Autor: Filip Kalánek
“It is a present from my loyal ustashis. Forty pounds of human eyes“
The quoted sentence above comes from the semi-fictional book Kaputt and it is not based on reality. However, it has somehow successfully penetrated into other books and articles even of academic genre which used it as one of other evidences to stress not only Ustasha’s but in general Balkan violence. This imaginary sentence clearly illustrates how easily could be the term Balkans linked with something negative, savage, and inhuman. The same case was more recently represented by the inappropriate name of wars during disintegration of Yugoslavia which were labelled simply Balkan Wars.
The aim of this essay is to claim that the Balkan region was by no means more violent part of Europe than the rest of the European continent. The main argument is that Balkan inhabitants were emulating the western pattern of a nation state which was the main source of wars in the ethnically heterogeneous region. The following violence and brutalities are perceived as an essential component of a war common to the whole world. In addition, this paper argues that views on Balkan as an eternally violent region are simplified explanations which try to understand Balkan current events (especially war in former Yugoslavia) by referring to the past history, creating more or less successful historical parallels. Nevertheless, by this thinking the history is misused for the purposes of the present, neglecting any development between past and present.
The structure of this essay consists of two parts. The first briefly overviews wars in the Balkans, focusing on their motives and linking them with the idea of nationalism. The second part deals with the “Balkan violence” and with the term Ancient hatreds, trying to prove that it is not only the Balkans where inhuman acts were happening.
The most useful source for this essay is represented by the influential book Imagining the Balkan written by Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova, in which she convincingly demonstrates how: “(…) the Balkans have served as a repository of negative characteristics (…).” Another very useful source was the article: “‘All that is, is nationalist’: Western imaginings of the Balkans since the Yugoslav wars” by Greek author Pavlos Hatzopoulos. Theoretical approaches to better understanding of the conflict in Yugoslavia offers the publication Balkan Holocausts? by Canadian political scientist David Bruce MacDonald. For a journalistic point of view of the conflict I draw from the infamous travelogue Balkan Ghosts written by American journalist Robert D. Kaplan as well as from travelogue Love Thy Neighbour by another American journalist Peter Maass.
Wars at every turn
Even archaeological ﬁndings ‘dating from as much as 200,000 years ago’ are interpreted by a journalist of The Times as indications that the ‘Balkans may have been in conﬂict since the Ice Age’.
It was the Great French Revolution and concretely the idea of nationalism which announced the end of empires and brought unrest to the Balkans. Forthcoming nineteenth and twentieth centuries were in the token of uprisings and struggles for nation states not only in the Southeast Europe. Inhabitants of Ottoman Empire, unlike their counterparts in nation states of the Western Europe, represented heterogeneous mix of languages and religions creating many multicultural areas without any precise borders among various groups. This posed an immense obstacle for establishing a homogenous national state and led to many bitter conflicts over disputed areas.
Therefore, these national uprisings triggered sequences of killing and expelling of Muslims, which were retaliated in the same manner by Ottomans. For instance, the start of Greek struggle for independence, which at its end established first nation state after France, provoked in return mass murders of Greeks and other orthodox believers in Istanbul and other Ottoman cities in Asia Minor. Another example is represented by Bulgarian atrocities which were Ottoman’s answer to Bulgarian rebellion. In both cases the murdering of Christians stirred up public opinions in Western Europe and served as a pretext for Russia to declare a war to Ottoman Empire. As a consequence, over one million Muslim Turks retreated before marching Russian army in fear of murders in years 1877-1878.
With this forced migrations and retaliations in mind, it is no wonder that at that time Western Europe deemed the Balkans more violent region. The process of linking the Balkans with a pejorative meaning was according to Todorova completed after the Second Balkan War, which was condemned as a display of immaturity of the new states. Indeed, once reached the independence, new states declared war again to get extra territory from Macedonia. However, such behaviour is not typical only for the Balkans but for all of Europe. A year after the end of Second Balkan War broke out the First World War, which is explained by many causes. One of them is the previous Second Balkan War. However, another cause can be seen in French revanchist aspiration to regain lost Alsace-Lorraine from Germany.
The Second World War, during which mankind witnessed unimaginable cruelties, had its roots in the western part of Europe. Motives for Second World War are usually not accredited to the Balkans, however Richard Kaplan represents an exception with his statement that: “Nazism, for instance, can claim Balkan origins.“ In the Balkans atrocities took place especially in partitioned Yugoslavia, where Ustashas, Chetniks and Partyzans, together with occupation armies played very bloody plot. Nevertheless, it was Nazi Germany which torn Yugoslavia apart and installed to power radical Ustasha movement, setting up everything for the gory climax. Again, it was the idea of nation state and intention to get rid of troublesome Serb minority which led to these atrocities.
The end of the Cold War terminated time of relative calmness in the region, and together with economic and political crisis, hit hard especially Yugoslavia which was until then enjoying politically special place in between the USA and the USSR. The war broke out in the nineties, committing violent acts in mixed areas again to make them homogeneous for either side. Western Europe did not have understanding for fighting and as in 1913 deemed the war as typically Balkan, easily forgetting previous two World wars on its account. At the same time, it was the European idea of nationalism fostered carelessly by Yugoslav politicians of all nationalities which tore the multi-ethnic state apart. Creating a national state can be thus described in Todorova’s words as: “the ultimate Europeanization of the Balkans.”
One may point at the peaceful disintegration of Czechoslovakia in the same period to present it as an example of Balkan immaturity compared to the Central Europe. Nevertheless, this argument is not valid at all due to the absence of disputed and intermingled territories in Czechoslovakia. There was only a minor dispute about one small settlement on the newly emerging borders which raised heated debates and exaggerated statements among politicians. Thus the appropriate thought is whether the disintegration of Czechoslovakia would have proceeded peacefully with the existence of hundreds or thousands of disputed villages.
Myth of ancient hatreds
“The hatred between these three groups [Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croatians] is almost unbelievable … it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell”. Warren Christopher, former U.S. Secretary of State
With the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia in the nineties many authors, journalists, and politicians simply started explaining its cause using the term Ancient hatreds. According to this thought, Balkan people hate each other so much and for so long that ethnic conflicts are inevitable there. This thinking interprets current events as a repetition of historical ones. On that account it is possible to compare nineties Bosnia with Macedonia in the Second Balkan War.
Kaplan’s description illustrates this attitude very well: “Because history has not moved in Zagreb, the late 1930s and 1940s still seem like the present (…) Politics in Yugoslavia perfectly mirrors the process of history and is thus more predictable than most people think.” Time has stopped in the Balkans not only for Kaplan as another journalist Peter Maass remarks: “If you ignore the refrigerator in the kitchen and running water in the bathroom, you are back in 1389.” Even Yugoslavs themselves gave up to this perception of historical determinism like Serbian author Vuk Drašković in his book Knife or film director Dragojević in his film Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.
This interpretation leads to fatalistic conclusion that there will always be war in the Balkans, because there was a war in the past. Nevertheless, as MacDonald correctly points out that: “(…) hatred of the other has been the product of current generations of academics and politicians, working to create the illusion of an inevitable conflict.” Therefore, to continue in MacDonald’s words: “the conflict is constituted in the present, and that ′history′ is a resource in the contemporary struggle.” This is the main reason why interpreting current events by referring to historical events, from which everything has its origin, is a dubious explanation which in addition ignores any development between present and selected “major” point in history. Overlooking any historical progress is: “the exceptionality of the Balkans (…) that they obstinately retain their aggressive nationalist posture unscathed by developments elsewhere.
For sure, many Yugoslavs had in their memories crimes committed during Second World War, however, it is not possible to think that these people can’t go beyond this. The war in Yugoslavia did not start as a spontaneous fight among various ethnic groups. It was a result of deliberate politics of the former ruling leaders who artificially fostered nationalistic tensions to get and maintain their political power. To achieve this, they spread stereotypes and myths through the whole country differentiating between us and others. Therefore, Serbs became Chetniks, Croats were Ustashe and Bosniaks were labelled as Turks, to evoke feelings of fear and danger among us. This method of haunting with the past is quite effective not only in the Balkans. For example during presidential election in the Czech Republic one of the candidates played a card with retribution of Sudeten Germans, causing fear and rage that we should give them their former properties, even though the issue has been solved for a long time.
During the bitter war in Yugoslavia many atrocities were committed including one recognized genocide in Srebrenica. However cruel these acts were, they had their own perverse logic to create such unbearable atmosphere of fear to force the other group to leave the territory. This process of homogenisation is in today’s language called ethnic cleansing and it is naive to think that ethnic cleansing did not happen in the rest of Europe as is illustrated by the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre which united by that time religiously divided France. The Balkan fault was that these massacres took place at times when it was fortunately no more acceptable to international community to let a state to exterminate a different group of its inhabitants in order to become homogeneous.
For sure, one can explain these crimes like burnt houses, intimidation, maybe to some extent even demonstrative murder, but there were rapes, tortures of captive civilians with joy of their executors, concentration camps, and many other things about which one cannot just simply say that they have happened to drive someone out. Possible interpretation of these unimaginable atrocities is that they come hand in hand with the war which mercilessly destroys human norms. To prove that these atrocities are not only Balkan speciality, Maass points at Vietnam War at massacre in My Lai. Another “My Lai” happened more recently when American soldier killed sixteen civilians including nine children in 2012 in Afghanistan. Those who do not agree with this idea of universal evil in man and still deem to be the Balkans as more violent can suddenly find themselves in the same awkward position as Lady Durnham, English traveller, who stated in 1913 after Second Balkan War and on the eve of First World War: “The war was over. All through I used to say to myself: ′War is so obscene, so degrading, so devoid of one redeeming spark, that it is quite impossible there can ever be a war in West Europe.′”
The idea of nationalism was a tailor-made suit to the countries of Western Europe which had already gone through the process of unification or rather homogenisation of their nations. That was the main difference when the idea of nation state emerged and spread to the Balkans. As it is explicitly shown on foreign interventions in the Ottoman Empire, for High Porte it was no more possible to unite the empire by using coercive measures and violence to convert Christians to Islam in the 19th century.
Nationalism was not countered by any other idea of the same influence after its emergence and thus the concept of nation state has become the only pattern according to which societies are organised. Weakening Ottoman Empire was not able to stop national uprisings additionally supported by other foreign states letting every particular self-conscious nation to create its own state. This emulating of western nation states caused many bloodsheds due to intermingled population of the Ottoman Empire, laying foundations for linking the Balkans with violence in the eyes of West Europeans. This attitude was strengthened subsequently by the Balkan wars. It was thus Balkan fault that the beginning of homogenisation started at a period when it had finished in Western Europe, which hypocritically looked at bloodshed as signs of savage and undeveloped regions. Therefore, I claim that it is a bad luck that idea of nationalism has emerged in the Balkans at all and the multi-national Ottoman Empire did not get a chance to evolve to any kind of a sustainable and tolerant regime.
The main aim of this paper is to prove that it is not the Balkans which has the monopoly of the violence by firstly pointing to the incompatibility of nation state and mixed population which leads to war and secondly that during the war moral values deteriorate quickly regardless of a region of origin. There can be posed my reasons why the Western Europe so disdainfully depicted the Balkans. One of them which I like the most is that the Balkans mirror previous years of Western Europe and that is what West Europeans do not like – to see how they were behaving couple of years ago.
Looking with concerns at situation in today’s Macedonia if there will be war again in the Balkans, it is not due to the haunted and violent character of its inhabitants, it is due to violent character of humans. Nobel Prize winner for literature, Ivo Andrić, describes very nicely the evil part of men, however, for purpose of this essay it is more suitable to cite rather non-Balkan author William Golding to show that even “such developed” men as the British occupy themselves with the violent human nature: “Maybe there is a beast … maybe it’s only us.”
DRAŠKOVIČ, Vuk. Nůž (Opava: Optys, 1995).
GOLDING, William. Pán Much. Prague: Naše Vojsko, 2010.
HATZOPOULOS, Pavlos. “’All that is, is nationalist’: Western imaginings of the Balkans since the Yugoslav wars”. Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans Online 5, No. 1 (January 2003): 25-38.
„How it happened: Massacre in Kandahar“, BBC, 17th March, 2012.
KAPLAN, D., Richard. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through history. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
MAASS, Peter. Love thy neighbour: A Story of War. London: Papermac, 1996.
MACDONALD, Bruce, David. Balkan Holocausts? Serbian and Croatian victim-centred propaganda and the war in Yugoslavia. Manchester: Manchester university press, 2002.
RADOVIC, Milja. “Resisting the Ideology of Violence in 1990s Serbian Film“. Studies in World Christianity 14, No. 2 (2008): 168-179.
ŞEKER, Nesim. Forced Population Movements in the Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic: An Attempt at Reassessment through Demographic Engineering. European Journal of Turkish studies 16, n. 3 (2013).
TODOROVA, Maria. Imagining the Balkans. London: Oxford university press, 1998.
Photo credits: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-y8XD9dsj2Hc/T3N1-0SZqOI/AAAAAAAAEns/_qGQZl4CEDQ/s1600/bosni-annexed.jpg
 David Bruce MacDonald, Balkan Holocausts? Serbian and Croatian victim-centred propaganda and the war in Yugoslavia (Manchester: Manchester university press, 2002), 150.
 Michael C. McAdams, Croatia, Myth and Reality (Zagreb, Croatian Informatiom Service, 1994): 16.
 See Jeanne M. Haskin, Bosnia And Beyond: The “Quiet” Revolution That Wouldn’t Go Quietly (New York: Alora publishing, 2006): 23 or R.J. Rummel, Death by government (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1994): 345.
See S.L.Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995); Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War (London: Penguin, 1996), and D. Owen, Balkan Odyssey (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995).
 Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (London: Oxford university press, 1998): 188.
 Pavlos Hatzopoulos, “’All that is, is nationalist’: Western imaginings of the Balkans since the Yugoslav wars,” Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans Online 5, No. 1 (January 2003).
 Richard D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (London, Picador, 1993). Peter Maass, Love Thy Neighbour: A Story of War (London: Papermac, 1996).
 Hatzopoulos, “’All that is, is nationalist’, 29.
 Nesim Şeker, “Forced Population Movements in the Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic: An Attempt at Reassessment through Demographic Engineering”, European Journal of Turkish studies 16, č. 3 (2013): 12.
 Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 118.
 Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, xxxvii.
 Ibid., 13.
 Hatzopoulos, “’All that is, is nationalist’, 30.
 Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 19-20.
 Maass, Love Thy Neighbour, 15.
 Vuk Draškovič, Nůž (Opava: Optys, 1995): 286-287. Milja Radovic, “Resisting the Ideology of Violence in 1990s Serbian Film“, Studies in World Christianity 14, č.2 (2008): 172-179.
 MacDonald, Balkan Holocausts?, 133.
 Hatzopoulos, “’All that is, is nationalist’”, 34.
 Maass, Love Thy Neighbour, 55.
 „How it happened: Massacre in Kandahar“, BBC, 17th March, 2012.
 Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 6.
 William Golding, Pán Much (Praha: Naše Vojsko, 2010): 80.