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What We’re Reading: European Wars for Independence

Weekly reviews of what’s on our staff’s bookshelves.

What We're Reading

|July 10, 2018

The Death of Yugoslavia
BBC Documentary

It’s difficult to point to the exact cause of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, even for those of us who were alive to see them unfold. It’s easy to recall that a country called Yugoslavia existed, and that it was communist but not closely aligned with the Soviet Union. It’s easy to recall that a lot of people died, and that war crimes were rampant, and that Yugoslavia devolved into a bunch of independent countries.

For those of us who live outside of the Balkans, the inability to comprehend the goals and fears of each warring party is understandable. Ethnic and national identities are multitudinous: Serbian Serbs, Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, Bosniaks, Croatian Croats, Croatian Serbs, Albanian Kosovars, Serbian Kosovars, Montenegrins, Slovenes. (This is to say nothing of the religious differences among the ethnic groups.) Even more confusing, allegiances changed early and often – Bosnian Serbs working with Bosnian Muslims to defend Bosnia against other Bosnian Serbs who were working with Serbian Serbs. Understanding why each of these groups saw itself as a distinct group facing an existential threat is the first step to understanding how the wars unfolded the way they did.

What makes “The Death of Yugoslavia” such an excellent documentary is how clearly it unpacks this complexity. Released in 1995, only months after the Bosnian War ended (it was just one of several of the Yugoslav wars), the film covers the period starting in 1980 – the year of the death of Josip Broz Tito, the strongman who had held Yugoslavia together since the end of World War II by crushing any and all nationalist sentiment among Yugoslavia’s constituent republics – through the Slovenian Independence War, the Croatian War of Independence and the Bosnian War.

The series strikes an effective balance between chronological narration, which is as clear as something like this can be, with interviews of people who lived through the wars. Perhaps most fascinating are the interviews the BBC secured with wartime leaders. While their accounts of the conflict must clearly be seen as bald attempts to absolve themselves of wrongdoing, their testimonies are still invaluable to understanding the motivations of the belligerents. The interviews show that the fears of each group were inseparable from considerations of relative power. Each leader’s calculations were made to accomplish specific objectives that many of their constituents wanted or needed to feel safe, and often this boiled down to control of territory that would make or break an opponent’s ability to challenge them again in the future.

Foreigners’ inability to grasp this need for territorial control is best exemplified with a scene in the final episode. During the negotiations that preceded the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War, an agreement between Croatia, Serbia, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims appeared to have been reached. It was shattered when Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic saw that the agreement would leave a Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia surrounded by areas under Serbian control. This was an unacceptable proposition, given the genocide of Bosnian Muslims that occurred in Srebrenica, which was similarly surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces.

The Bosnians demanded that Gorazde, that final Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia, be connected by a road under Bosnian control that extended to western Bosnia, the Muslim area. The Serbian delegation agreed, and to decide what path this road should take, Slobodan Milosevic and Montenegrin President Momir Bulatovic met with an American delegation late in the evening. The Americans had what was at the time a high-tech, fully computerized topographic map of Bosnia that provided full views of individual towns and hills. Bulatovic recounts the Americans’ reaction to viewing the disputed territory up close: While flying the simulation over it, Richard Holbrooke, then the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, flabbergasted at the emptiness of the land that nearly reignited the war, said, “There’s nothing but mountains here. No houses, no villages.” Milosevic and Bulatovic threw their hands up, exasperated by the unfamiliarity of the Americans with Bosnian territory, and said, “That’s Bosnia.”

Xander Snyder, analyst


The White Guard
By Mikhail Bulgakov

Inspired by memories of Kiev in the winter of 1918-19, Michael Bulgakov’s “The White Guard” describes the chaos of war and the tumult of a city, of people’s hearts and of their minds as four deadly enemies collide in Ukraine: Russian monarchists, communists, the forces of Hetman Skoropadsky (which were aligned with the Imperial German Army), and Ukrainian nationalists led by Simon Vasilevich Petlyura.

The residents of The City, as it is called in the novel, have no clue what is happening beyond their walls – not at first, anyway. Its old inhabitants, and the streams of refugees who had fled the Reds, are initially convinced that the Germans will fend off the communists. The Germans, whom many in The City were fighting a few months earlier, come to be viewed as saviors. This faith in the former enemy gives way to a silent terror as the Germans begin quietly to flee and as Petlyura’s nationalist forces march on the city.

Loyalties change and allegiances are tested, not just among political groups but among individuals too. The husband of Elena Turbin, Talberg, lives under the same roof at the beginning of the novel as her brothers, Aleksei and Nikola. But they have nothing to say to each other. Aleksei and Nikola are the sons of a Russian professor, whose hearts tremble at the hope that the Russian emperor may be alive. Talberg, on the other hand, serves in Skoropadsky’s government and is learning Ukrainian from a recently issued textbook. Talberg flees with the Germans, leaving his wife behind in The City, which, without the German army, stands no chance against the nationalists.

It’s important for Bulgakov to distinguish between forces at play and the individuals caught up in them. It’s people, after all, who are swept up by the storms of war. As death creeps into The City, it’s the people who fight each other. They cannot avoid the bloodshed – they can merely choose to die in a corner or to die while charging the enemy. They cannot stop the events any more than they can propel them forward.

This is why Bulgakov muses that Petlyura’s release from prison was a symptom, not a disease, and that if he had remained in prison, another leader would have channeled the hatred of the peasantry against the Germans and the Russian officer class. In this sense, Petlyura embodied societal ills that were already present. He facilitated a social conflict that had already begun brewing before the start of the novel, and in the winter of 1918-19 could no longer be averted.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel is Bulgakov’s writing style. It moves seamlessly from the characters’ stream of consciousness to dialogues between unnamed individuals who represent spreading rumors, to accounts of dreams and memories intertwined with reality. The rhythm of the sentences at times is breathless. The controlled chaos in Bulgakov’s style echoes that of the events, thoughts and feelings he captures in his account.

Nora T. Kalinskij, analyst


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