Reflections on the Conviction and Sentencing of Radovan Karadzic

Reflections on the Conviction and Sentencing of Radovan Karadzic

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The transformation of a seemingly normal human being

Karadzic was born on June 19, 1945 only a month after WWII officially ended but acts of deadly atrocities against the Croatian Ustasha and German allies were still in full swing.  Reprisals against his father for fighting with the Chetniks were moderated by his work for the Communist Partisans who took command and formed Yugoslavia.  In wartime Croatia, whose boundaries included the Bosnia and Sarajevo that was the locus of Karadzic’s genocide, a different genocide took place, one where, as best we can objectively tell, more than 100,000 Serbs were killed by Croats in a concentration camp, Jasenovac, alongside the Holocaust of 10,000 to 14,000 Croatian Jews.  Roughly equal numbers of Serbs were expelled from Croatia at the same time and as were forced to convert to Catholicism.  It is likely that Karadzic knew this racist history well from a familial recounting and he referred to it several times in his trial as evidence of the enduring racist hostility of the Croats and Bosniaks who were their allies in WWII, against his brethren Serbs, but it seems clear that Karadzic was not motivated exclusively by personal gain in power, prestige, or money; and truly had the best interests of his narrowly defined Serbian community at heart.  In other words, he seems to have been mostly motivated by a generous communitarian impulse, but somehow that empathetic feeling of humanity did not extend to his compatriots in Bosnia, the Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.  Yet, it is too simple to argue that this was and remains a religious divide, although religion is truly one of the strongest communitarian bonds.  He was smart, a poet, well-adjusted, with a family, and for many years followed a normal intellectual career.  How could he become the architect and leader of a genocide?

The notion that the Serbs are a holy ‘race’ with a historical destiny

A key characteristic that can help explain this transformation can be found in his enduring narcissistic mysticism.  Karadzic claimed at his trial in 2010 to be a well-known literary giant, Vuk Karadzic’s, blood relative, as if that gave him superior moral rights.  He also held that Montenegrins like him were a kind of “super-Serb”. This is a kind of racist view that compares directly to the Nazis’ ingrained belief in their superiority as a ‘race’ to the rest of the world. His poetry too was mystically cryptic with visions of forces beyond human rationality.  Specifically, Serbs were all connected with a bond that emerged in the mythical past.  This view of a Serbian ‘race’ with its echoes of Nazi heathenism formed the basis for his atrocities.   Karadzic himself provided as his defence the racist view that there were strong national bonds between the Bosnian Serbs and the former Yugoslavia, which had become reduced to greater Serbia, justified his actions and gave him a superior moral stance to the Croats and Bosniaks who were unfaithful to Yugoslavia and deserted/seceded from the union.  To him, this made it a just and holy cause to conduct a civil war against these renegades.   For him the Serbs were a ‘nation’/narod, whatever that means (think Nazi ‘Volk’ or ‘race’.)  I cannot bring myself to delve into the racist views that this implies, to try to understand them: it would mean going against my own beliefs too deeply.  But it seems, from listening to him and his testimonies throughout this lengthy trial that he truly believes that the Serbs are a holy ‘race’ and narcissistically believes that their destiny is superior to the others.  In fact, he suggests that the Bosniaks too are Serbs, and that only the best of them comes out when they are Serbs, as they were 500 years ago (that is to say before the Ottoman conquest of the region). This racist view of a Balkan ‘race’ colours his judgment intimately and was undoubtedly pre-existent before the civil war broke out.  Under the cover of war its worst attributes resulted in atrocities beyond our imagination, although they are all too common in genocides, just as WWII was deeply intertwined with the death camps of the Holocaust.  How racism and war interact to turn normal human beings into primeval beasts remains as much a mystery as ever.

It is alarming to note that so much evidence does not do much by way of advancing our understanding

As scholars, I think we can take little comfort in this conviction, unless it leads to better understanding of how a perfectly normal human being can be radically transformed, who from the outset appears truly to want peace but then is somehow corrupted into condoning and perhaps even ordering wanton atrocities against civilians.  The trial unfortunately, with its antagonistic format and high stakes, is no place for understanding to be developed, no more than a concentration camp is a fit place to learn ethics,  and the statements of the prosecutors and defence must all be taken circumspectly within the context of this competitive environment, but it seems clear that Karadzic was not motivated exclusively by personal gain in power, prestige, or money; and truly had the best interests of his narrowly defined community at heart.  So, in spite of hundreds of witnesses and perhaps 50,000 pages of documentation, what have we learned? If it is only that there is a banality to evil, that can integrate itself into the most democratic of procedures; then we have learned nothing because the concept of evil will never lead us to an understanding of these events.  Not that it is just subjective and indifferent to scientific standards, but it is not a theoretical framework that can encompass these events and on which we can hang empirical hypotheses. So we must agree on a standard that is plausible and more secure.  We are dealing with human motivation and changing identity, and so it is within psychology that a framework might be found.  Not in the racist and mystical folk psychology that motivated Karadzic into this atrocious genocide but a different psychology based on empirical research with hypotheses and experimental control groups.  We may still be far from such a theoretical framework, but some directions are clear.

Evolutionary psychology

Chimpanzees and bonobos are very much like us, about 90% or more similar in genetic components; and they offer perspective on our predilections for empathy and xenophobia.  Chimps too show empathy: the old and sick are comforted, as are the young and helpless.  There are many examples like the following: An elderly chimp suffering from bone and muscular degeneration is helped on her way to get water to drink by younger chimps who run ahead and return with mouthfuls of water.  Chimps also form hierarchical social groups with fixed territories.  When food sources are scarce, they may attack neighbouring groups to expand their territory, and even kill to eat their victims.  So, xenophobia and outgroup dehumanization are not unique to us.  Chimps of course will not engage in alliances to make the fight fair and roughly equal the way traditional human societies carefully arrange to reduce carnage and deaths, but modern warfare has made this traditional pattern irrelevant, and these alliances just increase fatalities and destruction.  The Bosnian Serbs were a minority in the beginning, with only two-thirds of the Bosniak manpower, but they got help from Milosevic’s thugs to create the context for Srebrenica.  The Bosniaks in turn sought alliances for stronger help to weaken this assistance.

So how do we counteract these fatal impulses for revenge and racist hatred, and augment the motives to help and provide succour?  It seems to me, only by confronting the truth about ourselves with greater understanding.  Above all to recognize that our best attribute, the one that makes us enjoy the comfort of communal identity and togetherness, that motivates us to fight for our kith and kin and country, is not an unadulterated good, but contains within it the intolerance of others that drives ethnic cleansing and genocide.  This Janus-like duality of good and bad intertwined in all our beliefs can perhaps best be controlled if we can overcome our bias of thinking that communal impulses are only good, and begin to understand the dangers of community and the protections of diversity.

Joe Ptoska, Ph.D

Retired Research Psychologist, U. S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioural and Social Sciences