Mark Mazower on ethnicity and war in the Balkans (updated 1997)


  Ethnicity and War in the Balkans

Mark Mazower  University of Sussex”Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot,” observed an American painter arriving in Sarajevo in 1925. “Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.”1

Today these words ring oddly in our ears. The casual reader of the international press over the past two years has been left in little doubt that the most obvious feature of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and perhaps its prime cause, is “ethnicity.” The region, we are told, is not merely of great ethnic complexity, it supposedly has a history of ethnic tensions stretching back centuries. Contemporary geo-politicians seize on the war in Bosnia as evidence that–ethnicity is replacing ideology as the motor of global conflict. This is a great burden for a small war to bear. In what follows, I wish to explore both what has been said about Bosnia, and what is happening there, in order to raise some doubts about the current obsession with “ethnic identity.”

One year ago the military historian John Keegan, writing in the Sunday Telegraph referred to the fighting in Bosnia as “a primitive tribal conflict only anthropologists can understand.” He argued that sharp consciousness of ethnic differences had spurred on different groups to fight one another in an internecine struggle. Keegan’s analysis was prescriptive: like many other commentators with similar views, he believes that this is a civil war in which the West has no business intervening. His political outlook, however, is based upon a deeper conceptual division of Europe according to which a primitive southeast is contrasted with a developed and civilized (North)-West (with an intermediate, largely Catholic, zone desperately trying to distance itself from its former Communist neighbors and to assert its more civilized character).

Keegan’s conceptual map of Europe unwittingly recalls Carl Pletsch’s famous analysis of “the Three Worlds.” Pletsch argued that during the Cold War, the social sciences had divided up the world in accordance with certain prevailing assumptions in the West about the path from tradition to modernity. Thus, the “Third World”–a site of competition among the two more developed worlds and still benighted by traditional values–became the province of anthropology: the rationalistic urban and industrial societies of the “developed world” were left to sociology and political science; the Eastern bloc was hived off into a separate area studies ghetto where experts could assess the distorting impact of Communist ideology upon the modernization process. In this admittedly rough outline, the place of politics was filled in the Third World by tribal, religious, and family sentiments and passions.2

Following Pletsch, then, Keegan has–to put it crudely–situated Bosnia in Africa. Invoking the tensions of a supposedly irrational, traditional (and ultimately primitive) society becomes not simply a way of separating the Balkans from the rest of Europe, but of dispensing with further analysis of the war. The deeper implication is that peace and democracy are unattainable without the “radical surgery” of a David Owen to separate the different ethnic groups by fighting, if necessary, or population transfer and partition. Taken further, such views suggest that in the absence of a thorough-going secularization and modernization, the chances for democracy are slim.

Now what gives this type of analysis its plausibility is the obvious ethnic diversity of the Balkans. History and topography have combined to make Bosnia perhaps the most ethnically variegated region in what was always one of the most ethnically mixed parts of Europe. Yet, even so, there are several obvious problems with Keegan’s arguments.

The first is conceptual: what does “ethnicity” mean in the Yugoslav context? It does not refer to language, the usual marker of ethnic identity in Eastern Europe, since Serbo-Croat in one form or another is spoken throughout the region. Nor is it a question of biological or physical differences–Serbs, Croats, and Muslims are visually indistinguishable and apparently descended from the same Slavic peoples. It is fairly clear that the primary criterion of ethnic identity is religion. Yet religion can hardly have been said to have been the main cause of the fighting, even if it has provided useful symbols for mass mobilization.

The second problem is historical: far from ethnicity having been a perennial source of bloodshed in the Balkans, most of the conflicts in the region have not been ethnic in origin or character. One need, for example, go no further back than the First World War to find Serbs fighting for the Central Powers against Serbia. In fact, it was really only fifty years ago, during the Second World War, that ethnic criteria exercised a major influence on the course of conflict. The Croatian ustache genocide of the local Serb population is commonly cited in this regard. In addition there were Mihailovic’s chetniks, Serbian nationalists fighting for a greater Serbia. Both ustache and chetniks recruited (and selected their victims) on the basis of ethnic exclusivism. Yet many Croats and Serbs did not join their ranks, and indeed opposed them. Similarly some Albanians and Bosnian Muslims formed militias which collaborated with the German and Italian occupiers, while others fought them in the partisan movement. It is difficult, in other words, to see even the Second World War in terms of an ethnic conflict.

This raises the third difficulty, primarily a sociological one, with Keegan’s view. To what extent were ethnic tensions evident in Communist society? Again, the evidence is far from clear. On the one hand, the national leadership in Belgrade drew upon the language of ethnicity to facilitate its handling of local politics in the various provinces; on the other hand, marriage across ethnic lines was extremely common, particularly in Bosnia. Urbanization probably encouraged such a trend. Yet even in the villages, where everyone knew who was a Serb, and who a Croat, consciousness of ethnic identity can hardly have been said to have led to social conflict under Communism.

In Bosnia as in much of Eastern Europe, localism was as important in shaping affiliations and loyalties as ethnicity. In Sarajevo, the inhabitants of each and every ethnic background referred to themselves as Sarajevli (“Sarajevans”), contrasting themselves with the uncultured peasantry of the villages. And in those same villages, women of various ethnic backgrounds often achieved a greater intimacy in daily life with each other than with women of similar ethnicity from other villages.

One might say that the memory of the violence of the Second World War had at least two opposite effects: for some, it confirmed and intensified a sense of solidarity along purely ethnic lines, while for others, it emphasized the danger of ethnic division and the need to build a more integrated society. As studies of village life in post-Civil War Greece have shown, it was often a new generation which took the lead in this process by the simple expedient of falling in love across the ethnic divide, or leaving for the towns. Thus in the current conflict it is clear that some of the Serb leadership, such as General Ratko Mladic, fall into the first group, while others, like the Serb Chief of General Staff in the Bosnian Government Army, fall into the second.

It is easy to see why some commentators have interpreted the Bosnian war in terms of an assault by the village on the city. This, however, is only marginally preferable as an interpretation to Keegan’s. That mutual suspicion exists between town and country is not in doubt. Yet that is hardly what prompts wars to break out. The massive armaments superiority which enabled the Bosnian Serb nationalists to begin hostilities in 1992 was not manufactured in barns and stables. Moreover, rapid urbanization in the postwar period has blurred the distinction between urban and rural populations. The leaders of the Bosnian Serbs are, like many of their followers, urban professionals who moved out of their native villages several decades ago. What, then, were the causes of the Bosnian war and what is their relation to the issue of ethnicity? The key seems to me to lie in the relationship of ethnicity not to history or society, but to politics and power. It is in the struggle for power following Tito’s death that ethnicity assumes a central role.

In the background lies Milosevic’s espousal of Serbian nationalism as a strategy for guaranteeing Serbian power after the collapse of communism, as well as its consequences, the emergence of opposing nationalist factions in Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. On the one hand, it is true that Milosevic’s success indicates the persistence of nationalist sentiment among the electorate in much of Serbia and elsewhere. At the same time, however, it is useful to note that a vital element of his strategy has been the deliberate inculcation of a sense of ethnic allegiance, whether through grandiose public spectacles or through the state-controlled media. History, in particular the massacres of the Second World War, have been pressed into service as a way of building public support for an increasingly militarized policy. Thus we now find Serb nationalists referring to themselves as chetniks and to their Croat opposite numbers as Ustache, after the movements of half a century ago.

As for the immediate causes of the war in Bosnia, they are fairly clear-cut. Fighting started in March-April 1992 when the war in Croatia petered out. Why? Because this was no spontaneous conflagration but a planned assault. Following the same tactics as in Croatia earlier, but enjoying even greater superiority in armaments, a combination of Serbian paramilitary units and Army troops attacked key towns and expelled the non-Serb population.3

The sequel is well-known and unnecessary to repeat here. What is germane to my subject is the impact of the war upon the question of ethnic identity. The fighting has changed people’s sense of their identity in remarkable ways. It has, to put it simply, created new realities.

Fully one-third of all marriages in Bosnia had been inter-marriages; these people, together with many others who were not inclined at the start of hostilities to identify themselves exclusively in terms of one or another ethnic group, have come under tremendous pressure to do so. This, of course, was the aim of the Serbian nationalists in starting the fighting. But Western policy has pushed increasingly in the same direction, as international negotiators, notably David Owen, insisted upon treating the conflict in terms of ethnicity. For example, routine Western references to the Bosnian Government as a “Muslim Government” influenced the power struggle taking place inside Izetbegovic’s SDA party between those who wanted to fight for a multi-ethnic state and those who wanted to cut their losses and create an essentially Muslim entity.

Similarly, the fighting which broke out between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia in the spring of 1993 was directly attributable to the Owen-Vance plan which proposed the creation of ethnically-distinct cantons in the area. Villages were radicalized along ethnic lines, not because of ancient memories or past atrocities, but because of a vicious struggle for power induced by Western “peace” proposals. It is worth noting that at the same time that this fight between former allies was going on, Muslim and Croat forces in northeastern Bosnia were continuing to cooperate against the Serbs, as indeed they still do.

In large measure then it has been war itself–first as a spectre and then as a reality–which affected people’s sense of ethnic identity. If true, this must surely lead us to ask what the impact of peace might be. The lesson of the last war seems to be that the impact varies according to the individual. But this innocuous conclusion is in itself revealing since it suggests that ethnic divisions created by war are not necessarily decisive in shaping postwar social relations. What matters is the nature of the political system which emerges at the same time.

Let us generalize a little from the Bosnian experience. I have tried to explain some reasons to be cautious in ascribing a central causal role to ethnicity in starting this war. The temptation to talk about “age-old ethnic hatreds” should be avoided. But does this then lead us to a world of “imagined communities”? Is a sense of ethnic identity a purely modern invention?

There is much to be said for this view. As I have mentioned, one cannot– in my view–understand the war in Bosnia without focusing upon Milosevic and the role of the state apparatus in Belgrade, whose virtual monopoly of both the means of coercion and of communications gave it great power in shaping popular opinion. Moving away from Bosnia, too, the Anderson thesis has much to commend it. Greek historians stress the role played by the newly-independent nineteenth-century state in making Greeks out of a variety of Albanians, Vlachs, Slavs and other Orthodox Romioi, many of whom spoke little or no Greek. Conversely, it is the absence of a state that seems to explain the tardy development of a Macedonian national identity and the non-development of nationalism in poor, isolated areas of Eastern Europe like Poleshie– in eastern (inter-war) Poland– whose inhabitants were said to identify themselves as late as 1940 simply by saying: “We are from here.”

However, if nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Balkans, dating back to the French Revolution at the very earliest, ethnic particularisms are in some respects much older. The administrative structure of the Ottoman Empire separated communities on the basis of religion. Individuals could cross the boundary from one group to another with relative ease, as indeed on occasions could entire populations (like the Donmeh, followers of the False Messiah Sabbetai Zevi who converted en masse from Judaism to Islam in the seventeenth century, or the present-day Bulgarian and Greek Pomaks, who are Islamicised Slavs). Even so, differences of dress, custom, and culture marked the various communities. The important point is that for most of Ottoman history it does not seem to have been ethnic diversity that constituted the major source of tension. Class antagonisms–between landlords and peasants–and struggles within communities over religious practice seem to have been the major motives for riot, insurrection, and conflict before the latter half of the nineteenth century. The klefts and brigands who plagued much of Ottoman Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were essentially profiteers, as likely to prey upon their fellow-Christians as upon Muslims. Only later were they transformed by the myth-making propensities of nationalist intelligentsias into the heroic pioneers of national liberation.4

When the nation-state paradigm was applied to Eastern Europe after 1918, it came up sharp in every case against the existence of large ethnic minorities. The modern state became available as the instrument of the dominant ethnic group to create a model citizenry in its own image. The League of Nations created a system of minority rights guarantees as a safeguard, but this remained ineffectual throughout the inter-war period. Czechoslovakia was exceptional in the moderation of its official policy towards minorities. More typical, perhaps were countries like Poland, where the army burned scores of villages in its campaign of pacification against Ukrainian nationalists. In Yugoslavia, the Serb-dominated police and military suppressed all signs of Macedonian and Croat unrest. The result was to stimulate the emergence of counter-nationalisms, originally expressed in demands for autonomy and decentralization, but intensified during the Second World War with chilling results.5

Did Communism simply keep the lid on these tensions? Not exactly. A metaphor is hardly an explanation. As I suggested in the case of Bosnia, unless one postulates a sort of mass self-deception, one must simply accept that ethnicity was not a major issue in the daily life of most people through most of the postwar decades. It would be more useful to say that Communism constituted a new structure of power–one to which people became accustomed and in which issues of ethnic identity possessed only a limited importance. The question to answer then becomes why things changed in the new political configuration which followed the collapse of Communism in Yugoslavia so that nationalism again became the key to politics. The places to look will be in the corridors of power in Belgrade, Zagreb, and elsewhere rather than the villages and mountains of “traditional Balkan society.”


1. L.G. Hornby , Balkan Sketches: An Artist’s Wanderings in the Kingdom of the Serbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153. 2. C. Pletsch, “The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labour, circa 1950-1975,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (1981), pp. 565-90 3. See N. Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History (London, 1994), and M. Mazower, The War in Bosnia: An Analysis (London, 1992). 4. Cf. J. Koliopoulos, Brigands with a Cause (Oxford, 1992). 5. See e.g. A.J. Zurcher, The Experiment with Democracy in Central Europe (New York, 1933), ch.13; on Serbian policy in Macedonia, H. Pozzi, Black Hand over Macedonia (London, 1935), pp. 125-44.

2 Replies to “Mark Mazower on ethnicity and war in the Balkans (updated 1997)”

  1. Hmmm,
    Given that Mr.Mark Mazower is coming from the west, I as a Bosnian, am surprised with incisiveness and accuracy of his analysis. Rarely this can be seen.

    Thank you

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