‘Ancient Ethnic Hatreds’ Is Poor Shorthand and Dangerous

Projecting negative stereotypes onto the lands and peoples of the Balkans encourages the very conflicts Western policymakers should resolve

‘Ancient Ethnic Hatreds’ Is Poor Shorthand and Dangerous
Pocitelj on the river Neretva near Capljina / Enrico Bottino / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The pop group U2 staged a concert in Sarajevo in September 1997 that I attended when I was a 25-year-old student doing fieldwork in the city. I got talking to another foreign visitor who was sitting next to me, a young North American about my age. He told me he preferred women with dark features, so in Sarajevo he was most attracted to the Muslim girls. It was a comment that exemplified the way visitors often view foreign countries: through the lenses of their own preconceptions. Everyone who knows Bosnia and Herzegovina knows that its Bosniak, Serb and Croat inhabitants are physically indistinguishable, as they arose from the same ethnic stock, and that Bosniaks — citizens of predominantly Muslim heritage, are as likely to be blond as Serbs or Croats, who in turn are as likely to be as dark-haired as Bosniaks. Yet this foreign visitor saw dark-haired women and assumed they must be Muslims because he associated Muslims with dark features. If you have prejudices about a foreign country, visiting it is often the best way to confirm them. People see what they want or expect to see.

The Balkans are the object of a particular kind of Western prejudice. As the Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova noted, whereas Western visitors may perceive Arab, Indian or Chinese lands through Orientalist lenses, as “the other” against which they counterpose the West, the Balkans may be viewed through “Balkanist” lenses, more as a bridge or hybrid between West and East, consequently as contaminated and lacking the purity of either. This is linked to the snobbishness reserved for the perceived “arriviste”; in this case, Balkan peoples who achieved independence late and emulated the culture and manners of the inhabitants of older established European states. People in the Balkans who remain as exotic, picturesque shepherds or brigands may be due the respect accorded to the “noble savage,” but those who try to look or behave as “real, civilized” Europeans are viewed as a flawed product. One attaché to the French Consulate in Belgrade in the mid-19th century dismissively compared Serbs who wore French dress to “dancing bears,” lamenting that “the Serb can no longer be recognised. … He blindly follows foreign customs, neglecting his own; he degenerates.”

Nobody exemplified the patronizing attitude of the foreign visitor to the Balkans more than Rebecca West, a British author who was sufficiently esteemed in her lifetime to be made a dame of the British Empire in 1959 and who is known for her rambling book of over 1,000 pages, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” published in 1941, that chronicles her experiences in Yugoslavia. It is a work teeming with factual errors, clichés and prejudices. She wrote: “Gipsies are, in all but their appearance, particularly what I do not like. … I am cold towards them all, largely because they are the embodiment of that detestable attribute, facility. … There is no design in anything they do.” And: “It is a salient difference between the Serbs and Albanians that, whereas a Serb boy baby looks definitely and truculently male as soon as it is out of its mother’s arms, the sex of many Albanians is not outwardly determined until they are in their late teens, and these boys, who were perhaps thirteen to seventeen, might have been so many Rosalinds.” She described the former Serbian Prime Minister Vladan Djordjevic as a “Jewish scoundrel,” though he was from an ethnic Cincar Christian family. She complained that “the German influence was like a shadow on the Croat World,” thereby helping to transmit to Western European opinion the Serb-nationalist stereotype of Croats as essentially a type of Serb corrupted by German influence, which has proven remarkably enduring. It was said by one of West’s close friends that “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” is “not so much a book about Yugoslavia as a book about Rebecca West” — a book about her own thoughts and personality for which a visit to then-Yugoslavia simply provided the occasion. Yet it was an extremely influential model of the travel book in which someone from the West visits the Balkans and sees everyone and everything there in terms of their own stereotypes and prejudices.

Writers may of course have both prejudices and literary merit. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is widely considered a literary masterpiece despite its overt racism. The problem is not when writers with prejudices are appreciated for their literary skill but when they are treated as experts on the lands or peoples they are prejudiced against. Worse is when their very prejudices are perceived as wisdom. Nobody should treat “Heart of Darkness” as an accurate portrayal of Black Africans, let alone base their policy toward Africa upon it, and probably no mainstream Western politician would do so. But Western liberal opinion is not inoculated against anti-Balkan prejudice, unlike anti-Black racism.

One travel writer, Robert Kaplan, was sufficiently inspired by “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” to produce his own derivative travel book, “Balkan Ghosts,” written just before the war in the former Yugoslavia broke out in earnest in the 1990s. Characteristic of Kaplan is that, although he likes to name-drop all the important writers he has apparently read, he cannot bring himself to read up seriously on the Balkan lands and peoples he writes about to qualify as a researcher rather than merely a dabbler in the subject. Thus, instead of being able to construct a historical explanation for the violence in the region in the 1990s, he stays with his Balkanist stereotypes, which he mistakes for the product of wisdom and erudition. He wrote in “Balkan Ghosts” that “Bosnia is a morass of ethnically mixed villages in the mountains. Bosnia is rural, isolated, and full of suspicions and hatreds … the villages all around were full of savage hatreds, leavened by poverty and alcoholism,” while the country supposedly possessed only “one sophisticated urban center … Sarajevo” — highlighting his ignorance of other major Bosnian-Herzegovinian urban centers like Mostar, Banja Luka and Tuzla. Kaplan’s unfamiliarity with the geography, history and culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina did not stop him making such sweeping, inaccurate generalizations; on the contrary, his prose is full of hyperbole. Looking at the statue of Croatia’s medieval King Tomislav in front of the Zagreb railway station, he wrote: “I stared up at the statue. Horse and rider appeared to merge into one naked batch of muscle: not so much of a man or of a horse, but of a weapon, piercing and heartless, like the Croatian plain, upon which the threat of the Ottoman Turks, who in 1453 replaced the Byzantines at Constantinople, rose and fell.” Why would anyone look at a statue and be reminded of a plain? Or describe a lush and gentle plain as “piercing and heartless”? Or draw a connection between Tomislav and the Ottoman Turks when they did not appear in European history until hundreds of years after his death? It is the sort of pretentious but meaningless comment that characterizes Kaplan’s writing about the Balkans.

“Balkan Ghosts” exemplifies what is known as the “ancient ethnic hatreds” school of opinion on the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Adherents of this school ignore the reality of genocide as planned and organized by political and military leaders and implemented using modern state structures such as the army and police and instead attribute the violence to the supposed primordial hatred and primitivism of ordinary people. Such an interpretation normalizes genocidal violence and deflects responsibility away from the top perpetrators such as Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. It consequently militates against military action by the rest of the world to halt genocide: An “ethnic conflict” that is supposedly driven by ordinary people and their culture and psychology and that has supposedly been going on for centuries will naturally be viewed as unstoppable. “Balkan Ghosts” is widely believed, by Kaplan and others, to have been read by Bill and Hillary Clinton and to have helped persuade them of the futility of military action to stop the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or at least provided them with justification for inaction, despite Bill Clinton’s having claimed to support such intervention when he successfully challenged U.S. President George H.W. Bush for the office in 1992.

Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts” was far from the only book expounding Balkanist prejudices that influenced Western policymaking. A similar role to Kaplan’s was played in Britain by journalist Misha Glenny, who articulated the view shared by a segment of the public and John Major’s Conservative government that believed “all sides were guilty” in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that there was therefore no moral imperative for intervention. In his influential book “The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War,” first published in 1992, Glenny presented the Balkan peoples as synonymous with primitivism, violence and dishonesty. Yugoslavia was, he wrote, “a country where deceit is the most common political currency,” while “for Balkan politicians, it is axiomatic that the only truth is the lie.” He wrote of “simple Serb peasants” whose “discussion around the table was inarticulate … the faces confronting me were those of the peasantry. They were round, wide-eyed with large amounts of roughly trimmed hair — demons with the trigger, but no Einsteins.” One Serb he described as a “strange troll”; another “would startle the cast of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film”; a third was a “being who had just parachuted in from the set of ‘Night of the Living Dead.’” The Croats of Herzegovina, meanwhile, were “weird creatures”; it was “in Herzegovina where the most primitive branches of the Serb and Croat tribes live.” He described Bosnia as “a republic whose inhabitants were notorious for their indolence” — a stereotype roughly equivalent to English stereotypes of Irish as stupid or of Scots as parsimonious, although in the region’s humor it is more often the Montenegrins who are stereotyped as lazy while Bosnians are stereotyped as stupid.

Western policy during the 1990s war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, guided by the Balkanist prejudices promoted by authors like Kaplan and Glenny, was catastrophic. It was spearheaded by the European powers, above all Britain and France, and meekly followed by weak, indecisive, unserious President Clinton. It focused on appeasing rather than halting Serbian aggression and genocide and on partitioning Bosnia and Herzegovina. Clinton’s vacillation between supporting this policy and edging halfheartedly toward military intervention against Serb forces earned him the nickname in the region of “Billy ne bili” (“Willy won’t he”). The policy provoked the resignation of several State Department officials, disgusted by its cowardice and moral bankruptcy, and the emergence of a powerful bipartisan movement of opposition to it in Congress and in the wider U.S. This movement, focusing as it did on opposition to the Anglo-French-led policy of appeasement, enraged European, in particular British, government opinion, bringing relations between the U.S. and Britain to their worst state since the 1956 Suez Crisis.

The genocidal massacre of over 8,000 Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica under the auspices of the United Nations was not only the logical culmination of Western policy but also the moment domestic U.S. pressure for intervention to halt the genocide turned overwhelming. Consequently, the Clinton administration belatedly authorized NATO military action in Bosnia in the summer and autumn of 1995. But it did so only to follow up with the disastrous Dayton peace agreement. This agreement rewarded Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb extremists for their genocide by legitimizing their possession of 49% of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the form of their administrative entity Republika Srpska. Dayton meanwhile crippled the Bosnian state with a racist, unworkable constitution that bars Jews and Roma from becoming president and has exacerbated sectarian animosity, ensuring that Bosnia and Herzegovina has remained to this day a source of regional instability. Tom Gallagher, a political scientist and author of a historical trilogy about the Balkans, rightly observed that the persistence of the leaders of the great powers to view the Balkans through the lenses of their Balkanist prejudices has consistently prevented them from pursuing intelligent or coherent policies toward the region. Bismarck is alleged to have predicted that “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans” would ignite the next great European war, but the foolishness of the international community’s policies toward the region have been as destructive as the foolishness of anyone who lives in it.

The damaging effect that “Balkan Ghosts” had on U.S. policy toward the Balkans was not paralleled by any damage to Kaplan’s career. The book was lapped up by the significant constituency of readers in the West who like to view foreign peoples in terms of stereotypes, so it sold extremely well. Kaplan has published a new travel book, partly about the Balkans, “Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age” (2022). He begins at Rimini on the northern Italian Adriatic coast and travels clockwise along the sea, devoting a chapter to each place or group of places he visits. To paraphrase what was said about “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” this is not so much a book about the Adriatic as it is a book about Kaplan. The author fills his prologue with observations such as, “The real adventure of travel is intellectual, because the most profound journeys are interior in nature”; “travel at its most useful creates a bibliography”; “Because travel is a journey of the mind, the scope of the journey is limitless”; “Travel is psychoanalysis that starts in a specific moment of time and space.” In his first two chapters on Rimini and Ravenna, Kaplan then spends most of his time not so much describing what he sees as philosophizing about life, the universe and everything: “What is Europe? I ask myself. Where does it begin and end? And what will it become?”; “What is a human life, really?”; “What is sin? I ask myself.” He makes observations such as “Travel should cultivate an awareness that makes you a better person”; “The train, by conquering distance, creates the illusion of possibilities”; “I must consciously construct an idea of Venice to move beyond my inner demons”; “this sea guards a wild mystery all its own”; “Great art should affect you physically”; “I too, am pieced by the hero’s ‘darkened voice.’” The book is largely made up of such clichés and faux profundity.

However, as Kaplan’s journey continues and he moves from Italy into the former Yugoslavia, he seems to take more notice of his surroundings; it is as if it took him the first few weeks of the trip simply to unwind and get out of himself to the point where he could stop thinking so much about the sort of things he probably thinks about anywhere and start focusing on the places he was visiting. He begins to talk to people he meets, and some of their views that he relates are interesting as examples of local opinion, though Kaplan does not know enough about the history and politics of the region either to evaluate them critically or to situate them within a coherent overall analysis. His understanding of the region’s history and politics remains limited by his unwillingness to seriously research them; hence, it is impressionistic.

Tellingly, he describes the Italian city of Trieste as a “transition zone between the Mediterranean and a more wintry, northerly hinterland, and between Europe proper and the troubled Balkans,” suggesting that he does not view the Balkans as truly European, although the concept of Europe arose with a Balkan people, the ancient Greeks, who used it to refer to their own native region. Kaplan’s writing is a textbook example of the Balkanism that Todorova described 25 years ago: Everywhere he looks he sees cultural fault lines that seem to him to produce “troubled” psychology among the Balkan peoples, which in turn, in his mind, explain their “troubled” history and politics. One suspects he sometimes attributes his own views to people he meets. For example: “The view from Ljubljana — the city where [the late Yugoslav leader Josip] Tito died in 1980 — is that the Yugoslav war of the 1990s continues without the shooting. That is, historical divisions are still raw. Croatia and Serbia still compete for control in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country itself is divided into ethnic and religious cantons. The Serbs and the Albanians remain psychologically at odds.” But it is Kaplan himself who sees the region this way, reducing its problems to historical divisions, psychology and religion rather than to very real, present, modern and rational political disagreements about how states should be organized or to whom territories should belong.

Kaplan asks one of his local interlocutors, “Will Yugoslavia return?” and upon being told that “Yes, Yugoslavia must return,” he notes, “We agree that there is such a thing as necessary empires.” He later muses, “Who is to say that the port cities of Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro will not again one day be independent city-states, perhaps part of a new federation to be called — who knows? — ‘Yugoslavia,’ merely the land of the South Slavs, a word that early in the twentieth century once carried elements of hope and idealism before the wars of the end of that century.” This suggests that Kaplan has no understanding of the political reality of a Balkan Peninsula divided into independent nation-states and of the impossibility of turning back the clock to the sort of large, multinational entities or empires that once dominated it. People who view the Balkan peoples through Balkanist lenses characteristically view them as incapable and unworthy of running their own independent national-states and so belong more naturally within empires, of which Tito’s Yugoslavia was the latest and, among many Western intellectuals, the most beloved. The supposed glory of Tito’s empire is counterposed to the supposed contemptibility of his subject people’s “rival nationalisms” — the concept of “rival nationalisms” being simply “ancient ethnic hatreds” in a superficially more respectable form.

Kaplan’s book highlights the fact that it is not just the Balkan states that need to resolve their homegrown problems. The West’s perception of the region also needs to change. The U.S. and its European allies remain committed to upholding the Dayton constitutional system for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was largely the product of Western Balkanist thinking. In response to calls for the replacement of the Dayton agreement with a civic constitutional model that bases government on the will of the majority and treats Bosnian citizens as citizens in the American or West European manner instead of reducing them to members of ethnic groups, Gabriel Escobar, U.S. special envoy for the Western Balkans, said earlier this year that this cannot be considered until after Bosnia and Herzegovina has joined the EU. Bosnians are thus paradoxically being told to live according to a Balkanist constitutional system if they want to join the European club, but at the same time told that this system, with its racially discriminatory provisions, does not align with the values of the club. Meanwhile Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s nationalist strongman, has built upon the powers granted to his entity under the Dayton agreement to steadily dismantle the Bosnian state, and it is probably only the recent Russian military setbacks in Ukraine that have dissuaded him from collapsing it altogether.

Despite its failure to bring stability or reconciliation, the Dayton agreement has become a model that Western policymakers have sought to transfer to other conflicts in the Balkans and adjacent lands. For Kosovo, whose independence is not recognized by Serbia and Russia, the EU mediated the Brussels Agreement in 2013 that sought to establish an “Association of Serb Municipalities” in the country on the model of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. This was declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s constitutional court and, despite U.S. and EU pressure, the plan has never been implemented; Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, has warned it would turn Kosovo into a “new Bosnia, a dysfunctional state.” For Cyprus, the U.N. proposed the “Annan Plan,” which would have established a Dayton-type system for the divided island.

But it was decisively rejected in a referendum in 2004 by Greek Cypriot voters who preferred to live with their current frozen conflict, with a hardened border separating them from the Turkish-occupied north, and many Turkish Cypriots also voted to retain the status quo. For Ukraine, the leaders of France and Germany brokered the Minsk II agreement in 2015, which sought to legitimize Putin’s proxy Donetsk and Luhansk rebel entities on the model of Republika Srpska. This simply encouraged further Russian aggression, culminating in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year.

Balkanist thinking encourages Western policymakers to view conflicts in eastern and southeastern Europe in terms of “warring tribes,” “rival nationalisms” or “ancient ethnic hatreds” that need to be managed, balanced and neutralized. By projecting such negative stereotypes onto these lands and their peoples, it encourages the very conflicts Western policymakers are supposed to be resolving.

Given the successive policy failures that such thinking has produced, it is time for us in the West to look differently at these countries and indeed foreign countries in general: to view them neither as the “other” nor as defective or contaminated versions of our own but as countries whose citizens have a right to live in strong, functional, civic, liberal-democratic, sovereign states and be protected from predatory neighbors, just as much as North Americans or West Europeans. Removing the fault lines from our Western mindset is the starting point to ensure they are not created or perpetuated in the wider world.

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