THE WASHINGTON POST – Between October 2014 and November 2016, the political scientist Jessica Stern carried out a series of interviews with the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was awaiting judgment at the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Toward the end of this period, Karadzic was found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and later sentenced to life in prison.
My War Criminal is Stern’s account of their conversations, which stretched over 48 hours in total.
The tribunal established that Karadzic had a lot of blood on his hands. He was convicted for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, when Serb forces killed an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, as well as for a wider campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder during the war in Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s.
Stern said her aim in talking to Karadzic was to try to discover how an individual becomes a genocidal leader and how a leader can persuade ordinary people to kill their neighbours.
Her book raises the question of when it is worthwhile to give an outlet to a war criminal and what risks are involved.
Stern’s approach to her conversations with Karadzic seems inspired by psychoanalysis. She says at one point that she and Karadzic (who was himself a trained psychiatrist before he entered politics) were like a research team, working together on the project of explaining what motivated him.
Stern believes that she needed to try to understand Karadzic’s point of view or, as she over-dramatically puts it, “surrender to his idea of himself” while they were talking, and then check the accuracy of his statements afterward.
The problem is that Karadzic has no interest in seeking the truth about himself or anything he was involved in. He comes across clearly as a self-mythologising narcissist and, as Stern and others describe, a fluent liar.
His self-promoting narrative stretches from merely vain statements about his expertise as a psychiatrist to deceptive justifications for the campaign of violence he unleashed on Bosnian Muslims after Bosnia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia.
This makes it practically impossible for Stern or her readers to learn anything significant from what Karadzic said beyond the heroic image he is determined to project.
Stern said she was alert to the risk that Karadzic would try to manipulate her, but she fails to prevent his self-serving approach from undermining her project. At times, she gives too much credence to Karadzic’s grandiose statements, such as his claim that he could control a mob with his eyes.
“I would ask him many times to explain what he’d meant by that statement,” she wrote with apparent naivete. More seriously, her reluctance to question him about the atrocities that were an integral part of the Bosnian Serb war campaign, on the grounds that he is likely to lie about them, creates a gap at the centre of her narrative.
Instead, their conversations circle repeatedly around the central point that Karadzic wants to make: that he had a sacred duty to lead Bosnia’s Serbs to war against the Muslim-led government because of the risk that it would try to impose an Islamic state. Stern doesn’t accept this argument, but she addresses it at some length and decides that Bosnian Serb fears were based on a kernel of truth.
Stern could have written with more precision about this crucial point. She says the Bosnian Serbs perceived a real threat but understates the amount of propaganda that was directed at them, which the historian Noel Malcolm has described as creating “a kind of political psychosis.”
She wrote that Karadzic exaggerated the numbers of militants entering Bosnia but neglects to mention that even those who came arrived after the war started, so could not provide a justification for the Serbs’ resort to force.
She doesn’t always distinguish clearly enough between the Serbs’ discomfort at becoming a minority in an independent Bosnia and the kind of threats that Karadzic conjured up, which appear fabricated rather than merely inflated.
Stern concludes that Karadzic may have been seduced by evil because of his feeling that he had to protect his people, a psychological construction that seems to credit his statements in their conversation with more sincerity than they deserve.
Throughout the book, Stern writes extensively about her own feelings and reactions, which she subjects to sustained analytical attention.
She describes how the prison’s security check makes her realise the fragility of her identity and how she is relieved to hear Karadzic’s “authoritative voice” after they are assigned a room normally used for conjugal visits.
This is a portrayal of a war criminal crossed with a memoir, an account of the experience of interviewing a perpetrator alongside an examination of the perpetrator’s motives and actions.
Stern writes about herself with what seems like unflinching honesty and is unafraid to reveal her vulnerabilities, but the effect is incongruous.
Her account of letting Karadzic practice bioenergetic healing on her and of her desire to be a good student with him, as well as other passages about his charisma, sit uncomfortably with his unwillingness to accept any responsibility for his crimes.
Stern’s focus on her feelings may have seemed like a way to draw readers into her narrative, but it comes across as self-absorbed in comparison to the suffering that Karadzic helped cause.
It is interesting to compare Stern’s book with a more successful work along similar lines by the late Austrian-British writer Gitta Sereny.
Sereny conducted a series of long conversations with war criminals and other perpetrators, including the Nazi commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, Franz Stangl, whom she wrote about in her 1974 book, Into That Darkness.
Sereny said she chose Stangl as a subject because he seemed more open, serious and sad than other captured Nazi officials, as she put it:”the only man with such a horrific record who manifested a semblance of conscience.”
In Sereny’s book, Stangl often tries to minimise his responsibility, but he engages seriously with Sereny’s detailed questions, and by the end of their conversations he admits guilt – exactly the kind of confession of regret that Stern says she hoped to extract from Karadzic, without success.
Stern’s book seems to be motivated by a genuine concern about the dangers of virulent nationalism. But in the end, Karadzic does not offer the kind of reflection or insights into his actions that would justify the attention Stern pays to him.