‘there were atrocities on both sides’ – does it matter who started it, given the viciousness of the Serb reaction? This is a distortion. It is quite true that Serbian chetniks tortured and killed Moslems with surpassing cruelty. It is misleading to say that ‘the Serbs’ did so. The largely Serb communist forces not only engaged in no massacres, but, from late 1941 on, were fighting the chetniks as well as the Nazis and Croatian fascists. In other words, a largely Serbian force fought the Serbs who massacred Moslems, but no largely Moslem force fought the Moslems who massacred Serbs, and no largely Croatian force fought the Croatians who massacred Serbs. In this clear and concrete sense, wartime massacres were committed by Serbs but not ‘the Serbs’. Nothing similar can be said of ‘the Croatians’ or ‘the Moslems’. It is also worth noting that protests against anti-Serb atrocities are recorded among the Bosnian Moslems, but not among the Moslems of Kosovo.

At the end of the war, Tito managed to make the Serbs forget this very recent past, at least as long as his state survived. Against all probability, the Serbs cooperated with ‘the Croats’ (and ‘the Muslims’) who tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of their kin, precisely because they did not regard them as ‘the Croats’ and ‘the Muslims’, even though they were as much to blame as ‘the Germans’ whom we accuse of equally monstrous behaviour. Everyone was to be regarded as a Yugoslav and a fellow communist, and this viewpoint was promoted with all the resources of an authoritarian state.

It should have been obvious to everyone that this was a wonderful achievement. Tito had erased a recipe for endless mayhem but his successors could not overcome a more formidable opponent: “Against stupidity the Gods themselves strive in vain.” With the decline of communism, ethnic nationalism revived, and nobody thought to crush it. Instead, in an carnival atmosphere, Slovenia became independent, laughing at the hesitant Yugoslav troops who were restrained, perhaps, by some soon-to-be-lost remnant of decency. Soon Croatia joined them, hardly troubling to conceal the trappings of unrepentant fascism, and supported by the German government and the Pope.

The West represented, and still has the gall to represent, the idea of a multiethnic republic as the key to ethnic peace. But the region already had ethnic peace before the West destroyed it, and multiethnic republics are no way of restoring it. On the contrary, Yugoslavia’s stupendous triumph over its very bitter past was due to a policy suppressing ethnic nationalisms in favour of a secular, modern, blended Yugoslav and ‘Serbo-Croatian’ identity. Tito stopped ethnic strife by founding a nonethnic state, not a multicultural one. Every death, every atrocity, all the war and hatred of recent years were caused by the willful undoing of his work.

By inviting everyone to reclaim their ethnic memories, the West has stirred all the old dreams of revenge. The Serbs alive today are poisoned by acts committed during their wartime childhood, or that of their parents: “I should like to kill every Turk there is”, said a Serbian girl in 1941 whose aunt and three cousins had been raped and then murdered by the Moslems. When you stir up the past, you stir up old hatreds.

But do these feelings excuse the crimes of the Serbs? Yes, that’s exactly what they do: the crimes are indeed crimes, and there is indeed some excuse for them. Certainly the Serbs should respect human rights, and Serbs who have tortured Albanians deserve punishment. Just as certainly the West has created a situation in which no reasonable person would expect human rights to be respected. The Serbs had a country – not their own, but something better, a country in which they could live and put the past behind them. It has been deliberately and systematically destroyed , with considerable outside help. The Serbs fought, first to keep it, and then to establish a nation of their own. They do not deserve collective punishment, or an assault on their sovereignty, without the neutral judgement that a UN mandate would provide and which, significantly, the world is not prepared to grant.

The world does not judge Serbia as NATO wants it to be judged because Serbia has, in fact, done little or nothing worse than many NATO members have done at one time or another. The ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Serbs is not an attempt to wipe out a population, but to secure a state against its enemies. That thousands of people are killed in such actions, and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes, is entirely within the boundaries of accepted international practice – however much we might like to think otherwise. Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo are anything like Rwanda, or the Nazi empire, or any other attempt to exterminate a whole population. The Serb leaders are sons-of-bitches, but their involvement in those genuine atrocities committed in Kosovo is, as far as we know, not so certain, deliberate and direct as to make them monsters. In other words, they are members in good standing of the international community, perhaps in line for a Nobel prize – certainly they have less to answer for than Henry Kissinger. They are blameworthy, but not much moreso than the Czechs and Poles who expelled German civilians in 1945.

The point here is not that two wrongs make a right, but that international standards can be raised only in ways the world will accept. If a relatively pure institution like the UN wants to raise them, fine. But the NATO cannot raise standards by waging aggressive war to punish Serbia for crimes born of desperation, against NATO-sponsored former enemies who were only too happy to participate in full-fledged genocide against the Serbs. This vigilante justice does not exactly set a precedent whose value outweighs all the additional suffering produced each time NATO exacerbates the civil war it instigated.

There is only one solution to this horrible problem. It is nasty, simple and obvious. There must be a Greater Serbia, including the Serb republic in Bosnia, a Greater Albania, with a portion of Kosovo annexed to the existing Albanian state, Croatia must be maintained, and a Muslim republic established in Bosnia. In other words, the ethnic cat cannot be put back in the bag. The region must now be divided along ethnic lines, and ethnic cleansing, itself cleansed, must be officially and internationally sanctioned. Then a peace will be possible on the basis of territorial sovereignty, the very principle whose violation started the whole miserable business, and whose continued violation makes matters worse at every turn.

This may be possible through negotiation. If not, it will have to be established and maintained, for at least decades, by force. Eventually, very expensive economic aid may perhaps avoid numerous repetitions of the horrors with which we have become familiar. And perhaps the West will learn not to embrace ethnic separatists as ‘freedom fighters’.


Sources (selected):


———-, Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1985 issue.

F.W.D.Deakin, The Embattled Mountain, New York and London (Oxford University Press) 1971.

Richard Gwyn, “Demonizing the Serbs, to save face”, Toronto Star, April 23, 1999,

Paul N. Hehn, The German Struggle Against Yugoslav Guerillas in World War II: German Counter-Insurgency in Yugoslavia, 1941-1943, New York (Columbia University Press) 1979.

Tim Judah, “Cycle of revenge haunts Kosovo”, Guardian Weekly, 11 April 1999, p. 5.

Fitzroy MacLean, Disputed Barricade: The Life and Times of Joseph Broz-Tito, London (Jonathan Cape) 1957.

Fitzroy MacLean, Eastern Approaches, London (Jonathan Cape) 1949.

Edmond Paris, Genocide in Satellite Croatia, 1941-1945: A Record of Racial and Religious Persecutions and Massacres. Translated from the French by Lois Perkins. Chicago (The American Institute for Balkan Affairs) n.d. [1961].

Paul Shoup, Communism and the Yugoslav National Question, New York (Columbia University Press) 1968.

Miranda Vickers, The Albanians: A Modern History, London (I.B.Tauris) 1995.

Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945, Oxford (Oxford University Press)1990. Originally published in Hebrew by Schocken Publishing House Ltd., 1987.


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at