Sunday, December 30, 2007

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [9]


Serb Jerusalem

I wrote earlier that since this book was aimed at a non-specialist audience, it does cover some ground which should be very familiar to any reader of this blog. This section, which briefly recounts the history of Kosovo in the modern era--specifically in relation to it incorporation into first Serbia and then Yugoslavia--is important in building Sells' thesis, but contains little if anything I need to summarize for this blog's readership.

Two points, however, are worth mentioning. One is that Sells quite accurately notes that the hysterical charges of widespread anti-Serb atrocities and organized Albanian genocides against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo did not match the available data. This is not to say there were no tensions between Serbs and Albanians in the region; nor do I mean to dismiss the seriousness of what incidents of violence and vandalism which most certainly did occur. What is crucial is to note how the propaganda and political rhetoric did not match the reality of events. In fact, the disconnect was enormous.

Secondly, Sells documents how the contemporary turmoil in Kosovo was linked to the medieval past; the remains of Prince Lazar were taken on a tour of the region even as language borrowed from The Mountain Wreath was used to address the "problem" of ethnic Albanians (Sells touches on the Serb nationalist myth that hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians came from Albania proper and should be sent back 'home'); in this way the distinction between the 'betrayal' of Slavic Muslims and the threat posed by genocidal Albanians was blurred. Also, the rhetoric of the time emphasized betrayal and false signs of friendship and trust, as Njegos' poem dismissed the Bishop's qualms about his Muslim neighbors--and, Serbs were told, don't forget that Judas was, after all, close to Jesus, who trusted him. There was no possibility of trusting the Muslims--their protestations of peaceful intentions were, after all, just a mask.

Return of the Ustashe

This section also covers familiar ground; the Serb nationalist rhetoric blaming all Croats for the atrocities of the Ustashe regime and the hysterical rhetoric utilized to stir up fears of a revived Ustashe genocide in the 1990s; Stepanic and Tudjman are both called to task for their shameful denials of Ustashe atrocities.

Sells also covers the frequent propaganda tactic of using the Handzar SS Divisions as "proof" of the pro-Nazi sympathies of all Bosnian Muslims during the war, as well as claims that Albanians were collectively guilty for collaboration with the Nazis. And even as Lazar's bones were taken to Kosovo, they were also paraded through Bosnia even as the tormented ghosts of Jasenovac were being revived with ever-increasing fervor. Sells rightly notes that the ambiguities of the war years were grossly simplified and distorted by Serbian nationalists. He closes with this observation:

"Accompanying the procession of Lazar's relics in Bosnia was a proclamation about enemies of "long-suffering Serbs": "We will do our utmost to crush their race and descendants so completely that history will not even remember them." "

Appropriating the Passion

This section sketches a portrait of Serbian cultural discourse on the eve of the Yugoslav wars, when the different strands of mythic history, racist paranoia, martyr complexes, and well-nurtured historical grievances came together to tie the Albanian 'threat' and the Bosnian Muslim 'menace' into a single Islamic/anti-Serb genocide which needed to be met with preemptive violence.

Sells documents the degree to which this fervor had poisoned Serb society at this time with several examples, including the crudely racist cartoons of Milenko Mihajlovic, some of which were published in the Literary Gazette, the official journal of the Association of Serbian Writer. He also reports how fears of a demographic disparities caused by the higher birthrate among Muslims triggered various responses, some ridiculous--such as the Orthodox Church offering medals to Serb mothers for having children--and some sinister, such as the Serb artist who stated that any Serb woman who refused to have a child every nine months should turned over to mujahidin.

And so on; any reader of this blog surely already knows what Sells is leading up to here--that the fabricated claims of planned genocide against Serbs became a coded call for acts of genocide by Serbs against Muslims and also Croats. He details the insane, circular logic of ultranationalist Serbs quite well. The rise of Milosevic, who harnessed his political future to the rising tide of belligerent nationalism, was all too predictable. The mad logic of nationalism merely needed an important figure to take the reins and unleash the carefully cultivated passions and hatreds of millions of Yugoslavia's citizens.

In the Crosshairs of the Sniper

At the beginning of this book, Sells had mentioned that one graduate student had been killed trying to save the collection of the National Library. In this short, concluding section, he reports that in December of 1993, that student's father walked out of his house with no regard for his safety, calmly allowing a sniper to take leisurely aim and end his life. Sells end this chapter with this paragraph:

"Those crosshairs were a nexus of myth and symbol: the Christ killer myth constructed in the nineteenth century and brought back into the present through the 600th anniversary of Lazar's death, a fabricated genocide against Serbs in Kosovo, and manipulation of Serb suffering in World War II to indict all Croats and Muslims and install fear that another genocide was imminent. Yet the rifle sights were not enough to cause the shot. Someone had to load and distribute the guns and give the order to fire."

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