The controversial term Balkanization is frequently used to describe the process of fragmentation and division of a territory, the formation of small nation-states on the ashes of ancient empires or larger states, the crumbling and disintegration of a territory. Nation-state creation in the Balkans began in the early 19th century, with the first national revolutions in the Ottoman Empire and, somewhat later, the formation of early independent states. Subsequent wars produced new states, and the territory was further “parceled.” The fragmentation grew even more prominent in the 1990s, with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of wars in this once multi-national and multi-denominational country, from which 6 or 7 new states emerged, depending on whether one recognizes Kosovo’s independence. Thus the term Balkanization gained popularity with the international public since the 1990s, and it was used to denote many other geopolitical situations.
The creation of new states means producing new borders and changing old ones. This process creates problems not only with customs, traffic, passports, and currencies, but also with historical memory. The breakup of formerly unified states necessarily means the breakup of a constructed shared historical memory. One could call it the Balkanization of memory. Furthermore – it requires the constitution of a new, antagonized memory, constructing enemies from former neighbors in order for states to mentally consolidate, homogenize, gain meaning. It is necessary to create, often on the fly, a new memory, to justify recent actions, put together a context that provides an ethical framework for the present.
As historians, during and after the breakup of Yugoslavia, we had a unique opportunity to observe this experiment in vivo, which is not a methodology inherent to our profession. Changes in the interpretation of history began several years before the war because hostility needed to be created. A new interpretation of the past was offered as a revelation, final realization, and liberation from earlier yokes imposed on us by our “enemies.” Historians suddenly became superstars, appearing in prime time TV shows and revealing to millions of viewers the myriad injustices “we” suffered, how we have always been on the right side of history, while our enemies stabbed us in the back at the crucial moment. They explained that it was “us” who were the real victims of all historical events: misunderstood, used, pushed aside, subjugated, trampled over. These were explosive combinations of historical consciousness, a mixture of self-victimization and self-heroization. Self-victimization homogenizes the nation, closes its ranks, creating a sense of vulnerability, discomfort, fear. This collective feeling is the best psychological groundwork for aggression presented as self-defense. The victim receives an indulgence for all future actions, being freed from moral responsibility. A victim cannot be a perpetrator. Heroization in all this is just the final touch, a cherry on top. Teaching about victories and forgetting defeats encourages the nation and creates the impression that this time we will win.
To produce such a revision of history, to break the brotherhood and unity which was the fundamental myth that linked the ethnically diverse and intermixed Yugoslav peoples since the Second World War, and to render the war in the former Yugoslavia psychologically possible, it was necessary to change everything, all the way back to the arrival of the Slavs in the Balkans, “to the seventh century”, as these new hatemongers liked to say. A different model of the past was required, a conflict model, one into which the coming war would fit as the logical and only possible sequence of events. The Yugoslav peoples had to be portrayed as having nothing in common, their common state merely an artificial creation of the great powers, created in opposition to the needs and desires of its peoples.
Every individual who, since the 18th century, believed that a common state in an ethnically mixed region was the only way of overcoming conflicts, that the South Slavic peoples spoke the same language in multiple dialects and that their similarities were greater than their differences, was excised from history. So, too, were all the processes that led to the unification of the South Slavic peoples, all economic, cultural, and social ties, all common cultural achievements and ventures. At the same time, all the conflicts were emphasized to create the impression that conflict was the only natural state in which these peoples can find themselves, which made the coming war quite logical, because what other outcome could there be?
When the war ended, the conflict was transferred to the back burner, moving from the field of battle to the field of historical interpretation. Armed conflicts were ended mainly because of the interventions of the international community, but hatred, negative emotions, and constant mental tensions were transferred onto the field of manipulation of historical memory. Changing the mindset and erasing the previous historical memory required changing all agents of memory. All the holidays were replaced, as well as hundreds of street names, thousands of monuments were torn down, history textbooks were fundamentally altered.
And now, almost a quarter of a century since it ended, the war appears more alive than ever, almost omnipresent. Each anniversary is used to further aggravate the relations between today’s states, which keeps nationalist elites in power. The boundaries of memory have grown more rigid than state borders, they are there to divide the “enemy” peoples more efficiently than any wall or barbed wire fence could do. One can still cross national borders, there are documents, procedures in place… but the border of memory is impermeable. Each brick in it is carefully laid, every manipulated event of the past is there to prevent even the thought of humanizing the “enemy,” curbing the mere idea that talks, agreements, and peace could be possible. The emergency memory light switches on at the very thought of reconciliation. Political leaders might sign peace treaties, they might even kneel down and apologize publicly to the victims, but the paranoid historical narrative remains there to undo each of these gestures.
The memory evil is also a very useful tool for governing. How can anyone advocate freedom of the press when the enemy is everywhere around us? How can you waste your thoughts, words, and money on hospitals, schools, and roads when the enemy is about to attack? In such tense situations, there is no time for slow and inefficient institutions. The Leader is the only one who can solve such fateful, eternal problems. History has proven to be the most effective means of propaganda, an intoxicating means of keeping people in submission. Until the next war.
Historians in the region have become celebrities, a fact that best demonstrates the lamentable state of its societies. People in the street approach them, some praising them, others making threats. As tensions rise in society and in the region, objective historians are increasingly pressured, and now they are even facing open threats. This confirms what Ernest Renan said in 1882 in his lecture entitled “What is a Nation?”: “Oblivion, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to the principle of nationality.” Indeed, historians are becoming a threat not only within, to semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes, but also a hindrance to attempts by those regimes to maintain, through misuse of history, constant tension and the impression that at any time the war could continue where it left off. The struggle to rationalize relations with the past and to understand it in its complexity has become one of the critical tools of reconciliation in Southeast Europe, a tool for tearing down memorial and all other kinds of barriers and borders.
Historians began this work while the Yugoslav wars were still ongoing. Projects were launched to open up a dialogue about the past, find new methodologies, and communicate rational interpretations to the public. The longest-running project was the one started in 1998 by the Thessaloniki-based Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe. The first stage included a comparative analysis of history textbooks in all 12 countries in the region, from Slovenia to Turkey and Cyprus. The analyses have shown that the history curriculums have no educational purpose, that they are closer to training in a military boot camp, mental preparation for future conflicts. This raised the question of how can this be changed, can history open the way to reconciliation, to the breaking of mental barriers? Can we reach a consensus interpretation of history that will have a healing effect? Can any consensus be reached in interpreting controversial events? We concluded that the answer to both these questions was negative, and that observing the past from different perspectives is the only way to get across memory walls. Through the methodology of multiperspectivity, we need to present the most painful events of the past, show how different parties saw different events, and demonstrate how the viewpoint from which a phenomenon is observed affects its interpretation. Multiperspectivity does not mean relativization of history; perhaps the most accurate definition is the one given by British historian E.H. Carr: multiperspectivity is like looking at a mountain from different angles – it appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, but it is still the same mountain. As part of this project, six books were published about the most controversial and sensitive topics of the collective past: the Ottoman Empire, the creation of nations and nation states, the Balkan Wars, World War II, the Cold War, and finally, a final book that covered the period from 1990 to 2008. The vital part of that book is the chapter on the last Yugoslav wars. These books (all available online at: www.cdrsee.org) do not propose to answer the eternal question of “who started it,” but encourage thinking about the past as a controversy. The concept of a single, monolithic, national “our truth” is dismantled, and the groundwork is laid, if nothing else, for knowing what the other side thinks. And, most importantly, for starting a critical dialogue. We believe that this is the best method to “disarm” history and to cross the barbed wire borders of memory.
The Times Literary Supplement, 10.09.2019.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic