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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making Sense of Serb, Croat History

For some people the past is not another country, but more of a constant present, never moved on from and forever repeating itself. Most of the Balkan peoples suffer from this syndrome, but the Serbs and Croats are mortally afflicted.

The Serbs in particular relish their warrior history, but the Croats are not immune. In 1991 I met the Serbian boss of Saatchi and Saatchi in his Belgrade skyscraper, who slipped into a Serbian variation of the future historic tense to assure me that "we Serbs will fight until there is only one Serb left standing under a plum tree." In Zagreb, a teenage student priest insisted that the Croats were defending Western Christendom against the barbarous East. A year later, as Serb guns pulverized the center of Sarajevo, a Bosnian Serb academic who loved the BBC World Service sipped a cup of tea as he patiently explained that "20,000, 30,000 ... 50,000 lives" was a reasonable price to pay for Serbian independence.

Anyone trying to make sense of this kind of talk; anyone hoping to work out why vast tracts of Yugoslavia were peppered with burnt-out houses and pitted with mass graves by 1995; why no one ever seems to learn any lessons; or why NATO troops will not be pulling out of Bosnia any time soon, needs help. And help is now at hand in the form of two key histories: The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia by Tim Judah and Croatia: A Nation Forged in War by Marcus Tanner. Both authors were Belgrade-based correspondents for different London newspapers during the war. And between them they fill in the gaps between plum trees, barbarians, victims, fascists and tens of thousands of lost lives.

Together Judah and Tanner manage to explode some cozy myths in a way which the Serbs and Croats -- who always give preference to their own perception of events over the facts -- will not appreciate. For centuries the Serbs have boasted that, when attacked, they stand and fight. Judah has discovered the unremarkable reverse to be the case: "When defeat looms, though, they are as prudent as any other people. They run," he writes. And Tanner likes to remind the Croats that their heady love affair with Central Europe is a recent thing; prior to 1918 their Hungarian and Austrian overlords treated them like dirt. They rose up and revolted in 1848, but Hungary still used Croats as front-line cannon fodder in World War I.

In their matching covers, these well written books are both lucid and rigorously non-partisan. But they are very differently constructed. Judah has the sexier story to tell, with more blood and guts and a pantomime cast of crazed academics and mafia war lords. His eye-witness accounts are compellingly readable. And his detailed description of what happened to the Serbian economy under UN sanctions will seem familiar to anyone who knows much about President Boris Yeltsin's Russia. Judah's thematic treatment of Serb history -- for example his detailed discussion of how the Serbian Orthodox Church managed to forge a victory myth out of the abject defeat at Kosovo in 1389 -- does much to explain the Serbs' warped national psyche.

However, there is just the odd thing that defies explanation. After a hard day's negotiating around the peace table at Dayton, Ohio in 1995, principal war-monger and Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic took it into his head to compliment the Bosnian Prime Minister: "You deserve Sarajevo" he said, "because you fought for it and those cowards killed you from the hills..."

Tanner keeps more of a distance from the Croats. His straighter chronological history of Croatia, an oddly shaped country, "nothing compact, square or secure", and its struggle to realize its thousand year-old dream of independence, is eloquent. By introducing us to liberal-minded giants such as Ban Josip Jellacic and Bishop Josip Strossmayer, he weaves a tragic tale of a people wedded to the ideal of a South Slav (Yugoslav) state, long before the Serbs came round to the idea. He also convincingly demonstrates that the Croats were not instinctive Nazis. It was Mussolini, his eye trained on the prize of Croatia's Dalmatian coast, who hauled Ante Pavelic, with "his expressionless face and huge ears" and his scruffy band of rustic Herzegovinian Ustashe, out of an obscure exile to rule over the unenthusiastic Croats. The Croats never managed the hero-worship, the rallies and adulation of their fascist leader which the Germans and Italians went in for. By 1942 Hitler was complaining that not enough Jews had been slaughtered around Dubrovnik, but he was embarrassed by the wholesale massacre of Serbs.

Croatia has emerged victoriously independent from the rubble of Yugoslavia, but its greedy participation in the ravaging of Bosnia has left a sour taste. A large question mark hangs over its European credentials and Tanner predicts a lonely future for Croatia "perched uncomfortably... on the ramparts of Christendom." For all its much-vaunted Central European tradition, Croatia is not following neighboring Slovenia into the European Union at the turn of the century. Slovenia, the lucky republic that got away because it had neither Serb, Croat or Moslem minorities to protest its going, is well out of it.

When Judah wrote the conclusion to his book at the start of this year Serb public opinion seemed to be turning against Milosevic and his corrupt authoritarian rule. The streets of Belgrade were packed with demonstrators every night and the Serbs seemed capable of redeeming themselves. That hope has died for the time being. Last month Milosevic smoothly doffed his President of Serbia's hat, replacing it with a President of the Yugoslav Federation one. The federation may only consist of Serbia and the minuscule Montenegro these days, but Milosevic can stay put for the next four years.

While Milosevic is in Belgrade and Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb nothing can be right with the region. The past is still ever-present and no one is moving on in any hurry.

The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, by Tim Judah. Yale University Press, ?19.95 ($31.58), 368 pages.

Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, by Marcus Tanner. Yale, ?19.95, 352 pages.