In the end, Slobodan Milosevic may be best remembered as simply one more petty example of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” A midlevel communist apparatchik who took advantage of various incidents as the former Yugoslavia was unraveling along with the rest of the communist enterprise in the late 1980s to propel himself toward positions of personal power, he ultimately did Serbia, the country whose nationalism he exploited, a great deal of harm.
In the midst of standing trial for war crimes at an international tribunal at the Hague in the Netherlands, Milosevic was found dead in his cell of an apparent heart attack Saturday. His death will no doubt stir conspiracy theories; an antibiotic he was taking apparently countered the effects of other medications for high blood pressure and a heart condition.
He accused international authorities of poisoning him, but one Dutch doctor thinks he took it to “poison himself” enough to get so sick the authorities would send him to Russia, where he might have survived in exile.
Slobodan Milosevic’s death before the end of a trial that had dragged on for four years deprives history of a verdict. It also demonstrates, however, that an international tribunal might not be the best way to deal with political leaders who are responsible for causing unnecessary death and persecution above and beyond what war ordinarily inflicts. There is a danger now that some Serbs will view him as a martyr. It might have been better to let Serbians try him.
The “butcher of the Balkans” was an unsubtle but skillful practitioner of one of the more reprehensible activities of modern political leaders: stirring up and exacerbating ethnic hostilities and grievances to pave his path to power. It is doubtful whether this cold-blooded operator really believed in all the nationalist slogans he mouthed or felt the historic grievances he recalled.
Encouraging hatred and hostility served his purposes, however. Some 200,000 people died as Milosevic and other ethnic opportunists tore Yugoslavia apart, and people who had managed to live together for generations will not trust one another for generations to come.
Like all tyrants Slobodan Milosevic was a sad little man at the end.