Never Again

Historical Analogy in the Kosovo Crisis

More graffiti in Belgrade.
Never Again : Historical Analogy in the Kosovo Crisis - Joy L. Frey

1389-Version I

Prince Lazar had come to be the most powerful regional lord in Kosovo and Metohija. It was he who led the troops to battle on that fateful morn of St. Vitus, June 15, 1389. The night before the battle, Prince Lazar hosted a feast for his noble friends and proposed a now-legendary toast conveying doubt in the loyalty of Serbian knight Milos Obilic. The battle occurred on a plain in Kosovo Polje near Pristina. It was here that the troops of Prince Lazar confronted the Turkish army led by Emir Murad I and assisted by Albanians from the region. During the battle, the knight Milos proved his allegiance to Prince Lazar by killing the Turkish emir in his tent. Despite these heroics, the Turks overwhelmed the Serbs and, after killing Prince Lazar, brought the Serbian army to its knees. The battle marked the beginning of Turkish dominance in the region, acquired in the holiest place of Orthodox Serbia.

1389-Version II

On June 15, 1389 Prince Lazar of Serbia led a coalition army of Serbs, Hun­garians, Romanians, Albanians and others against a vastly superior Ottoman army in a battle fought on a plain in Fushe Kosova near Prishtina. During the battle, a brave Albanian by the name of Milosh Kopiliq infiltrated the tent of Sultan Murad I and killed him. Nevertheless, the Ottoman army was too powerful for the coalition troops, and the Turks brought a bloody conclusion to the battle, and thereby estab­lishing their rule over the territory.

The Influence of History

The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 was an unknown event outside of the Balkans until 1999. Now, almost any well-informed European or American knows the sig­nificance of this 600 year old battle which was the foundation for the massive, systematic ethnic cleansing campaign waged against the Albanian population of Kosovo by the Serbian government and military. The Serbian and Albanian versions of the same story are irreconcilable. The Serbs believe that Albanians helped to bring about the most devastating loss the Serbian people have ever suffered, whereas the Albanians argue that Serbs and Albanians fought together against a common en­emy, for land that was first sacred to Albanian ancestors, the ancient Illyrians, before it became a holy place for the Serbs.

As this story became known to the Western public, an atmosphere of incredu­lity ensued. It is unthinkable that a historical event from so long ago could have such devastating consequences at the end of the twentieth century. It was perhaps less evident to the public that the Western response to the Kosovo crisis was also informed and shaped by historical events, albeit ones from the not so distant past. But is historical analogy a reliable tool if the "truth" of history is as elusive as suggested by the conflicting accounts of 1389?

Prior to the commencement of the NATO bombing against the Federal Repub­lic of Yugoslavia (FRY), some of the main initiators of the campaign, US President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, as well as the media, promoted analogies likening the situation in Kosovo to the atrocities committed during World War II by the Nazis. These analogies and the suggestion that the world could not let another Hitler act with impunity against a vulnerable race of people helped reinforce public support for NATO's campaign against FRY.

The West - especially the Anglo-Saxon powers - has made a concerted effort for the past 50 years to avoid repeating the mistakes of "appeasement" whereby the soon-to-be allied powers granted large concessions to Hitler with hopes of avoiding another European war. In particular, the Munich Pact of 1938 reflected the West­ern leaders' fear and paralysis in the face of Hitler's threats; the Western leaders acquiesced to the Nazi dictator's demands by agreeing to the incorporation of the largely German Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich. British Prime Minister Chamberlain's single objective at Munich was to keep Great Britain out of war because of domestic pressure from a war-weary British population and thus settled the "quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know noth­ing" by sacrificing Czechoslovakia.1 Soon after Chamberlain was lauded in Great Britain for preserving" peace for our time" at Munich, the Wehrmacht marched into Prague and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia before invading Poland.

In this, the Western policy of appeasement contributed significantly to the start of the Second World War. The Munich Pact came to be a symbol of the dangers of appeasement and remains to this day a specter in the minds and memories of Western foreign policy makers. Appeasement has become especially taboo for Great Britain (which shouldered most of the blame for appeasing Hitler) and for the United States (whose staunch isolationism prevented it from containing Hitler before it was too late.) The fundamental lesson the powers learned from Munich was unmistakable:

“Appeasement of aggression only invites more aggression, and can be stopped only by an early collective defense. Totalitarian states, be they fascist or communist, are insatiably aggressive, and their imperial ambitions must be thwarted early, and by war if necessary.”2 This issue of appeasement was a constant theme in the rhetoric of the US and UK leaders during the NATO bombing of FRY- and it was hammered home by the media. President Milosevic assumed the role of Hitler: "We have learnt by bitter experience not to appease dictators. We tried it 60 years ago. It didn't work then and it shouldn't be tried now. Milosevic's actions in Kosovo have given rise to scenes of suffering and cruelty people thought were banished from Europe forever.8" And NATO was the one force, which could stop the savage dictator:

We know we are up against a dictator who has shown time and again that he would rather rule over rubble than not rule at all ...W e have seen this kind of evil conduct before in this century, but rarely has the world stood up to it as rapidly, and with such unity and resolve as we see today with NATO's coalition of 19 democracies, each with its own domestic pressures and procedures, but all united in our outrage, and in our determination to see this mission through.4

The Munich and Auschwitz analogies, which resonated in almost every speech given by Clinton, Blair, and Cook, served a dual purpose. First, they ad­dressed the legitimate concern over the potentially disastrous consequences for the ethnic Albanian population of appeasing Milosevic and the desire to put an end to the ethnic cleansing operation. Second, the analogies would naturally spark a moral reaction from the public and hopefully garner the necessary domestic support to implement a military campaign against FRY.T he eloquent triumvirate perfected a lexicon aimed at resurrecting visions of horrific past atrocities: "innocent men, women and children taken from their homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with gunfire,5" "concentration camps, " "mass graves, " " ...separated the men from the women," "final solution."6 The initial surge of support in the early stages of the NATO campaign by the public at large and the corresponding empha­sis by the media confirmed that the strategy was successful.

The moral appeal was perhaps especially necessary in the United States to gain the American population's support of a war that endangered American lives for the sake of "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." The average American had never heard the word "Kosovo" before the conflict there exploded. President Clinton pointed out the danger of letting igno­rance of the culture breed indifference to the conflict: "At the time, [in Bosnia] many people believed nothing could be done to .end the bloodshed. They said, 'Well, that's just the way those people in the Balkans are."' He continued, "We learned that in the Balkans, inaction in the face of brutality simply invites more brutality. But firmness can stop armies and save lives. We must apply that lesson in Kosovo before what happened in Bosnia happens there, too."7 But for the benefit of those who were still unmoved, Clinton often emphasized the danger of the violence in this little region spilling over into other parts of Europe, including the territory of US allies:

Ending this tragedy is a moral imperative. It is also important to America's national interest. Take a look at this map. Kosovo is a small place, but it sits on a major fault line between Europe, Asia and the Middle East ...To the south are our allies, Greece and Turkey; to the north, our new democratic allies in Central Europe. And all around Kosovo there are other small countries, struggling with their own economic and political challenges-countries that could be overwhelmed by a large, new wave of refugees from Kosovo. All the ingredients for a major war are there: ancient grievances, struggling democracies, and in the center of it all a dictator in Serbia who has done nothing since the Cold War ended but start new wars and pour gaso­line on the flames of ethnic and religious division.8

He also suggested that a firm and final resolution to the conflict in this Balkan hotspot might negate the possibility of American soldiers having to fight a war on European soil ever again: "The challenge of ending instability in the Balkans so that these bitter ethnic problems in Europe are resolved [by] the force of argument, not the force of arms; so that future generations of Americans do not have to cross the Atlantic to fight another terrible war."9

In the UK, apparently Blair and Cook saw Kosovo as a means to exorcise the ghost of Munich that has haunted Great Britain's legacy since World War II. They squeezed every last drop out of the Munich and Holocaust analogies with a zeal that made Clinton's rhetoric seem subtle by comparison. Given the strong emo­tional dimension of Cook's new brand of ethical foreign policy, it is no wonder that Britain was the nation most in favor of ground troops. Cook maintained that Kosovo was a struggle between past and present, and thus it was a moral imperative to fight for the Albanians so that the progress made in the last 60 years will long endure:

There are now two Europes competing for the soul of our continent. One still follows the race ideology that blighted our continent under the fascists. The other emerged fifty years ago out from behind the shadow of the Second World War. The conflict between the international community and Yugoslavia is the struggle between these two Europes. Which side prevails will determine what sort of continent we live in. That is why we must win.

If an individual were to base his knowledge of the Kosovo situation entirely on the speeches of Robin Cook, he could easily be led to believe that Hitler and his regime had been reincarnated and relocated to the Balkans:

The first is the Europe Milosevic clings to. It is a Europe whose expression is found in the burning villages of Kosovo, in the forced deportations and in the mass graves. It is founded upon the same standards of racial purity and ethnic intolerance that the fascists used to define their ideology. It is a Europe where the law is merely the dictator's tool, where truth is a means of control, and where rights can be taken away and freedoms extinguished. It is a Europe in which individuals are forced out of their homes, raped and even killed, purely on account of the ethnic group they belong to.10

Moreover, this time he would not be appeased:

The other Europe is the Modern Europe. It was founded fifty years ago, in the rubble that was left after the Second World War. We surveyed what was left of our conti­nent. We saw the extermination camps, the piled bodies of the victims and the pa­thetic masses of survivors. And we made a promise. We vowed Never Again. It was on that pledge that we built the Modern Europe.11

Never again. This simple phrase has become ubiquitous in all literature and speeches regarding the Holocaust. In a speech he gave at the White House during the Kosovo campaign, Elie Wiesel asked rhetorically, "Is today's justified interven­tion in Kosovo a lasting warning that never again will the deportation, the terror­ization of children and their parents be allowed anywhere in the world?"12 Like­wise, in an article entitled "Kosovo, Holocaust and Differences," Mark Nataupsky, president of the Holocaust Education Foundation, concludes his analysis with the assertion that "we need to study the relationship of Kosovo and the Holocaust. We need to examine the similarities and differences to help assure we do not have another Holocaust. Not to any people. Never again. Nowhere."13 Cook's usage of the term goes beyond a simple analogy; he seems to have no doubt that he is stating a truism-Kosovo does not merely bear certain similarities to the Holocaust; it is an extension of it. There could not possibly be a more potent way to evoke the sympa­thy of the public and enlist its support.

While the method does seem extreme, in retrospect, Clinton, Blair, and Cook were well justified in their anticipation of the fickleness of public opinion and media coverage. Tony Blair accurately predicted the syndrome to which the viewing pub­lic (one full month before the end of the bombing) would fall prey: "Refugee fatigue. In other words, once you've reported one mass rape, the next one's not so newswor­thy. See one mass grave, you've seen the lot. This is a dangerous path, and it is one that benefits the Serbs."14

As the campaign wore on, reports of atrocities became commonplace and the media thus sought out new headlines. NATO indeed was able to provide some ban­ner--and infamous-headlines after its accidental bombing of a convoy of Albanian refugees and the absolute fiasco caused by the inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. These events caused a media circus and suddenly the public's support of the NATO campaign waned dramatically, despite the atrocities still be­ing committed by Serb military and paramilitary forces within Kosovo against the Albanians. Eventually, victim interviews about the conditions and reality within the Kosovo borders were not enough to hold the interest of the public without tan­gible visual evidence to rejuvenate the horror of the crimes perpetrated inside Kosovo. Blair acknowledged the growing indifference toward the plight of the Kosovar people and attempted to again remind the public-and to subtly chastise it as well-not to succumb until the goal has been achieved:

...I believe the fact that there are no pictures is part of the story. These are real places, real people.R eal stories of burnt villages, devastated families, lootings, rob­beries, beatings, mass executions. These people are the reason we are engaged and the fact that we cannot see them makes us more determined to get in there and give them the help they need. This is more than a map. It is a montage of murder... [T]hese people are the victims of the most appalling acts of barbarism and cruelty Europe has seen since World War II.W e teach our children never to forget that war. We must not allow ourselves to become sensitized to accept what is happening in Kosovo today.15

Yet another reason that the Anglo-Saxon leaders relied so heavily on the Munich and Auschwitz analogies was the recent experience that had shown that, with respect to Milosevic, the comparison is not empty. Bosnia had left its own legacy. While the US and Western Europe declared victory when the Dayton Ac­cords were signed, Bosnia had also thoroughly humiliated the Western nations and NATO. The world sat back, watched, and waited while the Omarska concentration camp functioned, while Bosnian women were raped, and while the men of Srebrenica were slaughtered in the worst genocidal massacre since World War II. For four years the West appeased Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs. The realization of this and the knowledge of the consequences of their inaction was a key factor in urging an offensive NATO intervention in the Kosovo conflict. Clinton acknowledged the impact that Bosnia had and the lessons it taught:

We learned some of the same lessons in Bosnia just a few years ago. The world did not act early enough to stop that war, either. And let's not forget what happened ... a quarter of a million people killed, not because of anything they have done, but because of who they were. Two million Bosnians became refugees. This was geno­cide in the heart of Europe-not in 1945, but in 1995. Not in some grainy newsreel from our parents' and grandparents' time, but in our own time, testing our human­ity and our resolve.16

Bosnia had been yet another catastrophic incidence of appeasement in the twenti­eth century. The US and NATO had no desire to end the century with one more.

There is a natural predilection for human beings to let history be their guide into the future. The same penchant obviously pertains to governments as well so long as humans remain the driving force behind policy. It is also human nature to want to correct one's mistakes. The Kosovo conflict offered vast opportunities to pay penance for the past. Britain desperately wanted to provide "peace for our time" in order to compensate for lost opportunities and for the role it arguably played in the initiation of World War II. Through policies of appeasement, the United States and NATO failed the Bosnian people for four tragic years. To let the same cruel dictator humiliate the West further in Kosovo by turning a deaf ear to those suffer­ing under Milosevic's savage rule was an utter impossibility. Although the means were questionable, the cause was admirable. Vaclav Havel gave the following as­sessment of the Kosovo intervention: "The enlightened efforts of generations of demo­crats, the terrible experience of two world wars... and the evolution of civilization have finally brought humanity to the recognition that human beings are more im­portant than the state."17

Thus, maybe history has made us wiser. Maybe not. Maybe a Hungarian as­sassinated Emir Murad I.


Joy L. Frey worked in Albanian refugee camps during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia before moving to Kosovo to pursue further work in the field of human rights and civil society development. She is currently an MA candidate at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center.