Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
26 Feb. 2021
Review by Jonathan M. House, US Army Command and General Staff College
Radovan Karadžić: Architect of the Bosnian Genocide
By Robert J. Donia
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 339. ISBN 978–1–107–42308–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, Bosnia, Genocide Print Version

For four decades, the regime of Josip Broz Tito maintained a precarious peace within the ethnically jumbled territory of Yugoslavia. Tito accomplished this by balancing leadership opportunities between the country's various ethnicities while insisting that Marxism, not national identity, was the final authority. The government deliberately blurred distinctions between ethnic identities and the territorial divisions of the federal republic, trying to downplay historical antagonisms. The advent of representative democracy in the late 1980s quickly destroyed this balance, however, and launched a decade of violence and atrocities. One of the most infamous perpetrators of the era was Radovan Karadžić, who created the Bosnian pseudo-state of "Republika Srpska" (RS) and directed the mass murders committed by its state police and military, the Vojska Republika Srpska (VRS).

Historian Robert Donia (Univ. of Michigan) has devoted much of his life to understanding this conflict and testified for hours as an expert witness at Karadžić's war crimes trial. Anyone who has witnessed recent American politics will recognize the image Donia paints of the Bosnian Serb leader. While Karadžić believed in representative democracy for his own followers, his dealings with other groups or governments reflected a sociopathic personality: he sincerely believed the paranoid explanations he used to motivate the Bosnian Serbs, blaming others and denying all responsibility. He constantly negotiated in bad faith, yet demanded that others honor their supposed commitments to him.

The Bosnian Serbs and the JNA [Yugoslav National Army] launched their campaign of conquest and atrocities in April 1992 not with the primary intent of slaughtering every living non-Serb, but rather of establishing the political, territorial, and demographic foundations of a permanent separate Serb state purged of non-Serbs …; although they hoped to succeed by persuasion and agreement, they were prepared to use as much violence as they deemed necessary, at whatever administrative level, to establish their state…. It was not hatred of another ethnicity or nation that drove [Karadžić's] behavior…. It [was] … rather … his overzealous devotion to a vain utopian ideal …, while gradually erasing non-Serbs from his concerns, seeing them as inconsequential and expendable. (304–5)

Prior to these events, Donia notes, Karadžić had lived a modestly successful life as a psychiatrist and poet with little involvement in politics. The only hint of what was to come was his hatred of the Yugoslav communist regime that had imprisoned his father (for fighting for the wrong resistance group during the German occupation) and himself (for unproven allegations of petty corruption). Indeed, Karadžić's first foray into politics aimed to destroy the authority of the Bosnian communist government. In the process, he quickly realized his psychological training could help him sway public opinion toward a defiant stance. He claimed to speak for the ethnic Serbs in Bosnia in opposing all efforts to create a multi-ethnic Bosnian state.

European Community diplomats regarded such virulent nationalism as obsolete and were almost incapable of understanding and dealing with Karadžić when he opposed independence for the multi-ethnic province. Repeated atrocities led to air-power intervention by NATO forces, which Karadžić at first thwarted by taking Western soldiers as hostages.

The book appropriately concentrates on the period 1990–95, when Karadžić was a major figure. Once he gained a following, he allied himself with JNA commanders in Bosnia in order to acquire weapons and trained soldiers. In late 1991, he developed a municipal strategy to advance Serbian demands at a local level. In majority Serb areas, he maneuvered his followers to gain control of local police forces and eventually the local government. Where the Croats or Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) predominated, Karadžić's followers created their own, separate police and other governmental entities, refusing to recognize existing agencies. Thereafter, the Serbs used intimidation and force to expel or kill the other nationalities in each area, pretending the departures were voluntary and the atrocities self-inflicted within the other groups.

Using the voluminous records assembled by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Donia reinterprets this tragic period by arguing that Karadžić was the primary Serb instigator in the civil war. By contrast, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was "less able, less resolute, and (by his own choice) less autocratic" (308) than the West realized at the time. Milošević helped arm the Bosnian Serbs but was ignored and outmaneuvered by the upstart Karadžić until US negotiator Richard Holbrooke backed the Serbian president against his Bosnian counterpart.

Donia also reassesses the role of Ratko Mladić, the VRS commander usually blamed for the Srebrenica massacre of 8–11 July 1995. He describes Mladić and Karadžić as adversaries, with the political leader micro-managing and insulting the general. When Karadžić first directly pressured Bosniak enclaves like Srebrenica, Mladić omitted the politician's key phrase (hinting at massacre) from his field order, suggesting that the general considered the idea risky. Ultimately, however, the two men competed in conducting and then boasting about the massacre, which they considered perfectly justified by the need to free VRS troops from Srbrenica to defend Sarajevo.

The author argues that this moral blindness eventually cost Karadžić his power. Even before the Srebrenica massacre, the ICTY prosecutor was preparing to indict Karadžić and Mladić; once that happened, they were gradually excluded from diplomatic negotiations. Holbrooke reluctantly allowed Milošević to bring Karadžić to a meeting, but only if the latter refrained from "a lot of historical bullshit" (277), that is, self-serving lies about the supposed oppression of Serbs (277). Without his usual rhetoric, Karadžić was reduced to incoherence and Holbrooke and Milošević finally forced him to resign his positions in 1996.

Even in disgrace, however, the Bosnian Serb leader used a support network of well-wishers to evade capture for twelve years, eventually assuming a very public identity as a practitioner of alternative medicine in Belgrade. Only when Serbian politics shifted was he arrested and turned over to the ICTY. Even then, he conducted his own legal defense for a further decade, portraying himself as a martyr for the Serb people who was finally sentenced to life imprisonment.

Robert Donia's biography is an essential, thoroughly researched guide to Radovan Karadžić's life and his role in one of the bloodiest events in recent European history.[1]

[1] In a couple places, events are misdated; e.g., the first shelling of the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo occurred in 1994, not 1992. But Donia's helpful inclusion of a detailed "Chronology of Events" (311–18) will enable readers to resolve such slips.

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