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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN : More Hitler Than Holy Roman Empire : The ugly divisions emerging in Eastern Europe evoke the worst of 20th-Century history.

July 14, 1991|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications. and

ARDMORE, Ireland — One of the big broadcasting successes this summer has been Radio Finland's weekend newscast in Latin. Begun as a promotional stunt, the five-minute "Nuntii Latinii" has attracted a wide following among European shortwave listeners. Here in Ireland I picked up the transmission easily enough and understood about a quarter of it, testimony to the savage effectiveness of my Scottish schoolmaster.

This pleasing reminder of a time, half a millennium ago, when Europe was cemented by a common culture and language stands in marked contrast to the resurgence of nationalism of the most destructive kind in the Balkans.

The scenes in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia evoke memories of some of the most bitter chapters in 20th-Century history: the fanaticism of Catholic Croats raising hecatombs of Serbian bodies on the altars of their religious frenzies, cheered on by Rome; the vengeful furies of the Serbs.

The Slovenes themselves have scarcely been tactful in reminding the world of those fearsome race feuds of 50 years ago. One of the first acts of the infant Slovene republic was to declare an amnesty for all collaborators with the Axis powers in World War II.

It seems highly doubtful that the peace brokered by the European Community will last for long. How could the foreign minister of Luxembourg patch together tranquility when 30 years' rule by an authentic national liberator, Marshal Tito, failed to quench the Balkans' tribal feuds?

There are auguries of the repetition of history at its worst. Slovakians now gaze back yearningly to the salad years of Monsignor Joseph Tiso, the wartime leader of Slovakia, who genially arranged with the Nazis for the transport of Jews to death camps and subsequent "Aryanization" of their property. In similar echoes of a bloody past, the Hungarians are turning on their Gypsy minority.

Gazing upon the unraveling Balkans, some note the encouragement given by Austria to Slovenian self-determination. They evoke the Austro-Hungarian empire, which imposed on large portions of Europe some kind of transnational order, just as did the Communists after the war. For much of the 19th Century, the Hapsburg dynasty presided over what was, by 20th-Century measurements, a relatively benign imperium in which minority rights were generally respected and a modicum of economic integration achieved. The Austrians also clearly remember the palmy past, and in the minds of the governing Social Democrats there is no doubt hope for Vienna as the economic pole of attraction to which Hungary, Bohemia, Slovakia and Slovenia will incline.

But after 30 years of the order supervised by Metternich, the old empire's subjects chafed, just as Eastern Europeans do today. It was the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth who cried in 1848, "From the charnel house of the Vienna cabinet a pestilential air breathes on us, which dulls our nerves and paralyzes the flight of our spirit."

The Austro-Hungarian empire shattered in 1918, and many of its sundered components next found common ground in the programs of fascism and the leadership of Nazi Germany. The old empire's final collapse was put into motion on June 28, 1914, by a Serbian idealist named Gavrilo Princip, who threw the bomb that killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife and drew down World War I.

But Princip was not a racialist fanatic like those presently thickening the Balkan air with their rancid enmities. The Sarajevo conspirators were Croats, Serbs, Muslims--they dreamed of a nation in which the diverse peoples of Yugoslavia would cohabit in free and equal union. Racialism and religious particularism came later, after the idea that a country belongs to all who dwell in it gave way to the race-based nationalism that deported and in some cases murdered whole peoples in the cause of ethnic uniformity and coherence.

It would be comforting to argue that Eastern Europe today is only at the fork in the road and that, in a reprise of the Holy Roman Empire, largely self-governing units--Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, not to mention Catalonia, Scotland and the Basque country--would defer in larger matters to European Community authority in supranational centers such as Brussels and Strasbourg.

But history, especially that of Eastern Europe, scarcely encourages such optimism, when populists like Milosevic of Serbia or Tudjman of Croatia will soon be outbid on the ultraright in their racist demagogy, and the cohesion may not be that of supranationalism but of the psychopathology of the Austrian who had his own dream of a new version of the Holy Roman Empire, centered on Berlin.

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