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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...

  • The Destruction of Yugoslavia, Branka Magas, Verso, £39.95 hbk, £12.95 pbk
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board, has brought together her published writings on Yugoslavia from the past decade, adding a few previously unpublished pieces.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 vacuous.

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 aggressive lot.

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.' (p323)

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 Croatia.

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 not explored.

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.

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 their allegiance.

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.
  • The Poetry of Survival: Postwar Poets of Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Daniel Weissbort, Penguin, £7.99 pbk
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 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 embellishment.

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.

Katy Margam
  • Beauty, Brian D'Amato, Grafton, £4.99
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.

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.

Andrew Calcutt
  • The Condition of the Working Class in England, Frederick Engels, Oxford World Classics, £5.99 pbk
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.

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.'

Kate Lawrence

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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