'Reexamining Assumptions': An Interview with Tom Sunic
Tomislav Sunic was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1953. He studied French and English at the University of Zagreb before taking a Master's degree at California State University, Sacramento, in 1985. He received a doctorate in political science in 1988 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has taught at California State University, the University of California, and Juniata College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books, including Against Democracy and Equality: The European New Right (reviewed in the Sept.-Oct. 1994 Journal). Articles, reviews and essays by Sunic have appeared in a range of newspapers and journals, including Chronicles, Le Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and The Wall Street Journal. He has been interviewed many times on radio and television, including CNN and "The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour." For a time he served as a diplomat with the Croatian foreign ministry. Currently he resides with his family in Croatia, where he works as a free lance writer. He is scheduled to address the 14th IHR conference, June 21-23, 2002, on the fate of ethnic Germans in communist Yugoslavia, 1945-53.
Q: What experiences have shaped your general outlook and career path?
A: I grew up in communist Yugoslavia, where I obtained my B.A. in literature and languages. But I think that never during my educational period did I take anything for granted: no ideology, no system, no belief, no sense of group victimhood. One needs not just to reexamine history; one must first reexamine his often self-serving assumptions. In liberal America and western Europe, to which I immigrated, I obtained a Ph.D. in political science, and in the United States I also worked as a professor. Later on, I lived and lectured all over Europe, and for a while worked as a Croatian diplomat.
To be frank, my curricular period at schools and universities was largely a waste of time. What I was taught was mostly ideologically based drivel delivered by mediocre leftist academics — whether in Europe or in the United States, yet with remarkably similar egalitarian and freudo-marxophile affinities.
Q: The re-emergence of an independent Croatia in 1989-1991 from the ruins of Yugoslavia was seemingly a rebuke to the European order imposed after the First World War, and reaffirmed after the Second. Do you see the situation this way?
A: The emergence of an independent Croatian state, first in the wake of 1939-1941, and then in 1989-1991, was an incidental fallout of international disorder. For centuries a strong nationalist sentiment thrived among the Croat people, but it never took the form of a durable statehood. The Croatian state that emerged in 1991 filled the void left by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, backed by the strongly anti-Versailles policies of the late Croat president Franjo Tudjman.
Q: Has political independence from Yugoslavia been good for Croatia, and is it good for Europe?
A: Making value judgments about "good" or "bad" with regard to Croatian independence, or for that matter about any historical event, is irrelevant. Looking at history, I prefer as a method of analysis Vilfredo Pareto's cold, value-free disinterestedness. But anyway, haven't the ruling classes in the West over the last century repeatedly carried out punitive military strikes in the name of the myths of progress and human rights?
From the point of view of much-aspired economic benefit, Croatia's independence has proven to be a disappointment. Today, and since the death [in Dec. 1999] of President Tudjman, Croatia is an ungovernable, Western-sponsored entity in search of identity. The mass craving for quick entry into the "rich men's club" of the European Union did not materialize. On the other hand, and viewed from a transcendental, nationalist perspective, Croatia's independence in 1991 was perhaps an inevitable, self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely: no multicultural entity — whether one speaks of the former Yugoslavia, the ex-Soviet Union, or today's South Africa (or, tomorrow, multicultural France and the USA?) — lasts for long, however seductive its promise of ecumenical harmony. Nightmare always lurks on the horizon. I think that the ruling class in the USA and the EU, each with its multiracial experimentation, will learn the tragic lesson of Yugoslavia.
Q: Croatia was an ally of Germany during the Second World War. What factors influenced that policy?
A: Geography is destiny. A major factor was that Croatia is geographically close to Germany. Suppose Jefferson or Washington had to fight the England of George III to secure the independence of a country the size of Scotland or Belgium? They would have failed, and today nobody would even know their names. America's distance from Britain was a tremendous advantage for those who worked for independence. Space helps.
Another factor was that for centuries Croatia was part of the larger, yet truly European, multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, its cultural and perhaps even ethnic survival during the Turkish onslaught in the 17th century must be credited to the geographically proximate Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
Now, in hindsight, and given the disastrous legacy of European mini-statehoods and intra-European nationalist bickering, one may regret the passing of that supra-national imperial age. Worse, the legacy of endless intra-European squabbles among Europe's various nation states now lends legitimacy to today's uprooted global plutocratic system. But, perhaps, if the Holy Roman Empire had been more durable, likely it would have sooner or later spawned its own mortal enemies.
Q: Croatia's World War II Ustashi regime is often accused of having committed terrible atrocities, even a campaign of virtual extermination, against Jews and Serbs, with the support of the nation's Catholic hierarchy. How valid are these accusations?
A: Facts and fiction are often intertwined in modern official history writing. And this is likewise true of every nation's political mythology. To endure and survive, every nation resorts to its own national mythical narrative, no matter how aberrant it may seem to historians and even future generations. Georges Sorel, the French thinker, understood and described that human trait.
With regard to Croatia's pro-fascist World War II regime, it's worth noting that some prominent figures in the regime were married to Jews — a point that even Hannah Arendt noted. One of the founding fathers of modern Croat nationalism in the late 19th century was Joseph Frank, a baptized Hungarian Jew. So influential was he that Ustashi followers were sometimes called "frankovci." All the same, in Croatia proper Jews played a very minor and negligible role. For centuries Croatia has been a deeply Roman Catholic country, and Catholicism and the Catholic clergy were closely intertwined with Croatian nationalism.
Serbs, by contrast, have tended to seek a negative legitimization in a national mythos of exaggerated victimhood. Through the Versailles peace treaty of 1919 they received a mandate to dominate the new Western-sponsored and multi-ethnic "Yugoslav" entity. Hence the justifiable anger of the Serbs over what they regard as abandonment and betrayal by their former allies — France, Britain and America — when Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991, and when those powers recognized Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzogovina. Unfortunately, no effort has been made by the Croat and Serb political and cultural elites, either of the left or the right, to jointly reexamine and cross examine their respective historical roles, including the emotion-laden issue of casualties during and after World War II. The level of mutual suspicion is still enormous. Pseudo-historical mythology still thrives among the Balkan peoples, and very likely will generate yet another bloody but ultimately futile conflict.
Q: As commander of the Communist partisans during World War II, Tito (Josip Broz), who later ruled the reconstituted Yugoslavia for three and a half decades, was certainly involved in his own share of atrocities. Has there been any serious effort to hold Tito, who died in 1980, historically accountable for his misdeeds during and immediately after the war?
A: Tito fought with the Soviets and the Western Allied forces during the war, and was therefore on the victorious side in 1945. His role as a perpetrator of Balkans' "killing fields" in the aftermath of World War II was staggering, especially against Croats and ethnic Germans. Since then, and for obvious reasons, neither American nor European scholars or media, have conscientiously examined the violent Titoist and Yugoslav past, except in a passing fashion. The Hague Tribunal has been even less willing to take on the Titoist past. If it were to do so, many features of what we today regard as "international law," "ethnic cleansing," or for that matter modern history writing, would be exposed as a fraud.
Q: How strong is the desire among Croatians to refute, with historical facts, unfounded accusations of war crimes during the Second World War? If so, has that fostered an interest in the larger issues raised by historical revisionism, including the origins and outcome of the war, the Holocaust question, and so forth?
A: Franjo Tudjman, a communist turned Croatian nationalist, openly challenged some greater-Serbian, Yugoslav and Communist myths in his books. For his critical reassessment of World War II estimates of deaths in the Balkans, he was imprisoned during the communist era. In terms of free historical inquiry, Croatia is today probably more open than the countries of the European Union. But under pressure from various EU and U.S. interest groups, the country is now well on its way toward globalist "normalcy." Throughout European academe and media, the term "revisionism," due in part to its semantic imprecision, has now acquired a pejorative meaning, with an undertone of criminality. Many scholars refrain from open debate for fear of having their reputations attacked, including seeing their titles or expertise disparaged in quotation marks in hostile newspaper reports. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with what revisionists write, when a country's judiciary, that is, its thought police, step in — as now happens in today's France and Germany — then freedom of speech becomes an empty phrase. What we see in the European Union today is the replica of the judicial mind control that I endured as a child in Titoist Yugoslavia — even though this thought control is implemented in today's EU in a much more sophisticated manner. I do not think that any freedom loving and tolerant man or woman is a priori trying to "deny" or "assert" anything. With the passage of time, some of our ardently held beliefs or conventional platitudes must inevitably be discarded. Historical events are inevitably bound to be reexamined within new time frames, and in perpetually new causal relationships.
For my part I have difficulty accepting the often-repeated claim by anti-communists of a hundred million victims of communist rule.
Moreover, so many millions could not have perished without the active or tacit collaboration of the vast majority of communized and scared citizens. To critically reexamine the communist "terror of all against all," one must read such scholars as Claude Polin, Alexander Zinoviev, and Ernst Nolte — men who are sometimes dubbed by the media as "revisionists," or worse, "right wingers."
I well understand the anger of Serb intellectuals over the negative Western media portrayal of the Serb role during the recent wars in the Balkans. Yet both Serb nationalists and leftists continue to cherish their cultic view of Serbs as victims of World War II Croat fascists. Possibly with the help of independent foreign scholars, the great Serbian icon of World War II victimhood might be brought down to size, and perhaps even exposed as yet another example of Balkan historical mythology.
Q: What is your view of the bloody conflicts in recent years in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo? Were those conflicts inevitable? What can be done to lessen the likelihood of similar conflicts in the future?
A: These conflicts, including those in Bosnia and Kosovo, appear, especially in hindsight, as futile and a terrible waste of life, property and time. But the root causes of the conflicts are to be found in the post-World War I Versailles settlement, the ideology of multiculturalism, and the various forms of political romanticism that have shaped our world.
Q: What lessons do you think the United States, and the world, can learn from the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia?
A: Putting different people together into larger, unnatural entities brings disaster. Mutual vilification and name calling eventually become the norm. Among the similarities between the former Soviet Union and present-day America is a comparably linear and static view of history. In the former Soviet Union the ruling elites and their scribes fostered an artificial social order with decrees and formulas. When people lose trust in their ruling class, they inevitably seek recourse in abstract laws and practices that hardly reflect the pulse of a nation. This is manifest in the ambiguity of the much vaunted liberal "rule of law" in today's America. For example, local and federal authorities in the USA naively seek to address the country's deep-rooted racial problems with ever more social engineering, "affirmative action," multiculturalism, and "integration." Or when the economy takes a turn for the worse, the call grows for even more deregulation and cutthroat market democracy. The results, as a rule, are contrary to those expected. Exactly the opposite is what should be done.
Q: The United States now seems to be the indisputably dominant power in today's world — militarily, culturally and politically. How permanent do you regard this hegemony, or do you see signs of fragility?
A: Contrary to the view held by many, especially in Europe, I do not think that America ever concocted a secret or conspiratorial plan for world hegemony. Every form of reductionism is a form of self-serving intellectual sloth. Even among those who embrace theories of alleged "dark forces" and "conspiratorial" elements, there is no unanimity. Historically, America has always stepped, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not, into geopolitical voids left by others. Let us leave aside whether this is good or bad. Probably it is bad, but here I am just trying to identify the process.
Europeans were incapable of stopping the recent bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, and it is fortunate that the USA was able to do so. A similar analysis could be applied on the global level. When a nation, a race, or an individual gives up his civic courage and indulges in self-censorship or feigned guilt feelings, he signs his own death warrant. He then becomes easy prey even to an unarmed preacher, or some Oriental guru or Levantine messiah. Historical examples of this are plentiful. Those who are responsible for this state of affairs in the American and European educational systems, the media and public life today, are wealthy, spineless white European and U.S. elites, who while saluting freedom of thought and expression indulge in grotesque fawning and thought self-control. They will hardly elicit sympathy at the hands of tomorrow's enemy.
Q: What do you think are the most important misconceptions by Europeans of the United States and American history?
A: In many ways America, according to its founding fathers, was at the same time a rejection and a fulfillment of European dreams. I am sure that if Washington or Jefferson were to be resurrected today they would be dissidents in the country that uses and misuses their name. But which America are we talking about today anyway? A virtually vicarious, open-border, MTV America, or an America that is a remnant of the "deep south," or something else? Present-day Europe, both East and West, is a poorly mimicked replica of this double travesty of what, in my view, America should not be.
Q: What do you think are the most important misconceptions by Americans of Europe and European history?
A: Europe is far from being homogeneous. A strange complex of inferiority exists on both sides of the Atlantic. Many French and German intellectuals tend to ridicule America's alleged historical ignorance, but few of them have any deep understanding of what is happening even on the other side of the Rhine River. In fact, American thinkers have achieved some extraordinary insights, particularly in the realm of sociobiology, a field that is still widely ignored in Europe. What both Europe and America need is a true elite whose value system is based on non-materialistic foundations of a common Greco-Roman heritage, while avoiding tribal agendas with their suicidally destructive tendencies.
Q: In his new book, The Death of the West, Patrick Buchanan paints a grim and gloomy portrait of the future for Europe and European culture. Do you share his pessimism? What are the causes of this catastrophic situation, and what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend?
A: I agree with Pat Buchanan. But unlike many conservatives, I tend to look critically at the root causes of the approaching death of the West. Was it not the Western millennium-long belief in one bizarre form of Oriental monotheism, that is, Christianity, along with its modern egalitarian derivatives, that have brought us today to our modern "love thy exotic neighbor" entropy, and self-hate? It seems to me that the only way to stop the process of Western collective suicide is by discarding the ideology of progress, the myth of egalitarianism, and the theology of market democracy.
Q: How much do nations, or leaders, really "learn" from history?
A: They never do, because they never bother to learn. The linear concept of the "end of history," a currently fashionable notion that holds that liberal democracy is a final or a permanent form of social order, is a willful act of intellectual stupidity. History is always open to new deliriums and hoaxes, but it is also open to new rebirth. The great problem is that many fine people get killed in the process. I have no illusions about a static world. After all who says that even in a static paradise we would not experience, after a prolonged bliss, periods of boredom? The static "end of history" view reminds me of the "static poems" ("Statische Gedichte") by the German poet Gottfried Benn, who was punished by literary oblivion after World War II.
From The Journal of Historical Review, March-April 2002 (Vol. 21, No. 2), pages 15 ff.