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Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans – book review

27 October 2011

Ethnic Cleansing in the Balkans: Nationalism and the Destruction of TraditionEthnic Cleansing in the Balkans: Nationalism and the Destruction of Tradition by Cathie Carmichael

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I largely agree with the author’s conclusion when she says:

The main thesis that has been pursued in the book is the one that the Balkans suffered ethnic quakes, largely because of the impact of European ideas (initially nationalism, then fascism and communism) was so profound and clashed so indelibly with older ‘autochtonous’ ideas found in religious practice and traditional culture. Although the forms that violence took during ethnic cleansing were often ‘traditional’ in the sense that they had a large symbolic content and involved the honour of the individuals involved, the ideas that inspired this violence were modern and European in their origins.

While I largely agree with both the thesis and the conclusion (of which that paragraph forms part), I think the author has failed to support the conclusion with evidence in the body of the book.

There is plenty of evidence of ethnic cleansing in the body of the book. Horror stories abound, both of the ethnic cleansing, and the violence and cruelty that often accompanied it. It tends to leave one feeling depressed about the depths to which human nature can sink, and to want to conclude that the Calvinist theory of total depravity is the most apt description of the human race.

The author does manage to link the actions of ethnic cleansing with nationalist rhetoric fairly well, but the rest of the evidence for the conclusion, where it is present at all, is not coherently argued in such a way as to support the thesis.

There is virtually nothing about “the older ‘autochtonous’ ideas found in religious practice and traditional culture.” They are occasionally mentioned in passing, not in such a way as to show how they clashed with the theory and practice of ethnic cleansing. I expected at least a paragraph or two in the introduction on the main religious and cultural ideas in the introduction, and on their relation to the nationalist ideas. But where they are present at all, they are scrappy and disconnected.

To give just one example (not mentioned at all in the book) there is the oft-repeated saying that “Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism” and in view of the main thesis of the book this deserves at least some analysis, and some estimate of how widely it is accepted.

At the end there is a rather telling paragraph that that shows the result of this kind of thinking. The author points out that until 1945 Salonika (now Thessaloniki) was a polyglot multiethnic community, of which the largest component was Sephardic Jews. They author goes on to say:

In July 1992, the ethnological museum in Salonika had no exhibit to commemorate the Sephardic Jewish element in the city’s population, which was annihilated during the Nazi occupation. When the anthropologist Jonathan Schwartz ‘asked a member of staff about this absence… they could not understand what the question was about. It was taken for granted that the Museum is Greek. Ethnology is apparently a scientific euphemism for Nationalism.’

Those who lived through the apartheid era in South Africa would understand the last sentence only too well.

When I was working on my doctoral thesis on “Orthodox mission methods” I had to pay quite a lot of attention to the question of religion and nationalism, especially as it manifested itself in the Balkans. It is closely related to mission, because, as one woman said at a church social gathering, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary, because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.”

One of the things that struck me was just how the ideas of nationalism affected the Balkans, and the uneasy relationship they had with Orthodox theology. There was a tendency for them to mingle (as in “Orthodoxy is Hellenism and Hellenism is Orthodoxy”), but there was also an awareness that they were separate, and not altogether compatible. Some spoke of “Romanity” in distinction to “Hellenism”, harking back to a pre-Ottoman multiethnic empire. For more on this see Nationalism, violence and reconciliation

Carmichael’s conclusion that the ideas that inspired the violence were modern and European in their origins, is very important, but again, she fails to draw the lines clearly enough. She occasionally refers to them as “Herderian”, but that is about all.

One reason that I think it is important is that people of Western Europe and their offshoots often speak disparagingly of Africa and Africans as if Africans were somehow genetically predisposed to violence. They point to such things as the genocide in Rwanda in 1994-95 as if this were something
peculiarly African, yet in that very period, similar events were taking place in Europe, in the Balkans.

Again, many Western Europeans tried to distance themselves from the Balkans, and tended to retard the region as not really European. Carmichael speaks of “a tendency to burden a large region with almost insurmountable legacies and an overarching reputation for pathological violence”, but fails to note, except in passing, that Western Europe not only generated the nationalist ideas that led to the violence, but that the West by its own intervention, and for its own self-interest was just
as much a participant in the violence. The Nato bombing of Yugoslavia was no less “pathological” than the violence of any of the parties fighting on the ground. Western Europe cannot disown the Balkans as something intrinsically “other” and non-European.

And the violence in the Balkans in the 1990s was little different from violence in Africa in the same period.

Generally, the case the author makes is a good one; it’s just a pity that it wasn’t better argued.

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