Reflecting on the Abuse of Psychiatry in Genocide: The Yugoslav Wars

In 2019, former Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in war crimes during what was one of the worst genocides in modern history: the Srebenica Massacre in Bosnia.

Motivated by staunch Serbian nationalism, this dark chapter of history saw more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) killed in an attempt at ethnic cleansing. The same war criminal orchestrating this tragedy was, in fact, a psychiatrist.

In fact, he studied medicine here in the U.S., at Columbia Medical School. To make matters worse, this was not a case of a former mental health professional abandoning his craft for politics, but Karadžić, now known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia,’ actually made the effort to deliberately abuse his knowledge of psychiatry, using it to mold his planned methods of brutalizing and eradicating entire populations of people.

During this massacre, Karadžić, together with military commander Ratko Mladić, organized and instructed the bombardment of Srebrenica and adjacent Bosniak villages to brutal military assaults, sniper fire, as well as air bombings. Muslims’ homes were broken into, and destroyed, with these Bosniaks captured, beaten, and murdered.

Weapons of War

Add to that the use of rape as a weapon of war, of which many Bosnian Muslim and Croat women were on the tragic receiving end. It is well-established that this was an elaborate and coordinated military tactic. The likes of Karadžić sought to use rape as a tool of instilling terror in the non-Serbian population, as well as to inflict humiliation and episodic trauma into the population, which would permanently mar these victims and reduce any likelihood of them even fathoming a return to their homelands.

Experiencing such a horrific ordeal in these locations would coerce rape victims to get as far away from these places, to avoid any memory of the event, as is possible. This was also done to halt the reproduction of Muslims, as these women would no longer be accepted into their communities, and often were subject to suicide. This would make the establishment of Serbian homogeneity that much easier.

Believe it or not, Karadžić was actually not the first psychiatrist to be implicated in this very same genocidal event. As it turns out, Karadžić was actually inspired by, and was a diligent follower of another heinous psychiatrist turned politician: Jovan Rašković, a man cited by fellow psychiatrist, Boris Zmijanovic, as someone who took pleasure in using “electroshocks to torture Croatian women.”

Rašković was a psychiatrist from the Freudian school of thought, and took Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious and placed them in the geopolitical context of post-Communist Yugoslavia, to generate and spread his own ideology.


In Rašković’s view, his fellow Serbs bore an Oedipal complex that empowers them to rebel and “kill the father” if they were withheld of power and possession of “the Mother,” which he believed symbolized the earth and land of Yugoslavia. In his view, the Croats had a “fear of castration,” and this fear paralyzed them to be unable to exercise any authority.

Rašković’s also claimed that Bosniak Muslims were characterized by an “anal erotic fixation” for seizing assets and money.

Rašković came to the conclusion that Serbs were the only ethnic group that had any comprehension of authority, and must exert that authority over the other Yugoslavian people. The castrated Croats and the fixated Muslims could only live in one way: under submission to the Serbs.

Beliefs Published in Manifesto

Rašković published these beliefs in a manifesto dubbed Luda Zemlja (A Mad Country), and spread these findings in newspapers, on radio and television, and in campaign rallies across the region.

He then established the Serbian Democratic Party in order to put his ideology into political practice. Rašković sought to appeal to masses of Serbs, to energize and mobilize them into acts of aggression to seize control of the region.

What Rašković did was take a well-respected school of thought in psychology, and twisted it to suit his own beliefs. He energized the masses, which set the scene for the bloodshed and brutality that were to come. To put the final nail in the coffin, he put his protégé, a certain Radovan Karadžić, to head the Serbian Democratic Party, before he passed away from a heart attack.

Put all of that into perspective: Rašković lay the groundwork for this ideology of ethnic cleansing, and Karadžić put it into practice. Both were psychiatrists; both of whom were supposed to act in the best interests of patients, but both of whom were implicated in one of the worst massacres in history.

Misplaced Knowledge Leads to Atrocities

Much like the exploitation of psychiatry seen in Nazi Germany, as well as the political abuse of psychiatry in regions such as the Soviet Union, this serves to show that the knowledge and power associated with being a physician, when placed in the wrong hands, can lead to dire consequences, such as some of mankind’s worst ever atrocities.

Doctors are the crucial lifesavers of society in which there is a perilously thin line between life and death. These two abused psychiatry and did the exact opposite. Many Bosnians have to live with the indelible mark of that tragedy, with very high levels of PTSD and depression existing both within Bosnia & Herzegovina, as well as in Bosnian expatriates and former refugees around the globe even today.

It is a part of history that is to be condemned, never forgotten, and never repeated ever again.


Bjelic, D. (2011). Normalizing the Balkans: Geopolitics of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry. London: Routledge doi:10.4324/9781315598543

Kozaric-Kovacic, D., Folnegovic-Smalc, V., Skrinjaric, J., Szajnberg, N. M., & Marusic, A. (1995). Rape, torture, and traumatization of Bosnian and Croatian women: Psychological sequelae. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65(3), 428-433. doi:10.1037/h0079656

Perper, J. A., & Cina, S. J. (2010). When Doctors Kill: Who, Why, and How. New York, NY: Springer New York.


Reflecting on the Abuse of Psychiatry in Genocide: The Yugoslav Wars

Racheed Mani, B.A.

Racheed Mani, B.A. is now pursuing a medical degree at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine. He previously received his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and psychology at New York University, while also serving as a psychiatric clinical research assistant.


APA Reference
Mani, R. (2020). Reflecting on the Abuse of Psychiatry in Genocide: The Yugoslav Wars. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Apr 2020
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Apr 2020
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