By Jessica Stern, from My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide, out this month from Ecco. The book recounts the author’s interviews, conducted between October 2014 and November 2016, with Radovan Karadžić, a former Bosnian Serb politician convicted for his actions in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.
I sought a lot of advice about how best to interview Radovan Karadžić. One idea, suggested to me by the eminent scholar of Slavic literature Andrew Wachtel, was to ask Karadžić to interpret his own poems. Together, Karadžić and I went through many of his works. Some are astonishingly violent. I was most intrigued by our discussion of “Goodbye, Assassins.” It begins with the lines:
Goodbye Assassins, it seems from now on
The gentlefolks’ aortas will gush without me.
The last chance to get stained with blood
I let go by.
Karadžić explained that the poem is about Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, precipitating World War I.
He reminded me of the history. With the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, Serbia had finally achieved full independence from the Ottoman Empire. Bosnia was liberated from the Ottomans at the same time, only to be commandeered by Austria-Hungary. Bosnian Serbs were particularly resentful of the occupation. “Croats and Muslims both found a way to benefit during the Hapsburg occupation,” Karadžić said, sounding as angry as he would have been had these events occurred only the day before. “In 1914 Princip fought for all Bosnians, not just Bosnian Serbs! But Muslims glorify the archduke.”
In truth, Bosnian Muslims are somewhat divided in relation to Princip. Prior to Bosnia’s independence, Princip was viewed as a hero for fighting to liberate Bosnia from Hapsburg rule, and he was celebrated with a plaque placed at the spot where the murder occurred. During the wars in the 1990s, when Bosnia was fighting for its independence from Yugoslavia, the view of Princip changed. He was seen as a terrorist, a participant in a Serbian plot against Bosnia. The memorial plaque was smashed. After the 1990s wars were over, a new plaque was put up, with a more neutral telling of the same history.
“Princip had two natures,” Karadžić said. “He was not just an assassin but also a poet.”
I hadn’t realized that.
“Before the 1970s, we all read Princip’s poetry. I was thinking, Who is this guy who writes poetry, who also assassinated the archduke?” The revolutionary movement Young Bosnia, Karadžić said, didn’t just plot the assassination but also held literary meetings.
“There is Princip the poet, a member of the intelligentsia. And there is Princip the assassin, who feels compelled to shoot at senseless decoration.”
I assumed he meant the trappings of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“Princip has a conflict within himself. In my poem, he is saying: Let someone else be the assassin,” Karadžić said. “The poet is trying to get rid of Princip the fighter. He wasn’t interested in business affairs or in fighting or killing. He is saying, I will answer the call to be a poet. He loves the mountains and streams.”
He returned to the poem:
Goodbye, assassins, a rare thought of
genesis enters my mind. Of knowing the heaven. And blood, that ugly word, violent and dark, Angers Milutin, the ancestor asleep,
gentle even in death, as if in times of fasting.
“Gentle . . . as if in times of fasting,” Karadžić repeated.
“Princip is saying, I cannot share in this madness, this violence. The poet knows that something terrible is about to happen. He senses disaster. He understands the futility of plotting the assassination. Everything is going in the wrong direction. Heading toward war, toward a target or bullet.”
Until now, I’d not crossed Karadžić in any way. I was there to learn about how he came to be the man he is today, the man convicted of genocide. But a thought came to me, and I uttered it before having a chance to worry he’d turn against me. “This poem is about you,” I said.
I saw a new look on his face, which I had trouble interpreting. “Why didn’t you tell me that you studied so much psychoanalysis?” he asked, now looking like a petulant child. “You’re scaring me.”
“I’m just interpreting a poem. You told me that you let your unconscious run free when you write poems.”
“You’re scaring me,” he said again.
He would repeat this phrase many times over the following year and a half. I believe that the first time he said it he probably meant it. But the second, third, and fourth times, what I think he meant was, I’ve got you. I had noticed the division within him—of poet and assassin—and in the moment I brought that observation into the room, I believe he hated me. But he still wanted to use me. He hoped against hope that I might tell his story as he wanted it told.