»The External Observer’s Vantage Point«, Matthias Wagner K                                                                                 click here

The Balkan war between the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims has now been raging for four years. It is the first war in Europe sin-ce 1945. It is still going on and nobody seems to doubt the fact that it will continue to rage for some time. But at some indeterminable point in the future, it will belong to the past, it will become history.

AlI of the warring parties claim to have justice on their side. Each backs up its claim by referring back to history, cultural influences and religious beliefs.

The Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims form a single linguistic unit, in which various dialects of Serbo-Croat, or Croato-Serb are spoken.

The collapse of the Yugoslav Federal State, brought about by the breakaway of Slovenia and Croatia, threatened to create a situation incompatible with the Serb doctrine. This doctrine states that only a united Yugoslavian State or a Greater Serbia can guarantee the continued existence of Serbs living beyond the borders of Serbia. This belief is based on past experiences of Serb persecution in the independent Croatian state which exi-sted during the Second World War, but it also has its roots in the Serb expansionist idea of the 19th Century.

The Yugoslavian State created after 1918 by the victorious powers of the First World War lay in ruins. The quarrel over this ruined sta-te now included a third party, the Muslims. These people had the same origins and language as the other two ethnic groups, but due to their long history of oppression under the Osman Empire and to their belonging to the Muslim faith, they had developed a national identity of their own.

But the basic conflict is between the Serbs and the Croats and one of their aims in the past was always to reintegrate Bosnia and ist Muslim population into one nation or the other.

The southern Slavs grouped themselves into nations much later than their Western role models and unlike the Western nations they were not formed on the basis of a strong expansionist monarchy, but rather in a process springing from the domination of this area by three imperial powers: the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria and the Sultan of Turkey.

The Serbs led the way with an independent revolution which resul-ted in the creaton of a semi-sovereign state around the year 1830, which in turn developed into an independent kingdom in 1878.

Croatian national identity came as a response to the developments in neighbouring Serbia. As long as the Habsburg Empire existed, Croatia clung to its tradition of a Croatian monarchy, dating back to the early Middle Ages and perpetuated by their Hungarian rulers. Croatian national confidence was built upon the military enthusiasm of the Croatian nobility serving under the Habsburgs and the success they had in pursuing their rights and maintaining their language in the oppressive climate created by their governors in Budapest.

With the introduction of universaL suffrage in 1918 came a spiralling nationalist movement which stoked up feelings of hatred. Objects of this hatred were now, however, the Serb rulers of the state created by the victorious WW I Allies.

It was not until 70 years after the founding of Yugoslavia that the Bosnian Muslims laid claim to a state of their own, taking advanta-ge of the collapse of Tito's Federation.

Anyone who uses history as a justification for something is exploit-ing history, abusing it as an excuse for her or his actions.

That the exploitation of history as a justification for one's actions is coupled with nationalist ideals is not unique to former Yugoslavia. These ideals allow for expansionism which brings with it the expulsion of people who refuse to conform in thought and belief and can lead as far as acceptance by the majo-rity of so called ethnic cleansing. Using the propagandised phrase »the cons-ciousness of the collective identity« the individual is no longer defined as a dependant entity but as part of a group. This means that the actions of the individual become the actions of the group, giving the individual the assurance that she or he does not carry the guilt alone and so does not carry sole res-ponsibility for her or his actions. This is a way of thinking which can only develop when individual crimes are committed in times of war.

But even in retrospect, when history has analysed and evaluated the war, the individual is still seen as part of a group. This goes for both the perpetrators and the victims. For the perpetrators this can lead to collective blame, for the victims and their individual histories it can mean being filed away in the archives of history and statistics.

But what is history? Our perception of time leads to the artificial creation of time periods, past and future. Time past is not empty. It is full of events which define and structure it. Events which were created out of the interaction and interplay of a complex of human intentions.

The past becomes history when it is written about or recounted, only then does it become history and is then open to alterations and manipulations.

Historiography, i.e. the writing of history, is then not necessarily the same as the revelation of real events, it can also be used to suppress these events. In addition, there is also individual, subjective history. The way individuals regard the objects, persons and events around them
forms the personal sphere of reference within which they act. As the past was once the present, the future will become the present. The individual's perception of this creates the experience of the flow of time. In the realisation of this, the experience of this time continuum can be seen as a life-long voyage of dis-covery through one’s own history and at the same time as a continuous questioning. The answers to these questions are not absolute truths, but subjective ones. Only in the realisation of this subjectivity can a definition of the individual and her or his position in the universe be given. The individual's history becomes something
which is continuously emerging.

Those who claim that the Croat Ustasha killed 700 000 Serbs during WW II in the Jesenovac death camp a hundred km south-east of Zagreb, define themselves as Serb nationalists. Those who say that the Ustasha Fascists killed only 60 000 Serbs are defined as Croat nationalists and therefore despise the Serbs1.

Historical science has made great efforts to illuminate history. Histoncal events have shown us, however, that our usual division of things into Good and EviL and our bias towards the Good are not possible in this case. In view of this, it is also impossible to base our understanding of the meaning of history on scientific deduction. This is because historiography, in its attempt to be scientific and its overemphasis of objectivity and of facts
and figures, runs the risk of hindering our emotionaL involvement in real historical events. On
the contrary, historiography promotes indifference.

The question which arises, of whether historiography as we know it fuels such conflicts, is not at issue here.

But this question should underline the constant problems arising from history's forms of description.

The war in former Yugoslavia is happening now but we find ourselves »outside« this conflict. Direct physical identification with the people involved is not possible under normal circumstances.

In view of the fact that this war is being fought in Europe, i.e. in an area which certainly should concern us, this feeling of being »outside« must be seen as a paradox.

Our external view defines our own position and point of view, however. This point of view, although it necessarily demands a cer-tain distance it also offers us a more extended field of vision and therefore more points of comparison.

The war in the Balkans hoLds up a mirror to us. If we look into this mirror we see not only ourselves but aLso the events of history as they repeat themselves.

Discussions of historiography and its effects on history have no relevance for this war. It is directed towards the future alone, a future which will become the present, and it demands of us an examination which makes possible a new understanding of the legacy left to us by time past. This is essential if real changes are to be made. And changes are necessary to prevent the repetition of familiar events, which have however lost their meaning for us, being accep-ted as normal and unavoidable.

Art which confronts this point of view and therefore creates a dialectic bet-ween life and art must be oriented towards a communicative interaction. It must criticise the traditional forms of presentation of word and image which we believe enable us to understand the world in its entirety.

The standpoint of the external observer as a concept of sensory thought.