The Bridge on the Drina, which won its Bosnian Serb author, Ivo Andric, the 1961 Nobel Literature Prize, should be required reading for anyone trying to think seriously about the current Balkan crisis. Andric’s story is full of memorable characters—some memorable chiefly for their awfulness. But the real protagonist of this epic tale is the great stone bridge itself: an expression, and finally a victim, of the ancient passions of that turbulent region, which are now being broadcast daily into our homes in living (and, too often, dying) color.
Early in the novel, which spans four centuries, the Islamic religious foundation that had traditionally maintained the caravanserai (the travelers’ quarters, or han) beside the great bridge runs out of money. One of the local Bosnian Muslims tries to secure other funding for the building; but he fails. No one, it seems, is interested in the local troubles. And thus, as Andric writes,
The travelers had to look after their own needs and cleaned up the han as much as they found necessary for their own convenience, but as each one went his way he left behind manure and disorder for others to clean up and put right, even as he himself had tidied up whatever he had found dirty and in disorder. But after each traveler there remained just a little more dirt than he himself had found.
It is difficult not to see in this image a portrait of the Balkans: disaster after disaster, each leaving behind its residue of resentment, each contributing to a thick memory of grievance whose perpetuation (and, no doubt, embellishment) over time becomes part of the psychic rhythm of life in the region. Andric nicely evokes this dynamic, too, in describing how the old men of Visgrad, the town near the bridge, gather in the evening to tell stories of the river floods that sometimes devastated the land:
They loved to recall memories of the hardest blow dealt them in their lives. Their recollections were inexhaustible and they repeated them continually, amplified by memory and repetition; they looked into one another’s eyes, sclerotic and with yellowing whites, and saw there what the younger men could not even suspect. They were carried away by their own words and drowned all their present everyday troubles in the recognition of those greater ones which they had experienced so long ago.
And the kinds of tales the old men told about natural disasters were also told, repetitively and with amplification, about political and religious and ethnic disasters. Even in relatively tranquil times, Andric writes, the churnings of memory were at work, like undercurrents in the Drina itself. On the surface (as in the quiet years of the Austro-Hungarian empire), things seemed placid. But “everything else was flushed away into that dark background of consciousness where live and ferment the basic feelings and indestructible beliefs of individual races, faiths, and castes: which, to all appearances dead and buried, are preparing for later, far-off times unsuspected changes and catastrophes without which, it seems, peoples cannot exist and above all the peoples of this land.”
So the Thoroughly Modern West, in which a sense of anamnesis, of identity-creating historical memory, has largely evaporated, has been shocked and disoriented by the turmoil in its southeastern borderlands: turmoil whose origins go back at least a millennium to the migrations that roiled Europe at the end of the Dark Ages. Moreover, the flaccid Western response to the Balkan crisis has been marked by an almost palpable sense of disappointment, bordering on petulance: these things were just not supposed to happen in our post-Cold War world. Enough is enough. Give us a break.
The Balkan crisis has also led to a curious role-reversal in the foreign-policy debate. Commentators, politicians, and clergymen who had been notably dovish ever since the 1960s have been, in some instances, positively bellicose about the necessity of Western (or, if need be, unilateral American) military intervention in Bosnia. (This role-reversal is not so surprising as it may at first appear. In many cases, it reflects the classic modern liberal tendencies to countenance the use of military force precisely when the “dirty” issue of “national interest” is not directly engaged, and to avoid the hard question of how military means serve real-world political ends.) Conversely, many public figures who had urged a militarily robust anti-communism during the 1980s and who had supported a vigorous response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait have been much less inclined to see the United States militarily involved in Balkan affairs.
Finally, the Balkan crisis has raised all over again the question whether there is something called “Europe,” even as it has also put the pressing question of America’s role in a unipolar world back onto the public agenda. And if the Balkan turmoil is a sort of dress rehearsal for the kind of chaos that could break out in the old Soviet Union at some point in the 1990s (indeed, has already broken out in the Armenian/Azeri conflict), then the West’s inability to gather itself to impose order in Europe becomes even more dangerous.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.