Ethnic hatreds have in the last hundred years led to some of the most barbarous episodes in European history. I have just finished reading Brian Hall’s account of the beginning of the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into independent republics, The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia. Again and again, he is brought up short by the mutual hatred of Croats, Serbs, Muslims, and the other peoples of that sad Balkan land. Toward the end of his book, the author muses:
It had now become a truism among journalists, including veterans of Vietnam, Angola, Cambodia, and the Gulf War, that Yugoslavia was the most dangerous assignment any of them ever had, the principal reason being that the Serbs seemed to be deliberately targeting them. Croats and Albanians had a history of getting what they wanted by ingratiating themselves, sometimes shamelessly. with one or another of the great powers, and so, by extension, their natural inclination was to seduce journalists. But the Serbs, used to relying on themselves, felt such calculation was beneath them, so at first they had simply shut western journalists out, while Croats and Albanians had taken them to dinner…. Then, when the Serbs perceived in western newspaper reports what any fool could have predicted, namely a Croatian and Albanian point of view, they could only conclude that journalists were enemy agents, and the only response they could think of was to start shooting. In short, of all the elements of the Serbs’ self-serving self-image, the truest was that they were stunningly stupid in their straightforwardness.
The weird thing was that Croats and Serbs spoke the same language—Serbo-Croatian—though they insisted that Serbian and Croatian were separate languages. Croatians were mostly Catholic, and Serbians were mostly Orthodox. The Croatians used the Roman alphabet, while the Serbians used the Cyrillic alphabet.
I am reminded of the famous “Let That Be Your Last Battle” episode of the original Star Trek, in which space aliens whose faces were black and white were in a life and death struggle with those whose faces were white and black.
The Serbs were ultimately the biggest losers in the Yugoslav breakup because they constantly whined that other people did not understand them; at the same time they acted in such a way that nobody could side with them. The defining moment of their history is their loss to the Turks at the battle of Kossovo in 1389 AD—very much like many Southerners see their defining moment as their Civil War loss to the Union.
So beware of ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural prejudices. When they continue unchecked, violence is the inevitable result.