Sunday, September 30, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [9]


A Symbolic Revolution: The Great Novena

After the freeze of the "Croatian Spring," the Catholic Church resumed the "Great Novena" which had been interrupted by World War II.

This section details many of the activities, publications, meetings, and public events led by the Croatian Catholic church over the following years. The response was enormous--there were usually tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of participants at many of the public events and commemorations. The church sought to explicitly link the history of the church to that of the Croatian people. Pope John Paul II was receptive to many overtures as the Croatian Church sought to emphasize the shared Catholic heritage of Croats and Poles, extending this to a sense of being on the frontier of the Catholic world. This was extended to a sense of being defenders of Catholicism and the Western world from Orthodoxy and Islam coming from the East.

The history of Croatia was increasingly whitewashed, as atrocities from WW II were ignored, Orthodoxy was portrayed as a sinister force that divided the South Slavs, and sometimes controversial figures from Croatia's past were elevated and celebrated, often explicitly for their anti-Orthodox and anti-Serb words and deeds.

Birth of the Catholic Nation

The Great Novena was extremely popular and extremely successful--politically. It took the form of a religious movement, but in essence it was nationalist. The Church had succeeded in creating a new national consciousness, one which was explicitly Catholic and defined itself largely in oppositional terms--Croats were a separate people from the Serbs; they were Catholic not Orthodox; they were Western, not Balkan or Eastern. A similar religio-nationalist movement was taking shape at the same time in the Serbian Church, leading to what Perica terms a "war of the churches."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Washington Post Editorial on Partition

Richard Cohen Argues That Partition is Inevitable

If proof were needed that the story of Bosnia' war is still being fought over, here it is--an Op-Ed from the Sept. 25, 2007 Washington Post arguing for the partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish states. And note that Cohen uses the Republika Srpska as one example of partition.

He claims that Bosnia and places like it break apart because different ethnic groups "cannot get along." This is the sort of simple-minded, myopic, and ahistorical pseudo-analysis which was used to justify inaction and disengagement during the war. It would be nice of Cohen could acknowledge the absence of centralized control and the degredation of civic culture in Iraq. It would also be helpful--and honest--if he were to acknowledge that while both Yugoslavia and Iraq were modern nation-states, the complex multicultural societies they contained were much, much older, and had lived with varying degrees of intermixture for centuries.

Opponants of intervention often accused pro-interventionists of being naive, supporting an idealized multi-cultural Bosnia where everybody held hands and got along swimmingly. "Realists" like Cohen, however, live in a world where every breakdown in civil order can be ascribed to the same, one-size-fits-all root cause of "ancient ethnic hatred."

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [8]


Originally, the nationalist movements in Yugoslavia were led by secular communist leaders who were interested in increasing the relative power of the individual republics rather than in extreme nationalism, although these leaders ended up paving the way for conservative nationalists. In Croatia, the nationalist movement in the 1960s and early 1970s was most prominently represented by the "Croatian National Movement," often known as the "Croatian Spring." Tito would eventually crush this movement and jail some of its members once it became too strident for his liking; during the interim, the Catholic Church carried the torch of Croatian nationalism.

The Catholic Church and the Croatian National Movement, 1970-1972

The Church did not at first directly support the Movement or Croat nationalism in general. However, during this period the Catholic church did take several measures which tacitly supported the nationalist cause. The conceptual bond between religious belief and national identity was strong--the Catholic church took it for granted that to be Croat was automatically to be Catholic as well--Catholicism was one fundamental component of Croat identity.

Also, the church strongly promoted and supported the cult of the Virgin Mary among believers; the identification of Mary as the "Queen of the Croats" was emphasized, and the practice of paying homage to "black Madonnas" was encouraged as well. Some leaders of the Church also resurrected the memory of NDH cardinal Stepanic.

After Tito's purges in late 1971 and 1972, relations between the Church and the state worsened. Religious festivals continued to have strong ethnic themes, complete with folk costumes and other trappings of Croatian--not Roman Catholic--identity and culture. The church made its identification with Croat ethnonationalism more pronounced and its opposition to the government's heavy-handed dealings with expressions of national identity and religious freedom more outspoken.

"On 14-15 August 1972, the Catholic Church in Croatia celebrated teh feast of the Assumption of Mary at the national shrine in Marija Bistrica. Archbishop Franic convened his congregation in the historic Solin "by the graves of the Croatian kings" on 8 September 1972. Over 30,000 people chanted the Croatian anthem and Marian songs. After the collapse of the Croatian (secular) nationalist movement, the Church became the only driving force of Croatian ethnic nationalism. Many secular nationalist leaders recognized the Church's leadership and became practicing Catholics."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [7]


The Serbian Orthodox Church in the Communist Federation

"The Communist Party of Yugoslavia considered Great Serbian nationalism the principal enemy of the revolution."

Despite getting a lion's share of state support, in many other ways the Serbian Orthodox Church suffered under Tito, and lost ground to the Croatian Catholic Church and the Islamic Community.

Kosovo Embattled

The sack of Serbian Communist Aleksandar Rankovic ended his efforts to increase the size of the Serb majority in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians rebelled frequently from 1968 to 1973, winning a greater degree of autonomy from Belgrade but also posing a threat to ethnic Serbs, who had lost their privileged status.

The Serbian Orthodox Church reacted strongly to this backlash, holding an unauthorized liturgy in honor of Dusan the Mighty, the medieval Serbian tsar. The public ceremony explicitly linked the fate of contemporary Serbs with the status of Kosovo and the legendary legacy associated with it.

The Church also increased the volume and intensity of its claims that there was widespread persecution of ethnic Serbs, and their cultural and religious sites, in Kosovo. Claims of widespread rape of Serb women by Albanians were vigorously disseminated by the Church, although official records did not substantiate these claims.

Schism and Disunity

Despite the efforts of Patriarch Germanus to keep the Macedonian Orthodox in the fold (the Serbian Church even acknowledged the newly defined Macedonian nationality), in 1967 the Macedonian Orthodox churches formally broke away to form their own national church. The schism was not encouraged by federal authorities, but did little to discourage it, either.

Macedonian nationalists naturally tried to claim that there had always been an indigenous Macedonian Orthodox Church. The Serbian Orthodox Church did what it could to make life difficult for this new national church, and the heavy-handed efforts of the state to lean on the Serb church in order to force it to accept the new reality only produced a reactionary and stubborn backlash. The fact that the Vatican was supportive of the new church deepened anti-Catholic sentiment among Serb Orthodox clergy. Turf wars over control of a historic monastery had the effect of making the new church and the Macedonian republic government into allies.

At the same time, there was another schism, as the hardline anti-Communist Serbian Church in the USA--which had officially continued to support the Chetniks and the royalist cause even after the American government threw its support to the Partisans--officially broke with the mother church. The American hierarchy accused Germanus and the Serbian leadership with cooperation and appeasement of the communist regime.

The pro-regime clerical association worried the churches leadership; this organization provided persions to members of the clergy who had supported the Partisan cause. Despite the churches official position during the war, many lower-level clerics had supported the Partisan movement, if only because they were victims of, or threatened by, Usasha violence. These were paid as part of a larger clerical association, which encouraged and rewarded support for "Brotherhood and Unity." Two-thirds of the Serb clergy belonged.

The regime also sought to create a stronger and more distinct Montenegrin identity, separate from Serbia. These efforts included the destruction of the old chapel housing the remains of Prince-Bishiop Njegos, which were then moved to a new, secular mausoleum.

Commemorations and Renewal

The religiosity of ordinary Orthodox continued to decline, to rates of belief much lower than for Catholics or Muslims. The church leadership took to raising consciousness by frequent public displays and commemorations, cementing the church as a repository of ethnic and national identity in lieu of widespread individual devotion.

Germanus also turned his attention to foreign relations, especially with Orthodox churches overseas--particularly with the Russian church. The two churches stressed the cultural and religious ties between their two peoples, and their shared sense of being both special and threatened peoples, surrounded by jealous and hostile others.

The state was quite suspicious of the Serbian Church; Perica quotes documents which surmise that the church understood it did not have theological or spiritual sway over the masses, so it turned to ethnic and nationalist sentiment. The church played to fears--and stoked them--in order to strengthen it's position. The Serbian Orthodox Church increasingly presented itself as the defenders of Serbian national interests. And by purging any party members sympathetic to Serbian sentiments and fears, real or imagined, he unwittingly ceded the cause of Serbian nationalism to non-secular forces. The Church was well-positioned to pick up the mantle which Tito had allowed to fall unclaimed.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [6]



War Continues: Exile Politics and Warring Myths

Opposition to the Communist regime was muted or suppressed at home, but thrived in exile, as dozens if not hundreds of competing anti-communist and/or anti-Yugoslav groups agitated against the regime and on many occasions turned to assassination and terrorism in their efforts to destabilize the state.

These groups were mostly ineffective for two reasons--their violent tactics tended to cost them international sympathy and support (and did little to endear them in Yugoslavia; and they spectacularly failed to rise above their divisions in order to form a unified front. Most of these exile groups were national groups, exclusive to one ethnic group or anther. Most also had ties to organized crime--another impediment to international support.

Some of these groups received support from religious institutions and clergy members from inside Yugoslavia, giving them legitimacy and strengthening the link between religious and national identities.

While these groups failed to seriously weaken the Yugoslav state or to form a credible opposition front, they did manage to nurture, articulate, and propagate the self-justifying and revisionist histories of their respective ethnic and religious groups. Croat groups lionized Cardinal Stepanic and made widely inflated claims about the number of NDH, Ustasha, and anti-Communist Croats were killed at the Austrian border at the end of the war. Serb groups developed their own myths about the World War II period, claiming that there was a Yugoslavia-wide genocide against the Serbs, and that all the other national groups in Yugoslavia were against them.

While the Tito regime imposed the civic religion of "Brotherhood and Unity" on Yugoslavs and swept the complexities and tragedies of the war period aside in favor of a simplified myth of Partisan righteousness, ethnic exile groups developed alternate histories, based on the latent fears and real memories of Serbs, Croats, and others. These hate-mongering, self-pitying national myths were just as dishonest as the official Titoist line, and much more poisonous, but they fed off real emotions and were fueled by real memories of real atrocities which could not be discussed openly.

Years of Renewal and Peaceful Coexistence

The split with Moscow in 1948 soon led to more liberal and less draconian policies towards religious institutions. Over the years, the regime improved its relations with the Vatican in particular, restoring diplomatic relations after the Second Vatican Council.

The Interfaith Dialogue

The Vatican's openness to ecumenical dialogue bore some fruit among the clergy of the Croatian Catholic church. A joint Catholic-Orthodox prayer service was initiated by the bishop of Split-Markarska, who reached out to the local Serb Orthodox archpriest. Their joint services were welcomed by local worshipers but opposed from above by the Catholic hierarchy, which forced them to end.

The Serb Orthodox church demanded a public apology from the leadership of the Croat Catholic Church for Ustasha massacres and other war crimes; although the Bishop of Banja Luka issued a public statement of contrition and an acknowledgment of accountability, most Croat clergy responded to Serb charges by demanding apologies in kind for alleged anti-Catholic discrimination prior to World War II and for Chetnik atrocities against Croats during the war.

Neither church was able to overcome such defensive positions. The Serb Orthodox church had several theologians who took staunchly anti-ecumenical positions. Such efforts continued to be made at grassroots levels, but the hierarchy of the two main national churches continued to block any progress towards real dialogue and reconciliation.

Church-State Relations in the Sixties

The Communist Party adopted more tolerant policies towards religious institutions after the adoption of the 1958 Constitution. Relations with the Vatican were normalized and a compromise was struck--the state allowed for free circulation of religious literature and renewed church building while the church quietly dropped the matter of the "martyr" Stepinac.

The government took a policy--documented by Perica from missives and reports he accessed during his research--of giving religious institutions certain latitude and ending the previous practice of intrusive spying and other aggressive intelligence-gathering methods, opting instead for dialogue and monitoring the religious press and other statements. The government understood that many of these churches had strong ties to what the government considered dangerous nationalisms, and sought to avoid pushing religious institutions on the defensive, thus encouraging a retreat into "zealous and fundamentalist" behavior and attitudes.

The government also responded to complaints about delays of the construction and reconstruction of religious buildings, even though the delays were really due to poor urban planning and rapid, uncontrolled urbanization rather than deliberate obstructionism.

Relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, despite improvements throughout the decade as it received the lions share of government largess, deteriorated at the end of the decade after the rebellion of the Kosovar Albanians in 1968.

Religion Erodes, Churches Grow

In a curious dichotomy, religious participation and even nominal belief plummeted even as religious institutions grew. Church/mosque attendence continued to drop until the vast majority of Yugoslavs simply never attended a place of worship, regularly or at all; meanwhile nearly half of the population were self-described atheist/agnostics.

Yet at the same time, various religious institutions were on a building spree, building--and manning--churches, temples, seminaries and other religious institutions; the production of religious literature also increased exponentially.

The state also supported most national churches--as noted, the Serbian Orthodox church benefited the most by far. The Croatian Catholic church was the one notable exception but it of course received support from the Vatican and from a widely-dispersed diaspora. Clergy in Dalmatia:

"coined terms such as "hard currency areas" and "Deutschemark parishes," referring to regions from which large number [sic] of men went to work in the West and regularly sent back donations and financial contributions for the rebuilding of churches."

These ties to outside support were suspect by the state. But this suspicion--which sometimes took the form of implicit hostility (not always unfounded--there were certainly contacts with and ties to some of the violent anti-Yugoslav emigrant groups)--did not stop the Croatian Catholic church from becoming the wealthiest and most well-supported of all Yugoslav religious institutions.

Perica summarizes his chapter neatly in the final paragraph. He notes that neither the royal Yugoslav state nor the communist one were able to secure legitimization from either of the two main national churches, both of which serve as "guardians of their respective ethnic communities" first and foremost. The gap between church and state was only widened by the violent and traumatic events of Yugoslav history in the 1940s. The two churches were hostile towards each other even as they supported domestic opposition the multiethnic Yugoslavia. The brief promise of ecumenical accommodation in the 1960s failed to overcome deep-seated institutional hostilities, and the hierarchy of each church mostly took the opportunities of political liberalization to agitate for nationalist sentiment. The Serbian Orthodox church lost its preeminent position as the Croatian Catholic church emerged as a strong and well-funded competitor.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [5]


Civil War and Communist Revolution, 1941-1950

Occupied Yugoslavia was divided into several occupation zones and satellite states. There is surely no need to rehash Yugoslavian history for readers of this blog; much of this section consists of a rehash of the WW II period. Suffice to say, Perica quickly surveys three main groups--the NDH (Independent State of Croatia) and the ruling fascist Ustasha party; the multi-ethnic Partisans; and the Serb nationalist Chetnik movement. He also mentions the quisling Serb state ruled by Nedic and the similar state in Slovenia.

He then examines where the support for each of the three main movements came from. The Ustasha was a minority movement in Croatia which came to power without any popular mandate--where did their power come from, and from where did they derive their legitimacy and, ultimately, even some degree of popular support?

Much of their military and material support came from their Axis benefactors. The other source of their support was the Catholic Church. The hierarchy, by and large, supported the NDH, and the ruling party returned the favor by imposing a wide spectrum of religious (Roman Catholic) legislation, as well as the infamous repressions and acts of state-sponsored genocide. And of course, the Vatican helped many Ustasha members escape justice and/or vengeance after the war.

The Serbian Orthodox church was somewhat hampered by the imprisonment of leading figures by the Nazis in an effort to contain Serbian independence; the decapitated church hierarchy supported Nedic's pro-Nazi regime, while many members of the clergy supported the Chetnik movement, which soon turned away from anti-fascist resistance (most of the time, anyway--the reality of the Yugoslav civil wars was always too complicated for simple generalizations) to fighting for an independent Serbia within the Axis sphere. Like the NDH, certain units of the Chetniks carried out acts of ethnic cleansing, against Croats and Muslims.

The Islamic Community leadership often supported the Ustasha, while ordinary clergy often joined the Partisans. Many Serb priests did as well, and many Croats fought both with the Partisans and in independent units against the NDH.

The Partisans were truly multi-ethnic, and while I do not want to romanticize their exploits, Perica notes that it is impossible to understand both the success of Communism in post-war Yugoslavia and the rise of the "Brotherhood and Unity" civil religion without acknowledging that the Partisans were, by and large, guilty of relatively less severe, widespread, and gruesome crimes against humanity than either the Ustasha or the Chetniks.

It is important to remember that Perica is discussing the history of institutions, not of people; nevertheless, when we read that the NDH received widespread and official support from the indigenous Catholic church at all levels, it is impossible to ignore that this would have been a factor in legitimizing the regime and garnering genuine grassroots support. This is well-known; less often discussed has been the Serbian Orthodox Church's support for the Nedic regime and it's active participation (including some priests taking leadership roles in military units) in some of the worst Chetnik atrocities.

The Islamic Community seems to have been the least uniform in its actions, which is to be expected since there was no "Muslim" puppet state or quisling regime to turn to. Still, the fact is that leading Muslim clerics tended to support the NDH or the Axis forces. But among both Muslims and Serbs, as well as Croats, ordinary people were much more able to compromise and work with other Yugoslavians.

The end of the war and the triumph of Tito brought on an initial period of repression and terror. The relatively moderate and relaxed nature of Yugoslavian communism in later years has tended to overshadow the brutality of Tito's early years in power; what Perica terms "a crude Balkan variant of Bolshevism". There was widespread persecution of clergy, and the simplified Partisan myth of World War II was imposed on the entire country.

The Islamic Community and the Orthodox Church in Macedonia supported the regime, but neither the Serbian Orthodox Church or the Croatian Catholic Church would; neither national church would ever truly legitimize Tito's regime. The trial of Stepanic provided Croats with a martyr figure, the Vatican upping the pressure of the situation by making him a cardinal.

By 1953, the Yugoslav communist government was entrenched, and the founding myth of "Brotherhood and Unity" and the concordant historical myth that socialism and Tito had conquered poisonous nationalism and ethnic hatred once and for all had been fully articulated and were now the official credo of the new civil religion. But the two largest national churches were not resigned to the new order; they withheld support, nurtured competing national myths of victimization and righteousness, and supported resistance movements which resorted to many different methods, including terrorism and violence.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [4]


The Crisis of the 1930s, War, and the Cease-Fire of the 1960s

In the 1930s, friction between the two main national churches contributed to violence, instability, and the instability of the state. The Serbian Orthodox Church and the Croatian Catholic Church consistently failed to find common ground, or to work out comprises on how they would allow the other to define its relation to the ruling regime.

The 1935 concordat signed between the Yugoslav royal government and the Vatican became the focal point of Serbian Orthodox hostility. The Church had managed to get itself positioned as the de facto offical state church and did not want to see that position threatened. The argument against the concordat was that it would open Yugoslavia's religious life to outside interference (the Vatican) as well as threaten Serbian Orthodoxy--which was the largest single faith in the country. The protests culminated in the "Bloody Liturgy" of July 19, 1937, when protests led and organized by Patriarch Varnava turned into massive riots. The unrest and violence continued several days later when the Patriarch died.

That these claims seem faintly ridiculous is less interesting than to note that these concerns, and the underlying logic informing them, mirror the claims of Serbian nationalism within both Yugoslavias. The Church ignored its own primacy within the Kingdom and ignored the fact that it enjoyed a privileged position in a multi-ethnic nation of many faiths. And it defined efforts by a rival faith to improve its own lot as an attack on Serbian Orthodoxy.

The Serbian Orthodox Church explicitly rejected secularization and separation of church and state in the 1930s, instead calling on Serbs to identify with the church and its fate. Most state holidays in royal Yugoslavia were actually Serbian Orthodox religious holidays--which were often, in fact, holidays commemorating events in Serbian history, most notably the battle of Kosovo.

One result of this discord was that the Croat church never lent its support to the interwar Yugoslav state. It is worth noting that Serbian Orthodox fears regarding the Vatican's motives were not groundless--as Perica notes, conversion of Orthodox Christians was official Vatican policy until 1965. Having a stronger institutional foothold in this large, newly created Balkan state was certainly an advantage towards that end.

The two churches held different commemorations during this decade; the Serb church remembering the 550th anniversary of Kosovo in 1939, while the Croat church initiated the novena in honor of the 1000-year anniversary of the conversion of the Croat nation. The contemporary political meanings of these commemorations--and their nationalist subtexts--was clear. The Serbs were martyrs for Balkan independence, while the Croats had a much longer history of being Christian, as well as ties to the West.

Other issues fueled the fire. There was allegedly pressure on Catholic civil servants to convert to Orthodoxy, and both the Serbian Orthodox church and the state supported the Croatian Old Catholic Church, a small denomination considered schismatic by the Croat Roman Catholic hierarchy.

So by 1941, the two main national churches were at each other's throat. The Vatican itself held a grudge against the Serbian Orthodox Church, and at the celebration of Kosovo in 1939 Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic told the Serb faithful that the choice of Kosovo--between absolute freedom or death--was still true for Serbs in the present day.

And then the Nazi invaded, the old state was destroyed, and hell was unleashed.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Bosnian Police Reform a Stumbling Block

See this article from the Washington Post: Fractured Bosnia Struggles to Form Police Force for All

Not a surprise to anyone who follows the situation in Bosnia carefully, but a depressing reminder of the many pitfalls facing any possible improvement in Bosnia's situation.

It was interesting to read this in conjunction with my reading of "Balkan Idols," since one common theme of Balkan nationalism and religious identity has been the sense of the nation as victim, defined in large part as a persecuted victim of an aggressive or evil neighbor. Specifically concerning Serb national identity, this strong theme of victimization makes it difficult if not impossible for ethnic Serbs in Bosnia to drop their guard. The political leadership would be willing to sacrifice the many possible benefits of EU membership and integration into the European economy in order to hold on to an ethnically 'pure' police force; this decision is only rational if one understands how deeply paranoia and distrust of the 'other' runs in Serb nationalism. Their political, cultural, and religious leaders are failing them; ethnic Serbs in Bosnia need to forge a new identity built on something more positive and open than the self-aggrandizing cult of martyrdom upon which so much of Serbian identity is vested in.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [3]



The opening section briefly discusses the importance of sacred sites--in this case, physical symbols such as churches, mosques, monasteries, shrines, etc.--as "physical evidence of the perennial existence of the religious community and, by nationalist expansion, of the nation..." (This is actually a quote from Peter van der Veer in the book).

This section is only two pages long, and the first page is a summary of some of the deliberate damage done to religious and cultural sites throughout the former Yugoslavia. The wars of the 1990s:

"...highlighted the crucial, centuries-old problem in the area: a mixed population of diverse ethnic and religious descent and vague cultural boundaries that makes the creation of culturally homogenous nation-states via partition of land and peaceful drawing of state borders virtually impossible, or "possible" only at the expense of destructive perpetual wars>"

And in the Balkans, centuries of history and of intermixing of various peoples had created a densely-interwoven religious topography. A strong impediment for any one ethnic/nationalist/religious group seeking to carve out an exclusive nation-state.


Perica believes that in the modern era, patriotism and national identities are more important social forces than religious beliefs. Beliefs, that is--not the religious institutions. Modern nation-states have their own histories and myths which form a "civil religion" to which citizens owe their allegiance. Myth, Perica says, is "a narrative about origin," which means that the histories abou the "birth" of nations are often 'sacred' rather than fact-based. He writes:

"According to functionalist explanations of myth, myth explains and justifies the existence and distribution of political power under current circumstances. Myths make nations, and nations make myths. The crucial difference among [Serbs, Croats, and Slavic Muslims] is not religion...but the myth of national origin, which is consecrated by native religious institutions."

Nationalism requires acceptance of myth. In the former Yugoslavia, religious institutions were tied to national identities.


In this short section, it is noted that in Yugoslavia religion was not about "private conscience" but of "public identity". The link between one's faith and one's ethnic identity was not absolute, but very nearly so--if a Serb converted to Catholicism he or she often 'became' Croat or possibly Slovene as a result. The correlation was very strong and deep-rooted.

"The major religious institutions worked together with modern secular nationalistic intellectuals on the task of creating the nations and nationalities of Yugoslavia by means of mythmaking, linguistic efforts, commemorations, and holidays and through the creation of "national saints" and calculations involving history and memory.

The Serbian Orthodox Church

This sections examines the development of the Serbian Orthodox Church as "cultural and quasi-political institution," crucial to the development of Serbian national identity. In some ways, this process was typical of Orthodoxy, where the Church is generally tied to the state and the ethnic community. In some ways, however, the Serbian example is more extreme, as the Church has developed what Michael B. Petrovich aptly termed a "Serbian faith" in which Serbian children were taught verses about a Serb God reigning in heaven with Serb angels at his side. In this same quote, Petrovich says that:

"This role of the Serbian church had little to do with religion either as theology or as a set of personal beliefs and convictions."

The central element of the Serb faith is, of course, the Kosovo myth, in which the aforementioned national mythological history is fused with religious symbolism and import--the legendary decision by Lazar to die in this world so that he would be victorious in the next is certainly more than standard historical symbolism.

Perica details how the patriarchate in Pec served as a phantom Serb 'state' within the Ottoman Empire, keeping the flame of Serbian nationalism alive while inevitably furthering and enriching the fusion of national and religious mythology that characterizes modern Serb nationalism. Kosovo was the "Serbian Jerusalem" in Serb mythology.

Also discussed is the institution of native or 'ethnic' saints, a practice well-developed in Serbian Orthodoxy. These Serb saints were not only an important element in Serbian Orthodoxy but also in national identity. And the number of saints doubled under the communist government. The church saw a great deal of growth under the Tito regime (as did all national faiths), including a great deal of building and publishing, even though the fusion between the Church and ethnic nationalism remained intact.

Croatian Catholicism

By contrast, Croatian Catholicism was late to the game, as it was only in the 19th Century that the native church began to achieve a more indigenous ethnic identity; while most priests had been Croats (and many had used the old Glagolithic script and the vernacular), most bishops had been foreigners. And while the Serb church had a long and well-developed tradition of ethnic saints, the Croatian church has only relatively recently been successful in pushing the Vatican to name Croat saints.

The church also did well under communism, growing in size and building new institutions.

The Muslim Religious Organization (The Islamic Community)

Until the establishment of Austria rule in 1878, Bosnian Muslim religious leaders, scholars, and clerics trained in Istanbul. The Austrian period spurred a turn towards religious self-administration, a trend that intensified after the establishment of Yugoslavia.

The central government generally looked favorably on the Muslim community, seeing their organizations as useful counterweights to the two dominant national religions. Despite the infamous Handzar Division and other evidence of fascist complicity, especially by higher-ranking religious officials, Perica states that the majority of lower clergy and lay officials sided with the Partisan resistance.

In general, Yugoslavia was good for the Islamic community, and relations between Muslim institutions and the state were good.

The Church and Nation of Macedonia

A breakaway national church, the establishment of which was actually encouraged by the communist government as part of its effort to established and institutionalize a distinct Macedonian national identity. As a result, the Macedonian Orthodox Church was the most patriotic religious institution in Tito's Yugoslavia.

Religious Minorities

There were many religious minorities in Yugoslavia, including a small Jewish community, various Protestant denominations, and assorted others including Romanian Orthodoxy, Sufi orders, and the Old Catholic Church.

With a couple of exceptions (Romanian, and a Slovak Evangelical church), these minority faiths were not ethnically-based. The Protestant denominations especially tended to be multi-ethnic and therefore immune to the nationalist passions which were already threatening the fabric of Yugoslav society in the early 1980s. This most likely explains why the regime went to such lengths to document and accommodate such marginal sects.

Interfaith Relations

Interfaith relations between the two main national churches, and also between either or both of them and the Islamic community, have traditionally not been good. Outside threats could motivate the Serb Orthodox and Croatian Catholic churches to cooperate, but little else could. Even under Ottoman rule, Orthodoxy and Catholicism tended to fight each other for prominence, influence, and advantage rather than to make common cause against their Muslim rulers. The growth of nationalism and national identities in the 19th Century exacerbated these tensions. Ecumenical activities, such as those of Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer, were encouraged by the regime after the creation of Yugoslavia, and ecumenical figures were held up as examples of religious figures living the civil religion of "Brotherhood and Unity.

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [2]


My previous post summarized most of the essential information in these two introductory sentences. I did not have my copy of the book handy when I wrote that post, however, and I inadvertently omitted a couple of points worth mentioning.

I mentioned that Perica was a citizen of Yugoslavia prior to the war; but I did not mention that he had been a regular columnist for the weekly Croatian newspaper Nedjeljna Dalmacija from 1988 to 1991. His weekly column was entitled "Religion and Politics, and at the time he had been a believer in the notion that religion and religious institutions would play an important and constructive role in bringing liberal democracy to formerly communist East Europe. He also served on the government commission for relations with religious groups in the Croatian republic. His faith in the positive power of organized religion in the post-communist world is gone, but clearly he was, in a sense, already working on this book before he even knew he would someday write it.

His shock at what happened to his country was only compounded by his personal knowledge of the role religious institutions played in fanning nationalist sentiment. Furthermore, he realized that Western observers often failed to grasp the dynamics at work. He writes:

"What has been missing in the recent scholarship on Yugoslavia is a study explaining the uniqueness of the Yugoslav case and the concrete, active history-making forces, such as religious institutions. A documented history of religion and its interaction with ideologies, nations, and states has not been published. Consequently, the grand debate on the Yugoslav case in the West induced by the media focus on the Balkan wars in the 1990s ended up with the same preexisting popular misconception that religion per se, that is, the different beliefs and styles of worship, suffice to cause (out of the blue) serious conflicts. This misconception is especially harmful for countries like the United States, because in this multiethnic country, no less vulnerable than similar socities, some people have been seriously frightened by the Yugoslav disaster, while others have downplayed it, attributing to the United States some kind of immunity to what had befallen the allegedly "uncivilized" Yugoslavia."

I hope the connection between this quote and some of the themes of this blog are so obvious that I will not need to justify committing myself to reviewing the book before having read it all.


One last point--in my previous post, I made reference to follow-up research Perica performed after the wars. This was faulty memory on my part--while he did visit the country in recent years, he explicitly states that he was unable to regain access to materials he had used for his original research in the prewar period. His postwar research was done in Washington, DC. Still, Perica cites many sources which would be otherwise unknown to Western readers.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [1]

BALKAN IDOLS: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States

I have only read the introductory sections and first chapter of this book, but I am already intrigued by it and will review it as I go. Perica's book is a study of the political--rather than the cultural or spiritual--aspects of organized religion in the former Yugoslavia, particularly the four "national" religions--Croatian Catholicism, Serbian Orthodoxy, the Islamic Community, and the Macedonian Orthodox Church. He also considers the 'civic religion' of Yugoslavia, the secular religion of "Peace and Brotherhood."

Perica is a native of Yugoslavia who came to the United States at the beginning of the war and has stayed here. He achieved his post-graduate degree here and wrote this book in the US as well, but much of the material he uses was gathered during the decade prior to the outbreak of war in 1991, augmented by information garnered on at least one return visit, and new access to some materials.

This is very much a study of religious institutions and the actions of those institutions; it is also an examination of how these respective "national" religious institutions played their part in the development of these different national identities. As Perica rightly notes in the Preface, this aspect of Yugoslav history has not been properly addressed.

I will begin my review--which I hope to do relatively quickly--tomorrow.

The Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia Herzegovina

A comment over on Shaina's excellent "Bosnia Vault" blog alerted me to this website:

The Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia Herzegovina

I was completely unaware of this site and the project which produces it. The "About" sections explains:

"The Centar za istraživačko novinarstvo is the first of its kind in the Balkans. It is a Center dedicated to helping local journalists get the time, resources and independence to do comprehensive and accurate investigative journalism."

A very worthy goal. I am still catching up on the stories in this site, but what I've read so far has been impressive. This is a worthwhile resource. I will be adding this to my featured links.

Corruption Pervades Government in Bosnia

A sobering look at the situation in contemporary Bosnian government:

IN DEPTH: Auditors Lambast Culture of Corruption in Bosnia

While I had expected that the top-heavy, multi-layered nature of Bosnia's cumbersome governmental structure would be an important factor in enabling corruption in Bosnia, it seems that the problem is more deeply rooted in the central government than in either of the two entity governments. This cannot be good news for any efforts to rewrite Bosnia's constitution in favor of greater centralized control, since public support for the central government will most certainly be affected by perceptions of the current system.

Still, one can hope that at least some Bosnians in both entities will see that the Dayton constitution has imposed an impossibly top-heavy and overburdoned governmental structure on the country.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

"Terrible Fate" by Benjamin Lieberman [1]

TERRIBLE FATE: Ethnic Cleansing In The Making Of Modern Europe

Although only part of one chapter is actually about Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, this book provides a fresh and useful new perspective on the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Benjamin Lieberman has written an important if flawed work. He covers a wide canvas--muck of Central Europe, Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, the Caucasian Mountain region, and much of the Middle East. This enormous region encompasses the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. Lieberman describes broad patterns as, over a period of roughly 200 years, nation-states were carved out of the areas opened up by the retreat, decay, and collapse of those three multi-ethnic empires. The rise of nationalism spurred the creation of national identities among the many peoples within those empires, who most often lived intermingled amongst many other peoples with similar aspirations. At the same time, the expansion of the Russian Empire into the Caucasus region led to the earliest known examples of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, as the Imperial government sought to gain control over restive people in distant frontier lands.

In Lieberman's telling, the Balkan wars were then merely one of the latest tragic chapters in a long history. One interpretation of events is that nationalist Serbs were guilty of utilizing 19th Century ideology and tactics in the late 20th Century.

This is "big history" and Lieberman deserves a great deal of credit simply for recognizing that there was a dark, unifying theme to state formation in the wake of empire collapse in this large area. His genius is to see the big picture; very little, if anything, in this book is really new, although naturally many national histories do their best to airbrush their past.

It is worth mentioning that Lieberman is not a fatalist--while his history does a reasonable job of placing modern incidents of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and elsewhere into a larger historical perspective, he does not therefore throw up his hands; nor does he excuse the actions of the perpetrators by placing their actions 'in context.' On the contrary--he seems to believe that understanding the history of ethnic cleansing, and seeing it as a historical process related to prior conditions and not without precedent will make more likely the prospect of proactive action by the international community. Lieberman wants the world to stop treating man-made catastrophes as unstoppable, indecipherable tragedies of almost natural provenance. By illustrating the commonalities between the Bosnian case, the Armenian genocide, and other similiar atrocities, we can get past the confusing fog of "historical complexities" which anti-interventionists always throw up in order to convince the outside world that interference would be pointless. Forget the details, Lieberman almost seems to be saying--we've seen it all before.

While not fatalistic, Lieberman is also reasonably pessimistic about the possibilities to undo the damage of ethnic cleansing once the deed is done. As he convincingly argues, reconciliation and repatriation need to occur while survivors are still alive, and after a meaningful justice process has been put into place. One tragic reason why his book is so important is that the frequent atrocities he recounts have, most often, defined the current demographics and geopolitical divisions of Europe and the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing works. The landscape he surveys is quite expansive, and across the vast majority of it populations are less intermixed and more homogeneous than they were two centuries ago.

In the case of Bosnia, it's 15 years too late for the international community to heed the warnings of this book, but it is not yet to late to heed this final cautionary note--the gruesome work of Mladic, Karadzic, and company is not yet ossified. The window is closing, but not yet shut.


I have two issues with this book, one minor and one not so minor. Firstly, such a book cannot help to avoid a rather summary approach to the subject matter--Lieberman cast his net wide, and since this is the book's strength it would be unfair to point out that it is also a weakness. Still, it must be noted that Lieberman is mostly interested in documenting this process, not in analyzing it. At the end, I felt I had received a great panoramic view of one of the darkest aspects of modern history, but I did not feel I had delved very deeply into the subject matter. A couple of chapters felt a little rushed and perfunctory, as if he was merely trying to cover all bases. This should not discourage the interested reader--specialists are free to enrich the broad canvas Lieberman has nobly traced with finer detail.

My other reservation concerns the unfortunate distinction Lieberman makes between 'ethnic cleansing' and 'genocide'. It is a common misconception among the general public that genocide refers solely to Holocaust-scale campaigns of absolute extinction. Both Parenti and Johnstone utilize the deceit of raising the genocide bar far too high. Considering the subject matter, it is to be expected that Lieberman should have understood the fallacy of this viewpoint; instead, he seems to have accepted it (although, unlike Johnstone and Parenti, he does not excuse ethnic cleansing for being "not quite genocide"). Lemkin is only referred to once in the entire book; the genocide treaty is never referenced in the book, nor is the accepted definition from that treaty. Lieberman, unfortunately, seems to have written this entire book on a misconception.

Most troubling is that he even recognizes that the phrase "ethnic cleansing" was introduced into the popular lexicon by Serb fascists during the war; yet, rather than seeing it for the sinister euphemism it is, he apparently accepts the term--and the false distinction it makes--at face value. This is the most serious flaw in this otherwise quite admirable and worthy book.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"To Kill A Nation" by Michael Parenti [33]


It's a dour world Michael Parenti lives in. The Western campaign against innocent Yugoslavia continued (this book was published in 2000) as Milosevic held firm and Serbians refused to completely give up on socialism and state sovereignty. Yes, Parenti holds firm to this delusion to the bitter end.

This campaign of aggression and intimidation took many forms, he informs the hypothetically outraged reader. Massive financial and material support for pro-Western political parties--which he uniformly regards as Western stooges whether the locale is Serbia or Bulgaria or Ukraine or any other formally Communist country. Economic sanctions and support for Montenegrin secession--no hint that just possibly the Montenegrin people might have decided they wanted out of the failing, war-obsessed kleptocracy that Milosevic had made of his nation. Parenti throws up the alarm flags by noting that General Wesley Clark had made plans for possible military action should Montenegro breakaway against Serbian military resistance--as if the US military doesn't routinely make plans for all sorts of possible and even merely hypothetical scenarios.

Instability in Albanian-majority areas in Serbia was certainly not good news for anybody, but why Parenti thinks this should be a sign of Western plotting is far from clear. Hypothetical discussions about autonomy for Vojvodina, or even annexation by Hungary, are also thrown into the mix without any context or substantiation. I'm sure that certain elements in Hungary and among Serbia's Hungarian minority said and wrote all sorts of things during this period. What of it? Parenti has nothing further to add.

And then comes the most stunning accusation--assassination. Parenti actually suggests that the West was behind the spate of political murders in Serbia at this time, his only evidence consisting of the fact that many of the victims were members of the Socialist Party or otherwise connected to Milosevic--he being such a paragon of loyalty and integrity. I wonder if Parenti thinks George Tenet had Arkan offed?

And so this chapter sputters along, throwing disparagement at Serbia's democratic opposition and waxing nostalgic for the good old days of Soviet-backed state socialist dictatorships throughout Eastern Europe. It is a pathetically anti-climatic way to end this book, but then Parenti's vision is far too cramped and intellectually constricted to reach any rhetorical or ideological heights. All he can do is take empty, baseless potshots at an imagined capitalist edifice of his own imagining. His descent into ultra-nationalist apology is complete; his surrender to the dark shadows of conspiracy, ethnic collectivism, and paranoia is total. He is a parody of a genuine radical who has written a groveling paean to 21st-Century tribalism and anti-modernist racialism disguised as progressive social criticism. What a wasted labor this book is. What a disgrace.

Monday, September 03, 2007

"To Kill A Nation" by Michael Parenti [32]


This chapter consists of a six-page anti-globalization rant. This blog is not the forum to discuss the pros and cons of neoliberal economics and the increasingly transnational nature of contemporary markets. Parenti, without justification, seems to believe that he has made a convincing case that Yugoslavia was dismantled by Western capitalists in order to destroy one of the last remaining socialist countries. Believing that the case has already been made, he clearly intends this penultimate chapter to resonate as a rousing condemnation. Instead, it lands with a dull, muffled thud.

There is nothing in this chapter which the reader has not heard before. The argument against neoliberalism has been made much more convincingly, but even if Parenti's analysis was not so broad, hyperbolic, and unsubstantiated, this would not remedy the very serious deficiency in its inclusion--the case for a capitalist plot against Yugoslavia has not been made. After nineteen chapters and slightly over 200 pages, Parenti has completely failed to make his case. After making his or her puzzled way through this chapter, the reader should come to understand one thing--Parenti, and his fellow travelers, believe what they believe in spite of the facts, not because of them. Ideological bias dictates one and only one possible narrative, and they will twist and distort the facts to fit that narrative no matter what.

In the next post, we will examine the final chapter. And then we will be ready to say goodbye to this absolutely worthless book once and for all.