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
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
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
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
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?