Understanding the Balkan Conflict

By Sinclair-Loutit, K. W. C. | Contemporary Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Balkan Conflict


Sinclair-Loutit, K. W. C., Contemporary Review


THE responsibility of the Serbs for the political, psychological and material desolation with which they have chosen to surround their own frontiers and for the way they are using misery to push these frontiers forward is quite uncontestably their own: but why are they behaving like this? When and where did it all start? Human behaviour is not random, it owes much to the past experiences of the group in which it occurs. That in the embryo ontology recapitulates phylogeny is a law of natural science, it also applies in the fields of sociology and of politics. So what does the past tell us?

France, Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Italy, even Spain and the United Kingdom all share a common European inheritance. The old Habsburg territories also had this heritage with its own special Koenigliche und Kaiserliche tinge -- Franz Joseph was King (Koenig) and Emperor (Kaiser) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by the House of Habsburg for over six centuries. This multi-national conglomerate covered the Danube basin and Central Europe. The double 'KK' is invoked even today in half joking nostalgia for those older times before the 1914 assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo when life was gracious and is remembered as having the atmosphere of a perpetual waltzing Christmas. At any rate there was no ethnic cleansing or mass rape. But east of a line drawn from Riga to Dubrovnik there is a way of living that owes more to Byzantium than to Rome. It owes nothing to the Renaissance or to the Protestant Reformation or even to the Enlightenment.

My own experience of Serbian reactions at the end of World War II does shed a light on a pattern of thinking which differs from that in the West. Living in Belgrade brought me for the first time into close contact with this culture, and with its corresponding social structure. The difference from our own more westerly philosophy is profound and is manifest every day, and it is of every day things that I am writing.

In the seventh century the quakefish Paulicians saw the temporal world as the shelter of all evil, they wished to worship God directly without Holy Images, without Icons, without priests and without the Eucharist. In Constantinople the Empire of the East took deviations in matters of faith very seriously; by the time the ninth century arrived iconoclasm was being outlawed and the Paulicians had been given the option of renouncing their errors or to be killed. An army had been put into place to make this point plain. Since the heretics believed firmly in their chosen path there was a massacre and 100,000 are reported to have perished by hanging, drowning, the sword and even by crucifixion. All their property was confiscated and the few that escaped took refuge on the Moslem side of the Saracen frontier. Their heretical religion continued to spread, bringing the Bogumils to Bulgaria and to Bosnia (to say nothing of the Albigensians, the Cathars in France). This enriched our own language with the word 'bugger' as we had failed to understand their theological arguments against the perpetuation of human presence in a world viewed by them as inherently evil.

By 1189 the Bogumils of Bosnia had converted their ruler to their beliefs. Under Roman pressure he recanted and Bosnia was faced with an Hungarian Crusade. The ruler prudently lapsed back so the Bogumils triumphed, they burnt the Bishop and banished the Episcopate. Then followed the piston blows of history: just as the Slavs coming from the Pripet Marshes had hurled themselves into the Balkans so came the Turks into Serbia and Bosnia. To take this latter territory the Turks used Christian Serbian Orthodox conscripts. In the words of the contemporary Ragusan Archive 'the whole of Bosnia was laid waste and the Barons ... prepared to exterminate each other'.

The mild Bogumils then did the only sensible thing: they accepted the Turks, went into their service and eventually the vast majority converted to Islam -- a religion that is monotheist and puts no priest between man and his maker which went very well with the Bogumils' original beliefs. …

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