Alex Dragnich’s attempt to compress a multifaceted millennium of Serbian history into 160 pages is bold and could be considered audacious in a lesser man. So much has to be left out, and what is included has to be treated with such economy and such precision, that many a professional would cringe at the task.
Professor Dragnich tackles it with panache and self-assurance that he can well afford. The reputation of this nonagenarian doyen of South Slavic studies in America is so solid, and his grasp of all the essentials so firm, that his book is beyond objections applicable to a run-of-the-mill academic monograph.
My main objection regards the book’s editors, concerning a title that promises more than the work itself can deliver: A better one would have been “A Brief History of Modern Serbia, 1804-2004.” The author’s treatment of some four fifths of Serbia’s recorded history, including the glory that was Serbia under the medieval Nemanjic dynasty, is compressed into a mere 18 pages (Chapters One and Two). That should have provided an expanded introduction to what really interests the author: the way in which a premodern peasant society managed to throw off the Ottoman yoke, establish a viable state structure, and limit their own rulers in such a way as to result eventually in a parliamentary democracy—and all this within a single century (1804-1903).
Dragnich’s objective is to recount the story of a people for educated generalists, but his context is provided by the recent past, confirming the extent to which all history is contemporary history. After 15 years of relentless demonization by the North American and Western European elite class, “Serbia” has ceased to be a mere country, and “the Serbs” are no more just a small Balkan nation. It has become hard to mention the battle of Kosovo, or the attentat at Sarajevo, and keep those names separate from a host of associations induced by the likes of Clinton, Albright, Holbrooke, Amanpour, Sontag, and Wolfowitz.
Indeed, cringing at mention of “the Serb” is now a litmus test of a postmodern Westerner’s institutional clubability, on the order of his acceptance of the greatness of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the desirability of “gay marriage,” and the sanctity of “Dr.” Martin Luther King, Jr. Dragnich senses this and readily admits that his purpose is twofold: to provide a better understanding of Yugoslavia’s breakup, and to offer a more objective evaluation of the events surrounding it.
In that endeavor, the author does not succeed, not because his Balkan facts or his interpretations of Yugoslav realities are wrong, but because he underestimates the mendacity of the beast known as the “international community.” Its controllers do not lack information or understanding; they lack common decency and the sense of moral distinction. Washington did not seek “to promote a peaceful settlement in Kosovo” and then get sidetracked; it actually wanted war. The horrors that the Clintonites and their European abettors have unleashed on the Serbs—among which the collective demonization and the demand for “denazification” exceed even those 78 days of bombing in 1999—go far beyond any single element of rationally defined policy.
Six years short of his 100th birthday, Alex Dragnich remains an optimist, however. He still believes that, “had the policy makers and the media been better informed about Balkan and particularly Serbian history, conclusions and actions may have been very different.” He hopes that his fair-minded and reasonable account of Serbia’s modern history “will prevent future mistakes and, very importantly, lead to some reassessment of recent policies and media coverage.” That hope, unfortunately, is futile. Foreign meddling in the Balkans has a long history and an awful record, but many meddlers had known the score well before they proceeded to use that knowledge in pursuit of a “solution” that was mad, or bad, or both.
Austria-Hungary’s viceroy of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Benjamin Kallay, invented and promoted a “Bosniak” identity—a ruse perpetuated by Paddy Ashdown and his ilk today—and, to that end, he banned his own History of the Serbian Nation from his Bosnian fiefdom. That book, written while Kallay was the Habsburg envoy in Belgrade (1868-75), was too objective about the Serbs and therefore subversive of his political agenda. It was freely available elsewhere in the Dual Empire, but try bringing a copy from Vienna or Budapest to Sarajevo, and Kallay’s gendarmes would put you in jail.
Half a century later, Churchill knew the truth about Tito’s intention to Bolshevize Yugoslavia after defeating his domestic enemies and assured his envoy to the Partisans’ headquarters, Brig. Fitzroy Mac-lean, that it was OK to continue pretending otherwise. “Do you intend to make Yugoslavia your permanent residence after the war?” he asked Maclean in 1944, when the latter expressed some unease about the communists’ true design.
In the same vein, more recent assurances that Izetbegovic was not an Islamist and that the KLA were not terrorists invariably came from people equally certain not to make Bosnia or Kosovo their permanent residence after making them safe for jihad. What they are doing is a crime, and a systematic distortion of history is an important tool of their trade.
Even if all history is, in some measure, contemporary history, it should never be dominated by the ideological preferences of the elite class as thoroughly as the South Slav history has been dominated in the Western world over the past two decades. Alex Dragnich’s Serbia Through the Ages makes a welcome contribution toward the end of that dominance.
[Serbia Through the Ages, by Alex Dragnich (Boulder, CO: East European Monographs) 160 pp., $35.00]