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A New World Disorder

A Century of Ethnic Cleansing Comes Home to Roost in Kosovo

April 11, 1999|Tony Judt | Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, is the author of "The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French 20th Century."

NEW YORK — We in the West have short, happy memories. When presented with awful images of expelled refugees, starving children or dead bodies, the victims of what is now known as "ethnic cleansing," we may be moved to send a check or even urge our governments to intervene. But what we see is taking place "over there"; it is being done by people we abhor to people we don't know, in the name of ideas or demands that seem utterly alien. We pity the Bosnians, Kurds or Albanians, and we grow to see in their oppressors the very incarnation of evil. But in so doing, we forget a little too readily how close to home all this truly is.

Ethnic cleansing did not begin in 1991 with the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia. It has long been part of our history. The English expelled cottage crofters from Scotland in the early 19th century (the displacement was even then known as the "Highland clearances"); at about the same time, the Cherokees were sent west to their doom. Just before World War I, the small states of the south Balkans--Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia--fought each other for a share of the collapsing Turkish empire, while using the occasion to expel and terrorize geographically inconvenient minorities. During the war, the Turks massacred their own Armenian minority.

After World War I, the victorious Western allies, faced with the anarchic situation created in Europe by the simultaneous collapse of four multinational empires (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey), adopted the famous Wilsonian solution: The peoples were left in place and the borders were adjusted according to the principle of national self-determination. There were some officially sanctioned instances of forced population movement on the margins, notably the mass "repatriation" of Greeks out of Asia Minor into Greece itself. But, on the whole, religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities were left to make their way in the new states ruled by a locally dominant nation.

It didn't work. There was no one to enforce the minority-protection clauses of the Versailles Treaty, and Jews in Poland, Muslims in Yugoslavia, Hungarians in Romania and many others were left to the rather untender mercies of local rulers, far worse off and more vulnerable than they had been in the old multinational empires. So World War II saw the imposition of the opposite solution. Borders, in general, were left intact; people were moved, or exterminated. It has been estimated that in East-Central Europe alone, the war and its aftermath produced 46 million "displaced persons," minority and stateless peoples, from the Russian steppes to the borders of Switzerland, who had been forcibly expelled from their homes and sent wandering in search of food, shelter and protection. To these should be added the tens of millions of dead Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs and others--Adolf Hitler's distinctive contribution to ethnic cleansing--and 13 million Germans from Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, some expelled as part of the postwar ethnic reorganization of Europe, others who fled from the advancing Red Army in anticipation of the revenge it would wreak on any Germans in its path.

This time it worked. The post-World War II settlement, which left almost every European country "cleansed" of its prewar minorities, took the steam out of nationalist polemics. In West Europe, it was soon forgotten that this newly peaceful Europe had been built at such a terrible human cost. Sheltered by political amnesia and U.S. weapons, the West Europeans got on with their lives. The East Europeans, like the Germans, did not forget, but they were stifled under a Soviet-imposed embrace of international fraternity. There was, however, one exception, though few noticed it at the time.

Yugoslavia, heir to the Balkan conflicts of earlier days and the only post-imperial region where neither Hitler nor Josef Stalin was able to impose a "final solution," emerged from World War II as ethnically complex and divided as ever, but held together by a Communist autocrat, Marshal Tito, who restrained multinational conflict by the simple device of forbidding any reference to it. Since his death in 1980, however, his local heirs, notably in Serbia, have instrumentalized the country's historical complexities and divisions for personal political advantage, with results that we see today.

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