Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [7]



Johnstone breezes through the the 19th Century of Serbian history in a paragraph or two, dwelling on a couple of choice details (the precise number of village leaders decapitated in 1804 during the brutal suppression of the initial Serb uprising, for example). This attention to detail is striking, considering that in the previous paragraph she breezed through four centuries of Ottoman rule in a few short sentences. Her version of Serbian history is lifted straight from the crudely nationalistic--and implicitly Islamophobic--version that portrays the period of Ottoman rule as a centuries-long period of unceasing and unrelenting oppression and humiliation.

It's too bad that this crude, over-simplified version of Serbian history has become so prevalent, because the actual story is quite stirring and heroic. Whatever flaws and darker motivations later co-opted Serbian nationalism, there is no denying the truly heroic nature of their war of independence, or their genuine success in the cause of self-determination. A more nuanced, fact-based approach might do much to allow ethnic Serbs today to embrace their history while rejecting the twin strains of belligerence and self-pity--and the attendant fear of outsiders in general and Muslims in particular--which have poisoned their otherwise admirable national history and, yes, character.

If you know anything about Serbian history at all--particularly the jingoistic, quasi-mythic version peddled by Serbian nationalists since the founding of independent Serbia--you know the gist of the next page and a half. The tone is set in this sentence:

"Forced to defend themselves, the Serbian peasants took up arms in what was eventually to become the liberation struggle of all the Christian peoples of the Balkans."

In that sentence--shot through with uncritical subjectivity in contrast to the clinical coldness with which Johnstone views the victims of Serbian nationalism in her own lifetime--one can see both the genuinely heroic nature of the original Serbian struggle for independence and the jingoistic, patronizing, and ultimately militaristic and expansionist nature of the Serbian state to follow. The seeds of the Bosnian war were planted nearly two centuries earlier. Serbs came to see themselves not merely as their own saviors but as the liberators of all of the Balkans. The problem with this altruistic--and messianic--belief is that Serb nationalists would come to believe that their status as liberators entitled them to dictate and control the terms of south Slavic self-determination.

Johnstone is not unaware of this history. She chooses to preempt any such criticism by claiming that the "Greater Serbia" project--which dates, as she admits, from the 19th Century--was actually a more modest and reasonable agenda than the pan-Slavic ideal which peoples from the Hapsburg Empire wished to enlist Serbia in. In a way, she is correct. What she ignores is the implications of fighting for an enlarged Serbian state rather than a unified Slavic entity.

We enter the tangled issue of national identity among the Slavic peoples of the western Balkans at this point. Johnstone has deftly avoided this subject--in fact, I doubt she even acknowledges that there is an issue. In order to defend the "Greater Serbia" project, one must first claim that there were "Serbs" in the modern, national sense. This required, and encouraged, the transformation of the Orthodox Slavs of Bosnia into "Serbs." It would, ultimately, require even more than that.


Shaina said...

This was a really good post.
You brought something to my attention that I had never thought of before.
By presenting a narrow-minded, "martyred" xenophobic view of Serb history; not only are Serb ultra-nationalist during a diservice to Muslims and other non Serbs; they are also doing a diservice to Serbs as well.
It is easy to forget the the real, naunced history of the Serb nation, and of their very real accomplishments, pains and triumphs; when ultra-nationalists present such a one-sided fanatical version of that history.

Owen said...

Sorry Kirk, I've been sidelined for a while. I agree with Shaina, it's regrettable but almost inevitable that the real accomplishments and suffering of Serbs as a whole disappear from view when the agenda is dominated by what you referred to as the combination of belligerence and self-pity deployed by self-justifying supporters of the Greater Serbia project and apologists for the cause.