The European Union is currently facing several existential challenges. The recent parliamentary election in Greece resulted in the victory of a political party that rejects the austerity measures the EU and the IMF have insisted on as a condition for bailing out the Greek economy. The debt-ridden country is now on the verge of a possible withdrawal from the Eurozone. Meanwhile, Euroskeptic parties elsewhere in EU – the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, the People’s Party in Denmark – have been gaining ground at the polls. And the EU as a whole has witnessed minimal economic growth, leading to overall disenchantment with the project of political and economic integration.
As a result, the European Union is experiencing strong centrifugal forces. The richer countries like Germany remain strongly anchored in the quasi-federal structure, and Germany is only getting richer. Countries like Greece and Spain, on the other hand, have been getting poorer, and they are beginning to resent the control that the EU – and German banks – exerts over their political and economic decision-making.
It all sounds eerily familiar for some EU members. After all, the counties of former Yugoslavia experienced the political and economic tensions of their federal structures for a couple of decades before the country fragmented in the early 1990s and descended into war. Slovenia and Croatia, the richer republics, resented the political control exerted by Serbia as well as the redistribution of funds to the poorer republics.
“It is nationalism that tore Yugoslavia apart, and it will be nationalism, albeit masked in economic terms, that may rip apart the Eurozone and the enlarged EU,” the Slovenian poet and cultural critic Ales Debeljak told me in an interview in August 2013 in Vienna, where he was on a Bosch fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences. “This is a striking parallel, maybe superficial but nonetheless telling, and which many Slovenians are not willing to stomach: the situation in the 1980s in Yugoslavia on the one hand and the situation of the EU of today on the other. I’m talking here about the difference between the debtors and the creditors. Slovenia occupied the position of creditor within the former Yugoslavia.”
As a creditor, Slovenians came “to see themselves as the best part of the former Yugoslavia,” Debeljak continued, “and they have been seen as such by many Yugoslavs – all of us conveniently forgetting that the economic nationalism and the ethnic homogeneity of the community helped pave the way for the unrest that occurred after independence. They’ve also forgotten that there’s a very thin line between defensive and militant nationalisms. Slovenians were saying, ‘We won’t pay for the debts accrued by the Kosovars’ – in other words by the less developed, by those ‘sub-humans,’ by that ultimate ‘other’ in the land of southern Slavs.”
What goes around comes around. “Slovenians were creditors in Yugoslavia, and now in European times they are the debtors,” Debeljak concluded. “Before, Slovenians were loath to adopt the attitude of solidarity and agree with the redistribution of wealth that would have perhaps deprived them of what they thought was rightfully theirs. And this sense of entitlement derived simply from sharing the border with Austria and Italy, seeing over the border at how consumer capitalism can boost appearances and blind their eyes with spectacle. That was what we wanted. That was our standard, nothing less. We were egotists. But now we say, ‘Wait a moment, what about European solidarity? What about renegotiating the debt? What about the tremendous profits that creditors get from debtor countries? Shouldn’t we rethink solidarity?’”
We had a wide-ranging conversation that touched on some of the same themes from our discussion in Ljubljana in 2008: the reasons for Yugoslavia’s unraveling, the literary landscape after the wars of the 1990s, the challenge of constructing a pan-European history, the brittleness of social and political institutions.
Interview with Aleš Debeljak
JF: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
AD: That fall, I had just returned from classes at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University in the wasteland of upstate New York. I was staying at a dilapidated, student-rented villa that I shared with two fellow graduate students from India, both Marxists from Delhi, which was always interesting, and a young German scholar of law, Wolfgang, who broke the news to me. Then we went to watch TV. Being on a different continent yet keenly following the events, I was myself taken by surprise because I believed in endless reform not in revolution. These “velvet revolutions” turned out to be “refolutions,” a combination of reform and revolution. While we were busy explaining to the interested observers from the West that Western democracy did not emerge without bloodshed and without huge societal conflict, either, it turned out that Adam Michnik was right on the mark when he said that nationalism is the last stage of communism — and that has been proved with a vengeance, not least of all in the country of my birth, Yugoslavia.
JF: In 1989, what did you think was going to happen in Yugoslavia Did you have any inkling that Michnik’s prediction would apply to Yugoslavia, or did you think that the future would be endless reform?
AD: As far as I can recall, my analytical capacities were hampered because I was caught up in the popular movement that clamored for an independent nation-state for Slovenia. I must say, however, that I’m fully aware that the choice to go it alone was the least evil of all the choices available. One must not forget that it was way into the second half of the 1980s that the Slovenian Communist leadership attempted to seek and secure compromise in an ongoing process of reform only to see all those efforts scuppered. From asymmetrical federation to Swiss-style confederation, a variety of modes of convivencia were tabled and ended up in the dustbin under the desk of Slobodan Milosevic. With the rise of Milosevic it became clear that the Serbian leadership, and indeed it seemed a great deal of the population at large as well, was committed to transforming the federal state from a common project into a continuation of Serbia by other means. When the Serbian authorities broke into the Yugoslav bank reserves and appropriated the commonly held funds, it became clear that the gloves were off.
As I said, I was taken by surprise, but that was quickly replaced by horror. The summer of 1991 certainly changed my world. I had just returned from the United States for a summer-long vacation in Slovenia. I’d kept abreast of developments and expected a lot of name-calling in the newspapers and an increased rhetorical frenzy. But I was taken aback by the clear and recognizable physical threat.
I came back the day before Slovenia’s proclamation of independence on June 25, 1991. The night of independence we were all joyous and vivacious. We sat outside in the sidewalk cafes of old Ljubljana quarter under the Castle Hill. I saw Dimitrij Rupel, the foreign minister who was, it later turned out, foreign minister forever. That shows you the popular, not populist, attitude at the time that the people had toward the government. Rupel and other newly-minted politicians were strolling in the old town and participating in that post-announcement celebration. It was the wee hours of the morning, about 4:30 of the next day that the new country’s first democratically elected president, Milan Kucan, the leader of the transformed Communist party, so ominously predicted would be different, that I returned home. As I was returning in the early morning to my parents’ apartment to finally go to sleep, I glanced at the unusual sight of the “Spanish riders,” the anti-tank barriers on Celovška Street, the main northwest entry to Ljubljana, but it seemed so out of place that it didn’t even register.
It wasn’t long after I hit the sack that my father woke me up and said that it was war. It sounded like something from the movies. I simply couldn’t believe it. I got up, jumped on my bicycle, and pedaled back to downtown where the editorial offices of the magazine Nova Revija was quickly turning into a mass communications switchboard. The CNN crew was already in Ljubljana. “Aha,” I thought, “the vultures are in town smelling blood.” The first field interpreter for the crew had quit after the first day. So they popped into the Nova Revija office and asked if anyone would like to join. Without much ado, I said I would. And I did.
I remember witnessing the battle in Gornja Radgona. I was standing next to Jim Clancy, interpreting into his ear what the subject in front the camera was saying. But it was barely discernible because of the gunfire on the square a hundred meters away. We were shielded by the church wall, though, behind which we were conducting the interview. I couldn’t believe it. One hundred meters away was serious gunfire that I’d only heard before in partisan movies. I couldn’t rationally or emotionally stomach the fact that this was real. I thought: no, this can’t be happening. Mercifully it lasted only 10 days in Slovenia. But the rest of the country? Now they dedicate books, special issues, collections of testimonies to this big subject of the past, a past so bloody that nothing in my life prepared me for.
All of these attempts to explain the war in former Yugoslavia — in terms of rural versus urban elements, nationalist versus Communist, secular versus religious, Serbs versus Croats — carry some validity as far as they go. But I have not come across a single convincing argument or series of arguments that maintain that it was bound to happen. If it wasn’t bound to happen, then why did it happen? Why did we allow it to happen?
As someone who has attempted to wrest nationalism from the hands of right-wing politics, not willing to cede an important, albeit contradictory, source of one’s personal makeup in this titanic war of narratives between cosmopolitanism, communism, and nationalism in the 20th century, I believe that it was nationalism that nevertheless carried the day. Nationalism is simple and gut-felt. It neatly divides the world into us and them. And it has succeeded in naturalizing history. No other competing narrative has managed to do that. After Tito’s death, the ideology of socialist brotherhood and unity was slowly shredded to pieces. In the absence of an integrative ideology after Tito’s death, the top echelons of power could only come up with the slogan “After Tito, Tito.” They couldn’t think of anything else! The discrediting of political imagination became painfully visible. Never mind the debt the country accrued in the 1980s in particular. In the absence of an integrative narrative — if ideology is too much of an abused word — the elites in the respective republics of former Yugoslavia had little recourse to anything else. They reached for what turned out to be the only game in town — the tools and methods of national homogenization. We had a lot of wishful thinking about the defensive nature of Slovenian nationalism and the collective natural right of self-determination. But we sobered up when the question of the Erased came up and made a fundamental stain in the makeup of the Slovenian nation-state.
The Erased had permanent residency in Slovenia. They were mainly, but not exclusively, citizens of Yugoslavia, and at the same time, citizens of one of the Yugoslav republics. After Slovenia became an independent nation-state on the 25th of June 1991, citizens of the former Socialist Republic of Slovenia automatically became citizens of the newly declared independent Republic of Slovenia. Citizens of other Yugoslav republics that have had also permanent residency in Socialist Republic of Slovenia, had the opportunity to apply for the citizenship of the newly declared independent Republic of Slovenia. They had six months to apply. After the 27th of February 1992, and in the days that followed, those who had not applied for the citizenship of Slovenia also lost their permanent residency and all the social rights that were connected to that specific legal status. The Constitutional Court of Slovenia established already in 1999 that the erasure was illegal.
Even though it is hard to come to terms with that, it’s the difference between critical patriotism and chauvinism.
It is nationalism that tore Yugoslavia apart, and it will be nationalism, albeit masked in economic terms, that may rip apart the Eurozone and the enlarged EU. This is a striking parallel, maybe superficial but nonetheless telling, and which many Slovenians are not willing to stomach: the situation in the 1980s in Yugoslavia on the one hand and the situation of the EU of today on the other. I’m talking here about the difference between the debtors and the creditors. Slovenia occupied the position of creditor within the former Yugoslavia. Economic nationalism played a considerable role as early as 1964 when Stane Kavcic, the liberal-minded leader of Slovenian Communists, had to swallow a big defeat by not being able to build a highway across Slovenia, with the money earmarked instead for the construction of the Crvena Zvezda (nickname: Marakana) stadium in Belgrade. That was the way the redistribution of income or GDP was carried out, with an authoritarian hand.
Slovenians have gradually come to see themselves as the best part of the former Yugoslavia, and they have been seen as such by many Yugoslavs – all of us conveniently forgetting that the economic nationalism and the ethnic homogeneity of the community helped pave the way for the unrest that occurred after independence. They’ve also forgotten that there’s a very thin line between defensive and militant nationalisms. Slovenians were saying, “We won’t pay for the debts accrued by the Kosovars” – in other words by the less developed, by those “sub-humans,” by that ultimate “other” in the land of southern Slavs. The Albanians, of course, were not by any means the only minority. Yugoslavia could boast of the legal protection of 10 minorities in the last constitution which again makes it similar to the EU. The last constitution of SFRY was adopted in 1974, but national minorities were not mentioned specifically. However, nationalities that were recognized and were also listed in 1981 in census were: Albanians, Bulgarians, Czechs Hungarians, Romanians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Italians, Roma, and Turks. It was this ability to balance centripetal and centrifugal forces that Tito excelled at, but at a price. I’m not suggesting that the EU should adopt his particular recipe. But we should look into what went wrong in the multinational, multi-linguistic, multi-confessional political organism that was Yugoslavia and that is today the EU (even though of course I know that there are many differences).
Slovenians were creditors in Yugoslavia, and now in European times they are the debtors. Before, Slovenians were loath to adopt the attitude of solidarity and agree with the redistribution of wealth that would have perhaps deprived them of what they thought was rightfully theirs. And this sense of entitlement derived simply from sharing the border with Austria and Italy, seeing over the border at how consumer capitalism can boost appearances and blind their eyes with spectacle. That was what we wanted. That was our standard, nothing less. We were egotists. But now we say, “Wait a moment, what about European solidarity? What about renegotiating the debt? What about the tremendous profits that creditors get from debtor countries? Shouldn’t we rethink solidarity?”
Solidarity, for me, is a fundamental concept in the understanding of European identity. When I was a grad student in the late 1980s, including the annus mirabilis of 1989, we would sit around with raduate students from around the world, including Americans, and no matter the topic we’d ultimately come down on different sides of the fence. All Europeans, whether from the east or west, took the varieties of welfare state for granted, as embedded in who they were as Europeans. That was contrary to most Americans, for whom it was okay, for example, for the highways to have potholes and trains to be poorly developed and health care to be exorbitant. This was interesting. At the time I was wondering about the cultural makeup of Europe and how the bewildering variety coalesces into a story, an image, or an anecdote that evokes an emotional response. In the end, it’s not the cultural variety, which exists everywhere – in India, in Latin America — that binds together Europe. It is the internalized idea of the welfare state, articulated or not. The fear of losing that drives many a protest across southern Europe. It is a political idea that has succeeded in permeating the societal tissue. It will be hard to curtail it without severe consequences.
JF: That’s very true. Even at the moments of the greatest laissez-faire enthusiasm in Eastern Europe, there was a belief deep down that the welfare state should continue. We see that even more palpably today when laissez-faire principles have come up hard against the brick wall of austerity. I want to come back to something you said earlier, that you haven’t heard a convincing argument about why Yugoslavia fell apart. Let me throw two arguments at you. One is that it was Milosevic and a few people around him. If Ivan Stambolic had become the leader of Serbia, we would have seen much different reactions in the other republics. The other argument is the insistence by the international community, and actors on the ground here, on democratic elections in the absence of real political parties and a democratic culture. Only nationalists could profit in the short period of time allotted to the creation of a democratic process.
AD: Yes. But whether that was inevitable is another question. Yes, these are the reasons. In larger terms, there was a dearth of alternative narratives.. It was as if the lid that Communist Eastern Europe had put on the ethnic question did not hold in Yugoslavia, which was constantly dealing with its multitude of ethnicities, both normatively and in lived experience. But after Tito’s death, the integrative narrative was melded together with what was increasingly known as the Communist past, and they had to be rejected, baby and bathwater both. . But the fact is that Serbian nationalism, aided by the counter-nationalism of Croatia under Franjo Tudjman, reared its ugly head perfectly in keeping with the Nacertanije of 1844, making us believe that Serbian political leadership regardless of orientation is committed to ethnically defined politics enacted at times conducive to their realization. The nacertanije was a plan that was written by Ilija Garasanin, a minister of interior of Serbia. Garasanin presented a nacrt or plan (that is why the document was called nacertanije) for how to reestablish a Serbian monarchy that would have its foundations in the 14th-century Serbian Empire and was established by the Emperor Dušan the Mighty. Nacertanije proposed which territories should be included in the new Serbian Empire: the duchy of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the northern part of Albania. .
This nacertanije was a kind of Drang nach Westen (drive to the West) that defined the line demarcating the western border of Serbia as including all of eastern Croatia and half of Bosnia. The memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (1986) is copied straight from the nacertanije. If Yugoslavia is for the Serbs nothing other than the continuation of Serbia by other means, then the remaining republics don’t have any other choice but to see themselves as subservient or subjugated, either militarily or by political means.
In the context of the great transformations of 1989, all of the composite countries fell apart: Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia why did it happen violently? It may very well be that it was a question of the wrong men in the wrong place at the right time. We must not forget how easily the massaging of the people’s minds could be carried out in the pre-digital era when TV was king. Throughout the 1980s, Milosevic tolerated Radio Free Belgrade, the weekly Vreme, and a few other outlets like the Center for Cultural Decontamination — these were the bricks in the fragile building of the other Serbia. Milosevic could then put a carnation in his lapel and say, “I am a democrat since I allow various critical voices to be heard.” But he controlled TV, the media that reached into every last village in Serbia proper and beyond. .
The stereotyping and stigmatization that drew on the rich heritage in the region quickly became the rhetoric of the dominant media. And from stigmatization to liquidation is but one step. For example, Bosnians were in the rabidly nationalist Serbian press and television programs consistently called the “Turks,” a designation that became a derogatory term in light of the nearly half-millennium-long Ottoman presence in Bosnia and in the Balkans, which facilitated the reduction of the humanity in the “enemy.”
JF: We saw a similar development after 2001 in the United States — an inability of intellectuals to recognize the power of television and popular media, and a continued belief that if we say something –
AD: – it’s enough. I have a word-centered interpretation of this dilemma. Why in Communist times did the regime pay such great attention to what was said? Why was the text so obsessively scrutinized for hidden metaphors that might undermine the regime? It’s because the regime itself was founded on the Text, on the impersonal voice of History. Hence, it operated within certain parameters where the spoken but particularly the written word carried the most social validity and was for that same reason politically explosive and had to be manipulated properly. I know that you may counter by saying that Lenin was the first to recognize the potential of the film and reproductive media. That’s all true, and that was done. But one has to look into the history of Eastern Europe as a whole since the Romantic era. It was a very textocentric culture. It was the text that elevated the Poles, divided among the three empires, to the level of a nation in a modern sense, and it was the poet Adam Mickiewicz who did so. That happened across the board, from Sandor Petofi in Hungary to Mihai Eminescu in Romania to Njegos in Serbia and Montenegro to Preseren in Slovenia, as Andrew Wachtel brilliantly demonstrated in his uniquely comparative book, Remaining Relevant after Communism: The Role of the Writer in Easter Europe (2006). It was always the text. If we don’t have economics or politics at the highest level, then we will belabor the cultural field. To quote one of the founding fathers of modern Slovenia, in order to escape the fate of being either Russians or Prussians, we have to create our own text: our own literature, belles-lettres, and poetry in particular.
After the end of World War I and the disintegration of the empires, the new nation states sprang up. With the exception of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, these were nation-states with one dominant ethnicity. The authoritarian regimes have reached into the text-centric heritage to drum up the feelings of the populace at large. Communists were bent on beginning from scratch in the wake of the World War II, declaring all the preceding cultural forms as the matter of the rotten bourgeoisie. Nonetheless they referred to and strengthened the text-centric tendency in the respective ethnic cultures because these were the only markers that helped establish differences within the larger internationalist project. In other words, it was as if Communist internationalism was built in each country differently according to the same principles: reach into the past, reappropriate it for the contemporary purposes of claiming continuity, retrospectively rewrite the understanding of selected popularly validated authors as n being on the social democratic and anti-bourgeois side, that is, a kind of Communists avant la lettre, and thus create the national literary canon. The Communists, even in the last decade of the lives of the regimes, played on this commitment and loyalty to the text in the abstract sense: the text as the template of what is to be done.
JF: I can think of no better case proving the case than the opposite: North Korea. In fact, North Korea is an example of a country that’s not text-centric, because they eliminated the intelligentsia. Instead, they took Lenin’s insight into film, and its reproducibility, to its logical end. The regime has been able to reproduce its messages faithfully through film — not through theater, because that could be interpreted differently throughout the country. The text was so important under Russian communism that students could recite poem after poem, even of bourgeois poets. But in North Korea, people don’t recite poems. They recite the lines from movies. And there are contests that take place at the workplace level in which people play the roles of the seminal films, all written (at least in theory) by Kim Il Sung and all filmed (at least in theory) by his son. It’s a remarkable lineage that fuses the technology with the personality cult. No dissident culture has emerged in North Korea.
AD: Because it has no outlet. How do you counter that? That’s why typewriters from a bygone era had to be reported in many Communist countries the way you report a handgun or a rifle in the US today. Communists took Bertolt Brecht seriously since they saw a book as a weapon. No more. So, there’s a good cocktail party opener: do you know why poets make such grandiose claims? Because nobody pays attention to them! Now the fate of the poet is the fate of the chattering classes, the fate of intellectuals in general. Nobody is censoriously peeking over your shoulder, and nobody takes seriously what you do, either.
JF: Unless the poet picks up a gun. Think of the writers who became generals in the Yugoslav wars.
AD: That may have been a temptation to bridge the divide between the word and the deed. The recent history of World War II and the resistance carried such powerful incentives for what can be done when that divide is bridged or crossed: it’s a temptation that some greybeards could not resist, and many youngsters as well. Testosterone combined with unemployment meant that the war was one of the few viable options left.
JF: Often when I read the psychoanalyzing of the figures critical in these military and paramilitary communities, there’s a tendency to say that they picked up arms out of particular frustrations in their own life rather than recognizing that if it happens to more than one person –
AD: – then it’s not just an accumulation of individual cases. But it boggles my mind to this day: how did this happen? And we know from history that it can happen, and has happened, as neighbors turn on neighbors overnight. You don’t need to go to far-away history or to distant places. Barbarism happened, repeatedly, in this very place, in highly cultured Vienna.
JF: That’s been the debate in Poland over the last decade with the publication of the book Neighbors.
AD: And you see how long it took before it was acknowledged, and just barely. But that seems a necessary condition for a more balanced entry into the future. You must come to terms with the past, as the Germans say. That’s something that most nations are failing to do. It’s been more than 20 years since Slovenia’s independence, and the cleavage of the civil war still lingers even though it was fought 70 years ago when, during the Fascist and Nazi occupation, some Slovenians chose to support the occupying forces out of their anti-Communism. It’s still being exploited. There is no swift or decisive action on the part of the court system to prosecute, to unearth and really bring to light the crimes of the past. It’s been done, but only haphazardly.
Slovenians didn’t need to have an ethnic difference, like Poland’s relationship with ethnic Jewry. We did it to each other, without a linguistic or ethnic divide. .
JF: The animosity is passed down from generation to generation.
AD: When does it end? I understand the frustration of the young generation. Who is going to care about all these bones: what does it have to do with us? But I share some lingering feeling that it does have something to do with us, who are living on that very territory, precisely because it was used and abused, and we have to come to terms with both the use and the abuse. It’s not just the pleasant view of the hills and forested landscapes that makes it Slovenia. It’s also the impossible weight of history, which you either duck away from, pretend isn’t there, or try to integrate into your heritage and collective imaginary, for better or worse. In order to avoid this history, one must study it, particularly because when it repeats, it repeats as a farce.
JF: What about your children? Have you looked at the textbooks they’re using and talked about what’s missing?
AD: Yes, we’ve had often these discussions. Seven or eight years ago, during Fat Tuesday in the Lenten period of Catholic festivities when the custom is for kids to don costumes and go house to house, like Halloween in America, complete with trick-or-treating, one of my boys turned into a Partisan. I provided him with a leather shoulder-strap bag that imitated the officer corps bag. He already had a wooden rifle. He put on my Pioneer hat. And lest people be mistaken who he was, I wrote the slogan “Death to Fascism and Liberty to the People” and pinned it on his breast. Then he went off. He was the one and only Partisan. It was a very original costume. I asked him if he had to explain to people who he was and quite a few were confused what figure he actually represented. There were plenty of Osama bin Ladens at the time, in part because it was such an easy costume to make: just take some bed linen and off you go.
In more serious terms, I talk a lot about World War II with my 14- and 16-year-old sons in particular. We’ve discussed it at home. I have a habit of pointing out the memorials and plaques in Ljubljana and also in outings to nearby hills and forests. I’ve even taken the trouble to bring them deep into Kocevski Rog forest, where the headquarters of the Slovenian resistance movement, a part of Tito-led partisan resistance force, were carefully hidden from the occupiers. It was during the summer, and throughout the day, save for two elderly visitors, we were the only ones in what is now an open-air museum featuring the barracks, the printing press, the small cafeteria. It is still fascinating to go there and imagine that all around were occupied forces that held more than half of Europe. And here was a resistance movement that not only survived but also won! I reminded my kids until they got bored when we went on outings in the winter, that our outings would last six to eight hours at most, but then we would be safely back in a heated mountain hut, where we could take off our coats and soggy socks, and use modern devices. But the partisans! What a momentous personal decision each and every one had to make when they went into the forest! I can understand adventuresome 17-18 years olds, bearing no burden of property ties, leaving their town, their friends, their family and going off to the forest. Maybe they had a gun, but often at the beginning they had nothing except their bare hands and their resolution not to bear the occupation. That’s a tremendous decision. But intellectuals doing that? Without a library, without a typewriter? Okay they carried some. But it was an amazing effort. I never want to forget, so I tell my kids.
JF: But this was largely absent in their schooling?
AD: Unfortunately it’s glossed over. It’s not seen as heroic as it should be. One should only distinguish between the resistance and the revolution. Although the revolution overtook the resistance after 1943, it does not invalidate the resistance itself. Only 10 percent of the partisans were organized Communists, and that by the end of the war. The rest were critical patriots, who loath to kowtow to the politics of acquiescence to and collaboration with the Fascist and Nazi regimes, maintained by the political leadership of Royal Yugoslav Slovenia as well as the Roman Catholic Church here. These people went to the forest to fight against what some would have been happy to accept in the name of the lesser evil. And that was done when nobody was rising up against the victorious German armies. It’s hard to dismiss that in the name of the pathologies of the revolution after the war. Yet I find Yugoslavia very interesting because of its constant efforts to modernize, to reform, to keep expanding the field of possible, to keep attending to newly articulated desires, always tight-roping between unity and diversity. It’s the same challenge the EU is facing: socialism versus capitalism, cult of personality versus the inability of the population to even name the fellow who runs the European Commission today.
JF: One of the things that the architects of the EU thought was important was coming to terms with history. German and French historians sat down to come up with common textbooks. Okay, some of it might have been sanitized. But it served an important goal of integration at a public level and not just the level of manufacturing.
AD: There are some limited efforts to create pan-European history books. Among similar, though infrequent projects, is the Europe in the Making series published in Amsterdam by Open University and a consortium of north European academic centers. It creates a sort of integrated history, which of course is treacherous terrain. Nowhere else but in history can you see that one nation’s hero is another nation’s villain. It’s even more so in former Yugoslavia because of the freshness of its impact. Achieving a modicum of consensus across European lands proved to be a really thorny issue, which we saw with the disintegration of the Berlin Wall and the nagging question of what Eastern Europe brings to the EU. By and large, its contribution is only trauma, pain, and division. And a separate understanding of what the end of World War II meant. It wasn’t a victory but a defeat for many, which accounts for the bloodlands, as Timothy Snyder has aptly described the region in his recently published Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010).
JF: So the project out of Amsterdam tries to integrate the histories of East and West Europe?
AD: Yes, it’s a series in which historians are working together. H. & E. Kleber-Stiftung in Frankfurt/Main also did a series of books in which they invited historians from various nations to contribute, follow the debates, and hammer out a consensus.
JF: These are for university students?
AD: Yes. Ninety percent of the history courses across Europe are nation-centered or ethnicity-centered. Here again is demonstrated the capacity of the nationalist narrative to insinuate itself through socializing institutions like schools and permeate every pore of societal tissue and the minds of individuals. What is today taken for granted by an overwhelming majority of Europeans is that this belonging to a particular ethnicity and a language had to be constructed as well. If that had to be constructed over the course of 200 years, there’s no reason to believe that it can’t be done again with new building blocks.
Come to think of it, 200 years ago, what did a Slovenian vintner working in the vineyards of an aristocratic lord in the vicinity of Marbor have to do with a fisherman outside of Trieste? After all, they spoke different languages or dialects. And what’s the difference between a language and a dialect? An army.
JF: That’s what they say: a language is a dialect with an army.
AD: And Yugoslavia is a good laboratory to prove that, independent Montenegro being the latest, though most certainly not the last, case in point. The constitution of independent Montenegro, passed in 2007, declares that “dj” is a separate letter to distinguish it from the Serbian language, so that Montenegrin not only uses the traditional Latin alphabet but has declared its separate status from Serbian by declaring an additional letter to be a unique part of a putative Montenegrin language. Still, I haven’t found anyone, however, that would agree with an assumption that the political breakup of Yugoslavia and the concomitant emergence of the new nation-states have suddenly rendered me a polyglot simply because I understand, speak, and read the language once known as Serbo-Croatian.
The nation had to be created. Germany, likewise: that sense of Germanness, that dangerous metaphysical idea carefully constructed through the 19th century. Ernest Gellner and others have researched in detail the intertwining currents of industrialization and the rising popularity of mass media, plus the ability of the state to shape that mentality. Nationalism, over the course of the years, naturalized history. What was manmade turned into a fact of nature. There’s no reason to believe that it can’t be done otherwise if the guiding vision is different. Since I said the first part, I’ll now say the corollary. The breakup of Yugoslavia is the ultimate result of the Europeanization of the region, because Yugoslavia was a federal polity made up of relatively autonomous parts. It was the last bulwark against the tidal wave of nation-states that only came to fruition with the disintegration of the multinational polity. The EU has tried to enter the post-modern, that is, post-national condition. But in former Yugoslavia, we see the establishment of nation-states modeled on the Romantic, that is, modern-era model of the German or French nation-building
JF: A colleague and I did a book at that time — Europe’s New Nationalism – in which we did a review of the post-World War II literature. The consensus in political science was that nationalism was dying out, with the EU being a prime example of the post-national trend. Until the events after 1989.
AD: The nation-state continues to have its appeal. Look at the Catalan, the Welsh, the Scot: they all want a nation-state despite the abuses it suffered in its notorious history. Even though the claims for the independent nation-state by Catalans, Welsh, Scots — nations without a state — come against the backdrop of European integration, one wonders if this is not the ultimate proof that the building block of international relations is the nation-state. Sovereign nation-states might enter into agreements to create institutions like the EU. But ultimately nation-states are the masters of their fates. And that temptation seems to be the guiding light in the popular drive for the nation-state.
However, I seriously wonder whether a nation-state continues to be a viable format for the organization of human affairs. We know now that there are many issues that nation-states can’t solve. I participated in all but one of the anti-austerity demonstrations in my country during the years of 2012 and 2013, and have written extensively about the rightful claims against the abuses of power and widespread, perhaps even structural, corruption of the polities we live in. If these demonstrations and protests remain localized and relatively small, gauged against the populations of the respective nation-states, they will not gain the kind of traction needed to seriously threaten the self-perpetuation of the financial regime. That accounts for the fact that the political colors of the elected governments might change, but the policy doesn’t. That is something that can only be challenged if the resistance is likewise internationalized, responding internationally to what is essentially an international interest, that is, the rejection of power, concentrated in the one percent. .
JF: How is it that we’ve gone in less than two decades from the triumph of liberalism, of market and democracy welded together, to the exhaustion of this model, its rejection on the street, its rejection by intellectual elites, its rejection by parties of the Left and Right?
AD: I don’t know. Maybe we’ve taken a lot of this for granted. Many citizens in democratic society not bothering to vote doesn’t necessarily spell the apolitical nature of consumer societies. It also hides the embeddedness of democracy in however crippled a form in the daily life of polities. We take for granted what we have. We only need to look at the alternatives to see what may very well be lost if the centripetal forces in today’s crisis really succeed in breaking apart the continental integration. We will be back to isolated semi-viable countries, back to the war-producing balance of power. It’s a nightmare best avoided. How to avoid it, I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone has addressed more than one or two technical issues connected to it.
It’s a question that can be metaphorically cast as a dilemma between developed and late capitalism. If it’s late capitalism, it means that the system will decline and something else will appear on the horizon. If it’s just developed capitalism, with a global amplification, then we’re in for more of the same: it might have different shapes, but it will ultimately remain the same.
I don’t think that other than a few radical thinkers, people are wiling to engage with what has been embedded in the social fabric of Western man, if not global man, and that is private property. The question of private property and its management — vis a vis state property and common property — has been tabled every time we discuss the redistribution of wealth, be it locally, within a nation-state, or at a continental level. What really deserves sanctity: human life or private property? The two are, alas, not coterminous.
JF: You mentioned that you’ve been writing about nature and culture with respect to Slovenia. For the purposes of tourism, Slovenia elevates its nature — the forests, the caves, the stallions. But at another level, there’s a degradation of nature going on at the same time. How are they simultaneous in Slovenia?
AD: Because the dilemma of private property plays itself out in a brilliant way. On the one hand, you have a country that has been endowed with wealth of natural resources and the attendant beauty. In particular, there’s a tremendous landscape variety in a small territory. But it had been so often eulogized and integrated into the mentality of the ethnic community over time that it has become part and parcel of who we are. This “we,” which is taken for granted, is the “we” of the commons, of the community that is challenged every time an individual Slovenian has the opportunity and the means and the desire to build his ideal dwelling place, which is a house surrounded by a garden. Slovenians excessively value private property. That’s why there’s a very small fluctuation in the rental market. It’s one of the reasons why so many youngsters stay at home, because it’s so difficult to rent, since everyone sits on their pieces of property. .
The pleasing variety of the landscape is there without any effort on the part of these individual property private owners. They, as part of the “we,” enjoy it, but they will only appreciate it when it is gone. There is no rule written in stone that it will always remain the same. Monocultures are economically more viable, even though environmentally devastating. Yet it is the variety of cultures growing side by side that makes for what the French have recognized as an inalienable part of the mental landscape, which is the natural landscape. That’s why they support the farmers, the vintners, and the olive growers because they produce the landscape that is pleasing to the mind and to the eye (and which also has considerable financial ramifications in terms of tourism). So, we have not come to the point where nature is recognized as something to be managed and respected and maintained. It’s as if the moment you cross the borders of your garden, you think you are in the wilderness that someone else tends.
This close unreflective proximity between the urban dwellers and the natural landscape accounts for the lack of explicitly environmental political parties in Slovenia. Aside from the weak to non-existent Green movement and some very few short-lived efforts at creating a parliament party founded on environmental principles, there hasn’t been any tangible political focus on the natural world or on the crossroads between nature and culture. To many it is taken for granted that the natural world will always be here, that you can get from your doorstep in town to the ski slopes in the Alps in one hour, which is an incomparable luxury and advantage that I can attest to as an avid skier. One can see the intertwinement of the natural world in the language as well. The Slovenian language has many words that refer to manmade interventions in the natural world. There are, for instance, a variety of words for fence, depending on the wood or timber used. In English, a fence is a fence is a fence, and you have to use a qualifying adjective to distinguish between fences. But not in Slovenian.
Urban families in Slovenia who can claim urban status for more than two generations are few and far between. The soles of our shoes are still dirty from the countryside, as it were. In a vain effort to escape that condition, people tend to be more Catholic than the Pope, more urbane than the urbanites. And that sometimes appears as a disdain the elites show toward the natural world. Yet, as I insist, it is the same with the legacy of the natural world in the minds of Slovenians as it is with the legacy of Communism. Communism might have been rejected after 1989 but when you ask people whether they would like full employment, social services to be free of charge, education free of change, they would all say, yes, yes, yes. It’s the same with attitudes toward the natural world. Urbanites, ashamed of their peasant roots, try to escape the natural world, yet if you ask them if they want to be without the provider of oxygen that is the densely wooded mountainous massif of Pohorje and the forest covering two-thirds of the country, they would say no. Would you like to be without the seaside? They would say no. Would you like to be without the lakes or without access to lakes? No. All these things taken for granted are obviously not reflected upon and are not reflected in the mental landscape. Yet they support it.
JF: What is the project you’re working on here?
AD: It’s called the writers of Yu-lantis: the Yugoslav Atlantis. In other words, I’m researching post-Yugoslav literature in light of the common cultural space. It’s my effort at looking at selected authors and their work to see to what extent they draw on the same stock of diverse metaphors and stories that make up the Yugoslav heritage, and to what extent they do that consciously to recreate fictionally what was lost factually.
JF: You’re just at the beginning of this?
AD: I’ve written about it before. It was the parallels I was drawing between the Habsburgs, the Yugoslav experience, and the EU that led me to examine what I’d always been reading for “pleasure”; the works after the disintegration. I was one of the few who expressly maintained, and publicly so, a Yugoslav orientation, if you will. I had been one of the founding members of Sarajevo Notebooks magazine. It’s a big doorstopper of a publication that comes out three times a year, published in Sarajevo and designed in the wake of the Dayton agreement in early 2000 as a forum for non-nationalist writers from the region and beyond. I also sit on the board of the Njegoš Award, an award that the Montenegrin government gives every second year to the best writer among the southern Slavs, another effort that purposefully goes beyond national limits.
I want to look into individual authors from the region, though not necessarily living in the region. Several of them live in the United States, for example, Aleksandar Hemon. To what extent do they participate in the creation of the post-Yugoslav space? I’m not saying that all of these authors I study and write about are post-Yugoslav in their literary outlook. If they were, they’d be ideologues, not writers. But there is by all means a rather discernible current running through their works and is seen as such by more than just me.
JF: Dubravka Ugresic, for instance.
AD: And Slavenka Drakulic. And younger writers as well such as Miljenko Jergović, Vladimir Arsenijević, Muharem Bazdulj and Igor Stiks. I’m trying to see if the debris of the Yugoslav Atlantis can be used to build a similar territory, refracted with the passage of time and against the massive efforts of the respective successor states to Yugoslavia to prove that Yugoslavia was nothing else but an artificial construction.
JF: So you’re looking for a post-Yugoslav republic of letters.
AD: In fact, “In Praise of the Republic of Letters” was the title of the essay I published in World Literature Today, which was the reader’s choice for essay of the decade in this particular magazine. I essayed for Europe in that text what I’m attempting to do for Yugoslavia here. I won’t be looking at it as a writer but as a critic. Since I’m part of the process, part of those who want to maintain ties, it will be challenging. I have cautiously adopted that attitude. Just as one has to cautiously adopt the desire to be a European. Which means that you have to make a premeditated moral choice, because of the overwhelming presence of nationalist narratives in our lives. You don’t have to do anything to become a Slovenian. But in order to become a European one needs to exercise curiosity and compassion, and I am attempting to do the same here.
JF: When you look back to your worldview circa 1989-90, what has changed significantly? You mentioned that early on you were a proponent of Slovene independence, and perhaps that changed slightly, but are there other perspectives from that time that have changed dramatically?
AD: There’s one change and it underwrites all the others. When the process of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia began, when the wars of succession broke out, I realized that if that can happen then anything can. So, making no predictions but keeping up educated hopes, though not too high: that is the sort of cautious attitude that I’ve carried away from the experience. This despite all the exuberance and sadness and happiness about the growth of the country — the first 10 years of Slovenia were great even as I felt helpless rage and sorrow over what happened to the rest of Yugoslavia. If something that was for me self-evident, having been socialized in the country, and it wasn’t the case any more, if it disappeared so violently in the extremes of human folly, , then indeed anything is possible. I allow for all possibilities. That was not the case when I entered college in 1980.
JF: So, for instance, when you look at the EU or the global ecosystem, you don’t look at those as necessarily enduring institutions or sets of relations.
AD: Yes, I am more attuned to the volatility and fragility and brittleness of the institutions we create to make our lives more livable. Although globally speaking, it’s even more difficult to change the habits, the mentalities. As Lord Ralf Dahrendorf once memorably said, that it would take six months to change the political institutions, six years to change the economic institutions, but 60 years to change the mentality. Perhaps that’s too generous. Take Jared Diamond and the example he cites in Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed (2005) where he drew attention to the reasons for the self-extermination of the Easter Island natives. The Easter Island of yesterday is the globe today. The catastrophic scenarios have been written and I don’t think they’re entirely dystopian. They carry some real threat.
As with great numbers, though, these scenarios are inconceivable. You know what it means when someone steals 50 euros from you, but you don’t know what it means when they steal hundreds of millions. It exceeds the capacity to visualize. So too the fact that every year in the Amazon alone, a territory the size of one-and-a-half Slovenias is turned into timber. How long can this go on? It’s a finite resource. And yet, why would only the underdeveloped countries curtail their logging if the Western countries have logged all they can? The ability to think globally and act locally is paltry.
JF: The last questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Slovenia from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?
JF: Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
JF: Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Slovenia, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
This interview, conducted on August 6, 2013, at the IWM, was first published on John Feffer’s website www.johnfeffer.com on February 4, 2015.
© John Feffer, 2015
Aleš Debeljak is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Ljubljana. In 2013 he was a Robert Boch Senior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. In 2012-13, he was an Open Society Fellow looking at the transformations that have taken place in Eastern Europe since 1989.