Debunking Myths Of Bosnian History

AS Bosnia-Herzegovina enters its fourth year of ethnic fratricide, President Clinton and other world leaders may once again blame their failed peace efforts on ''centuries'' of ethnic hatreds.

A recent book, however, drives home the simplistic nature of that rationale and their ignorance of Bosnian history. ''Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed'' traces the country's history from medieval times, when it was an independent kingdom with its own Christian church, through Turkish and Austrian rule and the communist Yugoslav era, to today's tragedy.

The main theme of the book's American authors is that Bosnia's Serbs, Croats, and Muslims co-existed peacefully for centuries and that it was rabid nationalism promoted by Croatia in the 1940s and by Serbia in the 1990s that set them against one another. In both cases, the motives were the same: a quest for more land by the chauvinistic, power-hungry rulers of Bosnia's neighbors.

It was their need to debunk the myth of Bosnia as a seething age-old cauldron of ethnic and religious bloodletting that drove Robert Donia and John Fine to write their book.

The authors possess the credentials to set the record straight. Both have lived and studied in Bosnia, and Fine, a Harvard-educated Balkan specialist, has taught at Sarajevo University. Donia earned his doctorate in Balkan history at the University of Michigan.

The book, like Bosnia's complex history, is not light reading. The writing is at times ponderous, dry, and distinctly academic. It could have benefited from more portraits of daily life throughout the ages. And, some of the analysis of what led to former Yugoslavia's disintegration and the wars in Croatia and Bosnia is very much open to dispute.

But the book succeeds handily in its main goal of charting the evolution of Bosnia's ethnic groups. As it points out, Bosnia's Roman Catholics and Serbian Orthodox only began considering themselves Croats and Serbs respectively in the 19th century. Before that, they regarded themselves as Bosnian Christians.

Not that Bosnia was a haven of peace. But, as the authors stress, most fighting that occurred prior to World War II was against foreigners, including the Ottoman Turks and the Austrians. There were outbreaks of internal strife, but they were mainly peasant uprisings sparked by socioeconomic grievances.

The first true ethnic conflagration occurred during World War II, when the Ustashe -- Nazi-backed nationalist Croats -- slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs in an attempt to make Bosnia part of Croatia. Some Muslims joined the Ustashe. At the same time, ultranationalist Serbs known as Chetniks killed Muslims and Croats. But Serbs, Croats, and Muslims also banded together in Josip Broz Tito's communist Partisans and defeated the Croat and Serb extremists.

It was partly by reviving selected memories from that era that President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia induced most of Bosnia's Serbs to join his scheme to make most of the country part of a ''Greater Serbia.'' Through their conquests, mass expulsions, and killings of non-Serbs, Milosevic's minions may have succeeded in erasing any hope for restoring Bosnia's delicate ethnic amity.

By perpetuating the myth of ''ancient'' hatreds, Western leaders are helping Milosevic rewrite Bosnian history. Donia and Fine have done what they can to see that that does not happen.

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