UPDATED: Amy Chua’s Serbian Slant

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I have only now gotten around to reading Amy Chua’s “World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.” In my own book, I merely referenced a secondary source on World On Fire. So far, I have found Chua to have an original, creative mind, a rare thing these days. Hers is truly an original thesis. But she goes wrong in many ways—not least in her error-filled, left-leaning, biased analysis of the history of South Africa’s “market-dominant minority” (chinglese for market-dominating minority). In World On Fire, Chua also claims that Croatians were a “market-dominant minority” that infuriated the less able Serbians, hence their so-called “aggression” against the Croats. Our friend Nebojsa Malic has something to say about that:


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Examples proving this old adage are legion. On this occasion, I’d like to mention two.

First, an ad-hoc group of European lawyers (the Badinter Commission) up and decided to wipe a country out of existence. Just like that, they declared the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia “in dissolution” – a concept reminiscent of what happened to the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, on whose ashes Yugoslavia was first established. Next, in January 1992, the Commission decided that only Yugoslavia’s “republics” – administrative subdivisions created by the Communist government and given state-like powers had the right to seek recognition as independent states. It was this ruling that made the bloody Wars of Yugoslav Succession inevitable.

This decision is hardly mentioned in the mainstream narrative created subsequently in the West. According to the official story of Yugoslavia’s “dissolution” (rather, dismemberment), the evil nationalist Serbs suddenly decided to attack everyone else, motivated solely by bloodlust and bigotry, and it was only the belated intervention of the white-knighting “international community” that brought peace and justice to all.

Ten years after the Yugoslav tragedy began, Yale scholar Amy Chua published a book called “The World on Fire,” in which she argued that democratization and marketization brought resentment of majority populations against “market-dominant minorities” such as the Chinese or Jews. That ought to have been an easy argument to make. But Chua then reached to Yugoslavia for confirmation of her thesis, and made a mess.

Relying on the official narrative, she argued that Croats were the “market-dominant minority” resented by the Serbs, who went on a killing spree out of sheer frustration (see p. 172-75). Granted, Chua used all sorts of caveats, but her example was still completely and entirely wrong.

Here is the problem. Slovenians and Croats, whose separatism ignited the Succession Wars, were not “market-dominant minorities” at all. There was an economic imbalance between their republics and the rest of the country, but that was the result of the political arrangement created by the Communist regime of Josip Broz, a.k.a. Tito, rather than any inherent proclivity towards business or finance.

Resentment between Croats and Serbs was first nurtured by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose plans for expanding into the Balkans were thwarted by the emergence of an independent Serbian state in the 19th century. While Austria-Hungary was still feudal, Serbia was a free principality of yeomen farmers and merchants. Furthermore, Serbs living in Austrian territories had been granted yeoman status in exchange for Military Frontier service as early as the 17th century. They were also Orthodox Christians, which annoyed the staunchly Catholic empire. Moreover, Croats’ national identity came to be defined entirely by Catholicism, and marked by vicious bigotry directed against the Serbs. Economics really didn’t figure much into it.

In 1914, given a pretext by the assassination of its heir by Bosnian revolutionaries, Austria-Hungary launched a war to obliterate Serbia. It failed. In 1918, having returned from the brink of extinction, the Serbs were determined to secure their freedom from Austria once and for all; their regent saw the solution in a union with “brotherly” Catholic and Muslim Slavs. He either did not know or chose not to care that Catholics and Muslims might have harbored a grudge against the Serbs for ousting the empires – Ottoman or Austrian – in which they had enjoyed privileges.

Yugoslavia never got a chance. In 1941, it was invaded and dismembered by the Axis. Within weeks of its establishment, the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia launched a program of mass murder against Serbs, Jews and Gypsies – in that order. The Serb-led Royalist resistance was eventually betrayed by London. The US and UK instead recognized the Communist resistance, led by Josip Broz Tito, as the new government.

Croat-Slovene in origin, Tito reordered the country according to a 1928 Communist platform, which eerily echoed the Nazi partition. No wonder: both sought to keep the Serbs (or “Greater Serbian bourgeois imperialists”) in check. Tito did it by creating “republics”: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia. He also further divided Serbia, establishing two provinces, Vojvodina in the north, and the Albanian-dominated Kosovo in the south. Kosovo was initially supposed to be ceded to Albania, but the feud between Tito and Stalin (and Albania’s Enver Hoxha) interfered.

Under Tito, Slovenia and Croatia (not even all of it, but the area around Zagreb) treated the rest of the country as little more than the source of raw materials and cheap labor. While the Slovene Edvard Kardelj, one of Tito’s closest henchmen, ran experiments like “socialist self-management” on the rest of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was untouched. Though Yugoslavia was allegedly “Serb-dominated,” the majority of cabinet posts in the federal government were held by non-Serbs, as late as 1990.

The reform drive initiated in the 1980s by the Serbian Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic became popular not because of “nationalism”, but because it sought to reverse this colonial relationship within Yugoslavia. Milosevic, a banker with Western experience, clashed with the Slovenian leadership over the mercantilist set-up of the Yugoslav federation.

At that point, however, the Berlin Wall came down. That had two consequences: the collapse of Communism all over Europe (and eventually the breakup of the USSR), and the rise of Germany as an actual European power. Without the Soviet Union to keep them in check, and Yugoslavia’s neutrality no longer important, the American and European powers were free to interfere in Yugoslav affairs – and they chose to back the separatists.

Cut off from their resource base, however, both Slovenia and Croatia eventually withered on the vine. Slovenia initially managed to preserve its capital by rejecting the “shock therapy” transition strategies implemented elsewhere, but after joining the EU in 2004, their reserves ran dry. Croatia racked up $60 billion in foreign debt, and sold off most of its tourist capacities and agriculture to foreigners. Just last weekend, Croatians voted to join the EU, in desperation seeing the listing Brussels Titanic as a lifeboat.

Twenty years ago, the Badinter Commission’s decision made Yugoslav bloodshed inevitable. Ten years later, Chua’s reliance on official accounts merely undermined her thesis. In both cases, the problem arose from preferring the conjured narrative over actual facts.


Nebojsa Malic has been the Balkans columnist for Antiwar.com since 2000, and blogs at grayfalcon.blogspot.com. This editorial is exclusive to Barely A Blog.

UPDATE: Chua has serious lacunae in her analysis of the “whites” of South Africa. She seems proud of the Chinese edge, though. Writing provocatively and intelligently as she does, and getting away with it to become a mainstream sensation—this demands certain obedience to what Nebojsa Malic calls the accepted narrative.

6 thoughts on “UPDATED: Amy Chua’s Serbian Slant

  1. George Pal

    I recall Rebecca West’s observation about Westerners with no dog in the fight seemingly driven to make devils or pets of the participants in other people’s wars, as in the Balkans recently. It is never enough that there should be legitimate gripes and centuries long animosities exacerbated by competing nations, ideologies and geopolitical forces – there must always be saints and devils; and the West has it Serbia’s turn to play the devil. It would not surprise me if, left all to themselves, the Croats and Serbs, could get along famously together, arguing over nothing more than which produced the better poets, intellectuals and silivovica (plum brandy).

  2. My RON-PAUL i

    Austria tried a power play in 1908 in Bosnia. Russia may have enouraged Serbian military intelligence to plan the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. After that, every idiot go into the act with the biggest hypocrite, Woodrow Wilson, encouraging the “allies” not to settle for a cease fire in 1916-1917, promoting “peace without victory”, and then pushing Europe into more bloodlust alias World War 2.

    If “non-interventionism”, the philosophy of people such as Ron Paul,
    had been dominant in Europe instead of lethal doses of Imperial Empire Glory and Ethnic Self-Determination, we could have been spared a century of mass murder.


    Obviously, one can go another 500 years “settling scores” but I would prefer to head towards non-interventionism. Ironically, Ron Paul called for trade with Cuba and those who call him “isolationist” denounced any attempt to live in peace with a pipsqueak diectorship that is no threat.

  3. Robert Glisson

    Myron: You keep looking for ‘sense’ in a world that hasn’t any. Ron Paul stated that we should follow the ‘Golden Rule’ in dealing with Iran, he was booed by the ‘Christian Right’ Nothing fits. I get constant emails about how bad the Obamacare program is, or how badly we lost the Fourth Amendment and immigration, etc. Other Amendments as well and that we are going to loss all of our freedoms because of our present president. When I remind the senders that the present Republican runners approve of all those things and only Ron Paul will fight to overturn Obamacare etc, it’s “Oh we can’t have that wacko and his foreign policy in office. They would rather destroy a country that wants to make nuclear medicine and kill who knows how many people than clean up their own house. Nope as Derbyshire said “We are doomed”

  4. Nick

    Being born and raised in the Balkans, I can vouch for what Nebojsa Malic says here. There were ostensibly no ‘bad guys’ in the Balkan wars. They were merely the logical outcome of fusing 7 peoples into a single nation against their will. The same thing is being tried in Europe again, only this time they’re calling it the European Union and they’re fusing 27 nations into a single state against their will.

  5. Bob Roddis

    “Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability” by Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth Shepsle caused me to give up on my fashionable democratic socialist beliefs this month in 1973. I was reading Rothbard concurrently and became a libertarian. The theory of the book is that democratic socialism produces almost instantaneously ethnic voting blocs. Since the government owns everything, the largest ethnic group win the entire prize. Ethnic conflict invariably ensues.

    The entire book can be downloaded here (12mb):


    Or purchased here:


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