Peter Handke won the Nobel and is from the South-east. To be exact, he is half Slovene and half Austrian, from a border village where both languages are (or were) spoken. Other Balkan writers who won the grand Nobel are Herta Müller and Elias Canetti. It is noticeable that both of them wrote in German and went into exile in the West at quite an early stage in their careers. There are filters, it is presumably hard to translate a Balkan original into a Western language, and the Swedes can only read such languages– probably German, and English. But a feeling pervades that they got the Stockholm accolade because they weren’t wholly Balkan – they were halfway to being non-Balkan. Handke deserves credit for his efforts to interpret the South Slav world to the rest of Europe.
I read an anthology of travel writing about the Balkans in which the introduction pointed out with some asperity that all the writers included had passed thorough the target areas briefly and that none of them had had command of any of the local languages, so that their interactions with the locals were stylised or non-existent. What they came back and wrote was theatrical and able to reach a wide public essentially because it was not weighed down by detailed information. The travellers saw the locals through a mile-thick lens of diminished reality. The reports, even at the length of books, were effectively a joke based on ethnic stereotypes. All western nations participated in this joke, and as time went on the validation came from other westerners rather than from direct injections of local knowledge. This situation changed eventually, with someone like Edith Durham in the early 20th C, but even then much of what was published was based on very questionable basic data. This gave me a twinge – I certainly had acquired a full equipment of Western stereotypes about the Balkans, but I had a feeling that the book was destroying the information I already owned rather than giving me new and solid information, as an asset.
Using the on-line site Scribd, which has sixty million books and papers uploaded by enthusiasts (misguided or not), I have done a little reading to open up a different view of the Balkans. A different view, emerging from what I have just read rather than from deep personal knowledge, is that the south-east is much like the rest of Europe, although in other ways resembling the ex-colonial part of the world – states founded by armed revolt against local empires, with civil wars following rapidly on the convulsions of liberation.
Paschalis Kitromilides has written a series of papers about the ”Balkan mentality” which start out from the idea that in about 1780 there was no such thing as Balkan nationalism. He gives a close analysis of texts of the period, rather rare, in which there is a sense of “homeland”, home town, but the writers have an essentially international view of politics – they identified with the whole of Orthodox Christendom. So the nationalism was part of a local awakening – the literate part of the population awoke very suddenly to a new world, like someone who had been in jail for 50 years. (Arguably, 350 years.) There were very few local books which were not spiritual, saints’ lives and so forth. There was a deluge of books available, from modern printworks – all of them Western. So the nationalism, as a new factor, came from the West, and it predominated because the West was so preoccupied with nationalism at that time. The French Revolution looked, close up, more like a convulsion of French nationalism than like the enactment of noble Enlightenment ideas into legislation. Imitating France meant invading your neighbours.
One part of the Balkan stereotype is that Westerners try to find out what the facts are and are frustrated because any piece of regional politics involves three factions and these three have as many incompatible versions of what actually happened. This applies, for example, to what language is spoken in a region or how many people live there. So to deal with Balkan affairs is to become Balkan. This has some truth, but it is also true that westerners are disproportionately interested in disputes between countries, which may lead to wars, and so that areas where local experts have given very clear and detailed narratives and descriptions do not surface – and, do not get translated, and then do not contribute to the stereotype. The question is whether the West is more objective about western processes – reading accounts of the Second World War from, say, England, France, and Germany might give you the opposite conclusion. Of course there is a level of Western scholarship which rises above these things – but that is also true in, say, Serbia or Bulgaria, and anyway the most austere western scholarship is not what you are most likely to find in the bookshops.
Arguments about territorial claims are like relatives disputing a large and desirable legacy. No-one is at their best in that situation. The dismemberment of (Hapsburg) Hungary in around 1919 and 1920 was just such a legacy. People got carried away by the joy of acquisition and the delights of polemic. Hungary lost 60% of its territory. Serbia apparently doubled its extent (after losing the war, in effect). People got excited about this at a moment when people in France or Britain or Spain were not getting excited. However, a few years before, another rush for undefended territiories, the scrabble for Africa, had swept the West away. Over several decades, writers in the West were quite preoccupied by this unearned acquisition of wealth. Nationalism at home took on outrageous forms as a reflection of the land grab in other continents.
As for Macedonian, the status of the language is genuinely interesting if you are a linguist. Arguing about its relationship to Bulgarian or to other South Slav languages is therefore not eccentric or obsessive. It is certainly strange to read about someone writing an article in Macedonian and sending it to a newspaper where the editor translates it into Bulgarian because to publish an article in Macedonian would give it the status of a language (and so impugn Bulgaria's eventual claim to annex Macedonia to a new Greater Bulgaria). Haarmann’s classic 1975 account of European languages (67 of them) says that the first printing press in Macedonia was founded in 1838 in Solun, by Theodosius Sinaitskii, and he launched a weekly newspaper printed in Macedonian, Greek, and Yiddish. Some problems with this! For “jiddisch” we should surely read “ladino”, the Spanish-derived language used by the Jewish community of Thessalonica. And, the town ‘Solun’ is ‘Thessalonika’, older English form “Salonica” (and standard German form Saloniki). My guess is the reference book is wrong here.
Of the hundred or so writers from south-east Europe you are most likely to read, based on translations into Western European languages, none are nationalists (this might withstand checking, but let us move on). The legend of committed nationalists is based on summaries in reports by western journalists. Obviously, there is a very limited market for a nationalist writer from, say, Serbia or Rumania, in the West. Those translations don't exist. The question, then, is how important that current of nationalism, with ethnic pride and matching disparagement of neighbouring peoples and their institutions, actually is.
Kitromilides gives a very astute analysis of the so-called Balkan Sprachbund. All linguistic scholars agree that there are features of grammar which appear in most (never all) languages associated in the Balkan regional group. Irrespective of ancestry, there is a shared grammar, actually parts of a shared grammar, present in all the regional languages. It follows that there has been extensive bilingualism in the past. In a village, a man from language A would marry a bride speaking language B, and even if the children grew up speaking language A only, they spoke it with habitual patterns which unmistakably came from language B. This variant has, in each case, contaminated, or brilliantly tinted, the standard language of the area. It is striking that the mixed dialects did not remain confined to border villages, mocked by all the other speakers, but spread their influence to become standard Bulgarian, standard Serbo-Croat, and so forth. Border dialects are in some cases more mixed than these standards, with their Balkan-regional features. In that village, everybody had cousins who spoke a different language. Political nationalism based on language was poorly suited to the facts of Balkan society and had, certainly, not been the principle observed by Balkan people over the thousand or so years prior to the anti-Turkish rebellions of the early 19th century. The bilingual villages were the product, probably, of constant migration - over time, any static community would end up speaking the same language. There are quite similar patterns in folklore, where material seems to have diffused across the entire area, no doubt as a direct product of the bilinguals, readily able to re-create a ballad or a tale in their second personal language. How do you get from a region of bilinguals to a region of nationalists?
I have not seen, in many descriptions of this Sprachbund, an account of when its features emerged and spread. None of the reports mention Old Church Slavonic (geographically, this is Old Macedonian) so I presume that the translinguistic regional features had not emerged at the point when OCS was standardised and written, as a vehicle for translating liturgies, sermons, scriptures, and so forth. (This was the 9th C AD.) When I refer to past bilingualism, that is possibly misleading – actually there were numerous bilinguals in the “present”, say 1900 to 1980.
The essays I read are less strong at explaining the civil wars in the region, and the ethnic nationalist discourse which has incited and justified them. Over a 200 year period, the ethnic wars are confined to specific bands of time, and these were aspects of a general crisis in the region. That is, the crisis could be the surge of optimism involved in the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, as well as the panic induced by aggressive advances and invasions by neighbouring states. The phases in question are the Yugoslav civil war of the first half of the 1990s and the Balkan War period of 1905 to 1912 (although some earlier wars took place between the Christian nations of the area). The popular nationalism which was a reaction to crises of that kind was not also the basic political culture of the whole 220 year period.
The sources suggest that nationalist intellectuals, the type represented by Milosevic, are a minority within each Balkan country, and that temporary political conjunctures give them the opportunity to exercise influence with the wider population, and with parts of the elite, so that their rather ill-nourished ideas briefly become national policy. Certainly most of the books I have read by Balkan writers are highly informative and not particularly nationalist. A proportion of the material deals with linguistics and cultural traditions, themes which also appeal to nationalists, but that is because I am interested in languages (and, secondarily, in literature and cultural forms). The language pattern of the south-east is especially interesting, and you certainly didn’t have to be a nationalist to be interested by the relationships between neighbouring languages, or between a “standard language”, new or not, and the speech variants of the peasants or the urban populations. The economics of the western media mean that a writer who makes a market, say Dubravka Ugresic, is repetitively asked to write about nationalism – this is what Western audiences want to hear about the inner life of Serbia, and Ugresic is always being asked to write about it – even though Ugresic certainly isn’t a nationalist and does not read modern history in simple nationalist colours. Editors want Balkan writers to produce articles about “the Balkan question”. As if Egypt produces cotton and the Balkans produce yard after yard of nationalism.
The Second World War was not a Balkan civil war, but we have to look at the exaggerations of the satellite fascist state in Croatia and its genocide against the Serbs, agreed to be very closely related, ethically, to the Croats. Milovan Djilas has analysed the build-up to this. He identifies a papal and Hapsburg crusading drive into the south-east, over centuries, which was primarily directed against the Ottomans but which acquired a second direction, against Orthodox Christians, with time. So, the border between Rome and Byzantium happens to run between the Croats and the Serbs. The Croatian alignment with Italy, and with the Power which Vienna had become associated with, led them to define the Serbs as the enemy – and their conversion, or massacre, was a continuation of a Europeans crusade. Again, the share of the West in this repays attention and perhaps criticism.
If we lose the inherited image of “homo balcanicus”, that opens the question of filling the gap with substantial and validated knowledge.
The interest in uncovering a whole realm of disinformation about the south-east of Europe is partly that it sheds light on a similar realm in the outer north-west. It is difficult to get very far with Celtic Studies without realising that fantasy projections onto the area, mainly from the 19th and 20th Cs and mainly from the “developed” nations nearby, cover the whole era, land and sea, in invisibility.
The Balkan area was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and its sociology is presumably derived from that long-term historical experience, and from the drama of exit from it. But millions of other Christians were ruled by the Byzantines and then by the Ottomans as their political heirs, and we have to ask if a “Balkan culture”, once identified, would also apply to Christian communities in Egypt, northern Iraq, Palestine, and other places.
I am reading the Alexiad of Anna Comnena. (Written in the 1130s and 1140s? The edition is unclear.) This is part of being in lockdown, I am reading all the books stacked up in the house which I never read before. This isn’t quite the first Byzantine book I have ever read, but it is certainly close to the first. It connects to our theme, as the campaign being described, in the 1080s, takes place in the Balkans – Robert of Sicily is attacking Dyrrachium, which is now in Albania, and the fighting is in the hinterland. It is hard to see any connection between the ruling class which Comnena describes (her father was the Emperor) and recent Balkan politics. Some of Michael Herzfeld’s papers talk about “crypto colonialism”, which, expansively described, is the idea that politics in Greece (and perhaps neighbouring countries) are specular, a mirror of the interests of the western agencies, which are unnaturally influential and which the locals are all too impressed by and anxious to please. So the Greek debt crisis would be a western crisis in which the Greeks are only spectators. This is not very convincing. However, Comnena’s book gives embarrassing confirmation. Her portrayal of Byzantine politics is dominated by the invasion of the Franks, or the Normans (a question of terminology). Robert and Bohemond land at Dyrrachium with an army recruited in Apulia and Lombardy, led by a Norman ruling and military class, with the intention of reaching and seizing Constantinople. A key unit of the Byzantine army is the Varangians, composed at this point mainly of exiles from Anglo-Saxon England, fleeing from a different but related Norman invasion. Greek nationalism of the period 1780 to 1830 (roughly) can be interpreted as a response to Western ideas and funding rather than as a pure expression of ingrained Greek patterns, inculcated at the mother’s knee and shared by the entire nation. For Herzfeld, modern Greece works like a colony of the West, even though legally it was a province of a Turkish Empire which liberated itself, and the westerners were offering help and admiration. Greeks are caught between an ideal (in which they are the continuation of a Classical Hellas which itself is seen only as an ideal) and a reality in which they are a halfway house between Europe and the Middle East. The fatal entry of Greece into the European Union and the Euro zone is a product both of a wish to have been “the first Europeans” and of self-deception and reams of fake figures. I suppose that unrealistic debt expresses a relationship, and both creditors and debtors are part of the drama; but I am less sure that this expressed domination or admiration.
Are Balkan intellectuals more nationalist than their western European colleagues? I don’t see a standard measure. I definitely avoid English nationalist historians, or journalists, and they make me feel rather ill. But, if you look at the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph, for example, it is arguable that a nationalist reading of history is still basic for them, and for their readers, and that their views on current events are firmly based in that reading of the last 5 centuries or so. There is that whole stream of English nationalism which you would have to measure, and which doesn't form part of my cultural diet. I possibly get it when I read military history, which I admit to doing. I relate more to the use of “operational research” in the Second World War than to the patriotic aspects. I don’t have a measure by which Croats are more or less nationalistic than English or Scottish people. My guess would be that educated people from south-east Europe know much more about foreign cultures than the literati in Britain normally do, because they know that the share of their country in world culture is fairly small, and that knowing about ideas in France, America, Germany and so on is a vital asset to them – something which they must have to gain the esteem of their peers. That is, intellectuals from south-eastern Europe know more about western Europe than vice versa.
I have left out the other influence, that is the flow from Russia and the Russian Communist Party. Most of the Balkan countries were attempting to imitate the Soviet system from about 1944 up to 1990. This is just not going to attract so much interest, partly because the model is irrelevant after 1990 and partly because the model is so dreary in the first place. But you can't just blame the West. You are bound to raise the question, “why can’t we give up foreign ideals and just act out who we are?” But, as soon as you say that, you are a nationalist. That is what being a nationalist means.
I spoke of nationalist writers not reaching the West. Without conducting a survey of the translations, by now impressive in their scope, I would hazard that Sikelianos and Kazantzakis, certainly available in English, were nationalists as well as being major writers.