How can one nation's view of history - including views of their own national history - raise so much indignation and even add insult to injury to (an)other nation(s), and lead to constant arguments over a variety issues relating to history, culture, etc.?
This is such a peculiar problem that particularly polarises the people of the former Yugoslavia, where I come from.
Many Serbs where I come from are resentful of Croatian national pride and symbols thereof; on the other hand, Croats are pissed off by national symbols of Serbdom and pride therein; whereas Bosniaks in the middle of the two are offended by both Serbian and Croatian national symbols and national pride in both of which alike!
As you can see, each former Yugoslavian ethnic group dispises the patriotism/nationalism of the other ethnic groups, often detesting one brand of patriotism/nationalism more than the others. But there is also an even bigger debate that has risen to such fever pitch under the dark shadow of the recent wars during the 1990s, that produces dispute after dispute, quarrel after quarrel, curse after curse, and even punch after punch, regarding all and sundry that has ever befalling the Balkan peoples in both ancient times and the recent past.
And what's fascinating about all this bickering and bashing is how national historians, common people and even elected politicians interpret former Yugoslavian history to befit their own political and social agenda, and more personally, they interpret their nation's/nations' entire history/ies from the arrival of the Slavs on the Balkans onwards through their own personal experiences from relatively recent times!
The Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians and other Balkan nations are very proud people, and each look back at their nation's history as a source of their national identity. And each nation's history tells a story of their nation's many military, artistic, architectural and scientific achievements, including the celebrated individuals from their nation that made such successes possible, which without a doubt makes them proud to be who they are. On the other hand, these histories also recount their nations' plight, suffering and victimhood, wrought upon them by imperial nations like the Ottoman Turks from Asia Minor and/or the Austro-Hungarians from Central Europe, or by neighbouring Balkan nations that live near to theirs.
On national TV stations, the state broadcasting companies of these modern-day Balkan states produce detailed programs that chronicle their nations' past, relating important events that had an eternal impact on their people, and exhalting their people's proud sons and daughters, who are celebrated for their great personal achievements, and have become paragons of virtue that these people look up to and feel proud to belong to the same nation which those icons were born into.
On the Internet, however, there is more of a chance for people from these nations to share their views and opinions with each other, but not necessarily agree with each other. On message boards, online encyclopedias like Wikipedia and even video-sharing sites like YouTube, Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians and other Balkan adults and teenagers argue fiercely about history, both ancient and recent. They recall what they endured during the recent wars of the 90s, and they describe what their grandparents and great-grandparents lived through during the Second World War in the 40s. And while people from each Balkan ethnic group believe in what they've heard and therefore uphold as true, people from the other sides will probably think that they're telling lies, exaggerations, that they're brainwashed by NATO/the West or by Milošević, or God know by what.
I should know; at many places on the internet, I've seen so many nasty comments from members of these nations, many of which expressed the individual's hope to f*ck as many mothers from the other side(s) as they could! These were and are some of the most vile examples of Racism and hate speech you will ever find on the net, so full of venom and spite, there's enough of it to make you feel sick.
Why does claiming to be a victim insult different people?
So, let's consider Ottoman times, and how Serbs and Bosniaks view this period in different ways.
Most Serbs have learnt from their parents and grandparents that Turkish rule was very oppressive, and that the Turks did a lot to destroy Serbian identity, which is fundamentally the Serbs' Orthodox Christian faith, and also the Serbian people themselves. Such destruction includes taking their baby boys to become soldiers for the Ottoman Army (Jannisaries or Janjičari), raping their women if they couldn't pay the Kharaj or Harač tax, conversion by Orthodox Serbs to Islam, and the burning of the holy remains of Serbian Saint Sava by the Albanian Sinan Pasha at Vračar in Belgrade.
On the other hand, many Muslim Bosniaks see things from a completely different angle to the Serbs. For them, Ottoman rule was a time of honest rule by the Turks, cultural advancement of the region, and most importantly, of tolerance towards different religious communities and peace. As far as they are concerned, the Turks were very fair towards the local Christians and Jews, offering them a right to practice their faith without intrusion, and fostering inter-faith cohesion between all people in Bosnia.
So how do these contradicting views concerning the distant past relate to the recent wars? And why does the Bosniak view of history offend Serbs, and vice-versa?
Serbs are offended by the Bosniaks' insistence that Ottoman rule was an idyllic society and that it represented a serene period of history, because that is not the story that their parents and grandparents heard from their parents and grandparents who lived during the 19th century when the Turks still ruled a large part of the Balkans.
While Bosniaks are offended by the Serbs' insistence that, during Ottoman rule, the Turks persecuted them, raped their women and stole their children from them, because they were victims of ethnic cleaning (including rape) perpetrated very recently by Bosnian-Serb forces under Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić in Pale.
(It must also be added that, just before the war in Bosnia, Bosnian-Serb media used the Serbs' collective memory of Ottoman times to encourage hate and vengeance amongst them against their Muslim neighbours, with whom they had been living in relative harmony for over forty years since the end of the Second World War.)
And so it seems that, based on the above examples, both Serbs and Bosniaks are offended by each other's sense of victimhood, whether it was experienced hundreds of years ago or just a decade ago. When one nation recounts its own accounts of victimisation by others, another nation counters those same anecdotes from that nation by accusing that nation of victimising their nation!
This is the exact same phenomenon we can see between Croats and Croatian Serbs regarding the Second World War and the recent war in Croatia.
Elderly Serb survivors from that apocalyptic period of history still remember their horrific experiences wrought upon by the Ustaše under the fascist leader Ante Pavelić. While their children and grandchildren practically inherit their parents' and grandparents' sense of victimisation as was recounted to them, and relate it to what they personally experienced from 1990 to 1995.
Croats, however, are not keen to be reminded by Serbs of the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp and other atrocities committed by the fascist Ustaše in the 1940s, or other atrocities committed by Croats upon Serbs in any other period of history, as many of them were themselves victimised by Krajina-Serb forces under Milan Martić and Milan Babić in Knin not very long ago in the 1990s.
(Like in Bosnia, the Krajina-Serb media in Croatia reminded Serbs of the genocide perpetrated against them during the Second World War. And because of that, the Croatian media has often blamed the Krajina-Serb authorities of stirring up hatred in Serbs towards Croats, and that that led to war crimes being committed against their people.)
So once again, we see Serbs affirming their own sense of victimhood that they've inherited from their anticedents who in some way experienced persecution by Ottoman Turks hundreds of years ago, or genocide by Ustaše Croats more than half a century ago; while Croats and Bosniaks respond to such claims with their own experiences of suffering caused by Serbs in much more recent times.
However, in such arguments revolving around any of these nations' suffering caused by another, you'll constantly hear or read claim after counter-claim, along with denials, minimisations and justifications. And sometimes you'll hear racist cursing being thrown around, which often includes f*cking the mothers of the enemy nation(s) and over-riding statements of how evil the other nation(s) generally is/are. But most of all, the deep, underlying feeling that all these people feel inside and express in such uncomfortably vile ways is a feeling of pain caused by humiliation, whether personally experienced or inherited from relatives, brought upon them by others because of who they are. That same pain has a corresponding desire for justice, which can often include revenge, for their lost loved ones, and in turn, for their entire people.
Interpretations, interpretations, and more interpretations!
When investigating the appalling suffering that these former Yugoslavian nations experienced caused by formerly fellow Yugoslavs during the 90s, we are usually dealing with first-hand accounts that, thanks to the World Wide Web, one can easily find them on many websites on the Internet and read them at length and perhaps see a few featured pictures and films of these terrible events. One can do the same with when researching the two World Wars and two Balkan Wars in the first half of the last century.
But what about more distant periods of history, like the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and even the Ottoman period? How are these periods viewed by ordinary people, and how are these views affected by what they are taught in schools, universities, and by TV programs?
What's interesting is how ordinary people, many of whom were victims and survivors of the turmoil of the recent conflicts, and thanks to the rise of Nationalism and the break up of Yugoslavia that came about thanks to that rise, have reinvented their identity, specifically their national identity in response to the new political circumstances around them, but also due to their own personal experiences during those conflicts. And part of that reinvention was also a re-education with regards to their people's culture, religion and history. And through this re-education, many Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks have discovered - or perhaps re-discovered - aspects of their cultures and religions they didn't learn about during their shool days under Marshall Tito. And most importantly, these people have also found out about many events in their peoples' ancient and recent history, stories of their peoples' great men and women and their achievements, and even information regarding their peoples' ethnic origins, that they may not have heard of likewise during Tito's time.
You'll find on the Internet numerous Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak websites dealing with their people's Dark Age and Middle Age history. And like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you'll find numerous articles on Wikipedia dealing with Yugoslavian, Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak history, culture, language and famous people. Along with each of these pages you will find the "discussion" tab on the top, and if you press that tab over articles dealing with the most hotly disputed issues affecting people from the former Yugoslavia (like the recent wars, the two World Wars and even the language of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks), you will be directed to long, drawn-out pages revealing tiresome, lengthy and annoying discussions and arguments regarding a hundred thousand and one details relating to this and that, this and that person and this and that event from one side and another! I usually avoid touching that tab over such articles.
On Wikipedia and elsewhere on the web, Serbs and Croats in particular talk about the origins of their ethnonym (their people's national name); Croats have long maintained that their name is of Iranian origin, while Serbs likewise insist that their name originates in Asia. They also celebrate the arrival of their ancestors' ancient Slavic tribe that came to the Balkans from somewhere further north and/or further east in Europe. While Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks alike celebrate their peoples' medieval kingdoms, and each go to great lengths in explaining which regions of the former Yugoslavia was populated by their people, in order to justify their people's right to claim those regions as their own.
I've been to many of those websites in my teens (admittedly, I didn't have much of a social life back then! :-( ), and found many of them to be either particularly informative or annoyingly full of propaganda, or amazingly both informative and full of propaganda! Personally speaking, my teens was a time when I was developing my own Serbian identity, and even with me this included discovering events - or details of events - in my people's history that my parents may not have been aware of, and various aspects of Serbian culture from different regions within the former Yugoslavia and without.
But now that I've grown up and become more critical of blind patriotism, and at the same time developed a firm opposition to all forms of extreme nationalism in the Balkans and elsewhere, I wonder how can people be so sure about periods of history that they've learnt about from God knows where, that not even their own grandparents and great-grandparents were aware of?
I also realise that much of the history promoted on these websites are based on the literature of various national historians, i.e. interpretations of history by learned people, academics. But only God knows if those same wise guys produced those lengty opi with honest intentions, or did so with some kind of agenda in mind.
Regarding Bosnia, Serbian historians are inclined to claim that Bosnia is historically Serbian land; Croatian historians firmly assert that Bosnia is historically Croatian land; while Bosniak historians in the middle understandably deny that Bosnia was either Serbian or Croatian land! God only knows who's telling the truth!
This will sound bold of me, but I think that what a lot of ordinary people do as far as more distant periods of history are concerned, in which their own much distant ancestors lived in, is practically guess history: based on certain historic themes they learnt from their own parents, grandparents and from textbooks at school, they fill in the huge blanks with their own imagination. This leads them to assume what daily life was like for their ancestors with a keen eye on the struggles they faced.
It's understandable that people do this, because they themselves didn't actually live in those times, so all they have are stories passed down to them through countless generations, and their minds' own imagination to complete the picture.
Nevertheless, we also have television and TV companies, that can produce blockbuster movies starring iconic actors, dressed in the fashion of a particular era being examined, set in surroundings relevant to the story being put on show; taylor-made and staged for a national audience, such films are released with the obvious purpose to commemorate either a single great event, or a number of which, of great national importance. And depending on who the producers of such a production are, what their stated or unstated aims are, who is cast to play the major roles in the story, and most of all, how the historical event in question fundamentally relates to their target audience, film classics that stir a nation and hit movies that reach into their colletive psyche are made; an affirmation of a nation's beliefs of who they are as a people conveyed through film.
However, professional historians in the world's most respected institutions need to do much better than that! They have a duty and obligation to access and examine the primary sources from whichever century they are interested in, and base their knowledge of those periods of history on precisely such tangible evidence from those times, whether ancient or recent.
But most ordinary people are not professional historians! Instead, many of them are actual witnesses to terrible events that occurred in their part of the world. And like I mentioned above, it's these interpretations of their people's history that form part of the foundations of their modern-day post-war national identities, which affirm who they are and offer them comfort and a sense of strength.
"You are NOT who you think you are! Hahahahahaaa!!!"
One very peculiar habbit amongst Balkan historians and Balkan lay people alike (mentioned above under first subtitle), as far as the histories of these ethnic groups and others in relation to them are concerned, is the denial of the other group's or groups' identity/ies, questioning the basis of their identity/ies: "You are not who you think you are!"
Croatian historians have often propagated the opinion that Bosnian and Croatian Serbs are not really Serbs but descendants of Vlachs or Vlasi, which is a term that in the Balkans often refers to Romanian-speaking shepherds. This alternative origin for Serbs from Bosnia and Croatia is also shared by many Bosniaks, historians and lay people alike. Nevertheless, Serbs respond to this by claiming that all Croats are actually descended from Orthodox Serbs who converted to Catholicism, and thus became Croats!
Bosniaks - again in the middle! - are claimed by both Serbian and Cratian historians as descended from Orthodox Serbs or Catholic Croats respectively. Of course, Bosniak historians counter these claims with their own claims that the medieval ancestors of modern Bosniaks, including Bosnian Serbs and Croats, actually called themselves Bošnjani, and by faith were Bogumils, members of a Christian sect that was labelled as heretic by the Catholic church in Rome!
However, what is funny is how Serbs and Croats claim that Bosniaks are really one of them, that they are actually members of their people, and yet they do not treat them in any way as brothers or 'co-ethnics'. Instead, the attitude is: "You are one of us, but we hate you anyway!" And why do they hate them anyway? Because they view Muslim Bosniaks as the descendents of Serb Orthodox or Catholic Croat traitors who converted to Islam during Ottoman times!
But since it has often been postulated by Croats that Croatian and Bosnian Serbs are a actually mixture of "Vlachs and Gypsies", and due to the prejudices that a lot of people still hold about people like the Roma of Europe, the attitude behind such an alternative origin for Croatian and Bosnian Serbs is: "Your identity is false; you are actually one of them, which makes you a low breed of people!"
And yet how can historians and lay people alike on either side lay such over-riding, all-encompassaing claims with absolute certainty that all - or even the majority - of the ancestors of modern-day nations definitely identified themselves one way or the other?
Our ancestry is made up of a variety of different people from whom we came; our ancestors themselves lived very different lives to our own. And yet it's thanks to them that we are here wherever we are! However, if we could speak to our more distant ancestors about a number of issues that affected them then and affects us now, we will very likely by shocked and surprised by what they would say!
Nevertheless, such attitudes mentioned above are part and parcel of a debate regarding people's national identities. And since these wars have brought so much hatred between these people, many people in the Balkans like to believe that they are "100%" something, be it "100% Serbian" or "100% Croatian", et al., and don't want to be anything else!
This is the nationalistic view of "ethnic purity", that one person's national identity in which they've been raised is their only identity, and any suggestion that they may be little bit something else - or that they're not at all what they think they are - is considered a personal and national insult! This is very similar to notions of "racial purity" noticed in other parts of the world.
And yet so many people from the former Yugoslavia were born into mixed marriages. I personally have so many cousins, 1st cousins, 2nd cousins, and 1st once removed, whose ancestries are made up of people from many different ethnic groups. There are so many of them on both my father's and mother's side, that there are more than I can count with ten fingers!
Ultimately, the whole idea of "ethnic purity", that many nationalists believe in and uphold, becomes evidently ridiculous when analysing recent results obtained in human genetic research! Better still, such nationalists should examine their own family histories and review their personal genealogies!
Insistence that only one's view is correct, and others are therefore not
As I explained above, people from all the warring sides in Bosnia, Croatia and from other conflicts around the Balkans relate distant times of history to their own time, in whatever way relevant and appropriate to the foundations of their modern-day identities. And since people from all ethnic groups from the Balkans in equal measure feel so strongly for their people, their homelands, and their people's suffering in the past, it's no wonder that each ethnic group holds to their nation's view of history as being the only true one, and are thus suspiscious of other ethnic groups' interpretations of history and beliefs thereof.
Nevertheless, I do ask myself, "Surely these people can realise that history, specifically the actual daily reality as experienced by their ancestors, is in no way near as mono-faceted as is propagated by national historians at various universties, or more worryingly, by the national media of those countries?"
It is my opinion that it is precisely this kind of attitude amongst people, historians and politicians alike, that only one's own nation's view of history is correct, and thus other views held by other nations is flat-out wrong, that actually leads to 'historic revisionism' with regards to various events in history, and in turn outright denial of war crimes and other episodes of suffering endured by other nations in the recent or distant past.
For instance, if we look at how Serbs and Croats deal with each others' claims of victimhood, we would see how people from both nations speak of themselves as victims by people from the other nation, while questioning the authenticity of the other nation's allegations of suffering perpetrated by them, all the while resentful of the other side's insistent claims of victimhood!
Serbs mourn the loss of their loved ones, both civilian and military, in the recent war in Croatia in the 90s, and also lament the loss of their hometowns, villages, properties and communities. They believe that the Croatian government of Franjo Tuđman wanted to throw their people out of their country and succeeded in doing so with 'Operation Oluja' at the end of the war, accusing them of a number of war cimes during the war as well. However, they are rather annoyed by the Croatian media's constantly repeated stories of war crimes committed by members of their people on theirs, and believe that more should be mentioned about war crimes committed by Croats on Serbs in order to show that both sides committed war crimes against each other.
Croats likewise mourn and commemorate their fallen soldiers and lost loved ones during the same war, which they call the 'Homeland war' or Domovinski rat. For them, the Krajina Serbs were led by Hague convicts Milan Martić and Milan Babić, who led them into a war against the newly independent Croatian state and the Croatian people, committing horrendous crimes against them. They are quite inclined to doubt anything the Serbs claim their people did to them during the recent war, and this doubt can be applied to the Second World War, which includes minimising the numbers and gravity of the atrocities committed by the Ustaše upon Serbs throughout Croatia and Bosnia and the genocide committed at the Jasenovac concentration camp in the 'Independent State of Croatia' or Nezavisna Država Hrvatska (NDH).
Unfortunately, such views of history, whether recent or ancient, and particularly the attitudes towards which, influence the political opinions of entire populations and affect inter-ethnic relations, casting an enormous shadow over everyone and everything. But more frighteningly, they can guide extreme nationalist politicians, who, if they get elected into government by the public in their country/ies, can form official state policies, in the name of their people(s) and state(s), to achieve certain political objectives in today's world!
Of course, most politicians in the governments of former Yugoslav republics today are not that extreme any more, and are fortunately much more inclined to be critical in their thinking. But that extreme scenario is exactly what happened in at least three republics of the Former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and such opinions can still influence political discourse from time-to-time even today!
And so, I end this long, drawn-out article with something that offends me: as far as I'm concerned, that we the people of the former Yugoslavia no longer have a country that can represent all of us like Yugoslavia could, is by far the BIGGEST insult of all!
Sunday, 25 October 2009
How can one nation's view of history - including views of their own national history - raise so much indignation and even add insult to injury to (an)other nation(s), and lead to constant arguments over a variety issues relating to history, culture, etc.?