Serbian faking of history helps create a new myth of Serb victimhood…
By Trudy Rubin
30 January 1996.
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, George Santayana reminds us.
That’s why Richard Goldstone, chief prosecutor for the Bosnia war crimes tribunal, has been trying to get NATO to help investigate 15 to 20 mass Bosnian grave sites where Serbs reportedly executed thousands of Bosniaks in their efforts to ethnically “purify” much of Bosnia.
Meanwhile, Serb leaders deny that they carried out a well-planned campaign of genocide, and much of the Serb public believes them.
The Serbs claim that only Bosniaks and Croats committed war crimes. This stands truth on its own head, but helps create a new myth of Serb victimhood, even as the perpetrators rush to destroy the grisly evidence.
But faking history only prepares the stage for future bloodletting after NATO troops leave. While NATO is reluctant to aid Mr. Goldstone’s efforts — out of understandable fear of “mission creep” — there is urgent reason to help.
If anyone should be aware of the costs of faking history, it is the Serbs. They paid the price of Croatia’s failure to come to terms with the atrocities that Croatia’s Ustashe (pro-Nazi fascists) committed against Serbs, Jews and Bosnian Muslims during World War II.
This history was manipulated by Tito’s postwar communist regime in Yugoslavia and has been misused by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
Mr. Tudjman’s use of Ustashe symbols and downplaying of the number of Ustashe killings frightened Croatian Serbs. Such dishonesty about the past helped sow the seeds for new ethnic war.
Similarly, failure to confront the past has aided the rise of xenophobic and racist political movements in neighboring Austria.
Most Austrians eagerly welcomed annexation by Adolf Hitler’s Germany in 1938, and a disproportionate number of Hitler’s top henchmen were Austrian.
Yet Nazism and the Holocaust were taboo subjects in Austria until recently; virtually nothing was taught about Hitler’s regime in the schools until 1988.
Not surprisingly, a recent government study revealed that most students know little about Third Reich atrocities and think Nazism wasn’t that bad. Such ignorance has helped the rise to prominence of neofascist leader Joerg Haider.
Contrast this to West Germany. Allied occupiers made captured German soldiers and civilians view piles of bodies and crematoria, while Allied photographers made photos and films that will forever put the lie to Holocaust deniers. Moreover, West German school-children were thoroughly taught about Nazi crimes.
But in the former East Germany, children were taught that all the former German fascists lived in the capitalist West. East Germans — because they were communists — were guiltless.
This rewrite of history has made young people in eastern Germany easier targets for dangerous far-right political movements.
The evidence of what Serbs did in Bosnia is becoming apparent now that the fighting has stopped.
Intrepid reporters, such as Laura Silber of The Financial Times and Allan Little of the BBC, have interviewed top Serb leaders who, amazingly, admit what they did.
In their book, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, ultranationalist Serb politician Vojislav Seselj concedes that a well-planned campaign of ethnic cleansing was carried out at the beginning of the Bosnian genocide (1992).
The authors also relate how the top Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic — who has been indicted for war crimes — showed a Dutch peacekeeping officer what he intended to do to Bosniaks in the “safe haven” of Srebrenica.
Gen. Mladic had a Serb soldier slit the neck of a pig, and as the knife dripped red he said, “That’s how we deal with our enemies.”
The Serbs rounded up all Bosniak men in Srebrenica, and are believed to have executed 8,000 of them.
Serbs have denied reporters access to the killing fields. But Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck was just permitted to visit the Srebrenica area, including a large warehouse where 2,000 are thought to have been slaughtered. Its walls were still splattered with bullet holes and blood.
U.S. spy agencies say they will provide satellite photo evidence to help pinpoint mass grave sites. Mr. Goldstone says he needs NATO escorts to protect his investigators and nATO guards to prevent sites from being disturbed.
But NATO commanders say they will only “secure” the grave sites, not provide guards.
Whatever the official language, there must be ways to NATO to ensure that Serb war crimes are solidly documented. Without an occupation, no one can force the Serbs to confront the evidence. But concrete proof of Serb war crimes may prevent the kind of denial that fuels future wars.