Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

War correspondence

Clare Fermont reviews some books on Bosnia and we print a poem by Michael Rosen first read at a meeting against intervention

The Fall of Yugoslavia by Misha Glenny (Penguin, 6.99)
This is a great book to start with. Misha Glenny is a journalist with a wonderful writing style who knows the area and speaks most of the languages. His deep hatred of all forms of nationalism means he never sides with one republic against another. As an antidote, for instance, to the prevailing anti-Serb hysteria, he starts his book in the Krajina in 1990 and explains aspects of Croatian nationalism which provoked fear and resentment among the Serbs there. He is quite ruthless about Tudjman, the Croatian leader. He is merciless in exposing the opportunism of Serb nationalist politicians. But throughout the book he also highlights the resistance of Serbs to Serb nationalism and the diversity of Serb opinion, as well as the solidarity between people of different ethnic origins even during the worst crises.

One of the strengths of Glenny's book--that it is based on what he actually saw--is also a weakness. It deprives the reader of a continuous narrative, and so makes it difficult to interpret the events. By starting his account in 1990, he can only touch on many of the factors which pushed local Communist leaders into playing the nationalist card.


Balkan Tragedy by Susan L Woodward (Brookings Institute, 14.95)
The weakness in Glenny's book is made up for by Susan Woodward, who provides a detailed account of the causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia. She was a senior adviser to the top UN officials of the former Yugoslavia in 1994. She explains the rise of nationalism in terms of the economic crisis of the 1980s and its impact on the political structure of the federation. She shows how international financial institutions encouraged decentralisation and market 'liberalisation', which benefited the richer republics of Slovenia and Croatia and allowing Yugoslavia to accumulate massive debt.

The IMF then demanded devastating austerity programmes. As the crisis deepened, workers revolted. In 1987 some 1,570 work stoppages totalling 365,000 workers were officially reported. The IMF then demanded a return to strong central government to guarantee the debts and control unrest, just as the richer republics were being courted by Western capitalists.

Woodward shows how the debate about economic 'liberalisation' by Yugoslavia's Communist leaders became a political debate between the republics. International diplomacy, especially the recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia by the European governments, exacerbated the conflict at every stage.


The Yugoslav Drama by Milhailo Crnobrnja (IB Taurus, 9.95)
Milhailo Crnobrnja, who proudly describes himself 'a Yugoslav', was a senior official in the former federal government. His book is enriched by his tremendous inside knowledge and lack of sectarianism. It begins with a concise glossary of the republics--their history, population, ethnic breakdown, economy and industries. He exposes Western media bias against Serbs, particularly how they ignored or downplayed atrocities by Croat and Bosnian forces, but he never excuses the atrocities committed by Serbian armed forces. He also shows how the moves by Slovenia and Croatia away from the federation were as responsible for the breakup as the rise of Serbian nationalism.


The Death of Yugoslavia by Laura Silber and Allan Little (Penguin 6 99)
The Death of Yugoslavia This book, by two British journalists, was written to accompany the stunning series on BBC1 of the same name. It is a fascinating description of the moves made by the nationalist leaders to carve out or protect their empires. Beginning with the poisonous rise of Serbian nationalism, it shows how small incidents as well as major offensives by all sides contributed to the spiralling descent into hell.

In many ways, however, the book is disappointing compared with the television documentary. The key events, so brilliantly captured on film, often get lost in pages of detailed descriptions of everything that was going on. The book is also hampered by its almost exclusive concentration on those in power.

As its introduction says, 'Nor have we detailed opposition movements in the various republics. The principal actors in this disaster have been its leaders.'

Despite this, the authors do tell some wonderful stories of resistance. One concerned Joseph Reihl-Kir, a Croatian police officer. He worked tirelessly in early 1991 to build bridges between the Serb and Croatian communities in Slavonia, confronting fanatical Croatian nationalists who had taken control of his own police force and fanatical Serbian nationalists on the barricades. He was eventually murdered in mysterious circumstances. In the mass of coverage of ethnic cleansing and ethnic hatred, stories like this are rarely told and even more rarely heard.


Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse by Christopher Bennett (Hurst & Company, 9.95)
This is a highly readable and coherent account of the history of the federation, polluted by Bennett's simplistic analysis of the breakup itself. He ascribes the entire crisis to the behaviour of one man, Milosevic, aided and abetted by the Serbian press. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are frequently made. He outlines almost identical activities by Milosevic and Tudjman, but describes the first as fascist and the second as clumsy. He even describes a remark by Tudjman, 'I am doubly happy that my wife is neither a Serb nor a Jew', as a misunderstood joke.


Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West by David Rieff (Vintage, 8.99)
This is a powerful and moving eyewitness account of the destruction of Bosnia. It is easy to understand how any journalist who sees such terrible atrocities in isolation will feel nothing but despair that human beings can do such things to one another, and will then look for even bigger bullies (such as Nato) to end the terror. This book is therefore of no assistance to anyone who seeks a political solution.


Bosnia A Short History by Noel Malcolm. (Papermac, 19.99)
If you want to know about the fascinating history of Bosnia then this is the book. It explains why there is such a rich ethnic mix and how well Muslims, Serbs and Croats have got on together for long periods. If you want to understand the recent tragedy of Bosnia, however, then this is not the book. Malcolm's analysis degenerates into the most simplistic goodies versus baddies approach, even equating the baddie Serbs with the baddie Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution!


In Harm's Way by Martin Bell (Hamish Hamilton, 15.99) In Harm's Way Or 'Memoirs of several conflicts by the bravest and wisest war correspondent of all time'. Perhaps that's a bit hard, but it's not far off. He proudly admits he saw himself at the service of the UN, writing that 'to help the UN is to serve the cause of peace'. He also admits that the reporting in general was biased against the Serbs, often for logistical reasons as much as political. 'People blithely imagine that journalists are where the news is. Alas, not so; the news is where journalists are.' And the journalists, according to Bell, were for the most part on the receiving end of Serbian attacks. He then seems to forget this insight by bragging about how he established a pool system for the television networks so that only one camera crew had to risk their lives every day. It lasted three years and undoubtedly contributed to the one sided reporting he complains about. In his words, the Serbs 'didn't hold monopoly rights on evil. There were massacres also by Croats and even by Muslims, and villages burned by both. But such is the nature of television that some of the coverage of the war was quite literally weighted against them.'


Michael Rosen, September 1995

Michael Rosen, September 1995


Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page