Selected Longer Reviews

The Yugoslav Tragedy: lessons for socialists

By Barratt Brown, Michael

Socialist Renewal, Nottingham, 1996, 82 pages,
Shelf mark: 949.7'03

"Lessons for Socialists" is the subtitle of Michael Barratt Brown’s new booklet on the war in the former Yugoslavia. His publishers "Socialist Renewal" are perhaps more in need of lessons than most, having published in the past a tribute to Romania’s Ceausescu (The Man, his Ideas, his Socialist Achievements) by Labour MEP Stan Newens as well as the work of Mihailo Markovic, a "Marxist humanist" who helped write the 1986 Memorandum, served as Milosevic’s party ideologue throughout the war, and enunciated the principle that Serbia could become democratic only if it first became ethnically pure. British readers of Barratt Brown’s booklet will learn nothing of the former Yugoslavia, but gain some disturbing insights into the state of our own intelligentsia, particularly on the left. Only for that reason is it worth attention.

Many Western commentators have exhibited gross ignorance of Yugoslav history, but in Barratt Brown this extends to history in general. He seems not to know that Napoleonic France was ultimately defeated on land not at sea; that the War of the Spanish Succession was fought over the succession in Spain not the Holy Roman Empire; that the Prussian destruction of France’s armies preceded German unification in 1871, not vice versa; that by 1913 the Russian navy had not managed to break out of the Black Sea; that Italy was not "newly liberated and unified" in 1913, but had been fully unified forty-three years earlier; that in 1913 Transylvania was owned not by Romania but by Hungary; that Austria and Hungary were then parts of the same state (he describes them as "united by their fear of Russia"); that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the nephew, not the son of the Austrian Emperor; that the Treaty of Versailles concerned Germany but not Austria-Hungary; and so on. Bosnian placenames as well known as Tuzla and Cazin are wrongly spelled, while Foca is spelled wrongly in two different ways on page 56 and again on page 57. Most bizarre of all, for someone who mentions repeatedly his own presence in Yugoslavia in 1945, Barratt Brown seems unaware that the Partisan struggle against the Axis was fought primarily in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, claiming that because of the "mountainous location of guerrilla warfare, it was mostly Montenegrins and south Serbs who were caught in the German offensives against the Partisan strongholds".

Barratt Brown develops two main themes: that he aims "not to blame or acclaim any one of the nationalist forces which broke up Yugoslavia, but to condemn all forms of nationalism"; and that the West is responsible for the war, its responsibility lying "first in the demand of the banks for debt repayment [from Yugoslavia], which as elsewhere led to rising inflation; and second, in Chancellor Kohl’s recognition of the withdrawal from Yugoslavia of the two rich republics - Slovenia and then Croatia". His stress on economic collapse leads him to conclude that for the average Yugoslav, "when you are unemployed and others are doing well, then it must be your neighbour’s fault", so that "if his name is a Moslem one or a Croat one and yours is Serbian, it does not need a Radovan Karadzic to tell you what to do". Yugoslavia’s vulnerability to economic disruption is blamed on the decentralizing liberal policies imposed by the Republics of Slovenia and Croatia ("the North") against the interests of the rest of the country ("the South").

It is remarkable that someone calling himself a socialist should portray the unemployed as prone to murder and rape spontaneously. Such economic reductionism can, of course, explain neither the collapse of Yugoslavia nor the outbreak of war. Since 1966, "poor" Macedonia and Kosova had aligned themselves with "rich" Slovenia and Croatia in favour of political and economic decentralization and in opposition to Serbian centralism; the Kosova Albanians, the poorest Yugoslav people, were those who pushed hardest for greater selfügovernment (well before the selfish "rich" republics), leading to mass protests in 1968 and1981. In 1969-71 Serbia was the most liberal republic, while from 1971 to 1989 Croatia was among the most conservative. Talk of a "rich north vs poor south" divide is a misleading vulgarization: in the mid-1980s Croatia’s per capita income was closer to Serbia’s than to Slovenia’s, whilst Serbia’s was closer to Croatia’s than to Macedonia’s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Serbia’s support for political and econonomic recentralization brought it into conflict with a coalition of those poorer than itself (Bosnia and Macedonia) as well as those richer (Slovenia and Croatia).

An economically reductionist approach does not explain, moreover, why mass killing has not taken place in Slovenia, north-west Croatia, the Bosnian cities of Tuzla and Sarajevo, Serbia itself, or Macedonia. If Barratt Brown were correct, the unemployed here should be as willing to kill their neighbours as elsewhere. Funnily enough, he misses the fact that mass killing and destruction took place primarily in areas occupied or attacked by the Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA) or by paramilitaries from Serbia proper: Kijevo in August 1991; Vukovar in November 1991; Bijeljina, Zvornik, Foca and Prijedor in spring 1992; Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995. Violence between neighbours, unemployed or otherwise, was quite secondary. Barratt Brown does not condemn the JNA, however, since he sees it as "the one remaining force representing Yugoslavia" after the Yugoslav Communist Party had crumbled, and describes its genocidal actions in support of Greater Serbia as "a state-building project".

This brings us to the crux of the matter, for despite his supposed condemnation of "all" nationalisms, Barratt Brown himself plays the role of apologist for three different species of the latter. First, he does not hide his preference for a Yugoslav state and identity over a Croatian or Serbian one, his hostility to "nationalism" being in actuality a hostility to small nations. Despite lavish praise of the Communist-led Partisan struggle, he seems unaware that the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian identities were of greater import for mobilization by the Partisans than was "Yugoslavia", the latter being until the final months of World War II little more than an umbrella for its component parts.

Secondly, behind this screen of what one could call Barratt Brown’s "Yugoslav nationalism" is concealed a marked bias in favour of Serbian nationalism over Croatian or Slovenian. Though the Serbian nationalist campaign began in 1986, four years before the election of President Tudjman in Croatia, Barratt Brown insists that "nationalists in Serbia followed enthusiastically where Slovenes and Croats had led". Milosevic’s campaign to recentralize Yugoslavia under Serbian leadership receives no attention whatsoever, all blame going to Croatia and Slovenia. Indeed, so unable is Barratt Brown to grasp the most basic principles of chronological sequence that he claims that "once Croatia’s independence was recognized, with no guarantees for the large Serbian minorities within Croatia’s borders, war between Serbs and Croats was assured inside Croatia" - whereas in fact recognition did not take place until after six months of war and the JNA’s destruction of Vukovar and bombardment of Dubrovnik. At the same time, the absence of guarantees for the large Albanian minority within the borders of Yugoslavia does not lead him to oppose recognition of that state.

Thirdly and finally, such talk reveals Barratt Brown’s own very British chauvinism. Abandoning completely the realm of reality for a fantasy world of his own making, he imagines a Papist-backed Germany recognizing Croatia and annexing Austria so as to gain access to the Adriatic en route to "control over the oil supplies of the Middle East". If former Communists are causing such havoc under the nationalist banner in the former Yugoslavia, thank goodness their sympathizers are recognizably ridiculous over here.

Attila Hoare

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