One of the most successfull strategies in wars is the incitement of each other's minorities. The Allied forces used this trick with great success in World War I and the result was the creation of a number of new states, including Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. The Allies were indulgent towards their new states and gave them more than the ethnic borders justified. Czechoslovakia got Sudetenland with the argument that the old borders of Bohemia shoulf be respected and Poland got the so called "Polish Corridor" because it wanted access to the sea.
Both areas were populated mainly by Germans, who would have preferred to stay with Germany or Austria, but the Allies determined differently. The situation was most painfull in Sudetenland. Allready on januari 1919 the Czech president Masyrek had said (in an interview with Le Monde) that the German population was the result of immigration and that only very loyal Germans had a future in Czechoslovakia. For the rest he expected that the German element would fastly disappear. This announcement of an assimilation or emigration policy did not have any effect. In september of that year the Treaty of Saint-Germain definitively allocated the area to Czechoslovakia.
Many elements of this period are very reminiscent of the present situation in former Yugoslavia, including a strong Czech lobby in the US and France insisting on keeping as much Germans as possible in Czechoslovakia in order to weaken Germany.
Sure, the Czech government had signed a treaty in which it promissed to protect its minorities. But this did not prevent them from a policy of Czechization and from pursuing a policy that changed the Germans from the richest population group into poverty. But the real danger was in the long term. Only a piece of paper protected the Germans from a hostile government. And for anyone who has studied history this is a very poor protection. In 1945 it would prove to be insufficient indeed when they were actually chased from their homes. The Allies - including those in the West - knew it would happen and did not object in any way.
It is usually believed that the cruel behaviour of the Germans in Poland and the Sovjet-Union during World War II was a consequence of a theory that saw the Slavs as Untermenschen. I believe it is the other way around:
For the Czechs the Treaty of Saint-Germain may have been just a matter of nationalism. But for the Germans it was a matter of survival. Allocating Sudetenland to a country that made it clear that it wanted to purge them was a crime that must have made an enormous impression on a man with a sense of history like Hitler. I believe that the obsession about Lebensraum and the dislike of the Slavs was a direct consequence of this situation. The Untermenschen theory was a just a justification for an existing feeling when it was translated in policies.
The situation in former Yugoslavia has many similarities with that after World War I. Here too we see the Allies playing the ethnic game in order to weaken an enemy - in this case the "communist" Milosevic. And in this case too the Allies tend to give the new states more territory than strict ethnic criteria would allow them.
Tudjman was brutally clear about the Serbs. During the 1989 elections he made his infamous remark that he thanked God that his wife was neither a Serb nor a Jew. And on Serb complaints about discrimination he asked why they didn't go to Serbia if they liked it better there.
Yet the international community insisted that the Krajna and the other Serb-majority areas should stay with Croatia. For the international community it was just a matter of making a good treaty that guaranteed minority rights. But for the Serbs no treaty could make up for the fact that they would live on borrowed time in a country that would use the first available excuse to throw them out.
I think this explains much of the war crimes. While the Croats and the Muslims lived in a world where the international community would interfere if the situation got too much out of hand the Serbs lived in an existential void. If they didn't defend themselves there was no hope.
In Kosovo the international community is once again in the same situation. It is clear to everybody that many Albanians want all Serbs out and that there is a big chance in 10 years no Serbs will be left in Kosovo. Yet the international is moving forward with the same cynical opportunism as in Sudetenland and the Krajna towards a solution that will give the Serbs - even those in the Serb-majority north - only some token guarantees that are bound to be worthless in the long term.
I am worried about the despair and distrust that this will leave. I cannot predict the future, but it certainly has the potential to be very destabilising, both for the Balkan and the rest of the world.
Like it or not, ethnicity is the only valid argument for creating new states nowadays. All other arguments come down to the use of force - whether it is by barbarian soldiers or polished diplomats.
One of the first things newly independent countries usually do is trying to prove their ethnic credentials. Minorities are marked as intruders without rights or as apostates who should be assimilated back into the nation. Ethnic territories outside the borders are claimed.
This nationalistic first phase of new nations has obvious risks for ethnic minorities. For that reason I believe that the international community should be careful that new nations are formed along ethnic lines.
Instead the intenational community has chosen a policy that declares some "historic" borders sacred. Behind this is usually some partiality on the international side. In the case of the Sudeten the policy was that Germany should be as weak as possible and that to achieve that as much Germans as possible should stay behind as minorities in neighbouring countries. It seems that the international community has nowadays a similar policy towards Serbia and the Serbs.
It is interesting to note that in all three cases local politicians feel a bit uneasy about the situation. The presence of the minority undermines their nationalistic claims. It would be political suicide for them just to give up the contested territory. But if the international community would exert some pressure they would be happy to use that as an excuse.
Treaties alone cannot protect minorities. Every nationalist knows the tricks to make life hard for minorities without violating the letter of those treaties. This varies from the subtle economic and linguistic discrimination in Sudetenland to the situation in Kosovo where the Serbs are denied the most basic police protection.
"Special circumstances" form a good excuse to push treaties aside altogether, as the Sudeten Germans experienced in 1945. If necessary, such circumstances can be created, as the Greeks in Turkey experienced in 1955 and the Serbs in Kosovo in march 2004.
With many ethnic conflicts in the world still waiting to be resolved it would be fortunately when the international community finally realized that it cannot pursue its personal grudges without great risk of the stability of the whole world.