Military history


“A Broad Line of Blood”1

BETWEEN THE MASSACRES ON CHIOS IN 1822 AND THE KILLINGS IN 1876 that became known colloquially as “the Bulgarian horrors,” many of the political elements in the equation altered. The Ottomans had acquired a “Western” veneer, from their black frock coats referred to as “Stamboulines” to the trappings of constitutional government. In 1839 and again in 1856, Sultan Mahmud II’s successor, his son Abdul Mejid, issued decrees that outdid Western governments in their paper idealism. Slurs and insults directed at Christians, such as Kaur and Kaurin (anglicized as Giaour), were officially banned.2 In the Crimean War, between 1853 and 1856, the ostensible cause of British and French intervention against Russia was the protection of Turkey from Russian attack. These motives were, of course, scarcely altruistic, but a degree of “Turcophilia” slowly developed in the West.3Byron had articulated the struggle of the individual dragged down by a cruel and corrupt state. Now, as the Ottoman state proclaimed reform, a new cycle of attraction rather than revulsion began.4

Not everyone believed that the Turks had changed. William Ewart Gladstone later described Britain and France as determining “to try a great experiment in remodelling the administrative system of Turkey, with the hope of curing its intolerable vices and making good its not-less-intolerable vices.”5 More and more Westerners had witnessed Ottoman government at first hand. Christian pilgrims traveled to the sites in Palestine, and inevitably suffered the vagaries of Ottoman officialdom. Something of the old anger that the land where Christ had lived was under alien rule began to resurface. Meanwhile, farther north, the mountains of Lebanon were racked by intercommunal strife, with Druze villagers (regarded as heretics or worse by orthodox Muslims) killing Maronite Christians, and these events were fully reported by Western consuls in the region.6

In 1860, the intermittent violence developed into a civil war, which suddenly extended to a massacre of thousands of Christians in Damascus by an enraged mob. As many as 12,000 terrified Christians were protected by the exiled Algerian leader, Abd el Kader, who ordered his bodyguards to safeguard those sheltering in his palace. Eventually, the Ottoman government responded and dispatched the foreign minister, Fuad Pasha, with an army and instructions to restore the state’s authority. This he did by executing all Ottoman officials who had failed to prevent the murders and rapes, hanging the leaders of the Damascus killings, levying huge indemnities on the Druze community in Lebanon, and exiling Druze chieftains.7 An Austrian geographer, Philip Kanitz, found a few survivors living squalidly in cages fifteen years later in Ottoman Bulgaria.8 Under pressure from Britain and France, new administrative arrangements were created that prevented a recurrence of civil war between Maronites and Druze.9

Few in the West appreciated the complexity of Levantine politics or the volatility of the Damascus mob. They read accounts of Christians being killed and mutilated, with the Ottoman authorities seemingly complicit (or even instigating) the atrocities. There were even reports of Ottoman officials taking Christians under their protection, confiscating their arms, and then allowing their enemies to kill them. When an Englishman, Cyril Graham, visited the district of Hasbeya in Lebanon, he found evidence of atrocity—rotting corpses, arrogant killers, and official inaction. Graham sensed that he was in the midst of some extraordinary blood frenzy, whence all normality had vanished. He reported how “the Druzes accompanying me made jokes on the bodies, and one fellow showed me a pair of pistols set in silver, one of which had been broken in dashing the brains out of Christian heads.” What also shocked him was the Druze themselves: “I have travelled all over their country … and never met with anything but courtesy; now they speak with great insolence, boast of the numbers of Christians they have killed, and assert they will cut to pieces any force which shall be brought against them.”10 For many, these murders came as no surprise. The Turk had merely (once again) reverted to type.

That was 1860. The news of the mass killing of Christians in Bulgaria sixteen years later produced a response on a vastly different scale. Yet as Richard Shannon observed, “there was nothing new or unusual in the fact of either the [Bulgarian] insurrection or the massacre. Both were endemic features of Ottoman administration. The massacres in Bulgaria were not unusually extensive, and there is no reason to assume that they were unusually atrocious.”11 To put it crudely, the totals of victims in Damascus and Lebanon in 1860 and in Bulgaria in 1876 were not very different. However, the former provoked anger only among those prone to outrage, while the latter caused a moral crusade on a vast scale. In 1877, the eminent historian E. A. Freeman wrote in the Contemporary Review that opposing the Turks had become a moral imperative: “Men came together as if to deliver their own souls, as if their hearts would not rest within them till their tongues had spoken … to wash their hands clean from the deeds of which they had just heard the tale.” For Freeman, “the common earth had received a defilement, and the common human nature had received a defilement which needed some rite of lustration [ceremonial washing clean] to wipe off from the consciences of all mankind.”12 The agent of this defilement was the “indescribable Turk” or, as one Anglican clergyman privately described it, the “most nauseous of all abominations, Mohammedanism.”13

This superheated language had a precedent. Less than a generation before, in 1857, the British public had eagerly endorsed a wide range of atrocities by the British army in suppressing a “Sepoy Mutiny” in India. Newspapers egged on the government to an ever-greater harshness. They were encouraged in this campaign by many leading figures. On October 4, 1857, the novelist Charles Dickens had assured his readers in London that were he commander in chief in India, he would “do my utmost to exterminate the Race on whom the stain of the late cruelties rested … and with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth.” He meant Indians, of all ages, and, presumably, men, women, and children alike. The mechanism of national outrage worked in the same way on both occasions.

Nations in the grip of a mass social panic, whether the British in the face of the Indian mutiny in 1857 or the Bulgarian horrors of 1876–7 or the United States after September 1, 2001, tend to behave in the same fashion. In all these cases, panic was fueled by the written word and visual images. Public rage developed in 1857 as the British read of white women violated and innocent children cruelly murdered.14 In India as in the Balkans there was little organization or serious planning that engendered the initial massacres.15 The counteratrocities, by the British authorities in India and the Ottomans (1822 and 1877), were carried out as an official act of deliberate terror.16 Neither government believed them disproportionate at the time: they saw themselves faced with a massive and all-embracing conspiracy.

A series of disconnected incidents, beginning with strident Muslim resistance to the plan that a new Orthodox cathedral being built in Sarajevo would tower over the sixteenth-century Begova mosque, sparked violence. From 1872 onward there was resistance to Ottoman tax gatherers, with peasants arming themselves and taking refuge in nearby Montenegro. The local authorities responded, as they usually did, with a knee-jerk brutality: by 1876 hundreds of villages had been burned and more than 5,000 Bosnian peasants killed.17 Soon the contagion of rebellion began to seep into the Bulgarian provinces. The threat of a general uprising seemed imminent.

Every piece of revolutionary propaganda received and each intelligence report read served to bolster the fear. Was the government in Constantinople to disregard the terrorist threats made by the Bulgarian revolutionaries? The insurgents wrote: “Herzegovina is fighting; Montenegro is spreading over the mountains and coming with help; Serbia is ready to put its forces on the move; Greece is about to declare war; Rumania will not remain neutral. Is there any doubt that death is hanging over Turkey?”18 In July 1875, at Nevesinje in Herzegovina, the clan chiefs had met and thrown down a challenge to the Turks. One declared:

Ever since the damned day of Kosovo [Polje, in 1389] the Turk robs us of our life and liberty. Is it not a shame, a shame before all the world, that we bear the arms of heroes and yet are called Turkish subjects? All Christendom waits for us to rise on behalf of our treasured freedom … Today is our opportunity to rebel and to engage in bloody fight.19

This guerrilla war, in Harold Temperley’s view, led directly to the revolt in Bulgaria and all that followed. It was a cruel war on both sides. The first things that British consul Holmes saw as he entered Nevesinje were a Turkish boy’s head blackening in the sun, and a bloody froth bubbling from the slit throat of a young Turkish girl.20

In both India and the Balkans fact was quickly conflated with myth. But it was sometimes the myths that stuck in the memory. Yet securing a mass response was not an easy matter: it required a rising sense of drama and horror, a quasi-theatrical style of presentation. Sir Edwin Pears recalled the Bulgarian horrors of 1876 in his memoirs:

They had seen dogs feeding on human remains, heaps of human skulls, skeletons nearly entire, rotting clothing, human hair, and flesh putrid and lying in one foul heap. They saw the town with not a roof left, with women here and there wailing their dead amid the ruins. They examined the heap and found that the skulls and skeletons were all small and that the clothing was that of women and girls. MacGahan counted a hundred skulls immediately around him. The skeletons were headless, showing that these victims had been beheaded.

Further on they saw the skeletons of two little children lying side by side with frightful sabre cuts on their little skulls. MacGahan remarked that the number of children killed in these massacres was something enormous. They heard on trustworthy authority from eye-witnesses that they were often spiked on bayonets.

There was not a house beneath the ruins of which he and Mr. Schuyler did not see human remains, and the streets were strewn with them.21 When they drew nigh the church they found the ground covered with skeletons and lots of putrid flesh. In the church itself the sight was so appalling that I do not care to reproduce the terrible description given by Mr. MacGahan.22

Januarius MacGahan was an experienced war reporter; his first account from the front was published in the Daily News in London on August 7, 1876. On the same day, an official report read out in the House of Commons confirmed MacGahan’s gruesome details. More and more column inches kept Bulgaria in the public mind. A longer and even more horrific dispatch from MacGahan appeared on August 16. Thirteen days later American consul Schuyler’s preliminary report to the U.S. government was printed in full in the Daily News. This added further fuel to the fire. All the earlier warnings, from May 1876 onward, some accurate, others fanciful, were confirmed.23 Gladstone’s pamphlet crystallized an existing popular feeling of horror and revulsion. He began to formulate his own contribution to the campaign against the Ottomans even before he had seen Schuyler’s report. He wrote in a white heat—by September 1, 1876, he had already completed more than half of it.24 Late on September 3 he concluded his text and sent it to the printer. On September 5 all the copies were finished and distributed.

The impact of Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East had no parallel. It sold 24,000 copies on the day it came out, 40,000 in less than a week, and 100,000 copies in the longer term.25 Thousands of other publications appeared. Fresh horrors were exposed. But the appearance of Gladstone’s great diatribe against the Turk in September 1876 was the point at which the anti-Ottoman cause became a juggernaut. The Grand Old Man distilled the historic Christian antagonism to Islam into the incomparable evil of the Ottomans: “Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them, and as far as their dominion reached, civilisation vanished from view.”26

Gladstone had set foot on Ottoman soil only once, in February 1859. He wrote then in his diary, “The whole impression is most saddening: it is all, all, indolence, decay, stagnation; the image of God seems as it were nowhere.”27 Gladstone annotated the books that he read, and also recorded their contents each day in his diary. From this it is clear that in his reading about the East, over some fifteen years, books hostile to the Ottomans were predominant. Only two Turcophile works found a place on the shelves of his library. A passionate philhellene, a scholar immersed in the glories of ancient Greece, his distaste for the Ottomans had both rational and deeply emotional grounds.28 As the massacres took place, he was at work on a book on Homer, and his mind was occupied with the origins of classical Greece. The contrast he saw between the cultured glory of the ancient Hellenes and the gross barbarity of the contemporary Turks gave wings to his pen. The Bulgarian Horrors showed a change in register: Gladstone adopted the style and remorseless aggression of a philippic, not really typical of his powerful but usually more measured rhetorical style.29

Few short texts—it was sixty-four pages in total—can have had a more immediate effect. The British response to the Bulgarian atrocities built up steadily thereafter, over five months. The agitation was fed by speeches in Parliament, cartoons, reports in newspapers, and by public meetings. “The Bulgarian Horrors succeeded so completely because it concentrated into a single utterance a profoundly excited public mood struggling for articulation.”30 But when there were no new incidents and no new reports, public interest waned. It became clear that popular fury could not be sustained in the long term. By 1878, the agitation over the massacres of 1876 had faded, and the British streets were echoing with a new popular song of the hour, directed not at the Turks but at the Russians:

We don’t want to fight,

But by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships,

We’ve got the men,

And got the money too.

We’ve fought the Bear before,

And while we’re Britons true,

The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

In 1876, Britain was the principal focus of outrage, taking on the role that France had assumed over Greece in the 1820s. In 1876, the agitation was fueled by the written word and public meetings, while in 1822, it was images and visual symbols that had been the more persuasive. But most remarkable of all was the essential modernity of the response in 1876: this was a powerful and concerted media campaign that helped to create an acute political polarization, between anti-Turk and pro-Turk, at all levels of society. There was no unquestioning Slavophilia, like the near-universal sympathy for the Greeks in the 1820s. Finally, the reaction was framed within a national political framework. In Britain, Victorian high-mindedness, in its Liberal incarnation, found a natural outlet in condemnation of the Turks, who became a metaphor for the sleazy dealings of the British Tories. Their pragmatic Conservatism began to look tainted and immoral.

If images played a smaller part in 1876 than they had in 1822, perhaps this was a consequence of Gladstone’s dominating presence, both as a public speaker and as a writer of polemics. However, there were some extraordinarily strong visual images that fired the public imagination. On August 5, 1876, two days before MacGahan’s first report appeared, a Punch cartoon entitled “Neutrality Under Difficulties” attacked the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. The cartoon showed the figure of Britannia pointing to a scene where Turkish soldiers were carrying off women and raising babies to meet their swords, amid a forest of heads spiked on bayonets. The prime minister sat calmly reading his blue book over a caption declaring, “Bulgarian Atrocities! I can’t find them in the ‘Official Reports’!!!” A month later, on September 9, 1876, Punch published another and even angrier image: “The Status Quo.” Britannia looks contemptuously at “the Turk,” a bloody saber hanging from his arm. Behind are burning buildings, heads impaled, and dead babies. Turkey demands Britain’s support. The reply is: “Befriend you? Not with your hands of that Colour.”

But the tone of the cartoons soon changed. By October Judy, a rival to Punch, had the sturdy figure of John Bull (a more earthy symbol of England than Britannia) separating Turk and Eastern Christian. Both Orientals are armed to the teeth, and heavily caricatured. But they are plainly equally at fault, and it needed British intervention to keep them in check. The caption declared, “What it must come to.” The bloody-handed Turk had become a portly invalid fed distasteful nostrums by the European rulers.31 By the following year Russia and Turkey were both portrayed as barbarians.32

ANTHROPOLOGISTS USED TO DEFINE A SOCIETY AS A GROUP OF PEOPLE living together at the same time, in the same place, and speaking a common language.33 In the Balkans, making a state from a cluster of microcommunities proved extraordinarily difficult. Drawing up the frontiers for each new nation, on the basis of language or otherwise, was repeatedly frustrated by where people actually lived after centuries of Ottoman occupation. For example, more than 40 percent of Albanian speakers lived outside the boundaries of the Albanian state established in 1913. (Many of them had moved to the safer lowlands, away from the rigors and the blood feuds of mountain life.) There were at least five areas whose national character was constantly being defined or redefined. Macedonia was Greek or Bulgarian or even Albanian, depending on your perspective. Even after 1878, Bulgaria contained many Turks. Thrace remained a battleground between Turks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Greeks. Bosnia and Kosovo proved the most problematical of all. For nation builders there were two main options: either they could incorporate divergent elements and hope to subdue them, or they could homogenize the disparate groups.

Implicit in the concept of the Balkans’ new nations created in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was some kind of transformation. At one level it could be merely freedom from the “Ottoman yoke” and allowing the ancient nation a chance to “breathe free.” This was the naïve enthusiasm that underpinned the notion of a reborn Greece. In Serbia and Croatia, it was rooted in a pick-and-mix attitude to the past.34 The folkloric compilation of ancient songs, patriotic poems, and a carefully edited version of history created what Ivo Banac aptly described as “racial messianism in culture.” It took many forms. Before the First World War, the Croat artist Ivan Meštrović planned a Kosovo Temple, in the form of a Latin cross, with a dome “bigger than St. Peter’s.” A five-tiered “tower of ages” would symbolize “five centuries of slavery”; each tier was to be flanked by figures of the “martyr spirits” and at the very top an eternal torch, a “people’s prayer.”35 His great architectural vision was never built but he later explained the motives behind his design: “What I had in mind was an attempt to create a synthesis of popular national ideals and their development, to express in stone and building how deeply buried in each one of us are the memories of the great and decisive moments of our history.”36

However, these memories could never be shared by one group in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Like the Montenegrins and Herzegovinans, who were subsumed (as Serbs) within the new state, they were not named. The Muslims of Bosnia (Bosniacs) may have shared a language, lived in the same place, at the same time, but their culture was not that of their neighbors.37

Ethnic cleansing, either as “transfer” or the more horrific version that emerged in the 1990s, has affected virtually all the Balkan nations.38 It was, however, not an exclusive product of the “Balkan psyche.” Rather, it can be traced back to the way that the nation-states came into being from the 1820s onward. But no historical process explains the extraordinary violence and hatred that sometimes emerged. How is it to be understood? One answer perhaps lies in the work of the two Nobel laureates for literature from the area. Elias Canetti was born in Ruse on the banks of the Danube in 1905. His ancestors were among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and his first language was Ladino. He was six when he left Bulgaria forever; he ended his life as a naturalized Englishman. Canetti began to write the book that eventually became Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht) in Vienna in 1925. It was finally completed and published in 1960.

The other laureate, Ivo Andrić, was born in a village near Travnik in 1892, and remained immersed in his memories of Bosnia for the remainder of his life. He grew up in a colony—the only colony—of Austria-Hungary. Bosnia-Herzegovina had been notionally under Ottoman sovereignty until 1908, but then even that illusion was ended when it was formally incorporated in the Habsburg domains. But Bosnia and Herzegovina remained anomalous. The territory was ruled not through the governments of either Austria or Hungary but personally by the joint minister of finance acting for the emperor, Franz Joseph I. Under him a huge swarm of bureaucrats administered the country and its people more comprehensively and intrusively than ever before.39 The forty years of Habsburg rule isolated the Bosnians (in particular the Muslims) from the political experience of the other Balkan nations. “Being Muslim the Bosnian way” was a product of that period of isolation, when Bosnian Muslims became part of a largely secular society that was dominated by neither Serbs nor Croats. Nor, of course, did they as Muslims have the privileged position that they had formerly enjoyed under the Ottomans.40

Andrić’s experience of Habsburg Bosnia as a child and young man was instrumental in the topic he chose for his doctoral thesis at the University of Graz. In 1923, he completed a study, “The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule.”41 From his work he concluded that history had created a deep and unbridgeable gulf in his homeland.42 In Bosnia, he wrote in 1954, “there were two worlds, between which there cannot be any real contact nor the possibility of agreement; two terrible worlds doomed to an eternal war in a thousand various forms.” Yet Andrić, who admired the great cultural heroes of the past, like Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and Petar Petrović Njegoš, did as they had done.43 He was conflating the past and the present. The Bosnia that he had known from his childhood and his early scholarship became the Bosnian present. Life did not just mimic history: it was history. He recognized this: “Our traditional and written literature has made the Turks into the wrath of God, into a kind of scarecrow that could be painted only with dark and bloody colours, something that could not be quietly talked about or coolly thought about.”44

An unalterable past manufactured an unchangeable present. His diagnosis was painful to him. One of his characters in Bosnian Chronicle, the febrile and introspective Dr. Cologna, expressed Andrić’s own situation. For someone who knew the West,

to live in Turkey [Bosnia] means to walk along a knife edge and to burn on a low fire. I know this, for we are born on that knife edge, we live and die on it, and we grow up and are burned out on that fire … No one knows what it means to be born and live on the brink, between two worlds, knowing and understanding both of them and to be unable to help explain them to each other and bring them closer. To love and hate both … To have two homelands and yet have none. To be everywhere at home and to remain forever a stranger. In short, to live torn on a rack, but as both victim and torturer at once.45

THE PAST, LIKE THE PRESENT, WAS PARADOXICAL. IN 1939, ON THE 550th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje, Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović had talked of “our national Golgotha and at the same time our national resurrection.”46 World War II brought an end to the Serb resurrection. The state headed by Josip Broz (Tito) in 1945 proclaimed the “brotherhood and unity of the peoples of Yugoslavia” and persecuted all strands of exclusive nationalism. Instead of the triune state of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the new Yugoslavia gave political identity and parliamentary institutions to many excluded from the south Slav idea. Macedonians and Bosnians were both recognized as national groups. Tito’s answer to the problems of majorities and minorities was to abolish the very concept. All were equal within a people’s democracy.47 This supranational Yugoslav identity survived Tito’s death in 1980 by little more than ten years. On June 25, 1991, the Republic of Slovenia was the first to break away from the federal state. But two years before, on the 600th anniversary of Kosovo Polje, the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosević, on the same battlefield had spoken for a militantly revivalist Serbia, and expressed the same ambiguity as Bishop Velimirović fifty years before: “It is difficult to say today whether the Battle of Kosovo was a defeat or a victory for the Serbian people, whether thanks to it we fell into slavery or we survived in this slavery.”

Mobilizing the past to guide the present is scarcely unique to the Balkans. But Balkan myths, whether stories of Kosovo, the tales of Skenderbeg, Njegoš’s Mountain Wreath, or the idea of the unfulfilled nation written by Ljudevit Gaj in 1831—“Long she slept, but she’s not vanquished / We shall wake her and revive”—appear to serve dark and cruel ends.48 A Muslim epic song from Bosnia goes like this:

The bloody frontier is like this

With dinner blood, with supper blood,

Everybody chews bloody mouthfuls,

Never one white day for repose.49

Does this mean that the Balkans were haunted by an inescapable history, cursed ceaselessly to repeat the bloody deeds of the past? The problem was not a curse but a deep belief that history was mother and father to the present. Each time memories of a century—or six centuries—ago were deferred to, they were given new life. Robert Kaplan wondered why Mother Tatiana’s eyes appeared “strangely unfocused” as she told of an Albanian castrating a young Serbian boy. They looked, he thought, as if they had been “blotted out by superstition.” There was another explanation: in her mind’s eye, she was really reliving the past. Hers were foul memories, but conjured up by choice and assembled into a narrative rather as Victor Frankenstein had pieced together his revenant:

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?… I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame … The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased.50

This chapter, like its subject matter, is deeply ambiguous. On one side it denies that “the Balkans” are uniquely given to cruelty and atrocity. On the other, it presents a long string of horrors that seem to prove the reverse. Had I catalogued the most recent Balkan horrors of the 1990s in all their stomach-turning detail, the pages would have been saturated bloody red. For the same reason I also drew back from repeating the famous account of impalement in Andrić’s Bridge over the Drina. There is scarcely a nation in the world that does not have a black past, but there is something special about the way history has been used in the Balkans. The Greeks can legitimately claim to possess the longest and most impressive heritage, but each of the Balkan nations has constructed a clear memory of its own heroic eras: Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serb, Croat, and Bosnian periods of imperial glory have all been carefully recorded. In virtually every case, and often by playing fast and loose with chronology, the idyllic Christian past was deemed to have been brought to a shuddering halt by the Turks. Everything could be blamed on their presence.

In the Balkans, because of the “Turkish yoke,” folklore had a powerfully political meaning. Stories of ancient victories and killings, as in Njegoš’s Mountain Wreath, had a direct symbolic relevance:

The Serbian name has perished everywhere.

Mighty lions have become meek peasants.

Rash and greedy converted to Islam—

may their Serb milk make them all sick with plague!

Those who escaped before the Turkish sword,

those who did not blaspheme at the True Faith,

those who refused to be thrown into chains,

took refuge here in these lofty mountains

to shed their blood together and to die,

heroically to keep the sacred

oath, their lovely name, and their holy freedom.

Our heads withstood the hard test in battles!

Our brave lads have shone like the radiant stars.

Those who were born in these lofty mountains

fell day by day in the past’s bloody wars

and gave their life for honour, name, and freedom.

All of our tears were always wiped away

by the deft sounds of the lovely gusle.

Sacrifices have not been made in vain

since our hard land has now truly become

of Turkish might the insatiable tomb.51

This relevance to the present is missing in the tales recorded by the brothers Grimm, and in English ballads. Only in English-ruled Ireland did the folkloric past provide the language and models for contemporary political action. A stanza of one ancient poem reprinted by Constanza, Lady Wilde, read:

When the Fenian wrath was kindled,

And the heroes in thousands rode to war.52

Irish revolutionaries proudly described themselves as “Fenians” waging war on their English oppressors. In Ireland as in the Balkans, the scholarly work of recording and disseminating the nation’s past provided a coded message against oppression.

Memories of oppression are probably inexplicable to anyone who has not been brought up with them from infancy. These feelings and prejudices are not genetic. They have to be learned. For more than a century the source of most stories has not just been an oral tradition handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, but also the medium of the printed word and the visual image. In many old homes, I guess, there is the equivalent of that back room in my grandfather’s house. Now we can also learn how to hate in new ways: through film, the television screen, and the Internet. Yet the process remains the same. Malediction is mobile: it can shift its target, but it still carries with it all the weight of past opprobrium. In the Balkans after 1922 there were Ottomans no more. They had departed. They had been the enemy in the Slav national epics, and now they were no longer present. But the Muslim Albanians and, to a lesser degree, the Bosnian Muslims took their place as the alien antagonist. For a considerable time the Albanians had acted as the enforcers for the Ottoman authorities in distant Constantinople. The last autocratic sultan, Abdul Hamid II, used Albanians as guards within his fortified palace at Yildiz, trusting his life only to them. When the Balkan Wars ended in 1913, the Turks even insisted that the Albanians should be granted their own state; however, as noted earlier, many were already settled outside its new boundaries.

The Albanians in Kosovo became an object of particular hatred for the government of Serbia. For ultranationalists, the presence of Muslims in the sacred land that Serbs had been forced to abandon in 1690 was insupportable. In the 1980s a series of sensational misdeeds were attributed to Kosovar Albanians, and were considered by many Serbs to illustrate the threat posed by these “aliens.”53 One in particular connected directly to the ancient rhetoric against the Ottomans. On May 1, 1985, according to Yugoslav newspaper reports, a Serbian peasant called Djordje Martinović was attacked by two unidentified Albanian men, who “mistreated him, and forced a bottle into his rectum.”54 The bottle’s neck broke in his anus, causing great pain and physical damage. There were suggestions that the motives might be something to do with land, but no satisfactory causes ever emerged. Then it was suggested that it was in fact an act of sexual self-gratification. Martinović, it was said, had put the bottle on a wooden stick and then sat upon it. But that too went against the medical evidence. At least four different (and mutually contradictory) explanations were eventually advanced.

But in time the facts became less important than the symbolism. Newspapers began to call it “impalement” and linked it to atrocities committed “in the time of the Turks.” This was widely taken as a reference to Andrić’s description of such an incident in The Bridge over the Drina.55 The Serbian Academy of Sciences issued a long memorandum that referred to the Martinović case, and said it was “reminiscent of the darkest days of Turkish impalement.” A writer who had researched the case put it more bluntly: “Here we are dealing with the remains of the Ottoman empire … [Albanians] stuck him to a stake, this time just wrapped in a bottle. In the time of the Turks, Serbians were being impaled too, though even the Turks were not the ones who did it, but rather their servants—Arnauts [the old term for Albanians].”56

Albanians in general were implicated in a crime that was at best uncertain. In the end the evidence against them came down to the fact that this was how the Turks had behaved, and the Albanians were their surrogates. Ten years after the event, Julie Mertus observed that “the power of the Martinović case lay in its ability to invoke the primary imagery of Serbian oppression: the Turkish barbarity of impaling.”57

The case illustrates the extraordinary invasiveness of maledicta, which can defy all truth and logic. Indeed, they rewrite and redefine the truth. In 1992 the Bosnian Serbs elected a psychiatrist from Montenegro, Radovan Karadžić, as their leader. Marko Vešović, a school friend of Karadžić, spoke about how his former classmate had become an author of genocide. Vešović blamed Karadžić’s malign deeds on the fact that he was born a Montenegrin. “Serbs are not a mythological people or nation. In this war we have to understand that the Montenegrins are a mythological people. You can say that in this war the Serbs were infected by Montenegrin mythology … The main expressive tool of Montenegrins is hyperbole. In one minute they go to extremity.” Then he mentioned the “greatest words” of the Montenegrin poet Njegoš: “Let the possible be. Let that happen which is not possible.” Radovan Karadžić fancied himself as a poet, in the manner of his heroic namesake. There is unmistakably an echo of this poetic theme in the doctor’s own verse: “When I am in a kind of mad fire / I could do anything.”

Vešović described how it was “an experience par excellence to sit in the winter nights in Montenegro and listen to the stories that were so rich in fantasies … so detached from reality.”58 As a political leader Dr. Karadžić showed how with a lie here and a half-truth there, he could and would do anything. All his stories and maledictions against the Muslims of Bosnia were, in the end, narratives without boundaries. Dr. Karadžić linked old texts to new fears, talked to his audience in terms they knew from their childhood. He made killing seem natural, normal, even predestined.59Calling up dark memories of an imagined past, he was like some demented Pied Piper:

By means of a secret charm, to draw

All creatures living beneath the sun,

That creep or swim or fly or run,

After me so as you never saw!

And I chiefly use my charm

On creatures that do people harm.60

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