To the victors, the spoils?

May 5, 1995

As the nation prepares to mark VE Day, The THES asked a group of historians born after the war to describe the significance of the events of 50 years ago for Britain today.

On May 8 European heads of government will come together to commemorate the end of the second world war; at about the same time, their representatives in the diplomatic Contact Group will be putting pressure on the Bosnian government to acquiesce in the creation of the first "racial state" in Europe since 1945.

Until three years ago it was possible to believe that the legacy of the second world war was a common determination not to tolerate "ethnic cleansing", mass murder and aggression in Europe again. No longer. Just as Neville Chamberlain spoke of Hitler's designs against Czechoslovakia as "a quarrel in a far off country between people of whom we know nothing", so Warren Christopher recently dismissed the Serb campaign of annexation and mass expulsions in Bosnia as "a humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent". While we celebrate the pre-belligerent assistance of the United States to an embattled Britain in 1940-41, we rigidly maintain an arms embargo against the legitimate government of Bosnia-Herzegovina. (So not only do we refuse to uphold collective security, we actually shackle the victims in a way that would have done the non-interventionist policy of the British and French governments during the Spanish Civil War proud.) Yet, in other ways, our understanding of the war in the former Yugoslavia is still coloured by the legacy of the Second World War. Indeed, the complex events of 1941-44 have frequently been distorted with a view to blackening the Croats and Muslims as Nazi sympathisers, while portraying the hapless Serbs as valiant allies, whose courage on the battlefield was matched only by their misfortune at the conference table. Nothing could be further from the truth. For if wartime Croatia was a genocidal Nazi puppet state, then - as the recent work of Philip Cohen has reminded us - there was also a Serbian puppet regime in Belgrade under General Nedic that enthusiastically collaborated with the SS and Wehrmacht in the deportation of Serbia's Jews.

Given the long tradition of anti-semitism in 19th-century Serbia, and the near-universal occurrence of collaboration in occupied Europe, this is hardly surprising. What is astonishing, though, is the extent to which Serbian propagandists have appropriated the status of historical victims for themselves, both for the second world war, and for the present day. "The Nazis of this story," Alain Finkielkraut has observed of the Bosnian war, "try to pass themselves off as Jews.'

Brendan Simms, age , is fellow and director of studies at Peterhouse, Cambridge

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