Britain Damaging Yugoslavia (1994)

Britain And Yugoslavia

It used to be said, with a certain amount of truth, that capitalist governments whipped up nationalist feelings and embarked on militarist adventures abroad, in order to divert popular attention from social issues at home. But what we have seen in recent months in Britain is the Labour Front Bench whipping up feeling for a militarist adventure, fully supported by its backbenchers, while the Government, despite its abysmal record on social issues at home, has been discouraging militarist aspirations to make war on Serbia.

We are now in the era of the fourth Hitler. The second was Nasser, the third was Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosovicz is the fourth. It is as well to keep count of these things.

Lady Thatcher, playing out her Churchill fantasy, is the voice in the wilderness preaching a Crusade against the fourth Hitler, and reducing British history to absurdity. And the Labour and Liberal Parties are doing their utmost to lend credibility to her posturing, which they did not do in the case of the posturing of her great predecessor.

The Government went along with the frenzied nonsense about Serbia for a year or so. But, when Lady Thatcher and John Smith and Paddy Ashdown and the Tribune group had worked up public feeling to the point when an immediate. act of war was shown to have majority support, they played the Croat card. That is to say, they got the BBC to play the Croat card. The fact that the Croats were slaughtering Bosnian Muslims wholesale was suddenly discovered by television news and current affairs programmes.

What is televised is real and what isn’t televised doesn’t count: that is the most important fact about “the world community” today. The world is what exists on television.

Anybody who took a half intelligent interest in Balkan affairs knew all along that each of the Bosnian nationalities was slaughtering the others to the best of its ability. The difference between them in that respect is not moral but merely technical. But, until the television news went to where Croats were slaughtering Muslims, the fact of Croat atrocities did not exist in the political sphere. It was an obscure private event without public relevance. But, when Croat activity appeared on television, Lady Thatcher was knocked off her stride. She felt obliged to cancel her crusading visit to Croatia.

As we write there have as yet been no Muslim atrocities-not on television. Living Marxism performed a useful service by going to Yugoslavia and bringing back and publishing evidence of Muslim atrocities. But the BBC doesn’t wish to know about that. Conflict is between good and evil. A conflict situation in which all parties are evil is therefore unimaginable-is impossible on a priori grounds.

The public mind of Britain at this juncture is a weird combination of utter cynicism and utter naivete. In other words, it is Thatcherite. One moment everything is calculation of narrow mercenary interest. Then, because man does not live by bread alone even though he be a Thatcherite, we are plunged the next moment into posturings of a disinterested moral crusade. The outcome is that neither mercenary interest nor morality is served.


Creating Nationalisms

Britain is very largely responsible for the present structure of the world. It defeated all rivals for world supremacy, barring the United States. About a hundred years ago it developed a curious inferiority complex towards the United States-having previously been disdainful of it. It became psychologically dependent on the United States, and this led to economic, political and military dependence. Churchill was “the great man” of this phenomenon. This Anglo-American melange determined what the world was to be in the twentieth century.

Britain lost all effective control of its creation a couple of generations ago. It has now lost all understanding of it.

The world as created by Britain and supplemented by the United States is a welter of nationalisms. Britain fostered nationalism for the purpose of disrupting its Continental rivals, believing that it could contain nationalism in its own sphere of interest. But it over-reached itself by making war on Germany in 1914. On the outbreak of that war Ireland was in process of being integrated into Britain: by the end it had broken away. The Empire reached its greatest extent in 1919, and in the same year dis-integration began. And the great Anglo-Saxon ally across the ocean hastened the process of disintegration. America did to the British Empire what Britain had done to the European Empires, and Britain did not even dare to protest.

It took Britain some hundreds of years to become a nation-state with representative government based on a democratic franchise. And the means by which that development was accomplished· included civil war, oppressive laws, and administrative oppression beyond the law. And yet when, at the height of its apparent imperial power in 1919, it decreed the existence of a series of new nation-states under its hegemony, it expected them to cohere on the instant into images of itself. It was an entirely unreasonable expectation.

British imperial power broke up the old framework of life in the Middle East and made no more than an empty gesture towards establishing a new framework. It withdrew from direct responsibility for governing the region, Balkanising it and sometimes re-invading in order to keep its oil resources under its own control. It was left to others to try to make actual nations corresponding with the lines drawn on the map by Britain and France, and to do this in the face of British harassment and of the settler state it established in Palestine.

In the Balkanised Middle East the problem was that the different peoples and religions were accustomed over a long period to living cheek by jowl in a large state which made no nationalistic demands on them. The forms of nationalist division and regimentation imposed on them by Britain made no intuitive sense to them. The inhabitants of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul had not thought of themselves as members of the Iraqi nation before Britain told them in 1919 that that is what they were, bombing them as an aid to understanding.

The Balkanised nation-states of the Middle East began as states. It was not the function of the state to represent the nation, but to create it.


The Balkans

While Christian Europe may have been tolerant in ways that the Ottoman Empire was not, the Ottoman Empire was tolerant in ways that Christian Europe was not. The situation in the Balkans is an extreme, though characteristic, form of Christian European intolerance. The Slavs in the Balkans were moulded by the conflict of two forms of European Christianity, and the conflict of both of them with the Ottoman Empire.

If the problem in the Middle East is a lack of nationalist feeling, the problem in the Balkans is an excess of it. The peoples of the Balkans display in extreme form the characteristic attributes of European civilisation.

Britain is the state most responsible for the nationalistic development of Europe. It is fashionable to trace nationalism to the French Revolution. But the spirit of the French Revolution was to counterpose the nation, the people, to ruling coteries of Kings and aristocrats. It was Britain in its struggle against Napoleonic France which fostered a nationalism of peculiarity. The French Revolution roused the nation against internal oppressors with the slogan of the rights of man. Britain, in search of allies against France, roused peoples in support of the old regimes in what could only be a nationalism of peculiarity which pitted nation against nation. And it continued to foster this nationalism of peculiarity right through to 1918 when the Austrian Empire was liquidated.

Having contributed very largely to bringing about the situation of general nationalist antagonism, Britain has during the past couple of years simply washed its hands of responsibility for it.  It encouraged the break-up of Yugoslavia, and then declared Bosnia to be a nation-state when it was obviously inhabited by three peoples which found each other intolerable. But if Yugoslavia was judged not be a functional multi-national state, it was the height of lunacy to declare that Bosnia was a functional nation-state.

And in this matter Britain has not only sold out its principles, but has also acted against its interest-and none more so than the Thatcherites who dream of disentangling Britain from the EC and restoring its ancient glory. Germany, restored as a powerful sovereign state in the middle of Europe, acted rationally in supporting the Croats against Yugoslavia. The Croats are its historic allies. Britain acted absurdly by following suit The Serbs are its historic allies.

British irrationality probably indicates another set of chickens coming home to roost. The Serbs are being punished for a gross act of injustice perpetrated against them by Britain in 1943/4. By now depicting the Serbs as villains, Britain is retrospectively justifying that great betrayal.

In 1941 a Serbian revolt overthrew a Yugoslav Government which, under Croat influence, had signed a treaty with Germany according it a right of military passage through the country. The new Government revoked that Treaty. Hitler had to invade Yugoslavia in a campaign which, though brief, was strategically of the greatest importance. By delaying his invasion of Russia, it enabled the onset of winter to come to the rescue of Moscow, and this probably determined the outcome of the war.

The overthrown Yugoslav Government continued to resist by guerrilla war. But in 1943 Churchill broke off relations with the bourgeois national resistance to the German occupation and switched military support to the Communist Partisan movement. And in 1944 he compelled the King of Yugoslavia to dismiss the bourgeois Government and install a Titoite one. Thus it was Britain, not Russia, which imposed Communist rule on the Serbs.

Having thus betrayed its own world outlook in the Balkans, in a way that made neither military nor political sense, it has continued to behave irrationally in its policy towards the region.

The Communist state of Yugoslavia, established by Churchill, was conducted on the assumption that the nationalist antagonisms of the South Slavs were obsolescent. The Communist movement, while under Churchill’s patronage, recruited into its leadership many Croats who had been active in the German SS. And there was no more than a token gesture towards punishing those responsible for the great act of genocide against the Serbs conducted by Croats under Nazi hegemony in 1941. Nazi genocide proper was conducted by an elite in great secrecy, but Croat genocide against the Serbs was a popular sport conducted in the open, like Anglo-Saxon genocide of the American Indians. Yet it was treated as a minor faux pas by Churchill’s Yugoslav allies, whose primary concern was to destroy the Serbian forces which had resisted the Nazis.

Letting bygones be bygones, even though they be a systematic act of genocide enacted under the hegemony of a powerful state, is eminently sensible if it is conducive to superseding the antagonisms which gave rise to them. That policy may often be more just than justice is a thing that used to be understood in Britain. Britain and America eased off on the passion for what they conceived to be justice in the latter part of 1945, and gave priority to policy, and as a consequence European civilisation recovered to some extent. The intention of dealing out systematic justice to Germans was shelved when the victorious Western allies began to take rational account of the danger from their great Eastern ally. If it had not been for the Russian threat, the peace of 1945 would have been even more catastrophic than the peace of 1918. (The peace of 1918 was catastrophic because the Western allies could freely indulge the moral frenzy worked up during the war, due to the absence of a threat from the powerful Russian ally which dictated a more prudent and political course in 1815 and ‘ 1945.)

Tito’s policy of granting oblivion to Croatia for its conduct towards Nazi Germany and towards Serbs may have been morally reprehensible. But that is not what damns Churchill’s support of him. What damns Churchill is that he sold out his own world outlook without sufficient reason. Yet it would have been better if Croatia had been made to account to the post-war world for its conduct during the War. The policy of granting oblivion was wrong because ‘it failed to overcome the antagonism between the South Slavs, and left the Croats with a good conscience about what they had done.

Those events of fifty years ago are not, properly speaking, history. They are elements of current politics. Many who experienced them are still alive. The BBC ought to have reported current developments of recent years in the light of that background. But, because of the British · skeleton in the Yugoslav cupboard, that was out of the question.

The British Government, instead of facilitating the break-up of Yugoslavia by treating its component parts as sovereign from the outset, ought to have treated Yugoslavia as the sovereign entity in the first instance. And, if forced to give way on that point, it ought to have applied the nationalist principle when discussing how Yugoslavia was to be dismembered, instead of pretending that multi-national sub-divisions were national units.

And David Owen, who was warmongering against Serbia from the start, should never have been thought of as a peace broker.

And when the proportion of land to people in Bosnia as between Muslims and Serbs was being represented as being grossly imbalanced in favour of the Serbs, it should have been pointed out that the Serbs are a largely peasant people, while the Muslims are chiefly urban.

And it should have been pointed out that the laid-down constitutional procedure for detaching Bosnia from Yugoslavia took account of the fact that Bosnia consisted of three nationalities and that a vote on secession required an element of consensus to be effective, whereas the vote actually conducted only gained a simple majority.

It would seem that the Muslims were gulled by the Croats into a game of trickery against the Serbs so that the Greater Croatia of 1941 I could be restored. The Muslims are now suffering because their political leaders were simpletons. But British political influence – Thatcherite influence supported by Labour – encouraged that simple-mindedness at the critical moment.


[The Bosnian War lasted till the end of 1995, and the territory remains fragmented.  And the West was to create further chaos and misery, notably in Kosovo.]

This editorial appeared in May 1993, in Issue 35 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and