Articles on the Kosovo Conflict




Beyond victimhood?

By Lawrence Weschler
The New Yorker
April 12, 1999

In the months leading up to the current Kosovo horror, Slobodan Milosevic's hugely influential wife, Mirjana Markovic, steadfastly opposed any negotiated compromise over the province. According to a Markovic confidant cited last week in the Times, she believed that if she and her husband were, in effect, to give Kosovo away by signing a peace accord, their claim on power might be destroyed. On the other hand, even if the Serbs were to lose Kosovo in a war they would at least have established "the legal basis to reconquer it in one hundred years."

More than half a century ago, Markovic's mother, an anti-Nazi partisan fighter, was captured and brutally interrogated by the Gestapo before being released; soon thereafter she was murdered by fellow-partisans, who suspected her of giving up names. Notwithstanding such a background, Markovic seems blithely willing to sentence her own grandchildren's grandchildren to more of the same misery. And, according to press reports out of Belgrade, her kind of resolutely bloody-minded determinism has been proving ever more wildly popular in the street.

Of course, that popularity owes much to the fact that the Milosevic regime has maintained a virtual stranglehold on the country's major media for more than a decade; in that time average Serbs have not been exposed to anything resembling a balanced - let alone minimally factual - account of developments in their region.

Yet surely something more is going on. Fascism is often represented as the dictatorial rule of a privileged few over the oppressed many, whereas it is almost always, at least at the outset, a profoundly majoritarian phenomenon - albeit a deeply antidemocratic one in terms of how the majority treats minorities. Ignazio Silone once characterized fascism as a counterrevolution against a revolution that never took place - a formulation that captures the ferociously paranoid and specifically anti-leftist cast of much of twentieth-century fascism, including Mussolini's and Hitler's.

But a different aspect of the rise of Nazism, in particular, seems more pertinent to the sort of fascism that we're seeing today. This kind of fascism draws most of its strength from a sense of historic grievance and of the nation-as-misunderstood-victim - a national pity zealously husbanded, nurtured, and sustained from one generation to the next in a process that often seems to verge on the pathological.

This is what we seem to be dealing with in Serbia, a country whose overriding foundation myth, far from celebrating a triumph, glorifies a six-hundred-year-old botched defeat, one that continues to cry out for vengeance. In Belgrade this past week, people who couldn't get over the horror of having to spend a few nights in shelters seemed defiantly oblivious of the far more gruesome fate being visited upon hundreds of thousands of Kosovars, let alone of their own role in that fate. What was wrong? Why couldn't everybody see that the Serbs alone were the victims? See editor's comment at end of page.

Serbs are not the only Balkan people who evince this sort of mind-set. Croats, obsessively nursing grievances of their own, have proved just as unabashedly indifferent to the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees who were expelled from their homes in the Krajina at the end of the Bosnian conflict.

It's not as though people in this region have historically been incapable of living together. Through most of their history they did just that; the rate of ethnic intermarriage in cities like Sarajevo was almost a third in the last years before the war. Rather, it's that to the extent that they thought of themselves as Serbs or Croats or Kosovars or Bosnian Muslims - or suddenly started thinking of themselves that way all over again - their core identity arrived pickled in the brine of historic victimhood.

Once they got started, these people were not only unable to forget the past; they could scarcely think of anything else. Grievances half a century and even half a millennium old remained so vivid that, as was occasionally noted, it was as if the living had been transformed into shades haunting the far more substantial ghosts of the distant past, rather than the other way around.

Slobodan Milosevic and his cohort bear the overwhelming responsibility for fomenting the calamity we are now witnessing. In a cynical grab for power, and through the expert use of propaganda and other fascist methodologies, they whipped the people into a frenzy. But societies that luxuriate in a sense of victimhood make themselves vulnerable to such manipulation. It's inevitable that, from time to time, history is going to toss up power-hungry opportunists eager to exploit that weakness.

Yet the susceptibility to such opportunists is hardly inevitable: the tendency toward an endlessly self-pitying sense of victimhood is not some sort of inescapable genetic inheritance. Individuals can change, and so can entire societies. It's one thing to nurse blood vendettas in an era of knives and pistols - something altogether more fearsome to do so in a time of tanks and mortars and mines and dive-bombers. Today the Balkan myths - and especially the Serbian myths - invariably exalt the bloody heroes who went down fighting, calling forth vengeance upon their enemies for all eternity. Those are the stories that persist. And that is the ethos that will have to change.

[Compare the preceding analysis to that in the article Serbian aim to kill all Kosovars is nothing new. --Editor]

What sort of stories will people in the Balkans be telling each other a hundred years from now? Will Markovic's ghost - or, perhaps, the ghost of her Albanian counterpart, because a Kosovar defeat could as easily call forth its own undying dreams of vengeance - prove more corporeal than her living descendants? Will there even be any living descendants in that blasted land? (Can anyone doubt that across the next century tanks and mines are likely to be replaced by hijacked nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons?) Or will the Balkan peoples have achieved a new way of being - one that somehow marries accountability and forgiveness, that glories in tolerance and the blessedly human capacity for starting something anew?

See also "Aristotle in Belgrade" by Lawrence Weschler, 2004

[For a related perspective on societal responsibility for war crimes and the role of age-old hatreds,
see Slavenka Drakulic,
The Normalcy of War Criminals, February 27, 2002.  --Editor]

Balkan Witness Editor's comment:

Not only Serbs and Croats have the victim complex; the Bosnian Muslims do too. You can be a victim and still have a complex about it; look at the Jews. It has been said that everyone went into the Bosnian war as a victim.

At the same time, most Serbs don't know and don't care about the Albanians and are not speaking about them. Of course, it's also too dangerous for them to criticize their regime right now. They get assassinated for less.

The article minimizes Serbian suffering, however. The point is that the Serbs are ignoring the Albanian suffering, not that the Serbs are not suffering. It's ultimately unavoidable that smart bombs aren't so smart, and that NATO doesn't really give a damn about civilians. "Collateral damage" happens.

Note also that the Kosovo myth was created in the 19th century with the advent of modern nationalism. It's not something that was carried down from 1389.
    April 1999


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