- Imaginaria and Identities
- Geography and metaphor
Essence of violence
Over the last two centuries, the Balkan as a geographic term has become a strong metaphor; it is so semantically loaded that it cannot be used neutrally. Since the Ottoman Empire and especially after its fall, followed by the Balkan Wars, assassination in Sarajevo, World War I and the war in the 1990s, geopolitical meanings attributed to this area have been the breeding ground of negative stereotypes. Today, it is impossible to cut a path through the excrescence and come to a more or less healthy core, to the innocence of the word. When mentioning the Balkan, it immediately triggers wild imagination and geopolitical notions, whether it relates to current affairs or other, seemingly harmless discourse, be it literary, scientific or media. Even when the political reality is not spoken about directly, the Balkan and its baggage of metaphors, notions and imaginations is imprinted with political narratives, events and dominant power relations forged over the last two centuries.
The Balkan is related to several groups of metaphors and notions. On the one hand, it is a space of restless borders and cultural clashes, the crossroads of worlds; historically, it is the intersection of major empires, religious schisms and imaginary cultural circles, written in indelible ink across the collective consciousness. On the flipside, that basic metaphor envisions the Balkan as a bridge, a link or a bypass between the East and the West, Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam or Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The bridge is a positive metaphor only at first glance: it is a connection and a meeting point, but also a transitory place not worth getting to know better, because it only exists to be crossed. Also, the bridge has no real content, i.e., its content is exhausted by connecting/bringing closer together different and distant shores.
In other cases, the Balkan is related to the notion of a “ticking bomb”, the ancient battlefield fueled by ineradicable hatred and conflict, while people living in the Balkans are seen as cruel, violent and barbaric. These fantasies often go so far as to consider violence as a genetic marker, a permanent deviation of the local people, sometimes of supernatural, monstrous or vampiric proportions. These ideas also stem from the notion that a certain area deserves certain people, certain type of behavior, even a certain destiny. An example of such a narrative is presented by an American author Robert Kaplan in his book Balkan Ghosts, where he states that Nazism originated in the Balkans. According to Kaplan, the history of the 20th century “can claim Balkan origins”, where “men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate” which is why “the origins of Nazism can be found in the Balkans”, where in “the flophouses of Vienna, a breeding ground of ethnic resentments close to the southern Slavic world, Hitler learned how to hate so infectiously.” Kaplan fatalist and essentialist view has no borders, he even asks the question: “What does the earth look like in the places where people commit atrocities? Is there a bad smell, a genius loci, something about the landscape that might incriminate?”
No matter how ludicrous they seems, Kaplan’s statements had a big impact in an important context. The author was a reporter in the early 1990s for some of the most popular American newspapers, and his travelogue Balkan Ghosts is one of the first and most influential books published in the West to offer an interpretation of local events and wars. Kaplan mentioned the statements from the book many times in his newspaper articles, for example, back in 1989 he stated an age-old claim (which appeared in the West precisely during the Balkan Wars) for the Wall Street Journal, whereby the Balkan is “history”s cauldron.” According to Kaplan: “The Balkan is the cauldron of the Third World where ethnic groups live in psychological isolation from one another, resisting attempts at political and economic reform.” He went on to warn western readers of the danger of global conflict (“The Balkan, after all, is an ideal place to start a global conflict”), and as proof, he reminded them of “Gavrilo Princip’s perfect aim and steady hand.”
As some kind of key piece of historical evidence of the essential savagery and violence of the Balkan, an attractive argument is often stated about how the 20th century began and ended with wars in the Balkan. The starting point of that interpretation of history is the year 1914, Sarajevo and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, while the final act is the 1990s and the siege of that same city. The full circle of history of the 20th century is not only present in more “informal” media and literary discourse, but also in serious studies whose authors do not usually adhere to cyclical theories in the interpretation of European or world history, being more than willing to prove that history is always open-ended and unpredictable, with each historical moment being different and unrepeatable.
The narrative of the Balkan as the bloody threshold of the 20th century forgets and ignores that European history is full of war and conflict, that all major European nations and civil revolutions were born out of bloodshed and that oppression, “territorial cleansing”, forced migration etc., went hand-in-hand with the creation of modern-day democratic societies. This is an attempt at interpreting European history in the spirit of the Enlightenment, as a constant progression towards democratic values and ideal civil societies. During that progression, wars and violence were sometimes necessary, and as such, they cannot smear the positive image of recent European history. The history of the Balkan, on the other hand, is given mythical treatment, as something doomed, as a vicious circle of horrors which men and women of the Balkans, due to their nature, i.e., “Balcanic blood and passion” can never escape. The Balkan, according to this interpretation, is consigned to a pre-Modern era in which categories of progress and development do not apply, it remains a space “outside history”, timeless and trapped in a barbaric and hostile vacuum.
However, just as the schism and the bridge, these notions of the wild Balkan have their counterpoint. Sometimes, the wild Balkan meets a positive interpretation, local people are presented as “kind savages” who live in harmony with nature and imaginary primal, cosmic laws. This positive myth of the wild and exotic Balkan is actually a variation of the universal myth of returning to the natural state of the nation, to a prehistoric time untouched by civilization and modern inventions, not as morally corrupt as today’s modernized, technologically advanced and urban world allegedly is. Supporters of these anti-modernist interpretations, which are, in fact, exclusive and carry ethnic and nationalistic undertones, consider the Balkan as the last pristine, idyllic place in Europe, where the core values of Western civilization have remained intact. That Balkan is seen as an antipode to a certain kind of Europe, this time, a morally and politically corrupt Europe, a Europe which has forgotten its culture and betrayed humanistic principles. In this case, the Balkan is merely a distinction to establish a certain image about a subject, a mirror to reflect other identities.
In short, whatever we want to see can be projected onto the Balkan, without registering what is actually there at a specific point in time. The discourse about the Balkan is characterized by essentialisms and imaginative notions which have been passed on, repeated and upgraded over time, regardless of real historical context. The discourses about the Balkan are, therefore, fixed and permanent, timeless and widely applicable, where often something which exists at a certain historical period is singled out and interpreted as something “natural” and “normal”, something that is present in every time period. Furthermore, the Balkan is constantly presented as a unique and homogeneous space, as a single body, single culture, single mentality, or as the same violence, same backwardness, same primitivism. Not only is the Balkan deprived of the right to grow, but it is also deprived of internal diversity, multiplicity, plurality, as well as overlapping with other geographical and cultural domains. When, however, the fact that the Balkan is not unified or unambiguous is pointed out, this often leads to the other extreme, stressing how overwhelmingly “complex” it is, even monstrously so.
By Katarina Luketić
Translated by Una Krizmanić Ožegović
Katarina Luketić is an essayist and literary critic. She was the editor of Zarez, an independent cultural newspaper. Currently, she is working as an editor for Pelago publishing house (which she also co-founded), whose program is mainly dedicated to translations. The focus of her research explores the relations between ideological and literary discourse, identity politics, represented in her book The Balkan: From Geography to Fantasy (2013), from which she will read excerpts on discourse about the perception of the Balkan. She is working on her book Dealing with the Literary Past (Nationalism in Croatian Literature and Culture of the 1980s and the 1990s), as the recipient of the Following the Traces of Totalitarian Heritage grant supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation, Literaturhaus Berlin and Herta Müller.