Yugoslavia and Its Historians
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Yugoslavia and Its Historians

Understanding the Balkan Wars of the 1990s

Norman M. Naimark, Holly Case, Norman M. Naimark, Holly Case

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eBook - ePub

Yugoslavia and Its Historians

Understanding the Balkan Wars of the 1990s

Norman M. Naimark, Holly Case, Norman M. Naimark, Holly Case

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Most of what has been written about the recent history of Yugoslavia and the fierce wars that have plagued that country has been produced by journalists, political analysts, diplomats, human rights organization, the United Nations, and other government and intergovernmental organizations. Professional historians of Yugoslavia, however, have been strangely silent about the wars and the breakup of the country. This book is an effort to end that silence.

The goal of this volume is to bring together insights from a distinguished group of American and European scholars of Yugoslavia to add depth to our historical understanding of that country's recent struggles. The first part of the volume examines the ways in which images of the Yugoslav past have shaped current understandings of the region. The second part deals more directly with the events of the recent past and also looks forward to some of the problems and future prospects for Yugoslavia's successor states.

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Images of the Past

1 Clio amid the Ruins

Yugoslavia and Its Predecessors in Recent Historiography


What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
—Shakespeare, The Tempest, I.ii.49

Past Political

Exit into History, The Rebirth of History, Return to Diversity, The Haunted Land, Balkan Ghosts. . . . Since 1989, “past as prologue” has been a dominant motif in accounts of contemporary Eastern Europe, as these titles of some of the most popular books on the subject indicate. There are several reasons for this. One is the notion that people of the region are unusually preoccupied with their histories, real and imagined, and tend to view the present in terms of the past. This tendency seemed especially significant with the new freedoms and uncertainties of life after communism. Outside observers, too, looked to precommu-nist Eastern Europe for clues to the new era, as awareness grew of persistent, historically charged local conflicts previously subordinated, in fact or perception, to superpower rivalry. Moreover, the fall of the Wall happened to roughly coincide with a “turn to history” in various social sciences against their commonly ahistorical stance since the 1950s.1
For those who write and teach about the history of Eastern Europe, these developments would seem to be a boon. And to an extent they have been, at least in terms of heightened interest in the region’s past among social scientists and lay audiences. At the same time, however, there has been dismay in the profession at the often crude manner in which history has been interpreted and used.
Nowhere has this been more true than in the case of the former Yugoslavia. When fighting broke out, there was little knowledge of the country’s history among Western publics, especially in North America, and thus a marked inability or reluctance to interpret the state’s disintegration on its own terms. Instead, simple messages from more familiar history—the Sarajevo assassination as catalyst of world war; the Munich Pact as appeasement; Vietnam as quagmire—were put forward as dubious guides. The dominant “ice-box” model of East European communism has meant that Titoist Yugoslavia is all but ignored; instead, Tito’s death and the collapse of communism are claimed to have reanimated a more essential historical pattern, often reduced to serial slaughters and vague, intractable, age-old “Balkan” antagonisms, more often referred to (especially by critics) as “ancient ethnic hatreds.” Masquerading as historical explanations, such claims are in fact profoundly dismissive of the need for historical knowledge; a turn from, not to history. So a good deal of scholarly energy is spent combating this type of simplistic conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, these efforts have had limited effect on popular understanding, and they may have actually impoverished academic discourse: denunciation of the ancient-hatreds thesis and similar breezy reductionisms has become almost de rigueur in scholarly texts, where the author is usually preaching to the converted.
At stake of course is not simply historical understanding for its own sake. Behind the ancient-hatreds thesis, there often is, or is seen to be, an argument against outside involvement and in favor of ethnic partition. At the other extreme, interpretations that dismiss the force of history altogether and focus solely on contemporary elites can serve the cause of intervention of one kind or another. Dueling historical analogies are even more clearly tied to rival policies.2
Political passions surrounding rival interpretations run as high in academia as anywhere else. This stems in part from historians’ awareness that they are inescapably participants in politically charged, competing visions of the future as well as of the past. More simply, it has also been true that in East European studies (as in other fields, to be sure), “special pleading, based on national self-images and stereotypes, can infuse even works of scrupulous scholarship and high erudition,” as the British historian of Yugoslavia Mark Wheeler has written. So it is perhaps not surprising that Yugoslavia’s violent collapse has led to a high degree of polarization and frequent recriminations among those who study the region.3
Unsurprising, perhaps, but regrettable. Too rarely will Yugoslav specialists of different political persuasions appear together at a conference or in a book, addressing each other’s arguments directly, respectfully, and productively. Too often, criticism and debate revolve implicitly or explicitly around the question: Which side are you on? Of course, focusing on the moral and political assumptions, motivations, or implications of scholarship is perfectly legitimate. Even the most politically charged fields, however, can and should be subject to more academically grounded evaluation as well, as shown by the valuable reflections in recent years on the historiography of Russia and the Soviet Union.4
The historiography of the South Slavs might have seen similar assessments, had Yugoslavia’s breakup been more consensual and less subject to debate over international policy. As it is, the field is overdue for a checkup. There has been an overwhelming flood of publications since the early 1990s.5 Most of the new books will have short shelf lives, but the number of valuable, serious works has been rising steadily. Some of the historical writing is based on new archival research (mostly conducted during the 1980s, a period of generally freer research environments that ended with the disruptions and destruction of the 1990s). Much more is primarily synthetic or interpretive in nature.
In this chapter, I survey recent work on the modern history of the Yugoslav lands, hoping to make a contribution toward evaluating the state of the field and to encourage discussion of its needs and achievements in the wake of the country’s collapse. A few notes on the chapter’s scope: I emphasize general trends in the historiography of Southeast Europe at the expense of a more comprehensive bibliography and closer examination of the monographic literature on South Slav history. The focus is on the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, excluding for the most part the large and growing body of work on Socialist Yugoslavia, not to mention its breakup. Finally, I cover only English-language texts, mainly North American and British publications that have appeared since 1990, thus leaving out much important work by both native and foreign scholars. In exchange for these omissions, the boundaries make for a more manageable and coherent survey.

Seeing Ghosts

Much more pervasive and influential than scholarly writing, of course, has been the presentation of history by journalists, diplomats, and others from outside the academy. Including these works would make for a different kind of essay. But they relate to an issue important to the present discussion: the marginalization of scholarship.
In 1993, National Public Radio correspondent Sylvia Poggioli wrote:

When I arrived in Belgrade in October 1988 for my first assignment in Yugoslavia, I brought with me the latest Western publications on Yugoslav political developments. When war broke out two and a half years later I realized those books were outdated and useless and I had to begin a difficult search for old and out of print books on Balkan history, on the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and on the Catholic-Orthodox schism—long forgotten subjects which had suddenly re-emerged as the signposts needed to understand what was happening now.6

Exaggerated as this is—journalists would have done well to turn to a number of newer books on these not-quite-forgotten subjects and to read some of those “useless” ones more carefully—it is hard not to sympathize. Even though Yugoslavia received more attention than most other East European countries, the historian Ivo Banac had reason to lament that the study of South Slav history in the West suffered from “scholarly neglect” and “was on the whole neither profound nor substantial.” Among its most important shortcomings was the one Poggioli encountered: topics of superficial importance were often chosen over more fundamental issues. It is easy of course in hindsight to see that we could have used a few more good books on, say, national self-determination at the expense of a few on workers’ self-management. But such problems were also clear at the time to perceptive observers—as when, thirty years ago, Stevan Pavlowitch remarked: “It could be an amusing relaxation to compile a kind of anti-bibliography on Yugoslavia.”7
One reason for the misplaced emphases was, as John Lampe has written, the fact that “most scholars who enlisted in the Western army of Yugoslav specialists, the present author included, simply assumed that the country would and should continue to exist.”8 Sympathy for Yugoslavia’s experiments in socialism, federalism, or both certainly played a role in encouraging wishful thinking. Beyond that, as Mark von Hagen reminds us, academic agendas and assumptions for many years reflected “the ideology of the reigning cold-war-era social science school of ‘modernization, ’ which posited the eventual disappearance of ethnic and national difference as societies became more urbanized, industrialized and literate.”9 If few Yugoslav specialists expected the actual disappearance of national difference, many did focus on economic and social forces generally seen as counterweights to, perhaps even solvents of, the centrifugal effects of “narrow nationalisms.”
It is possible that the real and perceived inadequacies of the scholarly literature have made nonacademic publishers even more inclined than usual to prefer the breezy to the bookish. This may help explain, for instance, the depressing choice of Robert Kaplan of Balkan Ghosts fame to compile “A Reader’s Guide to the Balkans” for the New York Times Book Review.10 It is also true, however, that a number of prominent scholars of the region have appeared regularly in newspapers and journals of opinion in Britain and the United States; others could but choose not to.11
More disconcerting is the fact that even many academic publishers prefer authors willing and able to present Yugoslavia’s tangled pasts in colorful, undemanding, and unambiguously “relevant” terms. Noting that academic presses have been “looking beyond the specialty monograph and the ‘tenure book’ to secure a larger share of the publishing market,” Robert Baldock, an editor at Yale University Press, writes that editors are making a virtue of necessity by turning in particular to journalists, who are producing “works of major scholarship” by combining academic research with their “fieldwork” as reporters. The results can in fact be impressive, as in his primary example, Anatol Lieven’s highly regarded book, The Baltic Revolution. Lieven calls upon Czeslaw Milosz’s nostalgia for the days when “a reporter, sociologist and a historian used to coexist within one man,” and he combines those roles admirably.12
Unfortunately, Baldock’s other examples, British journalists Marcus Tanner and Tim Judah, do not transcend their professions in their histories of (respectively) Croatia and the Serbs. The books offer introductions to certain important moments in each nation’s historical memory, but the authors’ approach to history is parochial, romantic, and determinist, and as a result they fail to meet the acute need for good, accessible surveys of their subjects. It is equally disheartening that a leading intellectual journal such as Daedalus would invite Tanner and Judah to contribute articles on Croatian and Serbian history. The essays distill the most objectionable aspects of the books, while lacking their chief virtues (useful if patchy historical narrative and some keen reporting). Only the former Yugoslavia gets amateur treatment in this theme issue on Europe, and the two essays seem quite out of place alongside pieces by such scholars as Szporluk, Malia, Khazanov, and Schnapper.13

Academics have responded in various ways to their marginal presence and influence. One of the more fruitful responses has been: If you can’t beat ‘em, historicize ‘em. As K. E. Fleming notes, the field of Balkan studies has long been characterized by a “bifurcation” between a small group of academic specialists and a larger number of “semi-scholarly” authors who dominate public discussion whenever a crisis brings attention to the otherwise obscure region.14 The history of how perceptions of “the Balkans” have thus been shaped and used has become an important topic of research in recent years. This work is largely carried out within postmodern and postcolonial theoretical frameworks and is especially indebted to Edward Said’s seminal study of orientalism, but it also calls upon earlier literatures on topics such as ethnic stereotyping.
Eastern Europe emerged relatively early as a rich vein for these explorations of symbolic geography and images of the Other.15 The crisis in Yugoslavia then brought special scrutiny to ways of “imagining the Balkans.”16 The best studies in this genre have certainly contributed to our understanding of political cultures and international relations within and outside the region, by studying how, in Todorova’s words, difference “is interpreted and harnessed in ideological models.”17
It should be noted, however, that some influential historians worry about the trend toward studying the representation of groups and regions, rather than the things themselves. Gale Stokes asks:

How might it be possible to write about difference? Is there any way to use terms like “The West,” “Balkan,” “Central Europe,” or “Southeast Europe” sensibly, without being accused of implicitly “privileging” something? Or is there another way of speaking in broad ter...

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