Courtesy Reuters


By Noel Malcolm

Readers who have followed Aleksa Djilas' writings on Bosnia over the last six years will not have been surprised by his systematically hostile and misleading treatment of my book, Kosovo: A Short History ("Imagining Kosovo," September/October 1998). But they may still have been puzzled by some aspects of his review, such as his desire to belittle me personally.

In his very first paragraph he refers to some of my other books and says it is "tempting" to dismiss my work in those fields as that of a "charlatan." Why this immediate resort to a personal slur, when he has clearly never seen the books (apart from the one on Bosnia) and knows nothing of my scholarly reputation in other fields? In the next sentence he magnanimously concedes that my book on Kosovo is the work of a talented "amateur historian": again, why the patronizing gibe, when he knows from the book's cover that I have a doctorate in history and have taught at Cambridge University for seven years?

The answer can be found in Djilas' method of argument. Readers of my book know that I present and analyze a mass of factual evidence, carefully referenced to sources drawn from the whole range of existing literature in what Djilas, with characteristic inaccuracy, calls "a dozen languages." (The correct figure is 20.) A serious critic trying to disprove my findings would surely present some counter-evidence, but Djilas never does. Instead, he simply makes ex cathedra pronouncements that I am wrong and he is right. This rhetorical method requires an audience primed to believe that I am at best an amateur and at worst a charlatan, while Djilas is the real expert, superior in both knowledge and objectivity.

But is this so? Djilas is a sociologist, with no historical training, no known expertise, and no published work in the fields of Ottoman, Albanian, or earlier Balkan history. He has written one book in a broadly historical format, a study of the development of the Yugoslav political system between 1919 and 1953. What sets that study apart from most accounts of twentieth-century Yugoslavia, however, is its total lack of interest in Kosovo. In its 259 pages Djilas does not devote a single paragraph to Kosovo, even though the book claims to cover "the national question" of Yugoslavia during the period.

If Djilas' judgments are not based on superior knowledge about Kosovo, they are certainly not grounded in superior political objectivity. Readers who think of him as a liberal intellectual on the basis of his 1980s Western journalism may not have noticed the major change in his approach since he began revisiting Belgrade in 1990 and returned to live there permanently in 1993. From almost the start of the Bosnian war he has been advocating the dismemberment of Bosnia (which means rewarding the ethnic cleansers with the land they have cleansed); exculpating, in effect, the cleansers by implying that their mass murders and expulsions were to a large degree just the products of deep historical causes; suggesting an overall moral equivalence between Alija Izetbegovic, who tried to defend Bosnia, and Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, who launched a war of destruction against it; and buttressing his argument with the unhistorical and undocumented claim that Bosnian Islam was "particularly harsh" and discriminatory throughout the Ottoman period.


Despite some deprecating remarks about nationalism in the abstract, Djilas' position on these issues is indistinguishable from mainstream Serbian nationalism. Therefore, I was not surprised to see that several points in his review were apparently derived from two polemical attacks on my book by British and American Serb nationalist lobbies in the Times Literary Supplement -- points to which, as he must know, I have already replied. He complains about the "half a dozen Albanians" thanked in my acknowledgments. Djilas does not divulge, of course, the one specific thing for which those Albanians are thanked -- namely, supplying me with copies of hard-to-find books and articles. What makes this complaint especially absurd is that, as Djilas must know from my previous reply on this point, many of the works I obtained from those people were actually by Serb authors.

Similarly, he offers as evidence of my "bias" the fact that I have consulted libraries and archives not in Orthodox countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, but mainly in Catholic ones, such as Austria and Italy. This categorizing of archives not by their objective relevance to the subject of research but by the creed of the country in which they are situated has the authentic whiff of Serb nationalist Vaticanophobia. If Djilas were familiar with the works of serious Serbian scholars on the Ottoman period of Kosovan history, he would know that the archives on which they have depended (apart from ones in Istanbul and Ankara) are precisely the ones I have used, in Vienna, Venice, Rome, and the Vatican. There is nothing of remotely comparable importance in Greece or Bulgaria (apart from some medieval documents on Mount Athos, available in published collections). Sadly, Serbia itself possesses no archive properly covering that long period of Serbian history. Most early documents that have survived in Serbia, and many from the modern government archives, have been published, and I have consulted them in print. As for books published in Greek and Bulgarian relating to the history of Kosovo, there are few of these and I have read most of them.

It is quite evident from my detailed endnotes and bibliography that I have read a very wide range of Serbian works. But I have also read the large body of scholarly work in Albanian, of which Djilas is ignorant. (The number of works by Serbs and Montenegrins in my bibliography nevertheless exceeds the number of works by Albanians.) Having studied both sides, I have sought to produce an objective history in which I dismantle myths wherever I find them; Djilas, with a limited knowledge of what has been written on one side only, seeks to pass judgment on me as "biased."


It is a simple fact that there are many more Serbian myths about Kosovan history than Albanian ones. My book therefore contains more rejections of Serbian claims -- not because it is anti-Serb but because it is anti-myth. Not once in his long review does Djilas bother to mention that I also reject some of the most deeply cherished Albanian myths, such as the myth of a medieval Albanian majority in Kosovo or the myth of a socially progressive, independence-seeking League of Prizren. Djilas complains bitterly of my "perverse eagerness" to dismantle the myths surrounding the so-called "Great Migration" of the Serbs in 1690. Unable to challenge the historical truth of my findings, which differ from the traditional Serb nationalist account, Djilas denigrates my motives instead. He also resorts to outright misrepresentation, quoting from a review of my book by Tim Judah in The New York Review of Books, which observed that my findings on this issue were like saying that the Mayflower sailed from America to Britain. By quoting this remark out of context, Djilas gives the impression that my conclusions have been judged self-evidently absurd. In fact, the point of Judah's comment was to suggest, in a hyperbolic way, the extent to which the false beliefs I correct are embedded in Serb historiography. Two sentences later, Judah went on to describe my case as "convincing."

Djilas notes that I sometimes use the word "Kosovar" for the Albanians who live in Kosovo; he declares this an ignorant "misnomer" because he thinks the word necessarily implies a special national identity for Kosovars, distinct from the Albanians of Albania itself. Clearly Djilas has no idea of the functioning of adjectival and substantival suffixes in Albanian. The word "Kosovar" is just an Albanian word for an Albanian person who lives in Kosovo; it carries no implications of separate nationhood vis-ˆ-vis the Albanians of Albania. Djilas suggests that I have made a "deliberate" attempt to deceive readers into thinking that Kosovo is a "well-established historical-political entity." This displays another of his methods: while attributing invented motives to me, he suppresses explicit things I have said. In the very first pages of my book I emphasize that Kosovo "is not . . . a historic unity," observing that the relevant facts have been "grossly misrepresented" by some Albanian spokesmen intent on claiming a long, continuous history for Kosovo as a political entity. Does Djilas really believe I am deliberately promoting an idea I so explicitly dismiss or does he just not care how gross his misrepresentations are?

He also attributes to me things I have never said. According to Djilas, I believe that "reintegration and interethnic harmony" are bound to happen automatically in Bosnia, whether or not the NATO force stays there. I do not believe this and have never said it. The war in Bosnia has left a terrible legacy of fear and suspicion. The extremists who created murderous hatred are still perpetuating it. NATO is needed precisely to protect people from them, to challenge and dismantle their power structures, and to consign the leading extremists to The Hague.


Which brings me, finally, to Djilas' general charge on the question of "ancient ethnic hatreds." He believes that the long-term history of Kosovo (and Bosnia) is a history of ethnic conflict and accuses me of naivete or manipulation because I argue otherwise. "[Malcolm] searches obsessively," he writes, "for those rare historical occasions when Albanians and Serbs fought on the same side rather than against each other." The "rare" occasions to which he refers include all the most important events in Kosovo before the mid-nineteenth century, from the Battle of 1389 to the great protest march of 1822. A serious reviewer, dismissing these major events as atypical, might be expected to give some counter-examples; Djilas does not give a single example of an ethnically based clash between Serbs and Albanians during that period, even though he thinks they were an everyday occurrence.

Anachronistically, Djilas projects a permanent "ethnic" Serb self-consciousness onto those earlier centuries. Discussing the rapacious behavior of Muslim Albanian landowners toward Christian Serb peasants in the late Ottoman period, he says that "the oppression would not have been possible had there not been ethnic and racial awareness and had the Serbs not been considered a different and inferior ethnic group." On the contrary, the oppression would have been, and very evidently was, possible toward non-Muslims of any variety. As my book shows, Christian Albanians underwent the same oppression or worse, because they were Catholics. Conversely, Serbs who converted to Islam enjoyed the same privileges as all other Muslims. Djilas' comments only indicate how closely he adheres to Serb nationalist historical doctrine.

The conclusions Djilas draws from his a priori assertions about ancient ethnic hatreds are, nevertheless, puzzling. He thinks that ineradicable hatreds in Bosnia justify its dismemberment but that such animosities in Kosovo can never justify removing Kosovo from Serbia. This glaring inconsistency is never addressed. Contrary to another of his false remarks about me, my own position contains no such inconsistency, because I do not argue from "ancient ethnic hatreds." I support the claim that the territory of Republika Srpska is an intrinsic part of a Bosnian entity based on criteria of historical continuity and ethnic geography; the claim that Kosovo is an intrinsic part of a Serbian entity is extremely weak on both of those criteria. While Kosovo did not exist as a political unit for most of the Ottoman period, neither did Serbia; the Kosovan territory has been legally part of a Serbian unit for just over 50 of the last 500 years.

Djilas solemnly warns that "an independent Kosovo would immediately unite with Albania." I do not know a single serious analyst of Kosovan or Albanian politics who believes this; certainly the political leaders of the two territories, many of whom I have interviewed, do not. Djilas reluctantly accepts some autonomy for Kosovo in Yugoslavia, but insists above all on "autonomy inside Kosovo for majority-Serbian regions." This autonomy-within-autonomy proposal seems, however, to have been slightly sanitized from the hard-line plans he expounds in the Belgrade media, where he says that key parts of Kosovo must remain "under the direct administration of Serbia" and advocates a "leopard skin" pattern of such areas across the whole Kosovan territory. Djilas is entitled, of course, to express his ideas about how to maintain Serbian power over Kosovo against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants. What he is not entitled to do is to engage in the wholesale misrepresentation of my book merely because my findings make so many of his own preconceived ideas about Kosovo impossible to sustain.

Noel Malcolm, the author of Kosovo: A Short History, lives in London.


By Norman Cigar

In reviewing Malcolm's book, Djilas displays considerable emotion and angst. Lawyers are told to pound the law when the law is on their side, and when it is not, to pound the table. Djilas too often has to do the latter. He does not come to grips with Malcolm's book, which is a much-needed and innovative reappraisal.

Djilas is rushing to supply new myths that will legitimate Serbian Kosovo policy when the old ones fade. One myth is that Kosovo and the Kosovars have no identity -- meaning, no right to a separate identity. He says there cannot really be a history of Kosovo since Kosovo's borders have changed over the centuries. (Were that logic adopted, few countries, including Poland, the United States, or even Serbia, would have a history.) In addition, the Kosovars may not really deserve a history because they are "a minority . . . not a nation." Djilas even objects to using the name Kosovar, though the Serbs in northern Bosnia often call themselves Krajisnici and the Serbs in Montenegro Montenegrins.

In fact, Belgrade has viewed Kosovo as a separate entity since its seizure in 1912. Kosovo was the subject of a special policy in the 1920s and 1930s, which included colonization projects and plans for expulsions, until autonomy was recognized as a necessary shield for the Titoist system. The harsh, systematic treatment and segregration of the Kosovars for much of the twentieth century has probably bolstered their territorial and community identity.

Djilas writes that Malcolm does not understand that the Kosovars have themselves to blame for not participating fully in Serbian politics. But who could they vote for, even in a free election? The major Serb opposition parties are much more hardline on Kosovo than even Milosevic. They have called for mass expulsions since the mid-1980s.

What petrifies the Serb political class is that within a generation ethnic minorities combined will outnumber the Serbs; within two generations the Albanians alone will outnumber them. Three provinces of southern Serbia already have an Albanian majority. In a system where legitimacy is based on extreme nationalism, harsh rule of the Albanians and the current Serb dominance over politics, the economy, and the military will be very hard to maintain as a minority population. The ultimate dilemma for Milosevic is that he does not want to integrate the Albanians but he wants to retain Kosovo. Serb elites will seek to prevent minority Serb status there by any means.

As Malcolm's work makes clear, this is a modern nationalist problem, not an issue that was salient to medieval monarchs, much less a linear result of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

Norman Cigar is a Senior Associate, Public International Law & Policy Group, Washington, D.C.


By Melanie McDonagh

I was not surprised at the nationalist tone of Djilas' review. During the course of personal conversations with Djilas, he has more than once called the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica malign Western propaganda. He has, on the record, supported the partition of Bosnia. This view is easy to hold from the comfort of Belgrade, but it is less attractive to those families who were violently expelled from their homes in what is now Republika Srpska. They want more than anything else to return home, if they could without the certainty of violence and intimidation.

Djilas is, quite justly, a supporter of the principle that Serbs who fled the 1995 Croatian army offensive in the Krajina should be entitled to return safely home; if he visited, say, Sanski Most to talk with people who were ethnically cleansed from towns like Prijedor and Omarksa, he would find out exactly why it is that Muslims are unable to return to where they came from.

Melanie McDonagh is a journalist, formerly with The Evening Standard of London.


By Kathleen Imholz

Djilas' review makes three statements concerning Albania that are dangerously wrong.

First, he writes, "An independent Kosovo would immediately unite with Albania." This is not true, despite the rhetoric outside the region. Although American, I have been living in Albania for two years, know the language, read all the newspapers, and talk daily to dozens of people from every walk of life and political persuasion. Albanians do not like the great powers' division, which left millions of ethnic Albanians outside the country's borders, but they show little desire to change those borders now. A plebiscite to unite an independent Kosovo with Albania would be overwhelmingly defeated.

Second, Djilas claims that union with Albania would "upset the precarious balance between Albania's mutually antagonistic Geg north and Tosk south." The north and south of Albania are not mutually antagonistic, and the balance between them is hardly precarious. The antagonistic streak in the country has little relation to regionalism.

Third, union allegedly "could restart the 1997 civil war." There was no civil war here in 1997; I know, because I lived through the tumult. I was accidentally trapped in Vlora when the state of emergency was declared last March and the army mobilized to march on Vlora. The army dissipated rather than shoot at its own citizens. I suppose a civil war can be defined in many ways, but I do not use the word to describe a relatively small number of armed people terrorizing a civilian population that does not support them.

I wish Djilas understood Albania better. The Kosovo situation cannot be seen clearly when there are such misconceptions.

Kathleen Imholz is a Fulbright Fellow and Director of the Program for Improvements in Albanian Legal Education, Tirana, Albania.


By Predrag Simic

Djilas' review points to three significant aspects of the Kosovo problem.

Kosovo has an important place in the national consciousness of both Serbs and Albanians. For the Serbs, Kosovo is part of their national territory, a region of great strategic and economic importance, and the cradle of their identity -- a place with a concentration of Serbian historical, religious, and cultural monuments. It is the Serbs' Jerusalem. For the Albanians, Kosovo is the birthplace of the Albanian national movement and a territory where they are the ethnic majority. It has always been the focus of Albanian irredentism. These factors have always made conflict over Kosovo intractable.

The historical goal of Albanian nationalism has been the unification of all Albanians. Albanian leaders will not settle for anything less than Kosovo's secession from Serbia as a first step toward unification, as made clear by recent statements by the Kosovo Liberation Army's spokesman, Jakub Krasniqi.

Kosovar Albanians' mass demonstrations following Tito's death disturbed the ethnic balance in the former Yugoslavia and triggered the rise of nationalist movements in the republics. Their subsequent boycott of Serbian elections and political institutions allowed the homogenization of Serbia -- causing the political crises of present and former Yugoslavia. Unlike the Albanians, all other ethnic communities in Serbia (more than 26) have chosen to struggle for their interests through the system's political institutions.

The secession of Kosovo would send shock waves through the Balkans, directly affecting Macedonia, with its large Albanian community, and Albania, increasing the tensions between the Gegs and Tosks. The drive to create Greater Albania is one of the most dangerous threats to the peace and stability of the Balkans -- a point clearly missing in Malcolm's book.

Predrag Simic is the former Director of the Institute of International Politics and Economics, Belgrade.


By Stevan K. Pavlowitch

As one who has studied Balkan history for over 40 years and taught it for 30, I do not think that Malcolm's book is a profound, as opposed to an impressive, work of scholarship.

The very name Kosovo is imprecise. The site of the Battle of 1389 and the Ottoman province are not the same as the 1945 Yugoslav province to which we refer today. For Malcolm to say that we can read a Kosovan history to ancient times is cheating. Kosovo: A Short History is often just Ottoman history or Albanian history.

The early history is hardly new: Malcolm compounds popular nineteenth-century simplifications of the kind once widespread in Europe into an authorized version that he attributes to "Serbian historians" and then proceeds to knock down with the help of . . . twentieth-century Serbian historians.

Malcolm wants to show that Serbian, Montenegrin, and Yugoslavian policies from 1912 onward are the core of the Kosovo problem and that independence for Kosovo is the only way out. I happen to agree, but it should have been the conclusion the historian drew from the evidence, not an assumption made first and then bolstered with evidence.

None of that detracts from his advocacy of a united Bosnia and a separate Kosovo, both of which are tenable causes.

Stevan K. Pavlowitch, Professor of Balkan History, University of Southampton, U.K.


Noel Malcolm is unfair when he says that my review of his book is "systematically hostile." While undoubtedly critical, it also praises his knowledge and writing skills and recommends that the book be translated into Serbo-Croatian and published in Belgrade.

He is offended by my compliment that he reads "a dozen languages." Dozen, needless to say, does not only mean 12 but also, according to the dictionary, "a fairly large indefinite number." Yet Malcolm assails my supposedly "characteristic inaccuracy" and insists that the "correct figure is 20." Does he really expect a reviewer to go through his whole bibliography and count the languages?

I have been writing on the national question in former Yugoslavia and its successor states for almost two decades. But contrary to what Malcolm says, I do not consider myself "the real expert." I doubt that anyone can be the expert in such a complex field as the study of nationalism. Indeed, being aware of the limits of our knowledge is a prerequisite to any objective, dispassionate, mature understanding of the Kosovo problem.

I am not the only one who has questioned Malcolm's fairness. The Economist (March 21, 1998) points out that Malcolm is "driven by true passion" and reproaches him for "his desire to bash the Serbs," while Mark Mazower in the Times Literary Supplement (August 7, 1998) writes that Miranda Vickers' Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo "offers a more balanced approach than Malcolm's book," which is "a brilliantly skillful case for the Albanian prosecution."

Malcolm has received his most lavish compliments from British politicians who fervently advocate military action against Serbia, such as Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party; Norman Stone, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and now professor of international relations in Turkey; and Michael Foot, former leader of the Labour Party. None of these people write about Yugoslav history or speak any Yugoslav language, but Malcolm does not question their competence to praise his book.

Malcolm insists that Bosnia should remain a unitary state because its unity has roots in medieval times. Not being a specialist on the period, I decided to ask Sima Cirkovic, author of the classic History of the Medieval Bosnian State and the leading authority on the Serbian Middle Ages, for his opinion. (Let me add that Cirkovic is a well-known debunker of Serbian historical myths, including the one that medieval Bosnia was simply a Serbian land.) Cirkovic replied that he found Malcolm's treatment of medieval Bosnia superficial and that Malcolm did not understand either the dynamics of its formation from heterogeneous elements or how insufficiently integrated Bosnian society was.

My writings criticizing Serbian nationalism in general and the policies of Slobodan Milosevic in particular are too numerous to list here. It suffices to look at "A Profile of Slobodan Miloÿsevic" (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993) to refute Malcolm's claim that I deprecate Serbian nationalism "only in the abstract." I agree with many of Malcolm's harsh statements about Serbian nationalism and the responsibility of Serbian leaders for war crimes. My problem with Malcolm is that he is much less critical of the Croatian, Muslim, and Albanian leaders. And I part company with him when he pushes descriptions like "Alija Izetbegovic, who tried to defend Bosnia."

I visited Sarajevo in 1996 and saw the results of Izetbegovic's rule. From this city, which according to Malcolm and many other Western journalists is a haven of multiethnic tolerance, the large majority of Serbs and Croats have been expelled. The remaining minority is exposed to intimidation and violence by Muslim extremists. Almost all streets with old Serbian and Croatian names have new Muslim ones, the language has been changed through the introduction of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian words, and the media is permeated with nationalism and fundamentalism. The brutal reality of these irreversible changes has made me conclude that although Bosnia's partition is a tragedy, there is no alternative. I say this with great sorrow, but it would take a superhuman task to put the clock back.

Malcolm might reply that these are all consequences of Serbian aggression. That is only partly true. It is enough to read Izetbegovic's fundamentalist "Islamic Declaration" from the early 1970s to see that he strove for Muslim hegemony. Or Richard Holbrooke's To End a War, in which the architect of Dayton describes Izetbegovic as one who "paid lip service to the principles of a multi-ethnic state," but was "not the democrat that some supporters in the West saw." Roger Cohen's Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo paints a similar portrait of Izetbegovic: "As the founder of the first nationalist party in Bosnia in May 1990, he chose a treacherous path, one more inclined to rouse the flames of nation-as-tribe than lay the foundations of a citizen state." This is not to whitewash Miloÿsevic but to accurately portray how all the groups of the former Yugoslavia contributed to its demise and civil war. Unmitigated Serb-bashing has fed Serbian paranoia and, like NATO bombing threats, actually makes Serbs more willing to tolerate Milosevic's policies.

I do not suffer from "Vaticanophobia," as Malcolm suggests, but he is right that many Serbs do. The recent beatification of Cardinal Stepinac, the chief Croatian clergyman of the fascist World War II regime that pursued genocidal policies against Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, is not likely to cure them. Nor is Malcolm's declaration of the superiority of Catholicism to Orthodoxy. He considers Orthodoxy almost exclusively "devoted to mystical theology" and claims that as a result Orthodox countries "had fewer chances to develop the habits of critical social and political thinking which were generated in the West by the Catholic Church and its Protestant offshoots." This, says Malcolm, is one reason why "the Serbian people have been, at some moments in their history, persuaded to follow political causes with an uncritical and absolute loyalty." Sweeping generalizations like this prevent me from accepting Kosovo: A Short History as a balanced, serious, and mature study.

Space does not permit me to deal with all the issues raised by Malcolm and other contributors. I understand Melanie McDonagh's desire to defend Kosovo: A Short History, as Malcolm has dedicated it to her. But she should not make unsubstantiated references to the "nationalist tone of [my] review." I do not want to argue publicly with Melanie since she is a personal friend. But as far as my denying the killing of Muslims in Srebrenica is concerned, in this limited space I shall cite only one instance where I have referred to that tragic event -- my interview in the Belgrade weekly Argument (April 13, 1998). To the journalist's question of whether America has double standards regarding human rights in different countries, my reply was, "If we were a nation of 150 million, if we were a nuclear power, of course we would have been forgiven many things, but this does not mean that we should not be reproached for what we did. It is a fact that mosques were destroyed, that Srebrenica, Vukovar, happened."

Aleksa Djilas is the author of "The Contested Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution, 1919-1953" and a former Fellow at the Russian Research Center at Harvard University.