Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Monty Python vs Carl Savich and Serbianna: Who are the real comedians ?

novivoxJust over a year ago, I wrote here of the mysterious phenomenon of the Muslim Nazi division, named ‘Handzar Division’ after the Bosnian SS division of World War II, that, according to supporters of the Great Serbian cause, was established in Bosnia by the regime of Alija Izetbegovic during the 1990s. Evidence for the existence of this division, its size, composition and origins, was taken from a single article in a Western newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, by British journalist Robert Fox, who based his information on the testimony of unnamed UN officials. Fox’s article was glaringly inaccurate – he described Bosnian presidency member Ejup Ganic, for example, as ‘foreign minister’ – but was nevertheless assumed by the supporters of Great Serbia to be gospel truth. Indeed, they even embellished it, attributing claims to Fox that he had never made – such as that Izetbegovic himself had founded this ‘Handzar Division’. I concluded that ‘Monty Python is a much better source for accurate historical information’ than the Great Serbia supporters in question.

It has taken nearly a year for a rebuttal of my article to be attempted, by the amateur historian Carl Savich of the Serb-nationalist website Serbianna. Based on Savich’s sorry effort, I can only feel that my assertion, that Monty Python is a much better source for accurate historical information than Savich and his fellow Serb nationalists, has been entirely vindicated. But before I show why this is so, I’d first like to take note of Savich’s attempt at cutting irony, directed at me, when he says:

‘It appears as though the existence of the reformed Handzar Division was not much of a secret. It was only a secret to the befuddled, lost, and delusional Hoare. This is what occurs when Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the source of your historical research. Hoare should spend more time on analyzing the war crimes trials at the Hague and less time on watching dated TV reruns. Moreover, for history to have any value or merit, objectivity and neutrality must be the goals. Delusional fantasy and ideological propaganda constructs have no place in serious scholarship and history. Monty Python should not be the source for historical information on the civil wars in Bosnia-Hercegovina.’

Savich is responding to my quip about Monty Python by accusing me of actually basing my historical research on Monty Python re-runs. Pretty funny, huh ?

This is, in fact, a rather unfortunate line of humour for Savich to employ. Readers will have noted the image at the start of this post, which shows a cover of the Sarajevo youth magazine Novi Vox, dated October 1991. The cover shows a soldier of the Handzar Division treading on the severed heads of the Bosnian Serb leaders, including Radovan Karadzic, under the headlines ‘The Handzar Division is ready’ and ‘The Fourth Reich is coming – Welcome !’ Savich reproduced this image in his response to me. He writes:

‘In October, 1991, the Bosnian Muslim magazine Novi Vox in Sarajevo, in issue no. 3, well over half a year before the civil war broke out in 1992, published a front-cover illustration showing a Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS officer in the Handzar Division stepping on the decapitated and bloody heads of Serbian leaders, including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The caption read: “The Handzar Division is ready!” Another headline announced: “The Fourth Reich is coming—Welcome!” This revival of Bosnia’s Nazi and SS genocidal past was censored, suppressed, and covered-up in the U.S. and the Western media.’

What Savich fails to tell his readers, either because he is dishonest, or – more likely – because he is simply ignorant, is that the magazine in question, Novi Vox, was a satirical magazine of the alternative youth movement in pre-war Sarajevo, similar in character to the US’s The Onion, or to the satirical news sections of the UK’s Private Eye. In the words of cultural anthropologist Ivo Zanic, in his magisterial Flag on the Mountain: A Political Anthropology of War in Croatia and Bosnia, Saqi Books, London, 2007 (pp. 332-333):

‘Even in cases that were pushed too hard or that were quite tasteless, Vox‘s constructions contained enough elements for anyone who approached them with minimal common sense to be able without difficulty to realise that this was satire, in other words, an imagined reality that criticised the real reality. Thus its many agendas and declarations are readable, undoubtedly witty, identifiable ironic commentaries on real agendas, actions and declarations by the political figures of the time, particularly Karadzic’s SDS of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Apparently, however, the ‘minimal common sense’ needed to realise that Vox was a satirical magazine was not possessed by Savich, who treats it as though it were a simple statement of Bosnian Muslim intent. Just imagine someone writing about British politics in the 1980s, who used Spitting Image as their source for what Margaret Thatcher’s policies were, without realising that it was a satirical comedy. Well, that is what Savich has done in respect to Alija Izetbegovic and Vox.

Savich’s suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that the price of the magazine, on the cover he reproduces, is given not only in dinars, the Yugoslav currency, but also in the fictional currency ‘bukvi’, or bukvas. In Zanic’s words (pp. 335-336):

Vox regularly printed its price not only in legal Yugoslav dinars but also in the fictitious  bukvas. The joke was clear to anyone with half a brain: it referred to the proposal that the currency in Slovenia be called the lipa, linden, because this tree in Slovenia had the status of national symbol, and bukva would be the Bosnian equivalent. This irony, or self-deprecation, for the word bukva in the South Slav lands metaphorically means thickhead, and there are versions such as bukvan, blockhead, and the very common colloquial phrase ‘thick as a bukva‘, implying someone rather slow, good-natured and harmless, a likeable fellow in fact, as well as a number of other phrases and proverbs.’

To repeat: ‘The joke was clear to anyone with half a brain.’ Further comment on Savich’s scholarly competence, and on the tactical wisdom of his attempt at irony regarding research based on comedy, would be superfluous (NB although he describes himself as a ‘historian’, Savich has no historical qualification higher than a Master’s degree; he does not appear ever to have held an academic post, published a book or an article in an academic journal, or visited an archive).

Let us, however, return to the issue of contention: the matter of the ‘Handzar Divison’ in 1990s Bosnia. As I noted in my article a year ago, Savich had commented on this matter. In 2002, he wrote:

‘The Bosnian Muslim Army and the Bosnian Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegovic and Ejup Ganic sought to re-establish the World War II Nazi Waffen SS Divisions formed out of Bosnian Muslims, the 13th Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Handzar/Handschar” and the 23rd Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Kama”, formed in 1943-45 by Heinrich Himmler. The London Daily Telegraph of December 29, 1993, in the news report by Robert Fox in Fojnica, “Albanians and Afghans Fight for the Heirs to Bosnian’s SS Past”, has reported that the Bosnian Muslim forces had formed a new and updated version of the World War II Nazi “Handzar” SS Division, made up of about 6,000 troops and supported by the Muslim leadership.’

This is what I wrote, in response to the Serb nationalists and their supporters, like Savich, who have cited Fox’s article:

‘The Bosnian SS Division ‘Handzar’ (or ‘Handschar’) was a unit that existed during World War II, and it is conceivable that there really was a handful of Muslim zealots who, during the recent war, fought on the Bosnian side and grandiloquently named themselves the ‘Handzar Division’ after this historic unit. It is indicative, however, that no other journalist or anyone else seems to have noticed the existence of a unit of ‘up to 6,000 strong’ that named itself after the SS and that was, according to Fox, officered by Albanians and trained by mujahedin veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan.’

In attempting to rebut me, Savich draws from the documents of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Of all his earlier claims about the recreated Handzar Division, the only one for which he can find any corroboration at all is the claim that some sort of unit called the ‘Handzar Division’ really existed in Bosnia in the 1990s (and this is not an assertion I ever denied; as I wrote, ‘it is conceivable that there really was a handful of Muslim zealots who, during the recent war, fought on the Bosnian side and grandiloquently named themselves the “Handzar Division” after this historic unit.’)

Other than that,

1) Although Savich previously claimed that the recreated ‘Handzar Division’ was made up of ‘about 6,000 troops’, it now transpires, according to the evidence he provides, that the ‘Handzar Division’ was a ‘small unit’; so small, in fact, that it was merged with other units as part of a policy ‘of making larger units out of smaller ones’. Indeed, although Savich’s ICTY source does not provide any figure for the ‘Handzar Division’s’ troop strength, the unit is listed alongside other small units that range from about 30 for ‘Cedo’s wolves’ to 150 for the ‘Prozor Independent Battalion’. So it seems we really are talking about a handful of zealots, rather than an actual division.

2) The evidence Savich cites completely fails to substantiate his earlier claim, that Izetbegovic and Ganic had had anything to do with the formation of this ‘Handzar Division’.

Savich now claims: ‘This evidence confirms conclusively that the Bosnian Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Muslim Army recreated and reformed the Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division from World War II.’

This is simply a bare-faced lie, something that will be clear to anyone who reads his article and tries to find the supposed ‘evidence’ (the Bosnian Army, it should be said, was in the habit of incorporating into its ranks independent or autonomous units formed by local strongmen, as well as those of the foreign mujahedin and Bosnian Croat nationalists).

3) The evidence Savich cites completely fails to substantiate Fox’s claim, which he endorsed, that the recreated ‘Handzar Division’ had been trained by mujahedin from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

4) The ICTY’s judges, as cited by Savich (‘Prosecutor vs Sefer Halilovic: Judgement’, 16 November 2005), do not claim to know who formed, named or trained this ‘Handzar Division’, or how many troops it contained. Based on witness testimony, they say only that the unit was made up of Albanians and that its commander’s nickname was ‘Dzeki’. Based on the evidence presented to them, they conclude: ‘The Trial Chamber has not been furnished with evidence regarding the composition of this unit’. The ICTY’s standards of documentary evidence are, it would seem, somewhat more strict than those of Savich and his pals at Serbianna. 

What we have here, is a case of a number of Serb nationalists and their fellow travellers, who have made wild claims in an attempt to discredit the former Bosnian regime of Alija Izetbegovic, in order to justify the genocidal campaign for a Great Serbia that they supported. When challenged to provide evidence for their claims, they find themselves unable to do so, so the claims in question shrink accordingly, to the point where they effectively disappear.

Update: A closer examination of one of the documents cited by Savich, the Halilovic trial transcript of 21 February 2005, #050221ED, reveals the following testimony about the troop size of the ‘Handzar Division’:

‘5 Q. And then which soldiers came?

6 A. All the units that were there, Cedo’s Wolves, the 2nd Independent

7 Battalion, Handzar’s Division, Zuka’s men, and all the others. In all,

8 there were 100 to 150 soldiers.’

It would seem that the ‘Handzar Division’, confidently described as numbering ‘about 6,000 troops’ by our friend, does indeed turn out to be a bit smaller when the available evidence is examined closely…

Wednesday, 10 December 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Islam, Kosovo, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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