THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
Joan Phillips examines how a left-wing intellectual
has become an apologist for Croatia in the civil war in Yugoslavia
I'm not a nationalist, but...
Branka Magas has written a book which she claims goes beyond the superficial
explanations of Yugoslavia's demise that we have been offered to date by
other journalists and authors. In The Destruction of Yugoslavia, Magas,
until recently a member of the New Left Review editorial board, has
brought together her published writings on Yugoslavia from the past decade,
adding a few previously unpublished pieces. Given that her book is the fruit
of 10 years' rumination on the subject, the analysis it offers is breathtakingly
- The Destruction of Yugoslavia, Branka Magas, Verso,
£39.95 hbk, £12.95 pbk
According to Magas, Yugoslavia did not die a natural death: 'it was destroyed
for the cause of a Greater Serbia.' (pxiv) In essence, this is Magas' argument,
which she repeats like a mantra at every opportunity. The rise to power
in Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic in 1987 is presented as the beginning of
the end for Yugoslavia. 'Of the many causes of Yugoslavia's destabilisation',
says Magas, 'there is one which is of particular salience: the decision
of the League of Communists of Serbia to challenge the postwar national
settlement' (pp337-8). The seeds of the federation's destruction were planted
in Kosovo and Vojvodina, argues Magas, which were deprived of their autonomous
status by the Milosevic regime.
Given that this is the centrepiece of Magas' thesis about the destruction
of Yugoslavia, she marshals little material to substantiate her argument.
We are not let in on the secret of why Serbia would suddenly want to tear
up the postwar settlement. Nor are we told why Belgrade should have become
the epicentre of an apparently voracious expansionist power. Perhaps Magas
concluded that Serbia has already been sufficiently damned by Western press
and politicians for her not to have to explain her assertions. In any case,
we are left wondering what it is about the Serbs that makes them such an
In order to support her view that all the problems in Yugoslavia began in
Belgrade, Magas makes out a case for Serbian exceptionalism:
'What is unique about this regime - at least as far as Europe is concerned - is
its particular combination of strident nationalism with a recidivist Stalinist
ideology, embedded above all in the only structures of the Yugoslav communist
state that managed to escape the process of democratisation: the Serbian
Communist Party and the army high command. The Serbian party had escaped
the modest democratisation undertaken from 1986 on in Slovenia and Croatia,
where the principle of multi-candidacy for all party posts was introduced.'
This emphasis on the singular character of the Serbian regime is insupportable.
In Magas' view, Croatia appears to be an island of enlightened reform and
democracy, while Serbia is a backwater of unreconstructed centralism and
nationalism. In reality, almost every liberalising measure in the sphere
of economics, politics and culture in Yugoslavia, from the fifties to the
nineties, emanated from Belgrade rather than Zagreb. It is a matter of fact
that the Croatian regime and party were far more rigid than their Serbian
counterparts, and to this day it is Zagreb more than Belgrade that seems
to have an aversion to decentralisation, freedom of the press and democracy.
Overall, however, the similarities are more striking than the differences.
To any impartial observer of the unfolding conflict in Yugoslavia there
would have seemed little to choose between the regime in Belgrade and that
in Zagreb. After all, both are led by former Stalinist politicians, Slobodan
Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, who have converted to the nationalist cause
and championed market reforms, like so many of their colleagues in the East,
in order to secure their political careers.
Yet Magas insists on finding differences where none of substance exists.
The double standards inherent in this approach come out most clearly in
her attitude towards the various nationalisms being flaunted in Yugoslavia.
Magas is vehemently hostile to any manifestation of Serbian nationalism.
Yet she is strangely uncritical of any display of Croatian nationalism.
While she writes at great length about the Serbian regime's appalling treatment
of the Albanian population in Kosovo, she has next to nothing to say about
the Croatian regime's vindictive treatment of the Serbian population in
Evidence of Zagreb's mistreatment of the Serbs in Croatia is too compelling
to be ignored. But Magas circumvents this difficulty with a sleight of hand
of which any professional propagandist would be proud. She begins by acknowledging
that the victory in the spring 1990 elections of Franjo Tudjman's Croatian
Democratic Party, 'running on a Croat nationalist programme', created a
strong sense of unease among Croatia's Serbs. But the fears of the Serbs
are put aside in the next sentence with the observation that the Croatian
majority had good cause to be just as fearful of 'Serbia's aggressive expansionism'
(p315). What grounds the Croats had to fear Serbian expansionism at that
time are never explained satisfactorily, since there were no grounds, while
the good grounds the Serbs had to fear the Croatian nationalist regime are
In another argument which minimises Zagreb's mistreatment of Croatia's Serbs,
Magas claims that it cannot be compared to Belgrade's mistreatment of Kosovo's
Albanians: 'Whatever criticisms can be made of the Croatian government's
treatment of the Serbian minority, there have been few signs of systematic
persecution, certainly not of the kind suffered by the national minorities
in Milosevic's Serbia.' (p316) Belgrade's chauvinist policies towards the
Albanians in Kosovo are used to excuse or gloss over Zagreb's chauvinist
policies towards the Serbs in Croatia.
Magas' denial that the Croatian government systematically persecuted the
Serbs means turning a blind eye to the way in which Serbs were hounded from
their jobs, drummed out of their homes, bombed out of their shops and driven
from their land-- and all of this well before the war began. Magas' reference
to the 'insensitivity' of the Tudjman government must be a contender for
the understatement of the year award. 'Insensitive' hardly seems the word
to describe the harassment, vilification, purges and provocations suffered
by the Serbs in Croatia after the election of Tudjman's regime.
Perhaps the biggest provocation to the Serbs was the Croatian government's
official adoption of the chequered flag, the same banner carried by the
Nazi-sponsored Ustashe regime of Ante Pavelic during the Second World War.
Why should it be so incomprehensible to Magas that the Serbian inhabitants
of a region like Krajina, which had up to a third of its population wiped
out during the war, would refuse to become a minority in a new Croatian
state, especially when that state adopts as its national symbol the local
equivalent of the swastika?
Magas can insist all she likes that there has been no systematic persecution
of the Serbs in Croatia. But how then does she explain the fact that, of
the 600 000 Serbs living in Croatia before the current war began, only about
70 000 remain in Croat-controlled areas, while about 200 000 live in Serb-controlled
Krajina? She doesn't explain it, she ignores it. Instead, she prefers to
emphasise that, 'in Croatia, "ethnic cleansing" was to produce
some 300 000 refugees in the course of a year'. Magas is keen to highlight
the exodus of Croats from areas such as Krajina, but she is silent about
the larger numbers of Serbs expelled from Croat-controlled areas.
There are many other examples in The Destruction of Yugoslavia of
the double standards applied by Magas to the protagonists in the civil war.
For example, the Serbs are accused of violating the borders of Yugoslavia
by proclaiming their own mini-republics in Serbian enclaves like Krajina
in Croatia. Yet nothing is said about the fact that it was Slovenia and
Croatia which first called all borders into question by seceding unilaterally
from the Yugoslav federation and establishing their own independent republics.
Elsewhere, Magas accuses the Serbs of having designs on Bosnia-Herzegovina
long before the war erupted there. However, the fact that the president
of Croatia had stated very clearly that he coveted areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina
is downplayed: 'Whereas Serbia never hid its territorial ambitions towards
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia's position was more ambiguous.' (pxvii) There
was nothing ambiguous about Tudjman's demand for Bosnia to be partitioned
between Croatia and Serbia.
The establishment of mini-statelets by the Croats in Bosnia is treated in
the same fashion by Magas. We are told that the Croats were acting in 'self-defence'
when they seized tracts of the republic. Yet the Serbs living in Bosnia
who did the same are not given the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is said
about the fact that there are 40 000 Croatian troops from Croatia
fighting in Bosnia. Yet Serbia, which has no armed forces fighting
alongside Bosnian Serbs in that republic, is accused of being the aggressor
There are other examples of Magas' double standards too numerous to mention.
Suffice it to say that her support for Croatia seems to have led her to
lose any objectivity she might once have had as a commentator on events
in Yugoslavia. The extent to which her reading of the situation there has
been coloured by her identification with the Croatian side comes out most
clearly in her discussion of history.
Magas rewrites the history not just of the current war, but also that of
the Second World War. Who would have thought that a former New Left Review
editor would end up repeating the tired old tales of Croatian nationalist
history? Yet in her efforts to convince us that Croatia is now on the side
of right, Magas effectively plays down aspects of Croatia's fascist past.
The consensus in the West today is that the Serbs are to blame for everything
bad that has ever happened to the peoples of Yugoslavia. Indeed, Yugoslavia
is now being recast retrospectively as Greater Serbia. Magas appears to
subscribe to this new orthodoxy. 'Even though "Yugoslavia" was
formally to prevail in 1918', says Magas, 'the circumstances of the new
state's creation made it into a de facto Greater Serbia.' (p352)
The Destruction of Yugoslavia is littered with casual asides about
Great Serbian nationalism being at the source of all of Yugoslavia's problems.
History is turned upside down in this analysis. We are told by Magas that
Great Serbian nationalism was 'the old enemy in Yugoslavia, which the partisans
thought they had slain on countless battlefields across Yugoslavia' (p305).
I rather think that the enemy which the partisans thought they had slain
in the Second World War was Great Croatian nationalism and fascism. After
all, it was not the Serbs who were in power in Zagreb, nor the Serbian flag
which hung over the gates of the Jasenovac concentration camp - it was the
Croatian Ustashe regime and their chequerboard flag.
Following the path trodden by the Croatian revisionist historians, Magas
implies that all sides were equally guilty in the Second World War. 'The
Second World War witnessed simultaneously mass killings of innocent Serb
civilians by the Nazis' Ustasha puppet state (NDH), Chetnik massacres of
innocent Croat and Moslem civilians, and a high degree of cooperation between
the two nationalities within the communist-led partisan movement.' (p314)
This equalisation of the crimes of the Ustashe and the Chetniks cannot be
sustained on the basis of logic or fact. The implication of Magas' argument
is that no side can be singled out for special blame because all sides suffered
equally. It is conveniently forgotten that it was not the Serbian Chetniks
who were in power in Yugoslavia, but the Croatian Ustashe. The fact that
the Zagreb regime implemented a policy of genocide against the Serbs, Jews
and Gypsies is apparently deemed beside the point.
The facts also fly in the face of the equalisation argument. Magas indignantly
accuses what she calls the Serbian propaganda machine of 'trying to create
the impression that Serbs were the chief victims of the war' (p314). But
even going on the wartime casualty figures cited by Magas in her book, it
is evident that the Serbs were indeed the chief victims.
Playing the numbers game is one way in which Magas ends up minimising or
relativising the crimes committed by the Croatian Ustashe regime; another
is her attempt to suggest that just as many crimes were committed by the
Serbs, including the extermination of the Jewish community in Serbia (a
crime which was in fact carried out by the Nazi occupiers of Belgrade).
The suggestion that there was a high degree of Croat participation in the
partisan movement puts another undeserved positive sheen on the reputation
of Croatia. Some anti-fascist Croats certainly did join the partisans, but
they were always a very small minority. Larger numbers of Croats joined
only when it was clear that the Ustashe was losing the war. Some of the
partisan leaders might have been Croat communists, but the foot soldiers
were mainly Serbs.
Magas' revisionist history of Yugoslavia culminates in her summation of
the lessons of the interwar and war years:
'After the 1941 debacle, to forestall any renewal of the Great Serb stranglehold
over a reborn Yugoslavia it was not enough to mobilise the non-Serb nationalities
in a common partisan struggle, it was necessary also to win the Serb nation
to the alternative programme of a Yugoslav federation. Postwar Yugoslavia
was thus born from the ashes of Greater Serbia.' (p352)
You could read this passage and conclude that Yugoslavia during the war
had been in the grip of a Greater Serbia instead of a Greater Croatia.
Magas adds an 'Oh, and by the way...', as if it were not that important
a detail, about the fascists who had been in power in Croatia.
'To be sure, it required also the defeat of Hitler's New Order in Europe,
in which the Ustasha Greater Croatia had played its part. The Yugoslav communists,
however, did not see Croatian expansionism as a lasting problem. Great Serb
nationalism, by contrast, remained a permanent threat.' (p352)
This interpretation does not make sense. The idea that Serbian nationalism
was the overriding problem jars with the fact that the nationalists
lost out to the communists. There were nationalists aplenty in Serbia before
and during the war. But they were not in the ascendancy. In case Magas hadn't
noticed, it was the communist partisans to whom the majority of Serbs gave
And why should Serbian expansionism have been seen as the major threat by
communists, when Serbia had never expanded anywhere outside of its own borders?
Especially when Croatia, the state which did realise its expansionist aims
by incorporating Bosnia-Herzegovina and parts of Serbia, was apparently
not considered to be a threat. Croatian nationalism surely represented a
greater threat to the idea of equality between nations in a unified Yugoslavia
than Serbian nationalism.
Why should somebody of the left like Branka Magas start rewriting history
in this way? If you are a former supporter of the Yugoslav project who has
become a convert to the Croatian cause, history must be rewritten to justify
Croatia's unilateral exit from the Yugoslav federation. A mythical Greater
Serbia becomes the bogeyman and the destroyer of Yugoslavia, while the real
Greater Croatia is unwittingly rehabilitated.
The main problem with Magas' book is not its incorrigible bias against Serbia.
This is just the consequence of an individual decision to take sides with
Croatia. The main problem is that Magas puts all her eggs in the Yugoslav
basket. She fails to see that the disintegration of Yugoslavia fits into
a common pattern of change happening in the East as a result of Eastern
European elites orienting themselves towards the West.
For the record, if any republic is to be singled out as the source of Yugoslavia's
disintegration it should not be Serbia. Contrary to the conventional interpretation,
which Magas faithfully reproduces, the forces pulling Yugoslavia apart were
concentrated in Croatia and Slovenia which were demanding autonomy and more
long before Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia. At a certain point,
politicians in Croatia and Slovenia decided to push for secession because
they felt they had more to gain from cementing a new relationship with the
West and the capitalist world market than from relying on the old relations
with the other republics.
The most forceful dynamic behind the destruction of Yugoslavia did not come
from Serbia, and ultimately it did not come from Croatia or Slovenia either.
It came from the West. But that is another story which Magas has not seen
fit to tell.
These 28 poets are collected in a challenge to Theodor Adorno's adage, 'After
Auschwitz to write poetry is barbaric'. Their subject is the Nazi Holocaust,
and the personal impact of having observed and survived is explored throughout.
- The Poetry of Survival: Postwar Poets of Central
and Eastern Europe, edited by Daniel Weissbort, Penguin, £7.99
The sense of the precariousness of life after the Holocaust creates a feeling
of guilt for the survivors, even from someone as hard as Bertolt Brecht.
At the same time there is amid the guilt a more compelling glee at being
alive. Vasko Popa writes: 'We smile like conspirators/ And whisper to each
other/ Be seeing you/ We don't say when or where.'
Much of the work is refreshingly simple with strong imagery, like this from
Tadeusz Rozewicz: 'In huge chests/ clouds of dry hair/ of those suffocated/
and a faded plait/ a pigtail with a ribbon/ pulled at school/ by naughty
boys.' These are the intimate observations of camp inmates, told without
Daniel Weissbort's collection is a good one, but he expects too much of
these poems. He invites us to draw lessons from what are really just individual
experiences of suffering. He asks of his chosen poets: 'that they will exert
a positive influence on the political and social restructuring that is now
under way.' These poems are personal and moving, as well as being by far
the best translations I have read, but they are no guide to social change.
This is a thing of rare beauty: a big novel unassumingly packaged as an
airport lounge potboiler. Protagonist Jamie Angelo is a sensational mix
of high art and low cunning. He is a graduate of 'that school' (Yale), and
a narcissist. As an artist he inhabits the New York Viz Biz - the image-
obsessed art/fashion world as seen in magazines like Vogue, Interview
and Flash Art. He is also an unlicensed plastic surgeon performing
'procedures' on women's faces.
- Beauty, Brian D'Amato, Grafton, £4.99
Angelo's procedures are the meeting point for avant garde art and the cutting
edge of surgery. His greatest achievement is the remodelling of Jaishree
('kind of Indian Julia Roberts') into Minaz - an icon of beauty for all mankind.
The ensuing problems are as monstrous as Frankenstein. Angelo describes
his creation as the Uberwench; this is D'Amato performing a sex-change on
Nietzche's Ubermensch, or Superman.
Beauty bridges writing levels which usually remain unconnected. The
plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, even though it is interspersed with
asides on subjects from Aztec human sacrifice to technique in Renaissance
painting. Sex scenes are under-done (and all the more flavoursome).
Angelo is a genius for our times, but his genius is skin deep. This is the
world according to Warhol, where surface is everlasting and there is no
depth. D'Amato's take on the nineties is that this is the decade which has
reduced sincerity to yet another superficiality.
The re-publication of Frederick Engels' classic account of the nineteenth-century
working class is an excellent contrast to today's patronising journalism
of inner-city deprivation. Engels, friend of and collaborator with Karl
Marx, drew upon his own experience of Britain's industrial revolution, as
well as a wealth of official and trade statistics, to expose the manufacturers'
social warfare against the working class.
- The Condition of the Working Class in England,
Frederick Engels, Oxford World Classics, £5.99 pbk
Engels' adopted home of Manchester features as the worst example of the
impact of the new manufacturing upon the working poor. At first sight not
much seems to have changed there: the little Ireland off the Oxford Road
is gone today, but other immigrants take the place of the Irish. Hulme,
if anything is more desolate than when Engels wrote his report in 1844,
most of it waiting to be knocked down.
The impoverishment of Engels' day, though, is a product of the birth of
industrialisation. Nowadays the memory of Manchester's cotton mills is relegated
to the Museum of Labour History and the big hope for the future is the bid
for the 2000 Olympics. Then poverty was the outcome of workplace exploitation,
as the mill-owners held consumption to a minimum - and sometimes below that - to
keep their profits high. Today, too many in Moss Side and Whalley Range
would be grateful to be exploited instead of being on the scrap heap.
Now, as then, the poverty draws journalists to record the problem. Where
Engels' account differs from the latter-day reports of 'Gunchester', or
James Bulger's last days in Liverpool's North End, is that the big crime
he describes being committed is the social crime against the working class.
Engels describes in miserable detail the overcrowded and decrepit housing
stock, the inedible food and even the moral degeneration of the poor. But
these are seen as consequences of a society organised to exploit the greater
part of its own people.
Today's accounts of the poor fix instead upon the personal failings of the
victims. Dirty houses, crap food, cheap clothes are all used to show how
feckless inner-city dwellers really are. The robberies and the violence
are hyped up as moral lessons about the personal failings that carry hopelessness
from one generation to the next.
Engels' comprehensive barrage of statistical evidence illustrates the social
causes of infant mortality and shortened life-spans - the capitalist system.
He concludes: 'The English bourgeoisie has but one choice, either to continue
its rule under the unanswerable charge of murder and in spite of this charge,
or to abdicate in favour of the labouring class.'
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993