Roger Cohen was the Balkan bureau chief of the New York Times from 1994 to 1995 and reported from Bosnia throughout the war there. He was one of several correspondents who in their dispatches empathized with the Bosnian-Muslim authorities and showed antipathy to the Bosnian Serbs who besieged Sarajevo. Justifiable questions have been raised in the wake of newspaper and TV reporting from the former Yugoslavia about whether correspondents who express their biases remain true reporters and have not crossed the line to become advocates.
Such questions, however, do not arise when these same correspondents become authors of books. Then they are clearly entitled to state their views. In Hearts Grown Brutal, Cohen expresses his outrage at the way Yugoslavia was destroyed. “I have tried to treat the story of Yugoslavia which lived for seventy-three years as a human one,” he writes. “My understanding of the wars came through families. . . . Their story was the story I wanted to tell. . . . It seemed to me right . . . to consider Yugoslavia’s destruction through families broken asunder, for this was a war of intimate betrayals.”
In portraying the story of four families, Cohen relates the history of Yugoslavia, and it is not surprising in the light of his previous reporting to the New York Times that on occasion his anti-Serb tinge comes through. Cohen is too good a writer to exhibit such a bias openly. Indeed, he tries to show objectivity but inserts references here and there that have slanted connotations.
There is, for instance, his version of the origins of the dissolution of Yugoslavia in June 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia seceded and declared their respective independence. Cohen traces this event back to the 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. He writes: “The Memorandum, paranoid, self-pitying, and aggressive, was certainly the single document most influential in establishing the drumbeat [End Page 137] of Serbian bombast and pathos that led inexorably to Yugoslavia’s dismemberment.” The trouble is that the existence of the memorandum was hardly known outside the circle of the Serbian Academy and that the Yugoslav regime of that period dismissed it as the expression of a certain group of Serbian nationalists who felt that the time had come, now that Tito was dead, to openly express their dissatisfaction with what they regarded as his unfair treatment of the Serbs. It is true that in 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia had to justify their secessions, their leaders quoted sentences from the memorandum in order to strengthen their case. Cohen’s references to the memorandum lead the reader to the conclusion that the Serbs were responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Another indication of Cohen’s anti-Serb bias can be found when he asserts, in connection with Serb activities during World War II, that “the village of Foca, on the Drina, for example, was the scene of a Serbian massacre of Muslims in January 1942.” I have studied wartime events in Yugoslavia but have never come across reference to this alleged occurrence. Indeed, the Serbian resistance movement (often called Chetniks) was inactive in early 1942, with Mihailovic himself en route from Serbia to Montenegro. The other resistance movement, the Partisans led by Tito, was establishing headquarters in Foca at that time. Hence a Serb massacre of Muslims as described was most unlikely. This does not mean Serbian anti-Muslim activities did not occur during World War II. After all, Bosnia-Herzegovina was then incorporated into fascist Croatia, and many Muslims volunteered to fight in a Muslim division in the German army. In effect, Cohen’s reference to a “Serbian massacre of Muslims” more than fifty years ago leads the reader to assume that more recent allegations of similar Serbian actions prove a pattern of behavior.
Cohen’s book is listed as nonfiction, but there are no sources cited anywhere in more than five hundred pages. Indeed, the book reads like fiction. We follow the history of four families in which intermarriage took place between Serbs and Muslims and between Croats and Serbs, where people divorced and remarried, where children were born and older people died either peacefully or tragically, where family members betrayed their kin, where politics and war cataclysmically changed lives. The question arises as to whether all the family and other occurrences are really historical. Conversations are reported with direct quotes. Real conversations? Letters are cited verbatim. Real letters? It is at least doubtful that they are genuine translations; they sound more like Cohen’s elegant style.
If we were to accept this book as fiction, it would deserve a more positive review. The author writes extremely well, portrays the former Yugoslavia and its people vividly, and knows how to keep the reader’s attention. Inasmuch, however, as Hearts Grown Brutal is offered as nonfiction, it has to be judged, for the reasons outlined, more harshly. Indeed, of the many books and articles regarding the demise of the former Yugoslavia, those [End Page 138] written by academics appear to strike an objective balance, and thus hopefully contribute to eventual peace, more often than those penned by reporters on the spot who could not help but be emotionally involved in the deeply disturbing wartime events they covered.
Walter R. Roberts is the author of Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941–1945.