"There are two maxims for historians which so harmonise with what I know of history that I would like to claim them as my own, though they really belong to nineteenth-century historiography: first, that governments try to press upon the historian the key to all the drawers but one, and are anxious to spread the belief that this single one contains no secret of importance; secondly, that if the historian can only find the thing which the government does not want him to know, he will lay his hand upon something that is likely to be significant."
Herbert Butterfield, "History and Human Relations", London, 1951, p. 186
The Balkans as a region is a relatively novel way of looking at the discrete nation-states that emerged from the carcasses of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires and fought over their spoils.
This sempiternal fight is a determinant of Balkan identity. The nations of the Balkan are defined more by ornery opposition than by cohesive identities. They derive sustenance and political-historical coherence from conflict. It is their afflatus. The more complex the axes of self-definition, the more multifaceted and intractable the conflicts. Rabid nationalism against utopian regionalism, fascism (really, opportunism) versus liberalism, religion-tinted traditionalism (the local moribund edition of conservatism) versus "Western" modernity.
Who wins is of crucial importance to world peace.
The Balkan is a relatively new political entity. Formerly divided between the decrepit Ottoman Empire and the imploding Austro-Hungarian one - the countries of the Balkans emerged as unique polities only during the 19th century. This was to be expected as a wave of nationalism swept Europe and led to the formation of the modern, bureaucratic state as we know it.
Even so, the discrete entities that struggled to the surface of statehood did not feel that they shared a regional destiny or identity. All they did was fight ferociously, ruthlessly and mercilessly over the corrupted remnants of the Sick Men of Europe (the above mentioned two residual empires). In this, they proved themselves to be the proper heirs of their former masters: murderous, suborned, Byzantine and nearsighted.
In an effort to justify their misdeeds and deeds, the various nations - true and concocted - conjured up histories, languages, cultures and documents, some real, mostly false. They staked claims to the same territories, donned common heritage where there was none, spoke languages artificially constructed and lauded a culture hastily assembled by "historians" and "philologists".
These were the roots of the great evil - the overlapping claims, the resulting intolerance, the mortal, existential fear stoked by the kaleidoscopic conduct of the Big Powers. To recognize the existence of the Macedonian identity - was to threaten the Greek or Bulgarian ones. To accept the antiquity of the Albanians was to dismantle Macedonia, Serbia and Greece. To countenance Bulgarian demands was to inhumanly penalize its Turk citizens. It was a zero-sum game played viciously by everyone involved. The prize was mere existence - the losers annihilated.
It very nearly came to that during the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.
Allies shifted their allegiance in accordance with the shifting fortunes of a most bewildering battlefield. When the dust settled, two treaties later, Macedonia was dismembered by its neighbours, Bulgaria bitterly contemplated the sour fruits of its delusional aggression and Serbia and Austro-Hungary rejoiced. Thus were the seeds of World War I sown.
The Yugoslav war of succession (or civil war) was a continuation of this mayhem by other means. Yugoslavia was born in sin, in the dictatorship of King Alexander I (later slain in France in 1934). It faced agitation, separatism and discontent from its inception. It was falling apart when the second world conflagration erupted. It took a second dictatorship - Tito's - to hold it together for another 40 years.
The Balkan as a whole - from Hungary, through Romania and down to Bulgaria - was prone to authoritarianism and an atavistic, bloody form of racist, "peasant or native fascism". A primitive region of destitute farmers and vile politicians, it was exposed to world gaze by the collapse of communism. There are encouraging signs of awakening, of change and adaptation. There are dark omens of reactionary forces, of violence and wrath. It is a battle fought in the unconscious of humanity itself. It is a tug of war between memories and primordial drives repressed and the vitality of those still close to nature.
The outcome of this fight is crucial to the world. Both world wars started in central eastern and south-eastern Europe. Globalization is no guarantee against a third one. The world was more globalized than it is today at the beginning of the century - but it took only one shot in Sarajevo to make this the most sanguineous century of all.
An added problem is the simple-mindedness, abrasiveness and sheer historical ignorance of America, the current superpower. A nation of soundbites and black or white stereotypes, it is ill-suited to deal with the nuanced, multilayered and interactive mayhem that is the Balkan. A mentality of western movies - good guys, bad guys, shoot'em up - is hardly conducive to a Balkan resolution. The intricate and drawn out process required taxes American impatience and bullying tendencies to their explosive limits.
In the camp of the good guys, the Anglo-Saxons place Romania, Greece, Montenegro and Slovenia (with Macedonia, Croatia, Albania and Bulgaria wandering in and out). Serbia is the epitome of evil. Milosevic is Hitler. Such uni-dimensional thinking sends a frisson of rubicund belligerence down American spines.
It tends to ignore reality, though. Montenegro is playing the liberal card deftly, no doubt - but it is also a haven of smuggling and worse. Slovenia is the civilized facade that it so tediously presents to the world - but it also happened to have harboured one of the vilest fascist movements, comparable to the Ustasha - the Domobranci. It shares with Croatia the narcissistic grandiose fantasy that it is not a part of the Balkan - but rather an outpost of Europe - and the disdain for its impoverished neighbours that comes with it. In this sense, it is more "Balkanian" than many of them. Greece is now an economically stable and mildly democratic country - but it used to be a dictatorship and it still is a banana republic in more than one respect. The Albanians - ferociously suppressed by the Serbs and (justly) succoured by the West - are industrious and shrewd people. But - fervent protestations to the contrary aside - they do seem to be intent on dismantling and recombining both Yugoslavia (Serbia) and Macedonia, perhaps at a terrible cost to all involved. Together with the Turks, the Serbs and the Bulgarians, the Albanians are the undisputed crime lords of the Balkan (and beyond - witness their incarceration rates in Switzerland).
This is the Balkan - a florilegium of contradictions within contraventions, the mawkish and the jaded, the charitable and the deleterious, the feckless and the bumptious, evanescent and exotic, a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
In this series of articles, I will attempt to study two axes of friction: Islam versus Christianity and fascism and nationalism versus liberalism. It is hard to do justice to these topics in the Procrustean bed of weekly columns - I, therefore, beg the forgiveness of scholars and the understanding of frustrated readers.