Balkan Ghosts: The Lessons for Europe Two Decades on from the War in Bosnia

By Cooper, Robert | New Statesman (1996), October 4, 2013 | Go to article overview

Balkan Ghosts: The Lessons for Europe Two Decades on from the War in Bosnia


Cooper, Robert, New Statesman (1996)


This year marks the hundredth anniversary of a largely forgotten conflict, the second Balkan war. This was a nasty affair that does not arouse much interest today. But it is worth looking back in the light of our own experience of the third Balkan war from 1991 to 1999 and from the perspective of what has happened in the past 20 years.

The first Balkan war began in October 1912 and ended in May 1913. It might be described as a war of self-determination. The countries of the region took advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman empire, exposed by Italy's seizure of what is now Libya, to push the Ottomans almost out of the Balkan Peninsula. The fighting stopped at the gates of Constantinople. After a pause for breath, lasting not much more than a month, the victors-Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro--began a war among themselves over the division of the territory captured.

The second Balkan war was shorter than the first (six weeks rather than eight months) and, if anything, nastier. There were atrocities in both, as there are in all wars. But while the first Balkan war was mostly a military-to--military affair, in the second the target was often the civilian population. If you could establish that a piece of territory was inhabited by your people--Serbs, Bulgarians or Greeks,--then you could claim it as a part of your national territory. This was therefore a war about people as well as territory: whether a village was Serb or Bulgarian might decide whether its inhabitants lived or died.

There were not many eyewitness reports in the newspapers of the day. But such reports as there were alarmed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, established only three years earlier. It decided to pursue its founder's aims by investigating what had happened and making it known. To do this it sent a small fact-finding team to the region, including a British journalist, Henry Brailsford (who wrote, inter alia, for the New Statesman), and the Russian historian Pavel Milyukov, both of whom had personal experience of the region.

Their report told a story that seems all too familiar today: a war that sometimes had for its objective "the complete extermination of an alien population", in which villages were burned, rape was used as a weapon and streams of refugees and the wounded were left to fend for themselves, with many of them dying. The members of the fact-finding mission found that, to get anywhere, they had to work their way around official obstruction, and after that through a mass of exaggeration, distortion and lies. Many who were involved in the Balkans in the 1990s would recognise the experience.

Carnegie republished the report on the earlier Balkan wars in 1993, as historical background to the events going on at the time. The great American diplomat George Kennan contributed an introduction. The parallels between 1913 and 1993 were, as he pointed out, inescapable. Military technology had changed, and the revolution in communications made the events much more visible in 1993, but the objectives and methods of those fighting were the same. In many ways the war of the 1990s was worse: it was longer and the deaths were at least double those of the second Balkan war. Kennan was writing in 1993 and there were two more years of atrocities to come in Bosnia, followed by a bitter peace, and a further war over Kosovo.

Twenty years on, the similarities remain; but the differences are also striking. In his introduction to the original report the president of Carnegie's Balkan commission, the Baron d'Estournelles de Constant, had written: "All this horror will not cease as long as Europe continues to ignore it." Europe and everyone else made many mistakes but no one can say they ignored what was going on.

In many ways the Europe of1913 knew better what to do. When the fighting stopped, the great powers--Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France and Britain--met in a conference convened by the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to arrange an orderly settlement of the new borders. …

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