Milosz: Peaceful coexistence is still possible in the Balkans

The Nobel Prize-winning poet, whose own country was devoured by its powerful neighbors, supports the NATO attacks -- and holds out hope for the future.


Tamara Straus
May 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The bloody war that Slobodan Milosevic is waging in Kosovo is a testament to the power of nationalism. But why has nationalism, an ideology previously associated with the turn of the 19th century, resurged with such fantastic strength in our time?

There is perhaps no one better suited to address this question than Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature. Milosz has long been regarded as a voice of hope in an age darkened by war, death and destruction. Milosz knows from firsthand experience that countries can simply cease to exist: His own beloved "native realm" (to use the title of his superb memoir), Lithuania, was devoured by the Soviet Union. His magnificent poetry bears eloquent witness to human dignity and resistance in the face of our century's evil. Milosz's work has inspired anti-Nazi demonstrators, Polish Solidarity workers and opponents of totalitarianism in both Eastern and Western Europe.

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The recent proposal by the G-8 countries -- which include the largest NATO powers and Russia -- to reach a U.N.-monitored compromise in the Kosovo conflict could bring an end to the current impasse. But nationalism will remain the primary barrier to peace in the Balkans.

Salon News asked Milosz to talk about nationalism in the former Yugoslavia and the wars that it has inspired.

You once said: "People have an enormous need for mythology." Would you apply this statement to the Serbs today?

I grew up in Lithuania, where the past was very much alive, even a pagan past, the traces of which can be found in some folk songs and beliefs. Nations mythologize their past, and sometimes the grip of local mythologies is so strong that they are unable to liberate themselves. In Serbia and Montenegro those mythological images of the past were maintained for centuries by literature. Scholars who wanted to find out how Homer's Iliad was written, for example, traveled to Serbia and Montenegro before the Second World War, and in remote villages they tape-recorded the old tellers of poems, who acted precisely like the Greek tellers in the time of Homer.

In Serbia all those epic songs were centered around the battle of Kosovo of 1389. That battle, which was won by the Turks, resulted in Serbia's loss of independence and a centuries-long domination of Serbs by the Turks. So if we think of the durability of the myth of the battle of Kosovo, we can understand why Kosovo has such symbolic meaning for the Serbs. This myth has been a permanent ingredient of Serbian nationalism.

What were the results of the Turkish domination of Serbia?

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For 500 years, Serbs resisted the Turks and the conversion to the Muslim religion, which the Turks tried to foster. Those Serbs who converted to Islam enjoyed numerous privileges, but they were hated by those who didn't and labeled traitors; they were called "Turks." The ethnic cleansing that began in Bosnia in 1991 was perceived by the Serbs as revenge against the Muslims, i.e., against the traitors, even though the ancestors of these "traitors" had embraced Islam centuries ago. This feeling of revenge as historical justice explains how the Serbs can commit crimes and feel innocent.

How can Serbs still feel innocent, given the atrocities they have committed?

I believe they feel they are innocent. You must understand the complex of innocence -- of being an innocent victim -- is extremely strong in Serbia. They have conceived of themselves as a heroic people who have resisted everybody -- the Turks, the Germans. When the Serbs attacked the Croatian city of Vukovar, for example, they were absolutely convinced they were fighting fascists. They were absolutely convinced they were fighting a repeat sequence of World War II, because the fascists -- not German fascists this time, but Croatian fascists -- attacked them. I can tell you that the mythology of Kosovo is extremely strong in the subconscious of the Serbs. It is this mythology and the enormous force of history that can explain the innocence they feel. The Serbs do not realize what they are doing, but they know how they suffered in the past.

Do you think the West miscalculated in its negotiations with Milosevic?

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I think historical mythologies maintained by a given nation should be taken into account. Kosovo is an extremely strong symbol that plays a major role in the Serbian political game. Milosevic took power 10 years ago precisely by playing the Kosovo card. And at Rambouillet that card was made an ultimatum. International pressure, an Albanian majority in Kosovo, and a plebiscite on the future of the republic in three years meant, in practice, the loss of Kosovo for Serbia. And in my opinion, no politician in Serbia could accept such a loss, because it would mean political death for him. So I would say some proposals went too far.

Was a nationalist crisis in Yugoslavia inevitable at the end of the Cold War?

I don't know if it was inevitable. But in the 1960s I had conversations here with visiting Yugoslav intellectuals, and they were in absolute terror and panic at the thought of what would happen in Yugoslavia after Tito's death. So they knew. They realized the nationalist hatreds. When I visited Yugoslavia after Tito's death, in the early 1980s, I noticed already enormous tensions between nationalities. There was a saying then: It's easier to trade with China than with a neighboring republic. So nationalist hatreds were already very strong. I then saw that immediately after the Yugoslavs liberated themselves from Marxism they embraced nationalism. This proves the strength of nationalism. It emerges after political crises -- and in this case, after the opening of the void previously filled by Marxism.

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Do you think the NATO bombing is a just military intervention?

The whole affair has been going on for 10 years now. What the Serbs were doing in Bosnia -- ethnic cleansing and other atrocities -- exacerbated Western European and American opinion because there was a feeling of impotence and great frustration in the face of the inhumanity of mass crimes. I believe NATO's actions are morally, absolutely justified, except that perhaps when one is frustrated for many years, one can make mistakes out of frustration. I wrote a poem about Sarajevo, warning that inactivity -- in this case, the inactivity of Western Europe to prevent crimes -- can be punished by the fates. I don't know whether the bombing was the best solution. But the Serbian responsibility for crimes should be clearly understood. Milosevic undoubtedly is responsible for the most atrocious crimes, which practically equal the crimes committed by the Nazis.

How hopeful are you for peaceful coexistence among different nationalities in the next century?

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Peaceful coexistence is possible. If you take the area I come from -- Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine -- the Poles and Ukrainians should be murdering each other, because there is a long history of hatred and bloodshed. But relations between Poland and Ukraine are quite good at the present time. And this is the result of the conscious work of some intellectuals, who tried to bring about a mutual understanding and forgetting of the past. The same applies to the Poles and the Germans. Their relationship should be very bad, as a result of the Nazi onslaught, but relations are cordial now. So it's possible.

What words of advice do you have for Western leaders in regard to the Balkans?

We should be very careful to make distinctions, and distinctions call for very attentive study of a given case, of a given area. We should not jump to conclusions and formulate general ideas about the Balkans or the Baltic states and so on. It is very dangerous. And undoubtedly there is a trend in America -- as there always has been -- to dismiss the wars in the Balkans as something that has been occurring constantly. That was the attitude of George Kennan, whose philosophy in this respect boiled down to: "Those people are barbarians who kill each other constantly. Why should we be involved?" Often in the attitude of many Americans there is scorn for little-known areas of the world. And this is dangerous.


Tamara Straus

Tamara Straus is a San Francisco freelance writer and magazine editor.

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