Unsettling Scores

Thinking about violence in Warsaw and Jablanica

01/11/2010 | by

Category: Conflicts and Strategies, Security, War/Warfare, Europe, Successsor states of Yugoslavia, Poland, Balkans, South-East Europe, Central Europe

During the Cold War, Yugoslavia was in a league apart from the socialist countries of Central Europe. But the bloody conflicts that tore the Balkans apart reversed these roles. Nearly two decades later, Bosnia and its neighbors might be able to learn something from the reconciliation processes in countries like post-communist Poland.

In the spring of 1995, I drove around central Bosnia accompanying Lieutenant Witold Kieliszek, a Polish policeman serving with Civpol, the U.N. police mission. Having covered the Bosnian war since its beginning, I wanted to do an article on the U.N.’s efforts to bring together Muslim and Croat police forces in Bosnia.

Civpol had a daunting task since the police, as ethnic militias, had been fighting each other in a bloody war-within-the-war, which had ended barely a year earlier (the common war with the Serbs was still raging), and I thought Kieliszek’s efforts might make a good story. The lieutenant’s motives for taking me along were just as practical; he thought I would make a good Exhibit A. In the bitter political conflict in Poland in the 1980s, which started with a military coup in 1981 and ended with the peaceful dismantling of communism at the Round Table negotiations eight years later, we had been enemies. I was a journalist and editor with the underground press, and he a local commander of the ZOMO, the riot police known for its extreme brutality.

Barely seven years earlier, his men would have beaten me bloody, while I would have described him as a traitor to the nation. Yet here we were together, sharing a common, if differently critical, satisfaction with the way things were going in Poland. Kieliszek thought, and I agreed, that, for all the great differences between Poland and Bosnia (the Polish conflict was political, not ethnic, and had cost barely a hundred dead, not a hundred thousand), our presence together might be practical evidence to the Bosnian cops he worked with that reconciliation need not be only a pipe dream. The idea was interesting, but it did not work out quite the way we thought: our interlocutors remained skeptical. The Muslim chief of police in Jablanica, Emin Zebic, expressed it very succinctly: “You had a Round Table, but here it is just war all around.” And then he added, in bitter astonishment: “For us to take lessons from Poland. It has come to that.”

Zebic’s astonishment was well justified. Until the early 1990s, Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia was then still a part, seemed to be a generation ahead of the other socialist countries of Central Europe. Though still a dictatorship, its internal system allowed for much more pluralism and diversity than elsewhere, while its relations with its neighbors seemed a model and an inspiration, especially in light of the region’s bloody history in the 20th century. We Poles certainly could use that inspiration, we thought, caught in the vise of an internal conflict in which each side—the communist government and the Solidarity underground—considered the other to be traitors and agents of foreign powers (of the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively). Furthermore, frozen conflicts with neighboring states threatened to reemerge if we in Solidarity were victorious and the communist permafrost finally thawed. In less than a decade, the situation made an about-turn, and we could serve as a model for the former Yugoslavia, which had broken down into a series of extremely brutal ethnic wars. No wonder Zebic was puzzled. Kieliszek and I also did not exactly know what we had done right.

Comparing Poland and Yugoslavia

A comparison of Poland and Yugoslavia is useful for reconciliation studies. Although generalizations based on single cases can be very misleading, it would appear that some of the processes in both countries also have relevance outside the borders of their national histories and geographies. A comparative analysis, however, does not do much to dispel Zebic’s skepticism.

The main issue, I believe, is the attitude toward violence. In the long and bloody histories of both countries, violence against the oppressors has been seen as both justified and desirable. “What foreign violence has taken, we’ll retake with a sword,” say the words of the Polish national anthem, whose tune was also adopted by the post-World War II Yugoslav anthem. And even if historical experience did not necessarily validate the feasibility of such a program, as both countries suffered many more defeats than victories, the principle of fighting violence with violence was well entrenched in both: “The Vistula [in Poland] and the Sava [in Yugoslavia] roar in one voice,” said the Partisan version of the Yugoslav anthem. It is plausible, however, that precisely at the moment when Tito’s Partisans were singing those words, Yugoslav and Polish attitudes to violence started to diverge, with long-lasting consequences.

In 1945, Yugoslavia largely liberated itself from occupation by an already defeated Germany. When Soviet troops entered the territory of the Allied nation, they were largely met by Partisan forces already in control of the territory, and unwilling to share that control with the Soviets. By force of arms, Tito’s Partisans had triumphed over the Germans, deterred the Soviets, and then, through violence and massacre, defeated any remaining rivals for absolute power in the land—or so it seemed. Violence manifestly had worked. Less than a year earlier, Poland had suffered one of the worst defeats in its history. The Warsaw uprising against the Germans was defeated in 63 days of fighting, and  the city lost 200,000 people, mainly civilians. The purpose was identical to Tito’s: to repel the Germans and deter the Soviets, but as the Red Army stopped its offensive to allow the Germans to finish the Poles off, the result was a disaster. The defeat of the Warsaw uprising broke the backbone of the Polish resistance, and the Soviets were determined to crush what was left: some 10,000 people were killed in battle over the next two years. While Yugoslavia regained its independence after World War II, Poland emerged from the war as a Soviet satellite.

Polish public opinion drew the consequences: support was withdrawn from the increasingly isolated armed-resistance groups, and indeed from those who would violently oppose the otherwise hated regime. Even if lip-service might still be paid to the motto “it is better to die standing than to live on your knees,” those who survived the former, opted for the latter. In the political crises which would shake the country once every decade, violence was used exclusively by the regime, and not only because it had a monopoly on its instruments. After the military coup of 1981, appeals for violent resistance were rare. In Warsaw, a group of young workers who had smuggled explosives from their factory and wanted instructions on what to blow up, were told in no uncertain terms by the underground leadership to blow up nothing and smuggle the stuff back in. A major factor in this dramatic attitude shift was the social teaching of the Catholic Church, as expressed in the words of Jerzy Popiełuszko, a militant priest dubbed the chaplain of underground Solidarity: “Defeat evil with good.” When Popiełuszko was murdered by the secret police, these words became a political testament that the movement fully observed. And when the authorities ran out of violent strategies in attempts to crush that movement, and the doomsday option of a Soviet intervention evaporated with Gorbachev’s Perestroika, the opposition’s newly found non-violence made it possible to sit down and negotiate with the consistently non-violent opposition.

In Yugoslavia, of course, the memory of Tito’s successful violence inspired both those who wanted to preserve the state he had built, and those who wanted to break it up. The non-violent option, though reasonably popular (as indicated e.g. by the electoral showing of Ante Markovic’s Socialists) did not have a chance: for both the authorities and the opposition, violence seemed justified and effective. The result was the war all around described by Emin Zebic in Jablanica.

Rejecting Violence

In Poland, the abandonment of violence as a legitimate method of fighting the conflict, by both sides, preceded the Round Table, and was the necessary precondition for both of these particular negotiations and of the reconciliation that eventually followed. Violence presupposes that the desired outcome is predicated on the destruction of the other side. Its abandonment logically assumes that this destruction is not only not desirable, but becomes undesirable. Ultimately, then, the desired outcome is predicated on the other side continuing to exist.

This syllogism is certainly not consciously espoused by parties to the conflict, but it nonetheless engenders a momentum that is crucial. We reject violence because of what it does to us; we therefore accept the continuing existence of the former enemy as an integral part of the desired outcome—not out of moral considerations, not out of pragmatism, but simply because the alternative solution is untenable. And it is the genuine acceptance of that existence, with all the concomitant consequences, which is the sine qua non of reconciliation. The ultimate test is, of course, the voluntary relinquishment of violence, even if one were free to do otherwise. This happened first when the Poles, in the beginning of the Soviet occupation, withdrew their support for armed resistance. In the dying years of the regime, the authorities finally reciprocated by refusing to crush the opposition with violence. And the final test came when, after the end of Communism, democratic Poland refused to prosecute former Communists solely for having been Communists. I would venture that this, rather than the seemingly moral postulate of magnanimity in victory, constitutes the real basis of reconciliation. The former enemy retains legitimacy on his own terms even after he has been defeated, not because the victor is noble, but because he perceives the right to this as a crucial element of his own legitimacy.

It seems obvious that interethnic relations in the former Yugoslavia have not yet reached that point. Former enemies are at best tolerated as a necessary evil. Their presence is not seen as evidence of the desired outcome having been achieved, but rather as evidence to the contrary. The extremely unhappy relationship between the Federation and the Republika Srpska (RS) is a case in point: the Federation hopes to see the RS disappear, while the RS hopes that what will disappear are the constraints that keep it tied to the Federation. There seems to be no indication that, say, the forthcoming elections might bring a change to this state of affairs. Nor does it seem that the different ethnic communities have radically reassessed their attitudes to the political uses of violence.

It would, however, be misleadingly facile to concentrate on violence alone. While it does seem that no reconciliation is feasible without its rejection, such a reassessment is not done by fiat. As a minimum, it requires a conceptual redefinition of the identities of oneself and of the enemy, ideally through the valorization of a third identity, which would include both. This is why a political conflict, such as the one in Poland, is more amenable to change than an ethnic one, as in Yugoslavia. The identities involved are much more malleable. First, of course, is the perception that while political identities are freely chosen, ethnic ones are objective and immutable. Had he so chosen, Kieliszek could have joined the underground, and I the ZOMO, but Zebic felt he had no choice but to fight for his people, the Muslims. The fact that ethnic identity is in fact as much a social construct as political identity, even if constructed differently, is irrelevant here; what matters is the way these identities are perceived. Dražen Erdemovic, the killer from Srebrenica, did not stop perceiving himself, or being perceived by others, as a Bosnian Croat, even though he had finally joined the ranks of the Bosnian Serbs.

Ethnic Identities

This essentialist perception of ethnic identities creates a double obstacle for reconciliation. First, it makes conceptualizing a compromise solution much more difficult. I could conceivably renege on some of my political beliefs as a Solidarity member, but how was Zebic to imagine reneging on his being a Muslim? But, second, it seriously impedes the chances of both sides discovering a common identity, in the name of which they can drop demands and exigencies mandated by their separate ones. Kieliszek and myself, even if we continued to take a dim view of each other, could—together with millions of compatriots from both sides of the divide—legitimately bask in the satisfaction that our respective political formations, all Poles regardless of differences, were able to jointly achieve a stunning success through the Round Table negotiations.

Zebic and his Croat or Serb counterparts could not avail themselves of such a shared identity. To be sure, they had all recently been Yugoslavs—but this identity, political and not ethnic, had unraveled in the very wars they were fighting. Indeed, this political identity was considered, at least in the official discourses of all three sides, no less of an enemy than the ethnic identities of the front-line adversaries. Even once the war was over, “Yugonostalgia” continues to be considered an extremely negative attitude, as it seems to imply radical criticism of the legitimacy—or, at least, attractiveness—of the successor states. Therefore, this crucial facilitator of reconciliation—an officially acceptable shared identity—is not readily available in the Yugoslav case.

Ethnicity, of course, need not be the sole provider of such an identity: religion can play that role as well. The famous 1966 Appeal of the Polish Catholic bishops to their German counterparts—“We forgive and we ask for forgiveness”—could have worked only by the implicit reference it made to the assumed Christian identity of both nations, expected to override their extremely bloody ethnic division. However, given the fact that the Appeal was initially met with hostility by the majority of Polish Catholics, one can speculate that religious identity is a less powerful bridging factor than ethnic identity. In fact—a fascinating paradox in its own right—ethnicity not only encumbered the eventual grudging acceptance of the Appeal by the Poles: it also enhanced it. Catholicism was considered by most Poles a bedrock of their ethnic identity, which in turn strengthened their resistance to the Communist system, perceived as alien and imposed from abroad. But if so, then following the guidance of the bishops would actually be in the interest of that resistance, the more so as the regime violently criticized the Church—even if the Appeal also entailed questioning a fundamental element of that resistance: a national self-perception of blameless victimhood.

To complicate matters further, that very self-perception also made possible the acceptance of the Appeal, both elements of which were markedly unpalatable to the majority. “We forgive” flew in the face of the universal feeling that the German crimes (6 million Polish dead) had been literally unforgivable. Forgiveness seemed an impossible task, but that very impossibility became a challenge which somehow made the whole proposition imaginable. Even more difficult, however, was to contemplate the possibility that Poles themselves had something to ask forgiveness for. The sufferings of the 3.5 million Germans expelled immediately after the war from what had been eastern Germany and in 1945, thanks to decisions made in Yalta and Potsdam, had become western Poland, had failed to register in Polish collective historical memory or, if they did, it was only to underscore that this was very pale historical justice for the horrors of the German occupation.

Furthermore, and just as importantly, defeated Germany had fully accepted its criminal responsibility, and dared not ask for consideration for its own suffering. Both Polish and German discourse labeled the Germans as perpetrators, and the Poles as victims. This came as a result of Germany’s utter defeat, but especially of the war crimes trials, international and national (eventually including also German ones) that followed. The Appeal of the Polish bishops, therefore, seemed to involve a double impossibility in the service of a quixotic cause: forgiving the unforgivable and asking for forgiveness of evil allegedly not committed, all to help uplift a defeated foe, in the name of a faith the foe had trampled underfoot. Very Quixotic, very Polish—and, as it turned out, very effective. Not only did Polish forgiveness not put an end, as some had feared, to German contrition, it in fact strengthened it, by providing a moral response. And on the Polish end, asking for forgiveness, initially seen as almost absurdly devoid of reason, led to genuine soul-searching and a—very reluctant—recognition of crimes committed.

Here again, the Polish example offers little in terms of practical suggestions for the former Yugoslavia. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, of course share no common religion, while their respective and different faiths form (like in Poland) the basis of their (re)constructed ethnic identities. Furthermore, all parties to the recent war consider themselves to be mainly or exclusively victims, and the others to be perpetrators, therefore precluding a shared perception of the Polish-German kind. No clear victor emerged from the Bosnian war, and much of Serb civil society, both in Serbia and in RS, perceives The Hague Tribunal as biased against the Serbs. The fact that Serbs were accused and/or convicted of the most heinous crimes is seen as proof of this bias, rather than of Serb responsibility. The fact, however, that historians of the events by and large agree that the brunt of the crimes lie with the Serb side might indicate that with time Serbs will also endorse that view; a shared perspective seems to substantially facilitate reconciliation. The difficulty both Serbia and RS have with recognizing the genocide at Srebrenica, even if this year’s declaration of the Skupština gives some grounds for hope, indicates that the process will be long at best. Current Turkish perceptions of the Armenian genocide, however, indicate that “long” might in fact mean decades, not just years.

War crime trials, and attempts to set up truth commissions, even if they can be seen as obstacles to reconciliation in the short run, are almost certainly indispensable for its eventual success. They redistribute responsibility from “the” Serbs (or Muslims, or Croats, or Kosovars, and so forth) to particular individuals, while the cooperation of states in the prosecution of their own war criminals supposedly improves the image of these states to their erstwhile enemies. The Bosnian government’s policy of cooperation with the tribunal (e.g. in the case of Nasser Oric, considered a Bosnian war hero) contrasts with the previous reluctance of the Croat government and continuing obstructionism from the Serb one in the case of general Mladic. However, it does not appear to be the case that, say, Serb public opinion has been swayed by Bosnian cooperation with The Hague. Again, “long” might mean decades.

Even if the key factors examined so far—the sheer number of the dead, attitudes to violence, the perceived essentialist nature of ethnic identities, the unavailability of an identity, political or religious, which could be jointly claimed by all sides, the lack of a common narrative—all point toward the conclusion that the Polish example offers few lessons for Yugoslav reconciliation, some more hopeful observations can still be made. They concern the nature of historical memory and the contents of stereotypical perception. Finally, the impact of material interests needs to be briefly addressed.


While 3.5 million Germans were expelled from what became western Poland, some 1.5 million Poles were deported or fled what had just become the western part of the Soviet Union. The German expellees who found themselves in democratic western Germany set up powerful organizations—the Landsmanschaften—to preserve their regional identity, cultivate the memory of their suffering, and fight for restitution or compensation. These organizations are powerful in Germany even today, and occasionally create crises in Polish-German relations. Polish refugees/expellees from the East (and German expellees in eastern Germany) did not have that possibility. Since in both cases their homelands had been gobbled up by a presumably fraternal socialist country, any reference to expellee identity, let alone suffering and oppression, was forbidden. Not only were organizations similar to the Landsmanschaften not formed: as a rule, parents did not transmit their identity or pass down the story of suffering to their children for fear of exposing them to persecution. As a result, when Poland regained independence after 1989, no significant movement arose to fight for the preservation of Polish historical memory in the east, let alone for return or restitution. This put paid to rather widespread fears that an independent Poland might become a revanchist power, threatening the stability of its eastern neighbors. On the contrary, and completely unexpectedly, Poland now has the best relations with its neighbors of all former Soviet bloc countries.

It is probably too early to assess whether refugee identities in the former Yugoslavia will become fixed. This will depend on the possibility of actual return (somewhat hopeful for all groups in Bosnia, uncertain for Serbs from Croatia, and practically impossible for Serbs from Kosovo). Chances are that refugees, particularly Serbian, will develop Landsmanschaften identities, which will work against possible reconciliation. If this happens, much of the responsibility will fall on the governments in Zagreb and Pristina. Overall, however, the determining factor will be the contents of the accepted Serb national narrative. As long as it remains concentrated on suffering experienced, rather than inflicted, perspectives of reconciliation will recede.

Germany and Poland

One has to keep in mind, however, that important historical developments can occur unexpectedly. In the early 1980s, the Polish-German reconciliation process, initiated by the Appeal of the Bishops, had somewhat moved forward, but the fear of German revanchism still remained a powerful force. The government knew well how to capitalize on it, stressing that only the armed might of the Red Army could safeguard Poland from a possible German move on the northwestern territories—and a Communist government in Warsaw was the sole guarantor that such a reaction would be made to occur if need be. Even the overall rejection of anything the authorities said as lies could not overcome the acceptance of this reasoning, which was grounded in the stereotypical perception of the Germans as a nation motivated solely by its own interest and supremely dismissive of the interests and rights of others. Even massive humanitarian aid, funneled to a crisis-stricken Poland by the Federal Republic and West German churches, trade unions, and other organizations, did not modify this picture; these actions were perceived as tokenism.

But sometime in the early 1980s, somebody in Germany had a brilliant idea. Churches and trade unions started circulating among their members addresses of needy Polish families, provided largely by the Polish Catholic church, and lists of products—detergents, dry and tinned goods, children’s clothing, and the like—that were needed in Poland. The idea was for German families, when shopping, to buy additional goods for the Poles and then send them out as individual parcels, completely bypassing the institutionalized structures of delivering humanitarian aid.

The idea caught on, and out of the blue, thousands of families in Poland started receiving parcels from German families they had never met or heard of. The impact was huge, not so much because of the financial expenditure involved—everybody believed the Germans were rich and could afford it—but because of the expenditure of time, effort, and good will to help complete strangers. Such behavior was far removed from what Poles thought they knew about Germans. With the passage of time this new knowledge became sufficiently widespread and ingrained to successfully challenge the traditional ethnic stereotype of the evil German. Thus humanitarian aid had, as an unexpected side-effect, seriously enhanced the reconciliation process.

Possibilities for such person-to-person relationships are of course much more widespread in the former Yugoslavia due to the experience of sharing, until recently, a common state. Even if humanitarian aid is not largely needed and other methods must be invented, and the risk of being labeled “Yugonostalgic” is ever-present, it is reasonable to believe that the cultivation of personal bonds is one of the fundamental mechanisms that facilitates reconciliation.

Finally, one should briefly note that, in the case of Polish-German relations, the fact that the Federal Republic was and remains capable of mobilizing serious resources for projects serving reconciliation, of course had an important, if not only positive, impact on the process. Hostile stereotypes were gradually softened under the impact of tangible benefits resulting from such projects—but obviously there was always the risk of either the donor acting, or appearing to act, with the intention of buying a clean conscience, or the recipients acting, or appearing to act, as moral extortionists. The overall balance of such projects, from compensation of victims to developmental aid is, however, clearly positive.

Small Steps Forward

Moral balances of rights and wrongs aside, none of the parties of the recent wars in former Yugoslavia are financially capable of efforts like those West Germany undertook. Small projects might be initiated, but—precisely because little materially is at stake—they would be much more exposed to accusations of dealing in blood money than the massive German projects in Poland. Over the last 15 years, the international community and NGOs have made great efforts to initiate such projects. Their cumulative impact is still being assessed.

To resume—Zebic was right to be skeptical. Reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia will remain a long-term process. To be sure, summit meetings between leaders of states formerly at war are to be applauded, even if practical consequences are not immediately seen. In fact, the very absence of war is already a major achievement. Does this warrant the belief, recently expressed in a common statement by Hillary Clinton, Catherine Ashton, and Miguel Angel Moratinos, that “Today Sarajevo is at peace, a symbol of rebirth and reconciliation, representing all the opportunities and challenges of European and Euro-Atlantic integration?”

The Bosnian capital, mercifully at peace, does bear a heavy load of symbols. Is it also a symbol of reconciliation? Many of its inhabitants are not convinced. But then again, I can fully imagine a Muslim and a Serb soldier of the contingent Bosnia maintained in Iraq for three years, engaging not only in the de-mining operations for which it was rightly renowned, but also talking with Iraqis. I can imagine them explaining that Bosnia, too, had a bloody internal conflict, but that soldiers from previously warring sides are now cooperating. And I can imagine a skeptical Iraqi telling them that this may well have happened in Bosnia, but cannot happen here.

Reconciliation, after all, is also a matter of perspective.



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