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<nettime> NYT: Looking for the Line Between Patriotism and Guilt

April 11, 1999

Looking for the Line Between Patriotism and Guilt


In view of the accumulating evidence of a genocidal campaign unleashed
against Kosovo's Albanians by Serbian forces directed by President
Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, the conduct of ordinary Serbs is
starting to attract the kinds of questions raised in Daniel Jonah
Goldhagen's book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and
the Holocaust."

The controversial book examined how some longstanding "eliminationist"
myths within German culture predisposed what might be thought of as
normal citizens to accept, support and in many instances actively
carry out Nazi policies of Jewish extermination. Those policies remain
a benchmark of evil in this century, and there are, of course, great
differences of scale distinguishing what happened in Germany from what
is happening in Serbia. Nonetheless, focusing on actions of common men
and women in both places and the willingness of many to follow
murderous leads, does not, at the moment, seem inappropriate.

Goldhagen himself thinks that questioning the behavior of the Serbian
nation is essential. "Right now is the time when we must ask the
question of how ordinary people have acted while it can still
influence events. Those who support what has been happening in Kosovo
should be made aware that they will be held complicit in what will
most likely be the last enormous crime of the century," said
Goldhagen, a professor of government at Harvard who is working on a
study of genocide in the last 100 years.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who is also a former
U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, raised a similar point last week in an
op-ed article in The New York Times:

"Although Milosevic is the prime mover behind the murder and agony
that have filled our television screens for the better part of a
decade, he has not acted alone. He may plan the strategy, but the
Serbian people are the willing instruments of his terror. There are,
of course, many decent Serbs who decry the violence, just as there
were decent Germans under Hitler, but that does not excuse the Serb
nation for its part in making a killing field of so much of the former

Usually, and probably rightly, issues of collective responsibility
remain taboo in polite society. Within the pluralistic tradition,
there is a reluctance to assign guilt to all, or most, or even many
citizens of an offending state, and instead focus blame on culpable
leaders. But as Goldhagen has persuasively argued, there was a
correlation between Hitler's policies of extermination and the
willingness of a sizable German population to support such ideas. In
an escalating manner the actions of the Nazi leader and the approval
of those he led mutually reinforced and encouraged each other.

And while, as Eagleburger noted, there are Serbs who have deplored the
violence, a similar reverberating process has been under way in Serbia
since 1987, when Milosevic broke Titoism's major precept of never
discussing ethnic tensions in public. Instead, he openly played to
Serb nationalist sentiments, affirming widespread Serb feelings of
victimization and martyrdom stretching back centuries.

The sense of the collusive relationship between Milosevic and the
populace that both empowers and follows him has been evident in the
tone of such Serbian public expression as has reached beyond Yugoslav
territory. Some has been in the form of e-mail messages to media
organizations, universities, and addresses pulled out of the air, like
messages placed in bottles and thrown into the ocean. There have also
been the images of people at rock-concert rallies in Belgrade and
other cities, dancing in defiance of NATO and in support of the man
they call Slobo. According to sources in Belgrade, the first of these
rallies, which included some placards critical of the leader, was
spontaneous, but later ones were organized and criticism disappeared.

What is so striking about these expressions is how stridently they
clash with images of other people that the world has been watching,
images of people burned out of their homes, standing in lines that
have stretched for 15 miles trying to enter countries that have no
room for them or do not want them. Or images of people from many
different villages telling the same stories -- of their friends and
relatives shot and killed, of men being taken away to places unknown.
All of this is happening to Albanians at the hands of Serbs less than
200 miles from Belgrade, but given the responses of Serbs it might as
well be taking place on the moon. Even in 1913, during a similar
uprooting of Kosovars, there were louder voices of dissent in Serbia.

Obviously, neither Serbs nor any other people can be expected to look
much beyond their own fear and suffering when their cities are being
struck by rockets and bombs. It is unrealistic to assume that any Serb
might denounce the Serb assault on Albanians or that any such cry
inside the country would be loud enough to be heard above the cheering
and rallying around the chants of wartime chauvinism.

Those few media organs in Serbia that have bravely struggled for years
to maintain independence in the face of government control have been
squelched. The radio station B-92 was shut down by police last week
but even before that it reported that it was not able to report on
what was happening in Kosovo. The journal Vreme has suddenly suspended
its previous criticism of the government.

The images of the Albanian refugees that have been telecast all over
the world have not been carried by Serbian television and have been
seen only by those Serbians who have dish antennas and cable service.

Is it possible that people just don't know what is happening to the
Albanians and that therefore they bear little or no responsibility for
the support they show? Here too, Goldhagen saw similarities with the
Nazi period. "How many Germans knew that there was a formal program of
Jewish extermination? My guess is not many, but almost all knew that
their civilization was killing Jews by the tens of thousands."

He noted that it would require a sizable force to burn villages and
set hundreds of thousands of residents to flight and that the people
carrying out such tasks all have relatives and friends who would bring
the accounts to general attention.

The e-mail from Serbia is characterized by an overwhelming sense of
defensiveness and unredeemed victimization. As the correspondents
denounce NATO and the United States, there is no sense that the
rockets are a response to Serb conduct. The Albanians, if they are
mentioned at all, are referred to as Muslims who wish to establish a
base for guerrilla terror, or narcotics traffickers, or former allies
and beneficiaries of the Ottoman Turks. As for Serbs, they are
persistently portrayed as defenders of Christianity in Europe, heroic
fighters in two world wars whose contributions to civilization have
gone unrewarded. Even writers who identify themselves as Milosevic's
opponents show more scorn than sympathy for the Kosovar Albanians,
blaming them for keeping him in power by boycotting elections rather
than voting with the opposition.

Many of the letters mention the sacredness of Kosovo to Serbs and cite
the battle there in 1389 at which they were defeated by the Turks.
There are far fewer references to the more contemporary history of
Serb conflicts with Croats and Bosnians over the last eight years. For
instance no one mentions the destruction of Vukovar by Serbs in 1991
or the massacre of Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, an
atrocity for which the military and political leaders of the Bosnian
Serbs have been indicted. Such things appear to be missing from the
current context although there are occasional accurate references to
the Croats having waged campaigns of ethnic cleansing that chased
Serbs into flight.

But where does patriotism end and complicity in war crimes begin?
Surely there is a difference between people who are chanting "Slobo,
Slobo" and those who are burning homes, separating wives and husbands,
and shooting civilians.

Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute and the
author of "War Crimes, Brutality, Genocide, Terror and the Struggle
for Justice," argues that in recent wars like those in Rwanda and
Bosnia, there was a greater degree of criminal responsibility on the
part of ordinary citizens than was the case in Nazi Germany.

With the Nazis, he pointed out, the killing was highly bureaucratized,
and the victims were generally unknown to those who killed them. In
Rwanda and Bosnia, he said, many of the perpetrators knew the victims,
often having lived with them, gone to school with them and in some
cases married into their families. In both places, Neier said, because
of the way people were killed, there were almost as many killers as

As for Kosovo, he said there was insufficient information to determine
what was happening or how to apportion responsibility.

In Tirana, the Albanian capital, there lives an Albanian writer named
Fatos Lubunja, who under the regime of the late dictator Enver Hoxa
spent 17 years in prison. Now he edits an intellectual journal and
monitors human rights abuses. In a message to a friend he traced many
instances of Serb attacks on Albanians, dating from expulsion in 1878
when Milan Obrenovic, a Serbian king, rallied his countrymen with the
words, "The more Albanians you kick out of our land the greater
patriots you will be." Lubunja cited ethnic cleansing campaigns of
1913 and 1920, and then he addressed the questions that Goldhagen
raised in his book.

He was, he said, suspicious of judgments based on assumptions that
people inevitably repeat the conduct of their ancestors. "But if we
can speak of collective guilt, I think we have to consider a long
historical process of manipulation; all those politicians, historians,
writers, teachers, who have created and nourished some dangerous
myths, have manipulated history and, in the end, created those
closed-minded horrible human beings who are ready to kill the others."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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