Burn This House - The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia

Burn This House", published in 1997 is worth reading as the Balkans have been yet again plunged into war. It is written by critical non-nationalist Muslim, Croatian and Serbian historians and journalists who challenge the ethnic-nationalism of the politicians currently running former Yugoslavia and the views and strategies of the so-called "international community". Reviewed by Barbara Humphries.

"Burn This House", published in 1997 is worth reading as the Balkans have been yet again plunged into war. It is written by critical non-nationalist Muslim, Croatian and Serbian historians and journalists who challenge the ethnic-nationalism of the politicians currently running former Yugoslavia and the views and strategies of the so-called "international community".

The editor writes: "The understanding of the war among the Western public was shaped by the pronouncements of Western politicians and the writing of Western journalists - of whom far too many stubbornly stuck to their claim that at the root of the war lay ancient Balkan hatreds". Because of this the policy of the western imperialist powers has only served to ferment the process of war in former Yugoslavia, and often for their own ends, have played into the hands of nationalist leaders such as Milosevic and Tudjman.

The book gives factual information which counters this view of the Balkans. The first two chapters on "The bonds and the fault lines" and "The making of Yugoslavia" show that there are no historic ancient hatreds (in fact, the first inter-ethnic war was not fought until 1941 when German and Italian fascists tore Yugoslavia apart). On the contrary, the south slavs were ruled by foreign powers for many years, including the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and sought unity on many occasions. In the 19th century and early 20th centuries south Slav unity or "Yugoslavism" aimed to resist the foreign invader, particularly the influence of German imperialism in the Balkans. This gives the lie to those who justified the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in 1992 on the grounds that Yugoslavia was an "articifical state" - in fact Yugoslavia was no more "artificial" than any other nation state in Europe.

The first Yugoslavia was born after World War 1 according to the principles of the Treaty of Versailles which broke up the old pre-war Empires in Europe. It was doomed because it was a centralised state which did not take into account the diverse ethnic fabric of the region. It also foundered because of chronic underdevelopment by European standards. Most of the country was agricultural. The creation of the second Yugoslavia was fought for by Tito's partisans and the Yugoslav Communist Party. This was to be a federation, avoiding the mistakes of the first Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. Not only was this to be a federation of states, but also the rights of minorities such as the Serbs in Croatia were to be enshrined in the constitution. Post-war Yugoslavia was founded on the principles of "Brotherhood and unity", principles which were never challenged during the days of Tito, or indeed until the 1980s. Most Yugoslavs believed that the days of ethnic conflict were gone for good, a relic of the Nazi occupation of World War 2.

Further chapters outline in detail the main events which have led to the breakup of Yugoslavia over the past twenty years. These include the unravelling of grievances in Kosovo and tension between Serbs and Albanians over the past twenty years upon which Milosevic built his nationalist bandwagon. In the 1980s the plight of the Kosovo Albanians was ignored by Slovenia and Croatia. There are chapters on the roots of the ethnic conflict in Croatia and subsequent war, the role of the Yugoslav army in Slovenia and finally the outbreak of war and division of Bosnia. All ethnic cleansing is recorded-including the exodus of Serbs from Krajina in 1995, an event which did not receive much coverage in the western press.

All the Yugoslav politicians come out of it badly. They have all played a role in the Balkans inferno. The governments of Western Europe also come over as at best ignorant, employing double standards, ignoring the rights of minorities and hence encouraging further violence, and at worst seeing the republics of former Yugoslavia as areas of influence for their own ends. But there are heroes in the Yugoslav inferno who have not made headline news in the western media. Those citizens who have opposed ethnic division in their own republics - the Croats and Serbs who fought together in Croatia to protect their homes from the paramilitaries on either side. The demonstrators in Sarajevo who tore down barricades and called for unity in the face of sectarian attack. Those who have defied media bans in Croatia and Serbia. It is these people who have been divided against their will, by force, who could have built an alternative to the present bloodshed in the Balkans.

The book is weak on the economic roots of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, most of the authors seeing the free market as a solution. In fact the impact of world capitalism and the debt problem in particular did much to undermine the former Yugoslav federation. Western governments freed from fear of Russian intervention in the Cold War no longer had vested interests in maintaining unity in the area by giving financial assistance. The concluding chapter of the book however spells out the catastrophic effects of the war and break up on the economies of all the former Yugoslav republics, where falling living standards have prevailed and disruption to the former economic links within the federation has caused chaos. This was before the Kosovo war and NATO bombing.

As a documentary on the roots of the Yugoslav crisis "Burn This House" must be one of the most comprehensive and impressive to have been written and will give hope and ammunition for all those who argue for an alternative to the policy pursued by western imperialism in the Balkans.