History’s Trap

Adam Seldon
8 min readOct 29, 2022

When Russia invaded Ukraine, a common refrain in the media was that it was the first war in Europe since the Second World War. This carelessly discounted the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the collapse of the Yugoslavia in the 1990s including the genocide against 8,000 Bosnian men and the longest siege in modern history against Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. Albania had its own civil war later on in the decade and previously lived under the shadow of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship for 40 years. The Balkans, closer geographically to western Europe than Greece, yet culturally so much further. What accounts for the collective amnesia about the Balkans?

Gravesite at Srebrenica

One answer is that these countries have not confronted their own past and are ensnared in history’s trap. This becomes apparent when visiting. In Sarajevo, our guide Neno stood in front of the restored city library. During the siege, Serbian shells destroyed the original and burned two million books. He ruefully quoted Churchill: “Balkan countries produce more history than they can consume.”

History is on every street corner. On one of them, opposite an innocuous bakery, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by Gavrilo Princip. This was the spark — that precise term is used the world over from books to classrooms — that set off the chain events that led inexorably to the First World War.

On many streets you can see the influence of various cultures that have ruled there nestling next to each other. Ottoman bazaars, Austro-Hungarian neoclassical buildings to resemble Vienna, and brutalism under communist Yugoslavia. Incoherent in one telling, satisfying variety in another. “Where logic ends, Bosnia begins” goes one saying for Bosnia.

Three architectural influences in Sarajevo: Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and communist.

The unpredictable architecture is matched by the peoples’ view of history that often defies expectation. There appears little rancour about empire that can complicate other former colonies. Many buildings are named after the Ottoman ruler Gazi Husrev, including Bosnia’s main mosque. The Austrian influence is often revered. Funds from Austria helped rebuild Sarajevo’s library in a neo-Moorish style which was a nod to Bosnia’s Islamic identity. My mountain guide Lorenc, who took us through sparse mountains an hour form Sarajevo, explained how a few years ago the Austrian government got in touch about a 100-year warranty coming to an end on a building, that was still in immaculate condition. “Sometimes we joke it would be better if the Austrians came back.”

Where jokes can be made about their imperial rulers, they cannot be made about the civil war. So-called ‘Sarajevo roses’ litter the streets. These blotches of red paint on the pavement at unexpected spots show where victims were killed by shells during the siege. By a newly put up ‘#LoveSarajevo’ sign, one rose simmers, the tug of the past adjacent to an attempt to look to the future.

The Srebrenica genocide eventually led to Bosnian-Serb Ratko Mladic being convicted for the crime of genocide at the Hague. The Srebrenica flower of white and green has become a symbol to commemorate the genocide. Some wear the rose on clothing. The international glare cast over the event once more when the Bosnian film about the genocide Quo Vadis, Aida? came out last year and won various awards.

Yet, according to one of our guides, go to other parts of Bosnia, where Bosnian-Serbs predominate, and the Srebrenica flower could not be worn in public. Instead, the Mladic T-Shirts are sold. Denial of the genocide is rife.

The Dayton Accords co-ordinated by the USA stopped the war. But many I spoke to said they was not a blueprint for peace. In fact, they compel singular identities by obliging citizens to officially identify with one of the three ethnic groups: Bosnian-Serb, Bosnian-Croat or Bosnian-Muslim. To run for political positions, you must also state which group you align with. Lorenc, as we hiked along a windswept ridge, pointed across a forested valley across to Bjelasnica, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. “At the end of the tournament, the Olympic President said to us that it was the best one Olympics they had ever run”. When Lorenc came back to the country after the war, he defiantly said his identity was ‘Other’, which a small per centage are, such as Jews. They are barred from running for political office. EU membership is a pipe dream with such a constitutional framework. It is bitterly ironic. A governance arrangement imposed from the outside by the Dayton Accords stops Bosnia gaining access to an international organisation.

Looking across to Bjelasnica

The past freezes in time individual identities and group dynamics. In Bosnia, ethnic intermarriage was once commonplace. Then the war happened. One woman in Sarajevo lamented to the Independent newspaper in 1992, as the siege was starting: “We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other’s babies. What is happening to us?” Our guide from Mostar, Miran, a city in the south, says he faces criticism for being a Bosnian-Muslim and marrying a Bosnian-Croat. The young like him might want to challenge both this anachronism and the poor socio-economic conditions in the country — one we met claimed youth unemployment was over 50% — yet there are fears of ethnic tensions being unleashed by protests.

Bosnia has not had a historical reckoning, as Germany gradually started to have after the Second World War or South Africa had with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid. Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany. That would be impossible to legislate for and then enforce in Bosnia. The museums unfortunately do not meaningfully contribute to historical reconciliation.

Museums have multiple functions. They show to the present the happenstance fragments of the past. Where more contemporary, they can show how the impacts of those fragments linger today. The War Child Museum in Sarajevo had various moving artefacts. A contorted playground frame that was destroyed while children played on it. One video clip showed a woman saying how she still gets gripped by the fear of her parents suddenly dying while they go out shopping. Serbian snipers used to target water collectors.

Museums can also be ways to confront the past and reconcile past wrongs. Two genocide and Crimes Against Humanity museums are in Sarajevo and Mostar. As you move round the affecting exhibits with harrowing stories showing the brutal realities of violence, there was a lack of compensatory coherence. No narrative arc to explore why, when and what next. Miran hates these museums, accusing them of profiteering from people’s misery. “How much of their profits go to victims and their families?” he queried. As he exclaimed, we were on a seemingly innocuous street corner in Mostar with shelled out buildings. He then revealed this was once a vibrant shopping hub and meeting point. Miran refuses to watch the film Quo Vidas, Aida?: “The pain is too much.”

Albania had its own civil war. Not with the collapse of communism, but seven years after. Prior to this, it lived under a communist dictatorship far tighter than neighbouring Yugoslavia. Once it severed ties with its last ally China in the 1970s after Deng’s liberalisation, it became a society severed from the world.

Tirana, the capital had much of its historic buildings destroyed during communism, save for the Ottoman Mosque on its central square. The country’s most popular history museum is a nuclear bunker, built on Hoxha’s orders to protect against a nuclear attack. A monument to paranoia against a phantom enemy, it was created on the backs of hundreds of labourers many of whom died creating it, and is the largest of thousands of such bunkers dotted around the country.

History uprooted in Tirana’s main square

Albania under Hoxha was Europe’s North Korea, 20 miles as the crow flies from Italy and bordering Greece. Despite the site’s popularity, Hoxha’s total grip on the country and the impact of being in the middle of Europe yet one of the most isolated countries in the world do not get a look in. Going through the cavernous complex, that has so many rooms it can’t come up with an exhibition for each one, I was waiting for Godot in hoping for something that directly addressed Hoxha’s actions and legacy.

Further south in the city of Gjirokaster, which is a UNSECO heritage site on a hill with incredible views around a brown valley, our taxi rolled past ‘Enver Hoxha’ guesthouse. Imagine rolling through Frankfurt and spotting Adolf Hitler guesthouse? Gazi, our guide in Albania with a cartoon pointy chin and cool mini mohawk, told the burgeoning crowd: “The current generation can’t talk about the past. Can’t be reconciled. Maybe the next one can.”

Lea Ypi’s surprising bestseller of a memoir on her childhood Free sees the transition from a communist to capitalist society, its popularity showing an interest in Albania’s past that needs satisfying. While not endorsing communism it did speak to its sense of community which shock-doctrine capitalism uprooted. In the shock and speed, there was either no desire or time to have a historical reckoning. Gazi criticised Ypi for moving too far to the left. While aware of Albania’s problems, he had pride in the pace and progress of the country, which is growing in popularity as a place for both tourism and investment. “She needs to come back to Albania and talk to the people.” Yet Ypi captured something that many felt had been lost. You’ll search in vain in Albania to understand much about the legacies of communism and the impact of the transition from one totally new system to another.

In Bosnia and Albania, the state has a limited role that does not attempt a reckoning with the past. The vacuum has been filled by private enterprises where the state dares not tread. For events and processes of such historical significance, there is hotch-pot commemoration. There is nothing on the scale or depth of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem on the holocaust established by the Israeli parliament in 1953, or Yerevan’s Genocide Museum, set up by the Armenian government.

The trap of history not only suggests a thorn at the side that hinders a country’s development, but also their international reputation. Moments of pride are forgotten about. No one remembers the Olympic president saying Sarajevo’s Winter Olympics was the best ever. Where they are deigned to be thought about, as our Sarajevan guide highlighted, “people always think of something bad”. Wars. Criminality. Backwardness. He pleaded us to spread a positive message about his country. He spoke wistfully of how Croatia has not been blighted by the same image, and now has a far more respectable reputation. A friend cautioned about Albania soon before I went: “Have you not seen Taken?!” As if all Albanians are sex traffickers. Surely Albania is front of the pack in terms in terms of the mismatch, between the perceptions of the country and the reality. It can only hope reality will catch up as 2022 proves to be a year of record tourist numbers.

We crossed a frontier and into EU by short boat ride, to the Greek Island of Corfu. My mother said how in 1972 she looked into communist Albania from Corfu with awe. We mentioned to the taxi driver that there were many EU flags in Bosnia and Albania. “Ha. They think it will solve everything”. Hankering after the European Union: one other method of procrastination to side-step confronting history’s trap.