The Uses of History: Reflections on the Fall of Yugoslavia

Report of an 10/23/03 "Beyond History and Memory" seminar, a series cosponsored by the Council's History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program and Columbia University.


Kai Erikson’s project here is exploring what causes violence to break out between people who have lived peacefully as neighbors for the majority of their history. How do people with similar customs and life-styles, living and working side by side, often even intermarrying, begin to see themselves as belonging to ethnically distinct and hostile groups, and how does this breakdown into polarized identities lead to extreme acts of violence? Can the process be foreseen? What can the memories of people who lived through this process themselves tell us about how it started and spiraled out of control? In addressing these questions, distinguished sociologist Kai Erikson described his many journeys to the town of Pakrac, in the former Yugoslavia, beginning during the war in 1992, and the interviews he conducted with current and former residents of the town.

Neighbors into Enemies

Pakrac is a town in Western Slavonia, now part of the post-Yugoslav independent state of Croatia. The town was settled by Serb refugees during the Hapsburg period, and by the 1990s the population of 8,200 was roughly half Serb and half Croatian. Close to half the marriages in the town were ethnically mixed. In 1991, the town was divided by the UN down its center, with Serbs on one side and Croats on the other. The line of demarcation separated former friends, neighbors and families; many inhabitants of the town found themselves separated from at least one parent. During “Operation Flash,” in 1995, the town was overrun by the Croatian Army, after which it became part of Croatia, with most Serb inhabitants fleeing to Serbia, frequently to the town of Banja Luka, which, in its turn, had been “ethnically cleansed” of its many prewar non-Serb inhabitants.

Erikson made a first, unexpected visit to the town in 1992, from Austria, where he was working on an unrelated project. He was struck by the tragic and rapid change in Pakrac’s fate and the fact that, despite many authoritative statements in the international press and by policy-makers about the roots of the violence, very few studies, in fact, have been done of memories and attitudes of survivors of this kind of conflict. Since then, Erikson, together with two co-workers, has interviewed over 250 people. Some were interviewed in Pakrac itself and some, former residents, were traced to places where they had found refuge and interviewed there.

An selection from an interview illustrates the kind of questions raised by what happened in Pakrac: a returning Croat whose own house was destroyed by the fighting was asked why he chose to blow up a Serbian neighbor’s abandoned, inhabitable house rather than move into it. He answered only, “It seemed like the right thing to do.” What, asks Erikson, do answers like this mean? Was the Croat’s action revenge? Was the house of his former neighbor polluted for him? How accurate is the image of a multi-ethnic society undermined by secret channels of mutual hatred that are always ready to break out and overwhelm it—an image found in the work of native writers like Ivo Andric and outside observers like Rebecca West, and now so commonplace that they have become clichés in speaking of the Balkans? And do the local people agree with it?

No one interviewed by Erikson or his associates shares this view of a history of animosity, which inevitably led to conflict. Everyone interviewed agrees that there was no history of ethnic hostility in the region from the end of World War II until 1991. An awareness of ethnic distinctions did exist but there is no proof that hostilities are somehow characteristic of certain groups or regions, including the Balkans. The question then becomes, how did people who had lived together in relative harmony come to see other groups as so utterly alien?

What Erikson did find is that Croats and Serbs of Pakrac agree on some facts about the course of events following Tito’s death in 1980, when space appeared for the advancement of nationalist leaders and the movements they built. However, significantly, each group tells the story differently, emphasizing different events, and the role of the press contributed to the widening of the gulf between the two groups. Finally, all events began to seem to the protagonists like part of a pattern; every incident began to have a meaning related to hostility, suspicion, and preparations for war and violence. Paranoia became ubiquitous.

A telling fact is that every Croat interviewed believes that Serb neighbors knew the attack on the Croats by the Serb army was coming and could have warned them—and every Serb denies it. The picture is complicated by the fact that plausible evidence supports parts of each account: for example, Serb and Croat farms and houses are indistinguishable, and the army was composed of outsiders, but nonetheless it only dynamited Croat homes, which has led Croats to believe that Serbian neighbors must have told the army whose homes to attack. What is universal is the sense of betrayal on both sides. (In this town, locals did not for the most part participate in the violence themselves, but in addition to the possibility of betrayal of neighbors to outside forces, local Croats have often treated Serbs trying to move back or check on their houses with hostility or evasiveness, even when the returning person was a neighbor or former friend.)

One result of this sense of betrayal, which destroyed the fabric of the earlier society, is the new homogeneity of towns like Pakrac. In addition, and throughout the region, people for whom the differing ethnicity—usually largely defined by religious affiliation—of their neighbors was of little importance now have retreated into shelters of strongly defined ethnicity; for example, once secular Croats, Serbs and Bosnians have now become more observant Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

Finally, Erikson’s research explores the roots of what has been called “the narcissism of small differences” in times of violence, the magnification of what should be insignificant differences between different ethnic groups that has been seen so tragically in places like Northern Ireland and Rwanda. One of the most disturbing and inexplicable aspects of the conflict in the Balkans was that of bodily mutilation. In trying to formulate an explanation, Erikson refers to what he calls the “shattering of the mirror of similarity between those who became enemies.” One of the great difficulties that the people of Yugoslavia faced is that it was impossible to distinguish the designated Enemy from oneself, so alike were all the people. And despite the fact that all reliable scholarship reveals that the greatest number of atrocities came from one group (Serbs), each side inflicted on others what they claimed their group had suffered, and in various accounts of the violence, if you remove certain key words (“mosque” or “church,” for example), it becomes impossible to distinguish which side is speaking, so alike are the accounts of events.

Based on his interviews, Erikson hypothesizes a kind of “projection strategy” which consists of this unacknowledged psychological process: “You and I are alike. I know what you think. I can sense that my only defense is to strike you. My actions are thus your fault, and so my atrocious behavior is yours.” Put in other terms, similar thinking by the Enemy is attributed to the undeniable similarities between members of one group and those of another, which is followed by the assumption of the Enemy’s intention to do harm, and the belief that the evils I myself committed originated in my Enemy’s mind. Read this way, the accounts of bodily mutilation carried out across the region can be understood both as a way to mark, or differentiate, members of groups which were in fact very similar but had been designated enemies, and also as a way to punish the Enemy for causing the violent acts one is committing oneself.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Can you elaborate on the developments which led to the final events in the region?

KAI ERIKSON: The role of the press has not yet been sufficiently explored. It apparently created a level of discourse in which identity, not so important before the years leading up to the conflict, was reified and widely accepted. Lurid reporting took place at a level that would not be recognizable to us here in the U.S. today, and created both a strong sense of fear and a perceived need for militancy. In addition, there was the role of bands of young men who acquired arms and were mobilized, people who in other societies might be called sociopaths. They were recognized for what they were in the former Yugoslavia but somehow they were able to set a spiral of violence in motion that could not be checked. Behind the press and these armed gangs were groups and individuals who were trying to get power and the spoils of power, local leaders as well as national. They understood the useful role of fear, the power of instability and of a social vacuum. We cannot underestimate the ease with which people get drawn into conflict once they hear reports about members of their own group being harmed.

QUESTION: Were there any examples of neighbors who maintained their neighborliness? If so, how do we account for the existence of both kinds of examples?

KAI ERIKSON: Little work has been done by sociologists on this issue; mostly it is journalists who have written on it, and many of their descriptions are very good. There are definitely examples of one group helping another during the war, protecting the property of neighbors who were driven away, for example. It is worth noting that the hypothesis that most damage in civil wars is done by neighbors with grudges has not been borne out by my research. The phenomenon has only been reliably reported as being a factor in behavior within the detention camps.

QUESTION: What was the fate of the many mixed families in Pakrac?

KAI ERIKSON: In the rural world, the greatest allegiance is still to blood ties, not those made by marriage. Those urban people of the former Yugoslavia who had intermarried were much less affected than the population of the countryside and small towns, so some intermarried people who moved to the cities remained together. Of those that remained in Pakrac, many couples separated and remain so. About 50% of mixed couples seem to have stayed together, and of those, about 50% did so by moving to the cities. Children of families that split up were forced to choose between one parent, one identity and another.

QUESTION: Based on these interviews, how do you conceive the difference between international war and civil war? In general discussions, wars tend too often to be mixed together; there appear to be striking differences and perhaps these are not stressed enough. Civil war is apparently a totally different animal from, say, an Ottoman invasion of the region, where trust would not have been expected even before the invasion. Is it true that in the case of civil wars there is a prewar level of trust inherent in the society which has been shattered, with much more disastrous results for social reconstruction?

KAI ERIKSON: I agree with this analysis. A breaking of trust is never such a big issue when an outside aggressor is involved. That is why partition seems like a solution so often because it restores a sphere where people can trust one another, only now based on perceived similarity. There is in general a distinction between disasters that happen naturally and those that come about through acts of betrayal among a people who have lived gathered together. When a neighbor becomes an enemy, the situation is intolerable.

--Contributed by Senior Program Officer Lili Cole

Further Reading:

Return and Trust Rebuilding Project, Pakrac [DOC].
Description of a reconciliation project organized by a local non-governmental organization, the Center for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights, based in Osijek, Croatia, which was founded during the war.

Erikson referred to these two seminal works in his talk: Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina is a classic, if grim picture of the relations between the various peoples of the region—Turks, converted Slav Muslims (Bosnians), Orthodox Serbs, Roma (gypsies), Jews and Catholic Croats—throughout their modern history. In the novel, violence between these peoples feels fated and inescapable; individuals seem to be moved like chess pieces by the forces of fate. Erikson’s findings indicate that this artistic rendering of Yugoslav history is not the whole picture—but the novel is referred to so often, by inhabitants of the region as well as by outsiders, that it is well worth reading.

Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, a detailed description of her travels through the region in the early twentieth century’s one of the most beautiful pieces of travel writing in the English language, although it is misleading in the sense that it reinforces the notion that ethnic enmities in the Balkans run deep and can be understood as the basis of the 1991 eruptions. The book foreshadows the century of violence which awaited the region West knew and loved, but also catches the compelling nature of the Balkans, its mixed population and its history as a crossroads where great empires rich in diverse cultures met, clashed and left behind traces of their presence in art, music, architecture, cooking and festivals.

Kai Erikson’s earlier work examined how communities react to disaster, particularly natural disaster, and began with a study of the town of Buffalo Creek after a devastating flood, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (Simon & Schuster, 1976). More recently he has become interested in the distinct reactions to disasters that are manmade, including accidents at nuclear facilities and environmental disasters such as toxic leaks. A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma and Community. (W.W. Norton & Co., 1994) is his comparative study of the impact of several such disasters on communities and their citizens. Erikson’s as-yet unpublished multiyear study of the town of Pakrac adds to this research the factor of interethnic conflict, how a community reacts to a disaster in which all forms of destruction are the results of deliberate human violence, not just negligence, greed or human error.

Read More: Reconciliation, Europe, Postwar Reconciliation, Europe, Yugoslavia (former)

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