Selected Longer Reviews

Hearts Grown Brutal: sagas of Sarajevo

By Cohen, Roger

Random House, New York, 1998, 523 pages,
Price: 27.95 US Dollars
Shelf mark: 949.703

On 5 June 1995, Roger Cohen was sitting in his room in the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo, when a sudden surge of electricity enabled him to switch on the television and watch Al Gore telling Larry King about Bosnian history. "This is a tragedy that has been unfolding for some time," observed the Vice President. "Some would say for 500 years."

Only 500? If developments in the political and military history of the 1990s can be traced so confidently all the way back to the 15th century, why stop there? President Clinton showed an obliging willingness to go the extra mile. "It’s tragic, it’s terrible," he empathized, "but their enmities go back 500 years, some would say almost a thousand years."

So there you have it: the origins of the Bosnian war can be found somewhere in the late 10th century, between, let us say, the death of Alfred the Great and the birth of Omar Khayyam. This theory, attributing the conflict to ancient ethnic hatreds, has become a matter of almost religious faith in the minds of many Western politicians and diplomats.

Cohen, who reported from Bosnia for The New York Times throughout the war, is too good a journalist to be satisfied for one moment with this sort of pseudo-historical flimflam. Having interviewed the local politicians and having met innumerable ordinary Bosnians, he can see that the conflict was essentially a product of modern political history, and he knows that for most people lethal hatred was the consequence of the war, not its cause. This is perhaps the most important lesson that readers will learn from Hearts Grown Brutal, his powerfully written, ambitious and many-layered study of the Bosnian war.

Like any journalist worth his salt, Cohen knows, too, that when Western politicians utter vague historical platitudes, they are not necessarily explaining the real reasons for their policies. The doctrine of "ancient ethnic hatreds" was convenient for Western leaders; it lent an air of justifiability to a policy approach - of hesitancy, inaction and denial - that had already been adopted for other reasons.

Cohen is also too decent a human being to remain entirely dispassionate when considering the moral failure of the West’s Bosnian policy. The last third of this book consists of a scathing catalogue of Western cowardice and hypocrisy: from the early reluctance to accept (still less to look for) evidence of concentration camps and massacres, to the final tragedy of the so-called "safe area" of Srebrenica.

Much of this has been said before, of course. But at several key points, Cohen has important information to add. He sheds new light, for example, on the role played during the hostage crisis of June 1995 by President Jacques Chirac of France, who pushed hard (and successfully) for a policy of appeasement. And he quotes from the secret minutes of a crucial meeting between the United Nations civilian and military authorities on the ninth of that month, at which fatal misjudgments about the Serbs’ plans for Srebrenica became fixed in official United Nations policy. These sections of the book alone would suffice to make it required reading for all future historians of the Bosnian war.

But what Cohen has set out to provide in this book is much more than just a catalogue of Western blunders. He is also trying to explain the meaning of the war at two different levels: in terms of human experience and at the level of longer-term Yugoslav history.

The first of these tasks is accomplished by weaving into the narrative the stories of several ordinary Bosnian families. What comes across most strongly from these personal histories is the sense of bewilderment most people felt. The outbreak of war took them by surprise, and the transformation of neighbours into enemies seemed to have no basis in their previous experience. Their favorite metaphor was that a whirlwind had come out of nowhere and blown their lives apart.

Where and why had that whirlwind been generated? Because it is hard to imagine how hatreds can be created out of nothing at all, Cohen naturally hunts around for pre-existing tensions and animosities. These he finds not in "ancient ethnic hatreds," but in unresolved, or unrecognized, conflicts of 20th-century Yugoslav history. He tells the story of the massacres of Serbs by extremist Ustasha Croats in World War II, of Muslim collaboration with the Nazis, and of atrocities committed by Serb Chetniks. Because this murky history was never properly confronted or acknowledged during the Communist period, he suggests, such hatreds could only intensify and fester.

Cohen’s argument here is a little misleading on some points. It can hardly be claimed that the Communists swept the history of Jasenovac (the notorious Ustasha-run death camp) under the carpet, when they built a sky-high monument at the camp and bused in schoolchildren to visit it. And the way in which Cohen has presented his material, devoting the first 100 pages of the book to the family story of a Muslim who served with the Nazi SS in the war, may give a skewed impression. Only 18,000 Muslims joined the SS, out of a population of nearly one million; most Muslims took no part in the war, though many did join the anti Nazi Partisans during its final phase.

Sometimes Cohen comes close to suggesting that this 20th-century history caused the Bosnian war, by creating psychological pressures that found their natural release in violence. This argument would seem not so very different from the "ancient ethnic hatreds" thesis, merely substituting modern political ones.

More often, however, Cohen presents the causal mechanism the other way around: low-level prejudices were transformed into red-hot hatreds quite deliberately (and, I would add, wounds of war that had genuinely healed were violently reopened), for modern political purposes. If Cohen had known Bosnia long before the war, he would be even more certain of the truth of this explanation.

As it is, the bewilderment of those ordinary Bosnians, caught up in Slobodan Milosevic’s (and, later, Franjo Tudjman’s) whirlwind, must stand as sufficient testimony to the tragic non-inevitability of the Bosnian war. Readers of Hearts Grown Brutal may also be bewildered by the sheer intensity of the violence it describes; but at the same time they will be informed, challenged and moved by this powerful and richly human book.

Noel Malcolm

This review appeared in The New York Times, 19 October 1998

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