Geert Lovink on Mon, 9 Aug 1999 20:35:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> books on kosov@

Untangling Balkan Knots of Myth and Countermyth (NYT)


In a more perfect world, the warring sides in ethnic disputes over
territory and equitable treatment might lay down their arms and submit
themselves to a panel of historical experts who would study the record and
determine which side's claims had greater merit. There would be a ruling,
and each side would retire its unjustifiable demands in the face of
superior historical documentation. 

Were such a world ever to come into being, books about such contemporary
historical disputes as the fate of Kosovo would be fought over with an
even greater degree of ferocity than they are today. Even now, challenging
a historical claim considered by many to be a matter of life and death is
not work for the faint of heart. As Ernest Renan, a French historian and
essayist, said a century ago, "Getting history wrong is an essential part
of being a nation." Just consider how the Serbian leader, Slobodan
Milosevic, exploited the history of a battle that occurred more than 600
years ago to legitimize nationalist claims to Kosovo. 

Separating documentable truths from widely shared myths is no easy task. 
Kosovo's historical tableau has been carved upon at various moments by
Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Vlachs, Germans, Hungarians, Turks,
Gypsies, Jews and Circassians, as well as Serbs and Albanians. Roman
Catholicism, Orthodox Islam and Judaism have all played an influential
role in determining the life of the area, to say nothing of Communism,
Fascism and nationalism. 

Many scholars from various disciplines have tried to unravel the Balkans'
tangled past. One writer recently counted 160 books dealing with the
region published in only the past four years. 

Katherine Verdery, a professor of anthropology at the University of
Michigan, for instance, just published a study on the way "dead bodies on
the move" -- her expression for repeated reburials of ancestors and
historical heroes -- have helped shape traditionally religious societies
emerging from Communism. The book, "The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: 
Reburial and Post-Socialist Change" (Columbia University Press, 1999),
explores the post-mortem travels of Prince Lazare of Serbia, whose
traveling bones have done so much to roil the Serbian population 600 years
after his death and inspire the patriotic fervor that helped set off the
war in Kosovo. (American Navy and Army welders recently repaired a statue
of Lazare that had been lassoed and pulled to the ground by several
hundred Albanians.) 

Taking another tack, Maria Tedorov's "Imagining the Balkans" (Oxford
University Press, 1997) points to a history of Western distortion in the
portrayal of Balkan societies not unlike that pursued by Edward Said in
his landmark study of the representation of the East, "Orientalism." Ms.
Tedorov calls into question whether outsiders can ever understand the

Wars have a way of calling attention to scholarly specialties that tend to
get unnoticed otherwise, offering a historian 15 minutes of fame -- or at
least a 15-second sound bite on television. Given the continued fighting
in the region, it is perhaps unavoidable that reactions to this history
are colored by the politics of the day. It is a place where history bleeds
into the present. President Clinton was said to be heavily influenced by
Robert D. Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts" (Random House, 1994), which implied
that no solution was possible in an area so fraught with "ancient
hatreds." People close to the president said reluctance to get involved in
the Balkans in the early 1990s was at least partially attributable to the
book's influence on the president's understanding of the region's history. 

When the action switched to Kosovo, the United States adopted a much more
assertive policy in the area. In this case, two of the books that have
come to dominate the debate among scholars and policymakers take direct
aim at the "ancient-hatreds" school of history. 

Miranda Vickers' "Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo"
(Columbia University Press, 1998) focuses primarily on the 20th-century
history of the province. Ms. Vickers argues that the conflict began in
earnest when the Yugoslavian regime incorporated the Kosovar Albanians,
and then instituted periods of repression and intolerance that destroyed
the uneasy balance between the two ethnic populations there. 

Meanwhile, Noel Malcolm's book, "Kosovo: A Short History" (New York
University Press, 1998), demonstrates that the area now called Kosovo
enjoyed a long period of peaceful coexistence and sometimes even
cooperation between the Serb and Albanian populations of the area. Like
Ms. Vickers, he blames the recent troubles virtually exclusively on the
ambitions of late 20th-century Serb nationalism. 

What has made Malcolm's work particularly controversial is the manner in
which he puts a torch to virtually every sacred myth the Serbs hold dear,
along with a few of the Albanians. 

Malcolm, who taught at Cambridge University for seven years, has taken aim
at many of the accepted conventions of Serbian history. Like other
historians before him, he disputes the Serbs' sacred founding myth, that
the courageous though unsuccessful resistance of the Serbs to the Ottoman
Turks in Kosovo in 1389 ended the Serbian empire. He says it began to fall
apart three decades earlier. And he takes issue with another myth: that
when the Austrian Army penetrated Kosovo in 1689 and forced the Ottoman
Turks out of the region, the Serbian Orthodox patriarch, Arsenije
Crnojevic, inspired the local Serbs to join the Austrians against the
Turks; that on New Year's Day, 1690, the Austrians were defeated in battle
by the Turks, and that Crnojevic then led a retreat from Kosovo, allowing
the Muslim Albanians to settle the area. 

Malcolm insists that Austrians were met not by Crnojevic, but by the
Albanian Catholic archbishop, Pjeter Bogdani. Moreover, he says, the
patriarch led no "Great Migration" of Serbs out of Kosovo but simply cut
and ran. 

Tim Judah, writing in The New York Review of Books, likened Malcolm's task
to "someone claiming that the Mayflower sailed from America to Britain or
that Ellis Island had little to do with immigration to the United States." 

Malcolm has also questioned some of Kosovo's more recent history. He
argues that the portrayal of Yugoslavians' resistance to the Nazis has
been exaggerated and deployed as pro-Serb propaganda. He says, for
example, that only four German divisions, not hundreds, were kept in
Yugoslavia during the occupation. Nor did Tito manage to tie up Hitler's
forces, as the Serbs claim. Malcolm writes that "Tito's 'liberation' of
areas of remote countryside" did not "affect the German war effort in any
vital way: the Germans and Italians continued to control the large towns,
the major roads and railways, and the mines." 

Some experts have taken issue with Malcolm for his attachment to
old-fashioned forms of historical narrative. Karen Barkey, a sociologist
at Columbia at work on a study of the Balkans, finds Malcolm's version
simplistic. To believe that there can be "one single correct history," Ms. 
Barkey says, "misses the way in which facts are created and how people
make their own history by shaping their own myths." 

Those with a particular sensitivity to Serb concerns, however, have
accused Malcolm's history of being tainted by ideology. Alexa Djilas, a
Montenegran Serbian writer who recently returned to Belgrade from the
United States, complained in Foreign Affairs magazine: "It is tempting to
dismiss Malcolm as a popularizer or charlatan. His account is marred by
his sympathies for the Albanians and his illusions about the Balkans." 

There is more at stake than scholarly reputations. Letters to the editor
of Serbian publications during the war frequently invoked 1389 as its
justification. And even American senators and congressmen have mentioned
the gilded version of Yugoslav resistance to the Nazis. 

Of course, nations do not easily give up their myths to historians. As the
historian Eric Hobsbawm once observed: "Unfortunately, the one thing
historical experience has taught historians is that nobody ever seems to
learn from it. Still we must go on trying." 

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