Helmut Kohl’s Balkan Factor

Helmut Kohl | Wikimedia

The Balkans in German foreign policy has always registered as problem, a crisis, and a matter of balancing in broader political goals. The Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, after observing in 1878 that Europe was “a powder keg” packed with leaders “smoking in an arsenal”, suggested that, “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” would set it off.

The attentat duly followed in 1914, and the warning wheels, not to mention troop-laden trains, went into murderous motion. The worthies of the Austro-Hungarian empire wished for war, and singled out the Kingdom of Serbia as a problem to be conveniently done away with. Then, it was Serbia who was deemed the victim of Austro-Germanic aggression. Russia, France and Great Britain duly came into play.In the 1940s, the Serbs were again slotted into the role of heroic victimhood, this time facing the German panzers and a war that would see the erection of quisling governments across the Balkans. At the conclusion of the Second World War, the Balkans found itself unified in a pan-Slavic socialist compact, while Germany, ironically enough, found itself divided into two halves, jammed in the middle of Cold War theatre and dispute.

In 1985, the late Helmut Kohl, as West German Chancellor, went so far as to praise Yugoslavia as a vital cog in European stability, both economically and politically. It was a tune that dramatically changed towards the end of the decade.

As the threads of the Yugoslavian project began unravelling, and nationalist urgings became powerful, German interests would again play a part. Kohl saw an opportunity to play the role of statesman, albeit of a meddling sort keen to rush to the rescue of favoured national groups.

Otto Von Bismarck | Wikimedia

Traditional German allies in the past, Croatian nationalists within Yugoslavia were keen to obtain the blessing of the newly unified German state. It would also mean much electorally, given the not inconsiderable number of Croats living within the borders of West Germany.In a visit to Belgrade on July 1, 1991, German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher reiterated the point that any political solution to the Yugoslav problem would have to acknowledge the right to self-determination outlined in a range of documents and meetings, including the Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter.

That same month, the Bundestag passed a resolution calling for the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. Support for recognising the separatist groups was so strong in Germany in 1991 that even the Social Democrats, languishing in opposition, were noisily critical of Kohl, whom they accused of unnecessary prevarication. Delays merely meant chances for the Serbian military forces to leave “corpses and ruins in Croatia”.

Before a meeting of the Christian Democratic Union in Dresden in 1991, Kohl proclaimed to stirring applause that “the Croats will not be left alone.” His Christmas Eve declaration that year recognised Slovenia and Croatia as independent republics, an Alleingang (solo move) that amounted to what has been termed “a breach in the collective management of the Yugoslav crisis within the European coalition”.

Such cartographical redrawing was genuinely viewed with caution, and even dismay in some circles. It certainly bucked the cautious stance urged by the United Nations, the European Community, and particularly US President George H.W. Bush.

While Kohl was busying himself pushing the cart of Balkan independence, Bush went to Kiev in August 1991 to deliver a contrary speech warning that “freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not aid those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred.”

But these were the days of redrawing traditional orders: communist politburos were beating hasty, embarrassed retreats across the Iron Curtain; irredentist elements were flaring throughout countries whose ethnic groups had been kept in check under a firm hand. The asphyxiating yoke of party discipline and proletarian instruction was being battered back in sheer confusion.

Again, as with the history leading up to the First World War, Austria’s fingers were fumbling deeply in the potting mix. Austrian foreign minister Alois Mock proved an important figure with a direct line to Genscher in Bonn.

Yet again, the Serbs were deemed the continental problem, to be targeted, outflanked and outwitted. There was a key difference: this time, there would be no challenging guardian and armed sponsor, no strong Russian backer to provide the strategic filling and reassurance. The Serbian government was to be isolated.

The Serbian stance was, in an existential sense, understandable: the Yugoslav compact was essentially being pushed into legal and actual oblivion, leaving, as well, large pockets of Serbian nationals within Croatian territory (some 580,000 at the time). “This is a direct attack on Yugoslavia,” asserted Dobrosav Veizovic, then assistant foreign minister. Recognising Croatia and Slovenia erased “Yugoslavia from the map of the world.”

It is conjectural to imagine whether a different approach by the late Kohl on the subject of managing the crisis might have eased hostilities, or at the very least keeping the morgues less filled. Such arguments tend to revolve around how to soften the decline of a terminal patient.

Sonia Lucarelli also suggests that viewing such moves through a prism of cynical power politics provides an insufficient motivation: surely, there were other institutional factors at work? (One is an international one: that state recognition would internationalise the crisis, permitting international intervention.) The proof, however, is in the devastated pudding, and the reunified Germany of the post-Cold War, with Kohl at the helm, will always be tied, for ill or otherwise, to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Binoy Kampmark

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com