There is a scene in the film ‘Bean’, in which Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, mistaken for an expert, is forced to give a speech about a painting in an art museum, about which he knows nothing. Trying to think of something to say, he points out that the painting is ‘quite big, which is excellent, because if it was really small, you know, microscopic, hardly anyone would be able to see it’. That scene sometimes comes to mind when reading Michael Dobbs, a Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) who blogs for Foreign Policy magazine. For reasons that are beyond me, Dobbs has been tasked by these two bodies with investigating and writing about the Bosnian war, Srebrenica massacre and Ratko Mladic trial – despite apparently having no prior knowledge or expertise about these topics, or about the topic of genocide.
Dobbs is a well intentioned individual who tries hard to be balanced and objective. He writes frankly about the horrors of the Bosnian war. He consequently comes under regular vicious attack from the creepy-crawlies of the Srebrenica genocide-denial lobby and has been forthright in confronting them. He responds to criticism in a fair and measured way. Yet it’s as if the USHMM and Foreign Policy had simply walked into a random bar, pulled out a random Joe Bloggs, and told him to write about Bosnia and genocide. In October 2011, he wrote ‘I must admit that I find it difficult to use [in relation to Srebrenica] the word genocide, which conjures up images of the Holocaust… In the popular culture, at least, when we talk about “geno-cide,” we think about the killing of an entire race or ethnic group.’ That a Fellow of the USHMM should be guided by ‘popular culture’ when considering the meaning of genocide – instead of by expertise in the history and literature of the study of genocide – is incredible. It is, on the other hand, not in the least incredible, but wholly predictable and understandable, that his comment should have caused enormous offence among Bosniak people, prompting a letter of protest to the USHMM from the Congress of North American Bosniaks, Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada and Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Centre.
Now, Dobbs has put his foot in it again, with an article entitled ‘In Defense of the Serbs’, containing his pearls of wisdom regarding the international recognition of Bosnian and Croatian independence in 1991-1992:
‘Looking back at the start of the Yugoslav wars two decades later, I am struck by a contradiction in western policy to the former Yugoslavia. Europe, supported by the U.S., recognized the independence of the breakaway republics. In other words, the borders of the multi-ethnic state that resulted from the Versailles conference decisions of 1919 (see photograph above) were not inviolate. On the other hand, the international community (in the form of the Badinter commission set up by the European Union) also decreed that the borders of Croatia, Bosnia, and the other republics could not be changed simply because a minority wished to secede.
The practical effect of these decisions was that Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia. The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset.
For what it is worth, my own personal view is that the breakup of Yugoslavia was inevitable, just as the breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable. On the other hand, the United States and Europe (the nations that created Yugoslavia in the first place) should have been much more vigorous about establishing and enforcing rules for the breakup that guaranteed minority rights.
To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was “worse than a crime.” It was a gross error of political judgment.’
Two decades since the start of the Bosnian war, and a Fellow of the USHMM and writer for Foreign Policy can do nothing better than trot out the same, tired old sophistry that was being peddled by the Serb nationalists back then. It’s as if all the scholarship on the subject of the break up of Yugoslavia and recognition of new states, written in the interval by Richard Caplan, Michael Libal, Josip Glaurdic and others, simply did not exist. Dobbs is making a point that has been extensively addressed and refuted by real experts on the subject over a period of twenty years.
It would take a lot of space to refute all the misconceptions in Dobbs’s small passage above, so let me pick just one. There was, of course, no ‘contradiction’ in the policy of the international community as regards the right to secede of Serbs and of non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia in 1991-1992. Dobbs claims that ‘The practical effect of these decisions [by the international community] was that Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia’. This is false: ‘Croats and Muslims’ were not given the right to secede from Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was recognised as being ‘in the process of dissolution’, and the six constituent republics were recognised as the entities that inherited its sovereignty. Thus, it was the six republics – including Serbia – not the ‘Croats and Muslims’, whose right to independence was recognised. Serbia was not treated differently from Slovenia, Croatia or Bosnia in this respect, and was entirely free to seek and receive international recognition of its independence, just as they did.
The right of the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia to secede from their respective republics was not recognised; neither was the right of the Croats of Bosnia. Nor of the Muslims/Bosniaks of Serbia’s Sanjak region. Nor of the Hungarians of Vojvodina, within Serbia. Nor of the Albanians of Macedonia and Montenegro. Nor, at the time, of the Albanians of Kosovo. In fact, the only group on the territory of the former Yugoslavia whose carving out of a wholly new entity has ever been recognised by the international community is the Bosnian Serbs. Thus, at Dayton, the ‘Republika Srpska’ was recognised, whereas the Bosnian Croats’ ‘Croat Republic of Herceg-Bosna’ has been dissolved, and the right of the Bosnian Croats to establish their own entity within Bosnia has been consistently denied.
It is difficult to believe that anyone could think about this for even a few minutes before realising that the ‘contradiction’ Dobbs posits is no contradiction at all. But I’m not suggesting he’s being insincere; merely that he hasn’t bothered to think seriously about this, let alone read anything much – if at all – on the subject. Hamdija Custovic, Vice-President of the Congress of North American Bosniaks, has quite rightly written another letter of protest to Foreign Policy about Dobbs’s article. What saddens me about this is not that Dobbs’s views are particularly outrageous – as I said, I believe he is a well intentioned individual trying hard to be balanced and objective. It is that respectable bodies like the USHMM and Foreign Policy consider it acceptable to provide a lot of space and opportunity for someone with no expertise on the former Yugoslavia or the Bosnian genocide to write about them, as if the subject wasn’t important enough to recruit a proper expert who actually has something informed to say.
The victims of the Bosnian genocide deserve better than this.
Review of Josip Glaurdic, The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011
The break-up of Yugoslavia has generated an enormous literature – much of it poor, some of it acceptable and some of it excellent. There are several decent introductory accounts of the break-up that competently summarise familiar information. There are some very good studies of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that do justice to the break-up as well. There are some excellent studies of sub-topics or related topics. But there have been few truly groundbreaking studies of the process as a whole. Too many of the older generation of pre-1991 Yugoslav experts had too many of their assumptions shattered by the break-up; too many journalists and casual scholars flooded the market in the 1990s with too many under-researched, third-rate works; too many younger scholars were handicapped by political prejudices that prevented them from addressing the truth squarely. Furthermore, the body of relevant primary sources has been vast and growing exponentially while the body of good supporting secondary literature has only slowly grown to a respectable size. In these circumstances, to write a groundbreaking general study of the break-up of Yugoslavia has been a difficult task that has required both a lot of talent and a lot of patient hard work.
Josip Glaurdic’s The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia is such a study. As far as general accounts of the break-up go, there are only two or three that rival this work; none that is better. A great strength of this work lies in Glaurdic’s careful balance between the domestic and international dimensions of Yugoslavia’s break-up; he gives equal space to each and shows carefully the interaction between them. As far as the domestic dimension is concerned, he has skilfully summarised and distilled the existing knowledge about the subject as well as anybody before him. But where this book is truly original and groundbreaking is in its analysis of the international dimension. For this is the best serious, comprehensive, scholarly analysis of the role of the West – specifically, of the US, European Community and UN – in the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The mainstream literature has tended to present the West’s involvement in the break-up in terms of a reaction after the fact: Yugoslavia collapsed and war broke out due to internal causes, and the West responded with a weak, ineffective and primarily diplomatic intervention. Some excellent studies of the responses of individual Western countries have appeared, most notably by Michael Libal for Germany, Brendan Simms for Britain and Takis Michas for Greece. Apologists for the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic or for the Great Serb nationalist cause have, for their part, churned out innumerable versions of the conspiracy theory whereby the break-up of Yugoslavia was actually caused or even engineered by the West; more precisely by Germany, the Vatican and/or the IMF. But up till now, nobody has attempted to do what Glaurdic has done, let alone done it well.
Glaurdic’s innovation is to begin his study of the West’s involvement not in 1991, when full-scale war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, but in 1987, when Milosevic was assuming absolute power in Serbia. This enables him to interpret the West’s reaction to the eventual outbreak of war, not as a reflex to a sudden crisis, but as the result of a long-term policy. He places this long-term policy in the broader context of the evolution of the West’s global considerations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most important of these considerations concerned a state incomparably more important than Yugoslavia: the Soviet Union.
Yugoslavia’s principal significance for the Western alliance during the Cold War was as a buffer state vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and as a model of an independent, non-Soviet Communist state. These factors became less important in the second half of the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev ruled the Soviet Union and the Cold War was winding down. Milosevic was initially identified by some influential Western observers as a possible ‘Balkan Gorbachev’; a Communist reformer who might bring positive change to Yugoslavia. The most important such observer was the veteran US policymaker Lawrence Eagleburger, who became deputy Secretary of State in January 1989. In his confirmation hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 15-16 March 1989, Eagleburger stated that ‘there is no question in my mind that Milosevic is in terms of economics a Western market-oriented fellow… [who] is playing on and using Serbian nationalism, which has been contained for so many years, in part I think as an effort to force the central government to come to grips with some very tough economic problems.’ (Glaurdic, p. 40).
This initial US appreciation for Milosevic dovetailed with a more important consideration: the fear that a collapse of Yugoslavia would create a precedent for the Soviet Union, weakening the position of Gorbachev himself. Of decisive importance was not merely that Western and in particular US leaders viewed Gorbachev as a valued friend, but the extreme conservatism of their ideology as regards foreign policy. Simply put, the US administration of George H.W. Bush valued stability above all else, including democratic reform, and actually preferred Communist strongmen, not only in the USSR but also in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to the democratic opposition to them. Bush and his team feared the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destabilisation that this threatened – given, among other things, the latter’s nuclear arsenal. This led them to acquiesce readily in Soviet repression in Lithuania, Latvia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Their acquiescence in Milosevic’s repressive policies was a natural corollary.
As Glaurdic shows, this conservative-realist worldview led the Bush Administration, right up till the end of 1991, to champion Yugoslavia’s unity rather than its democratic reform. Though the US gradually lost faith in Milosevic, its animosity in this period was above all directed at the ‘separatist’ regimes in Croatia and Slovenia. The irony was not only that Croatian and Slovenian separatism was a direct response to the aggressive policies of the Milosevic regime, but also that the latter was promoting the break-up of Yugoslavia as a deliberate policy. Through its unwillingness to oppose Milosevic and its hostility to the Croats and Slovenes, Washington in practice encouraged the force that was promoting the very break-up of Yugoslavia that it wished to avoid.
The problem was not that the Bush Administration lacked accurate intelligence as to what Milosevic’s regime was doing, but that it chose to disregard this intelligence, instead clinging blindly to its shibboleth of Yugoslav unity, indeed of Yugoslav centralisation. Thus, as Glaurdic shows, a ‘conservative realist’ ideology resulted in a highly unrealistic, dogmatic policy. In October 1990, the CIA warned the US leadership that, while the latter could do little to preserve Yugoslav unity, its statements would be interpreted and exploited by the different sides in the conflict: statements in support of Yugoslav unity would encourage Serbia while those in support of human rights and self-determination would encourage the Slovenes, Croats and Kosovars (Glaurdic, p. 110). The Bush Administration nevertheless continued to stress its support for Yugoslav unity.
This meant not only that the West failed to respond to Milosevic’s repressive and aggressive policy, but that Milosevic and his circle actually drew encouragement from the signals they received from the West. Milosevic scarcely kept his policy a secret; at a meeting with Western ambassadors in Belgrade on 16 January 1991, he informed them that he intended to allow Slovenia to secede, and to form instead an enlarged Serbian stage on the ruins of the old Yugoslavia, that would include Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia and Bosnia and that would be established through the use of force if necessary. This brazen announcement provoked US and British complaints, but no change in policy (Glaurdic, pp. 135-136).
The problem was not merely ideological rigidity and mistaken analysis on the part of Western and particular US leaders, but also sheer lack of interest. Glaurdic describes the paradoxical Western policy toward the Yugoslav Federal Prime Minister, Ante Markovic, who – unlike Milosevic – really did want to preserve Yugoslavia, and whose programme of economic reform, in principle, offered a way to achieve this. In comparison with the generous financial assistance extended to Poland in 1989-1990, no remotely similar support was offered to Markovic’s government, because in US ambassador Warren Zimmermann’s words, ‘Yugoslavia looked like a loser’. (Glaurdic, p. 68).
The US’s dogmatic support for Yugoslav unity was shared by the West European powers. Glaurdic demolishes the myth – already exploded by authors like Libal and Richard Caplan – that Germany supported or encouraged Croatia’s and Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia. When the president of the Yugoslav presidency, Janez Drnovsek, visited Bonn on 5 December 1989, German chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed to him his ‘appreciation for Yugoslavia’s irreplaceable role in the stability of the region and the whole of Europe’. On the same occasion, German president Richard von Weizsaecker informed the Yugoslav delegation that he supported a ‘centralised’ Yugoslavia (Glaurdic, p. 59). A year later, on 6 December 1990, German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told his Yugoslav counterpart, Budimir Loncar, that Germany ‘has a fundamental interest in the integrity of Yugoslavia’, and consequently would make ‘the Yugoslav republics realise that separatist tendencies are damaging to the whole and very costly’ (Glaurdic, pp. 124-125).
This German opposition to Croatian and Slovenian independence continued right up till the latter was actually declared in June 1991, and beyond. According to Gerhard Almer, a German diplomat and Yugoslav specialist at the time, ‘Everything that was happening in Yugoslavia was viewed through Soviet glasses. [Genscher's] idea was, “Well, Yugoslavia disintegrating is a bad example for Soviet disintegration, and this was bad for us since we needed a Soviet Union capable of action because we needed to get a deal with them on our unity”. This was widely accepted in the ministry.’ (Glaurdic, p. 160). Contrary to the myth of anti-Yugoslav imperialistic tendencies on the part of Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic government, the latter’s support for the Yugoslav status quo in the face of Belgrade’s abuses was so rigid that it provoked strong resistance from the Social Democratic opposition.
Genscher, subsequently demonised as a supposed architect of Yugoslavia’s break-up, actually resisted this pressure from the Bundestag for a shift in German policy away from unbending support for Yugoslav unity and toward greater emphasis on human rights and self-determination. The turning point for him, as Glaurdic shows, came with his visit to Belgrade on 1 July 1991, after the war in Slovenia had broken out. The combination of the overconfident Milosevic’s aggressive stance in his talk with Genscher, and the Yugoslav government’s inability to halt the Yugoslav People’s Army [JNA] operations against Slovenia, destroyed the German foreign minister’s faith in the Belgrade authorities, leading to his gradual shift in favour of Croatia and Slovenia. Eventually, after a lot more Serbian intransigence and military aggression, Germany would reverse its traditional policy by 180 degrees, and come out in favour of the recognition of Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence, while the EC would split into pro- and anti-recognition currents of opinion.
Nevertheless, as Glaurdic shows, Germany’s change of heart was a double-edged sword, since it aroused the anti-German suspicions and rivalries of other EC states, particularly France and Britain, which consequently hardened their own stances against recognition. On 6 November 1991, while the JNA’s military assaults on the Croatian cities of Vukovar and Dubrovnik were at their peak, Douglas Hogg, the UK’s Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, explained to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons that his government was opposed to the recognition of Croatia since it would create an ‘obstacle’ to territorial adjustments in Serbia’s favour and at Croatia’s expense. Several days later, the French president, Francois Mitterand, made a similar public statement, indicating that he saw Croatia’s existing borders as a ‘problem’ that prevented its recognition (Glaurdic, pp. 253-254).
The Bush Administration, meanwhile, acted as a brake on the EC’s shift against Belgrade and in favour of recognition, teaming up with the British and French to counter Germany’s change of policy. US Secretary of State James Baker and his deputy Lawrence Eagleburger, as well as the UN special envoy Cyrus Vance (himself a former US Secretary of State) waged a diplomatic battle in this period against any shift away from the West’s non-recognition policy, and against any singling out of Serbia for blame for the war – even as the JNA was massively escalating its assault on Vukovar in preparation for the town’s final conquest. Eagleburger had signalled to the Yugoslav ambassador in October that, although the US was aware that Milosevic was attempting to establish a Greater Serbia, it would do nothing to stop him except economic sanctions, and even these only after Greater Serbia had been actually established (Glaurdic, pp. 243-246). As late as December 1991, Vance continued to oppose recognition and to support the idea of a federal Yugoslavia, and continued moreover to put his trust in Milosevic, the JNA and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, while viewing the Croatians dismissively as ‘these Croatian insurgents’ (Glaurdic, pp. 264-265).
Glaurdic has marshalled an enormous wealth of documentary evidence to show that the British, French and Americans, far from reacting in a weak and decisive manner to a sudden outbreak of war, actually pursued a remarkably steady and consistent policy from before the war began, right up until the eve of full-scale war in Bosnia-Hercegovina: of vocally supporting Yugoslav unity and opposing Croatian and Slovenian secession; of resisting any singling out of Serbia for blame or punishment; of opposing recognition of Slovenia and Croatia; of seeking to appease Milosevic and the JNA by extracting concessions from Croatia as the weaker side; and finally of appeasing the Serb nationalists’ desire to carve up Bosnia. EC sanctions imposed in November 1991 applied to all parts of the former Yugoslavia equally, while there was no freezing of the international assets or financial transactions through which the JNA funded its war. The UN arms embargo, whose imposition had actually been requested by the Yugoslav government itself, favoured the heavily-armed Serbian side and hurt the poorly armed Croatians. Although, largely on account of Germany’s change of heart, the EC at the start of December 1991 belatedly limited its economic sanctions to Serbia and Montenegro alone, the US immediately responded by imposing economic sanctions on the whole of Yugoslavia.
According to myth, the Western powers applied the principle of national self-determination in a manner that penalised the Serb nation and privileged the non-Serbs. As Glaurdic shows, the reverse was actually the case. In October 1991, Milosevic rejected the peace plan put forward by the EC’s Lord Carrington, which would have preserved Yugoslavia as a union of sovereign republics with autonomy for national minorities, in part because he feared it implied autonomy for the Albanians of Kosovo and the Muslims in Serbia’s Sanjak region. Carrington consequently modified his plan: Croatia would be denied any military presence whatsoever in the disputed ‘Krajina’ region, despite it being an integral part of Croatia inhabited by many Croats, while Serbia would be given a completely free hand to suppress the Kosovo Albanians and Sanjak Muslims. Carrington’s offer came just after leaders of the latter had organised referendums for increased autonomy, and after the Milosevic regime had responded with concerted police repression (Glaurdic, p. 242).
Milosevic nevertheless continued to reject the Carrington Plan in the understandable belief that the West would eventually offer him a better deal. He consequently asked Carrington to request from the EC’s Arbitration Commission, headed by Robert Badinter, an answer to the questions of whether the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia possessed the right to self-determination, and of whether Serbia’s borders with Croatia and Bosnia should be considered borders under international law. Carrington submitted these to the Commission, along with a third question, of whether the situation in Yugoslavia was a case of secession by Slovenia and Croatia or a case of dissolution of the common state. That the Arbitration Commission ruled against Serbia on all three counts was, in Glaurdic’s words, a ‘terrible surprise for Milosevic and for many in the international community’ (p. 260), given that Badinter was a close associate of President Mitterand, whose sympathies were with Serbia’s case. The Badinter Commission’s ruling dismayed both Carrington and French foreign minister Roland Dumas, and paved the way to international recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. But it did not fundamentally change the West’s policy.
Glaurdic’s account ends with the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, which as he argues, should be seen as the logical culmination of this policy. The failure of the EC foreign ministers to recognise Bosnia’s independence in January 1992 along with Croatia’s and Slovenia’s was, in Glaurdic’s words, ‘the decision with the most detrimental long-term consequences, all of which were clearly foreseeable… The EC had missed a great chance to preempt a war that would soon make the war in Croatia pale in comparison. Of all the mistakes the European Community had made regarding the recognition of the Yugoslav republics, this one was probably the most tragic.’ (pp. 281-282). Recognition of Bosnia at this time would have upset Milosevic’s and Karadzic’s plans for destroying that republic; instead, they were given every indication that the West would acquiesce in them.
Thus, on 21-22 February 1992, Bosnia’s politicians were presented with the first draft of the plan of the EC’s Jose Cutileiro for the three-way partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina into loosely linked Serb, Croat and Muslim entities. Since the plan, based on the ethnic majorities in Bosnian municipalities, offered the Bosnian Serb nationalists ‘only’ 43.8% of Bosnian territory instead of the 66% they sought, the latter’s assembly unanimously rejected it on 11 March. Once again, the EC abandoned universal standards in order to accommodate Serb intransigence, and Cutileiro modified his plan so that the three constituent Bosnian entities ‘would be based on national principles and would be taking into account economic, geographic and other criteria’ (Glaurdic, p. 294), thereby opening the way for a Serb entity with a larger share of Bosnian territory than was justified on demographic grounds.
Ultimately, Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic rejected the plan. But as Glaurdic writes,
‘The damage that the Cutileiro plan did to Bosnia cannot be overstated. By accepting the ethnic principle for the reorganisation of the republic, Cutileiro in essence recognised the platforms of the SDS [Serb Democratic Party led by Karadzic] and the Boban wing of the HDZ [Croat Democratic Union] and opened a Pandora’s box of ethnic division that still mars Bosnia to this very day. Cutileiro’s intent was obviously to appease the Bosnian Serbs and their Belgrade sponsor into not implementing their massive war machinery. However, instead of lowering tensions and giving the three parties an impetus to keep negotiating, the plan actually gave them a “charter for ethnic cleansing”.’ (p. 290)
In these circumstances, the West’s belated recognition of Bosnia’s independence in April 1992 was naturally not taken seriously by the Serb leaders; Milosevic rather wittily compared it to the Roman emperor Caligula declaring his horse to be a senator (Glaurdic, p. 298).
My principal regret is that Glaurdic did not fully apply the logic of his iconoclastic analysis to his consideration of the Croatian dimension of the Yugoslav tragedy. He carefully and correctly highlights the retrograde nationalist ideology of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, including his equivocal statements about the Nazi-puppet Croatian regime of World War II and his promotion of the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Yet he does not properly stress the extent to which Tudjman’s repeated retreats in the face of Serbian aggression merely encouraged the latter, just as did the similar retreats of the Western leaders. Thus, Tudjman capitulated to the JNA’s bullying in January 1991 and agreed to demobilise Croatia’s reservists and arrest Croatian officials involved in arms procurement, including the Croatian defence minister Martin Spegelj himself. Glaurdic argues that this ‘defused the [JNA] generals’ plan for a takeover’ and brought Yugoslavia ‘back from the brink’ (p. 134), but it would be more accurate to say that such Croatian appeasement merely encouraged further Serbian assaults, and that the killing in Croatia began only weeks later.
Glaurdic has carefully described the Milosevic regime’s secessionism vis-a-vis the Yugoslav federation, but one significant detail omitted from his book is the promulgation on 28 September 1990 of Serbia’s new constitution, which stated that ‘The Republic of Serbia determines and guarantees: 1 the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia and its international position and relations with other states and international organisations;…’. In other words, Serbia declared itself a sovereign and independent state before either Croatia or Bosnia did. This is relevant when evaluating not only the Milosevic regime’s hypocrisy regarding ‘separatism’, but the extent of the West’s policy failure. Milosevic posed as Yugoslavia’s defender while he deliberately destroyed it. Western leaders were hoodwinked: they sought both to uphold Yugoslavia’s unity and to appease Milosevic’s Serbia. As Glaurdic has brilliantly demonstrated, their dogged pursuit of the second of these policies ensured the failure of the first.
Those who are sufficiently ideologically driven will readily and tenaciously believe a myth that upholds their own ideology, no matter how completely the myth has been exposed and discredited. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been used by anti-Semites from the Nazis to today’s Islamists, despite the fact that they were exposed as a forgery a century ago. German anti-Semites sought to explain away Germany’s defeat in World War I in 1918 by a supposed ‘stab in the back’ by the Jews, shifting the ignominy for the murderous Imperial German regime’s military collapse onto an innocent third party. In much the same way, apologists for the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic have for twenty years tried to blame the ignominious break-up of Yugoslavia – which the Milosevic regime deliberately engineered – on democratic Germany’s supposed ‘encouragement of Croatian secessionism’. They have done this despite a complete failure to uncover any evidence to support their thesis.
David N. Gibbs in First do no Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2009) is the latest author to attempt to breathe life into the corpse of this myth, arguing that ‘Croatian leaders were assured, well in advance, that Germany, the dominant power in Europe, would support their efforts to establish an independent state and to secede from Yugoslavia’ (p. 78) and ‘the key EC state of Germany was clearly in favour of breaking up Yugoslavia, and was actively encouraging secession’ (p. 91). Rarely have I seen such cynical misuse of sources.
1) For example, Gibbs quotes the memoirs of the former German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher as follows:
‘Genscher himself was openly sympathetic toward the secessionists. In his memoirs, he stated: “It was important for us to establish that the Yugoslav peoples alone had the right to freely determine the future of their nation” – with the implication that the Yugoslav central government could not veto this right. Genscher also affirmed “an individual nation’s ‘right to secede’ from the larger [Yugoslav] polity.’ (Gibbs, p. 79)
Yet here are some statements from Genscher’s memoirs that Gibbs omitted to quote:
‘When it came to recognising Croatia and Slovenia, the Vatican displayed extreme reluctance. During my visit in [sic] the Vatican on November 29, 1991, this attempt to remain aloof was particularly apparent. I understood that attitude; the accusation that on this issue the Vatican and West Germany formed a “conspiracy” is therefore very wide of the mark. No one outside of Yugoslavia was interested in the least in the dissolution of Yugoslavia; it was only the pan-Serbian strife [sic] for hegemony that set the country’s dissolution in motion‘ (Hans Dietrich Genscher, Rebuilding a House Divided, Broadway Books, New York, p. 91)
‘On Wednesday, March 20, [1991,] I received Slovenia’s president Milan Kucan and Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel; they also spoke of their concerns and of Slovenia’s increasing move to independence. I urged them to proceed slowly and above all to take no unilateral steps but to be alert to opportunities to hold the confederation together in some other constitutional form. Especially in view of our delicate, historically burdened relationship with the region, two aspects were of particular importance to German foreign policy: one, not to encourage centrifugal tendencies, and two, to make no unilateral changes in our policy toward Yugoslavia.’ (Genscher, p. 491)
‘To return to the situation in mid-1991: From June 19 to 20 the first conference of the CSCE Council of Foreign Ministers was held in Berlin. As the host nation, Germany chaired the meeting. Before the conference, I received a few foreign ministers for bilateral talks. Among them was Yugoslavia’s foreign minister, Budomir [sic] Loncar, because I wanted to discuss with him first of all the question of how to deal with the issue of Yugoslavia – as might be expected, one of the core topics of the conference. Once again we were impelled to emphasise our interest in maintaining a unified but democratic and federated nation; the conference must remain true to the principles established by the Paris Charter a few months earlier.’ (Genscher, pp. 492-493)
So a source quoted selectively and tendentiously by Gibbs to try and squeeze out something approaching ‘evidence’ for his thesis that Germany encouraged Croatia’s secession actually provides rather more evidence that Germany supported a unified Yugoslavia at the time Croatia declared independence in June 1991 [NB since Gibbs falsely accuses me of being unable to read German, I should make clear that I am quoting the English translation of Genscher's memoirs because Gibbs himself relies on the translation, and does not use the German original].
2) Likewise, Gibbs quotes the study of Germany’s policy toward Croatia in 1991 written by former German diplomat Michael Libal (Limits of Persuasion: Germany and the Yugoslav Crisis, 1991, 1992, Praeger, Westport and London, 1997): ‘on 18 July the decision was made in Belgrade to completely withdraw the JNA from Slovenia;… in Germany a sense of euphoria prevailed.’ (Gibbs, p. 94).
Yet Libal’s book in fact demolishes the view that Germany encouraged Croatia to secede; in Libal’s words, ‘No German official advocated the encouragement of separatist tendencies within the Yugoslav republics.’ Libal describes the ‘good, if not excellent relations between Bonn and Belgrade, which Genscher had been building up since the early 1970s… It was almost a special relationship: Germany acted as Yugoslavia’s advocate in the European Community (EC) and was instrumental in bringing about closer cooperation between the two.’ Consequently, ‘Given this excellent state of relations and the strong position Germany enjoyed throughout the whole of Yugoslavia, any idea of destabilising that country and encouraging its breakup would have been lunacy. Yugoslavia as a unitary state was a perfect partner for Germany, as no smaller, more troubled and more difficult partner, or possibly even client state, could ever be expected to be.’ (Libal, p. 5) Gibbs simply ignores the copious testimony and documentation provided by Libal that runs counter to Gibbs’s thesis, treating it as though it does not exist.
3) And again, although he includes in his bibliography the book by Richard Caplan, Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005), Gibbs does not bother to inform his readers of what Caplan wrote, which is that
‘Until fighting erupted at the end of June, Germany had, along with the rest of the EC, supported the continued unity of Yugoslavia. As late as 19 June 1991, Germany voted in favour of a statement by the Conference of Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) expressing support for the “unity and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia”; in fact, it was Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, who supplied the text of the statement. Even after Slovenia’s and Croatia’s declarations of independence, Germany supported the West European Union (WEU) declaration of 27 June that expressed regret at “the recent unilateral decisions” of the two republics, and urged all political authorities in Yugoslavia to “resume the dialogue with a view to securing the unity of the state”.’ (Caplan, p. 18).
Gibbs does not attempt to tackle this evidence.
4) Or another example of misrepresentation: Gibbs cites an anonymous source in the New Yorker, allegedly a US diplomat who was claiming that Genscher ‘was encouraging the Croats to leave the federation and declare independence.’ Gibbs admits: ‘It is difficult to fully assess this allegation, given the anonymity of the source. However, the New Yorker allegation is supported by the memoirs of US ambassador Warren Zimmermann, which note “Genscher’s tenacious decision to rush the independence of Slovenia and Croatia” [Gibbs's emphasis].’ Gibbs then claims in the endnote to this sentence: ‘Note that Zimmermann does not say that Genscher rushed the international recognition of Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence; he makes the much more provocative statement that Genscher rushed independence.’ (p. 249)
Yet this is simply untrue, as Zimmermann in his memoirs nowhere accuses the Germans of encouraging Croatia’s secession, but does criticise them for supporting Croatia’s recognition; the idea that when Zimmermann referred to Genscher having ‘rushed independence’ he really meant ‘rushed secession’ is sheer wishful thinking on Gibbs’s part.
5) Yet perhaps the most egregious example of Gibbs’s distortion of sources is his claim that ‘German support for secession and for breaking up Yugoslavia is also noted by former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia, James Bissett and by Croatian nationalist Stjepan Mesic’ (p. 79). Bissett is frequently cited by Gibbs, who fails to inform his readers that he is a Srebrenica genocide denier and defender of Milosevic, therefore not an entirely reliable source, and that Bissett’s supposed ‘noting’ of German support for Croatian secession is merely an unsubstantiated allegation.
As for Mesic, it turns out in Gibbs’s endnote that he does not in fact ‘note’ German support for Croatia’s secession at all. Gibbs’s supposed evidence for his claim is an extract from Milosevic’s trial, in which Milosevic is questioning prosecution witness Milan Kucan about what Mesic said on a TV programme in which they (Mesic and Kucan) appeared together. Milosevic states ‘Mesic declared that the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of German Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the Pope John Paul II, by the direct agreement and support designed to break up the former Yugoslavia had practically contributed most to that actually happening’, and Kucan replied ‘Those were the stance of Mr Mesic’.
The supposed ‘noting’ by Mesic of Genscher’s support for Croatia’s secession thus turns out to be actually testimony not from Mesic but from Kucan, who appears to be confirming what Milosevic said. Gibbs considers the extract from the trial to be sufficiently significant that he reproduces the sentence by Milosevic, and puts Kucan’s reply in emphasis: ‘Those were the stance of Mr Mesic’ (Gibbs, p. 250).
What Gibbs does not tell his readers, is that in the following lines of the transcript, not only does Kucan state clearly that he cannot remember what Mesic said, but Milosevic makes clear that the reference is to Genscher’s support for Croatian independence after it was declared, not before.
This is what Milosevic said:
‘Let us just specify something else, please. Do you remember that at the time Mesic said that he came to Belgrade, to the highest position in the federation in order to, through the mediation of the Yugoslav diplomacy at the time, to get in touch with the most influential factors and to persuade them that the survival of Yugoslavia was nonsense? And I have a quotation: “I wanted to convey that the idea of the break-up of Yugoslavia to those who had the greatest influence on its fate, to Genscher and the Pope. In fact, I had three meetings with Genscher. He enabled a contact with the Holy See. The Pope and Genscher agreed with the total break-up of SFRY.” Was that what he said?‘
The ‘highest position in the federation’, i.e. the presidency, was a position Mesic assumed only at the end of June 1991, after Croatia had already seceded.
This is what Kucan replied:
‘Your Honours, this programme which I participated together with Mr. Mesic, I can confirm that. But to be able to confirm each and every word, I’d need either a transcript or a video in order to be able to confirm it. These are very weighty words, and to testify like this wouldn’t — just wouldn’t do.’
So Mesic was not ‘noting’ that Genscher had supported Croatia’s secession. And Milosevic was not alleging that Mesic had ‘noted’ this. And Kucan was not confirming that what Milosevic said was true. Gibbs has simply falsified the source yet again.
7) In his endnotes, Gibbs writes, ‘In memoirs, the Slovene defense minister Janez Jansa downplays the role of foreign support, but he concedes that by July 1, “Genscher strongly supported our cause”.’ (Gibbs, p. 249). Of course, this citation merely suggests that Germany supported Slovenia’s cause after independence had already been declared, not that Germany actually encouraged secession.
What Gibbs does not tell his readers is that, according to Jansa, Germany actually discouraged Slovenia from declaring independence. Jansa writes ‘Even the German parliament in its debate in February 1991 did not support our dissociation from Yugoslavia’ (Janez Jansa, ‘The Making of the Slovenian State 1988-1992: The Collapse of Yugoslavia’, Zalozba Mladinska knjiga, Lljubljana, 1994, p. 91)
8 ) Gibbs cites the opinion of journalist David Halberstam: ‘According to David Halberstam: “The Slovenians were already aware [by February 1990] that the Germans… favoured their independence.”‘ The opinion of a journalist with no expertise on the former Yugoslavia does not count for much; particularly so in this case, as in February 1990, the pro-independence nationalists had not even taken power in Slovenia, which was still ruled by Communists formally committed to Yugoslav unity !
9) Gibbs’s last remaining ‘source’ that Germany encouraged Croatia to secede is a statement by the State Department official John Bolton, but this turns out to be another case of misrepresentation. Gibbs writes ‘State Department official John Bolton later stated that Germany “induced the Slovenes and the Croats to jump ship,” that is, to leave the federation.’ (Gibbs, p. 79)
Yet when the quote is given in full, there is no suggestion that Bolton was accusing Germany of having induced Croatia and Slovenia to secede before they did so; merely that he accused Germany of having induced the EU states to recognise their independence after they had done so:
‘Initially, Germany, based largely on its historical interests in the region, insisted that EU members recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. While this precipitous change alone was not enough to cause the ensuing carnage and ethnic cleansing in the region, Bosnia-Herzegovina unquestionably saw a declaration of independence as the only way to extricate itself from Serbia’s grasp, hoping thereby to find security in a united European front against Serbian force. Having thus induced the Slovenes and Croats to jump ship, and having pushed the Bosnians, Germany then concluded that it was constitutionally barred from undertaking any military activities that might actually stop the Serbian (or Croat) war machine.’
Thus, none of Gibbs’s sources turns out to support his contention that Germany encouraged Croatia or Slovenia to secede from Yugoslavia, and some actually refute it.
10) Gibbs also claims that ‘French Air Force general Pierre M. Gallois asserts that Germany began supplying arms to Croatia, including antitank and antiaircraft rockets, in early 1991 – before the war began.’ (Gibbs, p. 78) He neglects to tell his readers that Gallois was – like his favourite source James Bissett – another Milosevic supporter, who actually wrote a preface to a book comprising a dialogue between Milosevic and one of his other supporters, and to which Milosevic also contributed the foreword, entitled ‘The trial of Milosevic or the indictment of the Serb people’. In this book, Gallois praises Milosevic for his ‘intelligence’ and his ‘honour’. The value of his assertion that Germany had been arming Croatia from early 1991 should be assessed with this allegiance in mind.
11) There remains Gibbs’s claim that Germany was involved in building up Croatia’s intelligence services prior to Croatia’s declaration of independence:
‘Germany’s covert intervention began in 1990, while Yugoslavia was still an integral state. In that year, German officials from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV), a subdivision of the Interior Ministry, assisted in building up Croatia’s intelligence service, the National Security Office (UNS). In the course of this activity, German officials would openly collaborate with extreme nationalists in Franjo Tudjman’s HDZ party. This early German intervention, though little known, is nevertheless well documented.’ (Gibbs, p. 77)
Since, as Gibbs has pointedly informed us in his reply to my first post about him, he is a ‘tenured full professor’, it is surprising to learn what he considers the definition of ‘well documented’ to be: in this case, two short articles, neither of which provides any evidence or even references to back up its assertions, which do not even support Gibbs’s assertions, which contradict each other, and one of which is the work of a Srebrenica-genocide-denying outfit of extreme-right-wing Islamophobic crackpots.
The first of these articles, ‘Croatia’s intelligence services’ by Marko Milivojevic, published in Jane’s Intelligence Review on 1 September 1994, has this to say: ‘Dating back to as early as 1990, when Croatia was still a constituent republic of an internationally recognised state, German involvement with Croatia’s intelligence services began with the UNS whose name was a direct copy of Germany’s BfV (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.’ Milivojevic does not provide any evidence to back up his claim. Be this as it may, he merely speaks vaguely of Germany’s ‘involvement’ with Croatia’s UNS at this stage; he does not claim what Gibbs claims, that German intelligence began ‘building up’ Croatia’s UNS already in 1990. His article covers the period up to 1994; he writes that ‘As regards the type of assistance provided by Germany to Croatia’s intelligence services, staff training has reportedly been the most important input.’ Gibbs has turned this unsourced ‘reportedly’ into ‘well documented’, and simply assumed it refers to as far back as 1990.
Milivojevic does not give any sources, but he appears to have simply regurgitated a lot of the allegations made in Gibbs’s other source, which Gibbs cites second in his book but which was actually published first: Gregory Copley, ‘FRG helps develop Croatian security’, Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, February-March 1994. This article claims that ‘The Croatian leadership decided, at the beginning of 1991, to organise its own intelligence and security services.’ It thereby contradicts the claim made by Milivojevic, that these intelligence services already existed in 1990, and Gibbs’s claim, that Germany was already ‘building up’ Croatia’s intelligence services in 1990. This article claims that ‘German intelligence officers provided significant support and training at all stages, both in Croatia and in Germany.’ It does, therefore, agree with Gibbs that the support and training began, if not in 1990, then at least at the start of 1991, prior to Croatia’s declaration of independence. It does not, however, provide any evidence to back up its allegations.
The value of Copley, president of the ‘International Strategic Studies Association‘ as an authority on the war in the former Yugoslavia may be gleaned by the fact that he has made statements such as the following: ‘the Clinton Administration had, during the war, facilitated the Islamist terrorist activities because of the Clinton Administration’s need to demonize the Serbs in order to provide a casus belli for US-led military actions in the area to distract from domestic US political problems’. Copley condemned the possibility of ‘an admission of guilt of Serbs for killing thousands of Muslims who, in fact, were not known to have been killed. Several hundred bodies have been found as a result of the fighting in and around Srebrenica, but the Islamists and their supporters have claimed figures which grow higher with each telling, with figures now claiming some 15,000 alleged deaths.’ Furthermore, according to Copley, ‘the Islamist propaganda [regarding Srebrenica], supported by Ashdown — who has long been disavowed in the UK by his former colleagues in the Royal Marines because of his unequivocal acceptance of Islamist propaganda — is accepted as fact by the R[epublika] S[rpska] Government, thereby admitting guilt for crimes never committed.’
Indeed, Copley is a member of a body of Srebrenica deniers who went on record in September 2003 to claim that ‘the official alleged casualty number of 7,000 victims’ is ‘vastly inflated and unsupported by evidence.’
That, then, is the sort of source that Gibbs relies on to ‘prove’ that Germany encouraged the secession of Croatia.
With thanks to DW and JG
Update: Gibbs has admitted his inability to respond: ’I will make no pretense that I answer all of Hoare’s allegations, which I find impossible, given the huge quantity of his charges.’ Anyone who has followed this exchange will draw the appropriate conclusions, though the sort of bone-headed left-wing fundamentalists who read his book and subscribe to his thesis won’t be put off by any refutation, however crushing. For who cares about the truth when you uphold the righteous ideology of ‘anti-imperialism’, right ?
I posted the following conclusion about Gibbs at Americans for Bosnia:
‘Quite apart from Gibbs’s deficiencies as a scholar, the reason why he and similar revisionists fail so badly is that – as I mentioned in my initial post about him – they don’t treat the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a serious subject of scholarly enquiry, but merely as another battlefield for their ideological campaign against “Western imperialism”.
Any attempt at open-minded research would force them to examine carefully then abandon as worthless the Serb-nationalist or “anti-imperialist” myths about the wars, and to develop more objective interpretations. But since their priority is to uphold the myths, not to carry out open-minded research, they are stuck supporting the ridiculous.
In trying to write a book on that basis, Gibbs failed as soon as he began.’
I get older, they stay the same age – as someone once said in another context. It’s one thing I like about Bosnia genocide-deniers. When I first started taking them on at the age of nineteen, their arguments were already easy to refute, and I was hampered only by the limits of my own knowledge. Now, nearly two decades on, I know a lot more, but I still periodically find myself repeating the same old refutations of the same old canards – canards that sound increasingly silly as time goes by. Evidence that Germany ‘encouraged’ Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia, or that the Western media was ‘biased’ against the Serb side in the war, or that Bosnian forces shelled their own civilians to provoke Western military intervention against the Serb rebels, has proven as elusive as the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The steady gathering of forensic evidence has made the Srebrenica massacre the most well-documented genocidal crime in history. Yet like lambs to the slaughter, new waves of deniers step forward to sacrifice any reputations they might have in the service of a long-discredited cause.
I say ‘like’ because it makes the job of the historian wishing to refute their propaganda very easy. But it’s also extremely boring. A couple of years ago I sacrificed a couple of days of my life to writing a review that catalogued the numerous falsehoods and distortions contained in the sensationalist anti-Muslim propaganda tracts about the Bosnian war written by Christopher Deliso and John Schindler. Since then, I have never seen either of those books cited by any reputable author. If my review contributed to this happy state of affairs, then writing it was a worthwhile use of my time. But it’s a chore rather than a pleasure; I’d rather devote this time to historical research or writing.
Consequently, it has been with a certain inner groaning that I’ve become aware of the latest regurgitations of the old denialist narrative. One such regurgitation is David N. Gibbs, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2009). To give a foretaste of what you can expect of this book, Gibbs has this to say about the Srebrenica massacre: ‘Certainly, the murder of eight thousand people is a grave crime, but to call it “genocide” needlessly exaggerates the scale of the crime.’ (p. 281).
Needless to say, Gibbs has no academic expertise on the former Yugoslavia or the Balkans and does not read Serbo-Croat. He hasn’t bothered to engage with the existing literature, but simply ignored all the existing works that undermine his thesis. He has not tackled the evidence presented by Daniele Conversi, myself and others, that the Milosevic regime and the Yugoslav People’s Army deliberately engineered the break-up of Yugoslavia; or the work of Michael Libal and Richard Caplan, exploding the myth that Germany encouraged Croatia to secede from Yugoslavia; or the work of Brendan Simms, demonstrating that Britain’s intervention in Bosnia actually shielded Karadzic’s Serb forces from hostile international intervention. Instead, Gibbs has cherry-picked a few odds and ends in order to present the same old revisionist story, only with a larger number of endnotes than the previous versions written by Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti et al. Yet he must know very well that his book will not survive a critical review by a genuine specialist in the field, that it will be ignored by all serious scholars and that it will serve only to confirm the views of the small, dwindling minority already committed to the revisionist narrative.
Dear readers, I promise I will get round eventually to doing a demolition job on Gibbs’s sorry little propaganda pamphlet. For the time being, I mention him because he practices the old denialist trick in relation to the Srebrenica massacre, of describing the military actions of the Bosnian military commander in the Srebrenica region, Naser Oric – involving attacks on Serb villages around Srebrenica and atrocities against Serb civilians – while neglecting to mention the incomparably larger-scale Serbian offensives that preceded Oric’s actions, and to which the latter were a response. Gibbs writes:
‘The Srebrenica safe area had an especially brutal history, and it was besieged by Serb forces throughout the war. It is important to note, however, that Muslim troops also behaved brutally. Especially problematic was the Muslim commander Brigadier Oric, who based his forces inside Srebrenica and conducted forays against Serb villages in the surrounding region. One UNPROFOR commander later described Oric’s activities as follows: “Oric engaged in attacks during Orthodox holidays and destroyed [Serb] villages, massacring all the inhabitants. This created a degree of hatred that was quite extraordinary in the [Srebrenica] region… [etc.]“‘ (pp. 153-154).
Anyone reading this who didn’t know better would be left unaware that, prior to Oric’s offensives, Serb forces had massacred and expelled Muslims across the whole of East Bosnia – at Bijeljina, Zvornik, Visegrad, Foca, Bratunac, Srebrenica itself and elsewhere; that 94.83% of the civilians from the Podrinje (East Bosnia) region killed during the war were Muslims and only 4.87% were Serbs (according to the figures of the Research and Documentation Centre); or that more Muslims from Podrinje were killed in 1992 than in the year of the Srebrenica massacre. The military actions of Oric’s forces against neighbouring Serb villages were those of defenders of a beleaguered enclave whose inhabitants were threatened with massacre, rape, torture and expulsion already inflicted on other towns all over East Bosnia. That Gibbs lays such stress on Oric’s atrocities while wholly neglecting to mention the incomparably greater-in-scale Serb atrocities in the same region that preceded them is distortion of the most blatant kind; equivalent to writing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising without bothering to mention the Holocaust. No doubt the sort of bone-headed ultra-left activist who would turn to Gibbs’s book for information on the Bosnian war, instead of to a serious work, is easily and happily deceived.
Those wishing to read the history of the genocidal massacres of Muslims in East Bosnia in 1992 that don’t find a place in books like First do no Harm are recommended Edina Becirevic’s splendid Na Drini genocid, soon to appear in English translation, which demonstrates that the Srebrenica massacre was not an aberration but the culmination of a genocidal policy that began in East Bosnia in 1992. In addition, an excellent case study of the background to the Srebrenica genocide by Daniel Toljaga has recently been published on the website of the Bosnian Institute, entitled Prelude to the Srebrenica Genocide. Toljaga’s knowledge of the history of the Srebrenica genocide is unrivalled, and he traces the grim story: the summoning of local Serb-nationalist leaders to meet with Milosevic’s agent Mihalj Kertes in Belgrade in early May 1991; the killing of the first Muslim civilians in the Bratunac municipality on 3 September 1991; the killing of the first Muslim civilians in the Srebrenica municipality on 15 April 1992; and the deployment of the Yugoslav People’s Army around Srebrenica by April. As Toljaga recounts:
‘Following the takeover of Bratunac, the Serb forces began the attack on Srebrenica on 18 April 1992, firing around 5000 mortar shells on the town and the surrounding Bosniak villages. There was no resistance. The same day, Serbs entered the town, looting Bosniak property, setting houses on fire and killing Bosniak residents who were unable to flee into nearby woods. The Serb occupation of the town of Srebrenica lasted until 8 May, the day when Serbs burned to death 23 Bosniak civilians in the downtown Srebrenica. The victims died in excruciating pain. From April 17 to May 8, a total of 74 Bosniak civilians were killed in the occupied Srebrenica. The youngest victim was the 12-month-old boy Nezir Suljic whose charred body was still lying in his cradle. His father Huso, his mother Muška, and his brother Nisvet were burned to death in the same room. Nezir’s nine-year-old sister Sanela survived by jumping through a window and hiding in nearby woods.‘
Anyone reading Becirevic and Toljaga cannot pretend, as Gibbs does, that the ‘extraordinary hatred’ in the Srebrenica region began with Oric’s counteroffensives, which occurred subsequent to the Serbian attack on the region. Or can they ? The evidence suggests that revisionist authors of the kind under discussion here simply disregard all inconvenient evidence and go on repeating old falsehoods in their books and articles, which consequently have no scholarly credibility but which are nevertheless eagerly seized upon by their ideological fellow travellers. In his book, Gibbs touches on the question of Rwanda in 1994, which he avoids describing as a genocide. Complaining of the ‘asymmetrical focus on specific conflicts, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, or more recently, Darfur, and the ‘emotionalism’ that this involves, he advances the bizarre thesis that the massacres in Rwanda were caused by a fall in the price of coffee (pp. 219-220) ! Needless to say, this thesis is not borrowed from a genuine scholar of the Rwandan genocide; it is taken from an article by Michel Chossudovsky, a conspiracy theorist who has likewise argued that break-up of Yugoslavia was engineered by German imperialism as part of a ‘long Western efforts to undo Yugoslavia’s experiment in market socialism and workers’ self-management and to impose the dictate of the free market.’
Gerald Caplan, in tackling Edward Herman and David Peterson, two Srebrenica genocide deniers who have mutated into Rwanda genocide deniers, has written of ‘a tiny number of long-time American and Canadian genocide deniers’, who disregard the copious work of genuine scholars that undermines their denialist thesis, but ‘who gleefully drink each other’s putrid bath water. Each solemnly cites the others’ works to document his fabrications’. Indeed, as I recently wrote, the Srebrenica deniers simply will not stop digging, and are applying their same methods – already discredited over Srebrenica – to the if anything even more monumental task of trying to deny the Rwandan genocide.
In his latest response to Herman and Peterson, Adam Jones has noted:
‘Like Herman & Peterson, the deniers cherry-pick a few useful factoids and declamations from serious scholarship on Rwanda (or halfway serious, like Davenport & Stam), while dismissing the vast bulk of the scholarly and human-rights literature as hopelessly corrupted by nefarious (western/imperialist) interests. This has the additional advantage of cutting down on what would otherwise be an onerous reading list, since the literature on Rwanda is now so extensive, detailed, and utterly contrary to Herman & Peterson’s formulations. I confess I wondered, when preparing my first response to Herman & Peterson, whether their depiction of events in Rwanda in 1994 resulted from ignorance and incompetence, rather than actual malice. Their latest post rules this out, I’m afraid.’
Readers are strongly recommended to read Jones’s article, to confirm again – if any further confirmation is needed – what happens when genocide-deniers come up against a genuine genocide scholar.
This brings us back to the question of why genocide-deniers will devote so much time to writing texts that cannot withstand scholarly scrutiny, and that merely succeed in covering the deniers with infamy in the eyes of everyone outside their tiny denialist circle. These are the activities of a sect that needs its own myths to feed its followers so as to perpetuate itself. Bosnia and Rwanda are not treated as subjects for genuine scholarly enquiry, but merely episodes to be incorporated into the mythical narrative. So long as the sect’s followers continue to imbibe the myths, it does not matter if the rest of the world despises the sect and its myths.
In this context, the task of genuine genocide scholars is not to struggle to de-programme the sect’s followers – a generally impossible task – but merely to ensure that their poison is kept out of mainstream discourse on genocide.
Update: I have written three instalments of a demolition job of Gibbs:
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left