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A Conversation between Hannes Grandits and Anatoly Golubovsky

“The breakup of the empires, such as the Habsburg, the Tsarist and – in a longer process – also the Ottoman Empire . . . opened up a new logic in individual and collective identification processes.” (Prof. Hannes Grandits)

A.G.: Some social analysts and commentators associate many current conflicts – from terror attacks to a return of the Cold War to Europe – with the painful process of replacing one identity with another, or multiple identities, such as “Soviet” with “post-Soviet” or “Yugoslav” with multiple “Balkan” identities. Do you agree with this? In your opinion, what is the role of identity in the process of present-day political and cultural integration or disintegration?

H.G.: I am sceptical about the term identity. Gender, class, profession, political orientation, religion, generation and many more factors play an important role in the identities of the individual. I don’t think that my identity is similar to that of, let’s say, my mother’s. She was born in 1936 whereas I was born in 1966. Our respective adolescences were so different as, indeed, have been our individual journeys through life … Nevertheless, discourses about identities are omnipresent. This is particularly valid for those relating to a “national identity”. In multilingual or multi-confessional milieus – but elsewhere as well – these discourses are most often aimed at social differentiation and the definition of national, social and political “boundaries”. The anthropologist Fredrik Barth had already written about such processes of “boundary production” as early as the 1960s. The concepts of scientists, like Barth, are still highly relevant when approaching boundary production in present-day Europe (and beyond) – also, for instance, when looking at “post-Soviet” or “post-Yugoslav” political and social dynamics.

I am more familiar with the situation and history of Yugoslavia specifically when discussing the issue of the “identity” factor in the breakup of a country or system. The late-socialist economy and one-party system in the late 1980s underwent far-reaching and accelerated processes of disintegration. To what extent this has progressed also surprised contemporaries or the “Yugoslav” population. I do not think that an “identity crisis” has caused this political disintegration. But social, political and also cultural disintegration was an outcome of the aforementioned economic and then political crisis.

A.G.: Do you think that the concept of “identity” is covered by language and culture, and if so, to what extent?

H.G.: Language and “culture” (how does one define culture?) are definitely factors in the make-up of identity. But identities are multilayered, multifacetted, ambiguous and, in general, also context-dependent. I do not think that we should focus our research too much on identities as a primarily starting point in understanding, for instance, political crisis.

A.G.: Did the breakup of traditional empires in the course of the First World War lead to the creation of new identities, new cultural and linguistic entities? Or did they originate inside the empires and destroy them from within?

H.G.: The breakup of the empires, such as the Habsburg, the Tsarist and – in a longer process – also the Ottoman Empire, brought tremendous re-orientations in the lives of the people who lived through these caesuras and experienced the formation of new, radically smaller “nation states” in (East-) Central and Southeastern Europe or, in Eastern Europe, the creation of the new Soviet state. On the one hand, the claim of the predominance of national prerogatives on the part of the new ruling elites, or the start of a revolutionary and extremely radical reorganisation of society on the other, definitely did place the lives of the citizens into new political, social, economic and cultural contexts. Or to put it differently: it opened up a new logic in individual and collective identification processes.

A.G.: After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the reunification of Germany (reverse dynamics), Europe underwent a renewed, large-scale social, cultural and national identification process, which is traditionally described as the liberation from the consequences of a totalitarian and authoritarian mentality of the Soviet type. What can we say of these tendencies today? Did they come to an end? What is their development vector?

H.G.: I think both processes are still present: the ongoing endeavours to overcome authoritarian structures, or as you put it, “mentalities”, by establishing more transparent institutional procedures in the realms of the political or in the spheres of the “cultural”, in education, in the media, in civil society, in institutional life and so on. The rule of law and the rights of individual citizens are being championed – often successfully, too. But also the opposite was and is still the case. I think the liberation from the consequences of an authoritarian mentality is not an automatic, self-perpetuating process and it is far from being teleological, moreover it can also fail. For instance, look at the many places where the “Arab Spring” started to initiate fundamental changes in established power relations. I think the developments in Europe have brought real success in many places, but also disappointments elsewhere – take the difficulties in overcoming the “ethnic democracy” established in the internationally-brokered Dayton Accord in Bosnia, for instance.

A.G.: What is the future of national and cultural identities within a united Europe? What is their impact on European integration?

H.G.: There seems to be an ongoing interplay between the national and the supranational in the European Union. The lived realities of many European citizens are no longer taking place merely within respective national frameworks. I experience this very much in my own work as a professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin. You might suppose that my courses are predominantly made up of students with German citizenship, but in the majority this a far from being the case. On the contrary, the students come from all over the EU, Europe and beyond. I think European integration represents a great opportunity for the future of European societies per se.

A.G.: Political correctness, tolerance, multiculturalism – can these notions be regarded as components of the modern European identity?

H.G.: Yes, this should be the case and they are worth engaging for politically, as well.

A.G.: What is the cultural and identical basis of the new confrontation between East and West? Would you define the confrontation in these terms?

H.G.: The American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, propagated such a “Clash of Cultures” as the new post-Cold War paradigm. He also tried to explain the Balkan wars as being fought along “cultural fault lines”. This was complete nonsense. The organisers behind the Balkan wars were more often than not and first and foremost products of one-party-rule or became powerful in the incipient anarchic situation deriving from violent social disintegration. The biographies of people responsible for the escalation of violence were not too different across their alleged different “Orthodox”, “Catholic” or “Muslim” cultures. Most of them became religious no earlier than the breakup period of Yugoslavia and the conflict during the 1990s.

A.G.: What do you think of the attempts to facilitate Eurasian integration? What are its historical and cultural origins? Can we talk of Eurasian integration as a reality or just as a prospect for the future?

H.G.: I think that European integration is a fact. Eurasian integration seems to be currently an antagonistic endeavour. It doesn’t necessarily need to be that way and these processes don’t need to be either/or developments. Or to put it another way: they ought not to be antagonistic processes. 

A.G.: Can you estimate or make a prognosis about conflict dynamics in the post-Soviet or – furthermore – in the post-totalitarian European space overall?

H.G.: I am not an expert on the post-Soviet space. But I regard the current confrontation potential as very worrying indeed.