It’s hard to believe that these dairies will expose even more hideous crimes committed by Himmler (although it is possible). But their main value lies in the hope that they will help shed light on one of the world’s most revolting crimes against humanity.
The horrific wars that tore Yugoslavia apart offer a window into the dark side of human nature. At a time when ethnic and religious violence has become widespread across the globe, revisiting these wars could prove useful. Just as the UN tribunals for war crimes committed during these Balkan wars wind down Tim Judah, a seasoned war correspondent who frequently reported on these wars, has chosen to reassess their legacy.
Last month (March 24) Radovan Karadzic, one of the Bosnian Serb leaders, was sentenced to forty years in prison for various war crimes and genocide. The UN tribunal has yet to declare a verdict in the case of Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb army who led the killing of 7,000 men in Srebrenica. The biggest fish, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of the Republic of Serbia who did much to stir up nationalist sentiments and hatred, died while his trial was still underway in March 2006.
Assessing the situation today Judah notes that “so much more could be done by Balkan leaders to address the legacies of these brutal conflicts, which have not yet really become history. Sometimes it looks like they are not capable of or interested in doing so and verdicts like the Karadžić one gave Serbian and Bosniak leaders an opportunity to beat nationalist drums again and remind their voters that they had better vote for them or the enemy would one day be back.” This is exactly the dilemma that perpetuates the violence in never-ending cycles of revenge. And it is not just demagogues who are to blame for this situation. They are only rewarded with power because ordinary people give it to them, because they are enamored with their nationalist rhetoric. They are made to feel special through national myths of past greatness and current innocence. They are not responsible for their present woes, it is “the other” who is responsible. It’s a powerful message. Many are unable, or unwilling, to resist the siren song of nationalism.
The study of history is the study of human nature. However, it’s not the only way to understand human behavior. Science can also illuminate the mysteries of human behavior. Scientists may approach the problem in a different way, but they are also trying to understand human beings. So, I was thrilled when David Eagleman turned to the subject of ethnic/religious conflict in the third program in a series on the brain. And he used the War in Bosnia (something I’ve spent years studying) to illustrate the problem.
What have scientists found? That when people are confronted with people in our out group (however defined) our brains react as if they were objects, not human beings. The ability to empathize with those in their out group had been lost. How does this de-humanization happen? Usually, through propaganda.
I’ve spent years studying religious/ethnic conflict to come to the same conclusion. He also proposed the same solution: educate students to detect propaganda. In other words, we need to educate students to be good B.S. detectors and independent thinkers. This is one of the reasons why the humanities are so important, particularly philosophy and history.
Here’s the link to the website for the PBS program: The Brain with David Eagleman
The historian Timothy Snyder, with his usual insight, challenges us to re-think our assumptions about the Holocaust: “Seeing the Holocaust as an encounter of general anti-Semitism and local statelessness helps us to make sense of the two great geopolitical disasters of our century: the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In part because Americans misunderstood the Holocaust as the oppression of a minority by an authoritarian state within its own boundaries, they could believe in 2003 that regime change by force of arms in Iraq would automatically bring positive consequences. By the early 21st century, we had convinced ourselves that the Holocaust was caused by an authoritarian regime acting against a minority within its own borders, which in the main it wasn’t, and that we acted to stop it, which with a few minor exceptions we didn’t. The Holocaust was the mass murder of Jews beyond the borders of prewar Germany, in a zone from which conventional political institutions had been removed, and the Holocaust was largely over by the time Americans soldiers landed on Normandy. American troops liberated none of the major killing sites of the Holocaust, and saw none of the thousands of death pits in the East. The American trials at concentration camps reattributed prewar citizenship to the Jewish victims, helping us overlook that the eliminations of citizenship—usually by the destruction of states of which Jews had been citizens—were what permitted mass murder. A large body of scholarship on ethnic cleansing and genocide concludes that mass killing generally takes place during civil wars or regime changes. Nazi Germany deliberately destroyed states and then steered the consequences toward Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions creates the space for the kind of disaster that continues to unfold in the Middle East: in its civil wars, religious totalitarianism, and refugee crisis.”
Read his entire essay here: Holocaust history misunderstood: It has provided moral cover for the wars in Iraq and Ukraine.
We all want to belong. We all want to think that we are good. We all want to be proud of our heritage, community, and history. We all want to have purpose and meaning in our lives. These are all genuine human desires that are by themselves positive sentiments, but they ultimately leave us vulnerable to manipulation by ambitious political leaders. Because nationalism fulfills all of these desires it has been the ideal political weapon for leaders like Slobodan Milosević, who unleashed the forces of Serbian nationalism as a way to rise to power. But more than fulfilling Milosević’s political ambitions it also released the forces of hatred that tore apart the former Yugoslavia of which the massacre of Srebrenica was a part of. Nationalism rests on an “us versus them” narrative that is more myth than actual history. All past nationals sins must be swept under the rug as a way to make the nation worthy of glory. If it just engendered pride in one’s past, nationalism would not be such a destructive force. Unfortunately, the end result is usually arrogance and hatred.
Natalie Nougayrede’s article at The Guardian reminds us that Putin is playing with the same fire for his own political purposes. This is not to say that Putin is planning to commit genocide or ethnic cleansing, but that his use of nationalism will, and already has, bring great suffering to many. Putin’s veto of the UN resolution is only a small part of his overall power play, but as Nougrayrede reminds us, it is still significant if we value peace and justice. “Some will argue that Russia’s latest veto should be seen as just another snub to the west. But the rewriting of the history of the Bosnian war and the unravelling of the mechanisms that the west tried to put in place to prevent more violence are something that Europeans would do well not to minimise. If only because of those unarmed 8,000 men and boys who were killed just because of who they were: Bosnian and Muslim.”
I doubt it. Many Americans don’t know anything about the Bosnian War (1991-1995) much less Srebrenica. And if they did they would likely be baffled by the confusing mix of ethnic and religious groups, and conclude, like we did during the conflict, that there is nothing we can do! In addition, our focus, in terms of foreign policy, has been taken over by the troubles in the Middle East. At the time ofI don’t think we ever learned them, but it’s never too late to learn something. Therefore, it is worth remembering what happened in Srebrinica.
On this day twenty years ago the Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladić entered the U.N. declared “Safe Area” at Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees had sought safety. No one thought that the Serbs would dare attack a U.N. “safe area” while the world was watching, but Mladić knew that the Dutch U.N. soldiers could do nothing. They were there to protect the Bosnian Muslims, yet their mandate only allowed them to use their weapons in their own defense. This situation was the result of the reluctance of Western nations to risk their own soldiers’ lives in defense of others.
After negotiations, Mladić was able to manipulate the U.N. into paying for the gas for buses that would, unbeknownst to the U.N., be used to take only the women out of Srebrinica. They had something else in mind for the men. Even before the Dutch soldiers had gone the Serbs separated the men from the women. However, they made sure that the Dutch would not see the killing, and therefore sent them on their way before the real killing began. In the end, they massacred approximately 8,000 Muslim men.
The point of the massacre, and those at other “safe areas,” was to ethnically cleanse (a term the Serbs coined themselves) the remaining Muslim enclaves in pursuit of their dream of a Greater Serbia that was free of all non-Serbs. Ironically, this massacre and the “cleansing” of the other safe areas opened the way for a peace agreement that was signed on December 14, 1995 in Dayton, Ohio. Continue reading