Every day the Internet server delivers yet more e-mail messages asking for my position on Yugoslavia. These messages are a source of growing frustration, for the time when this nation is at war - and its military personnel at risk - is a time when Americans of foreign birth (Hungarian, in my case) need to observe silence.
Many will hasten to say that this is not so, especially when a person's acceptance by fellow-Americans has been overwhelming. But that is merely a cause for yet more gratitude, not a license to meddle.
Still, a contribution of some kind is appropriate or, shall I say, writing about something else would be frivolous. Here, then, is my cop-out: a series of snapshots that spring to mind at the mention of Serbia or Yugoslavia.
1941. Over the objections of the Hungarian Government, the forces of Nazi Germany launched an unprovoked attack on Yugoslavia, using Hungary as their corridor. Hungary's prime minister, Count Paul Teleki, unable to prevent the attack and thus remain true to the non-aggression agreement with Yugoslavia bearing his signature, committed suicide.
1944. While their wives and children were being carted off to Auschwitz, Hungarian men of Jewish religion or family origin were shipped by German Army units to the mines of Bor in Yugoslavia, where they performed slave labor under inhuman conditions. In November, one-half of the captives was selected to march in the direction of Hungary, ostensibly to return home. They thought themselves lucky, but they were wrong. Those who were not shot on the way, ended up in concentration camps in German-occupied Austria. Few survived. The lucky ones turned out to be those who stayed behind in Bor: A few days later, they were liberated by Tito's Serbian partisans.
1949. The first show trial after the communist takeover of Hungary featured the communist (not a misprint!) minister of foreign affairs, accused of conspiracy with the Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito. Yugoslavia had just been expelled from the Comintern because of non-compliance with Moscow's directives. The Comintern was Moscow's means of controlling all communists (including America's). An example needed to be set, thus the accused Hungarian minister was executed.
1952. We were ordered to hold target practice in our school with small rifles, shooting at images of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and President Tito of Yugoslavia. The official representative of the "Party of Hungarians who Work," as the Communist Party was renamed (not for the last time), was instructing us in political realities. "Our quarrel is with the American Imperialists," he explained, "not with the American People. But Tito is now a chained dog of the American Imperialists. Yugoslavia has become as much a threat to world peace as the American Imperialists themselves."
1953. Some books found their way into Hungary, now hermetically sealed under Soviet rule. They were printed in Hungarian and contained text that, in Hungary, would have landed the author in prison or worse. The books were apparently printed in Novi Sad, Southern Hungary until the end of World War I, now a city in Northern Yugoslavia. The books told not one, but two stories: that censorship in Tito's non-Muscovite Yugoslavia was not comparable to what the Russians had imposed in Hungary, and that the large Hungarian population of the region enjoyed a good measure of national existence. Other millions of Hungarians who, after 1919, had found themselves under Rumanian or Slovak rule had been the subject of systematic deconstruction.
1956. The Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation, that pitted 14 year-olds against Russian tanks, appeared successful at first. The Red Army feigned withdrawal, and a new government took office with popular support. But, Western and United Nations recognition being withheld from the new government, the Russians - using the German technique - launched a Sunday pre-dawn attack and shot at everything that moved, until about 15,000 lay dead. The legitimate government sought and found refuge at the Yugoslav embassy. After long negotiations and Russian assurances of "no harm," the Hungarian officials were handed over. Following the German model again, the Russians executed the prime minister and other leaders, ignoring Yugoslav protests.
There never was any doubt that President Tito alone had the ability to hold together an artificial country, created at the conference table as a French construct. The question was only how long it would take for Yugoslavia to fall apart after Tito's death in 1980.
It would be helpful for all participants to consider the broader context of the region, and of history. It would be helpful to abandon the new vogue of calling everything "genocide," or "holocaust." Our national debate has already suffered by the constant parallels drawn between events that appear parallel only to those who know little about them. We trivialize the ultimate horror by invoking it every time we want to make a point. Citing Hitler and Stalin at every turn causes credibility to be lost.
And that, perhaps, is the larger issue. We hear much about NATO's credibility on the line. But the future of the world depends on the credibility of the United States and Great Britain. Other countries either create crises - or suffer them, unable to cope without the English-speaking world to the rescue.
America's credibility is inseparable from that of its president, the president's cabinet, the Congressional leadership and, yes, prominent journalists whose reporting and commentary sets the tone. The nation and the world must have certainty about their knowledge, comprehension, and sound judgment of a crisis.
This above all: No doubt must ever attach to the veracity of their word.