In order to keep the conversation going after the conference, we invited our speakers to contribute blog posts relating to their papers. This post was written by Martina Zuliana from the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia).
In the times when a country faces a crisis, whether political or economical, its citizens feel the need to have a strong identity, one that seems monolithic and eternal. Changes are accompanied by a time of uncertainty and people are hoping to find a safe port, something that would give them hope for a stable future. At such a point, it is very easy to use nationalism and the idea of a fixed and eternal ethnicity and culture as an anchor. The raise of nationalistic feelings in present-day Europe is pretty clear and, until now, it was associated with only a few extreme cases like Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary. With an ongoing crisis, however, we cannot fully analyze what kind of instabilities and nationalistic extremism will happen. Yet, we can analyze recent history to understand the risks that extreme nationalistic political movements can bring. I don’t suggest here to go ninety years back to study the causes that brought Hitler to win the elections in Germany, but to look at a more recent case, the Yugoslavian one.
After Tito’s death and the lack of a charismatic political leader, the Yugoslavian Federation experienced a period of identity crisis. The politician who tried to set himself up as the new federal leader was the Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević, who built his political discourse on the idea of the “Great Serbia”. Milošević gained consensus in his own State thanks to his theories that presented Serbia as the core of the Western Balkans. These discourses were founded on an historical event, the battle of Kosovo, fought in 1389 between the Ottoman Empire and the Serbian Orthodox Army. This event was elaborated in Milošević’s policy as an identification of Serbia as the saviour and defender of Christianity in Europe and as a Holy Country, having its chore in Kosovo. According to these discourses Serbia had the right to claim itself the leader of the Yugoslavian Federation and to claim Kosovan land.
The country that first raised its voice to oppose Serbian expansionism was Croatia. Tuđman, a nationalist politician, managed to become a political leader by using the identification of Croatia as the only nation able to stop communism in Yugoslavia. He built that claim by using the State’s contemporary history, namely the Second World War period. At that time, Croatia was ruled by the fascist Ustaša Government, led by Ante Pavelić. Tuđman and the historians influenced by his Government re-wrote Croatia’s history to prove how Pavelić was not a true Nazi ally, and to minimize the events that happened in the Croatian concentration camps such as Jasenovac. More government-influenced essays were written by ethnologists to prove the Aryan origin of the Croatian nation and to describe the Serbs as Slavic or even Arab. Using this base, Croatia claimed its role as a Western nation, distancing itself from Balkan history by emphasising its former role in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pavelić’s policy used religion as well, using Medjugorje as a symbol of Croatian Catholicism to reinforce the idea that Croatia, being Catholic, was a part of Western Europe. Croatia eventually used its nationalistic claims to proclaim its independence in 1991.
The Croatian independence raised an issue that was eventually the cause of the beginning of the war. In fact, during the nationalist campaigns previous to 1991, both Croatia and Serbia claimed that Bosnia and Herzegovina to belonged to them. Many studies were made by both states to prove that Muslim Bosnians were Serbian or Croatian forcibly converted to Islam by the Ottomans. The Serbian historians that were collaborating with the Milošević government wrote essays to prove that Muslim Bosnians were Serbs and that Bosnia belonged to Serbia, while Tuđman’s allies similarly claimed Bosnians as Croatian.
Bosnian Muslim politicians reacted to these classifications and renamed the religious groups living in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to give them ethnic connotations. Bosnian Muslims were renamed as Bosnjaks, Bosnian Catholics became Croatians and Bosnian Orthodox became Serbs. This policy had two effects. Firstly, it gave the Muslim population a separate ethnicity, giving them the right to be independent from Serbia and Croatia. Secondly, only the Muslim population preserved the “Bosnian” word in its name, connecting Bosnia to Islam.
Bosnian Muslim nationalism developed further during the war and was reinforced after it. As an internally divided state, surrounded by two other countries claiming their control over it and operating ethnic cleansing, it was not difficult for Bosnians to develop a myth of the their nation as a victim. Muslim Bosnians compared themselves to the Jews at the time of Nazism and have built their new ethnic identity on some bloody events like the Srebrenica massacre. The new Bosnian Muslim policy is to live together with Catholic and Orthodox Bosnians in a federation but, at the same time, to never forget the deaths that occurred. However, this idea of remembrance should not be seen in a positive way, as it is related to the idea that the non-Muslim Bosnians are evil and ready to kill again. The reconstruction also helped build a stronger Islamic identity. While religion was not so important in pre-war Bosnia, the funds given to rebuild the country came from Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia. Help was given to observant religious Muslims first, and Saudi Arabia was the country who offered to reconstruct Mosques and Islamic schools. Many young Imams were invited to study theology in Saudi Arabia with the consequence that Salafi Islam was introduced in Bosnia and started taking the place of Hanafi one. Islam, which was not greatly considered by the Bosnians before the war, became an important identity mark after it.
Another country that became independent in 1991 also found itself needing to build a new national identity. Slovenia was never independent before the fall of Yugoslavia. It passed from being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to be a part of the Reign of Yugoslavia, to be occupied by the Italian fascist army to be a part of the Yugoslavian Federation. The Slovenian policy was to create a brand new Slovene identity based on a European concept. Since the very beginning, entering the European Union became the main objective for the Slovenian nation. However, Slovenia is a small, mostly unknown state, which belonged to the Yugoslavian Federation, and it was determined to create a new image of itself as completely detached from the war that was happening in the Western Balkans. The Slovenian political elite revived the memory of Slovenia as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a rich state that is perceived as innovative and rich in culture. Slovenia then claimed its place among the Western European Countries and its difference from the bloody and wild Balkans. A new image of the people from the Balkans entered in the popular Slovene idea. The people from the other former Yugoslavian countries were, and still are, described as impulsive, unable to reason, easy tempered and instinctive. Slovenians, on the other hand, were celebrated as highly cultured and educated. The pinnacle of this denigration of other former Yugoslavians was the Alien Act law, that, in 1992, caused the loss of Slovenian citizenship for many migrants from the Western Balkans.
The former Yugoslavian situation allows us to study how nationalism can create brand new myths and can convince a nation that these myths always existed. Nowadays, we can observe how the new generations in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia are learning their countries’ history as it was presented by the politicians right after the dissolution of the Yugoslavian Federation, and as if such wartime myths always existed. Moreover, many adults absorbed the new myths and are unable to be critical towards them. In twenty-five years, the political choices made by the States turned from being tools to be accepted realities. This gives us a warning on the effects that nationalistic ideas and policies could have in the post-crisis future. We have to ask if we should allow ourselves to be fooled by fake history merely to feel more safe in short periods of crisis.
Martina Zuliani is a PhD student of Ethnic and Migration Studies in the Department of Cultural Studies of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Her main research is related to multiple discrimination towards the Roma of Western Balkan origins in Italy and Slovenia. She made various small researches on nationalism in Slovenia and the Western Balkans in the context of her main PhD research. She participates in other ongoing projects regarding the Romani Holocaust in Italy, Slovenia and Croatia and the study of an intercultural approach to safety regulations, and is preparing a project on the reduction of Islamophobia in Europe.