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The invention of a Holocaust

Western journalists and politicians have been busy discovering a Holocaust in Bosnia. Joan Phillips suggests they are seeing what they want to see

Ethnic cleansing, cattle trains, concentration camps, shaved heads, rib-cages, torture, atrocities, genocide....

There hasn't been anything like it since...well, since the Gulf War in fact. That was the last time Western journalists and politicians discovered a new Hitler, and evils the like of which the world had not seen for half a century - such as the Kuwaiti babies snatched from incubators by Iraqi soldiers and left to die on a hospital floor.

Cynical? The Kuwaiti babies story turned out to be an invention by the Washington PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, employed by the Kuwaiti government, and fed its 'facts' by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in America who also happened to be a member of the ruling al-Sabah family.

Today the suffering of ordinary Serbs, Croats and Muslims caught up in the war in Yugoslavia is being cynically manipulated by Western journalists and politicians waging a propaganda war.

Livingstone & Littlejohn

Since the end of July all reporting on the Yugoslav war has been suffused with images of the Holocaust. You could not turn on your television set in August without being assailed by pictures of barbed wire compounds. You could not open a newspaper without reading another atrocity story. The entire vocabulary in which the conflict is now discussed evokes parallels with the wartime treatment of the Jews by the Nazis.

Both right and left have joined in the Serb-bashing. It has been impossible to distinguish between Sun doubleact Ken Livingstone and Richard Littlejohn, despite the fact that they are supposed to represent opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Livingstone repeated his demand of last year for an aerial bombardment of Serbia: 'As the Serbs slaughter their way across Bosnia, Europe is seeing the first real attempt at genocide since Hitler murdered six million Jews.' (5 August) Likewise, Littlejohn called for swift military action to stop 'this Nazi little war': 'We spent six years fighting the Second World War so that the people of Europe would be free of fascism and Nazism. We spent 45 years fighting the Cold War so the people of Eastern Europe would be free of communism - fascism with a different flag. Free for what? To be slaughtered and driven out of their homes by the Nazis of the 1990s.' (3 August)

Unsurpassed in its propaganda hyperbole was the Guardian, the paper of the chattering classes and the keeper of the liberal conscience. Maggie O'Kane's emotive reports from Bosnia about Serbian jihads, ethnic cleansing, cattle trains, concentration camps and killings were pieces of creative writing, masquerading as investigative journalism, describing events torn from any economic, social or political context.

All this took the demonisation of the Serbs by the Western press and political establishment a big step forward. The point was to tell the world that the Serbs are even more savage than everybody had thought they were. They now stand accused of carrying out the biggest crime against humanity since the Second World War. They have been depicted as even more bestial than Hitler's SS death squads. The consensus is that they should be put on trial for war crimes just like the Nazis at Nuremberg.

Who knows?

Sensationalism is the name of the game in the media reporting of the war in Yugoslavia. As the normally sober Economist concluded: 'Terror reigns in Bosnia. Let no one claim he did not know.' But the point is that we don't know.

If there really were terrible atrocities taking place in Bosnia, I doubt that we would be reading about them every day in the newspapers. Whenever there have been major atrocities - in Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, El Salvador, etc - they have usually been kept quiet (in most cases because they have been carried out by the same states which are taking the moral high ground over Bosnia).

When there really was a Holocaust taking place in Europe, we heard nothing about it. When the Nazis started exterminating the Jews, the Allies knew what was happening but they chose to keep quiet. They didn't say a word. They covered it up. They did nothing. Despite repeated requests from 1941 onwards, the British government refused to order the bombing of the railway lines leading to Auschwitz. In fact, the only thing they did do was turn away Jewish refugees fleeing from pogroms.

When slaughters happen we are the last to know; so when they are being stuffed down our throats it is wise to be at least a little sceptical. Why should we believe a word of what is being said by press and politicians about what is happening in Bosnia? They are not usually in the habit of telling the truth about what happens at home, never mind in foreign lands. So let's ask a few questions about what's really going on before we jump to conclusions.

Ethnic cleansing

Take the phrase on everybody's lips: ethnic cleansing. Where did it come from? Who started using this expression first? I doubt it was the Serbian forces who are fighting in Bosnia. It is more likely to have originated in the Croatian ministry of information in Zagreb or even in the offices of a Western communications firm.

Whatever the origins of the expression, it has now entered into common parlance in Britain and other Western countries. It will probably be in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary--'racial purification campaign particularly favoured by Serbs'. The phrase deliberately invites comparisons with the racial pogroms conducted by fascist regimes in the interwar and war years.

War is hell

Nobody has thought to question the use of ethnic cleansing as a description of what is happening in Bosnia. It is simply taken as given that the Serbian forces fighting there are engaged in a crusade to cleanse the region of Muslims. But you do not have to be a fan of Radovan Karazdic, the Serbian leader in Bosnia, who denies that ethnic cleansing is Serbian policy, to question the use of such a loaded term by Western journalists.

The term ethnic cleansing turns the exodus of people from Bosnia into a policy objective rather than a consequence of war. There can be no doubt that Muslims and Croats are being persecuted and forced to leave their homes by Serbian forces, just as Serbs are being persecuted and forced to leave their homes by Croatian and Muslim forces.

But the vast majority of refugees pouring out of Bosnia are fleeing before the advancing armies of all sides. Most people are not hanging around waiting for their towns and villages to be occupied or for their houses to be requisitioned before deciding to leave. In many cases, the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim militias are taking control of ghost towns.

You could say that this amounts to a policy of ethnic cleansing in effect if not in intent. But you could probably say the same thing about any war. It is in the nature of war that people are uprooted and turned into refugees. In the early years of the war in Northern Ireland, thousands of Catholics were driven out of their homes in Protestant areas, but Western journalists did not talk about the Loyalist paramilitaries or the British forces pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing.

If by ethnic cleansing Western reporters mean that people are being persecuted because of their ethnicity then they should acknowledge that this is happening to Serbs as well as Muslims. In Sarajevo, where tens of thousands of Serbs still live, many have been asked to sign official documents saying that they are 'loyal citizens of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina'.

In Croatia too Serbs have been asked to sign loyalty oaths to the new state and face daunting procedures for acquiring citizenship. Most of the shrunken Serbian community (which numbered 600 000 or 12 per cent of the population of Croatia before the war) was disenfranchised in the recent elections, and a proposal for a Serbian assembly has been rejected out of hand.

There is much hypocrisy involved in the Western condemnations of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. If the Western powers dislike ethnic conflict so much, they should not have sponsored the disintegration of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines. It was their backing for Croatia which legitimised nationalism in that republic and ignited ethnic conflict throughout Yugoslavia.

As it happens, the Western powers who are now berating the Serbs are not averse to a bit of ethnic cleansing themselves. The British, for example, are currently conducting their own ethnic cleansing campaign in Hong Kong, where they are kicking out thousands of Vietnamese boat people currently holed up in detention centres every bit as bad as those in Bosnia.

Death camps is another phrase that now rolls easily off the tongue of every Western journalist writing about Bosnia. According to the reports in our newspapers, thousands of Muslims and Croats are being killed in Serbian concentration camps and thousands more are being tortured. In the first weeks of August pressure mounted for the Serbian camps to be opened for inspection by international monitors and journalists.

The manipulative character of the death camps discussion was exposed by the way the issue was handled by the Americans. On Monday 3 August, the US state department said that it had its 'own reports' of abuses, torture and killings in 'Serbian concentration camps'. On Tuesday 4 August, it backtracked, saying it had 'no independent confirmation' of the reports. On Wednesday 5 August, the department went on the offensive again, calling for war crimes investigations (Independent, 6 August).

It is clear from this that the hysterical discussion of death camps was not based on any authentic documentary evidence. On the contrary, the extent to which the issue was played up or down depended entirely on the requirements of US international diplomacy. Every time it looked like Washington was being superseded by another Western power in its condemnations of Serbian barbarism, the state department would rush out another statement turning up the volume of its attacks.

Having prepared the public to expect the worst, when Western reporters finally visited these places, it became clear that their stories of death camps were fabrications. Despite their best efforts, they could find no evidence to substantiate their claims of genocide. Nevertheless, the hacks made the most of the suffering they encountered. They might not have found mass graves, but they were pleased enough with the under-fed figures standing behind barbed wire fences.

Holding people in camps during a war is not an invention of the Serbs. Concentration camps have long been a feature of wars. The association of concentration camps with systematic killings derives from the Second World War, when the Nazis turned their camps into assembly lines for the disposal of the Jews. This is the association that has been made continually by Western journalists reporting on the war in Bosnia.

You don't have to condone the existence of concentration camps to question this sensational reporting and the ends to which it is put. Conditions in camps throughout Bosnia are bad. People do not have enough to eat. People are being interrogated. People are being beaten. Unfortunately, these things happen all the time in war. As we know, the British tortured Irish prisoners in places like Castlereagh detention centre in Belfast. But people are not being killed systematically in the Bosnian camps; there is no policy of genocide.

All sides in the Yugoslav civil war have got camps. Yet Western journalists have not been rushing off to look inside those camps run by the Croats or the Muslims. If they had bothered to look, they would no doubt have found that Serbian prisoners are being held in much the same conditions. The double standards of people who can castigate the Serbs for starving their prisoners at the same time as imposing punitive sanctions against the Serbs is breathtaking.

Who are the leaders of the West to lecture Serbs about concentration camps anyway? As a matter of fact it was the British who invented concentration camps, just as they pioneered most modern forms of barbarism. The British first used concentration camps in the Boer War at the turn of the century, and went on to use them to suppress anti-colonial struggles in Kenya and Malaya. Britain still runs a concentration camp in Ireland: it is called Her Majesty's Prison the Maze - the H-blocks.

Today, the world is full of concentration camps of one sort or another. Many of them are to be found in the 'civilised' nations of the West, where there are no wars being fought, except against foreign immigrants, while many more were built in the third world by the 'civilised' nations of the West, to contain the victims of wars which they were responsible for starting.

Why is it that when the British keep people with black skins behind bars at holding centres like Harmondsworth; when the Americans shove Haitians into prison camps; when the Germans hold immigrants on boats; when the French herd Arabs into shanty towns; nobody ever accuses them of running concentration camps?

What is south central LA except one big concentration camp, where blacks are kept under curfew, stopped from leaving the area, kept under constant helicopter surveillance and beaten if they dare cross the police. What are the West Bank and Gaza Strip except one big prison for the Palestinians? They have lived for years in their slum huts, amid the stinking refuse, behind the barbed wire, under armed guard in concentration camps built by the Israeli state with US dollars and guns.

In Bosnia, atrocity stories are two-a-penny. From tales of Muslim babies being thrown into cement mixers to Muslim men having their genitals cut off, the atrocity industry is working overtime. The most outlandish stories have gained credence because they have been repeated so often by British journalists who are either just naive or plain malicious.

Day after day, newspapers such as the Guardian have reprinted verbatim testimonies from Muslims and Croats claiming to have evidence of the most appalling massacres. After splashing their gruesome accounts all over the page, the point is made at the bottom of the article that this particular individual did not witness the supposed atrocity himself, or that there is no independent evidence to back his claims.

So why publish them? The effect can only be to create the impression that there are atrocities such as these taking place. It is understandable that in their desperation, people in Bosnia should be prey to the most hysterical rumours. But there is no excuse for Western journalists reprinting these rumours as if they are fact.

No doubt there are atrocities taking place. But if we believed the accounts being given in the British press there would be nobody left alive in Bosnia. There is always a tendency to inflate casualty figures: it happened in Timisoara during the Romanian uprising in 1989 and it happened over Tiananmen Square when the Chinese regime crushed the student protests. It turned out that far fewer people had been killed than had been suggested. Every death in Bosnia is one death too many. But we can safely say that the running death toll is not as big as many have said.

People are killing and being killed on all sides in this war, as in all war. If atrocities are being committed, they are being committed by Serbs, Croats and Muslims. So why is it that Western propaganda has focused on the crimes of the Serbs?

Who are the Western powers to lecture the Serbs about atrocities anyway? The president of the United Nations security council is Li Daoyu of China: the Tiananmen Square massacre has been quietly forgotten by the Western powers who love to talk about human rights abuses in Bosnia.

George Bush has the temerity to say he cannot stand idly by and watch innocent civilians being killed in Bosnia. Yet just over a year ago he was happy to watch innocent civilians being killed by his own forces in Iraq. Apparently atrocities are alright if they are carried out by the West and its allies against the peoples of the third world (in Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Angola, the Philippines, etc).

Those who have invented a Holocaust in Bosnia have done so because it suits their purposes to depict the Serbs as genocidal maniacs. But from the point of view of the European right, there is another advantage to be gained from accusing the Serbs of genocide. By inventing a Holocaust in Bosnia, they are calling into question the whole meaning of the original Holocaust.

If a Holocaust can happen in Bosnia just like that, then it follows that the original Holocaust was nothing special. If the suffering of the Muslims in the Yugoslav civil war today amounts to a Holocaust, then it follows that the liquidation of European Jewry in the Second World War was not unique. In other words, the invention of a Holocaust in the present is a way of relativising the war crimes of the past.

It is not difficult to understand why the European right is so keen to relativise the Holocaust. After all, the death camps of the past helped to discredit right-wing ideas for the best part of half a century. The association of the Holocaust with the politics of the right has been a major embarrassment. By inventing a Holocaust in Bosnia, the right can begin to put the past behind it.

But why should liberal opinion go along with all this? The same people who have taken the revisionist historian David Irving to task for saying the Holocaust never happened are now caught up in the rewriting of history. By shouting genocide about what is happening in Bosnia, the left is not only complicit in setting up the Serbs for a military strike, it is also an unwitting accomplice in the campaign to relativise the Holocaust.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992

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