Among British - and not only British - intellectuals, commentators and journalists there is a tenacious myth which runs something like this: the war in Bosnia and Croatia is the more or less direct continuation of the second world war in Yugoslavia. During those years most Croats and Muslims sided with the Nazis and facilitated the extermination of the Jews; the Serbs on the other hand resisted, helped the Jews where they could and were themselves the victims of a genocidal campaign by Croats, Muslims and others. In this way, the Croats have gone from being a "small, peaceful and highly civilised people" (Albert Einstein and Heinrich Mann, 1931) to a "a nation of fascists" (Ernst Bloch, c.1950). The Serbs, on the other hand, have remained "plucky" and "historic", but "misunderstood" allies.
Serbia's Secret War shows this picture to be false. It is a revisionist work in that it overturns conventional wisdom, but not in the murky or dubious sense connotated by holocaust "revisionism". First of all, Cohen never disputes that hundreds of thousands - but not millions - of Serbs died horribly, and often for no other reason than that they were Serbs. Second, despite the fact that Cohen is not a trained historian, his central thesis of extensive Serbian collaboration with Nazi Germany is well supported by the evidence.
Immediately after their lightning invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, the Germans installed a "government of commissars" in Belgrade, staffed by prewar Serbian grandees. A few months later, they were replaced by General Milan Nedic, a Serbian first world war hero and erstwhile minister of war; the parallels with General Petain are striking. The breadth of support enjoyed by this regime was shown in the public "Appeal to the Serbian Nation" of August 1941, which called upon all Serbs to cooperate with the Germans in establishing the new order; this was signed by a veritable Serbian Who's Who of Orthodox bishops, politicians, and professors. By the end of the year, collaborationist formations in Serbia - the Serbian Gestapo, Serbian State Guard and others - numbered more than 25,000 men. Well might one German assessment observe that: "The creation of the Serbian government under president Milan Nedic has fulfilled expectations. The Serbian people have entered the struggle against bolshevism."
Nor did these Serbs shrink from collaborating in the holocaust. Unusually, the extermination of Serbian Jews was largely carried out by the Wehrmacht. But Serbian formations were instrumental in assisting the deportation and - often - murder of Jews. Moreover, in 1941 Nedic pro-actively called upon the Germans to initiate "immediate and severe measures against the Jews". In 1942, the Serbian Orthodox church forbade conversions to Orthodoxy, thus closing off a valuable escape route for Jews. Though little known, these facts are indisputable. Even the notoriously pro-Serb Menachem Shelah notes unambiguously in the Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust the existence of "the Serbian quisling puppet government, under Milan Nedic, whose police and gendarmerie assisted the Germans in rounding up the Jews".
Serbs did not collaborate because they were Nazis, though some of them were. Rather, they hoped to realise their longstanding dream of a Greater Serbia: hence the continuous - if fruitless - attempts to persuade Hitler to sanction a Greater Serbia under German patronage. At the same time, royalist Serbs under the legendary Draza Mihailovic, whose Chetniks had initially taken to the hills with a view to resistance, soon gravitated into the Axis orbit. As Cohen shows, this was not simply because they feared German reprisals or regarded the communist partisans as the greater evil, though they did, but because their aim was, to quote one Chetnik directive, an "ethnically pure Greater Serbia [free of] all national minorities and non-national elements". The latter phrase referred to Jews, whom the Chetniks murdered on suspicion of being communists. With a view to more recent developments, Cohen pointedly refers to the "historical continuity of state-orchestrated genocide and expansionist nationalism in Serbian political culture".
Moreover, he shows Serbian resistance to have been far weaker than previously thought. Indeed, after the spectacular rising of 1941, Serbia proper was more or less quiet until the end of the war, a fact much remarked upon by partisan commanders at the time. On the other hand, thanks to the exterminatory policies of Ante Pavelic's Independent state of Croatia, western Serbs flocked to join the resistance in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. But in Dalmatia, Croats were resisters of the first hour, not least because Pavelic had abandoned them to the tender mercies of Italian annexation and Italian-sanctioned Chetnik massacres. By 1943, at least two-thirds of Croatian partisans were ethnic Croats, and in Bosnia Croats and Muslims were also well-represented. Besides, Cohen argues, whereas Serbian collaborators were representative of a broad consensus for an ethnically pure Greater Serbia, the Croatian collaborators were marginal men; the prewar Croatian leader, Vlado Macek, refused to collaborate with the Germans, thus giving Pavelic his opening. To dub the Croats "collaborators" en masse is thus a grotesque simplification. Tens of thousands of Croats - among them Franjo Tudjman, later president of Croatia - were in the mountains fighting Pavelic; in 1943, there were no German partisans in the Black Forest fighting Hitler.
Of course, there is a fundamental qualitative difference between the Croatian and the Serbian holocaust, which Cohen does not suppress, but somewhat blurs. In Croatia the final solution was carried out by the local Croatian fascist Ustashe, with German assistance; in Serbia, it was executed by the Germans, aided and abetted by collaborationist Serbs. Indeed, in places Cohen gives the Croats the benefit of the doubt. When the Yugoslav government restricted the number of Jews in higher education in 1940, Cohen observes: "Notably, this legislation was not implemented in Croatia". In fact, the measure was blocked because the governor, Ivan Subasic, condemned it as unwarranted centralist interference from Belgrade; thus did the cunning of reason make Croatian separatism - briefly - the protector of Jewish rights.
None of this affects Cohen's overall argument: "Serbia" and many Serbs collaborated with Nazi Germany. With its blend of collaboration and resistance, violence inflicted and violence endured, the Serbian experience was part of the general Central and Eastern European mainstream. Why should it have been otherwise?
One puzzle remains. The English-speaking academic world is awash with experts on collaboration, the holocaust and Yugoslavia in the second world war. Why has it taken an American doctor to set the historical record straight?
Brendan Simms is a fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Serbia's Secret War: Propaganda and the Deceit of History
Author - Philip J. Cohen
ISBN - 0 89096 688 5
Publisher - Texas A & M University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 235