The Long View vs. The Immediate View in History

September 13, 2013 § 7 Comments

When I was doing my PhD at Concordia University in Montréal, I TA’d for one of my favourite profs there, Norman Ingram.  Norman is a French historian and in the Western Civ class I TA’d for him, he had what I still consider to be a brilliant assignment.  He had the students read and compare two books written about the Fall of France in June 1940 during the Second World War.  The first book was by eminent French historian, and member of the résistance (and Jew, which is how Bloch ended up being tortured and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944, as the Allies were swiftly re-conquering France), Marc Bloch, the founder of the Annales School.  The second book was written in 1996 by an historian at the University of Winnipeg, Robert Young.

Strange Defeat was written by Bloch, a captain in the French Army, in the summer of 1940, immediately following the Fall of France.  It is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Young’s France and the Origins of the Second World War was, obviously, written some 50+ years after the fact, with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, other historical views, as well as archival sources.  It is dispassionate, though eminently readable.

The students were then asked to compare and contrast the two books, the immediate view versus the long view.

I think of Norman’s assignment often, both in my own teaching career, as a public historian, and, quite often, on Twitter.  When I worked for a now-defunct web magazine based in London, any time we published anything to do with the Bosnian Genocide, without fail, we would get attacked almost immediately by people arguing that there was no genocide, that the suggestion there was a genocide is just Western imperialism and further proof of a conspiracy against Serbia and the Serbian people.  It was almost like clockwork.

So, yesterday, when I posted this piece commenting on a New Yorker profile of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, I expected more of the same.  As you can see from the comments, my expectations were met.  I also got something a bit different, however. I was indeed assailed on Twitter, by a woman who says she’s from Bosnia, who seemed to be arguing that there was no genocide in Bosnia at all, and that she should know, because she was there.  Upon further argument, she was saying something slightly different, that there was a lot of killing going on in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 90s, involving Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians as both aggressors and victims.  That was certainly true.

However, it is indisputable that what happened at Srebrenica was a genocide.  It is indisputable that the VRS, the Bosnian Serb Army, committed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as a whole in the 1992-95 period.  This has been established by countless experts in the field, it has been confirmed by the ICTY in The Hague.

As the argument carried on, I began to think back to Norman’s assignment, and to think about the difference between the immediate view of the spectator and the big picture view of the analyst.  I’m not convinced that it wasn’t clear that the VRS was engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide.  But I am convinced that whatever side of the ethnic divide one was on in Bosnia/Herzogovina in the period from 1992-95, it was something close to hell.  And so I am back pondering the difference in what we see based on where we’re standing (there is, of course, also the fact that metric tonnes of ink have been spilled in the past twenty years by journalists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and historians about the events).  I reject the view that there was no genocide, but I do find myself wondering about what someone who was Bosnian Serb would have seen on the ground in that era.

When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, I talked to this guy, Dragan, a refugee from Sarajevo, at the local café.  He wouldn’t say what side of the divide he was from, just that he was Yugoslavia.  He was deeply traumatised by the war and genocide.  Vancouver had an international fireworks competition in those days, and we lived in the West End, where the fireworks were.  On those nights, if Dragan was at the café, he’d flinch, noticeably, with every loud noise from the fireworks.  I don’t know what he did in Sarajevo before he escaped in 1995, and I didn’t want to ask.  I don’t know if he was a perpetrator, a victim, or both.  But I often think of how he described the outbreak of war in his cosmopolitan Yugoslav city in 1992.  He said that, quite literally, neighbours of twenty or thirty years turned on each other, that families collapsed in spasms of violence if there was inter-ethnic mixing.  And, as Dragan noted, that was very common in a city like Sarajevo.  The entire world, he said, fell down, everything that had held up his universe collapsed.  He knew very bad things happened in his homeland.  I kind of suspected he might have played a role in his steadfast refusal to say anything, and the cold, steely glare that passed over his eyes when the subject came up, which was often, given he talked about home a lot.

And so, as I was arguing with my interlocutor on Twitter yesterday, I thought about Dragan and I thought about Norman’s assignment.  I thought about the chaos of war and the view on the ground as opposed to the view from the sky, the micro vs. the macro, and I thought how much they could vary.  I don’t have any real answers here, other than the obvious, but I did find the discussion and all it brought up for me rather interesting.


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§ 7 Responses to The Long View vs. The Immediate View in History

  • jj says:

    In Srebrenica was the Bosnian Muslim army headed by commander Naser Oric – who is still alive today and involved in crime/gangsterism.

    That Muslim army was LARGER than the surrounding Serbs. That Muslim army created a SCORCHED-EARTH policy on all the Serb villages and towns within a certain radius of Srebrenica. Also, the Serbs living within Srebrenica were murdered at the beginning of the war – including a prominent judge who was killed by Naser Oric himself.

    In the middle of the war, top western reporters JOHN POMFRET of the Washington Post and Bill Schiller of the Toronto Star, visited Srebrenica as part of a press corps in JANUARY 1994.
    There they went to Naser Oric’s house where he showed them videos one of the reporters termed “Naser Oric’s Greatest Hits”.

    The videos were of Naser Oric and the 28th Brigade’s looting and burning of Serb villages and had scenes of dead Serbs – one after the other.

    John Pomfret said in one scene of dead men, the bragging Naser Oric spoke of how they killed them with explosives: “shot them to the moon”. In yet another scene of dead Serbs, he described how they had to kill them there with “cold weapons” – (probably knives, hammers, axes, etc.).

    The Muslims even butchered the Serb livestock – which was how many of them made a living there. So the “excuse” that the Muslims were raiding the Serb villages for food doesn’t wash – they WASTED the farm animals and often mutilated the animals for effect.

    By the way at the ICTY they have no PENALTY FOR PERJURY and allow hearsay, secondhand hearsay, and so on “evidence”.
    The big “witness” for Srebrenica is a CONFIRMED PERJURER. The main case rests on him and not actual evidence – they have send no official autopsy reports to the ICTY. And he is DRAZEN ERDEMOVIC and ethnic Croat from Tuzla. A mercenary who began the war with the Bosnian Muslim army in Tuzla (and by the way Tuzla is where the Srebrenica brigade got their orders from), then he fought with the Croats, and lastly he was part of a sabotage brigade which is claimed to be supported by the Bosnian Serbs.

    Yet in his group there were a lot of Slovenes and Croats and the only Serbs were all those who’d been abroad as part of the FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION. They didn’t have any Serbs who had only been in the Balkans.
    Furthermore, they can’t find any payment to the group by the Serbian government. The money trail points to FRANCE.
    And indeed, after the war, many of this group were fighting in African wars on the side France supported. Also, a couple of them were caught in 2000 trying to kidnap and kill President Milosevic.

    And another thing, the 28th Brigade WALKED OUT the day before Srebrenica fell! They walked out on orders of their Brigade commanders and the UN. It was an ARRANGED “fall”.

    Most of them actually made it to Tuzla a week+ later where they were put on other fronts. The war was wrapping up, and having a Muslim enclave in a mostly Serb region would be too “messy” for Dayton.
    There had been talk by the Bosnian Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic from 1993 of swapping Srebrenica with Serb-held areas of Sarajevo. And indeed after Dayton these areas were awarded to the Muslims, the Muslim-Croat Federation.

    Thousands of supposedly “missing” or dead Srebrenica Muslims were found on the 1996 OSCE voting list.

    It’s in the interest of the NATO countries and Serbs’ enemies to inflate the death total and claim those who died in running battles on the way to Tuzla as being POW’s killed.

    Also they use the soldiers who died earlier in the war – 1992, 1993, etc. and claim them as victims of the fall. They also are adding in soldiers from outside of Srebrenica, such as in Zepa where there was another Muslim army unit – though not as large as the 28th Brigade (estimates from 7-10 thousands).

    Did you know that the Bosnian Muslim teen who committed the massacre in the Utah mall in February 2007, Sulejman Talovic, was the son of a Srebrenica soldier? And his father is still alive – as well as his uncles, who were being quoted in the news after the shooting.
    Here’s the wikipedia article on him

    In fact many, many Srebrenica men were settled in the U.S., particularly St. Louis, Missouri in which was settled (idea of the U.S. State Department) 200,000 Bosnian Muslims. They show no sign of torture whatsoever. The Serb refugees have needed surgery for the violent sodomy and other abuse the Bosniaks and the Mujahideen did to them when they were imprisoned.

  • jj says:

    By the way the ICTY “court” was set up by people like Madeleine Albright and is a political kangaroo court used against the Serbs. It allows perjury, secret witnesses, threats and bribes to testify according to script, kidnapping and it would not be legal in any democratic country. It could not legally operate in the U.S., for example. They through in a few non-Serbs as a veneer to look legitimate. The only exception is Bosnian Croats who fought the Bosnian Muslims. This was a no-no against their pet-people. So the smaller Bosnian Croat army which suffered much more was given more sentencing than the Croatian army in Croatia which was much larger and ethnically cleansed and killed a much greater number of people – but they were Serbs so it was A-OK!

  • jj says:

    Here is a link to John Pomfret’s article from February 1994 and based on his meeting and interview with Naser Oric the month before. If you’ve never heard of Naser Oric and the 28th Brigade before then you can’t know anything much beyond the propaganda, which was often false, greatly inflated and biased against Serbs.

    This is how it begins:

    SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Nasir Oric’s war trophies don’t line the wall of his comfortable apartment – one of the few with electricity in this besieged Muslim enclave stuck in the forbidding mountains of eastern Bosnia. They’re on a videocassette tape: burned Serb houses and headless Serb men, their bodies crumpled in a pathetic heap.

    “We had to use cold weapons that night,” Oric explains as scenes of dead men sliced by knives roll over his 21-inch Sony. “This is the house of a Serb named Ratso,” he offers as the camera cuts to a burned-out ruin. “He killed two of my men, so we torched it. Tough luck.”

    And here’s some of Bill Schiller’s description of the visit with Naser Oric, as he was there with John Pomfret too:

    I met him in January, 1994, in his own home in Serb-surrounded Srebrenica.

    On a cold and snowy night, I sat in his living room watching a shocking video version of what might have been called Nasir Oric’s Greatest Hits.

    There were burning houses, dead bodies, severed heads, and people fleeing.

    Oric grinned throughout, admiring his handiwork.

    “We ambushed them,” he said when a number of dead Serbs appeared on the screen.

    The next sequence of dead bodies had been done in by explosives: “We launched those guys to the moon,” he boasted.

    When footage of a bullet-marked ghost town appeared without any visible bodies, Oric hastened to announce: “We killed 114 Serbs there.”

    Later there were celebrations, with singers with wobbly voices chanting his praises.

    These video reminiscences, apparently, were from what Muslims regard as Oric’s glory days. That was before most of eastern Bosnia fell and Srebrenica became a “safe zone” with U.N. peacekeepers inside – and Serbs on the outside.

  • ayearfromnowchampagne says:

    I just wanted to say that I went to McGill for my undergrad and I met Norman Ingram once 😀

    Anyway, cool stuff.

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