Last updated on October 5th, 2023 at 07:16 am
The breakup of Yugoslavia and the novel, Girl at War
The break-up of Yugoslavia is a very complicated, multi-faceted part of the end of the Cold War. There are multiple layers at play within the events, not least of which are layers of ethnic, religious, and historic animosities. The wars associated with the breakup of Yugoslavia included the most intense military combat, widespread human rights abuses, crimes against humanity, and repeated targeting of civilians on an individual and collective level. The international community aghast at the return of military conflict, concentration camps, massacres and ethnic cleansing tried to first broker ceasefires and later negotiate compromise peace settlements, almost always imperfectly. Later, a layer of old cold-war tensions overlapped with the crisis as Serbia (and its militia allies) resisted NATO efforts (at times with force) and Russia interjected its traditional support for Serbia and animosity towards NATO. In short, it was a terrible mess. Studying the conflict deserves its own course and you are not expected to master these intricacies, wavering alliances, and multiple atrocities. Instead we will use the breakup of Yugoslavia and the novel, Girl at War, to examine an additional approach used by historians to understand conflict.
Most survey histories (including Fink’s Cold War: An International History) analyze political history on a large scale. Most named actors are countries or their leaders and the history details the periods of rivalry, competition, and struggle between them. Most of the time, this is a logical approach – understanding the Cuban Missile Crisis is largely an exercise in examining the political and military leaderships of a few countries. History, however, is much more than this approach – economic historians study long term economic developments; demographic historians study population trends; social historians study the experience of historical change on traditionally unexamined groups. This can include subaltern studies that often study the maligned or most underrepresented groups, microhistory that looks at a very narrow subject matter almost exhaustively. Part of social history is placing the lives lived of “common people” into a historical framework. Fascinating insights are often revealed that show “great man political history” is sometimes completely irrelevant or humanizes the large developments of political history. The study of Anne Frank, for example, humanizes the study of the Holocaust y placing the diary of an adolescent girl at the center of a maelstrom around her. Similarly, in our course, if Dr. Strangelove brings general staffs, presidents, and war rooms to life, Good Bye Lenin! transforms our understanding of the Eat/West German divide through the experience of a fictional family.
Girl at War extends this idea; it uses an individual’s experience to navigate the complexities of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Furthermore Girl at War uses the experience of a child (someone that will only partially and incompletely understand and remember this traumatic past), and the experiences of the same girl in a university setting in the United States (something that should also be relatable to you) to create an intensely personal and unique coming to terms with this history.
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