Daring to Remember

On Turning Away or Taking a Look

Foto: Peter BusseFoto: Peter Busse

Even those who know nothing else about the Balkans are absolutely sure that this much is true: they are the home of intolerance, of ethnic nationalism and of autistic behavior on the part of small states. Wasn’t proof of this provided just recently? All of the sins which nationalism on the Western part of the continent was responsible for in the 19th and 20th century – imperialist expansion, suppression, expulsion and forced assimilation of minorities - were committed again in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Stereotypes, ethnic hatred and national power politics of the kind we have finally said goodbye to in the European Union after two world wars seem to have subsisted in this inadequately developed hinterland, only to flourish yet again after having existed in a veritable time warp over the past 20 years.

Listen to an excerpt from this text (read by the athor)   Deutsche Flagge

Those willing to approach this region without prejudice and study it in depth will experience things which hardly fit in with the image described above. For instance, there is no other place in Europe where people switch so easily from one language to another as they do in the Balkans. There is no other European country whose inhabitants have as many relatives abroad as Croatia. And this is not the result of flight and displacement alone. Hospitality toward strangers is something these nations are famous for, and rightly so. Even after the war, in the villages and small towns of this region, they continue to cultivate a culture of mutual visits and well-wishing, above all on the occasion of religious celebrations, something wholly unknown to the Protestants and Catholics of Germany, for example. Even the custom of student exchanges, introduced after World War II in an attempt to bring the German and French peoples closer to each other, has a much longer tradition in Bosnia: as early as in the 19th century, parents would have their adolescent children stay with a family of the other nationality for a year, in order for them to become familiar with their customs and mentality.

An Interface of World Religions

Foto: Manzara Ulus'dan A traveler arriving in the region where Christianity meets Islam - the interface of two world religions – will hardly be faced with a culture clash, but rather with an unusual type of syncretism. In some of the valleys of Kosovo and Macedonia, even to the present day it is still customary for parents to choose two given names for their child, one Christian and one Muslim. Nowhere in Eastern Europe was there ever an Inquisition. Where cultural differences truly call for tolerance, this tolerance exists. In a country such as Serbia, which became notorious as the epicenter of ethno-nationalism, co-existence with the Roma is by far more successful than in the Czech Republic or in France. Even the ultra-nationalist Radical Party regularly invited a representative of the Roma to participate in its electoral events, who was duly celebrated by the crowds.

Nonetheless, the wars of the 1990’s did indeed happen, and they really were fought by the nations involved. They were not based on a conflict of ideologies or social classes. How does this tie in with the cultural tolerance alleged above?

Those interested in fathoming this contradiction would do well to recall the debate on “multiculturalism” carried out in the West in the 1980’s. In the United States, it had become customary at that time to ignore ethnic and cultural differences, even those pertaining to race, to the extent possible. But now the Canadian Charles Taylor, based on the experience gleaned in his own country, was demanding the opposite: indifference toward the particularities of others did not provide an appropriate foundation for coexistence, declared the Canadian philosopher. On the contrary, these differences needed to be recognized. According to Taylor, the type of respect that requires us to strip our neighbors of their social frame of reference cannot be sustainable.

How do we react to strangers?

We are familiar with the dilemma from everyday encounters: how do we react to what strikes us as strange, for instance to a person whose appearance surprises us? To we look at him or do we turn away? Do we ask a person with Asian features who speaks German with a Swabian accent to explain this apparent inconsistency? Do we ask disabled persons about their visible disability and express concern about their condition? Or do we pretend not to notice their disability at all?

In everyday situations, the answer will always depend on the specific circumstances, on our character and our sensitivities. On a more abstract level, however, on the level of morals or politics, there is a need for judgements which apply to all. In the Western part of Europe, a culture of turning away has therefore developed over the centuries, whereas in the East there is a culture of taking a look. These cultures have repercussions on everyday behavior. The way people deal with those who are different in the East seems blunt and direct to Westerners, but also relaxed and heartfelt, while in the East the abstraction from what is special about a fellow human being may come across as considerate and cultivated, but also as artificial and indolent.

From a moral point of view, we like to equate disregarding differences with the ideals of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. But the Western culture of turning away and the equality cult stem from an earlier source than that of the French Revolution with its égalité and its human rights. Rather, they go back to the times of absolutism. The Sun King shone equally on all of his subjects, irrespective of birth and social standing. There is already an inherent element of equality and disdain for differences here, which the Jacobins merely brought to fruition. The modern form of government which began to develop in 17th century France was based on countable subject matter; particularities, such as special rights, were something it abhorred. Ethnic and linguistic differences meant nothing to it. The King did not care in which language his subjects held their tongue.

A Shimmer of Collective Equality

Absolutism never prevailed in the Eastern European Empires . The Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the better part of the Balkans for over 500 years, divided its subjects up according to their faith, and this distinction was decisive for the allocation of rights. Muslims, Jews and Christians each formed a religious nation. They did not enjoy the same rights: Christians had to pay more taxes than Muslims and had to be recognizable by way of their clothing. But Muslims, too, were subject to specific prohibitions, so that a shimmer of collective equality hovered over the system, similar to the application of the notion of “separate-but-equal” in the American South. Dividing the people into nations based on their religion was a technique, which made them easier to rule over: the nations thus subjugated maintained their autonomous structures so that the Sublime Porte need not worry about collecting taxes.

Foto: Ensa Tekel Austria, which conquered the other half of the Balkan peninsula, was by no means left untouched by the age of enlightenment in Europe. However, the Habsburgs were dissuaded from radical modernization of the kind introduced in France or in Prussia under Frederick the Great, due to a justifiable fear of the dangers of equality. Maria Theresia introduced compulsory schooling, but also insisted that each ethnic group be taught in its mother tongue. What seems progressive to us today was conservative at the time. A people who spoke and wrote German or Latin threatened to produce an educated middle class, and that was dangerous. However, if their children learned Ukrainian, Slovenian or Romanian at school, then those ruling over them from Vienna could rest assured that their horizon would never be broadened beyond the restricted area they inhabited. Hence, even the unusual path which Austria chose to follow was dictated by an interest in maintaining power. This “divide and rule” concept paid off when the Monarch in Vienna used the Croats to defeat the Hungarian Liberals in 1848. Had all Liberals throughout the Empire felt that they belonged to one and the same nation, they would have joined forces against the Emperor.

In the wealthier, more contemporary Western states, enforced uniformity and assimilation of ethnic and linguistic differences prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries, albeit with the goal of creating a society of equal individuals. By contrast, in the Empires of the East these differences were systematically politicized. Later on, several states in this region tried to get back on the Western track – Romania, for instance, after 1920, when it had inadvertently become a multi-ethnic nation, or Yugoslavia after 1929. Alas, these efforts proved to be too little too late. Turkey, which never departed from the path of the pure nation of citizens, is struggling with the result to this very day. The three countries “with a French inclination” in Southeastern Europe (Romania, Greece and Turkey), by contrast to France, their role model, could not and would not offset the lack of recognition of cultural minorities with respect for the individual. They pretended to turn away, but in actual fact they took a very good look, albeit not with the intention of granting minorities equality, but rather of systematically diminishing their status.

No European state went as far along the road of politicizing differences as communist Yugoslavia. The undoing of this country was not enforced equalization, but rather the very opposite thereof. De facto, subjecting all walks of life to a quota system made the former religious nations into competing parties. However, in keeping with the system of ethnic balance imposed on them from above, they were forced to carefully weigh their interests against each other at all times. When this restriction disappeared in the first general elections with the introduction of the majority principle, the nation – parties were pitted against each other in all areas. But nations can only fight over sheer interest, not over a “cause”, and thus a war was inevitable before long.

It’s about identity, not about being different

Time and again, foreigners visiting the Balkans have remarked that the differences which led to so much bloodshed do not seem to be that great at all. Indeed they are not. Once the “nations” become competitors, they are no longer obliged to prove or justify their existence by cultivating cultural differences. The mere fact that they are competitors in political terms is sufficient to keep them far enough apart. Ultimately, it is not differences that are at stake in this system built entirely on differences, but rather all that is at stake at this point is identity. It is enough for the other person to simply be the other. After all, when examining job applications, for example, it is the applicant who is most like me whom I should fear most. Hostility and cultural proximity go hand in hand with each other, and tolerance does not cancel out competition. When non-Catholic Croats, non-orthodox Serbs and non-Muslim Bosnians fought each other from 1992 to 1995 in Bosnia, they were not expressing their differences but rather they were fighting for their barest interests.

Those who have a feeling for this can still detect the specific spirit of tolerance and respect for cultural differences in the Balkans, even after so many years of war. But those who believed that this spirit would protect then from war were proven wrong. The intensive courses in multi-national understanding, which countless Western foundations and NGOs have seen fit to provide to the Balkan societies since the wars, are doubtless well-meant and certainly do no harm, even if they beg the question as to who should be doing the teaching and who should be doing the learning. Be that as it may, these efforts are most certainly a failed investment if they are meant to prevent war.

Today, the conflicts are no longer virulent. The former multi-cultural empires have become nation states, and ethnic factions have become or are turning into nations in the western, civic sense. What remains from the times of the multi-ethnic nations are the hierarchies of prestige, and to this day they feed each and every political conflict with feelings of resentment. Hierarchies in terms of national prestige are not unknown in Western Europe either: these are based on a nation’s level of education and wealth. Hence the proportionately long stalemate between cultivated France and wealthy Germany in this respect.

In the Balkans and Central Europe, the criteria which apply are not of middle class or bourgeois, but rather of feudal origin. The “state-building” nations are at the top. During the era of multi-national empires, these were not only the (Austrian) Germans and the Turks – they were soon to be joined by the Serbs and the Greeks, who, by way of internationally recognized wars of liberation fought as early as in the beginning of the 19th century, had become the founders of independent states. Although far behind all Western countries with respect to education and wealth, Turkey enjoys great respect in the Balkan area to this day, and not merely that of the Muslims, as the administrator of the Empire’s estate.

Secondly, there are the “historic nations”. During the Habsburg Monarchy, these were nations with their own nobility, who had once supported an empire, and who had not been included under the Emperor’s crown until later, along with well-defined „historical“ rights. This applied above all to the Hungarians, who were ultimately only linked to Habsburg by the Emperor himself. However, he notion of “historical nations” with “old” (and, of course, controversial) rights also applies to the Bohemians and the Croats, as well as the Greeks, the Serbs, the Montenegrins and Romanians within the Ottoman Empire.

The Proud, Free Falcon

Lastly, at the bottom of the hierarchy, there were the „nations without a history“, as Hegel referred to them: groups without a history linked to an empire or a state, held together by language and customs alone, and perhaps religion or the odd national myth. These included the Slovenes and the Slovaks, the Bosnian Muslims, the Bulgarians and the Albanians. The fact that Slovenia’s per capita gross domestic product is double that of Croatia’s does not detract from Zagreb’s feeling of superiority in the least: even open-minded Croats see their neighbors as a nouveau-riche nation of small farmers. Even the shy respect and the fear with which the entire region feels toward Serbia is something which developed long before the most recent war. To the Slavs in the Habsburg Empire, for at least a century Serbia was the proud, free falcon who they would have liked to emulate if they had only had the courage.

There is no reason to fear that the new nations of Southeastern Europe will one day wish to carry out conflicts of Western European nations dating back to imperialist times. All they were endeavoring to do in their wars of division was to make use of a principle which has stood the test in the history of so many states – and needless to say, that is the national principle. Now they have it. Enmity and prejudice have thus become superfluous; the bitterness resulting from the experience of the most recent war will have been overcome by the next generation at the latest. Indeed, despite their stereotypical image, the Balkan nations do not cultivate the kind of conspicuous stereotypes of each other that Western nations do. Contemporary Germans often still need no more than an inherited or overheard prejudice, nourished by a fleeting holiday experience, in order to decide that all Frenchmen are “arrogant” and “supercilious”. In the Balkans, things like this were not even said during the war. People simply know each other better.

Listen to an excerpt from this text (read by the athor)  Deutsche Flagge

Norbert Mappes-Niediek, born in 1953, has been working for numerous German media as a free-lance correspondent in Southeastern Europe since the early 1990’s, including such distinguished ones as the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and the radio channel Deutschlandfunk.