The Demonization of the Serbs in the Bosnian Conflict – by Philip Jenkins




Chicago, August 31 — September 1, 1995

by Dr. Philip JENKINS


I am painfully aware of how inappropriate it seems to use anything like an academic approach in viewing the current Balkan conflict. It will be many years before any kind of historical perspective will be possible, and in the meantime it is all but impossible to maintain any kind of objectivity in face of the atrocities we see daily, the literally inconceivable sufferings of the war victims, the casualties and the refugees. The only justification is if a scholarly approach and methodology can cast useful light on the current experience, and can perhaps provide a tool for analysis and a basis for widening the boundaries of debate. I believe that this is the case in studying the events in the former Yugoslavia, and above all in considering the propaganda campaign that has had such an enormous impact on western attitudes to the conflict, and thus to the course of the war itself.

Briefly, I am concerned with the question of how one particular view of this complex situation not only came to be created and established, but achieved the status of an unchallengeable orthodoxy that straddled conventional political boundaries. Though “Serbians” were a relatively unknown quantity in the United States two or three decades ago, they have now come to have demonic qualities otherwise associated with religious or political groups like the Shi’ites or even the German Nazis, and this rapid and total stigmatization requires explanation. It certainly does not result from direct contact with Serbs, or with Serb-Americans, who have never attracted the slightest notoriety in this country. My paper will instead explore the manipulation of western news media since the late 1980s, and the use of evocative language and imagery, both historical and contemporary. I will argue that western citizens found themselves confronted with appalling and troubling images, which they had little guidance how to interpret. In order to contextualize and understand these phenomena, they fell victim to a well orchestrated public relations campaign that deftly exploited underlying stereotypes and moreover mobilized significant interest groups to take up one particular view of the conflict and its participants.

The paper will also consider other paths that might have been taken in the evolution of western attitudes, which a view to suggesting alternative strategies for a more objective presentation of the situation in future. This will especially concern the neglect of factors that would normally stigmatize a given cause, such as association with historical fascism and contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. The failure of the news media to examine these elements is almost as striking as the actual use of the language and symbols that were employed in reality.

Constructing Reality

How did westerners come to see the Serbs as demons and the Bosnian Muslims as heroes and martyrs? There are two possible answers. One is that this picture is in fact true, and that this really bas been one of the most one-sided struggles in human history, a wanton campaign of brutality and desecration directed against a harmless population. I do not propose to dignify this view with much discussion. as even the most biased western newspapers have provided such abundant material enumerating the atrocities and barbarous actions committed by all sides in the war — to say nothing of the lengthy historical record which has so stained the Croat and Bosnian causes. I personally believe that the Serbs emerge from this record quite favorably, but for the purposes of this discussion, let us accept that the three combatant populations bear an approximately equal burden of guilt for torture, atrocities and mass expulsions. How, then, did one group receive all the blame? .

In order to explain, this, we should establish some perhaps unfamiliar terms, and to explore some social science language that at first sight may seem complex and jargon-ridden, but on further exploration yields important results. One of the most powerful methodologies in modern social theory is social constructionism, which examines the means by which isolated facts and phenomena arc interpreted into a coherent picture of reality that acquired official or canonical status. Such work is undertaken chiefly though not exclusively by the mass media, under the influence of diverse political and bureaucratic interest groups, and always against the background of popular assumptions and stereotypes. The constructionist approach seeks to determine the interest groups and moral entrepreneurs seeking to mold public attitudes through their depictions of crime and other social problems. While not denying that problems reflect an objective underlying reality, current scholars also see these phenomena as symbolic campaigns reflecting the interests of particular movements and pressure groups. Constructionist research focuses on three related themes: the interests which particular groups have in promoting a problem; the resources available to them: and the ownership which they eventually secure over the issue, or the degree to which their analysis is accepted as authoritative.

Constructionists pay close attention to the rhetorical devices employed to project a particular view of the “social reality” of a problem, and to the several stages involved in formulating and presenting it for public acceptance. First. events must be identified and contextualized, or placed in a context that will be familiar to the assumed audience. This process will usually occur through the mass media: “If the world is not to be represented as a jumble of random and chaotic events, then they must be identified (i.e. named, defined, related to other events known to the audience). and assigned to a social context (i.e. placed within a frame of meanings familiar to the audience).  This process – identification and contextualisation – is one of the most important through which events are ‘made to mean’ by the media.”  (Stuart Hall et al Policing the Crisis 1978)

The importance attached to a particular event will vary according to circumstances and timing, and the event can be placed in a number of different contexts or frames. In the words of scholars like Erving Goffman. “Framings” are “cultural combinations and constructions that put selected phenomena into comprehensible and consumable focus. Frames . . . . are systems of selection, presentation and accentuation: they are patterned mechanisms of cognition and interpretation that package social experience for producers and purchasers of the frames”. Framing is achieved through a number of familiar rhetorical techniques. One is typification, which suggests that an issue is “really” one sort of problem rather than another. and therefore requires a particular set of solutions. This might mean that a series of rapes during wartime might be seen by one person as a political issue, a deliberate and official policy, while another individual could see the same issue as a failure of military law and discipline. A feminist might present the same incident as an example of gender-based oppression.

Other devices are used to contextualize an event by placing it within the framework of a previously established problem. Issue (x) is significant because it can be portrayed as a part of known problem (y), and therefore requires the package of responses and reactions that have already been felt appropriate for problem (y). This is the process described by Hall et al as “convergence”: “… convergence occurs when two or more activities are linked in the process of signification so as to implicitly or explicitly draw parallels between them. Thus the image of ‘student hooliganism’ links student protest to the separate problem of hooliganism – whose stereotypical characteristics arc already part of socially available knowledge. . . In both cases, the net effect is amplification, not in the real events being described but in their threat potential for society” (Hall et al 1978: 223)

Often, this process involves the use of existing stereotypes or folk-devils, which provide a ready-made context into which the new facts can be fitted. These images may be based on a specific individual, or in some cases they arose as composite figures during previous panics: but in either case. the power and resonance of a story will be augmented by the degree to which it is assimilated to an existing stereotype. In the context of the Balkans, by far the most successful example of convergence has involved the linking of “Serb aggression” and “ethnic cleansing” with the Holocaust, which perhaps more than any historical event has “stereotypical characteristics [which] are already part of socially available knowledge. The Serbs thus almost literally become the Nazis, or Nazi-like, and images of their victims are adjusted accordingly. Indeed, “Serb aggression” becomes a tautology. How can one imagine a Serb being other than brutal or aggressive?

Also significant here is the concept of stigmatizing one form of behavior by linking it (“mapping together”) with another phenomenon that is perceived as far more dangerous. Few would question that mass rape represents an extreme form of dangerous and pathological predatory behavior, which it is almost inconceivable to imagine even the most libertarian thinker claiming as an acceptable or tolerable form of deviancy. It represents an “ultimate evil”, and any behavior which can plausibly be linked to it with be regarded as a much greater menace than might otherwise be the case. In terms of the passage quoted above, the “threat potential” of the associated behavior is enormously amplified, whether that other behavior is seen as “militarism”, “Serb aggression”, and so on. Serb policies come to be irretrievably stigmatized by &127; the deadly association with mass rape.

Discovering Yugoslavia

Before 1991, western concepts of Yugoslavia were extremely slight and at best limited. For anyone who took a political interest in the region, Yugoslavia mainly existed with a somewhat heroic aura resulting from memories of Tito and the partisan resistance to Germany, coupled with the regime’s gallant stand against the Soviet Union. The breakup of Yugoslavia. while occasionally discussed, was viewed chiefly in terms of the critical damage that might result to western interests in south-east Europe, and the high likelihood that a war here might involve a superpower confrontation. The ethnic divisions of the country were absolutely unfamiliar, as was the history of the critical wartime period, and even the presence of a Muslim minority.

The coming of war after 1991 therefore reached what might be termed a virgin public opinion, which was duly appalled by reports of the fighting, above all because the events occurred to white Europeans with whom the viewer might expect to feel considerable identification, in contrast to the sufferings of, say, Rwandans or Cambodians. Though this seems hard to recall now, this was the first major outbreak of real ground warfare on European soil since the 1940s, with the exception of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, and the short-lived Rumanian civil war of 

1989. The power of these pictures was all the greater because of the passionate reporting of admired figures like Christiane Amanpour and their constant availability through CNN and the network news

We therefore had a tabula rasa waiting to receive some kind of guidance as to the factions involved. if they were not to have as little meaning for westerners as the struggles of Hutu and Tutsi groups in Rwanda. It is at this point that a genuinely competitive news and propaganda campaign might have had its greatest impact, because of the power of the stereotypes that might have been invoked. For Americans, for example, Serbs could certainly have stressed that the break up of Yugoslavia was by no means a struggle for the freedom of oppressed colonies. but a secessionist war very much in fact like what the US had experienced in the 1860s, and what television viewers in 1990 and 1991 were thoroughly familiar with after the astonishing success of the recent PBS documentary on The Civil War. But while “secessionist”: would have been a useful label or frame. this would have offered poor rhetorical potential compared to the immense advantages that could have been derived from other aspects of the Serbs’ foes.

While westerners knew and know virtually nothing of names like Cetniks and Ustasha. Pavelic and Mihailovich, it would have been easy and natural for a Serbian information campaign to “map together” current factions with past images. to “converge” the battles in the Krajina or Bosnia with various past images. First and foremost was or should have been the Nazi inheritance. For all their areas of blindness in European history, American and British people know or think they know certain things, above all that Nazis and fascists were evil, and that associated with this phenomenon were some extremely damning words and concepts: death camps, quislings, collaborators, SS, genocide and so on. What more obvious than to stress this as propaganda against the dissident elements in Yugoslavia. to hark back to the Bosnia SS division, the violent brutalities of the Ustasha and their pro-German activities, the horrors of the Jasenovac camp, the anti-semitic atrocities of the former Croat state, and so on. Against this background, the Serb role as the victims of near-genocide and the leaders of a devastatingly successful resistance movement appear superbly heroic, and should inevitably have conditioned contemporary attitudes. Added to this, vestigial fears of German expansionism in contemporary Europe could and should have been mobilized by the vision of the German diplomatic stupidity which led to diplomatic recognition of the new Bosnian state, and thereby to the war in that tragic country. One would have thought that circulating the accurately translated writings of Franjo Tudjman would have discredited the Croat cause in perpetuity.

The Serbs should have entered the propaganda war with an overwhelming advantage. compounded by the more recent stereotypes of militant Islam. US policy could have been absolutely reversed if the Bosnian crisis could have been presented in terms of American governments actively campaigning to establish a Muslim state on European soil, with the likelihood that this entity would fall under the influence of Iranian and radical Arab regimes. I suppose the theme I would have employed would have been to ask which of the Americans currently watching a given program would be the first victim to be hijacked to a terrorist safe-haven at Sarajevo airport. In American popular culture, the Arab terrorist already is the ultimate demon figure. succeeded only by the Nazi of bygone days. If the two could so easily have been linked rhetorically, one would think that the reputation of both Croatia and Bosnia would have never achieved anything like what actually occurred. The best means of achieving convergence would have been to stress the use by contemporary Bosnian military units of the Handzhar name, the revived mythology of the wartime Muslim SS units. which has been discussed quite frankly in otherwise anti-Serb sources like the New York Times. Recollecting their association with the Grand Mufti would have the added virtue of contaminating the cause with the radical Palestinian movement and Islamic fundamentalism. As icing on the cake, the Bosnia/terrorist association could have been strengthened by recollections of the violent Croat guerrilla campaigns of the 1970s in which a number of American civilians were killed, an episode that has been all but forgotten outside specialist and diplomatic circles. How could the Serbian cause fail with this potential rhetorical strength, this role as the western rock against fascists and fundamentalists?

But fail, of course, they did. The Muslim inheritance of Bosnia became instead a monument to the supposed interracial tolerance of the new nation. however ludicrous this view will almost certainly appear in another decade. And the horrific past of the Ustasha and their German allies has simply faded into historical oblivion. What went wrong?

Bosnia as Holocaust

Talking to Serbian supporters and reading their writings, I am struck by the pervasive sense of despair about the chance of reaching the news media with what they consider to be an objective view of the Balkan struggle, and I am thoroughly in sympathy with their frustration. However, there is also a sense of confusion about the reasons for their failure to communicate with the American mainstream, why exactly “Serb” has in this country become a stigma of such devastating proportions. Some see an anti-Serbian conspiracy in the media; some blame an American government policy to appease Muslim oil states: some denounce German money and diplomatic influence; some stress the diabolical efficiency of Bosnian-funded public relations concerns; and all see differing degrees of foul play. In my view, the answer is more complex and more innocent in its origins, if just as poisonous in its consequences.

Let us consider this from the position of an average uniformed viewer or consumer of news in 1991 or 1992, as fighting erupted first in Slovenia and Croatia, and then, more bloodily, in Bosnia. What exactly were the “interests” shaping the construction of news? Indeed, the US government had a powerful interest in promoting an independent Bosnia, to encourage good relations not merely with Germany but also with moderate Arab and Islamic states, and to disprove allegations that the Americans would always take the anti-Arab side. In 1991-2 especially, with the Arab-Israeli negotiations in full swing and Islamic fundamentalism to be countered in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere, a successful Bosnian state would be a superb advertisement for US policy. In addition, Serbian supporters in the US have undoubtedly underestimated the religious dimension in the west, and the support for the new Croatia among conservative Catholics of the sort who played so vital a role in the Reagan administration, policy makers of the Paul Weyrich type. For these, independent Croat and Polish states were a vindication not only of the anti- Communist crusade but specifically of the leadership of Pope John Paul II and his distinctive European vision. in which the Catholic church plays so critical a role in redeeming a secular society. This gave Croat and anti-Serb propaganda a strong foothold in large sections of the media.

I would hesitate to say whether the impetus for the brilliant propaganda campaign which followed derived from these circles, from official and private sources without any direct or family link to the Balkans, or to the paid agents of the Croat and Bosnia regimes in the west. However, whichever side began the movement, there swiftly developed a popular tendency to contextualize the brutalities of the Balkans with the horrors of the Holocaust, and with an appalling irony, the Croats and Bosnians became identified in this picture with the victims of persecution, rather than (as might have been more proper) with the perpetrators. Contextualization and convergence thus worked entirely to the good of the secessionist states.

The myth of the Holocaust deserves emphasis in this context, “myth” in the original sense of a supernatural drama with immense moral and religious significance. It is useful to recall that late 1993-early 1994 was the year of the film Schindler’s List, which not only depicted the Jewish tragedy in unforgettable form, but also placed the gentile Schindler at the heart of the story, with a scarcely veiled invitation to the non-Jewish viewer to ask the question what would he or she have done in comparable circumstances? The ensuing debate raised the fundamental question of the necessity to intervene in the face of savage injustice, an issue much in the public mind following the incredibly successful debut of the US Holocaust Museum earlier in mid-1993. Briefly, the Holocaust was not only rooted more firmly in the American consciousness in 1993-94 than at any time since the 1940s, but in the new perspective, the affair was no longer seen as a matter of German cruelty towards Jews, but of the failure of other peoples to come to the aid of the oppressed, for instance in bombing rail routes to Auschwitz in 1943. Bosnian news “hit” the American consciousness at a uniquely sensitive historical moment

This enormously significant cultural trend could not but affect attitudes to what was portrayed as a similarly brutal series of atrocities in Sarajevo in 1993-94, and the analogy was fully exploited by pro-Bosnian publicists. I will not attempt to make any sort of comprehensive accounting of these images and terms, but you will be familiar with them. One recent cartoon typically depicted a sinister force labeled as “Serbs” but with the first “S” replaced by a swastika. American viewers and readers were thus presented with a superbly successful package which took a confused current reality and prepackaged it in a form that they could comprehend, complete with the inherent political and moral judgments, but this time, the convergence was not with Auschwitz, Jasenovac and Ante Pavelic, but with Munich and Neville Chamberlain. Failure to prevent Serb aggression was thus “appeasement”, or the kind of moral neglect that led Schindler’s German contemporaries to ignore the fate of the Jews. In terms of historical analogy, bombing or otherwise combating the Serbs would thus be morally akin to striking at Germany in 1938, or sabotaging the death camps some years later.

Looking for a frame for Bosnia, Westerners could so easily have found meaning in terms like “fascist” and “Islamic radical”: they actually found it in “genocide” and “holocaust” – leaving no room for compromise or even debate. Saving Sarajevo in 1995 might thus expiate for failing to save the Jews of Warsaw or Vilnius in earlier years. Again, the cartoon evidence is highly instructive. One recent example depicts a figure labeled “European powers” confessing to a Catholic priest, with the words “Father, forgive me: it is fifty years since my last confession”. Though the intention is partly humorous, this image neatly catches the potent religious element of the pro-Bosnian coalition in the West, and the immense appeal to mainstream religious groups, chiefly of liberal disposition. This at least was one issue on which both liberal and conservative Catholics could agree wholeheartedly.

If a war was ever decided by two words, then the Bosnian crisis has revolved around the phrase “ethnic cleansing”, a term of uncertain origin that emerged in 1991-92 to describe the conduct of all sides in removing populations from areas under their control, with victims including Serbs, Croats and Muslims. At this point, however, the Serbs suffered the disastrous misfortune of having achieved a sustained military supremacy over a two or three year period. This meant that the bulk of such incidents were associated with them, so that “ethnic cleansing” became viewed as a Serbian habit or characteristic. Intentionally or otherwise, the phrase was brilliantly evocative with all its suggestion of a race or ethnic group being unclean, and echoes of earlier concepts like Judenfrein. This was positive proof for westerners: the Serbs were the Nazis, the Bosnians were Jews. and Sarajevo was Auschwitz.

The Sarajevo-Auschwitz convergence – and how offensive that juxtaposition appears! – had decisive consequences in framing public expectations of the Bosnian war, not least in preconditioning the public to expect very large casualty figures. We have all seen the guesstimate of 200,000 dead. though far fewer of us will know the revisionist estimates in the New York Times and elsewhere, that reduce the numbers to perhaps a fifth of this. If Bosnia was a Holocaust, then it had to have its war crimes trials, which created enthusiastic acceptance for the astonishingly one-sided hearings that eventually occurred. At the most trivial level, the Holocaust analogy created a market for our very own Diary of Anne Frank in the Zlata’s Diary published in 1994. The rhetorical momentum of the analogy was immensely important in securing support among the majority of western Jews, who might otherwise have had serious qualms about supporting anyone with the historical inheritance of the Croats or the contemporary friends of the Bosnians. More widely, supporting Bosnia became essential not just for western liberals, but for virtually all political strands. The statement “I support the Serbians” became quite literally as unthinkable as a declaration of affection for the Gestapo or the SS: one of the supreme ironies of modern European history.

The timing of the Bosnian news was critical for the Holocaust dimension but in addition we might see the Western powers as in search of enemies at precisely that point. The Cold War menace had become increasingly implausible from the mid-1980s, and utterly implausible by 1990-91. Iraq and Saddam Hussein had briefly served the role of international villain, but again, the annihilation of those military forces in 1991 removed any lingering sense of dangers in that direction. What was left? And yet societies appear to need demon figures, a role successively filled in this century by Germans, Bolsheviks, Orientals, Arab terrorists and so on. The Serbs had the misfortune to appear as perpetrators of genocide at exactly the time when candidates were desperately needed to fulfill this necessary psychological function.

The Rape of Bosnia

Apart from ethnic cleansing, the Serbian cause has been irreparably damaged by the rape issue, which has similarly been monopolized as a propaganda weapon against one faction in the conflict. This is a curious development I am assuming, sadly, that an intercommunal struggle of this sort is peculiarly likely to involve the sexual abuse of women for a variety of motives, including the symbolic revenge against a rival population as well as satiating the lusts of individual soldiers, and matters are likely to be far worse when the armies are glorified militias under poor discipline. That soldiers on all sides have engaged in rape seems certain.

However, the tales of rape in Bosnia go far beyond this, and allege vast and wholly unsubstantiated allegations of the use of rape as a deliberate political weapon, accompanied by a lively mythology of “rape camps”, sexual torture and so on. Many western journalists have reported on their failed attempts to locate rumored “rape- camps”, and have noted for example how tales of four thousand rape victims in Tuzla have dwindled to four or so possible cases on further examination. But these supposed institutions have become a basic article of feminist faith, and the stories reached their height in late 1992-early 1993, following the Senate hearings that summer on Serb atrocities, and the circulation of UN reports on “the rape and abuse of women” in former Yugoslavia.

In these months, the camps became the source of endless articles and books on “rape and gender-based violence”, on “rape as terror”. In Europe, Alexandra Stiglmayer’s widely read Massenvergewaltigung (Mass Rape) analyzed “the war against women in Bosnia-Herzegovina”. The British Guardian commemorated “the forgotten women of Serb rape camps” (December 19, 1992). In the US, the liberal- feminist National Catholic Reporter headlined “Torture, Rape. Murder, Outlaw Love in Bosnia” (September 4, 1992). The Nation headlined “Mass Rape in Bosnia” (March 1993). In April 1993, a group of American women served Radovan Karadzic with a lawsuit on behalf of the “survivors” of the alleged attacks, a public relations stunt that was widely reported in feminist papers like Off Our Backs. The most systematic exposition of the rape mythology appeared in MS magazine, for example in the January 1993 issue on “Dispatches from Bosnia and Herzegovina”. Once again, liberal and religious coalitions were in evidence, and in December 1992 an ecumenical gathering of Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish groups allied to denounce the use of rape as a “weapon of war” against Muslim women.

There are rich ironies here, not least that stories of forced sex and sexual mutilation which could not be published even as commercial pornography are now found readily in the pages of feminist journals normally noted for their rigid opposition to indecency: it was the feminist bible MS which published a lurid special number on rape camps, that verged on obscenity. In addition, the consequent enlistment of feminism in the anti-Serb cause has been a major contribution to the validation of the Bosnian and Muslim causes as liberal issues, extremely ironic in view of the link between these actions and (respectively) right-wing Catholicism and Muslim fundamentalism. Feminism is very unlikely to find a home in either nation in a few years time.

Where did the “rape camp” mythology come from? To appreciate the oddness of the stories, we might consider the alternative interpretations that might have evolved, and which would in fact have been far more consonant with feminist ideology. According to the influential orthodoxy proposed by Susan Brownmiller, rape is a crime committed by all men in order to keep women in a constant state of fear, and is neither more nor less likely in different religious or political contexts, except in societies that have a high regard for the status of women. It should therefore be equally likely to be practiced by Communists and Capitalists, Catholics and Muslims, and so on, with gender rather than ideology as the principal determinant. Arguing as feminists now do that it is a Serb/Orthodox predilection violates this underlying principle. Were not Bosnian Muslims or Croatian Catholics equally patriarchal, and therefore prone to rape?

To understand the roots of the rape issue, we need to understand the ideological and interest group politics of the particular era in which the tale emerged. Throughout the 1980s, women’s groups had emphasized the necessity to expand the view of “human rights” to include those issues previously thought of as gender-specific, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, female circumcision, and so on. Symbolic of this had been the pressure in the US and elsewhere to permit political asylum on such issues, a campaign that finally achieved victories in I993- 94, when US and Canadian authorities finally granted asylum on grounds of gender oppression. The unsuspecting reader of the rape camp stories would not have known of the underlying agendas here, the strenuous campaign of feminist theory and jurisprudence to revolutionize notions of human rights, with vast implications for American conduct towards other countries, and specifically in areas such as treaty- making and foreign aid. The Serbian controversy thus arose at a perfect time for the feminist movement, which could exploit “Holocaust” analogies to build public support for their particular world view (these were after all rape camps, providing additional echoes of the death camps). Feminist concepts of human rights violations were thus piggy-backed on public outrage over “Bosnian genocide”, and it would simply have been inconvenient and possibly counter productive to specify that the raped included many Serbian women. If the American people had their demons, and they happened to be Serb, it would be inexpedient to confuse them with facts. If the rape camps did not exist, they would have to be invented; and invented they were.

Another Crucified Canadian?

Westerners have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Balkan war, and have constructed an imagined picture of the situation there that is in most points quite at variants with reality. In the short run, these misperceptions will unquestionably lead to additional sufferings for the civilian populations in those regions. and the nightmare of military intervention cannot be dismissed, with all that may entail for the US-Russian relationship. In the longer term however, the results may be still more serious, in affecting attitudes to future crises and conflicts. I am reminded of the case of the “Crucified Canadian”, a powerful and once universally credited myth of the first world war, which stated that German soldiers had taken a Canadian war prisoner and crucified him on their front lines in order to taunt their allied enemy. Not only was the tale bogus in itself, but it did irreparable harm in the second world war, when the first stories of Nazi atrocities against the Jews were greeted with the cynical question of whether this was another “Crucified Canadian” horror story. Who would be foolish enough to believe such naive propaganda again? On that occasion, of course, the stories happened to be true. When the carefully constructed mythology of Serb bestiality collapses, and the full truth of Croat and Bosnian misdeeds begins to emerge, will there be reluctance in future to credit the atrocity stories of another conflict, even if those are indeed well substantiated. Surely you don’t expect us to believe another “Serbian rape camp” story?

Philip JENKINS Is a professor of history and religious studies and head of the Religious Studies program at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the author, most recently, of Paedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Social Crisis (Oxford)