People above the age of 30 in the United States and Europe will likely remember the extended NATO military campaign in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. For several years, NATO forces were deployed to and bombed the Balkans in efforts to halt the widespread fighting there, which started in 1991 and continued in some areas until 2001.
The various wars are notable for their widespread war crimes and massacres, some of which only now—two decades after the fact—are being prosecuted.
As you might imagine, the topic of Yugoslav history on Wikipedia is contentious. We talked about it with an Australian veteran, Wikipedia editor, and author of three featured and several good articles on aspects of Yugoslavian military history who goes by the pseudonym Peacemaker67.
Peacemaker's interest in the region stems from his service in Bosnia as a peacekeeper in 1995 and 1996, several months of which intersected with the Bosnian War. He told us that he saw "plenty of destroyed villages, refugees, and war detritus, as you would expect ... frankly it was pretty shocking to see deliberately destroyed churches, mosques and villages."
His most potent memory comes from one of his first patrols. The platoon was speaking with suspected looters when they came across a farmer shot dead, his hayfork still alongside. "We just came across him ... so we were unprepared. I still remember it clearly, but because I photographed it in black and white, I remember it in black and white." They quickly came across more destruction:
[I saw] carcasses of slaughtered pigs in the kitchens of Muslim houses, mines in the driveways of Croat houses, [and] booby-trapped Serb houses. But what really affected me was the random corpses (mainly of civilians) strewn about the place in various states of decay ... disabled people hung from the upstairs banister of their home, plus partly dismembered combatants, sometimes lying where they fell, sometimes stuck in trees after floating downstream after the spring thaw. Then there were some old people, women and children hastily buried in groups, which were the hardest to deal with. It wasn't pretty.
What I took away from that is that there are a lot of victims in wars, particularly in civil wars, and most of them have done nothing more than been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Much of that is a general observation, but it applies specifically to the former Yugoslavia in World War II as well as the 90s. The visceral ethnic hostility was something I have never seen in Australia. It is deep-seated and frankly, generational. Trying to understand the basis for it has been part of the Wikipedia journey for me.
These experiences have shaped Peacemaker's interests on Wikipedia. He had a childhood fascination with the military's idea of camaraderie and adventure, fostered in part through the Biggles book series, and his family had an extensive history of service in Australia's armed forces (his grandfather was wounded during World War I), but his service in Bosnia "narrowed" his military history interests: "It started with the pre-deployment familiarisation training—and study I did to make sure my unit was properly trained and briefed—and when I got there, I wanted to know why certain areas of the region were more problematic than others in an intercommunal conflict sense."
Much of this research involved the invasion of Yugoslavia during World War II, a little-known (in the English-speaking world) invasion that nonetheless had devastating and lasting effects on the country and region. Caught between overwhelming German forces, Hungarians on their northeast flank, and Italians in the south, the initial attack was incredibly successful. The Yugoslavian forces made small gains against the Italians, but their collapse in the north led to the war's conclusion within eleven days, which overstates the situation—the Yugoslav government had decided to ask for an armistice three days earlier. The Germans suffered under 600 casualties, both wounded and dead.
In an attempt to govern its newly conquered territory, the Germans divided Yugoslavia between itself, its allies, and an independent puppet state of Croatia. Over the next several years, a strong resistance movement developed in Yugoslavia that was able to retake the country. The fighting between occupiers and occupied peoples led to many deaths; historians estimate that at least one million people died during the Axis occupation of the country, principally due to seven reasons. Notably, the Croatian state attempted to exterminate the Serbian population; the Chetniks, one of the resistance movements, staged attacks against Croats and Muslims; and resistance operations were often met with reprisal attacks, where civilians were killed in retaliation for the actions of rebels.
While Peacemaker says that he never had enough time to study this Yugoslav history while he was in the country, "I visited many of the cities, towns and villages across the country where these events happened, and I saw strong parallels between what was happening then and what had happened in many of the same places between 1941 and 1945. In many cases, the perpetrators in the 90s were at least partly motivated by events (and propaganda) that happened during World War II, and used them as justification when they themselves committed atrocities. I wanted to understand what really happened during the world war to better understand the war happening around me." This interest took root and blossomed when he returned to Australia, and he started writing Wikipedia articles in the topic area beginning in 2008.
We asked Peacemaker which of the many articles he's written is his favorite, and he chose Pavle Đurišić, a controversial Chetnik commander who was renowned for his fighting skills but committed various atrocities against Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Albanians. After the Italians surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Đurišić fought for the Germans and was eventually killed at the age of 35. Most of his troops were killed in battle or massacred after the war.
Peacemaker spent ten months working on this article and shepherding it through Wikipedia's assessment levels, eventually reaching featured status. He told us that it was a journey of discovery; as he "isn't tech-savvy," Peacemaker had to negotiate a "steep learning curve" with "technical aspects" like formatting references—a problem known to many students around the world—and the tools available to Wikipedia editors that ostensibly ease editing.
A saving grace for Peacemaker was Wikipedia's Military history project, a large gathering of editors who were willing to help out a new editor like himself. Because these people were so "welcoming and generous with their time," Peacemaker was able to draw on the knowledge of editors that had almost a decade of experience.
This would be important as he wound his way through Wikipedia's article assessment levels: "Each level of assessment requires an incremental improvement, and the featured article assessment is pretty rigorous. But it should be. That is the highest level of assessment, and reflects the very best of Wikipedia. So all editors are keen to make we stretch ourselves."
Given the article subject, he had to learn about collaborative editing in the midst of a highly charged topic area—it is subject to people intent on enforcing nationalist viewpoints, so much so that the Arbitration Committee has kept restrictions on the articles for eight years—when he did not have a full understanding of the languages involved. Peacemaker was assisted here by working with "an editor fluent in Yugoslav languages who could help with interpreting Google Translate results."
We asked Peacemaker about what more the Wikimedia Foundation—the organization that funds Wikipedia—could do to help article writers on this site. He believes that they should invest in Wikipedian-in-Residence-like positions, using their unique position to "help marry article writers and institutions." If tasked with writing articles, Peacemakers says he would "gladly dedicate a year" to writing full time, "as long as I could pay my bills while doing so."
He continued: "I live in the state of South Australia, and institutions such as the State Library, Museum, Art Gallery, Parliament, Electoral Commission, and three principal universities would benefit greatly from having a Wikipedian-in-Residence for part of the year, working up articles on topics that relate to them, teaching them about how to interface with Wikipedia, engaging volunteers to use those institutions, and—importantly—recruiting and mentoring new editors from those that frequent them and institutional volunteers. I would like to see more direct involvement by the WMF in developing opportunities for such residencies in Australia through national peak bodies like Museums Australia, the Group of Eight universities, and the Australian Public Library Alliance. I've only seen two residencies listed in Australia: one in Canberra, and one in Sydney. It seems to me like an untapped area."
What makes this era of Yugoslav history—and by extension, the articles Peacemaker works on—important in the context of world history? Peacemaker told us:
With some limited assistance from the Western Allies and Soviet Union, the Partisans were able to expel significant Axis and collaborationist forces from their country. For what was essentially a guerrilla army until early 1945, that was a pretty impressive effort, and the Yugoslav people as a whole had good reason to feel proud of that achievement. It was a popular movement, although clearly led and controlled by the Communist Party, and surprisingly to some, included people from all the ethnic groups of Yugoslavia.
"While the resistance was entirely legitimate and unifying to a considerable extent. the communist government that grew out of it was no more pluralist, functional or accepting of the rule of law than the inter-war Serbian hegemony over the country. The lack of a legitimate, functional system of government, which allowed each national group to participate in their own sphere as equals, was the problem for Yugoslavia from its inception after WWI until it broke up in the 90s.
Despite my initial thoughts when I was there, I have realised that the root cause of Yugoslavia's demise wasn't centuries-old ethnic hatreds, but the fact that no Yugoslav government ever achieved legitimacy, because they all served one group and were intolerant of others, and as result, created serious sectarian grievances. When the opportunity arose and power shifted, at the local or national level, there were always those that were willing to exploit it for their own profit, to take revenge or eliminate the potential opposition—usually on the powerless and defenceless.
Editor's note: this post originally appeared on the Wikimedia blog, written by Ed Erhart in his WMF capacity. He modified it in his volunteer role (The ed17) for publication in the Signpost.