A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing

I just came back from a trip to the Balkans.
In the course of the trip I learned that, during World War II, the Nazis had succeeded in forming an SS division in Kosovo. It was called the SS Skanderbeg Division. At the time Kosovo was 70% Albanian, the remainder mostly Serbian. The curious thing was that the Nazis were successful in Kosovo, but failed miserably in Albania. Why should that have been?

I put the question to one of the lecturers on the trip. Maybe, he guessed, it was because the Albanians in Albania were divided into separate clans and that there was a natural inclination to keep the the playing field level. If the Nazis succeeded in organizing one clan, another would contrive to assassinate that clan’s Albanian commandant. Perhaps, the lecturer mused, this was a servomechanism that kept the clans on equal footing.

Not so, said a recent commentator. His name is Auron Tare. An Albanian, he was one of the founders of Butrint National Park and for several years was its director. This is just one of his many achievements on behalf of Albania. For more, check out his entry in Wikipedia. I have summarized his comments here so that readers might also benefit from Mr. Tare’s insight:

To understand what happened in Kosovo, you need to know that Germany was instrumental in freeing the Albanians from Serbian persecution. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had supported the Albanians in their conflict with the Slavs. Germany had continued those policies when the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled. He adds that the pro-German factions in Kosovo were drawn largely from the Albanian aristocracy. They associated Serbs with Communism and Communism with Russia, the historical enemy of the Albanians.

Mr. Tare notes that the SS Skanderbeg Division did not fight in support of the Germans. Rather—and Mr. Tare’s source for this next statement is the memoirs of the German Army Commander of the SS Skanderbeg Division—the Albanians joined the division so that they might acquire arms to use against the Serbs when the latter moved to retake Kosovo for themselves. In his words, “all the recruits left as soon as they got weapons.”

There were other Albanian political factions in Kosovo that supported the Germans. Many of these ended up as immigrants to America where, because of their anti-Communist stance, they were welcomed.

The picture that Mr. Tare paints is of a hydra head of conflicting Balkan political and ethnic loyalties involving Germans, Albanians, Serbs and Russians. Mr. Tare’s account strikes me as far more reasonable than the one I reported in my journal. I am grateful to him for setting me straight. But I don’t want the discussion to end there. Mr. Tare’s account, I believe, fits rather well with what I have gleaned from my readings, however meager, into Balkan history writ large. In a passage quoted in Mark Mazower’s Balkans: A Short History, the author quotes Arnold Toynbee as saying:

The introduction of the Western formula [of the principle of nationalism] among these peoples has resulted in massacre . . . Such massacres are only the extreme form of a national struggle between mutually indispensable neighbors, instigated by this fatal Western idea.

Mazower expands on Toynbee’s point:

“Ethnic cleansing” – whether in the Balkans in 1912-1913, in Anatolia in 1912-1922 or in erstwhile Yugoslavia in 1991-1995 – was not, then, the spontaneous eruption of primeval hatreds but the deliberate use of organized violence against civilians by paramilitary squads and army units; it represented the extreme force required by nationalists to break apart a society that was otherwise capable of ignoring the mundane fractures of class and ethnicity.

To quote from my own journal, Mulling the Balkans:

In other words, according to Toynbee/Mazower, the Balkan Peninsula was the Africa of southeastern Europe. Just as the great powers of Europe descended on the Dark Continent during the so-called “scramble for Africa” of the 19th century and arbitrarily divided up the spoils of a land unhampered by national boundaries to the vast detriment of tribal boundaries, so, too, did they force national boundaries on the Balkans, opening the way for the bloody and fractured history that we have come to know from a distance during our own lifetimes.

Human beings have always been inclined to balkanization. Homo sapiens’ early history is a history of tribe against tribe exacerbated by later history’s tendency to force tribes into the procrustean bed of nation/states. The 19th century’s introduction of nationalism has been rather like contracting bubonic plague on top of small pox. I suppose one might argue that nation/states have actually bridled tribal aggression. Maybe. But I’m not betting on it.