How a Yugoslav communist became a Serb nationalist

In my last post, I outlined four mysteries surrounding Ratko Mladic that need to be resolved in order to explain the atrocities he committed during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My first question — How did a man indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity" turn into a Serb nationalist waging brutal war against ...

Michael Evstafiev/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Evstafiev/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Evstafiev/AFP/Getty Images

In my last post, I outlined four mysteries surrounding Ratko Mladic that need to be resolved in order to explain the atrocities he committed during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My first question -- How did a man indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity" turn into a Serb nationalist waging brutal war against his neighbors? -- may be the easiest to answer.

First, a little background. Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Mladic had served with distinction in what was then known as the "Yugoslav People's Army" for 26 years. Trained as an infantry officer, he passed political loyalty tests with flying colors, rising to the rank of colonel. He described himself as a Yugoslav (literally a "South Slav") in responses to official questionnaires, not as a Serb. People who knew him at the time say that he never talked about "Serbdom," the "Serbian military tradition," or "Serbian interests." If he was a closet nationalist, it was very well disguised.

In explaining Mladic's ideological transformation, it helps to know a little bit about the nature of the regime he served. During his final years in power, the legendary Marshal Tito became the West's favorite Communist leader. He refused to accept orders from Moscow and developed his own brand of communism, based on the utopian idea of "workers' self-management." A bon vivant himself, he encouraged his people to share in the good life (made possible by large western loans), and permitted them freedom of travel.

In my last post, I outlined four mysteries surrounding Ratko Mladic that need to be resolved in order to explain the atrocities he committed during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My first question — How did a man indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity" turn into a Serb nationalist waging brutal war against his neighbors? — may be the easiest to answer.

First, a little background. Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Mladic had served with distinction in what was then known as the "Yugoslav People’s Army" for 26 years. Trained as an infantry officer, he passed political loyalty tests with flying colors, rising to the rank of colonel. He described himself as a Yugoslav (literally a "South Slav") in responses to official questionnaires, not as a Serb. People who knew him at the time say that he never talked about "Serbdom," the "Serbian military tradition," or "Serbian interests." If he was a closet nationalist, it was very well disguised.

In explaining Mladic’s ideological transformation, it helps to know a little bit about the nature of the regime he served. During his final years in power, the legendary Marshal Tito became the West’s favorite Communist leader. He refused to accept orders from Moscow and developed his own brand of communism, based on the utopian idea of "workers’ self-management." A bon vivant himself, he encouraged his people to share in the good life (made possible by large western loans), and permitted them freedom of travel.

Beneath this liberal façade, however, the Titoist system was based on the hard-baked Communist principles of class divisions and "us versus them." In order to consolidate and maintain his power, Tito fought an uncompromising war against his political enemies, both at home and abroad. The prison camp at Goli Otok ("Naked Island") in the Adriatic resembled camps in the Soviet gulag. (The Bosnian leader, Alija Izetbegovic, was one of the early inmates.) Tito’s followers developed a siege mentality that was particularly pronounced in the army, the inner bastion of the regime.

As a Yugoslav army officer, Mladic viewed himself as the defender of a system and an ideology constantly threatened by enemies. When the country began to break apart in 1991, it did not take a huge leap of imagination for him to conflate the external enemy with the internal enemy. As he saw it, it was World War II all over again. The internal enemies of the Yugoslav state, Croatian nationalists and their Muslim allies, were joining forces with the political heirs of Nazi Germany, the country that invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941.

As late as August 1995, after the massacre at Srebrenica, Mladic was still talking about Yugoslavia as a beautiful country "destroyed without any reason" by the "world community who took the side of the Croats and Muslims." In his mind, he was still doing what he had sworn to do as a Yugoslav army officer, defending his people against their enemies.

Like numerous other former Yugoslav army officers on all sides of the ethnic barricade, Mladic had little difficulty adapting his professional training and Communist ideology to the new environment. His military oath remained the same, with just one small difference. Instead of fighting to defend his "socialist homeland" against its enemies, he was fighting to defend "the freedom and honor" of his brother Serbs. The "us versus them" mentality fostered by the Communist party ideologists survived completely intact.

I understood a lot about Mladic by visiting his home village of Bozanovici in the mountains of southern Bosnia. I have rarely been to such an isolated, desolate place. During the harsh Bosnian winters, Bozanovici can be cut off from the outside world for weeks on end. From a very young age, the young Ratko learned to divide the world into friends and enemies. His father Nedo was killed in clashes with Croatian fascists; his mother narrowly escaped being lynched and burned alive by supporters of the Serbian nationalist movement, known as the Chetniks.

Although Ratko left Bozanovici at the age of fifteen, the village never left him. Thanks to his father’s decision to join Tito’s Communist partisans, he found himself on the "right side" of the ideological struggle. But he retained the peasant cunning, the sense of victimhood, and the black-and-white view of the world (either you destroy your enemies or they will destroy you) that had been inculcated within him from a very early age. I will trace the consequences of this mentality in a subsequent post.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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