Review of Bosnia Remade and Balkan Genocides

Draft review for the Journal of Genocide Research

Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann, Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 978-0-19-973036-0.
Paul Mojzes, Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the Twentieth Century, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011, 978-1-4422-0663-2.

The anti-population violence during the Bosnian War of 1992-95 was, together with the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994, one of the seminal events for the public awareness of genocide in the period after the Cold War. Yet while the Rwandan Genocide has been clearly named and is the focus of ever-growing academic study, the significance of the Bosnian events remains highly contested and their study lacks the momentum of the Rwandan field. Most of the general literature dates from the 1990s, and there have been few recent attempts to synthesise the events themselves and their legacy. Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann’s Bosnia Remade, with its incisive empirical study of the problematic post-war ‘return’ of the expelled and its ambitious critical-geopolitical theoretical framework for understanding the war and its aftermath, is therefore a very welcome addition.

The authors’ primary aim is to evaluate the process of return of displaced people. Annexe 7 of the 1995 Dayton General Framework Agreement committed the international authorities supervising Bosnia to upholding this right in the aftermath of the war, and there followed what was probably the most determined attempt to enforce the return of expelled populations anywhere in the world. (Omar Bartov was therefore wrong to claim, in this journal, that the right of return is demanded only for Palestinians displaced by Israel.#) Although around a million, out of over two million, Bosnians expelled from their homes and home districts during the war had returned by 2004, Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis – using detailed studies of three key municipalities as well as general data – shows that most of these were ‘majority returns’, of people belonging to the same ethnic group as the postwar controllers of particular areas. ‘Minority returns’, of people belonging to different groups from local powerholders, were often met with violence and obstruction. Despite sometimes determined efforts by international bodies, they were largely unsuccessful.

This outcome is explained as a consequence of the character of the wartime processes that produced displacement and how the political structures that they produced were largely embedded in the postwar settlement, and explains why Bosnia Remade’s account of the returns process is preceded by a very full synthesis of the war itself and the original expulsion process. Ethnic cleansing, they say, was a ‘military tactic to realise a larger strategic vision … as much about seizing and consolidating territory as … about identity. More than simply the removal of an out-group from a location, ethnic cleansing involves the ethnicization of space.’ It is thus a form of geopolitics, involving two related practices, the attempts to produce a new ethnoterritorial order of space, and to build an ethnocratic political order. The latter involved a ‘fundamental reorganisation of a local political economy’, through ‘accumulation by dispossession’, with housing, land and valuables stolen (116-17). The phenomenon originated in the Serbian strategy ‘to reconstitute Yugoslavia as a smaller, more compact federation controlled from Belgrade’ (21) and Serbian nationalists were responsible for most expulsions, although the Croatians developed similar strategies in some areas and their ethnic cleansing in 1995 constituted its ‘largest single instance’ (6). Although Toal and Dahlmann ‘reject as lazy and irresponsible the nostrum that there is a “moral equivalence” between the fighting factions in Bosnia’ (17), they recognise that Bosnian forces were also responsible for some expulsions and show that Muslim-based parties sometimes blocked minority returns to areas they controlled after the war.

The key to the relative failure of the returns process is that Dayton mostly allowed parties controlling localities at the end of the war – in many cases having removed much of the original population – to consolidate their power. Post-war politics was ‘the continuation of the war by other means’; local elites ‘established patronage systems in their captured opstine [municipalities] that endured into the peace.’ (235) US President Bill Clinton insisted on early elections, in the belief that democratisation was a way out of Bosnia’s impasse, but just as the earlier 1990 elections had originally ethnonationalised Bosnian politics – laying the basis for territorial division – so post-Dayton elections were manipulated by local powerholders who boosted their own population group’s electoral registration and absentee voting, while blocking the participation of the expelled – so confirming territorial division. ‘Rapid elections … mostly served to entrench nationalist parties and collective rights’ (234), at the expense of the individual rights of expelled people. Moreover this local control was reinforced by the establishment of the wartime Republika Srpska as an ‘entity’ (within a new federal structure for the Bosnia-Herzegovina state), which Serbian politicians treated as far as possible as a separate state. Although the literature has often emphasised the lack of ‘will’ of international authorities, Toal and Dahlmann point to the inherent weakness of multinational bureaucracy and its lack of capacity faced with local intransigence: ‘the international community soon realised that it was insuffiently equipped to monitor and enforce Dayton’s provisions across two entities, ten cantons and 148 local governments, each with its own tactics for discouraging returns and repossession.’ (237)

Thus Bosnia Remade shows that Michael Mann’s argument that ethnic cleansing is the ‘dark side of democracy’ is particularly relevant when the latter is proposed as an answer to ethnic conflict: as a growing literature attests, elections can be catalysts for conflict. The book also matches two of the themes of Stathis Kalyvas’ influential arguments about civil war violence: the importance of the local level, and the fact that populations help produce the violence that is directed at civilians.#  Thus Toal and Dahlmann argue that ethnic cleansing ‘is never straightforwardly “ethnic” or motivated only by a desire to “cleanse” localities thought the murder and expulsion of ethnic others. Criminal opportunism, local grievances, revenge and nihilism fuelled by alcohol and drugs are also elements of the practice. Some violence … was motivated by long-held grudges.’ (13) However their demonstration of the centrality of Serbian and Croatian geopolitical projects to the cleansing process contradicts Kalyvas’ claim, in an article with Nicholas Sambanis, that it can be mainly explained by the level of resistance to Serbian power.#

Toal and Dahlmann argue that both ethnic cleansing and return are unavoidably geographical projects, and their approach is based on critical geopolitics, ‘an approach that produces “categories of analysis” to grasp and explain the too-often unproblematized “categories of practice” of banal and not-so-banal nor benign geopolitics.’ (9) Thus they reject the subsumption of the events in the categories of ‘civil war’ and ‘ethnic conflict’, and similarly to David Campbell’s earlier post-structuralist account#, show how ethnopolitics was constructed out of Bosnia’s historic hybrid, plurinational society. However, despite pointing out that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is ‘a vivid metaphor conveying the commitments of its perpetrators’ (3), they are remarkably content to use this as their main analytical category. ‘Genocide’, in contrast, is treated overwhelmingly as a rhetorical device of actors, whether of Serbian perpetrators recalling their peoples’ historic victimisations, or of Bosnian Muslim leaders complaining about Serbian ‘cleansing’. In a surprising lapse of critical focus on the ‘categories of practice’, they reproduce the view (now conventional in international legal circles) that genocide was only committed at Srebrenica in 1995, while the general destruction of plural Bosnian society, which occurred as they show mainly in 1992, was not genocide.

Yet what Toal and Dahlmann describe is what others from Raphael Lemkin onwards have carefully defined as genocide: carving out imagined ethnic homelands by destroying Bosnia’s ‘common life, multiethnic settlements and the homes of ordinary Bosnians’ (134), and destroying its common public infrastructure and cultural and religious property, indeed its ‘lifeworld of coexistence (140). When they talk of a ‘geopolitical logic of erasure and refoundation’ (6) they reproduce Lemkin’s ‘two phases [of genocide]: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.’# Their argument that the ethnonationalism has largely succeeded even though it was not militarily victorious is another way of expressing his dictum that genocide is a way of winning even when the war itself is lost. Yet nowhere do Toal and Dahlmann argue for these conceptual choices.

Paul Mojzes makes similar conceptual decisions, but he does at least try to justify them. His book is a historical synthesis, which has the considerable virtue of bringing together the large number of genocidal events in the modern Balkans over the last century. He begins with the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, seen as an ‘unrecognized genocide’, and proceeds to the ‘multiple genocides of World War II’ and ‘retaliatory genocides against wartime enemies’, before arriving at ‘ethnic cleansing during Yugoslavia’s wars of distintegration in the 1990s’ (Kosovo is considered in a separate chapter, as is the ICTY). In each of this periods, Mojzes carefully accumulates the evidence on anti-population violence from all sides, and this will serve as a useful reference work. He also tries to say which events constituted genocide, and which not, and while his criteria and judgements may both be disputed, it is all done in a careful way that gives the readers useful pointers. The sheer range of events that are covered, the variety of their perpetrators, and the demonstrations of their interconnectedness, also provide useful antidotes to any simple ideas that only one or other type of actor perpetrated genocide. Mojzes falls into the trap of identifying the political factions with the ethnic groups themselves, so begging the question of the ethnopoliticisation that is the focus of Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis. But by placing the Bosnian war in the larger series of recent conflicts that began in Slovenia and Croatia and ended in Kosovo, he provides useful contextualisation, even if Balkan Genocides has neither the interpetative historical depth of Donald Bloxham’s work#, which covers the earlier part of its ground, nor the theoretical and empirical richness of Bosnia Remade.

Any optimism about the future of the Balkans in these books is highly tempered, but Toal and Dahlmann are right to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina is still in the process of being made. There is no inexorable law that condemns us to reproduce the crimes of the past, even if there are powerful social forces that work in that direction.

See the full review including references.

1 thought on “Review of Bosnia Remade and Balkan Genocides”

  1. […] Ugur Umit Ungor, whose book The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950 I’m looking forward to reading, brought to my attention a recent review of Bosnia Remade, and Paul Mojzes, Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the Twentieth Century (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011, another promising read), by Martin Shaw which will appear in the Journal of Genocide Research. […]

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