The Greeks at Srebrenica: a warning from history?


Why a horrifying massacre twenty years ago should raise alarm bells about the potential repercussions of the Eurozone crisis

Do you want to be scared about the Eurozone crisis? Then read a book about the war in Bosnia. The Greek journalist Takis Micas’ Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia includes an account of how around a dozen Greek soldiers came to be in Srebrenica in July 1995.

The Massacre

Before that month, this small town in eastern Bosnia was known – to the limited extent it was known at all – for salt mining and spas. After that it would be known as the site of the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. The town had been declared by the UN as a safe zone and thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees fled there from neighbouring Serb controlled areas. However, when it came under siege, rather than defend it, the UN peacekeeping force turned it over to the Bosnian Serb forces. What ensued in the following days is close to unspeakable. Men of fighting age were separated off from the rest of the refugees and were systematically executed. Many women were raped and tortured. Those refugees who’d fled into the hills found themselves in a desperate race to get out of Serb territory before they were hunted down and killed. By the end, more than 8,000 people had been murdered.

The Greeks who participated in this atrocity belonged to the Greek Volunteer Guards, a unit of the Bonsian Serb army, composed mostly of mercenaries and members of the far right. In fact, when the town was captured by the Bosnian Serbs, their commander Ratko Mladić ordered that the Greek flag be flown over the city.


Greek volunteers with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

The Unholy Alliance

While it would be unfair to read too much into the actions of a dozen men – people from many countries fought in the war – their actions were unfortunately a microcosm for Greek attitudes to the war. People and politicians alike at best ignored and at worst actively condoned the atrocities being committed. Michas describes how during the nineties a Serb journalist working on his magazine was frequently approached by strangers who would congratulate him on the “great work you guys are doing.” Michas also points to polling evidence showing that not only was there near universal opposition to NATO’s military action amongst Greeks but that a clear majority said they actually approved of Milosevic’s regime.

This support manifested itself in many ways. Greek officials passed the information they obtained from NATO briefings to the Serb military. Priests from the Greek Orthodox Church blessed Serb units. And the Greek government helped break the economic sanctions against Serbia.

The Scary Part

The obvious explanation for Greece’s support for Serbia is their shared Orthodox Christian heritage and fear of a Muslim enemy – Bosnia and Turkey. But Michas suggests there is more to it than that. He suggests his country is defined by ethnic rather than civic nationalism. Modern Greece was formed by population transfers that purged it of its non-Greek inhabitants. Michas suggests that this created a political culture that allowed Greeks to see the actions of their co-religionists as excusable or even commendable.

Golden Dawn party members

Golden Dawn party members

The alarming part of this in the context of the Eurozone crisis is this: if Greeks were prepared to condone mass murder in Bosnia and Kosovo, might they do the same in their own country? Yugoslavia fell into bloody chaos after an economic crisis pushed the country to accept an international bailout the terms of which lead to a recession that sent unemployment skyrocketing. That gave extreme nationalists the chance to gain power. Now a decade and half later Greece is suffering a post bailout economic crisis and its own extreme nationalists are on the march. Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi movement that supplied many of the members of the Greek Volunteer Guards is now the third largest party in Greece. Its members have been linked with numerous acts of violence and even mainstream parties are pushing a progressively more extreme line on the treatment of migrants. For these reasons it would be a mistake to think that the dangers of the austerity policies being pushed by the Troika are purely economic: a bad bailout can lead to genocide.