Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide" by Branimir Anzulovic [6]


The Legacy of the Enlightenment and Romanticism

Anzulovic notes that the Orthodox countries of Europe developed differently than the Protestant and Catholic countries did, and that:

"In Orthodox countries, the equivalent of the Middle Ages--the period during which the church was the dominant bearer of cultural heritage--lasted until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries."

After that, ties with the West were established, but a concurrent anti-Western attitude

"nourished primarily by the Serbian Orthodox Church and by the old pagan-tribal ethos, did not disappear but has reasserted itself as a lasting and powerful current in Serbian culture. The elevation of an old pagan war god to the patron saint of the nation is the most conspicuous manifestation of the reaffirmation of tribal attitudes in the era of Westernization."

And, curiously, the Western ideology of Romanticism was an important aid to development of Serbian culture in this ultimately anti-Western direction. Romanticism was also the driving force behind the linguistic conception of Serbian nationhood, a notion articulated by Dositej Obradovic--a genuinely inclusive and somewhat cosmopolitan figure in the development of Serbian culture (second only to Saint Sava by some accounts) who contrasts favorably to his contemporary Njegos who was, of course, far less tolerant. Yet, Obradovic's legacy is tarnished by the expansionist rationale his linguistics-based approach to Serb national identity implied.

Language and Territory

This section is a very interesting consideration of the above-mentioned Obradovic thesis. Anzulovic states:

"Modern Pan-Serbism emerged as a result of the Romantic ideal that vernacular language is the main criterion for the identity of a nation, combined with the thesis that all stokavian dialects are Serbian."

The career of folklorist Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic is considered, as are the links between Western Romantic/folklorists like Goethe and Jakob Grimm. Anzulovic also contrasts the nineteenth century Pan-Serb ideal (an "assimilationist" approach) and the Croatian Illyrian Movement (an "integrative" approach). He traces the cause of Serbian inability to conceive of the legitimacy of other South Slavic nationalities to the millet system; under the Ottomans, the Serb "nation" existed within and mixed with other nations, yet, Serb clergy routinely referred to "Serb lands", meaning areas within the empire where Serbs lived, including areas of resettlement, rather than the borders of the medieval Serbian state. Croatians, and also Bosnians, on the other hand, maintained their conceptions of their states even though they lacked sovereignty. Serbs came to think of "Serbia" as wherever Serbs lived, or were buried. Combined with the sense that nearly all South Slavs were "really" Serbs, this was a very expansionist conception of any future Serb state.

THe Resurrection and International Recognition of a Pagan War God

A brief consideration of the history of the Serb pagan god Vid, and his modern resurrection into national mythology and even into the pantheon of the Serbian church. The modern phenomena of "Saint Vid's Day" is also considered, which partly explains why the Battle of Kosovo has taken on a mythic importance all out of proportion to its actual historical import.

The Bloody Rebirth of the Serbian State

A self-explanatory title; a brief synopsis of the early years of the newly independent Serbian kingdom.

The High Costs of Imperial Ambitions

A further history of Serbia, only now as the dominant nation/republic of Yugoslavia; the ongoing conflict between Serb/Montenegrin preference for centralized authority and hardline rule versus non-Serb (especially Croat and Slovene) preference for decentralization and less autocratic government. The use of harsh tactics against non-Serbs in territories conquered prior to the creation of Yugoslavia is also discussed.

This chapter is very readable, and Anzulovic manages to combine a disparate stew of information together into a coherent, concise, and comprehensive* examination of his topic. My review is rather bare-bones since he does cover a lot of information which should already be familiar to any reader of this blog; however, don't let that discourage you from reading his very fine book. Familiar facts and events often reveal new facets in his hands.

* No, I don't expect to impress anybody with my alliteration.

Monday, May 26, 2008

"Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide" by Branimir Anzulovic [5]


The Violent Balkan Highlands

This section examines the violent nature of Dinaric mountain culture, which can be attributed to illiteracy, lack of central authority, general lawlessness, and a provincial, patriarchal culture deeply steeped in notions of a particular kind of personal honor and machismo. Anzulovic notes that this area was never completely conquered either by the Byzantines or the Ottomans, and that the pagan-tribal nature of highland society was never completely replaced by any of the monotheistic faiths which held the people's nominal loyalty--indeed, the priests were often illiterate, and were more likely to be deferential to the indigenous moral code rather than insisting on overt adherence to Church teachings.

These characteristics were common among highlanders of all faiths; among Orthodox highlanders, however, this endemic violence and attendant callousness towards suffering was enshrined in Prince Njegos' "The Mountain Wreath", thus spreading the bloody, vengeful, merciless code of the mountains to the more literate lowland culture.

The Prince-Bishop's "Song of Horror:

I have written elsewhere in this blog about "The Mountain Wreath", a masterpiece of Montenegrin poetry which celebrates the Christmas Eve massacre of Muslims by Christian fighters; I have written elsewhere about the poem and its glorification of God-sanctioned murder as well as the curious idea that the gratuitous shedding of Muslim blood is in itself a baptism, rather than a sin of which one must be cleansed in order to receive baptism.

Anzulovic notes the almost complete absence of actual Christian theology or morality in the poem; he quotes Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic, who said "Njegos's Christology is almost rudimentary. No Christian priest has ever said less about Christ than this metropolitan from Cetinje." Another anti-Christian facet of Njegos' world-view is the quasi-Manicheism view that the world itself is an evil place. And while Njegos presents the battle between Christianity and Islam as a battle between good and evil, there is nothing intrinsicly moral about the conflict as he describes it--Anzulovic ascribes "nihilism and necrophilia" to this blood-obsessed poet-priest.

At this point in his analysis, Anzulovic makes a very telling observation--that

"...the theme of the struggle against the Turks was not a part of the Serbian folk singers' repertory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period of Turkish rule, the Serbs enjoyed peace and the benefits of a well-administered empire; their church had substantial autonomy; and service in the Ottoman army provided income for many Serbs."

There is more, but the key point is that the mythic component of Njegos' poem was projected backwards onto the period, rather than being a faithful representation of that era. He goes on to note that other works from the West concerning the conflict between Christians and Muslims were mostly devoid of the "intense and overt hatred displayed in The Mountain Wreath" Anzulovic quotes from several different works in order to demonstrate this, then compares The Mountain Wreath to another classic work of Slavic literature, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which looks at ethnic violence much differently.

Finally, Anzulovic notes that

"...the glorification of genocide in The Mountain Wreath cannot be attributed to external influences. Many foreign influences can be detected, but not in the sphere of ethics."

Anzulovic states that there are two sources for this peculiar value-system: the cult of revenge from the Dinaric tribal societies, and the teachings of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Chorus

This section examines how many academics and intellectuals, both in Serbia and without, have turned a blind eye to the troubling moral code Njegos' poem articulates. He discusses the career of Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas, who bravely wrote about a massacre of Slavic Muslims in Montenegro in 1924, an atrocity which his own grandfather participated in. Yet:

"Djilas justified Njegos' advocacy of violence. He recognized that violence was evil, yet found its use in the service of Serbia's national goals permissible because "Serbianism is a concrete form of the human desire for good, for freedom." "

Like many Serbian nationalists, Djilas shared a sense that Serbs were threatened by the outside world; combined with the sense of their "rightness" as a people, almost means can justify preserving such a mythic/religious end.

Blind, unthinking faith in the righteousness of "Serbianism"; an unwavering certainty that considers no violation of decency and morality outside the bounds of propriety as long as whatever atrocity we are considering is in the service of this holy cause--and yet, the proponents of "Greater Serbia" somehow tried to convince the world they were fighting against dangerous religious fanatics.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide" by Branimir Anzulovic [4]


Ottoman Religious Tolerance

Anzulovic begins Chapter 2 with this observation:

"The union of Serbian church and nation, a Byzantine heritage, became even tighter after the Ottoman Turkish conquest, when Serbia ceased to exist as a territorial and political entity. Since the nation was no longer associated with a state, its link with the national religion became still more pronounced. The myth of the Heavenly Serbia was a manifestation of the radical union of nation and church. The Ottoman domination contributed to the development of the Serb's self-image of a holy people whose moral superiority makes them victims of the immorality of others."

He is quick to point out that the conquest of Serbia within the Ottoman Empire was a genuine tragedy--with the notable exception of the Serbian Church, all national institutions were eliminated and Serbian society lost its entire elite stratum; the nation was "reduced to a society of peasants and small merchants in an empire dominated by a foreign civilization." Despite all that, the Ottomans cannot be blamed for all the problems and shortcomings of the Balkan states which began to emerge from the 19th Century on.

The rest of this section briefly illustrates the relative tolerance of the Ottoman world, at least until the economic and political declines of the later empire led to greater repression and resistance. Again, I am assuming that most readers of this blog are familiar with this material.

The Short-Lived Serbian Empire

This short section contrasts the glory of the historical memory of Tsar Dusan's empire with the reality--the empire mostly grew at the expense of a greatly weakened Byzantium; he ruled over many non-Serb subjects who had no love for the Serbian Empire; it lacked the administrative infrastructure to develop or last as a long-term viable state. It was already a fragmented ghost of itself by the time the Ottomans began picking it apart shortly after his death.

Resistance and Collaboration

In a nutshell, this section details the complex reality of the history of the eventual Turkish conquest rather than the national myths which obscure, rather than illuminate, this period. The obvious example is, of course, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo which did not--contrary to centuries of mythologizing--end in a Serbian defeat. Even more telling than the actual outcome is the fact that there was little solidarity among the Serbs and other Balkan Christians; many non-Serbs fought with Prince Lazar, and many Serbs chose not to. The historical record of this period is not as complete as one would like, but one thing becomes clear--the Serbs, like all other peoples in that time and place, had varied and often inconsistent responses to the Ottoman threat. Some chose to resist, some chose to fight with the Ottomans, some chose to stay on the sidelines. For example, the Serb Despot Djuradj Brankovic aided the Ottoman victory at Varna by preventing the Albanian leader Skanderbeg from joining his Christian allies.

After the conquest, Serbs were often resettled in lands depopulated by fleeing Christians; yet another complex ambiguity from the Ottoman period that modern nationalists would choose to ignore.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Oliver Kamm on Burma and the Dubious Defense of Sovereignty by Anti-Interventionists

A couple of days ago, Oliver Kamm posted a short piece on Burma, the junta, and the problem of sovereignty:

Kamm Fire Warning Shot Across Bow of Sovereignty-Clinging Autocrats Everywhere

My own personal ideological journey related to Bosnia and interventionism in general has led me to the conclusion that "sovereignty" is going to be one of the sticking issues of 21st Century; Kamm promises to write more on this issue and I look forward to those writings. I, too, am being drawn towards a more extended consideration of the issue.

I encourage you to read the articles Kamm links to in his post as well. Rigter and Aaronivich both have powerful moral arguments; as a side note, it is welcome--but not surprising--to note that Bernard Kouchner is one of the most forceful advocates on this isse at the UN.

Disturbing Threat to Press Freedom

I normally leave the breaking-story news updates to the ever-diligent Shaina at Bosnia Vault, but this story from the latest OSCE Report seems especially sinister and troubling:

OSCE: Deteriorating State of Media Freedom in BiH

This is certainly something worthy of more attention. The use of violence and intimidation to silence press criticism is never a good sign; in Bosnia, this sort of thuggishness is all-too-familiar from recent history.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Heavely Serbia: From Myth to Genocide" by Bramimir Anzulovic [3]


The Birth of the Myth

I'm assuming that most readers of this blog already know about the Battle of Kosovo, the myths that surround it, and the long tradition of Serbian folk poetry and folk singers. Anzulovic briefly details how stories of that battle were transmitted through the ages--and transformed into a mythic/religious version of events, complete with a "Last Supper" and so forth.

Unheavenly Heroes

This section examines the troubling nature and brutal moral code of Milos Obilic (who, according the legend, used deceit to kill Sultan Murat, among other exploits) and the popular folk hero Prince Marko. It is no exaggeration to say that Marko is a bloodthirsty sadist and a stunningly callous misogynist to boot--the few examples Anzulovic provides of Marko's treatment of women, including his own wife, are absolutely loathsome. He was also, it is important to note, a frequent collaborator with the Ottomans.

Anzulovic notes that the Marko songs were popular in Ottoman-controlled regions in the first few centuries after the conquest, when life was actually pretty good and the Orthodox Church was prospering under Turkish rule, while the Obilic songs were popular in areas outside of Turkish control, and then later within those areas as economic conditions for Serbs declined and resentment, and later nationalist agitation, increased greatly. At the same time, folk singers

"...made Marko less brutal and more patriotic, so that both Marko and Obilic were seen as heroes of Serbian resistance against the Turks."

The Byzantine Heritage

Anzulovic considers the effect of the Byzantine legacy on Serbian nationalism. He points out the violence and cruelty in Byzantine culture (the regularity of assassination, mutilation, and the murder of families as a way of changing rulers, for example) but then points out there was violence aplenty in Western Europe; he also notes the high level of culture in the empire, as well as the relatively high status and level of rights afforded to women.

He also notes the important civilizing influence the empire had, and how central Christianity was to that effort. While I prefer not to get into a discussion on the value of religious belief, I will note that I do not agree with the author's premise that the "basic message" of Christianity and other religions, is essentially a good one. Be that as it may, he does believe that moral integrity of a religion becomes threatened once a religion becomes powerful. And in Byzantium, the church became subordinate to the state, losing its independence and therefore much of its moral and spiritual authority.

Not completely, though, since Byzantine society was genuinely and devoutly religious, so that state authorities always had to be somewhat deferential to ecclesiastical authority. The monastic orders had much more freedom from the state than the court-appointed patriarchs and bishops.

The formation of autocephalous Bulgarian and Serbian churches strengthened those growing states and their autonomy from Byzantine control; the Byzantine church increasingly became a "Greek" church. The "national" churches helped encourage division in the Orthodox world, as opposed to the universalist tendencies of the Roman Catholic church in the West.

It is also worth noting that the Serbs took the "state-heaven" relationship of Byzantium one step further; while Byzantines felt that the emperor and his court were heavenly and ordained by God, the Serbs felt that it was the nation itself that held this distinction. Anzulovic concludes this section with this paragraph:

"In authentic Christian thought the Church, that is, the community of believers, constitutes the mystical body of Christ. The identification of the church with the nation favors instead the concept of the nation as the mystical body."

Saint-Savaism: Radical Nationalization of a Church

This final section discusses the legacy of Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Church and the Nemanja dynasty; of the fifty-nine saints particular to Serbian Orthodoxy, twenty-six were rulers of members of ruling families.

This identification with the state outlasted the fall of the state itself--the church had a high status under Ottoman rule, and became the repository and conduit for national identity and myth. The church was much more concerned with culture and "quasi-politics" than with theology or spiritual matters. At the same time, the church did lose some power, prestige, and resources, leading to an upsurge in pagan practices and ideas, which became encoded into Serbian society and culture. Pagan notions of anger and revenge became fused with Christianity, so that some saints became celebrated for "unsaintly" behavior.

Anzulovic concludes this section, and this chapter--after a short examination of the irrelgious nature of Serb society from many, many years prior to Communism or even statehood--with a consideration of the propensity of Orthodoxy to accommodate totalitarianism, since the faith has a long tradition of "deifying the state." Among the Serbs, the particular blend of state, church, and nation often referred to by the Serbs themselves as "Saint-Savaism" is the most extreme example of this tendency.

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide" by Branimir Anzulovic [2]


After noting that lamenting the loss of Kosovo has been a genuine element of Serbian culture for quite some time, the author further acknowledges that "significant loss of power is always a traumatic event." This is fair, as is the following observation that the "strong expansionist trend" Serbia displayed after gaining independence was typical of the countries which achieved independence as nation-states in the nineteenth century "after a long period of foreign domination or political fragmentation." It is important to maintain a measure of balance and to avoid demonizing an entire nation or group. One of the primary themes of this blog is the evil of collectivism, specifically collective guilt. Any attempt to deal with recent events in the former Yugoslavia, unfortunately, risks charges of being "anti-Serb" from various hysterical factions. I want to take special care not to lend any legitimacy to such charges.

At any rate, Anzulovic is careful to note that theories of a certain "fascist psychology" are wanting at best; the psychological impulse we need to understand is not some individual pathology shared by many members of a particular group but rather the universal trait of strong group membership, a trait which is not exclusive to our species but which in our case may have outlived its evolutionary usefulness. There is a pathology at work, but it is not an abnormal psychological trait peculiar to members of a particular group. The author notes:

"Thus, the primary driving force leading to genocide is not the pathology of the individuals organizing and committing the genocide, but the pathology of the ideas guiding them."

Anzulovic wants to examine how

"the old myth of an innocent, suffering Serbia, and the concomitant myth of foreign evildoers who conspire against its very existence influened the behavior of Serbs at the close of the twentieth century."

The rest of introduction summarizes each chapter rather neatly; if you ever come across a copy of this book while remaining unsure if you want to read it, I encourage you to at least read the Introduction, which serves to at least encapsulate the theme Anzulovic covers.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide" by Branimir Anzulovic [1]

I am reading Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide by Branimir Anzulovic. The inside jacket states:

"In the 1990s Serbs brought death and destruction to Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, and international condemnation on themselves. Heavenly Serbia searches for the causes behind the brutal and futile drive for a Greater Serbia. How did the Serbs rationalize, and rally support for, their genocidal activity?"

As you would guess from the title of the book, Anzulovic explains the violent expansionism of 1990s Serbs as an expression of their peculiar national mythology. Most readers of this blog will most likely already be familiar with the Kosovo myth, of Prince Lazar choosing the heavenly kingdom, the murder of Sultan Murat by Milos Obilic, and so on; as well as the tradition of oral poetry, The Mountain Wreath by Prince Njegos (and its genocidal theme), the the unique melding of nation, church, and state in the Orthodox world ; and so on. Therefore, I will not review this book on a page-by-page or at least section-by-section (within chapters) as I often do.

However, this excellent book does examine some aspects of Serbian and south Slavic culture and history which don't often receive attention in popular Western books on the subject, or at least the author manages to achieve a fresh and novel insight into what might at first seem to be well-trod ground.

Therefore, I intend to touch on and discuss at least a portion of what is novel and uniquely insightful in Anzulovic's book. I will begin doing so in my next post.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Divide and Fall?" by Radha Kumar--Chapter Five


This chapter details the mostly disappointing peacemaking efforts in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and Palestine in the years leading up to, during, and immediately after the Bosnian war, and compares the varying failings of partition-based peacekeeping in order to extrapolate lessons which could be applied to Bosnia and for the future.

It's good reading, but time is getting away from me and I think it would be best to stick to Bosnia and simply conclude my brief consideration of Kumar's book by saying, again, that it is a worthy read--not least because she cuts through a lot of the bogus certainties and truisms which served to cloud international debate on Bosnia. Her focus on concrete policy decisions and specific actions taken by domestic and foreign agents would be very instructive to any casual observers who dismiss international mediation in infamous hotspots like Bosnia, Palestine, and so on as being doomed.

Evil Imperialists Plot to Violate Sovereignty of Non-Western Nation...or something

Brief TIME magazine article on the possible need to invade Burma/Myanmar*:

Is it Time to Invade Burma?

After the debacle of Bosnia, the shame of Rwanda, the ongoing disgrace of Darfur, and the stale and outdated debate on Iraq, I was afraid the the ideal of humanitarian intervention--a necessary step on the road to the globalization of human rights and a truly international standard of citizenship--would be tossed onto the scrapbook of failed idealisms.

Yet reality has a funny way of butting into the dialog, so it was strangely thrilling--even in the context of this horrible natural tragedy and the disgraceful way the junta is willing to sacrifice the citizens of that long-suffering nation--to read this comment:

"We're in 2008, not 1908," says Jan Egeland, the former U.N. emergency relief coordinator. "A lot is at stake here. If we let them get away with murder we may set a very dangerous precedent."

In other words, the "dangerous precedent" would not be the invasion of a sovereign nation; rather, it would be allowing the government of that sovereign nation to inflict even greater suffering on its people--and put the world at risk by allowing a huge outbreak of infectious disease.

One can almost feel the rocking of ground underneath; could this tragedy provide the tipping point needed to regain the high ground from the new isolationists and the faux-progressive "anti-imperialists" with their specious defenses of sovereignty and the use of "non-intervention" as the last-ditch justification for anti-Western authoritarian regimes?

I eagerly await reading Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti, and the rest of that lot jumping on this issue. The legal and moral issues, I am quite sure, will fascinate them all.

Or maybe not.

*I am not comfortable with allowing the vicious junta to rename the country, diplomatic protocol aside.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Divide And Fall?" by Radha Kumar--Chapter Four [2]


The second half of Chapter Four details the rather depressing story of the Dayton-sanctioned elections which were (I would say rashly) planned within a few months after the war ended.

Again, my review is very perfunctory, but only because there is little use in summarizing a blow-for-blow version of Kumar's very well-written and comprehensive account; I have no intention of creating a Reader's Digest/Cliff Notes version of her book. I strongly recommend reading it; it's a quick and worthy read.

The elections went about as badly as one would expect given the circumstances; I will only add that the main two sticking points ended up being Mostar, where the Herzegovinan mafia HDZ hardliners were still busy finishing the ethnic cleansing of their half of the city; and Brcko, where the the demographics had been completely altered by ethnic cleansing in favor of Serbs but the Croats and Bosniaks* teamed up, even from exile.

Apologies again if my review has been so brief as to be nearly useless, but I have no qualms with Kumar's analysis or major themes, and the book is rather narrative in format.

*Don't think I'm not reading your comments, Daniel!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

"Divide and Fall?" by Radha Kumar--Chapter Four [1]


The first half of this chapter discusses the violent and discouraging first few months after Dayton, as the international community struggled to implement Dayton with inadequate forces and resources. Jockeying for power between the three main parties--and sometimes within those parties (such as the continuing rift between Izetbegovic and Silajdic)--continued both at the negotiating tables and on the ground, as troops changed uniforms from soldiers to police officers ostensibly enforcing law, order, and the equal treatment of all citizens.

Lawlessness was rampant, and organized gangs of thugs implemented ethnic cleansing in areas marked for transfer from one entity to another. The entrenchment of organized criminal gangs became a real issue, notably--but not solely--in western Herzegovina. And through it all, the international organizations found their mandates limited, sometimes forced to rely on local authorities who had no interest in aiding the successful implementation of Dayton. Sarajevo was further cleansed, as thousands of Serbs--terrorized both by the legitimate fear of retribution and exploitation at the hands of Muslim gangs, and by hysterical propaganda and strongarm tactics encouraging flight by the SDS--left the suburbs due to be returned to the Federation.

The agreement to end the war was furthering, and possibly solidifying, the work of ethnic partition.


I will summarize the second half of this chapter in my next post.