“The wars fought in the Balkans in past centuries weren’t fought between South Slavs, but between and against multinational empires”—Christopher Bennett argues so in his book Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course and Consequences.1 Due to centuries of foreign rule from the Western and Eastern Roman Empires to the Habsburg and Ottoman Empire, the Yugoslavs developed distinct cultural and religious divides. The widely accepted scholarly opinion is that these inherent differences within the different Yugoslavs, namely Serbs and Croats, led to the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslav Experiment in 1991. Bennett, however, argues otherwise—institutional divides manufactured by individuals such as King Alexander during the first Yugoslavia and Slobodan Milosevic at the end of Tito’s Yugoslavia led to irreconcilable tensions and eventual war and breakup.
Bennett begins his book by briefly addressing the history of pre-Tito Yugoslavia. In chapters 1-3, Bennett explores how centuries of foreign rule had pit Yugoslavs against foreign empires, not each other. Five hundred years of bitter Turkish rule led Yugoslavs into instability and turmoil—“war became fundamental to the economy and the people living on the fault line grew backward and wild.”2 Bennett argues that this “backward and wild” trend led Slavs to nostalgically look back to the prosperous Dubrovnik Republic that collapsed in the beginning of the 19th century. He dispels claims that there was some sort of historic struggle between the Serbs and Croats—before WWI, Serbs and Croats had peacefully coexisted under disparate foreign rulers. As he addresses the governing structures of the First Yugoslavia, he points out that it was government disagreements and foreign circumstances that ended Yugoslavia, not inherent Serbo-Croat rivalry. After the collapse of the first Yugoslavia, Yugoslavs needed strong, unifying leadership, a situation that led to the emergence of Josep Broz Tito, a charismatic communist leader that held Yugoslavia together for almost half a century.
In chapters 4-5, Bennett explores Tito’s Yugoslavia and how it maintained intact for nearly half a century. Bennett explains that Tito’s Yugoslavia had a conciliatory ideology that sought to include all Slavs, not merely Serbs—“communist Yugoslavism was hostile to all the parochial nationalisms of the peoples of Yugoslavia, while attempting to cultivate a multinational and thoroughly Yugoslav patriotism.”3 By giving all Yugoslavs cultural autonomy, Tito actually bestowed power upon himself to maintain this equality and reconcile any differences. He did reconcile differences, with Croatian nationalist insurgencies in the liberal 1960s and the break with Stalin in 1948. Tito’s personal charisma and policy of nonalignment in foreign affairs managed to keep Yugoslavia in a distinct geopolitical advantage that allowed it to become the “acceptable face of communism” in lieu of the Soviet Union, which was buried in Cold War troubles and tensions with NATO.4 Yugoslavia thrived, holding multiple worldwide sports events and beginning a process of urbanization and rising living standards. However, as the oil embargoes of the 1970s and economic demise of the 1980s hit Eastern Europe, Titoism became yet another failed socialist regime, desperately concealing its catastrophic economic demise with flowery but empty rhetoric of revolution and struggle against fascism. The flooding of Western European aid to Yugoslavia in earlier decades gave no incentive to reform the inherently deficient Yugoslav economic model. After Tito’s death in 1980, the country entered into greater troubles with no effective leadership to conduct nationalized reform and unite people. The 1974 constitution put Tito in an unprecedented amount of power. After Tito’s death, the lack of talent in Tito’s leadership team, whose selection process resembled Andrew Jackson’s spoils system, led to the further demise of these relations. Tito’s absence in an increasingly dismayed country gave rise to Slobodan Milosevic in 1987, whose Serbian nationalism stirred up Serbo-Croat animosities and broke up Yugoslavia.
In chapters 6-7, Bennett traces the cause of Communist Yugoslavia’s collapse directly back to 1987, when Slobodan Milosevic rose to power. Milosevic was the first government official to publicly endorse Serbian nationalism, a movement that began in the 1970s. This movement began as a response to Tito’s emancipation of Albanians in Kosovo, a region considered heroic Serbian ground as the Battle of Kosovo Polje. Although Serbs were a minority in Kosovo, Tito’s attempt to equalize all Slavs infuriated Serbs, who had already been dissatisfied with their loss of power after Tito came to power—in Serbs’ minds, Tito “robbed Serbs of their Yugoslav Empire.”5 These Serbian nationalist stirred up hatred against non-Serbs through exaggerated propaganda and portrayal of a centuries-long Serbo-Croat struggle. While most wars between Serbs and Croats had been caused by multinational empires, these Serb nationalists painted those wars as battles of initial ethnic hatred. These Serbian nationalists also created a Serb conspiracy theory, largely based on hysteria and propaganda as opposed to truth, that, Bennett argues, turned the Yugoslavs against each other and led them to consider disintegration and separate states.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Yugoslavia was put in further distress. Losing the geopolitical prominence that it had maintained for decades by portraying itself as the opposite of the Soviet form of communism, Yugoslavia lost aid and attention from the Western bloc. During the Cold War, European nations eager to contain communism gave Yugoslavia generous aid to break with Stalin and undermine the Eastern Warsaw Pact. In chapters 8-10, Bennett chronicles the Yugoslav Wars, which eventually led to Croatia and Slovenia’s declarations of independence in 1991 and the collapse of the communist Yugoslav nation. During this time, anti-Croat sentiment also surged within the Serbian nationalist movement, with the rise of Blagoje Adzik, the chief-of-staff of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), whose WWII experiences “poisoned him against anything and everything Croat.”6 Under Tito, communism glued Yugoslavia together, an ideology that collapsed in 1990 with the founding of the Serbian Democratic Party. While Milosevic’s party was far from democratic, it did represent a Serb-centric ideal that no longer embraced unification. AntiCroat sentiment, communist demise, and Western ignorance at the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars made the concept of Yugoslavia irrelevant.
Throughout his entire book, Bennett argues that the inherent Serbo-Croat hatred most historians use to explain the demise of Yugoslavia did not exist. Bennett argues that instead of inherent hatred, hatred manufactured in the late 1980s by Serbian nationalists, economic downturn and ideological divides in the absence of Tito led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. “Propagandist and nationalist polemics published in Serbia in the 1980s” stirred up Serbian hatred towards anything and everything non-Serb.7 Propaganda from the Serbian nationalist movement used twisted visions of anti-Serb conspiracies to convince Serbians that they cannot peacefully coexist with other Yugoslavs and should conduct ethnic cleansing on them. Bennett argues that while similar movements occurred in the 1960s , no charismatic leader like Tito was there to reconcile divided peoples and make peace. Therefore, Yugoslav disintegration does not need to be traced back to centuries of Serbo-Croat animosity, but needs to be traced back to the pivotal year of 1987—when Slobodan Milosevic began to stir up conflict in an Albanian-emancipated Kosovo.
Bennett’s bias mainly comes from his lack of experience with Western diplomacy and sympathy toward Yugoslavs as the vulnerable ones ignored and abandoned by a greedy, exploitative European community. Having lived in Yugoslavia through the 1980s and 1990s as a student and journalist, Bennett presumably sympathizes with the Yugoslavs. Therefore, when he addresses Western European powers, which failed to intervene and provide aid in time for the Yugoslav wars, he portrayed their actions as negligent and morally unforgivable. For example, he states that “the great powers chose to remain on the sidelines and to consider the conflict a purely civil war” and portrayed European nations as inattentive to the atrocities of ethnic cleansing occurring in Yugoslavia.8 He wrote the book in 1995, a time when the war had just ended and people were dismayed by the tortures of Yugoslav ethnic cleansing. Therefore Bennett’s predictions of the future seemed gloomy— “given Milosevic’s record, [Yugoslavs] all expect him to become embroiled in another conflict.”9
John C. Campbell, in his review of Bennett’s book in American Historical Review, argues that Bennett fails to address some important diplomatic issues to detail and presents his bias as a Western journalist. While for such a short book Bennett’s account of Yugoslav history is both comprehensive and concise enough to understand, “on some points the explanations may appear to others acquainted with the record to be too brief or too simple.”10 Campbell also pinpoints Bennett’s strength in explaining why Tito was able to maintain a unified Yugoslav nation for nearly half a century. Bennett also addresses Western non-interventionist policies with great fury regarding their moral indefensibility. Campbell sees the merits of Bennett’s predictions of the future being more or less the same as the present, but points out heavy-handed policies in France and Croatia as counterevidence to Bennett’s predictions. Campbell has a favorable opinion of Bennett’s ability to put complex Yugoslav matters into comprehensible terms, but states a few biases coming from Bennett’s naïveté as a Western journalist. Carol Lilly, in her review for The Historian, argues that Bennett’s explanations of Yugoslav background history was both succinct and comprehensive enough to relate to the subsequent events. She also believes that Bennett’s theses, that Yugoslavia did not break up because of inherent ethnic hatred and that the breakup was a result of manufactured Greater Serbian ideals, were founded on solid grounds. However, she points out that Bennett was “not fully successful in providing these theses.”11 Lilly believes that Bennett fails to address the full picture in terms of Yugoslav ethnic relations—Bennett, while addressing the effect of political manipulation on Yugoslavs in the 20th century, is vague on why Yugoslavs can be easily manipulated. Lilly believes that Bennett could have related Yugoslav ethnic animosities to this political gullibility.
While Bennett provides brief and focused analysis of both early Yugoslav history and Yugoslavian history throughout the First and Second World War, he does not explain Yugoslav ethnic relations in enough detail. Bennett does provide background on how through foreign rule, Yugoslav groups developed different cultural and religious customs—he states that imperialistic regimes “brought Croats within Rome’s orbits and made them Catholic, and Serbs under the influence of Byzantium, making them Orthodox.”12 However, he does not explain how the Yugoslavs themselves felt about these differences. His development of his thesis also has merit as he used a myth versus reality model in both the introduction and conclusion.
In the late 1980s, the United States continued interventionist trends of the 1960s and pursued a diplomatic stand in Yugoslavia. Bennett states that Secretary of State James Baker “did not wish to see Yugoslavia disintegrate, since he feared for the future stability of the Balkans.” 13 In light of that wish, James Baker took a clear stance on foreign policy towards Yugoslavs, which is, according to Bennett, bullying Slovenia and Croatia into withdrawing their declarations of independence instead of putting pressure on the belligerent Serbia. This interventionist approach is consistent with 1960s foreign policy, in which Lyndon Johnson intervened in the Vietnam War. The United States had already made the transition from isolationism to interventionism, and that was irreversible, despite the conservative insurgencies of the 1980s.
Yugoslavia’s disintegration left the word in a dismayed state after tragic “ethnic cleansings” and bloody manslaughter committed by a group that peacefully coexisted just a little over a decade ago under charismatic leader Josep Broz Tito. “The real threat to [to Yugoslavia’s security] came not from without, but from within” –Bennett’s shrewd analysis that Yugoslavs only turned against each other because of the ludicrous polemics of Serbian nationalists is valid, but the underlying ethnic conflicts and fall of communism must also be accounted for in this tragic demise.14
1. Bennett, Christopher. Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course and Consequences. New York: New York University Press, 1995. 241.
2. Bennett, Christopher. 18.
3. Bennett, Christopher. 54.
4. Bennett, Christopher. 66.
5. Bennett, Christopher. 81.
6. Bennett, Christopher. 110.
7. Bennett, Christopher. 124.
8. Bennett, Christopher. 245.
9. Bennett, Christopher. 251.
10. Campbell, John C. Rev. of Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course and Consequences by Christopher Bennett. American Historical Review December 1996. Web.
11. Lilly, Carol. Rev. of Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course, Consequences by Christopher Bennett. The Historian 1995. Print.
12. Bennett, Christopher. 17.
13. Bennett, Christopher. 2.
14. Bennett, Christopher. 77.