Michael Dobbs

Blogging Mladic in The Hague

Arriving in The Hague for my first glimpse of Ratko Mladic since his arrest and extradition last May, I cannot help thinking about another much-anticipated war crimes trial, 50 years ago. Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem in 1961 accused of "crimes against humanity" for his involvement in the deportation and murder of 6 ...

Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images
Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images

Arriving in The Hague for my first glimpse of Ratko Mladic since his arrest and extradition last May, I cannot help thinking about another much-anticipated war crimes trial, 50 years ago. Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem in 1961 accused of "crimes against humanity" for his involvement in the deportation and murder of 6 million Jews. The most celebrated chronicler of the Eichmann trial was, of course, Hannah Arendt, who wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker which were eventually turned into a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book was subtitled "a report on the banality of evil," a phrase that sought to explain how the ordinary, harmless-looking bureaucrat in the dock had committed such monstrous, out-of-the-ordinary crimes.

A similar conundrum has confronted visitors to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Most of the 60-odd Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Albanians so far convicted by the tribunal have been cogs in the machinery of killing and ethnic cleansing, not the people who set the machine in motion. Observing the trial of a Mladic aide named Radovan Krstic, the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic was reminded of her own father, an officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army under Marshal Tito. In her book, They Would Never Hurt a Fly, Drakulic depicted Krstic as "a compliant character" who "agreed to evil":

I do not believe that Krstic is a pathological case, an evil man who hated Moslems and wanted to destroy them. But he does strike me as somebody who struggles with himself. He is a weak man, a man who is afraid to say no to a higher authority. This happened to thousands of others, too. This policy of small steps, of everyday decisions and concessions, of a collaboration on a much smaller scale, brought men like Krstic into situations where they had to either obey or oppose the orders issued by men like Ratko Mladic. In Krstic’s case, the order was to kill [8,000] Moslems from Srebrenica. Krstic could have disobeyed Mladic. He could have resigned or issued a counterorder. Instead he decided to do nothing.

The phrase "banality of evil" may describe men like Eichmann or Krstic — who was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment for his part in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre — but I doubt that it applies to someone like Ratko Mladic. Eichmann was responsible for many more murders than Mladic, but he never killed anyone himself. He was a bureaucrat, "a killer behind a desk," in the phrase of the Israeli state prosecutor. He rarely saw the faces of the people he helped to kill. Mladic, by contrast, looked many of his victims in the eye. He was present at Srebrenica when the men who were to be killed were separated from the women and children; he gave his personal word that no harm would come to them. The evidence suggests that he, more than anyone else, was primarily responsible for the mass murder at Srebrenica. He issued the orders. In order to understand his actions and motivations, we have to look beyond Arendt’s celebrated phrase. Something else is in play here.

Mladic will appear in court on Thursday, on charges that include "genocide" at Srebrenica and the deliberate shelling of civilians in Sarajevo. (At present, we are still in the pretrial phase.) Although the trial proper is unlikely to begin until early next year, a mountain of evidence is already available, through the trials of his subordinates and associates. While serving as a Goldfarb fellow with the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I plan to observe the legal proceedings in The Hague, travel to Srebrenica and Sarajevo and Belgrade, and interview Mladic’s victims and associates. I will post documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic’s personality on the museum’s website, as well as snippets here. Join me over the next few months as I attempt to explore "the origins of evil."

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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