Friday, 28 July 2017

The Balkans: Natural Born Historians

The obsession with history is so commonplace on the Balkans that local people do not even notice it. For outsiders, however, it quickly becomes a part of the experience of being precisely in the Balkans and nowhere else. Raymond Detrez, a Belgian scholar of Bulgarian and Balkan Studies, describes this sometimes entertaining and other times annoying, and even dangerous, social phenomenon. *

Inexperienced travellers to the Balkans are often stunned by the broad historical knowledge demonstrated by random local people. Favoured themes are usually the origins of one’s own nation and people, their territorial scattering basically across the breadth and length of the peninsula, the lost battles and the injustices inflicted upon them by the great powers.

Of all these circumstances and events from centuries ago, the Balkans’ inhabitants talk with a familiarity and engagement that give their listener the impression that they may have personally participated in some of the military campaigns.

In the Balkans, people seem to be BORN historians. Whether Bulgarian or Greek, Serb or Albanian, simply by virtue of their biological origin, they consider themselves experts regarding the Bulgarian, or respectively – the Greek, Serb or Albanian, past. People from the Balkans also excel at historical critique: the opponents’ “non-academic” assertions get wittily rebutted.

These critical abilities, unfortunately, evaporate as soon as they begin to argue their own point of view. In that case, mythological tales and emotional arguments “incomprehensible” to an outsider attain the gravity of irrefutable assertions.

It is difficult to untangle history from mythology in the Balkans, especially because of the way in which historical events are “believed” in. Historical myths – as defined in this book, are not by definition inexact or fantastical ideas about the past. They are ideas that could even turn out to be scientifically plausible.

The problem is that their plausibility is actually inconsequential. People consider these ideas to be “true” not because they are plausible, but because they believe in them; thus, their authenticity is raised above all doubt. Faith in them could be shaken by scientific arguments with as much difficulty as faith in a deity. These ideas about the past make a “national religion.”

Like other religions, “national religions” too come paired with religious communities. Also – and mainly – because of their faith in the national myths, people from the Balkans become a part of a community and a national community one at that.

Those who display scepticism or a lack of trust towards the historical myths of their nation, even if they have reasonable and scientific grounds for doing so, are considered, in the best case – a curiosity, and in the worst – national traitors who risk being excluded from the community. It is, after all, precisely the “other” who DOES NOT believe in “national” myths, because he believes in his own myths that make him a part of another, perhaps rival, national community.

These myths are not simply some historical tales. In most cases, they serve a clear political function. As I asserted, they act primarily as a means for a national identification and differentiation and the creation of a feeling of belonging to a community – this explains their powerful mobilising impact.

In addition, they also provide “historical” arguments for certain territorial claims. A myth that “proves” that one’s own people has lived for centuries in a particular place, before the arrival of another people, and lives there still – for example, receives the value of a holding deed. There exists a tight connection between a nation’s historical myths and its material, very often territorial aspirations – in that sense, NO historical myths exist that contradict the community’s material or territorial aspirations.

Read more about Balkans' history obsession.

*The text if part of the preface to Raymond Detrez’s book Kosovo: The Postponed Independence published in Bulgarian in 2008 by Kralitsa Mab Publishing House.

You can purchase the book online in Bulgarian from Slovoto bookstore.

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