Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Sudden Nationhood" by Max Bergholz

The latest issue of The American Historical Review--the quarterly publication of the American Historical Association--includes an article by Max Bergholz, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. The article is entitled "Sudden Nationhood: The Microdynamics of Intercommunal Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina after World War II". The article approaches the subject of nationalism at the local level, specifically the Kulen Vakuf region in northwestern Bosnia during the 1950s and early 1960s. This was an area of mostly Serbs and Muslims, with a small Croat minority, which had been scarred by violence and atrocities during World War II. First, a number of local Serbs had been murdered by a group of Muslims who had joined the Ustasa. According to Bergholz it seems most of these killings were carried out for personal rather than ideological or racial reasons. This led to wider-scale retaliatory killings by Serbs even as the Partisans tried to build multi-ethnic solidarity in the region. This is a familiar story throughout Bosnia in World War, but the context is important because the author is arguing that the wartime experience of particular individuals heavily influenced the way in which they, and their immediate descendants, would conceptualized these "nationalist" incidents in the immediate post-war era.

Bergholz utilizes source documents from League of Communists reports about incidents of "national chauvinism" and inter-ethnic violence to determine patterns of ethnic violence between individuals or groups in the region. The article is a micro-level examination of how nationalism "happens."

The idea of nationalism as a process which happens rather than a fixed identity is crucial here; the incidents Bergholz studies describe situations in which often petty (and sometimes violent) incidents involving individuals are conceptualized as conflicts between national groups either by the participants or members of the surrounding community. Yet these conceptions often do not dictate day-to-day interactions within those communities. Rather, conflict triggers an automatic and seemingly unconscious configuration of a particular conflict into generalized, national-group defined terms. National identities, at least in terms of defining relations between groups and between individuals of different ethnicity were not fixed, nor were they the determining factor in communal relations. Rather, incidents of violence or conflict would sometimes trigger this "sudden nationalism."

Also of note--the author's contention that contrary to conventional wisdom (heard all too often from Western observers during the Bosnian War), it is not true that ethnic violence is the product of antagonistic national identities. Rather, incidents of violence create those opposed national identities; and that individuals will sometimes revert to those identities in times of conflict or strife. Bergholz also suggests that the Titoist focus on national coexistence might have had the counter-productive effect of encouraging Yugoslavs to conceptualize personal, social, and political disagreements in nationalist terms.

It's a well-researched and well-reasoned article, and I recommend it to anybody who has an interest in Bosnia, or in the development of nationalism and national identity in general. The citation is below:

Max Berghoz, "Sudden Nationhood: The Microdynamics of Intercommunal Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina after World War II". The American Historical Review, 118, no. 3, June 2013, pp. 679-707.

1 comment:

Owen said...

Sounds a interesting piece of work, consistent with the way that prejudice often insinuates its voice when an event involving individuals becomes inflated into a group confrontation.