Lessons from the Balkans: Tactical, strategic, psychological and spontaneous uses of extreme violence.

Stunningly good conversation on Start the Week this morning on BBC Radio 4. You can catch the whole lot here, but the clip above begins with this penetrating opening statement from the Balkan writer Aleksandar Hemon:

What happened in Bosnia, people always try to explain it as thousands of years of hatred: which of course is lazy, easy and inaccurate. I always thought that the extreme violence in Bosnian and particularly around Sarajevo was directly proportional to strength of the bonds that had existed at least for a few generations before that. And that the violence had to be so intense as to tear that apart and make any reconciliation impossible or at least very hard to achieve over several generations.

So rather than the consequences of thousands of years of hatred, it needed to break up families. It need to drive a wedge between neighbours who had lived together for so many years. And this was a strategy on the part of the Serbs in particular and they utilised inhuman potentials that humans have in more ways than one. But it was a political strategy. This required in some ways, advanced thinking, tactical, strategic and psychological and perhaps spontaneous.

They knew what they were doing. So that in the siege of Sarejevo there were so many arbitrary crimes, you know, children shelled, snipers shooting people running to get water, but it was precisely so that no one would be able to forgive the next generation. In other words to establish the conflict as eternal and perpetual.

But do, if you have the time, listen to the whole thing

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  • Fascinating Mick.

  • Mick Fealty

    I have to say it was the BBC’s rolling news narrative from Balkans conflict which never, despite the months and then years of that conflict, got any deeper than ‘centuries old conflict’ narrative. This is what started my unscratchable itch with 24 hour rolling news.

    This conversation, by contrast, is framed by historians… we had simpler go at the same subject in our digitallunch before last…

    There’s a number of passages later that really leap out at you, but I thought Hemon’s opener was fascinating and deeply perceptive…

  • aquifer

    So not an ethnic accident, a pre-planned strategy.

    In 1930’s Spain the militarist juntas even had a dress rehearsal a few years before, and built a wide ranging conspiracy, before launching a war of rolling extermination against Democrats Republicans and Socialists. A live Radio soundtrack ranting and raging against Arabs Jews Bolsheviks and Freemasons and urging merciless and vindictive atrocities against men women and children. German and Italian heavy weaponry gave pace and impact to the murderous social dislocation. British and French democracies standing aside, accepting the simple lies of the generals.

    Men and their weapons are a big part of this. Yugoslavia had a huge military establishment as it perched between the Eastern and Western Blocs, and those battlefield weapons were turned on innocent civilians. Spain had a colonial army used to inflicting a barbarous terror in Morocco.

    As the proportion of civilians who die in conflicts rise, we should decide that the practice of the fascist method, the tall tale with its motorised armed escort, is unacceptable.

    In the Balkans it was American bombers that shook the bombast out of the murder and rape gangs.

    How do you feel about that?

  • Several historians have suggested that the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1920s and ‘30s was in part related to the exceptional integration of the Jewish community into wider German society at the time. While that may initially seem counter-intuitive it does explain some aspects of the Nazi obsession with the carefully regulated degrees of Aryanism (or of Jewish “influence”) and why so many Third Reich officials had Jewish relatives or antecedence. Marriage to Jews by non-Jews had become remarkably commonplace in 19th and early 20th Germany.

    Much the same argument has been made about the rise of anti-Semitism in France in the late 1800s where again members of the Jewish community made the successful transition to becoming full members of French society (the Dreyfuss Affair, etc.).

    Examining the Irish Revolution and the Easter Rising in particular the number of leading Republican and Nationalist activists from mixed faith backgrounds is quite astonishing (accounting in part for the exceptional vitriol reserved by some leading Protestant Unionists for their co-religious who fought on the Republican side). Dublin and Belfast in particular were veritable hotbeds of revolutionary republicanism, mixed-marriages and mixed-faith off-spring. Yet Dublin never witnessed the same levels of communal violence as Belfast despite a significant and quite militant Unionist population.

    One might suggest that the extreme violence of the British separatist minority in the north-east of the county during the Irish Revolution was in part designed to divide and conquer semi-integrated communities in some regions, in much the same way as the Serbs in the Balkans. They needed to divide the communities local to the north-east of Ireland and in turn divide the north-east from the rest of Ireland. Hence the pogroms or ethnic-cleansing of 1920-24. Many mixed-faith families were targeted in particular by the British terror gangs as my own family history testifies to.

    The War of Independence in the north of Ireland had the Irish Republican Army playing more of the role of defender than liberator and was quite different in tone to the conflict in most of the rest of the country.

  • John Ó Néill

    I think the comparison with how the strategic use of violence and genocide by the Nazi’s is interesting, but I am not sure if all the elements were present in Serbia (although it would be illuminating to see if they were).

    As a comparative case study, the Nazi party has been subjected to much more detailed research and some of the outlines are clearer now. The preparation for genocide in Germany began with the department which managed the euthansia programmes known as T4 (blandly named after the address of the office in Tiergartensrasse). Whether this was intentional or fortuitous in supplying staff who had been blooded for the task, many of the euthanasia programme staff participated in the Aktion Reinhard, the death factories whose sole function was the mass-killing of selected population groups (eg Jews), which are distinct from the more widespread konzentrationslager.

    Gitta Sereny, in her book Into That Darkness, gives a case study of Franz Stangl, who served as commandant at Sobibor and Treblinka. Stangl, Sereny suggests, is typical of those who were employed to perform the mass killing. They were from the margins of the Reich – Sudetenland, Austria, eastern German communities, Alsace-Lorraine etc. Sereny reckons this element of their psychology was leveraged to get them to perform extreme tasks. First this happened in policing or filling medical roles at euthanasia facilities, once implicated within this process, it did not take much for them to be then progressed to the Aktion Reinhard death factories. It appears, from Stangl’s career and experience, that he was interviewed by senior SS officials (eg Odilo Globocnik) at key stages to assess his suitability for his graduation on to roles deeper and deeper within the genocide programme. In Stangl’s perspective, or as part of the myth he chose to believe afterwards, Globocnik and others utilised weakness in Stangl’s psyche and the fact that, having overseen the deliberate killing of the physically and mentally disabled at euthanasia centres, he was already guilty of the crimes committed by the Nazi government.

    While there was clearly some knowledge of T4, Aktion Reinhard and the general policy of the ‘Final Solution’, there was no public disclosure of the mechanics, other than at high level events, such as Wannsee, which functioned to include senior ranking officers and officials in the crimes of the Nazi government, thus implicating them and psychologically leveraging them to associate their future safety from prosecution (or even public defence of their actions) with the continuation and success of the regime.

    I am not sure whether the same level of detail exists yet regarding how Stalin motivated his underlings to facilitate mass murders in the Soviet Union (since it was largely a Stalin-initiative). But clearly, there was a sense of imperium in the Soviet Union wherein individuals were compelled to, or simply did act, often against their own moral compass, to gain greater intimacy with the central power network that controlled the Soviet Union (see Ryszard Kapuściński’s book Imperium).

    In all the cases, a central strategic purpose of the violence is to strengthen the hold those in power have over the perpetrators. In many ways the victims are often incidental as the violence serves the purpose of perpetrating power, rather than seeking mass killings or genocide in their own right. This seems to be often misunderstood as the psychological preparation for the task often requires those who do the actual killing to become blind to the humanity of those they are about to kill. This moral corruption tends to be much more visible and is often mistaken for the underlying strategic motive.

  • Mick Fealty

    I don’t want to get too distracted down the Nazi root (not least because I suspect there are other lessons to be drawn here), but since people are adding value here’s a video re-enactment of the Wansee conference that was sent to me recently:

  • Framer

    Well the IRA certainly succeeded by running an otherwise pointless 30-year war ensuring good community relations were doomed for generations.
    They also literally decimated the Protestant population which may have been the primary aim.
    Oddly, like the Serbs they had an ideology which spoke of the exact opposite – Communism and Republicanism.
    It certainly makes one realise both ideologies were sick, brutal and barren.

  • Mick Fealty

    Framer, just to add a temperate observation on the meaning of the word decimate, from the free dictionary on the word:

    Usage Note: Decimate originally referred to the killing of every tenth person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. Today this meaning is commonly extended to include the killing of any large proportion of a group. Sixty-six percent of the Usage Panel accepts this extension in the sentence The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war, even though it is common knowledge that the number of Jews killed was much greater than a tenth of the original population. However, when the meaning is further extended to include large-scale destruction other than killing, as in The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, only 26 percent of the Panel accepts the usage.

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – I think there is some value in cross-referencing to studies of the mechanics of the mass-killings the Nazis initiated with the mass killings carried out in the Balkans since so few such actions have been studied in sufficient detail to have any sense of the motivations of those who actually carried out the killings.

    The other aspect which was partly discussed in programme – describing what was going on as the outworking of a ‘thousand years of hate…’ is little different to the normalisation policy that promotes a particular narrative by removing any context to conflict: here as ‘Ulsterisation’ (which was just copying the Vietnamization policy of the US, which in turn merely copied the jaunissment strategy of the French Union in its territoires in Indo-China). One of the most abused terms of the conflict here was ‘tit-for-tat’ which was ostensibly used to present many killings are purely reactionary and not connected to any wider strategy*. The purpose of this was to try and defuse any validity claimed by non-state actors, just as there were strict rules governing how paramilitary structures and roles could be described. In terms of reconciliation processes, the obvious hangover to this is that those mourning the deaths of many of the victims do not even have the consolation of a framework in which to place their loss other than some factional exchange of murders. This hardly promotes the possibility of a reconciliation and merely perpetuates many of the associated attitudes.

    The obvious problem is that you cannot just dial everything back and go again and do it differently.

    *A great starting point for anyone who wishes to think a bit more about any of this is to check out Bill Rolston and David Miller’s War and Words: a Northern Ireland Media Reader, the contents of which are listed here.

  • Framer

    When I said decimate Mick I meant decimate.

    The Protestant population has gone from 1,000,000 to 900,000.

    Not all dead I agree.

  • Mick Fealty

    John, just to clarify, I do agree that it’s very much worth pursuing. That’s why I put the video up since it shows that some Nazis went to Wansee thinking that some Jews were better than others and therefore worthy of saving.

    The conversations depicted there seemed to be slightly mad, psychotic even, since they are conniving at the most inhuman acts in one of the most cool and stylish suburbs of Berlin yet using the language of science and rationality and law even to make their ‘strategic’ decisions.

    I’m old enough to remember tit for tat. I don’t know who invented it but it had high currency amongst non combatants because it seems to describe very well what was going on, and the arbitrariness of such a high volume of apparently senseless killings.

    If there was a greater sense to the actions of those non state actors (and I am sure there was), they were not great at articulating why so many unarmed civilians had to die, often after abduction and lengthy torture. Though often not.

    Nice one Framer. But you cannot seriously blame the RA for a strong generational differential in the Protestant and Catholic birth rates…

  • John Ó Néill

    Back in 1970-71, there was still tension in the role news broadcasting should play: it didn’t (and many journalists thought it shouldn’t) break news, but rather should merely report on what had already been reported elsewhere (ie to be ‘secondhand’). From 1971 both the BBC and IBA operated a reference upward system. By this time the army information policy unit was activated and shaping the vocabulary of news reporting. The BBC also issued guidelines in late 1971 and applied only to the IRA (until 1979). Much of this is described in more detail elsewhere (eg Liz Curtis’ Ireland: the Propaganda War). BBC Northern Ireland policy was to strictly monitor how it reported the news. Ciarán MacAirt has a great section on the army Informarion Policy Unit in The McGurks Bar Bombing (Paul Foot and others have written in detail about it as well). The coincidence of the ‘secondhand’ reporting created a void that the Policy Unit filled to actively manage the news. Obviously no-one could know how long the conflict might last in 1971 – once the army began to manage the news there was no rolling back on how that was done. So much of the language people use to describe the conflict (and assisted in conditioning attitudes) was offered up for its own purposes by Information Policy,

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Some nice points that could easily be cut ‘n’ pasted to our neck of the woods (as I’m sure was the idea…)

    09:40 – “no one is biologically a pure celt…”

    10:50 – “… presiding of one identity over the other…here is the false historical pedigree to prove it…”

    12:19 – “…post conflict irreconciliation…”

    14:31 – (about finding ways to connect) “…rather than project into a heroic past in which we were always victims and therefore all of our wars were justified…”

    Sasha’s opening statement is very interesting and very scary as it begs the question how many moderate/normal/easy going people have a ‘tipping point’ after which they will retreat into the bosom of the tribe and passively support the tribe’s transgressions?

    With that in mind, was the Poyntzpass double murder in ’98 not based on the idea of ‘keep to your own sort’? My memory is fuzzy on that one…

    In NI, who has the most ‘to lose’ (perceived or otherwise) if we could dismantle our self-imposed barriers and overcome the reluctance to mix more?

    I was in Sarajevo for my honeymoon (old school romantic or what), it’s very easy to fall into the trap of drawing parallels and comparisons with our own backyard with regards to watching the trinity of nationalism, religion and politics turn ordinary people into monsters.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    No denying that the IRA’s carnage caused an exodus of many of the Protestant people.

    What is seldom given credit as being a major incentive for Protestants to leave Northern Ireland is ‘other Protestants’.

    I have lost count of how many Northern Irish Protestant ex-pats I have encountered who baulk at the thought of returning home not because of the threat of Republican violence but purely because they find the surroundings of back home amongst their own community truly suffocating after having ‘come up for air’ in a more ‘normal’ part of the world.

    Yes, same could be said of many young people who come from rural areas in countries all over the world, but I think it’s particularly acute in Norn Iron’s young Protestant community.

    Just to walk into a ‘Protestant bar’ and count the minutes before someone (who is to all intents and purposes ‘decent’) uses the word ‘f****n’ or jumps down your throat because you may NOT want to see Celtic or RoI get pummelled in a European game.

    To be treated with suspicion because you might like Celtic mythology, folk sessions or quite like the idea of saving the Gaelic languages or because you might not be overly keen for the local lodge to walk down a nationalist street in the name of ‘tradition’.

    It’s a Protestant ‘tradition’ to blame Nationalists for all their ills and it’s built on equally sandy foundations.

    Protestants can’t undo the IRA’s damage till they leave people alone to get on with a normal life and let them opt out of all the nonsense that consumes a horrifying number of their* community.

    I’m not saying that you do, but it can’t be denied that far too many do.

  • Mick Fealty


    Malachi O’Doherty describes a confrontation with Army PRs the night of McGurk’s bomb in his book The Telling Year. We also know about black ops and the placing of false stories and withholding of evidence from Colin Wallace, an ‘information officer’ who segued into intelligence.

    But beyond all that, it’s hard to get beyond the mass slaughter of civilians in the years 71-75 as anything other than the broadcasting of terror. Surely? We certainly know from the work of Pete Shirlow, Seamus Kelters and others that pre-existing bonds were broken if not for the pre-troubles generation then their children and grandchildren.

    Whatever the intention (no need to quote Che again, I hope?) the extreme violence has certainly achieved a generational sundering and mistrust…

  • While there was clearly a loyalist strategy to ethnically cleanse parts of Belfast of Catholics in 1969, most subsequent ethnic cleansing was the work of criminal elements like the Shankill Butchers and the future leader of the Red Hand Commandos. Much of the sectarian loyalist killings of Catholics were pursued out of a combination of fear and incompetence: they didn’t know who the IRA and INLA members were and they thought that killing ordinary Catholics would put pressure on nationalists to rein in the republican terror organizations. They had little knowledge of communal politics among nationalists.

    This is different from in the former Yugoslavia where Slobodan Milosevic had a deliberate strategy of using ethnic nationalism to preserve his power after the collapse of Communism. He used criminal militias in pursuing that strategy by sending them into eastern Croatia, Bosnia, and kosovo to carry out massacres, loot and ethnically cleanse an area. There has been no credible evidence that the terror pursued by the loyalists was directed by the British government in London (which sent the army into the province in August 1969 to put a stop to it) or by the UUP. The only real tie to the unionist establishment was some individuals who were associated with Ian Paisley back in early 1969 long before Paisley was part of the establishment.

    There is evidence, however, of a systematic campaign by the IRA to ethnically cleanse Protestants out of some rural areas, particularly west of the Bann. This was done under the guise of attacking “legitimate targets” but in many cases involved people who had left the security forces years before. When I was in Belfast in 1998 doing research there was an American sociologist also doing research who told me about interviewing an IRA member who admitted that ethnic cleansing was the goal.

  • Mick Fealty

    That last I suspect is not something we’ll ever get to see in print, so whilst there is strong evidence of such an effect there is also a high corelation between those killed and membership of the UDR/RUC Reserve.

    Nevertheless the Provisional leadership played their role in escalating a communal war that the previous leadership knew as early as the 50s would have a disastrous effect on community relations.

    But only real parallel is not the intention but the effects of extreme violence. It drove people and communities to separate. It’s likely no coincidence that ‘separate but equal’ rather than ‘shared future’ is now the watchword emerging from a Stormont Castle.

    “Safer apart?”

  • @Mick,

    Ever since 1969 there has been separate and gradually since the early 1970s a more equal–at least in formal legal terms–status. Until most nationalists and unionists have a shared education in which they experience each other on a daily basis other than the unseen people tossing bottles over a wall they will remain separate.