Review: The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (3rd edition)

This review originally appeared in Central Europe 9:1 (2011), 77–79.

The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. By Tim Judah. Pp. 414. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2009. 3rd edn. £12.99. ISBN: 978-0-300-15826-7

The third edition of The Serbs comes at the end of a decade which saw the fall of Slobodan Milošević, the assassination of Zoran Ðinđić, the separation of Serbia and Montenegro, and Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence — and during which students, journalists, tourists, and the general reader would all have turned to the second edition of Tim Judah’s engaging paperback for insights into the historical background to today’s events. The changed context is summed up by Yale University Press’s redesign for the 2009 edition: instead of a photograph of Serb soldiers taking Muslim men prisoner (now an image of a past crisis rather than a fresh memory), the new cover shows a Serb demonstration in Kosovska Mitrovica in February 2008. The picture is still rooted in tense ethnopolitics but suits an edition which aims its narrative towards the future rather than continuing to take the previous decade’s violence as its endpoint. With four-fifths of the cover dominated by the Serbian flag, it lends a tone of statehood, not chaos; frameworks, not fear.

The first edition fell on different territory, near the end of a wave of histories published to explain the shocking violence of the 1990s wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Kosovo, then, still just a threat of instability). ‘Although the Serbs were most often cast as the villains of the piece,’ Judah wrote in a preface that has stayed almost intact, ‘no one had actually written anything of substance about them nor about some of the extraordinary events which took place in Serbia and among the Serbs during these years’ (p. xiii, emphasis original). Even today, the most interesting writing about Serbs’ experiences, strategies, and discourses during and after the disintegration of Yugoslavia is confined to academic journal articles or expensive university press editions. A third edition of The Serbs allows the author to reflect on the long-term implications of Milošević’s disastrous campaign in Kosovo, to re-assess the condition of Serbs inside and outside Serbia and perhaps even to lay down stepping stones towards his more recent work on the ‘Yugosphere’, since elaborated in Judah’s articles for The Economist and his pamphlet for the London School of Economics, Good News from the Western Balkans: Yugoslavia is Dead, Long Live the Yugosphere (LSEE, 2009).

When The Serbs first appeared in 1997, the Western Balkans — as the region including former Yugoslavia and Albania had yet to be termed — was in serious need of good news. Any popular history of the Serbs needed to answer the primary question which had been posed, yet never quite answered, by dozens of reporters during the post-Yugoslav conflict: how did a people who had identified themselves with the Yugoslav project for fifty years come to support the destructive and brutal wars of the 1990s in the name of national self-interest? The Serbs attempted to explain the semi-historical, semi-religious, and semi-epic mythology that under-pinned the common-sense beliefs of many contemporary Serbs, explaining the fascination with history among the producers of Serb nationalist discourse while communicating that very fascination to its readership.

Accordingly, the book is framed ‘neither [as] a straight history book nor a simple analysis of the immediate problems that led to war’ (p. xiii). The first chapter begins with an ekphrastic vignette of Paja Jovanović’s painting of the Serbs’ migration into Habsburg lands in 1690, segues into reportage of Serbs’ flight from Knin in 1995 and structures the Serbs’ history around a series of mass migrations ever since the 6th century AD, when Slavonic-speaking tribes first settled in the Balkans. The past continues to slide into the present throughout the book (most notably in a chapter on 20th-century ethnic cleansing, ‘Skull Towers’, that opens with the image of a tower of Serbian soldiers’ skulls built after their defeat at the Battle of Čegar in 1809), and Judah uses the work of previous generations’ writers and travellers to signpost parallels and portents in a chronicle of migration and violence that, as of 1997, could clearly be supposed not to be over yet.

In the last fifteen years, many of the authors Judah quotes — Alberto Fortis, Arthur Evans, Edith Durham and Rebecca West; the writers of the Carnegie Endowment report into the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 — have become staple texts on university courses that aim to deconstruct historical representations of the Balkans. By inserting Fortis’s observations that ‘[t]he greatest part of the Haiduks look upon it as a meritorious action, to shed the blood of the Turks’ (p. 12) or Evans’s conclusions that ‘an armed occupation of Bosnia by civilised forces has become indispensible’ (p. 82) after the Ottoman repression of Christians in the 1870s, Judah is able to set down stratum upon stratum of history repeating. The reader receives, at least, enough context to understand that Fortis was writing of the Orthodox population as Vlachs and Morlachs rather than Serbs and that Evans (later, during Austria–Hungary’s final years, a British propagandist for the South Slav cause) yet believed Bosnia contained ‘elements of union in that unhappy country which might be moulded together by wise hands’ (p. 82). As Judah’s narrative winds towards the present, one becomes better and better equipped to understand the re-presentation of history on the part of Serbian politicians, priests and writers, though less is said (or perhaps more is assumed) about the discourses of their counterparts in the West.

The key theme of The Serbs, and perhaps even of the Serbs, is stated during a discussion of Serbs and Albanians in Ottoman Prizren: ‘it is what people believe rather than what is true that matters’ (p. 316). Judah is careful not to attribute a deterministic role to history but finds it unimaginable to interpret the Yugoslav wars without it (‘The Serbs went to war because they were led into it by their leaders. But these leaders drew on the malign threads of their people’s history to bind them and pull them into war’ [p. xii]). In 1997, it might still have been the case that ‘[i]t is unfashionable to link the past and present when writing about the wars in the former Yugoslavia’ (p. xii); by 2009, it had almost become more unfashionable not to. Yet a history that repeats itself through the contingency and agency of individuals who restate (and reinterpret) it is not quite the same thing as a history that keeps on repeating of its own accord. The Serbs lays open a discursive toolkit yet leaves one seeking elsewhere for the structural factors that enable violence and disorder in one place but not in others. We read, for instance, that ‘the story of [Fikret] Abdić would be incomplete without mention of the spirit that lurks in Velika Kladuša’ (p. 247), a region of north-west Bosnia where autonomous enclaves sprang up both during the Second World War and the 1990s war. Indeed it would, when Abdić himself invoked his predecessor’s memory; but incomplete, too, without taking in the awkward geography of the Cazin Krajina, where the narrow roads and deep canyons could be tailor-made for a leader wishing to operate with the minimum of oversight from one’s superiors. Unfortunately, but perhaps unavoidably in a book of this nature, the threads of history we see up close are precisely the malign ones. Judah’s accounts of the key historical moments in Serb nationalist discourse are balanced and not always flattering to the Serbs; yet the book does not take a further possible step in exposing the web of myths by challenging the very terms of the discourse and introducing different moments that lie outside the nationalists’ framework altogether.

That notwithstanding, The Serbs goes a long way in decollectivizing the history of an ethnic group, most strongly in the parts drawn from the author’s own experiences in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Even though the medieval and nineteenth-century passages may leave behind an assumption that the Serbs, once ‘Serbs’ existed, shared the will of their leaders, no such conclusion is possible after his chapters on the effects of economic sanctions in Serbia and the networks of organized crime that ran through, and between, the warring sides in BiH. Rather, the relationship between Serbs and their leaders is shown to be a fraught story of compromise, negotiation, and responsibility for the consequences of one’s own past choices — a process that has ultimately left many Serbs displaced, disadvantaged, and disillusioned with their home country’s political system altogether. In sequences such as the Serb resettlement and evacuation of western Slavonia, Judah tackles one of the book’s hardest tasks by presenting the very human choices of Serbs who occupied Croat houses. Whether or not the reader is convinced these families made the right choices in resignedly inhabiting another household’s home, it is surely more useful to have access to the perspective of what was, to most western observers, the perpetrator’s side than to simply receive another statistical list enumerating displaced persons and refugees.

The book’s new material is filled with cautious optimism for the Serbs even as it catalogues a decade of diplomatic and political disappointment. An anxiety that Serbs would indefi nitely continue to be misled by their own leaders ran through both previous editions; now, with Serbs themselves having chosen to reject Milošević, the book is able to express hope that they will not necessarily choose particularism over the pragmatic option of economic wellbeing. One could hardly state that borders had become irrelevant to Serbs when their experience of international mobility has been structured and conditioned first by sanctions and then by the much-despised visa regimes of the West. None the less, Judah rightly and intriguingly concludes that even though Serbs were ‘[o]fficially [. . .] split between those few who remained in Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia and in Kosovo [. . .] a Serbian sphere existed in the space of former Yugoslavia of which Belgrade was the capital’ — and that ‘[i]t existed in parallel with a Croatian sphere, a Bosniak sphere stretching through Sandžak [in Serbia], and also an Albanian sphere encompassing the region’s Albanian population’ (p. 363). Each coexists with, and most overlap into, what Judah has termed in later work the ‘Yugosphere’ — the snappiest name yet for the phenomena of economic, cultural and personal contacts across and beyond the hardened internal borders of former Yugoslavia and the conceptual barriers established during (and which indeed established) the post-Yugoslav wars. We can only wonder what might precipitate a fourth edition of this book — Serbian accession to the European Union? a revision of the Dayton Peace Agreements? or some unknown unknown? — and what shape those spheres will have taken in another decade’s time.


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