Colin Powell’s self-serving distortion of Balkan history

In his 1995 autobiography, Colin Powell tried to justify America’s refusal to intervene in the Balkan Wars by claiming that these wars were driven by “ancient hatreds” in a “thousand year-old hornet’s nest.” I’d call this a misreading of history, except that Powell probably was not reading history. Maybe he picked up this trope at a cocktail party.

In any case, the clash between Croats and Serbs in the 1990s had nothing to do with ancient hatreds. There was no thousand year-old history of hatred between these peoples. The hatred was largely a 20th century phenomenon.

Hungarians were the ancient enemy of Croats. They absorbed most of Croatia in the early 1100s and dominated it for the better part of four centuries.

In the 19th century, Hungary was still the enemy. Despite their grievances with the Austrian Empire of which they were a part, the Croats sided with the Austrians in their fight against Hungarians following the revolutions of 1848. The bitterness only increased when, after Hungary was subdued, it dominated Croats in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

Croats living in Dalmatia had a second ancient enemy — Venice. The struggle with the Venetians lasted more than half a dozen centuries, until Napoleon’s time.

What about the Serbs? There were, of course, tensions between them and their neighbors the Croats, and fighting broke out from time to time. But this doesn’t make the two peoples ancient enemies. In the past 210 years or so, the U.S. has fought both Mexico and Canada.

Colin Powell’s statement also overlooks pan-Slavism, a movement that stressed the bonds between the South Slavic peoples, mainly Serbs and Croats. Pan-Slavism (or the Illyrian movement) was hugely influential in the 19th century, and its roots extend back much further. In 1525, the great Croat poet Ivan Gundulic wrote:

In the mouth of the fierce Dragon,
And under the claws of the ferocious lion,
Surrounding thee from both sides,
Still is found the state of the Slavs.

Nineteenth century pan-Slavism was not all-conquering among Croats. There was a strong counter-movement that opposed union with the Serbs, mainly for fear that the Serbs would dominate (a prophetic fear, as things turned out).

However, pan-Slavism remained strong enough that a Serb-Croat coalition did well in elections held just a few years before the outbreak of World War I. Woodrow Wilson’s much derided decision to create Yugoslavia after the war strikes me as defensible, or at least understandable, given the strength of pan-Slavism.

The era of Croat-Serb hatred kicked off during the inter-war years, when Serbia utterly dominated the new state of Yugoslavia. Things became much worse during World War II when the Ustache, pro-German fascists, took over in Croatia.

After the war, Tito (who was part Croatian) held out the hope of a much better deal for Croats in his Yugoslavia. However, he failed to deliver.

When the opportunity arose after Tito’s death, the Croats tried to break away from Yugoslavia. As I understand it, the ensuing war was less about the establishment of an independent Croatia than a fight over how large that state would be (i.e., whether Croatia would encompass areas with large Serbian populations and other areas the Serbs wanted to control).

In any event, the brutality of the fighting, especially Serbia’s destruction of Vukovar and other Croat towns, made it plausible to claim that these people had long hated one another. However, that is not the case.

The above discussion is based on “book learning.” But it is also consistent with what I heard during my recent trip to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast.

Talking with folks in that town, which suffered loss of life and much destruction of property as the result of Serbian shelling, I found no support for the notion of ancient hatred between Croats and Serbs. Clearly, there remains considerable bitterness among Dubrovnik residents who experienced Serbian shelling. But this has little to do with history that predates the shelling.

I also have some knowledge about Croat-Muslim relations in Bosnia, having participated as a litigator in a war crimes case involving a Bosnian Croat accused (and convicted) of being responsible for a massacre of Muslims. The evidence in that case was conflicting on many points, but there was little dispute that the massacre was not the result of ancient local hatred between Croats and their Muslim neighbors, with whom they had long peacefully coexited. Rather, it stemmed from fears generated by the influx of Muslims from other parts of Bosnia who were fleeing the Serbs.

America’s decision to stay out of the 1991 conflict in the Balkans might have been a sound one. At that time, the area really was a “hornet’s nest.” However, Colin Powell’s claim about ancient hatreds is, I believe, a distortion, and indeed an abuse, of history.