War Crimes & Ethnic Cleansing in the Yugoslav Wars

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  • 0:01 Ethnic Tensions in Yugoslavia
  • 1:29 Serbs as Perpetrators
  • 3:32 Trial of Slobodan Milosevic
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

For many, ethnic cleansing brings up images of WWII concentration camps. However, the reality is that such a past isn't as distant as you would think. This lesson explains ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav Wars, and the trial and death of Slobodan Milosevic.

Ethnic Tensions in Yugoslavia

Composed of leftover pieces of empires that had been disbanded, Yugoslavia resembled a pile of misplaced jigsaw pieces from different puzzles. While these pieces could be forced together to hold their shape, they really never fit together well enough to hold together without an enormous amount of pressure. Yugoslavia had received just such pressure from its leader, Josip Tito, until his death in 1980. Following his funeral, everything began to fall apart.

Yugoslavia had many different levels of tension. Somewhat ironically, it was founded as a homeland for members of the south Slavic ethnic group. However, instead of the unity that its founders would have wanted, these divisions were even more pronounced as time went on. Religion was a major point of disagreement. In the northwest, the Croats and Slovenes were Catholic, whereas the western Bosnians were Muslim. As if that weren't enough, the Serbs, who made up the largest group in the country, were Orthodox. That is, all but Muslim Kosovo, which was not Slavic at all! Needless to say, this was a very diverse society. As a result, tensions flared whenever someone wasn't actively suppressing them. And in World War II, the Croats fought alongside the Nazis against the other groups in Yugoslavia. Obviously, this did not make for a happy post-war reunion.

Serbs as Perpetrators

When you add on the fact that the Croats and Bosnians tended to be wealthier societies, the Serbs were not happy. Within years of the death of Tito, the Serbs had begun campaigning to put Serbia first, in light of the perceived injustices of the past. After all, the Serbs were the biggest ethnic group in Yugoslavia - why should they not get special treatment?

Leading the effort to put Serbian interests first was the new leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic was firmly against any special treatment of any ethnic group other than the Serbs, and began to bring investments back from the richer parts of the country. He also spoke very poorly of other ethnic groups. Soon, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia were fighting the Yugoslav government for independence, but everyone knew that by this point, the Yugoslav government was really just Serbia, and that meant Milosevic.

The war was by any measure brutal, but what was especially telling was a CIA study that found that a full 90% of atrocities against civilians had been committed by Serbian forces. The Serbs knew that there was little chance that they were going to be able to keep these countries from declaring their independence, so instead they tried to limit what lands they could take with them. The resulting campaigns of ethnic cleansing, by which all traces of an ethnic group are destroyed from a region, including through the use of genocide, proved to be especially gruesome.

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