Jessica Stern

My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide

MyWarCriminal hc cAbout the Book

Terrorism expert Jessica Stern’s new book My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide is a mesmerizing, unsettling, and revelatory memoir of the two years she spent talking with Radovan Karadžić, who was responsible for the death of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War and who continues to be an inspiration for white nationalists around the globe. Stern brings to bear her incisive analysis and her own deeply considered reactions to her interactions with Karadzic, while also offering a deeply insightful and sometimes chilling account of the complex and even seductive powers of a magnetic leader—and what can happen when you spend many, many hours with that person.

Radovan Karadžić, a psychiatrist and poet-turned-politician, is known by many names—“Bin Laden of Bosnia,” “Butcher of Bosnia,” and “Heinrich Himmler of the Balkans.” Said to be disturbingly magnetic and brilliant, he lived on the lam for over a decade, disguised as an energy healer. He was the subject of the largest manhunt in modern history prior to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. He was finally captured by Serbian intelligence in Belgrade in 2008. Karadžić was later convicted of genocide and other war crimes in 2016; his sentence of forty years was increased to that of life in prison in 2019.

For two years, between October 8, 2014 and November 11, 2016 Stern met with Karadžić in his prison in the Hague—the first time since the Nuremberg Trials that a researcher was allowed to conduct in-person interviews of a jailed leader on trial for genocide. Stern, one of the foremost experts on terrorism and the connections between trauma and terror, found herself wondering what led Karadžić and his followers to commit such horrendous acts. Just how do leaders persuade ordinary people to kill their neighbors? What happens when an ethnic or racial group loses its dominant position in society? How do leaders harness fear and weaponize it, inciting the group that fears it will be “replaced” to target minorities with violence?

Sadly, the questions that Stern pondered are ones that continue to need to be asked, as the genocide in Bosnia has become a model for the global white-nationalist movement. The Australian terrorist who killed 51 worshippers in two Christchurch mosques in March of this year had names of Serb nationalists painted on his guns. During his livestream of the brutal murders, the killer played a song glorifying Radovan Karadžić. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 said that Serb nationalists were a more appealing model than Nazis for the contemporary white-nationalist movement. He lionized Karadžić in his manifesto, calling him a “war hero” for his efforts to “rid Serbia of Islam.”

As Stern writes, when she first started doing this work some 30 years ago, a psychologist advised her that in order to truly explain terrorism to others, she would need to picture herself joining the group in question—in other words, she had to become the terrorist. “This ‘becoming the terrorist’ was, and remains, something that I am able to do,” Stern explains. “Not every time, and not every perpetrator. It worked with Karadžić. The conversations I had with Karadžić were unusually intense and unusually prolonged. He took up residence in my mind. I became a fellow prisoner, and he became ‘my war criminal.’”

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 “A gripping look into the psychology behind racialized violence and how it’s carried out, MY WAR CRIMINAL is a powerful and timely book.  Jessica Stern draws a chilling portrait of Radovan Karadžić, giving us an eye-opening new context not only for the Bosnian War, but also of how fear can be harnessed and diverted to violent political ends.” – U.S. Senator Chris Coons

“Based on extraordinary access to a notorious Serbian leader, Jessica Stern has produced a remarkable study that both illuminates the psychology of an individual war criminal and incisively analyzes the dynamic behind ethnic hatred and violence. Timely and compelling.”  Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (2005-2009)

“This book is a remarkable blend of biography, history, and psychiatry– only Jessica Stern could have written it.” – Howard Gardner, Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard University

MY WAR CRIMINAL is a riveting account full of edge-of-your-seat moments as Dr. Jessica Stern explores the boundaries of good and evil through hours of interviews with convicted mass murderer Radovan Karadzic. Complex emotions are unleashed on both sides as the interviewer circles a wily subject skilled at charm, obfuscation, misdirection, and intimidation — and Dr. Stern lays all of this out with extraordinary candor. Must reading for anyone interested in how a narcissistic leader can merge popular grievances and history to produce  human tragedy on a massive scale.” – John McLaughlin, Former Acting Director, CIA

“Boston University global studies professor Stern (coauthor, ISIS: The State of Terror) delivers a fascinating and nuanced portrait of Bosnian Serb leader and convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić. A former poet and psychiatrist, Karadžić served as president of the Republika Srpska during the Bosnian War; after the war ended in 1996, he spent 12 years disguised as an energy healer before he was arrested and indicted for the mass murder of 8,000 mainly male inhabitants  of Srebrenica, among other war crimes. Stern explores Karadžić’s family background and reveals how his politics were driven by fear and resentment of Muslims. She picks apart his rationalizations and obfuscations, yet notes that his claims about the “artificial” nature of the former Yugoslavia and the U.S. government’s “stigmatization” of Serbs have merit. Intriguingly self-reflective, Stern writes that though she couldn’t bring herself to look into Karadžić’s eyes, she found him to be “likable” and “charming” in their one-on-one interviews; she also admits to “harboring a secret, megalomaniacal dream—that I was going to get him to apologize.” (He didn’t.) This eloquent and revelatory book provides essential insight not just into the Balkan wars, but into the mechanisms of genocide and ethnic hatred all over the world. (Jan.)” – Publisher’s Weekly

“Between 1992 and 1995, the region of Bosnia and Herzegovina erupted into an armed ethnic conflict similar to that in Rwanda. This genocide was sanctioned by a trio of leaders, including Radovan Karadži. In this intriguing study, Stern, a prominent scholar of trauma and global terrorism, profiles the many faces and facets of Karadži to illuminate a larger story about nationalism, fear, separatism, and dissension. Karadži was a trained psychiatrist, published poet, the first president of Republika Srpska, and a convicted war criminal. Stern’s investigation stems from interviews conducted while he was imprisoned at the Hague, conversations held with family and associates, and insights gained from tours of significant places in his life. Her account also includes the story of how Karadži posed as energy healer Dr. Dragan Dabic while on the lam for over a decade. Ultimately, Stern draws chilling parallels between the war criminal and President Trump, including similarities in their tactics of fear-mongering and ethnocentrism, and asks us to question our own moral dexterity and susceptibility to such ethical collapses.” Booklist

“History never really ended and its sitting in a prison cell in The Hague. Radovan Karadzic, the “charming” poet-psychiatrist and leading voice of genocidal Serbian nationalism, will spend the rest of his life locked up for his role in the Bosnian War, and the subsequent massacre of 8,000 Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, at Srbrenica in July 1995. For a two-year period between October 2014 and November 2016 Karadzic was visited by terrorism expert Jessica Stern, who sought, as we must, to understand the psychology of genocide: its motivations, its acts, its perennial surfacing among so-called civilized society. What followed was a series of interviews that form the backbone of this chilling account of how quickly societal order can collapse, particularly when given just the right push from intelligent, charismatic men.”  –  Lit Hub

“A subtle, powerful illustration of terror that resonates today, especially regarding the resurgent white supremacist movement. […] An utterly compelling chronicle form a master scholar and clear writer.” – Kirkus Starred Review

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