Forged Memories

History is the collective memory of a society. Individuals can be manipulated by tampering with their recollections (see Christopher Nolan’s eerie Memento), but doing this to societies is much easier. Personal memory is at least derived from human senses, unreliable as they may be. History is based on written interpretations of events that the authors most often did not witness themselves, which makes it even less reliable by several orders of magnitude.

An important distinction must be made here. The society itself cannot manipulate its own memories. For this to happen, there needs to be an outside force, something above the society that would rewrite history through some form of coercion or deception: the State.

Of course, a desire to control the society to such an extent that manipulating its very memories becomes necessary falls squarely in the domain of demented totalitarians. History is not yet re-written daily, as if in some sort of Orwellian nightmare, but it is being re-written with alarming frequency and to great extent, in order to suit political purposes.

The Balkans has exemplified the consequences of Imperial conquest, the true nature of democracy and a promise of things to come. Little wonder, then, that it can also serve as a case study for widespread manipulation of collective memories.

Manipulating Minds

Saying that abuses of history in the Balkans began with the collapse of Communism in 1989 would be just as wrong as the Communist dogma that history began in 1945, or the ludicrous neocon notion that it has somehow "ended." Instead, one could note with reasonable accuracy that manipulations occurred in the process of creating the Balkans states in the mid-to-late 1800s. The newly established states had a vested interest in constructing a national identity that emphasized territorial, cultural and even racial continuity with the Middle Ages, thus strengthening their existence and claims to territory.

The first Yugoslavia (1918-1941) was a product of massive historical engineering that attempted to lump three distinctive societies into one nation. To say it ended very badly would be an understatement. The second Yugoslavia (1943-1991) was also founded through historical engineering, of an even more ambitious scope. Its end result was also bloody and tragic.

Yet even as the second Yugoslavia was being torn apart, its successors were relying on historical engineering to establish their legitimacy. Thus the vicious circle continued.

Wastelands of Quasi-Reality

One specific example is the way various actors chose to explain the wars which ripped through the western half of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. In Serbia, they are seen as wars against illegal secession of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia from Yugoslavia. Croatian authorities call it the Patriotic War and insist it was a struggle against Serb occupation of Croat territories.

Croatia also claims that the Serb occupation was a result of a rebellion, fomented and aided from Belgrade, as one anonymous witness of the Hague Inquisition is also alleging this week. Zagreb thus claims a Lincolnian right of suppressing a rebellion – one which has been proven imaginary and illegitimate.

Many Serbs also erroneously claim the "Lincoln defense" in respect to the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and especially Kosovo. Yet the United States were a voluntary union of independent states (until Lincoln redefined it, in his own bit of historical engineering), while the Yugoslav "federation" was a Communist edifice of political convenience.

Bosnian Muslim leaders insist on framing the war as one of Serbo-Croat aggression and genocide – with the Croat component played up or down depending on the circumstances – in which the only two constants are the absolute villainy of the Serbs and the absolute innocence of the Muslims. This theory wears thin with the passage of years and the ravages of truth, but it has nonetheless become a cornerstone of Muslim ethnic politics.

Inquisitors and Imperial Apologists

Historical manipulation in the Balkans has never been limited to the regional actors. Austria-Hungary was especially active in propagating various pseudo-historical myths between the 1878 Congress of Berlin and the end of World War One. Nazi Germany indulged in historical engineering when it partitioned Yugoslavia in 1941, as did Churchill and Stalin when they agreed to share influence at a Yalta lounge in 1945.

Trying to explain the Balkans cataclysm of the 1990s has been one of the most profitable cottage industries for pseudo-historians and quasi-experts in the West, until the aftermath of Black Tuesday brought about a rapacious demand for books on Islamic terrorism instead. Widespread ignorance about this corner of Europe offered endless opportunities for quick money and easy recognition through penning not-so-cheap pamphlets and crude propaganda tracts.

The predominant thrust of these works can be seen from five pieces that are by no means easy. Among the most notable is Laura Silber and Alan Little’s Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1996), a collection of interviews interspersed by commentary, constructed around the thesis that Slobodan Milosevic was chiefly responsible for the destruction of Yugoslavia. While correlation does not imply causation, it is worth noting that the Hague Inquisition and most of the Imperial establishment share this view.

More radical Imperial elements tend to blame the entire Serb people; Tim Judah’s The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, (Yale University Press, 1997), and Kosovo, War and Revenge (00) are written along those lines.

By far the most scholarly-looking, and therefore most insidious, are Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia: A Short History (New York University Press, 1994) and Kosovo: A Short History (HarperCollins, 1999). Armed with a host of Austrian, German, Turkish, Albanian and Croatian sources, Malcolm literally creates a distinctive history for both Bosnia and Kosovo that directly supports their modern rulers’ claims to independence. Malcolm ignores all facts that do not support his argument, making his "histories" highly misleading. Needless to say, they have provoked furious response, but continue to sell – not least because they seem to the only histories available.

Ironically, one non-historical work has true historical value. Richard Holbrooke’s To End A War (Random House, 1998) describes this Imperial legate’s efforts to conquer the Balkans. It is by no means Caesar’s Comentarii De Bello Gallico, though its author’s ego easily matches the famous Roman, but it does represent a first-hand account of Empire’s shenanigans in the Succession Wars endgame. Though pompous, ignorant, crass and often painfully trite, To End A War is best when Holbrooke recounts the actions of major players at the Dayton peace talks in November 1995. The book also openly admits that US intervention in the Balkans was part of a strategy to reassert US leadership (i.e. dominance) in European affairs. It is a paradox: an attempt at manipulating history that reveals it instead.

Ubiquitous Forgeries

Unfortunately, pseudo-histories have many more avenues of influence besides the easily challenged books, from popular culture to daily news reports. The "trial" of Slobodan Milosevic before the Hague Inquisition is nothing but a giant exercise in historical engineering. In fact, attempts to rewrite history occur in the Balkans on a daily basis.

When the UN Secretary-General deliriously rambles about "overcoming the legacy of the past" in Kosovo, that’s rewriting history. So is, after a fashion, the indictment of Albanian militants for murders of other Albanians – "alleged victims" of a "war of liberation." When Serbia’s PM Djindjic complains about government officials using the Hague Inquisition for political purposes, he is not merely a hypocrite: he is also trying to cover up his own political manipulations – i.e. rewriting (recent) history.

Soon enough, no one will know if their own memories are real, if what they recall ever really happened.

Welcome to 1984.

Facts And Fiction

Facts tend to get in the way of good fiction, though. It is entirely obvious from both the words and deeds of official Belgrade that it never opposed secession in principle or in practice (except in Kosovo, which was a special case), but merely insisted on the Serbs’ right to secede as well. Croatia was hardly "occupied" by Serbs who actually lived in those disputed territories – that is, until they were expelled en masse in 1995. By the same token, over a million Serbs who are a constituent nation in Bosnia can hardly be considered "aggressors."

Albanians who claim Kosovo as their own and detest "Serbian occupation" have no historical leg to stand on, nor do the NATO interventionists who in the spring of 1999 committed a clear act of aggression while acting against a fabricated "genocide".

In all honesty, the 1991-95 conflicts should rightfully be called the Yugoslav Succession Wars, as they centered around territory in dispute after Yugoslavia’s demise was tacitly accepted. On the other hand, events in Kosovo, Macedonia and the Presevo valley (southwestern Serbia) since 1998 suggest a barely disguised Albanian expansionist campaign, with the ultimate aim of achieving an enlarged Albanian state in the southern Balkans.

The Properties of Truth

To recover from their recent calamities, let alone prosper, people in the Balkans – anywhere, really – need to know who they are and what happened to them. The collective schizophrenia caused by historical manipulations makes it virtually impossible to find those answers. Modern Balkans is an edifice built by force and lies. Both the local rulers and the Empire rely on both to justify their existence and ever-growing power.

In order to be free, one must own oneself. And what is oneself without memories? Just so, for a society to be free, it must own its history. As long as that history is a forgery, that is impossible. After two centuries of statist manipulation, this is as good a time as any to face the facts.

Truth liberates.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.