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book reviews 275

Max Bergholz
Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan
Community (Ithaca, usa: Cornell University Press, 2016), isbn 978-15-017-0492-5.

This book makes an authoritative and interdisciplinary contribution to the

field of political violence and genocide studies by addressing one of the cen-
tral questions of what causes intercommunal violence. Building on one of this
literature’s more recent insights that violence leads to ethnic polarization, Max
Bergholz documents how and when, at the onset of wwii, particular instances
of violence provoked both divisions along ethnic lines and the quick escalation
of violence in Kulen Vakuf, a multiethnic community in Bosnia-Herzegovina
near the border with Croatia. Bergholz concludes that conflict along ethnic or
religious lines is generated by initial instances of violence and several other
conditions that favored the escalation of violence. In other words, this book
provides empirical support for the contention that polarization along ethnic
or religious lines is not the underlying cause of intercommunal violence. The
author thoughtfully chronicles the shift from selective violence to mass vio-
lence over the course of several days in September of 1941. In addition, he ana-
lyzes several cases from other regions in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the same
period where violence did not escalate.
It is this type of micro-level comparative analysis, with focus on rural com-
munities, that permitted Bergholz to make theoretically germane claims for
cases of violence in other geographic regions and during other historical pe-
riods that are also discussed throughout the book. Specifically, in the context
of Bosnia-Herzegovina in wwii, in the communities of Rašinovac and Bjelaj,
farther east of Kulen Vakuf, and in Bosanska Dubica, also eastward, but on a
northern border with Croatia, violence was successfully subdued either by key
community leaders or members of adversarial forces who were able to benefit
from favorable conditions that enabled them to prevent retaliatory acts of vio-
lence, and in turn, change the course of events, in author’s words, toward the
“restraint.” Based on this sub-national comparative analysis, Bergholz identi-
fies five conditions that were favorable for the restraint: (1) actors who were
in favor of de-escalation of violence had to be present on the ground at key
moments; (2) soldiers were not exposed to sights of brutality committed by
the adversary prior to military operations; (3) military leaders had to convince
their forces not to see the adversary’s forces, and, by extension, the civilians
defended by adversary, as enemies solely on the basis of ethnicity; (4) com-
manders were able to alter their strategy quickly in response to the changing

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2018 | doi 10.1163/18763332-04202003

276 book reviews

conditions on the ground; and, (5) communities had a tradition of “intercom-

munal organizational activity” before the war.
This is an illuminating and comprehensive list of conditions, developed on
the basis of a detailed reconstruction of historical events based on rare and
difficult-to-access archival documents. As scholars build on this study to devel-
op a theory of restraint, they could consider how, and whether, some of these
long-term and more immediate factors may interact in some regions and not in
others. One of the strengths of Bergholz’s argument is his claim that the course
of events leading to massacre is highly contingent on immediate factors, such
as the ability of commanders to adjust to the quickly changing circumstances.
It appears then that some of the longer-term factors, such as the history of
intercommunal civil society, would not necessarily be associated with mass
violence in some communities. While this claim was already examined in the
political science literature, scholars would still need to assess on a different
set of cases which of the conditions identified by Bergholz are necessary and
which are sufficient for the prevention of mass violence.
Revenge, as one of the motives that may drive armed forces to commit
mass violence in some localities, is examined in Chapter 4. Bergholz did not
find strong evidence of ethnic, or even political, in-group cohesion of differ-
ent armed organizations, whether insurgents, Chetniks, Ustashas, or Partisans,
on the ground. Rather, individuals whose family members or close friends
were recently killed by members of the adversary’s forces seemed to be more
likely to categorize people connected to these armies in terms of their ethno-­
religious identities. This topic is also taken up less directly in Chapter 7, where
Bergholz examines how the selective commemorations and representations
of mass violence in the Kulen Vakuf region in the post-wwii contributed to
the surfacing of, in his words, “sudden nationhood,” or an immediate sense of
belonging, during certain emotionally-charged situations.
While the literature of political violence already recognized and document-
ed retaliation as a key motive for committing some of the most extreme acts of
violence, Bergholz adds to the analysis the effect of revenge on the processes of
categorization of people in the immediate social environment into respective
ethno-religious groups. One question that emerges after reading Berhgolz’s
book, and which is not yet addressed in the literature, would be whether schol-
ars should conceptualize revenge as a consequence of mass violence, rather
than as one of the initial causes of mass violence. If revenge were conceptual-
ized in this way, then the motive for retaliation would explain only why vio-
lence may have a spiraling effect on polarization of communities and further
cycles of violence, while not accounting for why and how violence starts in the
first place. One possible direction with an aim to address this question may be

southeastern europe 42 (2018) 271-283

book reviews 277

to show under what conditions local political cleavages, or struggles for po-
litical power in local government, may be transformed into ethnically-defined
lines of division. It is because of these insights and possible future directions
that Bergholz’s book is a critical resource for scholars of political violence.

Mila Dragojević
The University of the South, Sewanee, tn, USA

southeastern europe 42 (2018) 271-283

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