Saturday, September 08, 2007

"Terrible Fate" by Benjamin Lieberman [1]

TERRIBLE FATE: Ethnic Cleansing In The Making Of Modern Europe

Although only part of one chapter is actually about Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, this book provides a fresh and useful new perspective on the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Benjamin Lieberman has written an important if flawed work. He covers a wide canvas--muck of Central Europe, Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, the Caucasian Mountain region, and much of the Middle East. This enormous region encompasses the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. Lieberman describes broad patterns as, over a period of roughly 200 years, nation-states were carved out of the areas opened up by the retreat, decay, and collapse of those three multi-ethnic empires. The rise of nationalism spurred the creation of national identities among the many peoples within those empires, who most often lived intermingled amongst many other peoples with similar aspirations. At the same time, the expansion of the Russian Empire into the Caucasus region led to the earliest known examples of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, as the Imperial government sought to gain control over restive people in distant frontier lands.

In Lieberman's telling, the Balkan wars were then merely one of the latest tragic chapters in a long history. One interpretation of events is that nationalist Serbs were guilty of utilizing 19th Century ideology and tactics in the late 20th Century.

This is "big history" and Lieberman deserves a great deal of credit simply for recognizing that there was a dark, unifying theme to state formation in the wake of empire collapse in this large area. His genius is to see the big picture; very little, if anything, in this book is really new, although naturally many national histories do their best to airbrush their past.

It is worth mentioning that Lieberman is not a fatalist--while his history does a reasonable job of placing modern incidents of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and elsewhere into a larger historical perspective, he does not therefore throw up his hands; nor does he excuse the actions of the perpetrators by placing their actions 'in context.' On the contrary--he seems to believe that understanding the history of ethnic cleansing, and seeing it as a historical process related to prior conditions and not without precedent will make more likely the prospect of proactive action by the international community. Lieberman wants the world to stop treating man-made catastrophes as unstoppable, indecipherable tragedies of almost natural provenance. By illustrating the commonalities between the Bosnian case, the Armenian genocide, and other similiar atrocities, we can get past the confusing fog of "historical complexities" which anti-interventionists always throw up in order to convince the outside world that interference would be pointless. Forget the details, Lieberman almost seems to be saying--we've seen it all before.

While not fatalistic, Lieberman is also reasonably pessimistic about the possibilities to undo the damage of ethnic cleansing once the deed is done. As he convincingly argues, reconciliation and repatriation need to occur while survivors are still alive, and after a meaningful justice process has been put into place. One tragic reason why his book is so important is that the frequent atrocities he recounts have, most often, defined the current demographics and geopolitical divisions of Europe and the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing works. The landscape he surveys is quite expansive, and across the vast majority of it populations are less intermixed and more homogeneous than they were two centuries ago.

In the case of Bosnia, it's 15 years too late for the international community to heed the warnings of this book, but it is not yet to late to heed this final cautionary note--the gruesome work of Mladic, Karadzic, and company is not yet ossified. The window is closing, but not yet shut.


I have two issues with this book, one minor and one not so minor. Firstly, such a book cannot help to avoid a rather summary approach to the subject matter--Lieberman cast his net wide, and since this is the book's strength it would be unfair to point out that it is also a weakness. Still, it must be noted that Lieberman is mostly interested in documenting this process, not in analyzing it. At the end, I felt I had received a great panoramic view of one of the darkest aspects of modern history, but I did not feel I had delved very deeply into the subject matter. A couple of chapters felt a little rushed and perfunctory, as if he was merely trying to cover all bases. This should not discourage the interested reader--specialists are free to enrich the broad canvas Lieberman has nobly traced with finer detail.

My other reservation concerns the unfortunate distinction Lieberman makes between 'ethnic cleansing' and 'genocide'. It is a common misconception among the general public that genocide refers solely to Holocaust-scale campaigns of absolute extinction. Both Parenti and Johnstone utilize the deceit of raising the genocide bar far too high. Considering the subject matter, it is to be expected that Lieberman should have understood the fallacy of this viewpoint; instead, he seems to have accepted it (although, unlike Johnstone and Parenti, he does not excuse ethnic cleansing for being "not quite genocide"). Lemkin is only referred to once in the entire book; the genocide treaty is never referenced in the book, nor is the accepted definition from that treaty. Lieberman, unfortunately, seems to have written this entire book on a misconception.

Most troubling is that he even recognizes that the phrase "ethnic cleansing" was introduced into the popular lexicon by Serb fascists during the war; yet, rather than seeing it for the sinister euphemism it is, he apparently accepts the term--and the false distinction it makes--at face value. This is the most serious flaw in this otherwise quite admirable and worthy book.

No comments: