Good Guys vs. Bad Guys or Finding a Starting Point for
Moral Crusading in the Balkans

August 10, 1999

Comment: #306


[1] Matthew McAllester, "Healing After A Decade Of Terror: Kosovars adjust to new sense of freedom," Long Island Newsday, August 9, 1999, Pg. 7.

[2] DAVID BINDER, "In Yugoslavia, Rising Ethnic Strife Brings Fears of Worse Civil Conflict," The New York Times, November 1, 1987, Sunday, Late City Final Edition, Section 1; Part 1, Page 14.

[3] Walter A. McDougall, "OF CRUSADERS OLD AND NEW," Orbis, Foreign Policy Research Institute, August 1999

This is a long message, so you may want to print it before reading.

Serb behavior in Kosovo was atrocious and must be condemned, but it is important to remember that there are no good guys or bad guys in the Balkans, there are only people doing good and bad things, very often in a cyclical fashion. This greatly complicates life for aspiring moral crusaders who need pious black and white truths to pursue their visions of justice.

Reference #1 describes accurately the persecution of Albanian by the Serbs since Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989. But Reference #2 [which was distributed in a earlier message] describes accurately how the Albanians persecuted the Serbs in Kosovo in the 1980s. This seesaw of atrocity and persecution has been going on for hundreds of years going back to the Ottoman conquest of Kosovo in 1448. Consider what has happened just since 1912:

The Orthodox Serbs massacred and expelled Moslem Albanians when they retook Kosovo from the Turks in the First Balkan War (1912). In World War I (1915), Albanian guerrillas exacted an equally bloody revenge on retreating Serb forces (and thousands of women and children in trail) as they were driven across Kosovo in the dead of winter into the icy gorges of eastern Albania by the combined forces of Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary, and Germany.

The Serbs avenged the bloodbath of 1915 in 1918 when Serbia reabsorbed Kosovo and joined other remnants of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to form Yugoslavia. [Remember it was our own moral crusader Woodrow Wilson who helped to assign Kosovo to the Serbs when he got down on his hands and knees at Versailles to invent Yugoslavia as part of the effort to redraw the map of the Balkans.] The Serbs then tried to reverse the demographic displacement that had taken place during the Ottoman era by colonizing Kosovo in the 1920s and 1930s, but these efforts were opposed by the Albanians, and the Yugoslav army found itself suppressing rebellions, particularly in Drenica region, which was again a hotbed of fighting in 1998 and 1999.

The slaughter resumed in World War II on an even grander scale. Nazi Germany invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia and occupied Serbia. It also set up a fascist Croatian puppet state. The Italians placed most of Kosovo in a Greater Albanian puppet state, which the Germans sponsored after Italy surrendered in 1943. The Albanians murdered tens of thousands of Serbs and drove as many as a 100,000 Serbs out of Kosovo. One witness to these events, Carlo Umilta, an Italian civil commissioner, wrote "The Albanians are out to exterminate the Slavs." Umilta saw villages where "not a single house has a roof; everything has been burned. There were headless bodies of men and women strewn on the ground." [Tim Judah, "Cycle of revenge haunts Kosovo," Guardian, April 7, 1999] What Ulmita saw was part of a larger civil war in which Croatian Ustashe and Albanian Muslim forces slaughtered Serbs in an orgy of violence (which the Serbs reciprocated) that eventually became so vicious even the German SS tried to rein it in. By the end of WW II, 1.7 million Yugoslavs died fighting the Germans and each other.

Tito forged a complex federal power structure within a peculiar form of communism that was able to suppress fighting, if not memories, among these feuding ethnic groups. Tito's first constitution made Kosovo an autonomous region of the Serbian Republic, effectively putting it under Serbian control within the Yugoslav Federation. This arrangement enabled the ruling Serbians to oppress the Albanian majority in the 1950s and 1960s, and by 1968, mounting discontent produced widespread rioting and demands to convert Kosovo into an independent republic within the Yugoslav Federation. But granting Kosovo republic status would give its politicians the right to secede from Yugoslavia, an outcome Serbia could never accept.

Rising ethnic tensions throughout Yugoslavia, as well as a need to reform the stagnating economy, led Tito to liberalize the constitution in 1974. The new constitution decentralized more power and control to Yugoslavia's constituent republics, but it finessed the Albanian question with a compromise that made Kosovo an autonomous province within Serbia. While this change gave Kosovo a measure of home rule, with a provincial constitution and control over local organs of government, it did not give Kosovo the right to secede, nor did it stem the rising discontent of its Albanian majority. Pro-independence riots erupted again in Pristina in 1981, only a year after Tito's death.

Despite the limitations of provincial status, the new constitution granted real power to the Albanian majority. The Albanians learned how to use this power to discriminate against the Serb minority living in Kosovo, and by November 1987, they controlled police, judiciary, civil service, schools, factories, and were manipulating public funds and regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs. This discrimination drove at least 20,000 Serbs from Kosovo between 1980 and 1987 (some estimates are in excess of 100,000). This brings us back to the New York Times report in Reference #2.

The mounting fears of the minority Serbs in the 1980s led them to demand protection and Milosevic tapped into these fears during his rise to power. Milosevic used his new-found power to strip Kosovo of its autonomous status in 1989 an action approved by amendments passed by the Serb Parliament in 1989 and 1990. This triggered protests and riots and set into motion an escalating cycle of repression, persecution, and violence which brings us full circle to Reference #1.

Reference #3 may help you to make sense out of this circular mess. It is a speech given by Walter A. McDougall, the author of a fascinating study of the values and traditions shaping America's foreign policy since our nation's inception [Promised Land, Crusader State: America's Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)].

McDougall believes much of today's impulse to reform the world stems from crusading universalism of Woodrow Wilson. In his book, McDougall showed how Wilson is the spiritual father of four new traditions that have been present in the various strategies for the fulfillment of America's crusades in the 20th Century: Progressive Imperialism, Wilsonianism, Containment, and Global Meliorism, or the promotion of democracy, growth, and social reform world-wide. In the speech below, McDougall that his analysis even further and asks what it means to be a modern Crusader State. He examines this question by comparing our policies to the history of the original Christian crusades during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

McDougal will show you that Crusading in the 20th Century has some interesting intellectual parallels to Crusading in the 13th Century. Perhaps a richer appreciation of nature crusading will help us understand why the 20th Century Crusade began with a Woodrow Wilson helping to consign the Albanians in Kosovo to the Serbs and is ending with a Wilsonian Crusade to consign Kosovo to the Albanians by kicking out the Serbs.

On the other hand, maybe it is time for America to take a rest.

Chuck Spinney

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