The Balkans between cliché and European future

Christine von Kohl Memorial Lecture *

Abstract: For the last two centuries the Balkans have been at the center of international relations, eclipsed lately only by the Near East, of which they were once deemed to be a part. At the beginning of the 20th century they were transformed from an innocuous name into a powerful derogatory metaphor that softened with time into a weaker but still negative cliché, to blow up fully again in the 1990s. After analyzing Europe and the Near East as analytical concepts, the lecture focuses on the Balkans as the posited intermediary space between them. Having demonstrated the limitations and shortcomings of the conceptual apparatus built around the notions of civilizations, cultural circles, intermediacy and indeterminacy, it introduces the category of historical legacy. The case is made for the advantages in utilizing the concept of historical legacy as an analytical tool over “path dependence,” as well as over more structural categories of analysis, such as borders, space, and territoriality, because it allows to articulate more clearly the dynamism and fluidity of historical change. Finally, practical issues of the relationship between Europe, the Balkans and the Near East in recent years are addressed, both analytically and politically.

It is a great honor to have been invited to deliver the first Christine von Kohl memorial lecture. I was exceptionally lucky to have known Christine von Kohl personally. In fact, we first met here, at the IWM, more than 10 years ago, and ever since we continued a warm relationship. I am very grateful for the invitation from the Center for European Integration Strategies and personally to Dr. Vedran Djihic, and I want also to express my great pleasure to be back at the hospitable grounds of the IWM.

Today, exactly thirteen years after the original publication of “Imaging the Balkans,” the question stands as to whether its message is still relevant. Is it still an overpowering cliché? Does ‘balkansim” dominate the public space as it did in the 1990s? When in 1999 NATO bombs started falling over Serbia, I predicted that this marked the political end of “balkanism” if it was, as I believed it to be, a discourse whose practical aim was to legitimize the political ghettoization of the Balkans in the post-Cold war drive to enlarge the European Union. As late as 1997, Tony Judt was prediciting that a doomed Byzantine Europe would be standing outside of Europe’s walls. The involvement of West European and American military forces in the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent setting up of formal and informal protectorates (Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania) effectively, if inadvertently, put an end to the policies of isolation and detachment. Romania’s and Bulgaria’s entry in the EU in 2007 was the culmination of a process that was impossible to predict even in 1998. There is no question that “balkanism” has discursively subsided, but has it disappeared as an explanatory tool for processes in the region?

Let us look at its discursive displacement with another dominant trope nowadays: the nature of Islam and the problems of the Near East. I think it is doubly important to raise this question because, unlike in the case of “balkanism,” where its derogatory aspects were naturally resented and resisted, the stereotypes over Islam and the Near East find very favorable reception (or are generated) in the Balkans. I will try to do that by first showing the crystallization of a specific attitude toward Islam based on a concrete example; then analyzing the concepts of Europe and the Near East; further evaluating the notion of intermediacy or indeterminacy as applied both to Islam and to the Balkans; and finally, arguing for the heuristic advantages of the category of historical legacy.

The concrete example I want to present is the work and thought of the great German/Prussian orientalist and politician Carl-Heinrich Becker. This is not to make a claim that his work or beliefs have dominated European Islamic studies but because his case exemplifies very neatly the issues I want to address. When I started reading his Islamstudien, published in 1924, I was struck by the force and insights he brought to bear in fighting stereotypes about Islam. Becker shows the complexities of Islam, he refutes the attempts to depict it as a product of the desert, as being purely an outgrowth of Arab culture, and he gainsays those efforts to explain contemporary Islam exclusively through the Qur’an and Mohammed. He shows its genealogy from Christianity and Judaism, its Aramaic, Greek and Persian roots, and persuasively argues that “Islamic civilization” was possible only because it was grafted onto a pre-existing civilization: the Hellenistic Near East. My first thought on reading Becker was a rather depressing one. I mused on the futility of his prescience given where we now are with regard to cheap popular stereotypes. But while continuing to admire what I was reading, on several occasions I was forced to raise my eyebrows. The first time was when I read that “it is self-evident that the Roman Orient had a strong Western veneer, whereas in the East the Hellenistic cultural elements were increasingly transmuted into a kind of Asianism.” Then came the statement that in the centuries prior to Mohammed the “Near East became ever more Asianized.” What exactly did Becker mean by the concepts of Asianism and Asianization? I read further and they were never defined.

As already mentioned, Becker was amenable to the notion of a unified Islamic civilization only insofar as it was grafted onto a previously existing civilization, the Hellenistic—even if it was a “mixed civilization.” His central idea was that Islam is not simply linked through a complex web of interrelationships with Europe, but was an integral part of the European cultural circle and played a prominent role as mediator between Europe and Asia. Here, then, were two more concepts he apparently deemed unnecessary to define: Europe and Asia. Yet another conceptual pair that he took for granted was East and West. Commenting on the constant clashes between Greece and Persia, and the subsequent conquests of Alexander the Great, he simply stated that “the borders between East and West were becoming increasingly less defined.” The reason all these concepts were undefined was that they were based on a fundamental epistemological premise: Becker’s belief in the concept of cultural circles.

He frankly admitted to taking this concept from Ernst Troeltsch’s theory of cultural history, which posited that modern scholarship cannot encompass humanity as a whole. The reason why this was impossible for them was not because of humanity’s enormity but because it lacked a spiritual unity: “Humanity as a whole has no spiritual unity and consequently no unified development.” The concept which was to solve this aporia became Troeltsch’s “closed cultural spheres.” Troeltsch himself identified several cultural spheres: Egyptian, Hindu, Chinese, and Mediterranean-European-American. He posited this latter sphere as a unified one, but he did not see the Orient in such terms because he felt that the need and capacity for historical self-examination and a critical approach to the past was almost unknown to non-European peoples.

For Becker, painfully aware of the complex and dynamic history of the Near East, this view of the Orient was too extreme—although he did of course accept the uniqueness of the Western Christian sphere as forged by Hellenistic thought and “European willpower,” and he unquestioningly accepted the theoretical premises of closed cultural spheres. Rather he wished to “change somewhat the emphasis.” This for him meant taking into account the “true” historical record and—with some caveats—subsuming the Islamic world of the Near East into the European one. Islam for him became the link between Europe and essential Asia. Becker, however, was too much of a scholar to rely on philosophical intuitions alone. He called on scientific criteria for this thesis and his chief criterion was the notion of cultural affinity. He defined three elemental forces underlying Islamic civilization: the ancient Orient with its Judaic, Persian and Babylonian elements; classical, chiefly Hellenistic antiquity; and Christianity. These three features differentiate Islam from all other Asian cultural spheres. Based on these criteria, he offered his view of Islam’s mediating role between Europe and Asia while simultaneously securing its position within Europe. Becker insisted that this was not only theoretically important but had also an “eminently practical significance”—though he was not precise about the practical side of it. So here was a correction that, from the political point of view—i.e. from the point of view of its repercussions on today’s European policies—sounds quite revolutionary; yet, from a theoretical, philosophical and ethical viewpoint, it is deeply conservative.

Despite its qualified openness to the Near East, it is still based on a fundamentally bifurcated view and on a reified interpretation of civilizational spheres as self-contained monoliths. It is but a small step from here to the superiority syndrome and overt racism. In the opinion of a British resident of the Ottoman Empire in 1857, the Turk had good qualities but his misfortune was “that he does not possess the capacity of indefinite improvement which belongs to the European race. Like the Chinese, Hindoos and, in fact, all Asiatics, there is a degree, and not a high one, of civilization which he cannot surpass, or even long preserve.” I do not accuse Troeltsch, let alone Becker, of racism. Moreover, while the affinity between Troeltsch’s, Spengler’s, Toynbee’s and, more recently, Huntington’s worldview is more than obvious, I do not accuse any of them of racism. All I am saying is that both racism and the idea of closed civilizational and cultural spheres have a common theoretical foundation. This may be the reason why the otherwise prescient plea of Becker to take Islam seriously in all its complexity failed. He embraced the phenomenon, but his whole way of thinking was based on rigid binaries and antinomies centered around the concept of closed civilizations.

Europe and the Near East as Concepts

Europe, like the Holy Trinity, has three hypostases: the Name, the Place, and the Idea, and they all have their divine claims. They also all have “spaces” as one of their central attributes. The name “Europe” first belonged to a consort of the chief God, and she rode on his back (in his incarnation as a bull) from Asia Minor to Crete; it meant something beautiful, big-eyed, broad-faced and just plain broad. The place was first identified by the island Greeks, who designated as “Europe” the mainland stretching north from the Peloponnesus, the area we today call the Balkans, or that archeologists in their specialized language term Old Europe. In the course of several centuries it extended its space westward, encompassing the whole of the western Eurasian land mass, and then it contracted its space, to be finally expropriated by its westernmost part, the one some authors call Visigothic Europe. While this part of Europe, known also by the name of “European Union” or Europe for short, is not quite godlike, it certainly puts on regal airs. Finally, the idea of Europe or, rather, a certain ideal of Europe, undoubtedly has certain divine pretensions as a value system and has succeeded in creating itself as what it is not, or, to paraphrase Edward Said’s characterization of culture, it is constantly defining itself against what it believes to be its opposite. This is a widely disseminated view, although not one that is entirely uncontested. If historians timidly mention Europe’s dubious past or vehemently lambast Eurocentrism while post-colonialists attempt to “de-center” it, for all practical purposes Europe as an idea is proving too powerful and convenient even for the skeptics.

How about the Near East? This concept has a much briefer historical pedigree than Europe, but is no less murky for all that. Notwithstanding the different definitions of Europe, there does exist a reasonable consensus about its geography, whereas the borders of the Near East have shifted over 5000 km to the east or to the west. At first there was only East and West. For Europe, the East began where the Ottoman Empire began (although one would hear the occasional witty remark that it started at the Vienna Landstrasse, Prague or Belgrade). Accordingly, the central diplomatic problem from the late 18 th and through the 19 th centuries was the so-called Eastern Question. It denoted the contest of the great powers primarily over Ottoman territories in Europe, and only later in Asia Minor. By the 1890s, a shift in terms occurred. The age of exploration in the 19 th century designated China, Japan and Malaysia as the Far East. With the competition for spheres of influence in China, there were now two Eastern Questions, a Near and a Far. As a result, “the label Near East elbowed its way into popular usage as a byproduct of the great decade of European imperialism.” More than any other term—certainly more than “Europe”— the term Near East developed as a consequence of the political and strategic interests of outside powers.

Britain in particular was instrumental in contributing to a tripartite division and adopting and imposing a new term: the Middle East. This was officially sanctioned by Churchill in the 1920s, and the Royal Geographical Society decided that henceforth the Near East should denote only the Balkans, the lands from the Bosporus to India would be covered by the Middle East, and that beyond them lay the Far East. By the 1950s Churchill came to correct himself and reserved the term “Near East” for Egypt, the Levant, Syria and Turkey; Persia and Iraq were the Middle East; India, Burma, and Malaya the East; and China and Japan the Far East. By that time Near East had become almost obsolete in the English and American vocabulary, and today Middle East is the dominant term in both political and academic usage, even if most of the languages of continental Europe (German, French, the Slavic tongues) stick with Near East. This overlapping use of the terms Near or Middle East is understood most commonly as the ensemble of Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iran, and all the Arab-speaking states of Asia.

The point here is not to expose the arbitrariness of naming or to deplore the ascriptive power of dominant polities. After all, it is not only “the West” that clumps together distant lands. The Ottoman Empire used to refer to all of Western Europe as Frengistan, and the Arabs themselves refer to one of their own—Morocco—as the Far West (al-maghreb al-aksa). The point is to stress the role of positioning and power. This brief and far from exhaustive survey of the two concepts—Europe and the Near East— demonstrates that, as used today, they are products of the modern era, specifically the last couple of centuries, even though within this time span they have undergone and continue to undergo significant modifications.

But let me be clear: it is not that the modern era has brought about some special misunderstanding, erroneous attribution, or artificial opposition. The two modern concepts, Europe and the Near East—one ancient in name but with a new modern meaning, the other one entirely a product of modernity—have been grafted onto a much earlier division, the one between East and West, Europe and Asia. If we follow the course of this division from antiquity onward, it displays a similarly flexible and shifting geographical nature. Categories in history are notoriously protean and malleable over the longue durée. Not only do the boundaries between concepts shift, these boundaries themselves are permeable, and there is always a grey zone, a no-man’s-land lying betwixt and between. So, what is it that lies between Europe and the Near East? To answer, there is an area that is supposed to link these two separate and opposing entities, an area marked by the characteristics of both, and one that allegedly has an intermediate character—the area we call alternatively the Balkans or Southeastern Europe.

The Balkans as Intermediary Space

I would like to illustrate these notions of intermediacy and changeability first with an example that comes from a period—the early 15 th century—long before the concepts Europe and the Near East had crystallized into their present shape. Ulrich von Richental, a Constance burgher, lived at the time and place of the great Catholic church council of 1414-1418, notorious for its burning of Jan Hus. Inspired by the elevated role played by his home city, Ulrich decided to commemorate the event and in the 1430s penned his Chronik des Constanzer Concils, 1414 bis 1418. It is a work that affords an interesting glimpse into the geographical and political ideas of the educated strata of German-speaking society in the 15 th century. Let us take a closer look at how Ulrich von Richental depicted what we define today as Southeastern Europe.

He classified all the peoples attending the council under two rubrics, listing their ecclesiastical and lay rulers. For his ecclesiastical overview he started first with Asia, since this was seen as composing the largest part of the world. It was now mostly Muslim, and contained 180 Muslim “churches” with more than 1500 “bishoprics.” This Asia extended from Alexandria in the west to India in the east, thus encompassing all those territories today defined as “embracing the Near to the Far East” inclusive North Africa. He then moved to the continent of Africa proper. According to Ulrich, “Africa is Greece, and has two empires in it, Constantinople and Athens.” Let us recall that he wrote at a time when Constantinople was still Byzantine, and he was thus alluding to Eastern/Orthodox/Greek Christianity. To this Africa Ulrich also added “Wallachia and Turkey, and all the lands that are buttressed by the sea and lie athwart Jerusalem as well as those on the other side of the Danube.” This part of the world, according to Ulrich, was larger than Europe and people there “keep in the greater part the Greek Orthodox faith, but there are many in the faith of the infidels [i.e. pagans] and in the Mohammedan faith as well.” The Rascians (Serbs), he wrote, had something in common with the Jews and the Greeks, “but are neither Jews nor Greeks.” In a word, Ulrich’s Africa coincided with the Balkans. His sole exception were the Bulgarians, who he placed in Asia along with the Tartars, India, Ethiopia, Arabia and the Holy Land—probably because at that time the Bulgarians had just been conquered by the Ottomans or because it was an implicit allusion to their ancient roots. For Ulrich, Europe was in effect “the land where we live” and it stretched from the “White Russians and Smolensk right up to Turkey” and included the kings and kingdoms belonging to the Roman crown. It was inhabited by “Romans,” Slavs, Turks, Hungarians, Germans, and others.

Ulrich von Richental was no geographic dolt. His cosmography simply “subordinated topographic information to the religious denominations of its human subject matter.” This is most evident in the case of Bosnia. The subjects of the King of Bosnia came from Europe, whereas those of the Duke of Bosnia in Turkey came from Africa. We can see in this echoes of the complex state of contending ecclesiastical hierarchies in Bosnia—the Franciscan order and others loyal to the Vatican, the Orthodox church, and the idiosyncratic Bosnian church—in a period when the mass conversion of Bosnians to Islam was still at least half a century away. Africa signified “infidel,” “pagan,” “savage.” Since in learned German treatises of the mid-15 th century, black Africans were doomed by their nature to the Kingdom of Antichrist, it followed that the Antichrist ruled in Africa. Ulrich’s perceptions of the region were determined by the confusing and fluid situation in the Balkans, populated as it was by heretical Orthodox believers and in the process of being conquered by the Ottomans at precisely this time—in addition to its complicated and changing political and religious allegiances and its double and shifting vassalages.

All in all, German writers from the 15 th century onward stuck to the geographic criterion of defining Europe. This was a revival of the notions of classical antiquity which had fixed Europe’s borders at Constantinople and along the river Tanais (Don). The person most instrumental in this was Eneas Silvius Piccolomini, Pope Pius II (1405-1464) whose cosmographic opinions and authority marked all subsequent scholarship. Piccolomini’s work was permeated by the notion of stark cultural differences between Europe and Asia, and he is believed to be “the man who coined the word ‘Europeans’ and bequeathed it to Christendom as a kind of self-identification.” He was harking back to the unified state of Christendom, and for him the Christians of the Balkans, despite being heretics, were still guardians of Christendom against its foes. We still live today with this legacy and it is small wonder that the Vatican is one of the main bulwarks against a watered-down and more inclusive conception of Europeanness. Let us not forget that the surprisingly successful (in the end) visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey last November had as its primary and central aim not to repair relations with Muslims but to heal the 1000-year rift between the once united Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The Balkans have thus undergone an evolution from the original “Europe” to “Africa” to “Asia in Europe” to a transitory zone between Europe and Asia to “savage Europe” and back to Europe again. In April 2004 the British statesman Chris Patten thus addressed the German Bundestag:

It was Bismarck who said that the Balkans “was not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” (speech to the Reichstag, 5 December 1876) I understand what he was trying to say, but obviously our views of what it is to be European have, to say the least, developed a great deal since his day. The people of the Western Balkans are our fellow Europeans.

The most symptomatic part of this quote is that Chris Patten “understands” what Bismarck “was trying to say.” And this describes perfectly the status of not only the new Balkan members of the European Union but, I am afraid, also those from the rest of Eastern Europe. They are “fellow Europeans” but entre nous and off the record, we know what a drag they are on the EU. And practice, especially political practice, usually follows one’s gut feelings and not what we think we are obliged to say in order to maintain decorum.

Intermediacy/Indeterminacy or Historical Legacy?

Practice was very much on Carl Becker’s mind when he argued for the mediating role of Islam between Europe and Asia—and as an integral part of Europe—not only on theoretical grounds but because it had an “eminently practical significance.” His argument was based on the concept of cultural affinity forming discrete cultural spheres, a concept that naturally breeds the auxiliary notion of in-betweenness, of an intermediate space between these cultural spheres or civilizations. I refuse to see the Balkans as an intermediate (and indeterminate) space between Europe and Asia. Granted, this is how it has been perceived by most of Western journalism and by much of Western scholarship in the past two centuries, and I have described this as a specific discourse: balkanism. It seems to me that a better way to approach the malleability of boundaries and to deconstruct the stark and reified opposition between “civilizations” is the concept of historical legacies. I will develop it briefly here based on the example I know best—the Balkans—but arguing that it can be applied fruitfully to other entities saddled with the characterization of intermediacy, such as Islam and the Near East.

Civilizations, like most other entities (states, regions, cities, villages) are most easily defined by outlining their borders. Indeed, for a long time, borders have been a favored object of analysis, especially in examinations of identity. Since identity and alterity (Otherness) are clearly in a symbiotic relationship, their most sharply defined characteristics are best articulated at this border encounter. As a consequence, Otherness is a fundamental category not only of social experience but also of social analysis. Borders, however, turned out to be a problematic first choice, chiefly because the excessive attention lavished on them created an unhealthy obsession with distinction and difference—that is, with Otherness itself.

Recently there has been a powerful shift away from border studies toward the now fashionable category of space. This approach allots more and due attention to the cohesive processes and structures within a given entity. It has produced valuable works but it also has it dangers, especially when it produces static and ahistoric structural analyses. It is against this background that I am introducing the notion of historical legacy. This notion has numerous advantages over more structural categories of analysis such as borders, space, territoriality, etc., insofar as it more clearly articulates the dynamism and fluidity of historical change. It therefore appears to be the most appropriate category for analyzing long-term regional developments, avoiding as it does the reification of contemporary, or latter-day, regions. It does not, in my opinion, displace the notion of space. Instead, it retains the valuable features of spatial analysis while simultaneously refining the vector of time and making it more historically specific

Any region can be approached as the complex result of the interplay of numerous historical periods, traditions and legacies. For purely cognitive purposes, I distinguish between legacy as continuity and legacy as perception. Legacy as continuity is the survival but also gradual waning of some of the characteristics of the entity immediately before its collapse. Legacy as perception, on the other hand, is the articulation and rearticulation of how the entity is seen at different time periods by different individuals or groups. These should not be interpreted as “real” versus “imagined” characteristics, as perhaps implied by the use of the terms “continuity” and “perception.” The characteristics of the continuity are themselves often perceptual, and perceptions are no less a matter of continuous real social facts. The better way to define the distinction is to say that in both cases the categories designate social facts but that these are at different removes from experience. In the instance of perception, the social fact is removed yet a further step from immediate reality, and one can perhaps juxtapose the natural versus the cultural or textual status of the social interaction. I will turn now to the concrete example of the Balkans(or Southeastern Europe) to show how the category is applied .

If we look at the numerous historical periods, traditions and legacies that shape Southeastern Europe, some of these periods and legacies have been synchronic or overlapping, whereas others have been consecutive or completely separate; some have played themselves out in the same geographic space, whereas others have involved it in different macroregions. They can also be classified according to their influence in different spheres of social life: political, economic, demographic, cultural. In the religious sphere, one can single out the Christian, Muslim, and Judaic traditions with their numerous sects and branches; in the sphere of art and culture, the legacies of the pre-Greeks, the Greeks, and the numerous ethnic groups that settled the peninsula; in social and demographic terms, the legacies of large and incessant migrations, ethnic diversity, semi-nomadism, a large and egalitarian agricultural sphere, and late urbanization alongside a constant continuity of urban life.

Of the political legacies which have shaped Southeastern Europe as a whole (the period of Greek antiquity, Hellenism, Roman rule, etc.), two can be singled out as crucial up until the 19 th century. One is the Byzantine millennium with its profound political, institutional, legal, religious and general cultural impact. The other is the half millennium of Ottoman rule that gave the peninsula its name and established the longest period of political unity it had ever experienced. Not only did part of Southeastern Europe acquire a new name during this period, it has been chiefly the Ottoman elements or the ones perceived as such which have formed the current stereotype of the Balkans. In the narrow sense of the word, then, one can argue that the Balkans are, in fact, the Ottoman legacy.

The legacy as continuity is a notion different from the characteristics of the Ottoman polity or the Ottoman period in general. It is a process that began after the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist for those particular regions that shaped themselves into successor states, and it is the aggregate of characteristics resulting chiefly from the historical situation of the 18 th and 19 th centuries. I have attempted a systematic review of the workings of the Ottoman legacy as continuity in the political, cultural, social and economic spheres, where it persisted to varying degrees. In practically all spheres— except the demographic and popular culture spheres—the break was enacted almost immediately after the onset of political independence of the separate Balkan states and was on the whole completed by the end of World War I; thereafter it turned into legacy as perception. In the realm of demography, however, the Ottoman legacy continued for some time and, more importantly, became intertwined with and was gradually transformed into the influence of the Turkish nation-state.

The Ottoman legacy as perception, on the other hand, is the process of interaction between an ever-evolving and accumulating past, and ever-evolving and accumulating perceptions of generations of people who are redefining their attitudes toward the past—in a word, the question not of reconstructing, but of actually constructing the past in works of historiography, fiction and journalism as well as in everyday discourse. Legacy as perception is one of the most important pillars in the discourse of Balkan nationalism and bears striking similarities in all Balkan countries. Precisely because it is at the center of securing present social arrangements, and above all in legitimizing the state, it is bound to be reproduced for some time to come.

Thinking in terms of historical legacies—with their simultaneity and overlap as well as their gradually waning effects—allows us to emphasize the complexity and plasticity of the historical process. In the particular case of Southeastern Europe, it allows us to rescue it from a debilitating diachronic as well as spatial ghettoization and permits us to insert it in multifarious cognitive frameworks over space and time. Europe, in this vision, emerges as a complex palimpsest of variegated entities—a palimpsest which not only reveals the porosity of its internal frontiers but questions the absolute stability of its external ones.

Historical Legacies and “Path Dependence”

In conclusion, I wish to address the question whether the concept of historical legacies is not tantamount to what in political science has been termed “path dependence.” This category developed as the result of a shift in political science toward a greater appreciation of history and the temporal dimensions of phenomena, a move away from purely structural, functionalist and quantifying approaches. It involves the focus on a chain of events or processes stemming from an initial “critical” juncture. It emphasizes the potentially self-enforcing effects of early outcomes, and has enriched the understanding of social and political outcomes by paying greater attention to long-term processes. Welcome as all this is, to an historian it’s no big deal. Historical causality is the lemma of the great historical theorem of the longue durée. It would be similar to historians discovering that property relations are important for social movements—and then trying to sell this notion to economists. “Path dependence” is a strictly internal disciplinarian development within political science, and I wish to insist on its basic distinction from my “historical legacies.”

“Path dependence” was coined to better understand political choices, the chances for future institution-building. On the one hand, it was intended to caution against voluntarism, i.e. that any well implemented rational decision by elites will bring about the desired result. After all, as the formula would have it: “history matters,” or “culture matters.” On the other hand, by not having enough patience with the historical record and forcing through a “path” (sometimes even called “legacy”) with definite characteristics, it produces a determinism or teleology that often verges on fatalism. (Once I was asked by a young German journalist, “Do you think Albania has any chance of becoming democratic given its ‘path dependence’ on a highly patriarchal autocratic and tribal tradition?” I am afraid I was neither very patient nor polite, and told him that “path dependence” is one thing and precedence another; after all, Germans learned very quickly how to be democratic, “path dependence” notwithstanding.)

My notion of “historical legacy” comes from a very different perspective and is impelled by a very different motive. It does not set itself the primary task of understanding how and why the present has emerged from the past and how it can shape the future. On the contrary, it demonstrates the complexity of the historical record and argues that it cannot serve as a straitjacket. Of course, I would never go so far as to say that history does not matter, but I think that the “path” or the “legacy” is so winding, flexible, changeable and permeable that it cannot be isolated like a bacillus. In a word, a legacy is not a thing but a process. Moreover, at least in my view, it makes clear many more commonalities than it does distinctions. Finally, I think that my “historical legacy” is much more empowering. It allows us to free ourselves from the shackles of a deterministic historical process; and for those who want obiter dicta from history, it is also disquietingly indeterminate. I will never forget a lecture on a similar topic I was giving to an audience of primarily legal historians, and the otherwise very positive reception culminated in the question: “This is highly sophisticated and compelling, but it seems inapplicable.” And this is precisely the point.

In the coming decade, the big discussion in the European Union will be Turkey. I am sure a lot of arguments will be based on “path dependence,” arguing both pro and con. After all, the beauty of history is that it can supply valid arguments for all kinds of propositions. In the end, the decision will rest on extra-historical considerations, even if they are conveniently wrapped in historical legitimization. But let us imagine that in 2020 Turkey becomes an EU member. This is not implausible. And this will be neither Europe in the Near East nor the Near East in Europe. It will be Europe, period. Or the Near East, period, in the sense of the westernmost tip of the huge land mass usually called Eurasia but which is synonymous with the East or the Orient writ large. One can say that Europe and the Near East together have always been the indivisible and organic entity of Eurasia’s west. And incidentally, the long-term geological global forecast is that 50 million years from now Africa will have moved north into Europe and the Mediterranean Sea will have disappeared, replaced by the Mediterranean Mountains. Ditto for the Red Sea. 50 million years, we are told by geologists, is a safe forecast. If one year represents Earth’s past, 50 million years equal less than 4 days. The new continent, they say, will be called Afrasia. No mention of Europe by the geologists. If, on the other hand, Europe were to expand, the whole new land mass might be called the European Union.

But we needn’t overstretch our imagination. Let us rather imagine that in 2070 (50 years after the hypothetical Turkish accession), the EU were to encompass those North African countries (at least the Maghreb) that have a special arrangement with Europe. As in the case of Turkey, this is not such a ludicrous proposition. And let us also imagine that in 2120 (100 years after) the EU is still a viable body and is considering whether it shouldn’t expand to embrace the whole of Russia. Also quite a logical development. And let us imagine that the world will still be inhabitable despite global warming and, hopefully, no big wars in the year 2222 (i.e. 200 years after) and that a student will then undertake research on the history of the European Union (since the subject is very topical, what with the heated debate swirling around possible accession of India to the EU) and he then may want to utilize the “path dependence” heuristic and write that, as far as Turkey, North Africa and Russia are concerned, their historical legacies have vindicated their accession…but let us be circumspect about India. By that time the European Union will have produced a 250-year-old history of “path dependence.” All I am saying is that “path dependence” is not only in the past—it can be created in the future. It is a matter of choice. Of course, the choices should be judicious and well prepared, but they are nonetheless human choices. And these choices are made—let us be clear about this—primarily in the chancelleries of “Old Europe” in the West. But then, as the wise Ibn Khaldun once said of the West: “God knows what is going on there.” And as the wise and non-religiois Christine von Kohl would have added: “Inshallah!”

* The lecture was held on May 27 at the IWM and organized in cooperation with Herbert Maurer, Dr. Vedran Dzihic, the Center for European Integration Strategies (CEIS), the Vienna City council Department of Culture and the IWM. This text is based on: “Historische Vermächtnisse zwischen Europa und dem Nahen Osten / Historical Legacies
Between Europe and the Near East”, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der
Wissenschaften, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin und Fritz Thyssen Stiftung 2007.  

Maria Todorova is Professor of History at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign. She is well known for her work concerning the history
of the Balkans. Her groundbreaking work, Imagining the Balkans deals
with the region’s inconsistent (but usually negative) image inside Western
culture, as well as with the paradoxes of cultural reference and its assumptions.
In it, she develops a theory of “Balkanism”, similar to Edward Said’s “Orientalism”.

Christine von Kohl, born 1923 in Berlin, came to Austria in 1960
as a foreign news correspondent. From 1968 to 1985 she lived in Belgrade where
she worked for various media corporations. Back in Vienna she served as a counsellor
for Balkan issues for the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights
and founded the “Verein der Flüchtlinge und Vertriebenen aus Bosnien-Herzegowina
in Österreich” as well as the “Kulturni Centar”. Together
with her husband Wolfgang Libal, a profound expert on the Balkans,
she published several books on politics and culture of South Eastern Europe.
Christine von Kohl died on January 23, 2009.

Tr@nsit online, 2010
Copyright © 2010 by the author & Transit – Europäische Revue. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit.


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