Religion Is the Problem in the Balkans

Christopher Hitchens

Reporting on the capture of the mass-murdering General Ratko Mladic by the Serbian government on Memorial Day, the New York Times summarized the newly created political situation like this: “Critical questions remain about precisely who protected Mr. Mladic. The pro-Western government of President Boris Tadic says it will investigate, a politically delicate examination that could lead to former government officials and perhaps even to religious authorities, since Mr. Mladic said after his arrest that he had been visited over the years by many priests.”

Pursuing the front-page story to an inside page, we see that the Times’ reporters, Doreen Carvajal and Steven Erlanger, stayed with that theme: “Government authorities, including President Tadic, have vowed to investigate the protective network, especially to determine if some of the loyalists included government operatives, high officials or perhaps even Serbian Orthodox priests.

The words emphasized in both of the above extracts are italicized not in the original but by me. We can thus criticize Carvajal and Erlanger for three different kinds of reportorial lapse. The first is to use the same significant phrase twice in the same article without clarifying it by the repetition. The second is to make the strong assumption (“perhaps even”) that priestly participation in a career of criminal violence would be an occasion for shock as well as—not quite the same thing—surprise. The third is to be so unaware of the recent history of the Balkans as to believe that membership in the Serbian Orthodox clergy would make it less likely—rather than more so—that the person would be involved in gross violations of human rights.

Did I just say “the recent history of the Balkans”? It would be nearer the truth to say that the entire history of the region is one long confessional feud that when allied to ultra-toxic nationalism was strong enough to drag the entire modern world into a catastrophic war in the summer of 1914. It nearly did the same to post-Cold War southern and Adriatic Europe after 1990, and it was only halted at a terrible cost in blood. The clerical element of this nightmare was obscured by the media’s habit of referring to the three contending parties as “the Serbs,” “the Croats,” and “the Muslims.” You can see at a glance that there is a lack of symmetry in that already sketchy and subjective picture.

In the 1990s, the nationalists of “Greater Serbia,” who sought to remove non-Serb populations from their soil and from the soil of neighboring republics, were overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox Christian and held together by religious imagery and propaganda. Meanwhile, “the Croats” was another collective noun for the Roman Catholics of Croatia and Western Herzegovina who also wanted a “pure” religious state of their own. During the 1940s, they had actually enjoyed possession of such a state in the form of a Nazi protectorate run by an extreme Catholic fascist party named the Ustashe. Serbian memory of this period is extremely traumatic, not least because the Ustashe program included forced conversion of the heretical Orthodox as well as cruel collective punishment for those who declined it. (Not to look for any shallow exculpation, but it seems that General Mladic’s father was one of the Serbs who fell victim to this Crusader-type program.)

In contrast to certain media stereotypes, the Muslim leadership in Bosnia was strikingly secular in outlook. This was especially true of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious city of Sarajevo, which became the target of Mladic’s special wrath. There were some sectarian atrocities committed by Bosnian government forces and by some Islamist “volunteers” who briefly entered the country looking for a jihadi opening, but observers tended to agree that the Bosnian side was the least culpable and also that the more religious a party or militia was, the more likely it was to act in a barbaric manner—which makes the same point in a different way. Secularists were also targeted within their “own” communities. The only decent joke I heard during those bad years (and I apologize to those readers of FI who may have heard me tell it already) came from the Croatian intellectual unbeliever Zarkho Puhovski. “If you are a Croat and you say you are an atheist,” he told me, “the first question you face is ‘How can you prove you are not a Serb?’” Puhovski was partly Jewish, which in a region with that particular history brought special problems.

When the Serbian ethno-fascists were asked to justify their claim to Kosovo, a province where Serbs are a very small minority, they replied that Kosovo was Serbian because it contained their holy places and was Serbia’s “Jerusalem.” Right away you know what’s coming: civilians will be killed and deported to protect the integrity of boneyards and relics and caves. And the Kosovo war, bad as it was, could easily have been very much worse. Right now, the only thing preventing the revival of inter-communal bloodletting is the horribly fresh memory of the last time and a somewhat insipid attachment to a tenuous future prosperity that depends on keeping local atavism in check. Religion nearly destroyed the economy and society of former Yugoslavia and did deep and lasting damage to its people and culture. But in the journal of record for American liberalism, the profound connection between faith and fanaticism is treated as if it were a startling exception rather than a grim rule.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His memoir Hitch-22 is published in paperback by Twelve.


Reporting on the capture of the mass-murdering General Ratko Mladic by the Serbian government on Memorial Day, the New York Times summarized the newly created political situation like this: “Critical questions remain about precisely who protected Mr. Mladic. The pro-Western government of President Boris Tadic says it will investigate, a politically delicate examination that could …

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