On the Balkans

The easiest way to define the Balkans is the region wherever the Ottoman empire had its permanent or contiguous settlements as opposed to marauding bands of raiders who crossed many times the shifting boundaries of the empires, like the Habsburgs, vying for the attention and loyalty of the people. The Ottoman horseback riders crossed into ethnic Slovenian territory. They went as far as northern Italy. But they never left a settlement that would be defended for any considerable period of time. So, in this regard, Slovenia does not fall into the Balkans.

However, it is perfectly clear from the geographic point of view that the Balkans – or rather one of its mountainous backbones, the Dinara Mountains – do start in Slovenia. But geography is a poor crutch to lean on when defining such an elusive territory. In this regard, one needs to point out that Hungary was stuck with the Ottoman influence and therefore should be considered Balkan. The pashas hung out in Buda and lorded it over much of southern Hungary – for 450 years.

I know that the definition of what is the Balkans depends on where you stand. For the Austrians and their petit bourgeois tabloids, the Balkans begins at the southern station of Vienna’s zitbanhof where you can find Serbo-Croatian taverns and other establishments. For other Austrians it is the mountain range of the Karavankev.

If you ask many Slovenians, the dominant opinion, or at least the dominant trait of the Slovene imaginary, the Balkans are defined by the Kolpa and Sutla rivers, which form the “natural” border with Croatia. If you look into the opus of Nils Karadlja, possibly the most famous Slovenian modernist writer of the 20th century, the Balkans begins at the posh Zagreb hotel Esplanade. The Croats don’t want to be stuck with the label of the Balkans. They dismissively pass the buck on to the Serbs with their Orthodox Christian and Byzantine political-legal traditions. The Serbs present themselves in the modern periods as the bastion of Christianity against the onslaught of the “Green International” represented by the Ottoman empire (and today, many Serbs would have you believe, by the Kosovars). Only the Bulgarians have no qualms about being Balkan. The Romanians are divided. Much of Romania lies north of the Danube, which is often taken as a marker.

It is not geography alone that sticks in the mental frame of the collective-symbolic geography. The main divide, the one that is pushed ever further south is, of course, the dividing line between civilization and chaos, between rational-formal-technical agreements on the one hand, along with the aggressive linear understanding of time that is the linchpin of a West based on Latinate Christianity, and the passionate-irrational-primordial impulses that somehow connect to cyclical mythological archetypes. This is to invoke Medieval Christendom as the foundation of the modern Western paradigm, a medieval paradigm in which the self-understanding of Europe as a separate civilization was possible. In modern Europe, this paradigm became the basis for the enlightenment, the separate competences of science, religion, art, ethics, and so on, and the three key turning movements that made the modern western paradigm possible: the Renaissance, humanism, and Protestantism. In simpler terms, while modern Europe is inconceivable without this Christian heritage, it is not reducible to it. The division of “civilized West” and “barbaric East” is really the product of the enlightenment philosophers. It was in the 18th century that the likes of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and others produced the self-understanding of the West based on the urban element that breeds freedom and the kind of representative government that stood in sharp contrast to the Asian realms where despotism and passion as opposed to reason rules. Even the French-speaking people of Lorraine were not considered completely, comprehensively European in the writings of Voltaire, who saw them only as potential Europeans, Europeans with a deficit, not yet Europeans – largely because of their rural ways of doing things.

Eastern Europe as the terra incognita of the continent was only very hesitantly mapped – because of its peripheral relationship to the processes of modernization, because of its largely rural and collective forms of life. This applies to Eastern Europe and the Balkans in particular (the “Balkans” only comes into use in the early 19th century). It was Eastern Europe in general and what is today called the Balkans that got the short end of the stick in the imaginary iconography of the values in the west and the north of Europe, where reason and industry ruled. The south, on the other hand, was backward, implicitly lazy, and ruled by uncivilized behavior. The Balkans loses on two counts. It is eastern and it is southern.

So, a good tool for an understanding of the Balkans is the understanding of Ottoman rule and its influence on local populations and how they understand collective life, government, and so on. It is utterly impossible for Greece to claim anything else but being embedded in the Balkan tradition. Any efforts to style Greece as a largely Mediterranean country flies in the face of evidence that Mediterranean Spain and Mediterranean Greece scarcely have anything in common. It is important to look at the local appropriation of Ottoman rule – what was kept and integrated over the long term in the form of collective behavior – as a process of the glocalization of general Ottoman rule.

 

Americanization

If Balkanization designates the process by which the units in a larger conflict disintegrate into smaller, unviable units, then Americanization implies that the smaller units fall into a larger, “universal” civilizing pattern or mode of imagining the world. If this is the provisional definition, then one cannot be thought of without the other. To use a different example, communism as the universal pattern spread across the region but was not adopted in a monolithic, homogenous way over the vast path from Tallinn to Timisoara. Similarly, the universal patterns of Americanization, this way of doing and imagining things, is not adopted in the same way across the globe. The local appropriation of the universal patterns is tailored to the particular agenda of the local elites and populations. This is glocalization.

I don’t think that Americanization is a good term. I prefer the westernistic paradigm, to distinguish it from solely American influence. It is not western, but westernistic, as it is haltingly practiced across the globe. It is impossible to travel or traffic in symbols and goods and avoid the features of the western paradigm such as the trappings of the nation-state, democratic elections, human rights (though human rights is of more recent vintage as a globalized part of the westernistic paradigm). The distinctively Western way that time is organized has been grudgingly adopted by, say, observant Orthodox Jews and Muslims who count years in a different manner and organize their understanding of time in a different way. The same is true for orthodox Christians, whose sense of sacred time derives from the Georgian calendar.

 

Central Europe

In the writings of the writers and intellectuals and artists engaged in the debate about the specificity of “Central Europe” in the 1980s and early 1990s, it became ever so clear that Central Europe, politically speaking, was just a waiting room for the formerly communist East to enter the club of the privileged West. Politically, this idea failed. It had no life other than in the establishment of and the documents produced by the Visegrad group. It never enjoyed any kind of political cachet to speak of. In a cultural sense, the influence of what was once the Habsburg empire can still be discerned.

I‘ve just returned from Warsaw where I spent some quality time with my young 27-year-old, Polish-born and Harvard-educated assistant, who took me on a walk through his hometown of Gdansk, the formerly German town of Danzig. Invariably we discussed the commonality of Slavs and citizens who live in countries of shared destinies. We dutifully noted the yellow facades of the Maria Theresa stations that existed uniformly across the Habsburg empire, the bourgeous gemutlichkeit, the mannerisms of the Seccessionist architecture style that can be discerned in the public buildings and the landscape architecture across these provinces. In those pockets where the Central European idea can be detected, the love and hate of the Germanic cultural paradigm must be taken into account.

Just as Danzig was polonized in the 20th century, so too were the other large cities across Central Europe subjected to the principle of the ethnic homogenization in the 20th century after the disintegration of the Habsburg empire, under whose ecumenical roof more than 30 nations gathered. What came to distinguish Central Europe, in its Mitteleuropa inflection, was that a part of the Slavic and non-Slavic nations did not enjoy the full instruments of the collective will, namely the nation-state. The countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where did they take this idea of the nation-state? From the French enlightenment and German romanticism, the insidious ideology of blood and soil, which was born in the German collective imagination to better forge the consolidation of German states and which then metastasized later on. In the works of the Baltic German Herder, each and every collective has the right to celebrate its inalienable spirit and not just historic nations. This building of the nation-state as the embodiment of the supreme collective was unfolding from the bottom up not from the top down as was the case in the French republic where, at the time the head of the last Bourbon rolled down from the guillotine into the basket, only one out of five people living on the territory of former kingdom now republic spoke French. French citizens had to be made, and the way to do it was not just the new organization of time, which the French revolutionaries attempted and thankfully failed, but the reorganization of space. The design of departments designed to replace historic regions had the intended consequence of severing individuals from their historic regions, from their patrius, from their fecund, immediate embeddedness in the landscape that was not only physically but symbolically appropriate. There were no more Bretons or Occitaines, only French men.

Because of the political and indeed social and cultural heritage of being rule by large multinational and multiconfessional empires, the experience of nation-building in Eastern Europe coming from the bottom up came to be more conducive. The quintessential product of the 19th century, late 18th century – nationalism – was in its first inflection progressive. Nationalism was used against the hereditary privileges of the aristocracy and the privileges of the clerics. Its emancipatory potential was keenly felt and enthusiastically adopted across Eastern Europe.

It is notable if not lamentable, and I speak here as a Slovenian, that during the Spring of Nations of 1848, of all the numerous nations that clamored for more autonomy and the kind of home rule that would allow them to deal not only with their cultural affairs, which was provided by empire, but political affairs as well, among all those nations under the ecumenical wing of the Habsburgs, the Slovenians were not able to muster enough political courage to go it alone. The going-through-the-motions of acquiring a nation state were performed, but they stopped short of asking for complete independence from the throne, in the so-called May Declaration put together by the Vienna Slovenians then supported by the larger Slovenian population. They settled for the highest autonomy. If I can speak tongue-in–cheek, they asked for more than autonomy and less than independence – which is exactly what the Serbs are offering the Kosovars.

 

The Erased

The phenomenon of the Erased demonstrates that no democratic order can be established without the repression of the particular. In so far as democracy is put forward within the confines of the nation-state, it is presented as universal, applicable to each and everyone. Yet it seems to require its “other.”

In the Slovenian case, the category that came to known by the insidious term of “the erased” served two purposes. The members of this group largely came from former Yugoslav republics. They represent the linguistic and cultural “other” to the dominant national paradigm in the country. Second, the people behind the erasure eliminated the possibility of opposition, or at least eliminated the human pool from which potential opposition could be drawn.

Their status will likely be restored eventually. Such historical injustices though wrapped in legal mantle eventually come to be addressed comprehensively or resolved, though perhaps not to satisfaction of all parties involved. I have in mind the question of the Sudeten and Schleswigian Germans, those largely German communities that suffered historical retribution in the aftermath of World War II.