“Big Daddy Tito’s Will”

Yousuf Karsh’s Portrait of Josip Broz Tito

One day after writing about the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, I came on a short, pithy, and intuitive summary written by John Le Carré in his last novel, Silverview (2021):

Six tiny nations squabbling over Big Daddy Tito’s Will. All fighting for God, all wanting to be top dog, and nobody to like.

In case you missed that lovely era, Josip Broz “Big Daddy” Tito was the leader of Yugoslavia from the end of World War Two to his death in 1980.

Doesn’t he look remarkably like Field Marshal Hermann Goering?

Stupid in Their Straightforwardness

Scene During the Siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia

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.

Frank Gorshin in the “Let That Be Your Last Battle” Episode of Star Trek

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.

The Man Who Destroyed Yugoslavia

Slobodan Milošević

Slobodan Milošević

He was the 3rd President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1997-2000), 1st President of Serbia (1991-1997), and the 14th President of the Presidency of the Socialist Republic of Serbia (1989-1991). I am referring to Slobodan Milošević, the leader who took his country down a rat hole, was responsible for thousands of deaths by genocide (which he called “ethnic cleansing”), and died while awaiting trial at the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague.

Although he initially ruled a nation of Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians, Albanians, Macedonians, Muslim Bosnians, and Hungarians, in the end he was only interested in changing diverse Yugoslavia into a Greater Serbia. Most of his crimes involved his preferential treatment of his fellow Serbs, mostly in the Yugoslavian Republics of Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where forces under him or allied to him committed devastating massacres of men, women, and children, including large scale rape and torture.

I am currently reading Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation by Laura Silber and Allan Little (New York: Penguin, 1997). Although twenty years have passed since the first edition came out in 1996, the book still reads like today’s headlines.

It shows what can happen when the elected leader of a democracy decides to take sides on behalf of a particular population and, at the same time, act prejudicially against others. (That’s one of the reasons I am so against a political party being responsive only to, say, angry white males.)

The United States is a diverse country very like the old Yugoslavia. It wouldn’t take much effort to break the country into warring fragments. That’s what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot decided to persecute or kill city dwellers. Also Hitler’s Germany with its antisemitism and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s persecution of Christians and Baha’i. And, needless to say, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh’s attacks on Christians, Yezidis, and non-Sunni Muslims of the approved flavor.