Woven memories of inflamed lands

Muslim Identity and the Balkan State - Europe's New Nationalism - Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood - Honest Broker or Perfidious Albion?
May 22, 1998

Some years ago, the interminable and rather pretentious Ulysses' Gaze was shown in British cinemas. The hero, played by Harvey Keitel, sets off on a search across the Balkans for the missing reels of the legendary "Maniakis brothers", pioneers of early cinema. By the time we reach the tragic conclusion of the film in Sarajevo, where else, it is clear that the reels will never - must never? - be found. The viewer gradually infers from the atmosphere of nationalist hysteria and turbulence within which the action is set, that the seemingly innocuous footage of Balkan peasant life before the first world war is in fact a potential political time-bomb.

Anastasia Karakasidou's Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood, describes a rather different quest, but the furore this doctoral dissertation caused upon its original appearance is a disturbing echo of the fictional, yet entirely plausible explosive potential of the Maniakis reels. The author's aim is to chart how a particular Greek locality in eastern Aegean Macedonia, Assiros, achieved its "passage to nationhood" during the early to mid-20th century. For the apparently eternal "Greekness" of the Assirotes turns out to be "a relatively recent phenomenon, created through a protracted process of socio-economic restratification and national homogenisation". In the late 19th century, most of the inhabitants of the Ottoman village of Guvezna - as it was called then - and of its surroundings were either Turkish-speaking Muslim or Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christian sharecroppers. Their horizons were at once both more localist and more imperial than those of the nationalist propagandists beginning to infiltrate the region around 1900: they saw themselves not in national but in religious terms, for the Ottoman empire lumped together all Christians - Serb, Greek and Bulgarian- speaking into one millet for the purpose of administrative convenience.

The Hellenisation of Guvezna, it transpires, was consciously achieved through the concerted efforts of a Greek-speaking, largely immigrant elite, which began to settle in the area after the mid-19th century. The economic and cultural hegemony of these merchants and landowners, the Tsorbadjidhes, and of their allied clerics and teachers, overawed the Slavic-speaking peasants, most of whom gradually adopted a Greek identity more or less voluntarily. Poorer families sought out the elite as godparents; recently arrived Greek merchants married local women and forbade them to speak their native tongue; and the teachers assiduously disseminated Greek culture at school.

After the incorporation of Guvezna into Greece in 1912-13, nation-building entered a new phase, backed as it was by the full bureaucratic and repressive apparatus of the state. It was during this period, which saw the influx of expelled "Greeks" from Asia Minor in 1922-23, that the national character of the village - now rechristened Assiros - was fundamentally created. In the 1930s, the process of Hellenisation was completed by the introduction of strict laws against the public use of non-Greek languages. As a result, the area remained largely Greek in loyalty throughout the difficult period of German and Bulgarian occupation during the second world war.

Of course, the phenomenon Karakasidou describes was not a linear, entirely manipulative or even necessarily counterfeit process. One of the strengths of her approach is the way in which she interweaves folk memory with "objective" history to show how Hellenisation was sometimes as much a conscious attempt at assimilation as something ordained from "on high" by a societal or bureaucratic elite. Moreover, there had already existed a substantial, though not a majority Greek-speaking population in the area during the late Ottoman period. To paraphrase the late E. P. Thompson: nations do not just happen - they are made - but they are present at their own making.

Nevertheless, what comes across very strongly is the terrible irony and futility of the Greek national project in the late 19th and 20th century. Greeks, or rather the Greek Orthodox, had dominated commerce and administration under the Ottoman Turks. By the 1920s, they traded this informal empire for an embattled statelet which encompassed only a fraction of the pre-war diaspora. The megali idea - the great idea of pan-Greek political unity - had ended in the great catastrophe of 1922-23 with the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor, where they had lived for centuries, and their resettlement in hitherto predominantly Slav-speaking Macedonia.

It is therefore hardly surprising that this book should have provoked outrage in Greek nationalist circles. The author, to use her own description, had "unwittingly violated taboos by peering behind the veils and revealing the 'sacred flutes' of Greek national ideology". For unlike the Poles and the Americans - peoples historically proud of their assimilative strengths - many Greeks have been extraordinarily sensitive to suggestions that parts of their state might only have been Hellenised quite recently. Yet the sheer scale of the storm took most people by surprise, not least because much of her argument is now common currency among some scholars, though furiously contested by others; indeed, a collection of articles edited by Peter Mackridge and Eleni Yannakis, Ourselves and Others: The Development of a Greek Macedonian Cultural Identity since 1912, published simultaneously with this book, largely confirms her findings. Nevertheless, Karakasidou was vilified as "anti-Greek", accused of giving comfort to expansionist elements in the newly founded Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ("FYROM") in the north, threatened with rape and even murder. Her publisher - Cambridge University Press, which has commercial interests in Greece and an apparently healthy respect for radical Greek nationalism - pulled out. A major row then ensued between the press and some members of its editorial board, who resigned. In the end, Chicago University Press courageously stepped into the breach and publication followed soon after.

Had Karakasidou's critics read the book more closely they would have noticed that it is also, though perforce not equally, directed against all other national myths, Bulgarian, Serb and FYROM, which lay exclusive claim to the heritage and territory of Macedonia. "History", she writes, "has left us with no one Macedonia, no single history, no solely legitimate Macedonian people whose name and identity others now seek to usurp for themselves." It is no coincidence, that in French cuisine, a macedoine denotes a fruit salad - an image now so frequently used by analysts as to render it a cliche. The rich texture and flavour of "Macedonia" - the unique ethnic blend which developed under the Ottomans - thus cannot be satisfactorily reversed. Just as one cannot separate out apples and oranges from a completed salad, one cannot, as nationalists have attempted, do the same with different ethnic groups. What one is left with is a disaggregated pile of raw ingredients, which is less palatable than the former whole, and dependent on bad history for its inner cohesion.

In short, Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood is by any standards a fine book which deserves to be read not only by professional anthropologists, but also by anybody interested in the problems of identity and ethnicity which have so characterised Balkan, and indeed European history, since the late 19th century. It disappoints only in two respects. First, there is no discussion of the first world war, during which Greece and Bulgaria were on opposing sides again, and where the process of Hellenisation presumably encountered one of its greatest challenges. Second, the Muslim and Turkish-speaking inhabitants of the area, though not ignored in the analysis, rarely speak for themselves in the way that the Slav-speakers do, though this may reflect evidential problems.

For a systematic, comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of Muslims in the Balkans, the reader must turn to Hugh Poulton and Suha Taji-Farouki's Muslim Identity and the Balkan State. This timely volume reminds us of the sheer diversity of the Muslim and Turk (for the two are by no means interchangeable) presence not just in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia ("FYROM"!) and Albania, which is well known, but throughout the region. Thus Yuli Konstantinov tells us about the Bulgarian Pomaks - Islamicised Slavs - while Poulton covers the Bulgarian Turks, whose tribulations in the mid-1980s made headlines in the West. Similarly, Milan Andrejevich discusses the latent crisis in the Sandzak, a majority Muslim region, territorially part of southwestern Serbia, which has so far escaped any systematic attempt at ethnic cleansing by the government in Belgrade.

As Richard Caplan and John Feffer show in their very useful new collection, Europe's New Nationalism, ethnic disputes are not confined to the Balkans. Indeed, what is striking about this book is that about half of the essays - from Louis Vos on Belgium to Joyce McMillan's exploration of Scottish nationalism - deal with developments in Western Europe. This does not mean that the book collapses individual nationalisms into one uniform model, far from it: "What meaningful generalisations", Caplan and Feffer ask, "can be made about a label that applies to such disparate phenomena as ... Serb and Croat paramilitaries, the Russian government's policy towards Chechnya, Helmut Kohl's efforts to unify Germany, and Margaret Thatcher's Europhobia?" Instead, they stress the ambiguities of the "new nationalism": as in the 19th century, it can be seen both as a "liberating force that has enabled once 'captive nations' to achieve greater control over their destiny", and as "a retrogressive force that threatens minority rights and peaceful relations between states".

Nowhere was this more obviously the case than in the former Yugoslavia. Here the rise of nationalism after the death of Tito could serve, as in Slovenia, as a lever to prise open the floundering communist monolith in the interests of democracy and reform. It could also, in the Serbian case, provide the ailing regional party elite with a new ideology to perpetuate its dominance. The resulting campaign for a "Greater Serbia", which began in the mid-1980s, led eventually to the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia in 1991-95. As the various contributions in Europe's New Nationalism show, this war - to quote Adam Michnik's essay - served as a "cautionary tale", for the rest of Europe. "After all", this former Polish dissident points out, "multinational Yugoslavia was once post-communist Europe writ large ... The Yugoslav drama could thus repeat itself in a new constellation ... No one should remain indifferent towards this war."

Some of the costs of inaction in the face of (primarily) Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing are graphically set out in Jane Sharp's admirably cogent Honest Broker or Perfidious Albion? British Policy in Former Yugoslavia. As one of the few British policy analysts to transcend the straitjacket of Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence-speak, the author is well-suited to conduct this long-needed audit of British policy during the wars of the Yugoslav succession. One is somewhat disconcerted therefore, to find her work praised by both Noel Malcolm, who was a perceptive observer throughout the war, and Michael Williams, the former director of information to the United Nations Protection Force, 1994-95, who was anything but.

The tension thus signalled is evident in the argument. Essentially, Sharp's study is a sound, concise and persuasive critique of government policy. Britain, she reminds us, was the European power most prominently involved in the response of the international community during the early and middling stages of the crisis, at first through Lord Carrington's chairmanship of the ill-fated EC mediation, then through Britain's presidency of the EU during the crucial second half of 1992, subsequently through Lord Owen's UN mediation, 1992-95, and finally through Sir Michael Rose, commanding UN forces in Bosnia 1994-95, to name only the most important instances. At the same time, Britain was also the most reluctant of all the European powers to consider military intervention against Serb ethnic cleansing. As the author shows, British politicians generally equated aggressors and victims; they were the most eloquent proponents of the arms embargo which militated decisively against the militarily weaker Sarajevo government; they "redefined a deliberate war of aggression as a humanitarian crisis"; they accepted Serb gains as the basis for a negotiated peace; and they even regarded Serbia as the guarantor of long-term stability in the Balkans.

Various reasons have been advanced for this stance, ranging from conspiratorial financial links to the Serb lobby in London to fear of German great-power pretensions in the Balkans. Doubtless these considerations played some part, but the main motivation was, at first, the desire to avoid creating a precedent for secessionist movements in the Soviet Union, and later on a determination, at all costs, not to be "sucked into" military action in the alleged absence of a British national interest. The result, as it turned out, was colossal long-term damage to British interests. In particular, the failure to deal with a serious regional conflict within Europe has served to weaken Britain's claim to her (increasingly contested) permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and led to the most serious crisis in relations with the United States since the Suez fiasco of 1956.

All of this is entirely persuasive. More problematic are certain residual elements of FO and MOD-speak. First, on one occasion Sharp describes the flight of the Serb population after the recapture of the Krajina by Croat forces in 1995, and subsequent individual atrocities against the few who stayed behind - 100 fatalities at the very most - as an "appalling act of genocide" in the same breath as the Serb massacres at Srebrenica, which were systematic and ran into many thousands; and while she later issues a partial retraction, the whiff of equivalence is never entirely banished. Second, Sharp is critical of the Americans, who failed to commit ground forces of their own, encouraged the Bosnian government to fight on with unrealistic expectations, and sabotaged sensible solutions, such as the Vance-Owen plan.

In reality, the reason the Vance-Owen plan failed was because it was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs, and because the British - citing the vulnerability of their own peace-keeping forces - turned down American proposals for "lift and strike" to enforce the plan: raising the arms embargo, accompanied by massive air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions. Moreover, the basic American contention that a proxy war against the Serbs was winnable was validated by events: covert arms supplies to the Croats and Bosnians from 1994, diplomatic mediation to end the Croat-Muslim "war within a war", and finally large-scale air strikes in the late summer of 1995 led to the total defeat of the Croatian Serbs and forced the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table. Of course, Sharp is right to observe that the Americans increasingly "came round" to the British wisdom that peace would entail recognition of at least some Serb gains; that does not make the original policy any better, or the Americans any wiser for finally accepting it. Ironically, therefore, sound American military analysis paved the way for the implementation of an unsound political solution at Dayton, which is swaddled in lip service to a united Bosnia, but amounts to a de facto acceptance of ethnic cleansing.

Brendan Simms is director of studies in history, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Muslim Identity and the Balkan State

Editor - Hugh Poulton and Suha Taji-Farouki
ISBN - 1 85065 348
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £25.00
Pages - 250

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments