An American in Britain and Bosnia — a Personal Reflection
by James Gow
Mark Wheeler was one of the great scholars of Yugoslavia and a profoundly engaged figure in the years after its dissolution. He made at least two contributions to the work of the International Crimi-nal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. One was the impact he had personally, engaging me in Yugoslav history and encouraging me in research that would lead to my becoming an expert advisor with the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY, setting a course for the court’s work over the next 23 years. The other was his own testimony in the ‘Vukovar’ case against Mile Mrkšić, where his shining and clipped command of detail shone. That testimony was just a small example of his passionate commitment to making a difference amid the events that affronted and angered him.
Command of detail was one of Mark’s specialities. Starting from childhood, when he would collect all the information he could on transport timetables and be able to advise anyone on the time and routing of any air or train journey, and also the type of plane or train to be used. Mark was born in Chicago and grew up in New Jersey, before moving later to Michigan with his parents and three siblings, although by that time, he already had plans of his own to live in Michigan, as he had secured a place at Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan. That was to bring his introduction to Central and East European history, and particularly, Yugoslavia, a country and set of lands with which he would thereafter have a profound connection, including great friendships and spending more than a decade of his life there, and keeping a house in Croatia until 2017 for holidays after retiring from his work in the region.
He was married and divorced twice. His first marriage was to Patty, whom he had met at High School in New Jersey, who became an international banker, and they lived together near Swiss Cottage in London while Mark did his PhD in Cambridge. But, the marriage failed after he was appointed to a lectureship in Lancaster and distance took its toll. His second wife was Sheila, with whom he had two children, Lily and Harry. He would lecture the children endlessly on Habsburg or Yugoslav history, especially when confined in a car on a long journey (they would retaliate by putting the top 40 on the radio, polluting his otherwise pure world of classical music!).
In May 1991, Mark and I jointly organised ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’ an exciting, even a land-mark, event, at which colleagues and we explored the impending dissolution of the communist, Yugoslav federation. We organised it jointly between our institutions, he at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) and I at King’s College London, with George Schöpflin’s helping to arrange the Graham Wallas Room at the London School of Economics as the venue. It was packed and oversubscribed with a long waiting list and the atmosphere was electric. Mark’s excitement that day and during our preparations was great. He had seen the attention his colleagues dealing with Russia and the Soviet Union had received in recent years as the Cold War ended — notably Martin MacCauley, almost ever-present on television. This was our moment, he said. He was right, as it turned out. It was certainly the culminating point for him of two decades of studying Yugoslavia. Although he would continue as an academic for another few years, it was with increasing frustration. University politics and bureaucratic limitations on career development were a part of this. But, most of all, there was the frustration that for all the knowledge and understanding, for all the years of study, it seemed to make no real difference.
It was with that frustration that he surprisingly decided to try to make a difference outside the academy, leaving SSEES to work for the NGO HelpAge to support its work in Croatia and Bosnia and other parts of the Yugoslav region. As with so much in the international engagement with Bosnia, this was project-based with a short-term focus. So, two years later, after roles with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia, Mark re-turned to academic life as Dean and Head of Humanities at the University Derby for four years. This was a desired promotion in the university sector, but one that only confirmed the irritations of bureaucracy and management in British universities. At the end of his term, Mark left university behind definitively and made new efforts to play a role that could make a difference, joining the International Crisis Group (ICG, becoming its Bosnia Project Director. ICG produced a stream of reports addressing granular, serious issues concerning Bosnia and Hercegovina and its post-conflict stalemate in the two and a half years of his leadership there.
That role was a platform to use the detailed and rich knowledge and understanding of Bosnia and Hercegovina and the region, and made him an obvious choice to be made Political Advisor in the Office of the High Representative (OHR) (technically employed by the OSCE), the point of international coordination and leadership for peace implementation in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Mark was in that role for almost seven years, until retirement in 2010. He joined as advisor around one year into to Paddy (Lord) Ashdown’s time as High Representative — a halcyon period of progress in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Ashdown, though not without his critics, whose ranks also included Mark himself when he questioned Ashdown’s initial approach to some of the more independent and lib-eral media outlets in the country. But, overall, it was an exciting and shining period, where Mark thrived. Mark’s experience and acuity informed the OHR, not only under Ashdown, but also under three of his successors, albeit that the success of the Ashdown days was wrongly understood and wasted by the successors. Mark’s decade in Sarajevo was a tale of two halves. The first five years, working at ICG and then with Paddy Ashdown, he described as ‘wonderful.’ The brilliance of those first five years only made the ‘awful’ final five years, working in the OHR without Paddy Ashdown from April 2006, that much worse. Politically, everything turned sour for Bosnia, the OHR and Mark after that — and, personally, it was worse still, as he started to lose his eyesight in 2008. I confess, I failed to register the seriousness of the eyesight and only realised too late why he would urge me to telephone him, when I preferred to write occasionally. And the eyesight was not an issue the last time I saw him in Sarajevo, in November 2007, in a favourite lokal of his, just up the hill from where he lived, along with Matthew Rycroft and Chris Bennett — the former Britain’s greatly respected Ambassador at the time, the latter a doyen of the international presence in Bosnia, and like Mark magnificently invested in Bosnia’s political detail.
By the time he left Bosnia, Mark was disillusioned — including with the idea of teaching and sharing. Before he left Sarajevo, he lectured for a year in the Sarajevo School of Science and Technol-ogy founded by Ejup Ganić, member of the wartime Presidency. That made him realise that he no longer had the relish for ‘pontificating in public.’ That was a shame, as he was a great lecturer — even at 0900 on Monday mornings at Lancaster University, which is when I sat fixed on his performances interweaving rich detail and humour, all delivered with the impeccable oratory of an actor in arch, educated-American tones, rather than the shy mumbles of many a British lecturer — this one certainly included. He could split the difference between Slavonians, Slovonians (also known as Sclovonians), Slovenes, Slovaks, Ruthenes, Rusyns, Romanians, Vlachs and Cincars with light humour and deftness. He loved to engage with the twins from Bosnia on the programme — and took his Yugoslav orientation into every day life, although his Damlatian dog ‘Pepper, long-legged and high stature, just like Mark himself, was also a legacy of growing up with Dalmatians at home as a child.
Personally, Mark made all the difference — and way beyond those Monday morning lectures. His course on the History of the Yugoslav State was the departure point for everything else that I did relating to the Yugo lands — including my own course that I still teach occasionally. As part of Mark’s course, I wrote a mega-essay encompassing the issues and transformations of communist and self-determination ideologies that was the foundation of my future studies and career. This was the only essay in my university career that I took more than one night to write — and I can date it to 2 April 1982, just 40 years ago as I went to sleep with it unfinished around 4 am with the BBC World Service on, as it always was through the night, dreamed about a strange invasion of some islands, and woke to hear the 8am news that Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands. Mark was an academic of the old school, fortunately for me, as he disregarded the 3,000 words over-length and gave me an excellent grade for scholarly merit. The contemporary bureaucracy of universities would not allow this! And, finally, it was he who went to the Politics and International Studies board to argue that the case for the curious and independent student — Gow — who had managed to weave an unusual path through his degree so that half his courses or more were on communist countries and issues in the Zbyněk Zeman’s brilliant Central and South East European Studies department — including that wonderful introduction to Yugoslavia with Mark and discussions between him and his great friend and colleague there Dušan Pavolović. I have to be ever grateful to Mark for convincing the those in Politics that the student with high grades in an unusual set of courses well deserved the First Class Honours they hesitated to award. Because of that, I was able to benefit in the only way First Class Honours ever make a difference — getting research funding from the then-SSRC to undertake a PhD.
Even in disillusion, Mark never completely left his scholarly nature and responsibility behind. He donated 5,000 books to the National University Library in Sarajevo. And although he perhaps ‘hid’ from past friends and colleagues, as he put it, when he ‘fled’ Bosnia and returned to his adopted home in the UK (adamant that he would not return to the US, although he always retained his US passport and never sought British naturalisation), he would never completely shake off Yugoslavia and scholarship. He settled in Somerset, both at Paddy’s recommendation and to be near his children, Harry and Lily, and their mother, his ex-wife, Sheila. He resurfaced in 2013, when Harry got him to an event at the LSE (where he was studying at the time) at which I was speaking (along with Lord Owen and Chris Bennett). We discussed notes on being late-in-life parents — he had been 40 when Lily was born and 41 when Harry joined her, and I was even later than that, at 46… After returning a little to ‘life’, he was delighted to be in touch again with Clive Church from Lancaster days, who had appointed him to that first lectureship in 1975. He got the lectureship two years before his PhD at Cambridge was completed — however, that was in the good old days when a PhD was more than a 3-4 year timed project; rather, it the best that could be produced, however long it took. The high-flyer from the University of Michigan (1967-70), where he was mentored by John Fine, produced an excellent study on the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Yugoslavia in the Second World War at Cambridge (1970-77) under the great F.H. (Sir) ’Harry’ Hinsley — a supervisor who, as a cryptologist at Bletchley Park involved in the Enigma project, had been part of that ‘secret’ Second World War Mark researched.
That study was transformed with support from colleagues at Lancaster, notably Dušan Pavlović, into Britain and the War for Yugoslavia, 1940-43, which remains unsurpassed and authoritative in what strangely continues to be a highly contested area, despite the evidence Mark adduced, which was only reinforced by later evidence. But, as Mark would teach us, nothing to do with Yugoslavia was ever not contested by someone! Indeed, another new PhD had come along on his old topic, just before Mark left us, and I was trying to persuade him to examine it with me, which I imagined would have been great fun. I was to call him about it when I returned from Sarajevo, but he died while I was there. Building on his PhD and the book that grew from it, he was appointed Official Historian of the SOE in Yugoslavia by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987, a role he never officially left — although, sadly, he also never produced the further studies that he researched in this role. That was after he had moved (along with Dušan) to SSEES in London (now part of UCL) in 1983, when university politics closed that shining small department at Lancaster. In his twelve years at SSEES, completing work on the Second World War inevitably took a back seat as the Yugoslav federation suffered crisis upon crisis in the 1980s and all interest was on contemporary de-velopments — leading to that critical moment, when Mark and I framed ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’, and the world changed for us both. Indeed, the world simply changed — and we all became all too familiar with atrocity and war crimes.
Thank you, Mark!
Professor of International Peace and Security, King’s College London