Diana Johnstone on Goldhagen and the Serbs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Dec 15 16:26:34 MST 1999

[Concluding paragraphs of a Diana Johnstone article titled "Collective
Guilt and Collective Innocence" in the latest Covert Action Quarterly,
Fall/Winter 1999]

As the bombing intensified, and the more gung-ho of the NATO warriors
(notably the British) pressed for a ground invasion, Harvard professor
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen came along with the ultimate justification not only
for a "taste of suffering," but also for conquest and occupation of Serbia,
by likening the displacement of Kosovo’s civilians to the Holocaust,
Milosevic to Hitler, and the Serbian people to ‘Hitler's willing
executioners," to use the title of the book that gained him his notoriety
as "genocide expert. Goldhagen’s premise is that, like Germany and Japan in
the early 1940s, Serbia in the 1990s "has been waging brutal imperial war,
seeking to conquer area after area, expelling unwanted populations, and
perpetrating mass murder."

This Harvard scholar builds a structure of assumptions on nothing more
solid than erroneous impressions gleaned from years of distorted media
coverage of the Balkans. The house of cards goes like this: Milosevic was
an extreme nationalist" and a "genocidal killer." He and the Serbian people
were "beholden to an ideology which called for the conquest of Lebensraum,"
they were in the grip of "dehumanizing beliefs." In pursuit of "an
eliminationist project" they set out to eliminate the Albanian population
of Kosovo, in an action reminiscent of the Holocaust. Therefore, the only
remedy is the same remedy as that applied to Nazi Germany: Serbia must be
conquered, de-Nazified and reeducated by the West.

These assumptions are all false. Of course, innocence is always harder to
prove than guilt. The Inquisitor knows that everyone is guilty of
something. The Serbian people cannot all be blameless for everything, as
they would probably be the first to confess. But neither are they or even
Milosevic, guilty of everything that has gone wrong in the Balkans for the
past decade. The disintegration of Yugoslavia is a complex event with
multiple causes which can reasonably be debated for some time by honest
scholars. Other leaders who share responsibility for the disaster have had
an interest in putting all the blame on their Serbian adversary Blaming
Milosevic has distracted attention from the responsibility of all the others

The Goldhagen thesis about Serbia is not merely academic. This Harvard
professor has deliberately attempted to motivate an aggressive war of
conquest. His grave and unsubstantiated accusations are incitement to
hatred of an entire nation.

Goldhagen claims that, like the Germans and Japanese in the early 1940s,
the "majority of the country’s populace" in Serbia "believed fanatically"
in the rightness of criminal actions. This is simply and wholly untrue. The
majority of Serbs do not agree on much of anything; many perhaps most,
Serbs readily and willingly acknowledge with regret that Serbs have
committed crimes during the civil wars and believe such crimes should be
punished. However, they also believe, indeed they know (because it happens
to be true), that similar crimes have been committed by others and that the
United States and other NATO countries have adopted double standards.

Goldhagen declares that there will be no peace in the Balkans "as long as
the Serbs continue to harbor the burning hatred of ethnic nationalism." The
Serbs, he claims, are "now caught in the grip of delusions, hatreds, an
ever-more-belligerent society and culture, war, and death."

But why can this not be turned around to claim that, for instance, Harvard
professors are "now caught in the grip of delusions and hatreds"? The
evidence would be what Harvard professors, or at least one of them, says
about the Serbs—and the others are not denying it, or removing him from his
position. The case here is probably stronger against Harvard professors
than against the Serbs, since one will look for a long time to find such a
vicious tirade by a Serb against Albanians or anybody else, and the
proportion of Serbs who would subscribe to such a blanket condemnation of a
people is certainly less than the proportion of Harvard professors, even if
Goldhagen is the only one.

The outlandish conclusion of this Goldhagen tract is that the Serbian
people "consists of individuals with damaged faculties of moral judgment
and has sunk into a moral abyss from which it is unlikely anytime soon, to
emerge unaided." By "supporting or condoning Milosevic's eliminationist
policies" (which, incidentally never existed except in the imaginations of
New Republic writers), the Serbian people "have rendered themselves both
legally and morally incompetent to conduct their own affairs" and "their
country must be placed in receivership."

This should be done by a NATO invasion, in order to give Serbia the benefit
of the same treatment that de-Nazified Germany The "criminals’ supporters,
composing a large percentage of the Serbian people, need to be made to
comprehend their errors and rehabilitated." Since there never was an
"eliminationist ideology" of "virulent nationalism," it will be a hard task
indeed to make the Serbian people give it up. But proof of success is
already at hand. ‘if people accept that it was both morally correct and
wise to occupy and transform Germany and Japan in 1945, it follows that
they must endorse, in principle, the desirability of pursuing a similar
course in the Serbia of 1999."

So Goldhagen has a schema. In his schema, neither Hitler’s Germany nor the
Holocaust were unique events, but models, patterns, that are reproducing
themselves and will probably continue to do so. A bad country in the grip
of a bad ideology attacks everybody around; it commits genocide; the
populace sees nothing wrong with that and even applauds, since it is filled
with "the burning hatred of ethnic nationalism"’ moreover, this errant
country is prey to "delusions" that it itself is the victim. But there is a
solution to this problem: the "international community" a/k/a the United
States and its military allies, must conquer the errant country, punish its
leaders and "rehabilitate" its inhabitants by teaching them all how to be
politically correct.

As those who really remember World War II, Hitler, and Nazi genocide grow
old and die off, we are seeing a sad but no doubt inevitable and
oft-repeated process: the transformation of history into myth. And not just
any myth, good for story books: the sort of active myth that is used for
assertion of power. The mythical event is ritualistically repeated to
cement the community and reassert the legitimacy of its identity World War
II has become the source not of wisdom but of self-justifying myth.

For a long time, an extraordinary quantity of lies about Yugoslavia have
been sent into circulation, taken up, and fervently believed. The original
motives for lying are not sufficient explanation for this phenomenon. Why
people in power tell lies is the easy part. The hard part is why other
people believe them. The lies about Yugoslavia quite evidently fill a gap
and meet a need that goes beyond strategic bases on the way to Caspian oil
or other purely rational reasons—which exist but are not adequate to
explain an illusion of such proportions.

>From Fukayama’s ‘end of history" to Huntington’s "conflict of
civilizations" and now to "humanitarian warfare," the United States
establishment has been groping recklessly for Big Ideas to accompany the
New World Order. A constant characteristic of these big ideas is a total
cynicism cloaked in a ruthless self-righteousness. There is never any
critical self-examination (the basis of what used to be moral conscience),
the motives of the power with which the ideologues identify being above any
possible reproach. "Our" system, "our" civilization, "our" values have been
certifiably proven the best by ‘our" defeat of communism. The only moral
question that remains is what we need to do to bring the others in line. Is
it easy (Fukayama), difficult (Huntington), or a welcome challenge to NATO?
Goldhagen is contributing to development of the third possibility, the one
known as "humanitarian warfare."

Yugoslavia has been the "common enemy" needed to bring Europe and the
United States together in a new missionary NATO. This new moralizing
Atlantic union obviously corresponds to U.S. strategic interests. But
European NATO leaders and media have bought into the demonizing of the
Serbs with equal enthusiasm, nowhere more than in France. The French
response, because the most surprising, may be the most significant. During
the bombing, there was greater protest, more critical analysis, in Italy
and even in Germany than in France, which historically was Serbia’s closest
ally in Western Europe. Moreover, while the United States and Germany can
be seen to have strategic or economic interests to advance in the Balkans,
it is difficult to see how France will get enough of the pickings to make
up for what the Kosovo adventure is costing her. Does this mean that the
French have been more genuinely idealistic? That they believe in the
"humanitarian war"? To an extent, perhaps, all the more in that the French
media have on the whole been singularly biased for years, and that the
French are particularly ill-informed about recent events in former
Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, in the higher spheres of official circles in
France, the war is widely viewed as an American power play and not at all
as a humanitarian venture. Yet public criticism is practically inaudible.

The French elite that runs the government, the economy, and the media has
for years now been totally dedicated to a single project: European union
built around a close partnership with Germany and sealed with a common
currency as the only way for France to survive in the competitive world of
U.S-led "globalization." There is widespread ennui, if not yet exactly
disillusion, with this monetary Europe. This "Europe" is made up of too
many technocrats, too many obscure regulations, too much hype about the
euro, too many lobbies, and not enough jobs, too much competition and too
little common purpose.

The European Union is in need of a common identity more spiritual than a
common currency These days it can’t be religion; Christianity is not only
out of style, despite the Pope as Superstar, it is politically incorrect to
identify Europe with Christendom, since this would risk implying exclusion
of other religions. Both anti-communism and anti-fascism are out of date.
What is left? Human rights.

Europe needs a moral identity The perfect formula, especially for France
which is proud of having invented the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme, is
human rights-especially human rights as a creed that transcends national
boundaries and justifies the abandonment of long-cherished national
sovereignty required by the European Union’s treaties of Maastricht and

In 1994, a number of European intellectuals, mostly French, organized
meetings and even an ephemeral electoral list around the slogan, "Europe
lives or dies at Sarajevo." This was in fact extravagant hyperbole. But it
caught the need to associate "Europe" with a dramatic cause, equal to the
Spanish Civil War, and the intellectuals feeling this need grasped onto a
totally idealized "Bosnia" as the symbol of this "Europe" that, rather than
an economic powerhouse technocratically organized to take its place
alongside the United States in world domination, was actually a tender bud
of multiethnic civilization in danger of being trampled to death by a new

A constant characteristic of these big ideas [the New World Order] is a
total cynicism cloaked in a ruthless self-righteousness... "Our" system,
"our" civilization, "our" values have been certifiably proven the best by
"our" defeat communism.

Yugoslavia was the first crisis to be poured whole into the mold of the
ideological myth of World War II. Milosevic became "Hitler," the Serbs
became the new "Nazis" and their adversaries were all victims of a
potential new "Holocaust." The eagerness with which European intellectuals
believed the "unbelievable," exclaiming "we thought it couldn’t happen
here" without taking the trouble to find out whether in fact "it" was, or
perhaps wasn’t, happening here, perhaps merits the term Schadenfrettde.
There was a sort of pleasure in the damage, and the pleasure was that of
discovering our collective identity as "the West."

If they are guilty we are innocent.

They, of course, are the terrible Serbs, guilty of everything the Germans
used to be guilty of under Hitler. But now, the Germans are innocent and on
the side of the angels, as well as the common currency Nazism has been
replaced as the evil that Europe, and Germany, must eliminate.

We, on the other hand, we are (on the West end of the Atlantic) America,
the New World Order, the one last best hope of mankind and so on; or, on
the East side of the Atlantic, the new Europe of the European Union, the
exact opposite of the Old Europe of wars between nation-states, that wicked
Europe whose surviving (but not for long) remnant is Serbian Yugoslavia.

This is a ritual for anthropologists to describe. Myth is built on history
and transformed into a ceremony whose roles must be assumed by succeeding
players on the stage of history Finally, the scapegoat. Yugoslavia bears
all the sins of Europe’s past, it represents everything Europe is not, or
does not want to be. It must be destroyed. After the bombs, an embargo.
Ostracism, further destruction, until nothing is left.

In Serbia, thoughtful people are struggling with the question: What can we
do? Even if Milosevic miraculously resigned tomorrow, there could be no
certainty that his successor might not quickly be hailed by western media
as Hitler’s latest clone. The job would  be made easier by establishment
career moralists such as Goldhagen ready to expound on the "moral abyss"
into which the Serbian people are plunged, unable to extricate themselves
without being "placed in receivership," that is, under a NATO protectorate.
And the destruction could go on until conditions are ripe for the required
national lobotomy of the miscreant people.

Caught in such a death trap, how responsible, now, are the Serbian people
for what is happening to them? And how responsible are we?

Louis Proyect
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