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The American Left’s Milošević Moment

The incitement of tribal hatreds and historical grievances under the cover of Marxist-Leninist language led to the destruction of the multiethnic country of Yugoslavia and the genocide of Bosnian Muslims. The parallels to American wokeism are hard to ignore.

Andrew Nutting
April 05, 2024
Slobodan Milošević addresses Serbs at Gazimestan, the field in Kosovo where Serbs lost the Battle of Kosovo to the Turks in 1389. The speech was part of a daylong event to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle, June 28, 1989

Reuters/Bridgeman Images

Slobodan Milošević addresses Serbs at Gazimestan, the field in Kosovo where Serbs lost the Battle of Kosovo to the Turks in 1389. The speech was part of a daylong event to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle, June 28, 1989

Reuters/Bridgeman Images

Early on in the Donald Trump political phenomenon, witnesses to the violent collapse of post-Cold War Yugoslavia, including American journalist Peter Maass and Princeton professor and Sarajevo native Aleksandar Hemon, found what they believed to be an apt analogy for Trump’s belligerence and popularity in Slobodan Milošević—the Serbian ethnic nationalist movement leader who propelled Serbia’s 1990s wars with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo, sponsored a genocide of Bosnia’s Muslims, and rendered Serbia itself an inflation-ridden, organized crime-plagued, impoverished international pariah.

The irredentist nationalism of Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić was rightly abhorred by 1990s Democrats like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Samantha Power and was ultimately crushed by NATO military forces. It is ironic, then, that the core tenets of Serbian nationalist ideology would find a home in the Democratic Party’s own emergent ethos, which is often described by terms like “wokeness,” “anti-racism,” or “critical race theory.” This is despite obvious displays of cultural connections between Serb nationalism and conservative and nationalistic elements—both mainstream and murderously extreme ones—in the present-day West. Karadžić, for example, celebrated Trump’s 2016 election victory while imprisoned at the Hague. In 2019 white supremacist Brenton Tarrant played a Serbian war song while shooting and killing 51 Muslims in New Zealand with a rifle he had decorated with names of Serbian military history figures.

Yet as writers including George Packer, Stephen Schwartz, and the historian Marko Attila Hoare have noted, the nationalism of Milošević and Karadžić was not mere and simple chauvinism. It was forged in a coherent and all-encompassing worldview, aggressively advocated by Belgrade-centered intellectuals and journalists in the years following the 1980 death of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito, arguing that Serbs had been unjustly victimized by centuries of occupation and enslavement under the Ottoman Empire, followed by the highest per capita death count of any country in World War I and then by genocide at the hands of Nazi-sponsored Croats during World War II. Serb nationalists further alleged the half-Croat, half-Slovene Tito had concocted a political system that discriminated against Serbs because he thought a “strong Yugoslavia” required a “weak Serbia.”

Karadžić, a practicing psychiatrist, claimed the cumulative experiences were so painful that Serbs had adapted to celebrate their defeats. Historian Milorad Ekmečić said to the 1992 meeting of the Congress of Serbian Intellectuals, “In the history of the world, only the Jews have paid a higher price for their freedom than the Serbs,” and that Serbs faced “a struggle for biological survival.” Minus the glowing reference to Jews, Ekmečić’s rhetoric could easily find a place in the work of quite a few high-profile MacArthur genius grant recipients of recent years.

Western observers of the 1990s Yugoslav wars were well aware of this Serb nationalist emphasis on longtime persecution and suffering, and tended to find it despicable. Christopher Hitchens savaged it as “Serbia’s combination of arrogance and self-pity,” Biden said Serbs stewed in “the disease that they are the oppressed,” Schwartz wrote of “ethnic narcissism,” and diplomat Richard Holbrooke boasted of telling Serb leaders to stop interrupting peace negotiations with “historical bullshit.”

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, the nationalistic component of his political shtick consists of gloating over America’s history of winning, lambasting other countries when he thinks their policies—like Mexico’s emigration policy or France’s technology tax policy—harm American interests, and extending shameless intra-American, cross-racial appeals like showering money upon historically Black colleges and universities and tweeting “I love Hispanics!” alongside photographs of taco bowls. In these dimensions, Trump’s rhetoric is nothing like Milošević‘s and Karadžić’s dolorous protests over centuries of unrelieved Serb victimization at the hands of Yugoslavia’s other ethnic groups. Their particular version of nationalism is obviously more like wokeness, which awards moral status to claims of group oppression.

Indeed, Serb nationalists and their defenders regularly appealed to woke-style sentiments and imagery to plead their case. General Ratko Mladić, charged by an international tribunal with genocide for orchestrating the murders of 8,000 Muslim men and teenage boys in the Bosnian village of Srebrenica, appeared in court wearing a large ring engraved with a headdress-wearing American Plains Indian to display his identification with a dispossessed people. Former Naval War College professor John Schindler wrote that Alija Izetbegović, the first president of Bosnia and a practicing Muslim, had written passages about Ottoman rule that were “tantamount to a white Southern politician who publicly extolled his slave-owning ancestors.” Radovan Karadžić justified his refusal to accommodate Bosnia’s early-1990s secession from Yugoslavia by comparing it to anti-slavery West Virginia’s refusal to secede from the United States along with pro-slavery Virginia in the run-up to the Civil War.

It is important to note that many Serbs opposed the nationalism of people like Milošević, or only accepted it by default after all-against-all ethnic war began or after NATO began bombing Serbia in 1999. Notably, Serbian scientists Katarina Jovanović and Aleksandar Savić are among today’s most outspoken voices warning of how trends on the left-wing side of American politics resemble those of late-stage Yugoslavia. Also noteworthy is that Serb patriotic sentiments are not fundamentally intertwined with victimization. David Martin, a pro-Serb, World War II era Canadian journalist, wrote that between World War I and World War II, when Yugoslavia was a monarchy with a Serbian royal family, Serb nationalism centered around pride at having achieved independence in the 19th century and having sided with the victorious Allies in World War I. This triumphant mentality is manifested in the 45-foot-tall Belgrade statue “The Victor,” dedicated in 1928, which remains one of Serbia’s most prominent landmarks. All of which underlines the extent to which a narrative of historic Serb victimization blended with Marxist-Leninist rhetoric was an original ideological formation whose toxic fruit of tribal hatred, official grievance-mongering, state collapse, and ethnic slaughter bears close examination in the context of the current American moment.

Coincidentally or not, American Marxist academics began championing the racial branch of wokeness known as critical race theory in the late 1980s, at the same moment when Milošević was using Serb nationalism and a series of well-timed angry mobs to stage a hostile takeover of Yugoslavia’s political institutions. Perhaps word travels fast in Marxist circles. Or perhaps the fall of communism required ideologues in both the East and the West to come up with new formulations by which to maintain their imagined centrality within the historical process, and to assemble new ranks of followers within the ruins of their former projects.

Milošević had been a high-ranking member of Yugoslavia’s League of Communists, and a drab, cookie-cutter Brezhnevian bureaucrat spouting communist clichés about the dangers of ethnic nationalism, until he abruptly embraced impassioned Serb nationalism in an April 1987 power grab. That cynical, opportunistic transformation means that Milošević, once labeled “The Face of Evil” by a Newsweek magazine cover, is a key historical link between orthodox Marxism and so-called “cultural Marxism,” which replaces theories of bourgeois-proletariat class conflicts with theories of ethnic, racial, and other identity-based conflicts as the motors of history. It is notable that Milošević and the media he controlled maintained the veneer of Marxist-Leninist jargon after embracing Serb nationalism, vilifying political opponents of Albanian and Slovenian ethnicity as “counterrevolutionaries” in lieu of more straightforward ethnic slurs. Legendary Yugoslavian anti-communist dissident Milovan Djilas explained Milošević’s reinvention by quipping, “Yugoslavia is the laboratory of all communism.”

Virulent 1990s Serb nationalists like Karadžić and Vojislav Šešelj—the latter of whom, like Milošević, had previously espoused fairly conventional communist views—told interviewers that the worst historical oppressors of Serbs were not Croats, even though Croatia’s fascist, Nazi-collaborationist World War II Ustaše government slaughtered massive numbers of Serbs while running the Jasenovac concentration camp. The worst were Muslims, whose Ottoman Empire occupied Orthodox Christian Serbia from the 14th through 19th centuries, abducting and enslaving Serbian boys for generations through devşirme, the “blood tax.” If this may seem like the inverse of contemporary “woke” victor-oppressor rankings, which would put Muslims at the top of the victimhood list, it made perfect sense in the context of late 20th century Yugoslavia, where Muslims could easily be seen through a “woke” lens as “white.”

In the early 1990s, ethnic Muslims (or “Bosniaks”) comprised the plurality of Bosnia-Herzegovina, by far the most diverse of Yugoslavia’s six republics, where they outnumbered Serbs 43% to 31% with Croats comprising an additional 17% of the population. Muslims were Slavs, religious or not, whose ancestors had converted to Islam under Ottoman imperial rule and received privileged legal status for doing so. Those legal privileges translated into elevated socioeconomic status for Muslims in Ottoman-ruled and then Austro-Hungarian-ruled Bosnia, where according to Maass, Muslims were “the landowners and mayors and professionals.” In other words, Bosnia’s Muslims were a white, European, historically privileged plurality—now a slight majority—affiliated with people who centuries earlier conquered the Balkans and enslaved Serbs.

As Eastern bloc communism began to crumble, Serb nationalists turned to this history to fill the ideological and narrative void and employed rhetorical tactics that are entirely familiar to today’s woke American landscape, including:

No. 1: Glorifying the year of enslavement as the beginning of a national narrative. There has been much scrutiny regarding the historical accuracy of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, but little regarding the sheer strangeness of it celebrating, from its own advocates’ perspective, a calendar year of enslavement and degradation initiating centuries of persecution that have de facto never ended. (This latter characteristic makes 1619 very different from conventional American commemorations of Pearl Harbor or the Alamo, military setbacks which were quickly dealt with.) However, this logic wouldn’t seem strange at all to Serb nationalists, who celebrated Yugoslavia’s own 1619 with 1389, the year Milošević said Serbs “fell into slavery” and Muslim rule for 489 years by, depending on your interpretation, either losing or forcing a Pyrrhic draw at the Battle of Kosovo against the advancing Ottoman Empire. The glorification of the Serb-specific defeat of 1389, most famously in Milošević’s Gazimestan Speech on the Battle of Kosovo’s 600th anniversary, directly attacked Yugoslavia’s motto of multiethnic Bratstvo i jedinstvo (Brotherhood and Unity) and summoned the ancient hatreds motivating the mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of Bosnian Muslims. Milošević died in 2006 while on trial for genocide and other war crimes.

No. 2: Attributing sinister ethnically based motivations and ideologies to political opponents. Members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Cori Bush regularly leave political opponents flummoxed with accusations of “racism,” “white supremacy,” and “anti-blackness.” In Bosnia, a squad of highly educated Serb politicians, propped up by Milošević and led by Karadžić—who had studied at Columbia—leveled parallel charges against Muslims. Though U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith called the largely secular Muslims Bosnia’s “most Western” ethnicity, Karadžić and crew harangued them as Islamic fundamentalists scheming to create an “anti-Serb” neo-Ottoman caliphate. Meanwhile, national media outlets “deliberately fanned the flames of national hatred,” in the words of British journalist Christopher Bennett, by amplifying, embellishing, and inventing incidents of interethnic violence. Moderate Serbian politicians and honest journalists who refrained from joining the frenzy were expelled from public life. 

No. 3: Calling opposition and criticism “violence,” in order to legitimize future actual violence. In October 1991, after Slovenia had won its independence in the Ten-Day War and Croatia’s declaration of independence had iintensified a Serb-Croat war that would last until 1995, multiethnic Bosnia faced the decision of whether to declare independence from Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia. Enter the charismatic Karadžić, who delivered a petrifying speech to Bosnia’s legislature taunting Muslims with “extinction” should they declare independence, continuing with a sneer, “If there is a war, the Muslim people will not be able to defend themselves.” (The line recalls President Biden repeatedly saying that the U.S. government can employ F-15s against American gun-rights supporters.) In that same speech, Karadžić pointed to the gallery and yelled that independence for Bosnia would be “violence on the Serbian people, constitutional violence” and that “constitutional violence breeds all other kinds of violence.” Calling words and beliefs “violence,” suggesting they breed and justify further violence, is a hallmark of wokeness. Karadžić was convicted of genocide in 2016.

In March 1992, Bosnia’s Muslims, joined by the republic’s Croat minority, voted for Bosnian independence, rejecting Karadžić’s threats and making themselves the largest ethnicity in a new country. A month later, Yugoslavia’s politically corrupted army teamed up with extremist Serbian paramilitary gangs led by psychopathic career criminals like Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović in a coordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and mass rape against the largely unarmed Bosnian Muslim population. It peaked in July 1995 with General Mladić’s Srebrenica genocide, which Mladić openly called “revenge on the Turks in this region,” i.e., payback for Ottoman rule.

An ideologically pure decolonization of the Ottoman imperial presence, perhaps? The core belief of “wokeness” or “anti-racism” is that concessions are owed by the “privileged,” especially those affiliated with groups that centuries earlier engaged in conquest and enslavement. In fact, Hoare, the historian, has documented many influential “anti-imperialist” leftists who duly defended Milošević’s ethnonationalist regime in the 1990s.

Other contemporary woke believers would almost certainly oppose Serb violence against Muslims, though, and Hoare himself was raked over the Twitter coals for suggesting similarities between the destruction of statues in summer 2020 with the destruction of Ottoman monuments and mosques in 1990s Bosnia. (Hoare, impressively, never backed down.) The motivation in these cases is not concern over human rights or the golden rule, of course, but an instinct that Muslims are “good” while groups like Serbs, Christians, whites, and—as large-scale celebrations following the Hamas massacre on Oct. 7 made clear—Jews are “bad.”

Although wokeness is sometimes called “critical race theory,” the use of an academic, clinical term like that to describe this latter, instinctive version of wokeness is to miss the point entirely. The reality of “wokeness” is the promotion of tribal hatreds. It is tribal hatred even when—as in the case of many urbane white Westerners—it involves hating one’s own ostensible tribe, a circumstance that similarly applies to Bosnian Muslims, whose European heritage complicates whether they qualify as good Muslims or as bad white people. As bizarre as it might seem, it is in fact fairly common to see social media posts where Bosnian Muslim genocide refugees get harangued for their white privilege, sometimes by woke Bosnian Muslims, just like Jewish genocide survivors and their children are regularly denounced in the U.S. for their own “privilege.” Apparently the rule of instinctive wokeness is that vilifying Bosnian Muslims regarding 600-year-old events in the Balkans is evil, but vilifying them for their “responsibility” for 400-year-old events in America is righteous, providing that they fled to Utica or St. Louis to avoid mass slaughter.

Bosnia, then, serves as an important window as to whether wokeness is fundamentally an ideological or tribal phenomenon. More importantly, it shows wokeness’s endgame. America’s establishment once reviled the ethos that killed 140,000 and displaced 4 million in the Yugoslav wars and Joe Biden bragged about calling Milošević a “damn war criminal” to his face. Now, terms like “anti-racism” and “social justice” are covering for a worldview whose routine incitements to tribal hatred and social fracturing based on fanning the embers of historical grievances directly echo the ideological formations of the most bigoted and notorious villains of the late 20th century.

Not satisfied with Balkanizing the United States, the American political and media establishment is injecting the Milošević model into the rest of the world as well. The U.S. State Department is pushing aggressive “equity”-based policies on the world at large and, as the Croatian Canadian who goes by the pseudonym Niccolo Soldo has pointed out, is also training activists in Europe in the arts of wokeness and anti-racism. As politicians in New York and Chicago are discovering, the present-day, large-scale migration into the United States and Europe is quite stressful for polities to manage. Matters become far more grave when you realize that elements of the United States government are using their country’s cultural and political hegemony to convince masses of incoming migrants to think of local Americans and Europeans the same way rampaging Serbian Chetnik death squads thought of the Muslims they spent large chunks of the 1990s brutalizing and killing.

Bosnia became a cauldron of tribal hatred in the 1990s because of its combination of real-world ethnic diversity and age-old animosities and historical wounds that were deliberately inflamed by politicians and media figures. The entire Western world may soon discover what it means to live in such a society.

Andrew Nutting is an Associate Professor of Economics at Bryn Mawr College.