Book Review: Bosnia: A Short History

Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia A Short History is the first in a two part series which valiantly attempts to produce an historic reading of the roots of the contemporary conflict in the former Yugoslavia. This book attempts, through rigorous academic research, to provide a fluent narrative of the many sub-stories of Bosnian history from Roman times to the destruction of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina as manifested in the Vance-Owen Plan. This is a work for novices to the region and for those who may have some knowledge of contemporary Bosnian politics yet lack the historic dates that are essential to the claims of the competing national ideologies of Bosnia’s Moslem, Serbian and Croatian communities. The weakness of this book lies in its tendency to review sources that are heavily linked to the creation of national ideology of the many regimes within the region without necessarily exploring the role that the historians themselves played in the formulisation of the respective policies of states. Thus, the studies into regional ethnology and history by Serbian ideologues such as Corovic, Cubrilovic and Draganovic are viewed as neutral scholarly tomes outside the paradigm nationalist competition, when they were in fact works instrumental in the creation of much of the contemporary nationalist myth that has been central to the expansion of the idea of the Serbian state being the Piedmont of Yugoslavia from its germination in Ilija Garasanin’s Nacertanije’s 1844 nationalist programme to Milosevic’s own tools of political mobilisation ensconced in nationalist rhetoric.

Similarly, little time is spent on viewing the birth of the notion of Bosnian nationalism as a created identity throughout the 1960s as a counterweight to Croat and Serb claims upon the political allegiances of the republic’s non-Christian population. In doing so Malcolm has taken the official Bosnian Muslim stance, ie, of the President of Bosnia Herecgovinia Dr Alija Izetbegovic, which tends to brush aside Catholic identification with Croatia and Orthodox with Serbia as a by-product of the nineteenth century consolidation of national movement programmes through the respective churches of these lands. Hence suggesting that such identities were not previously felt in the region prior to the birth of the 19th century romantic movement. A contentious notion, in deed. Whilst it is true that in Western Bosnia up until the 1881 reincorporation of the Krajina into Civil Croatia and in Sarajevo, and the lands to its East, that many Orthodox and Catholic Christians respectively did not see themselves as Serbs or Croats; it is not true of those Orthodox and Catholic populations massed on the Eastern and Northern, as well as south western, frontiers of administrative Bosnia and Herzegovina respectively. These communities could be argued to be extensions of organic communities crossing created administrative boundaries, rather than vice versa. This is due in the main to demographic pressures which are a natural consequence of war, invasion and economic necessity. As such their own tendencies to look towards Belgrade or Zagreb, rather than Sarajevo, is a continuation of cultural and political exchanges that have their roots in the Middle-Ages. A consequence of this there exists a tendency to negate the feelings of these communities as somewhat illegitimate, and skirt around the fringes of the innate cyclical enmity between competing national ideologies of conflicting national movements which has thankfully been rectified in his superb second book in the series Kosovo A Short History. Consequently, the role of prominent Moslems in the development of both Serb and Croat nationalist movements prior to 1941 have not been dealt with as serious contributions to both movements birth pangs, rather as political anomalies that were considered as necessity in achieving the eventual goal of an autonomous or independent Bosnian state. In this sense more could have been written on the Moslem military and ideological contribution to the Croat Ustasa Nazi puppet regime’s occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1941 to 1944. Nevertheless, Malcolm’s understanding that the true roots of this conflict lay in the innate internal conflict between conflicting republican government agendas within the Federation, rather than historic enmities “glorified” in the myths surrounding a distant, seemingly inconsequential, battle in 1389, is spot on. His reading of post-World War II Yugoslav politics vis-à-vis the nationalities question in Bosnia Herzegovina is excellent. Overall, this book is well worth reading (Pero Ercegovac).