Lessons From Literature and Wars Past
In the Balkans, grandiose ambitions have justified every brutality, including uprooting entire populations
'THE first refugees from Uzice appeared on the bridge. The men were on foot, dusty and bowed, while the women wrapped in their veils were balanced on small horses with children tied to the saddlebags or to boxes.... One of these dog-tired men [spoke to the onlookers], 'You sit here at your ease and do not know what is happening behind Stanisevac. Here we are fleeing into Turkish lands, but where are you to flee when your turn will come?' ''Skip to next paragraph
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Change a few words, and the description would fit today's Krajina, not the Bosnia of the 1830s that Ivo Andric, the Nobel Prize-winning Bosnian Serb writer, depicted in his masterpiece, ''The Bridge on the Drina.'' Mr. Andric wrote elegiac, fatalistic tales of Muslims, Christians, and Jews; of war, nationalism and revolution; of Turkish overlords, ethnic hatred, and fearsome struggles between neighboring peoples who lived placidly together - until the violence.
Reading Andric helps us grasp rule No. 1 of Balkan politics: neither melting pot nor ethnic diversity, but the nation one and indivisible, its grandiose ambitions justifying every brutality. The victory of one political authority over another has meant the uprooting of entire populations, be they Serbs from the Krajina, Muslims from Bulgaria in the 1980s, or Greeks from the margins of Turkey in early 1920s.
Of course there are exceptions, humane anecdotes of Muslims sheltering their threatened Serb neighbors, of righteous Gentiles protecting Jews, and of intermarriage and cultural diversity in a cosmopolitan Sarajevo. But these are aberrations, isolated acts of kindness in a conflict-ridden region.
The Balkans have never experienced the centuries-long process by which, say, France or Sweden gradually blended isolated villages and regions into one unified nation. Balkan clans and tribes asserted their respective identities - and their survival under Turkish rule - exaggerating their religious, linguistic, and historical distinctions. Differences were intensified, not moderated, as the Turks were driven out, and conflicts emerged among the Christian successor states regarding who would get what.
Yugoslavia is a case in point. It was formed in the 1918 by an authoritarian, Serbian warrior-king, a victor in World War I. But it never crystallized, never developed a strong national consciousness, and it collapsed overnight into civil war and massacre after Hitler attacked in 1941. It was reinvented in 1945 by another successful warrior-dictator, a Croatian communist who pursued ethnic balance while maintaining a grandiose, imperial lifestyle. No one objected when he expelled the scattered German minority of northern Yugoslavia.
Tito and his lieutenants insisted that they could recreate Yugoslavia. They would industrialize, modernize, educate, and stamp out ethnic rivalries. Remembering the mutual slaughter of the war years, Yugoslavs would mature politically, gradually overcome their nationalist rivalries, and eventually emerge as one nation, strong, united, and perhaps ready for democracy - some day.
The communists misread the impact of World War II. The Yugoslav nations had learned fear and disdain for each other. Tito's death in 1980 brought it to the surface. The Slovenes speculated about independence, leaving the despised Balkans to become a kind of Switzerland. The Croats also looked to Central Europe and resented seeing their tax wealth spent on ''those barbarians'' in Kosovo and Macedonia. The Serbs nursed memories of Croat atrocities, boasted of their own military prowess, and dreamt of a Great Serbia, free of Slovenes and Croats.
All this harkens back to the war, when Hitler sought to remake Eastern Europe, destroying the Jews, and expelling or subjugating Slavic nations, all for the greater glory of the German empire. Here was social engineering run wild, a lesson not lost on Balkan nationalists.
How ironic that Ivo Andric, himself steeped in Germanic culture, should help us understand the human cost of forced migrations.