Denise Youngblood is professor of history and chair of the History Department at UVM. A past director of UVM’s Russian and East European Studies Program, she teaches the history of the region from Vienna to Vladivostock, including courses on Eastern Europe and the Balkans that focus on the politics and culture of nationalism. She has
examined Soviet history through the lens of popular cinema and her publications include Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s and her most recent book, The Magic Mirror: Movies and Modernity in Russia: 1896-1918. Youngblood has won UVM’s Kroepsch-Maurice Teaching Award and in 1993 received the Heldt Prize, honoring the Best Book by a Woman in Slavic Studies.


The media has tended to portray the situation in the Balkans as being fundamentally motivated by “centuries old” tensions. Is this an accurate way to look at it?
They call it the “ancient hatreds” theory. Most scholars completely reject the ancient hatreds theory of the conflicts in that region, and I think it’s very important for Americans to understand that it simply isn’t so. This theory gives us a feeling of helplessness and passivity, a feeling that this conflict is somehow genetic and there’s nothing that can be done. Certainly there are historical antecedents and some of them are centuries old. I’m not denying that. But most of the problems that directly bear on the conflict had their genesis in the Second World War. The ethnic and religious mix is so extremely complicated that it is very hard to explain simply. Journalists need to get it down simply and fast. It doesn’t really lend itself to sound bites.

If not sound bites, can you give us a short course on some of the historical tensions and political issues that have created the climate in that region?
There’s no question that the Western Balkans, the area of the former Yugoslavia, was very seriously impacted by the centuries of Ottoman occupation, but the Ottoman religious policies were fairly tolerant. Ottomans did not in most cases force conversion of Islam on their subject populations. They preferred cooperation of all of the various ethnic and religious groups in the region insofar as possible.

The second important issue which makes understanding this problem extremely difficult is that although there were conflicts over the centuries between the Christian and the Muslim populations of the region, they were sporadic, and usually had to do with economic issues and power issues. There were not centuries of religious oppression and centuries of religious tension. In fact, there was a tremendous amount of intermarriage for centuries among the various groups. If you take the cultural situation in the region through the end of the nineteenth century, what you’ll see is that although there was a tremendous amount of resentment against Ottoman authority and a drive for national independence there was in fact not a history of religious wars or religious persecution in the region. In general, we see that people got along fairly well.

When did things begin to change?
By the end of the nineteenth century the notion of ethnic nationalism began to reach the region. That’s the idea that the nation-state, the independent state, should be based on a single ethnicity. This is what makes this whole situation much harder for Americans than Europeans to understand. We’ve never believed that the nation-state should be based on a single ethnic group, or a single religious group. That’s completely opposed to the values that led to the founding of this country, which is a multi-ethnic society that attempts to practice ethnic, racial, and religious tolerance, even though we don’t always succeed.

The next important stage in this process is the formation of the state of Yugoslavia in 1918. As an historian, I do want to stress that’s pretty recent. It’s not centuries old. As a result of the treaties that ended the First World War, a large south Slavic state called Yugoslavia (which means south Slavs) was created and it consisted of Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Croatia.

Initially, all of these South Slavic peoples thought creating a multi-ethnic state was probably a pretty good idea, with the exception of Serbia. Only the Serbs had experience in independence prior to this point, and so here we get to the point of the Serb notion that they’re the leaders in the region, that they’re the dominant ethnic group. Now we’re getting pretty close to the issues that lead us to the problems in the region.

There’s absolutely no question that the Serbs attempted and largely succeeded in putting their imprint on the new state. The State of Yugoslavia was established as a kingdom; the King of Serbia was named the King of Yugoslavia. Right away we see that in that time, the Serbs were positioned at the top of the ethnic hierarchy. Very quickly the Croats, the other dominant nationality in the region, resisted. If there’s any history of hatred, it’s the Croat-Serb history. There was a significant amount of Croat revolutionary activity in the 1920s and 1930s as the Croatians were attempting to break away from the Yugoslav state.

By the 1930s the Croatian independence movement got mixed up with the fascist. They were getting money from Mussolini; they were also getting money from the Nazis; so that when the German and Italian invasion of Yugoslavia began in 1941, the Croats were on the side of the fascists. This is a really critical point that the Serbs like to talk about a lot.

When does Marshal Tito come into the picture?
Tito led the Partisans, a communist group, and would become the leader of Yugoslavia after the war. The Partisans were a multi-ethnic group, and actually Tito himself was the product of a mixed marriage. His father was a Croat and his mother was a Slovene. Tito believed in the principle of a multi-ethnic state and his Partisan group was as multi-ethnic as anything could be in Yugoslavia. It had Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and some Muslims. But for the most part Muslims resisted entering Tito’s Partisan movement, and so it’s at this point that Muslim separatism surfaced.

So, things were relatively quiet in the region during Tito’s reign?
He was the leader of the country from 1945 until his death in 1980. I don’t want to whitewash Tito, he wasn’t what we would call a democrat, but one of the great advantages of Tito’s dictatorship was that Tito truly was ethnically tolerant. It was interesting that in the New Yorker magazine there was a cartoon of a man and his wife sitting at a table, and the man says, “We don’t need NATO. We need Tito!” To a very important extent, that’s absolutely right. Tito did not tolerate ethnic dissent.

Some have argued that it was the way that he clamped down on ethnic dissent that created a sort of Pandora’s box. Following his death in 1980, we see a powerful struggle in the region. Unfortunately all of the men (and they are all men because it’s a very patriarchal society in the Balkans) jostling for power, tended to be rather extreme ethnic nationalists. We know all about Slobodan Milosevic, because he’s been demonized in the Western press, and rightly so. He is, I think, a very bad man.

And how did Milosevic emerge and rise to power?
He was the communist party leader of Serbia, and he is a very skillful manipulator of the mass media in the region. That’s a very important part of the story. Milosevic is a really masterful propagandist. I would say that Milosevic’s power has to do with his absolute mastery of television and print media in the region.

His message is one of ethnic hatred. At this point no one’s quite sure how he became such a staunch Serb nationalist because he comes from an impeccable communist family. We don’t know what happened to him to cause this blip in his views. Some cynics say that it’s because he figured that this was the best way to grab power in the region, which has turned out to be true.

In the last ten years, Milosevic has been masterful in whipping up ethnic hatred. And so have a number of other leaders in the region, most notably Franjo Tudjman, who is the president of Croatia. These men have orchestrated a campaign which has turned the Muslims of the former Yugoslavia into the scapegoats for all of the economic and political problems of the region. This simply wasn’t the case before. This is a media campaign.

What do you make of comparisons between Milosevic and Hitler?
I think it’s a really false and inflammatory comparison. Hitler had an expansionist dream. He intended to conquer all of Europe, if not the world. We have absolutely no indication on Milosevic’s part that he intends anything other than to maintain his strongman’s hold over the regions of historic Serbia.