Book Review: Imagining the Balkans, by Maria Todorova

In Vienna we ignore, at our peril, lessons taught by Maria Todorova’s classic history of ideas

TVR Books | Samuel Goff | November 2011

What’s in a Name?

The recent funeral of Otto Habsburg surprised many with the intensity of public feeling for the monarchy, for ancient bonds reawakened. And with this, the long-quiet notions of ‘the Balkans’, as both a region and an idea, gained currency again, reminding us that it was not so long ago that Sarajevo and Vienna were of the same Imperial parish and that concepts of ‘geopolitics’ come and go.

The fall of the Soviet Union was a shock, changing how historians, and the average citizen, would henceforth regard Eastern Europe. Without the convenient notion of a monolithic Soviet bloc, societies now became specific: We had Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian histories again.

The downside was the reintroduction of many unsavoury narratives from the region’s pre-Communist past. Old clichés took over from those shown to be flawed.

With the fall of Yugoslavia, ‘the Balkans’ came to mean a region fraught with violence, entrenched ethnic and religious divides, and the ‘balkanisation’ of civilisation into bitter particles of hatred. Fortunately, the return of this regional history, only reinforcing unpleasant stereotypes, provoked several intelligent critiques among the best of which was Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans, first published in 1997.

Todorova’s book, still the most thoughtful account of how ‘Balkan’ became a pejorative term, is deeply erudite and painstakingly researched, which only adds to the visceral thrill of her spirited ripostes to the intellectual posturing that has dominated popular debate. In response to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen’s assertion that "the notion of killing people… because of something that may have happened in 1495 is unthinkable in the Western world [but not] in the Balkans," Todorova refers without hesitation to the Holocaust, dragging Europe’s recent memory to the fore in order forcefully to make her point.

"Quite right. In the Balkans they were killing over something that happened 500 years ago," she wrote. "In Europe, with a longer span of civilized memory, they were killing over something that happened 2,000 years ago. One is tempted to ask whether the Holocaust resulted from a ‘due’ or ‘undue’ predominance of barbarity."

Todorova sifts through academic, journalistic, diplomatic, and fictional accounts of the Balkans in at least twelve languages, stretching back to the fifteenth century, saturating her themes with evidence. Her great strength is that she is equally conscientious with her targets and her own barbs. Even with someone like the early 20th-century author Mary Edith Durham, whose contempt for the region is legendary. (She returned the order of St. Sava to King Peter of Yugoslavia, explaining that he was "guilty of the greatest crime in history." About whichTodorova notes, "[she was]confident that she would be taken as seriously as she took herself.") Todorova remains even handed: Durham’s accounts are ‘important’, ‘modern’, and have a ‘richly deserved place in Balkan historiography’.

This care that may better serve her as critic than historian. At times she seems overly cautious – for instance, in explaining the intriguing links in the region between religion and corruption – or too diligent, assessing every situation from all angles lest she fall foul of the lack of historical empiricism she so deplores in others.

This is a brief book in the best sense of the word, argued perceptively and with great care.  Todorova draws important distinctions between Edward Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’ and the subject of her own work, which she labels ‘Balkanism’. Said’s 1978 text explored the ways in which the West defines itself in opposition to a discursively constructed image of the Middle East and East Asia, as ahistorical, exotic, despotic; Said’s work has proved hugely influential as well as controversial.

Todorova acknowledges her debt to Said, yet draws distinctions: Unlike the vaguely considered ‘Orient’ of Said’s analysis, the Balkans have a concrete historical existence; unlike the idealized Orient of Hugo and Flaubert, for instance, the Balkans have never stood in the Western imagination for luxury or exoticism; and, most importantly, the Balkans exist within the West, not beyond it. Eastern Europe is inextricably part of Europe, yet still viewed as ‘other’. In Todorova’s words, Balkanism involves ‘imputed ambiguity’, not ‘imputed opposition’.

Throughout, Todorova is careful to produce a kaleidoscopic view, drawing on British, French, German, Habsburg, Turkish and Russian views on the nations from Romania to Greece. Her chapters on the discovery, perceptions and classification of the Balkans provide a powerful rejoinder to contemporary ideas of timeless bloodlust. This is done by tracing the evolution of its reputation as a nest of disorder, from the idealisation of the Balkans as a European Volksmuseum that prevailed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to the lingering bitterness in the West as the wellspring of the First World War. Hence, we are exposed to unsettling rhetorical lurches: From the 17th century, we read the delighted reports of happily condescending Habsburg diplomats on Bulgarian peasants "no less content in their poverty than our women were in their wealth"; by the 20th century, Mary Edith Durham can opine quite indifferently that, "as for the Balkan Slav and his haunted Christianity, it seemed to me all civilization should rise and restrain him form further brutality."

As much as the spectre of the Balkans has haunted Europe throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it has haunted Vienna for much longer.  A fear of contamination has pertained since long before wily Metternich remarked dryly that "the Balkans begin at the Rennweg". Indeed, historian Robert Kaplan, in his 1992 Balkan Ghosts, wrong-headedly maintains that South-Eastern Europe’s corrupting influence found traction in Vienna, helping to produce Western Europe’s greatest horror: "Nazism … can claim Balkan origins. Among the flophouses of Vienna, a breeding ground of ethnic resentments close to the southern Slavic world, Hitler learned to hate so infectiously." However flawed, Kaplan’s view is telling.

Todorova acknowledges that the presence of the Balkans, in a vivid historical sense, remains vividly felt in Austria to a degree that the other Great Powers, responsible for carving up the region in the 19th century, cannot comprehend. London, after all, was certainly never under Ottoman siege. With Imagining the Balkans seen now in light of recent history, asking if the choice is between learning to hate and learning to understand, then we should hope for many sequels to Todorova’s work, and for audiences open to their admonishments. Here, perhaps, more than elsewhere.


Imagining The Balkans (Updated Edition)

by Maria Todorova

Oxford University Press (2009)

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