Faculty Research

The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s by Chip Gagnon

The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s by Chip Gagnon

The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004; paperback version 2006.

The wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in neighboring Croatia and Kosovo erupted at the exact moment when the cold war confrontation was drawing to a close, when westerners were claiming their liberal values as triumphant. Most western journalists, academics, and policymakers have tried to explain the conflict using the language of the premodern: tribalism, ethnic hatreds, cultural inadequacy, irrationality. Instead, Prof. Gagnon believes that the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were reactionary moves designed to thwart populations that were threatening the existing structures of political and economic power. He begins with facts at odds with the essentialist view of ethnic identity, such as high intermarriage rates and the very high percentage of draft-resisters. These statistics do not comport comfortably with the notion that these wars were the result of ancient blood hatreds or of nationalist leaders using ethnicity to mobilize people into conflict.

Yugoslavia in the late 1980s was, in Gagnon’s view, on the verge of large-scale sociopolitical and economic change. He shows that political and economic elites in Belgrade and Zagreb first created and then manipulated violent conflict along ethnic lines as a way to short-circuit the dynamics of political change. This strategy of violence was thus a means for these threatened elites to demobilize the population. Gagnon’s noteworthy and rather controversial argument provides us with a substantially new way of understanding the politics of ethnicity.

The Myth of Ethnic War has won the following awards:

  • 2005 American Political Science Association's Prize for the Best Book on European Politics and Society
  • Co-Winner of the 2006 Council for European Studies Best First Book Award