His Willing Executioners

Sarajevo. Srebrenica. Vukovar. Kosovo. It is impossible to calculate the toll exacted by Slobodan Milosevic. A quarter of a million dead. More than 3 million refugees. Countless homes and villages burned, lives and families broken, a nation destroyed. Wars so murderous, so unbridled, so extraordinarily vicious as to draw in Greece, Spain, Germany, the United States. Even now there is no end in sight. Milosevic will be tried for corruption. He will be judged for crimes against humanity.

What can you say about such a man, beyond these raw facts? Milosevic is one of those rare abstractions, whose objective biography means almost nothing. He is our postmodern Eichmann, today's banality of evil. It means little to note that he was born in 1941, in the gritty Serbian industrial town of Pozarevac, or to chart his rise through the Communist Party. Like Hitler, his reality is as a force, a catalyst for recondite yearnings within the hearts of his people that he could voice and manipulate.

"No one will beat you again," he famously told Serbs in Kosovo in 1987. The crowds cheered wildly, seeming to spontaneously launch him to power. In fact, it was a farce, totally stage-managed. Milosevic's cohorts organized the rally, hurled rocks to spark a "protest" where Serbs could be "beaten"--and "Slobo" could heroically rise to his moment. Historians would often explain the wars that followed by evoking "ancient ethnic hatreds." As in Kosovo, those conflicts were also largely manufactured. Milosevic recognized that socialism was dead. To seize power, he fomented the new ideology of ethnic nationalism. He was a master of propaganda and used Serbia's captive media to promote himself and his cause of Greater Serbia.

I saw this firsthand in the tiny Croatian town of Pakrac, near the Serbian border, in 1991. Serbian separatists emerged from the Yugoslav Army base and shot up the Croatian police station. The Army, which just happened to be holding maneuvers in the area, rolled in to "keep the peace." Reporters from Belgrade's state TV and radio reported dozens of Serbs killed and thousands forced to flee under headlines reading massacre of the innocents and bloodbath at dawn. In fact, no one was killed, nor were any Serbs attacked. It was a fraud, designed to whip up national feeling. So it was everywhere.

Hence a question. While Milosevic's guilt is manifest, that of Serbs in general is less so. To what extent do they share in his crimes, to what extent were they ignorant? The dictator's arrest will thrust this issue front and center, regardless of the particular charges brought against him. Inconceivable as it may seem to a world steeped in a decade's war, Serbs themselves are curiously isolated. Visiting Belgrade after Milosevic's ouster, I was struck by how little attitudes had changed. Serbs still hold the past at a distance. They played no role, or were victims, or at worst committed crimes no different than those perpetrated by other "parties to the conflict," as the language of moral equivalence would have it. They cling to their myths: the glorious defeat of 1389 by the Ottomans, their unappreciated defense of Christendom, the weird cosmology of conspirators against them, from the Vatican and the CIA to NATO and the United States. Even today, most Serbs do not believe they bombarded Sarajevo. Serbs in Bosnia can walk past the bones of murdered Muslim neighbors, lying in the woods and fields over Srebrenica or some other massacred enclave, and give them scarcely a thought. Bad things happen in war, they might say. Perhaps they killed themselves. Possibly they even deserved it, retribution for "crimes" committed yesterday or 500 years ago.

Among their delusions, Serbs harbor a deep grievance against Milosevic himself. "He did this to us," many say, referring to the country's economic collapse, sanctions, their status as an international pariah. For Milosevic, this is a penalty of failure. Had he won his wars, had NATO not intervened, Milosevic would likely be still sitting in his presidential villa, drinking coffee with his comrades, as he felt he had every right to do just hours before the police crashed down his doors. For Serbs who share such views, this is a conditional mea culpa, a subtle absolution. He stole our lives, too, our futures. Milosevic is the criminal, not us, who did not know. Daniel Goldhagen notes the same abdication, the same absence of outrage and responsibility among Germans during the Holocaust.

Bringing home the truth will be exceedingly difficult. There is no paper trail; Milosevic left behind no incriminating documents. He masked his role in Bosnia and Croatia by channeling money and weapons through the Army, paramilitaries and local politicians. Mafia henchmen did his dirty work in Serbia proper, and witnesses to his crimes in Serbia proper have had an odd way of disappearing. With time, "good Serbs" will emerge to tell how they opposed Milosevic from the beginning, just as an earlier generation of Germans claimed to have sheltered Jews or fought in the Resistance. Many will be justified; more will not.

It took decades for Germans to come to terms with Nazism, for Russians to repudiate Stalin. It will almost certainly take Serbs as long to deal with their collective guilt, however that unwieldy concept is defined. But there are encouraging signs. Vojislav Kostunica talks of establishing a Truth Commission, as in South Africa. There is also a clear virtue in trying Milosevic in Belgrade rather than The Hague. It will bring this debate home, keep it close instead of far away. Only by talking about the unthinkable can the nation begin to come to terms with its past. Milosevic and his people may not be one, any more than Germans were Hitler. But they were--and are--bound in a deadly embrace.