Chris Harman


Nato’s new frontier

(April 1994)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Bosnia: a short historyBosnia: a short history
Noel Malcolm
Macmillan £9.95

Many people will buy this book because it is the only readily available work on the history of Bosnia. It is full of historical detail going back more than a thousand years. But the facts are not marshalled to make sense of the horrific bloodshed of the last two years.

The first part of the book is a detailed, and often difficult to follow, account of migrations of different peoples and of wars in the medieval period. Its value is purely negative in demolishing the myths about ‘a thousand years of history’ put about by all sides in the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, this does not stop the author returning to some of these myths himself.

The second section of the book is more useful. It deals with the century and a half up to the establishment of the Titoist regime in 1945 and inadvertently throws light on the growth and persistence of inter-religious hatred.

This hatred goes back to the lack of success the Turkish Ottoman Empire had in modernising itself as it came under pressure from the rise of capitalism on its Western border. In its Bosnian province questions of class and religion became, to some extent, intertwined. Most of the peasant serfs were Orthodox Christians, although some were Muslim or Catholic. The landed ruling class was almost entirely Muslim. So peasant revolts against feudal exploitation could easily turn into bitter and bloody clashes between the adherents of rival religions. Orthodox peasants often looked to their co-religionists in the neighbouring state of Serbia for support.

The formation in 1918 of a unified state of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia raised brief hopes of an end to the old animosities among those from all religious backgrounds. But they were short lived. The peasants of Bosnia and Croatia rose against their landlords. There was ‘a general outbreak of anarchy and peasant jacqueries in the countryside’. But ‘in Bosnia it tended to be Muslims who were the victims of the attacks, since they owned most of the big estates’.

The rulers of Serbia, keen to show they were the real power in the new unified state, partially welcomed this transition from class to religious violence. As the Serbian army entered Bosnia it helped turn the attacks on Muslim landowners into the burning and pillaging of entire Muslim villages.

Far from the unified state burying the animosities, it entrenched them, with politics in Bosnia continuing to be the clash of rival religious parties.

The Second World War brought another new reversal of the religion based pecking order. German and Italian occupying forces carved out a separate Croat state – which included Bosnia. The Croatian fascists, the Ustashe, engaged in the mass slaughter of Serbs (as well as Jews and Gypsies) in both Croatia and Bosnia, killing at least 200,000 in concentration camps and reinforcing the old view among many Serbs that they could only be secure in a Great Serb state of their own.

Yet much of this bitterness of the Serbs was channelled into the Partisans, led by the Stalinist Tito (who was half Croat). Tito was able to offer a future for Yugoslavs of all religious backgrounds by combining a vigorous struggle against the Germans and the Ustashe with the promise of a radical land reform and state capitalist industrial development.

One of Malcolm’s many faults is that his knee jerk anti-Communism prevents him seeing how Tito’s programme could appeal in this way.

Yet it is in the final part of the book, dealing with the roots of the present conflict, that Malcolm’s account really falls to pieces. He quite rightly condemns the way in which Serbian politicians, notably Milosevic, have manipulated national and religious hatreds. But he then goes on to portray them as the only villains, who have imposed war from the outside on what would otherwise have been a peaceful country. This leads him to attack any notion that what is happening in Bosnia is a ‘civil war’.

But it was not only Milosevic who sought to make a political career for himself – and to preserve the position of the local industrialists – by encouraging religion based nationalist feelings. So too did Tudjman in Croatia and Izetbegovic in Bosnia. All of them were implicated, to a greater or lesser extent, in the nightmare.

Many people on the left believe that Izetbegovic’s Bosnian government represented some sort of anti-communalist force. But his politics were just as much based on religious division as the others. The only difference was that, with only 40 percent of Bosnia’s population Muslim and no neighbouring state to turn to, he could not hope to control all of Bosnia without doing a deal with certain Serb or Croat based politicians. Where the terrain was favourable to them – where Muslims outnumbered the Croats they lived alongside in central Bosnia – the Muslim politicians and generals were just as ready to countenance ethnic cleansing.

Izetbegovic and the Bosnian government could not break the hold of Croat and Serbian nationalism over most Bosnians from Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds without offering a genuine alternative to the economic and social catastrophe of ex-Yugoslavia. But the Bosnian government cannot do this because it is based on the support of those – the industrialists and speculators – who have flourished in Sarajevo.

It was precisely for these reasons that Izetbegovic began the war allied with the Holocaust revisionist Tudjman and now, after 18 months of mutual ethnic cleansing, is once more allied with him. It is also for these reasons that the Bosnian government sees its only hope as turning its country into the frontier in a new Cold War between a Nato bloc and a Russian led bloc.

In so far as Malcolm has any strategy for solving the Balkan horror, it lies with the same approach. But it is an approach which must be rejected by the left internationally. Few things have been sadder to see than former internationalists lining up with Tudjman at the beginning of the wars in Yugoslavia and with Clinton and Kohl at the end. It shows what follows when the analysis of events does not begin with the centrality of class struggle.

Last updated on 18 December 2009