Politics & Policy

Milosevic Cheats Death

The inside story: The date was October 15, 1946. The Nazi war criminals would be hanged the next day. It was an event so momentous that the president of United Press announced to his staff in New York City that he personally would superintend the story from UP’s central office in the Daily News building. He shoved the pros to one side, donned a green eyeshade, and sat over his teletype. The 10-bell sign went off, indicating a story of the first magnitude. He got the news and typed out a headline for UP’s 5,400 subscribers worldwide. It read, “GOERING CHEATS DEATH BY COMMITTING SUICIDE.” Fifty-four hundred varieties of snickers and derision poured in from offices around the world. The president doffed his green eyeshade and returned silently to his administrative quarters, leaving the news cockpit to the regular night editor.

There was true fury in Nuremberg over what happened. Goering was by far the most conspicuous of the captured and convicted and sentenced Nazis. It had been a very long trial, almost a year from arraignments to executions. There were 21 defendants, and the sentences were varied, including three acquittals. There was plenty to do the next day to keep the hangmen busy, but Hermann Goering had ruined the party. An effort was made to immure in the confines of the Spandau Prison the news of his outsmarting his jailers, but of course the word got out and what was feared indeed happened: There was quiet celebration by vanquished and destitute Germans inclined to ignore the crime and daydream of the glories of the Third Reich, whose last surviving grandee had had the last laugh at the expense of the hangman.

Milosevic didn’t cheat death by committing suicide, or by contriving to weaken mortally his health, but he certainly removed such satisfaction as was owed to mourners for the 250,000 people killed in the former Yugoslavia owing substantially to Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian terrorism he mobilized. There will be still more volumes written about the terrible years in the nineties in Bosnia and Croatia and Kosovo, but none will ignore the role of the president of Serbia. The day in 2001 when he was turned over to an international tribunal for trial was exhilarating for hundreds of thousands. Briefly it appeared that the international court in The Hague would provide such satisfaction as could be had from establishing formal guilt.

Not the kind of satisfaction that Nuremberg brought, because the code in The Hague forbade capital punishment. The prosecutors’ job was to establish Milosevic’s guilt and to give him a life sentence in jail.

Upon his death, the prosecutor passed out word that she had expected the case against Milosevic to be successfully concluded within another two months. We cannot know whether that might have happened. Or whether Milosevic could have protracted his trial another four years. His position was simple: He was president of Serbia, the court had no jurisdiction over him, and he would refuse to cooperate in any pantomime of a genuine trial.

There isn’t a great deal a prosecution can do if the defendant is entirely inert. Milosevic was not inactive to the point of absenting himself from the proceedings. Day after day, month after month, year after year he ranted on, presenting irrelevant documents and seizing the histrionic moment to reiterate his defiance. There was the medically mysterious question of his professed need to go to Moscow for adequate treatment. It seemed plain to the responsible members of the court that if permitted to go to Moscow, where his wife and son lived, he would not be seen again at The Hague.

But the failure to convict him, let alone to hang him, contributes that attenuation to political crime which has permitted prime-time murderers to leave the stage unimpeded by basic requirements to observe international law, to desist from genocide, to fear epochal transgressions against civilized behavior. It has been instantly conceded in foreign dispatches that Milosevic has now become a martyr. A martyr, no less!–even as Goering was thought a martyr. But at least Goering’s death was brought on by successful prosecution, even if the consummation was denied us, Goering swinging from a rope, rather than dying, as Milosevic has done, from a drug which killed him, drugs which, on the dramatic stage, played the role of impostors.


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