Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
Herzl's Butlers
Solving the problems of minorities

Dr Sam Vaknin

James Cook, the 18th-century explorer, misled the British government back home by neglecting to report about the aborigines he spotted on the beaches of "New Holland ." This convenient omission allowed him to claim the territory for the crown. In the subsequent waves of colonization, the aborigines perished. Modern Australia stands awash in their blood, constructed on their graves, thriving on their confiscated lands. The belated efforts to redress these wrongs meet with hostility and the atavistic fears of the dispossessor.

In Altneuland (translated into Hebrew as "Tel Aviv"), the feverish tome composed by Theodore Herzl, Judaism's improbable visionary, the author refers to the Arabs as pliant and compliant butlers, replete with gloves and tarbushes. In the book, a German Jewish family prophetically lands at Jaffa, the only port in erstwhile Palestine. They are welcomed and escorted by Briticized Arab "gentlemen's gentlemen" who are only too happy to assist their future masters and colonizers to disembark.

In between these extremes - of annihilation and assimilation - modern Europe has come up with a plethora of models and solutions to the question of the minorities which plagued it and still do. Two schools of thought emerged: the nationalistic-ethnic versus the cultural.

Europe has always been torn between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Multi-ethnic empires alternated with swarms of mini-states with dizzying speed. European Unionism clashed with brown-turning-black nationalism and irredentism. Universalistic philosophies such as socialism fought racism tooth and nail. European history became a blood-dripping pendulum, swung by the twin yet conflicting energies of separation and integration. The present is no different. The dream of the European Union confronted the nightmare of a dismembered Yugoslavia throughout the last decade. Ethnic tensions are seething all across the continent: Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia, Bulgarians in Moldova, Albanians in Macedonia, Russians in the Baltic countries, and even Padans in Italy. The list is long.

The cultural school of co-existence envisaged multi-ethnic states with shared philosophies and value systems which do not infringe upon the maintenance and preservation of the ethnic identities of their components. The first socialists adopted this model enthusiastically. They foresaw a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural socialist mega-state. The socialist values, they believed, would serve as the glue binding together the most disparate of ethnic elements. In the event, it took a lot more than common convictions. It took suppression on an unprecedented scale and it took concentration camps and the morbid application of the arts and sciences of death. Even then, both the Nazi Reich and the Stalinist USSR fell to ethnic pieces.

The national(istic) school supports the formation of ethnically homogenous states, if necessary by humane and gradual (or inhuman and abrupt) ethnic cleansing . Homogeneity is empirically linked to stability and, therefore, to peace, economic prosperity and oftentimes to democracy. Heterogeneity breeds friction, hatred, violence, instability, poverty and authoritarianism. The conclusion is simple: ethnicities cannot co-exist. Ethnic groups (aka nations) must be left to their own devices. Put differently: they must be allocated a piece of land and allowed to lead their lives as they see fit. The land thus allocated should correspond, as closely as possible, with the birthplace of the nation, the scenery of its past and the cradle of its culture.

The nationalist school depended on denial and repression of the existence of heterogeneity and of national minorities. This was done by:

(1) Ethnic Cleansing

Greece and Turkey exchanged population after the First World War. Czechoslovakia expelled the Sudeten Germans after the Second World War and the Nazis rendered large parts of Europe Judenrein. Bulgarians forced Turks to flee. The Yugoslav succession wars were not wars in the sense defined by 19th-century military writer Karl von Clausewitz. Rather, they were protracted guerrilla operations intended to ethnically purge swathes of the "motherland."

(2) Ethnic Denial

In 1984, the Bulgarian communist regime forced the indigenous Turkish population to "Bulgarize" their names. The Slav minorities in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were forced to "Magyarize" following the 1867 Compromise. Franco's Spain repressed demands for regional autonomy. Other, more democratic states, fostered a sense of national unity by mass media and school indoctrination. Every facet of life was subjected to and incorporated in this relentless and unforgiving pursuit of national identity: sports, chess, national holidays, heroes, humour. The particularisms of each group gained meaning and legitimacy only through, and by, their incorporation into the bigger picture of the nation. Thus, Greece denies to this very day that there are Turks or Macedonians on its soil. It insists (often brutally and in violation of human and civil rights) that there are only Muslim Greeks. The separate identities of Brittany and Provence were submerged within the French collective one and so was the identity of the Confederate South in the current USA. Some call it "cultural genocide."

The nationalist experiment failed miserably. It was pulverized by a million bombs, slaughtered in battlefields and concentration camps, and set ablaze by fanatics and sadists. The pendulum swung. In 1996, Hungarians were included in the Romanian government and in 1998 they made it to the Slovakian one. In Macedonia, Albanian parties took part in all governments since independence. The cultural school, on the ascendance, was able to offer three variants:

(1) Local Autonomy

Ethnic minorities are allowed to use their respective languages in certain municipalities where they constitute more than a given percentage (usually twenty) of the total population. Official documents, street signs, traffic tickets and education are all translated into the minority language, as well as being written in that of the majority. This rather meaningless placebo has a surprisingly tranquillizing effect on restless youth and nationalistic zealots. In 1997, police fought local residents in a few Albanian municipalities precisely on this issue.

(2) Territorial Autonomy

Ethnic minorities often constitute a majority in a given region. Some "host" countries allow them to manage funds, collect taxes and engage in limited self-governance. This is the regional or territorial autonomy that Israel offered to the Palestinians (too late) and that Kosovo and Vojvodina enjoyed under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution (which Milosevic shredded to very small pieces). This solution was sometimes adopted by the nationalist competition itself. The Nazis dreamt up at least two such territorial "final solutions" for the Jews (one in Madagascar and one in Poland). Stalin gave the Jews a decrepit wasteland, Birobidjan, to be their "homeland." And, of course, there were the South African "homelands."

(3) Personal Autonomy

Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, the leading lights of Austria's interwar Social Democratic movement, advanced the idea of the individual as the source of political authority - regardless of his or her domicile. Between the two world wars, Estonia gave personal autonomy to its Jews and Russians. Wherever they were they were entitled to vote and elect representatives to bodies of self-government. These had symbolic taxation powers but exerted more tangible authority over matters educational and cultural. This idea, however benign sounding, encountered grave opposition from right and left alike. The right wing, "exclusive", nationalists rejected it because they regarded minorities the way a sick person regards his germs. And the left wing, "inclusive", nationalists saw in it the seeds of discrimination, an anathema.

How and why did we find ourselves embroiled in such a mess?

It is all the result of the wrong terminology, an example of the power of words. The Jews (and Germans) came up with the "objective," "genetic," "racial" and "organic" nation. Membership was determined by external factors over which the member-individual had no control. The French "civil" model - an 18th-century innovation - regarded the nation and the state as voluntary collectives, bound by codes and values which are subject to social contracts. Benedict Anderson called the latter "imagined communities."

Naturally, it was a Frenchman (Ernest Renan) who wrote: "Nations are not eternal. They had a beginning and they will have an end. And they will probably be replaced by a European confederation ."

He was referring to the fact that nation-states were nothing but (at the time) a century-old invention of dubious philosophical pedigree. The modern state was indeed invented by intellectuals (historians and philologists) and then solidified by ethnic cleansing and the horrors of warfare. Jacob Grimm, the linguist and famed fairy-tale writer, virtually created the chimeral Serbo-Croat "language." The French historian Claude Fauriel dreamt up the reincarnation of ancient Greece in its eponymous successor. The French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss remarked angrily that "it is almost comical to see little-known, poorly investigated items of folklore invoked at the Peace Conference as proof that the territory of this or that nation should extend over a particular area because a certain shape of dwelling or bizarre custom is still in evidence ." Archaeology, anthropology, philology, history and a host of other sciences and arts were invoked in an effort to substantiate a land claim. And no land claim was subjected to a statute of limitations, no subsequent conquest or invasion or settlement legitimized. Witness the "Dacian wars" between Hungary and Romania over Transylvania (are the Romanians latter day Dacians or did they invade Transylvania long after it was populated by the Hungarians?). Witness the Israelis and the Palestinians. And, needless to add, witness the Serbs and the Albanians, the Greeks and the Macedonians and the Macedonians and the Bulgarians.

Thus, the modern nation-state was a reflection of something more primordial, of human nature itself as it resonated in the national founding myths (most of them fictitious or contrived). The supra-national dream is, to many, a nightmare. Europe is fragmenting into micro-nations while unifying its economies. These two trends are not mutually exclusive as is widely and erroneously believed. Actually, they are mutually reinforcing. As the modern state loses its major economic roles and functions to a larger, supranational framework - it loses its legitimacy and its raison d'etre.

The one enduring achievement of the state was the replacement of allegiance to a monarch, to a social class, to a region, or to a religion by an allegiance to a "nation." This subversive idea comes back to haunt itself. It is this allegiance to the nation that is the undoing of the tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, abstract modern state. To be a nationalist is to belong to ever smaller and more homogenous groups and to dismantle the bigger, all-inclusive polity which is the modern state.

Indeed, the state is losing in the battlefield of ideas to the other two options: micro-nationalism (homogeneous and geographically confined) and reactionary affiliation. Micro-nationalism gave birth to Palestine and to Kosovo, to the Basque land and to Quebec, to regionalism and to local patriotism. It is a fragmenting force. Modern technology makes many political units economically viable despite their minuscule size - and so they declare their autonomy and often aspire to independence.

Reactionary affiliation is cosmopolitan. Think about the businessman, the scholar, the scientist, the pop star, the movie star, the entrepreneur, the arbitrageur and the Internet. People feel affiliated to a profession, a social class, a region, or a religion more than they do to their state. Hence the phenomena of ex-pats, mass immigration, international managers. This is a throwback to an earlier age when the modern state was not yet invented. Indeed, the predicament of the nation-state is such that going back may be the only benign way of going forward.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 20 September 1999

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Dr Vaknin's website is here.




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