Nationalism & Identity in the Balkans

Thanos Veremis
Nationalism as a source of collective identity is the most persistent spiritual offspring of the French Revolution. The collapse of Yugoslavia refuted the view of Eric Hobsbawm (1990) who thought that the subject of his book was, historically speaking, in full retreat. The topicality of this phenomenon of nationalist revival has generated vivid discussions among those who, like Anthony Smith of the LSE, believe that national identity preceded the creation of nation-states as opposed to those who, like Ernest Gellner, attribute it exclusively to the educational programs of the industrial states. Miroslav Hroch reminded Gellner that nationalism had a stronger impact in the pre-industrial societies of the Balkans than in industrial England or the USA (Hroch 1998:91-106). Gellner, however, insisted that popular patriotism is a phenomenon common to many societies but that the specific “nationalist” version is characteristic of the first stage of industrialization. Be that as it may, few will disagree that the “nation-state” with its secular content is an altogether modern concept. Its primary feature is that it sanctions the entry of the masses into politics as a legitimizing factor of power (Mann 1995:44–48). The nation therefore enters the realm of politics when it begins to legitimize political authority and that is why nationalism is mainly about managing political power (Breuilly 1985:1–2). Ethnicity and its culture (promoted into a high culture) is often upgraded into a dominant element of the nation-state and a guarantee of its unity.
The French nationalism of the Jacobins was political and territorial. It represented the unity of the republican “patrie” (homeland) and the fraternity of the citizens living in a secular state. At the same time, the linguistic nationalism of Abbe Gregoire expounded the cultural mission of France. His example was to be followed by many subsequent champions of ethnic genius, Germans, Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Croatians, and Turks. These two elements of nationalism, the political-territorial on the one hand and the ethnic-organic on the other, have, ever since, represented two sides of the nationalist coin. The organic version of nationalism and the racist theories of the second half of the 19th century resulted from progress in the science of biology and the romantic notions of conflict and heroism. The defeat of the French by the Prussians in 1870 compelled them to adopt the organic nationalism of their German adversaries.
German scholars of the late eighteenth century, who denigrated the values of Republican patriotism from France and embraced the spiritual and cultural unity of their segmented nation, were actually reacting to the French inspired cosmopolitanism of some of their compatriots. Johann Gottfried Herder identified a pernicious individualism in the Republican brand of liberty that, according to his views, distracted man from the spiritual community of his country. He believed that the ancient Greeks, although divided as the Germans were into different state entities, preserved a common spirit because of their common culture. According to Herder the nation is a natural creation, not an intellectual construct, and therefore the progress of humanity is the product of feelings and passions, rather than reason (Viroli 1997:114–124).
The initial appeal of French Revolution principles in the Danubian Principalities was in time supplemented by the influence of Germanic Romanticism, which was strong in the Habsburg Empire and its neighbors. The outcome in the Balkans was a hybrid nationalism transformed by indigenous traditions. The development of Rumanian nationalism after the annexation of Transylvania in 1919 was determined by the merging of the Ottoman Wallachia and Moldavia with the Habsburg province. While still under Hungarian rule, the Rumanians of Transylvania had exhibited their discontent with acts of low intensity defiance. In Transylvania, land and business were controlled by Germans and Hungarians, and therefore Rumanian nationalism was based on the hatred of the foreign exploiter. The Rumanian Jews, who were prominent in trade and finance, became the primary targets of the fascist “Iron Guard” as agents of foreign interests (Breuilly 1985:263–68). Both fascism and anti-Semitism had already appeared in the former Habsburg realm (Croatia and Hungary) before they made inroads in Rumania.
Serb nationalism was also affected by Hungarian Vojvodina and its discrimination against Orthodox Serbs. Nationalism imported from the West offered legitimacy to the rebellion of the animal-breeder notables of Belgrade (Breuilly 1985:103–107). In the Greek case nationalism became a point of convergence for a wide range of elites (Breuilly 1985:107). The French Revolution and its constitutional blueprints were unanimously adopted by the first revolutionary assemblies of the Greek state. The roots of Greek nationalism, under the influence of the intellectual harbinger of the Enlightenment, Adamantios Koraes, and the historian par excellence of Modern Greece during its romantic phase, Constantine Paparrigopoulos, are mainly connected with cultural features and more specifically the continuity of the Greek language. The Greek-speaking “ecumeni” receded after the spreading of Islam in the Middle East, but Greek became the lingua franca of the Orthodox Balkan peoples before the respective nationalist movements began to emerge. Koraes, writing at a time when theories of race had not as yet made their appearance and Paparrigopoulos, who refuted the racial interpretations of the Greek identity by the Austrian historian, Jacob Philipp Fallmerayer, promoted culture as the main ingredient of national identity. Language had an equally unifying effect among southern Slav people (Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians) before a nationalist slant, inspired mainly by religious differences, took over.
As the other orthodox Christian element in the Balkan peninsula included Albanians, Vlachs, and Slavs and as King Otto’s irredentist policy aimed at extending Greek sovereignty over areas with mixed populations, the Isocratic version about the content of Greek identity (“Greeks are called those who partake of our culture”) offered the new nation-state the most authoritative interpretation about who its citizens were.
The creation of a compact nation within the state structure that had resulted from the Constitution adopted by the Greek Revolution was a great achievement of the Greek school system. An education based on the linguistic continuity linked with the Alexandrian “Koine” (lingua franca), in which the seventy Hellenizing Jews translated the Old Testament, but also with three of the four Gospels written in Greek, the spoken language of Anatolia and Egypt at the time, gave the citizens of the new state in 1830 access to a splendid tradition. They could feel proud because, in spite of the dire straits they found themselves in, they felt that they stemmed from a civilization, which, they hoped, could be reborn.
The centralized state that was created by the Revolution of 1821 was called “Hellas,” a name that had never existed before as the appellation of a unified state. While the Serbs and the Bulgarians chose names from their medieval history, the Greeks—under the influence of the Enlightenment—eschewed their identification with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) even though they were still called Romans—Romioi as the name was colloquially Hellenized or Rum, as the Turks turned it into. The birth of the neo-Hellenic identity was a mixture of popular piety and constitutionalist enlightenment, as was also the case with the USA. Contrary to most European countries where the old (medieval) regime came into direct, frontal conflict with the modernizing forces of the bourgeois constructs, Greece and the USA started life without any aristocracies and therefore without conflicts between conservatives and liberals, believers and atheists.
The entangled relationship between Orthodoxy and nationalism, moving from hostility to cohabitation, is commonplace in the Orthodox Balkan states. The Enlightenment, which shaped the origin of Balkan nationalisms, was gradually overtaken by the allure of its Byzantine rival. In the second half of the nineteenth century, romantic Byzantinism became the primary source for Greek and other Balkan irredentisms. Religious identity was also responsible for impeding national awakenings. Populations in the Balkans, whose “nationality” remained uncertain or ambiguous, retained a strong identification with their religious creed (Kitromilides 2003:53–131; Cowan 2008:45–59). [1] Contrary to the ideas of Kedourie, Hobsbawm, and Gellner, Adrian Hastings attaches great importance to the religious roots of nationalism and to the role played by the Reformation. His view that the written vernacular in European countries advanced nationalism is in line with Anderson’s seminal position. The writer compares the role of the Serbian Orthodox to that of the Croat Catholic Church campaigns of ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia (Hastings 1999:146).
The Balkan states which gained their freedom from the Ottoman rule possessed their own particular cultural traditions (Slav, Rumanian, and Albanian) but shared administrative and educational systems they had borrowed from the West. Most Balkan peoples adopted western institutions or acquired heads of state belonging to European royal houses. The nation-building theories of the Rumanians, the Bulgarians, and the Albanians stem from western models. Furthermore, each Balkan country built its own historical legitimacy by establishing the relationship of its people with the Hellenes, the Dacians, the Romans, the Thracians, or the Illyrians. The implicit competition as to who of the ethnic inhabitants of the Balkans had the oldest lineage was inspired by the principle of “prior tempore fortior jure” that legitimizes property rights on the land. The degree of truth contained in each of these nation-building myths varies, and western critics were not slow in pointing this out. Both Fallmerayer (1831) and Robert Roesler (1871) who tried to refute not just the Greek but also the Dacian and the Thracian traditions in the making of Greece, Rumania, and Bulgaria had a common goal: if the ancient peoples of the Balkans (Aimos peninsula) had been assimilated by the Slav metics, then their racial purity (which had a number of devotees in Europe) could be disputed. As a result, these peoples could not be counted upon to represent a credible obstacle to the pan-Slavic surge towards central and Western Europe. Retaining the Ottoman Empire as a barrier to the Slavic flood thus made sense. The major flaw of this integral view lies in the fact that its promoters endowed biology with the power to transmit an ethnic message. Paparrigopoulos was much closer to the modern view when he insisted that culture based on tradition is mainly responsible for shaping national consciousness. All in all, Balkan nation states were the hybrid progenies of the French civic state of the Enlightenment and the romantic cultural concept of the Germans (Schöpflin 2000:9–10). [2]
Balkan nationalism can be categorized according to the actors that formulated and established the various versions of the ideology. Bureaucratic nationalism was the creation of an elite that manned the civil service of the 19th century Greek state and the select functionaries of the Ottoman Empire after the Tanzimat reforms. At the same time foreign dynasties in Balkan states secured public approval and the loyalty of their subjects by rallying the masses around irredentist causes. Greece, Rumania, and Bulgaria displayed at different times irredentist nationalism. Populist nationalism found wide public support in Bulgaria and Serbia where the social leveling of the Ottoman centuries was most pervasive. Cultural nationalism was the work of educated diaspora merchants from Istanbul, Vienna, and Paris in collaboration with native clergies that partook in the enlightenment. Cultural nationalism generated national educational systems in most Balkan states and had the most profound and lasting influence in state-building. A subject of significance for the development of Bulgarian national identity was the role of the clergy in emancipating their compatriots in the 19th century from Greek educational and cultural dominance throughout the Ottoman centuries (Sugar and Lederer 1969:44–54, 93–165).

The Incarnations of the “Nation” in Current Affairs

The International Relations jargon requires a clarification of terms. The nation-state needs no introduction. It has been with us at least since Westphalia in 1648 and, although somewhat battered, continues to be the source of the most legitimate form of authority in our world, be it national or intergovernmental. When the G8 heads of state meet, the world pays more attention than to the General Assembly of the UN.
Whereas the nation-state is a concrete reality, transnationalism is a many-splendored notion that ranges from humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross to multi-ethnic companies, the Internet, criminal networks, and terrorist cells. Unlike nationalism, transnationalism is a concept without clear-cut state backing and has limited means to antagonize the nation-state for noble or vile causes. Globalization is widely considered to be in the transnational domain, but in fact it reflects the intergovernmental priorities of the US, Europe, Russia, and increasingly China.
Nation-states, high in the pecking order of influence, had their heyday during the cold war era when their sovereignty was guaranteed by the deadly stalemate of nuclear competition in that bipolar world. Since the end of the cold war, Yugoslavia was bombed into submission, the Soviet Union disintegrated into a new galaxy of troubled nation-states, and Iraq was defeated twice before being occupied. The inviolability of certain nation-states has come to an end (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Cyprus, however, did not escape their predicament, even before the fall of Communism).
There has been a paradigm shift (increasingly since 9/11) in our estimation of “transnationalism.” Nye and Keohane, who popularized the term in the early 1970s, were reacting against the school of realism in International Relations. The realists considered international organizations mere instruments of governments and NGOs without weight in international politics. The nation-state has since been the target of the advocates of “transnationalism.” The two authors addressed all forms of transnational activity: contacts, coalitions, and interaction across state borders that are not controlled by the central foreign policy instruments of governments (Nye and Keohane 1972).
In 1974, Nye and Keohane narrowed the concept of transnationalism to the international activities of non-governmental actors, distinguishing these from “transgovernmental” actors to define them as “sub units of governments when they are relatively autonomous from state authority” (Nye and Keohane 1972). The role of transgovernmental organizations such as the UN, OECD, NATO, and the World Bank (to name but a few) is to engage nation-states in the tasks of conflict resolution, securing stability and peace, and promoting development of the Third World.
The malignant form of transnationalism resides in the unwelcome consequences of the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia. The transition from an authoritarian state to a free-for-all market was dominated by mafias within the state and criminal networks outside. The proliferation of nation-states in the USSR and Yugoslavia with the encouragement of the West might well have been inspired by Wilsonian principles but has in fact produced “segmentary” societies fed by the tradition of extreme familism and patronage networks that militate against the formation of a civil society (Gellner 1994). [3] Russia has since supported secessionism at the expense of Georgia and Moldova, while discouraging it in Serbia.
Another consequence of the collapse of Communism has been the declining fortunes of the UN, an important forum for dialogue throughout the cold war period. The assault against this transgovernmental organization has come from the superpower that seeks license to pursue its objectives unhindered by international institutions. In the same vein the US Government has avoided binding obligations emanating from treaties required to set up an International Criminal Court of Justice, the Kyoto Protocol, and the agreement against anti-personnel mines.
As the Yugoslav crisis proved, we have witnessed the reduction of the sovereignty of medium and small nation states and the aggrandizement of the economic power of the US, the EU, Russia, and China. The Balance of Power principle that sustained nation-states and the effect of international law as a guarantee against the abuse of international power are being replaced by a tripolar system of power in Southeastern Europe and the Black Sea region. The US has attempted, in spite of Russian resistance, to establish its hegemony in the energy-producing regions of Eurasia. Its failure so far is perhaps due to the absence of incentives in its strategy. Economic aid, or the rough equivalent of the Marshall Plan, has been conspicuously absent from American operations. The US still ranks last among developed states in providing non-military aid to the needy, and unlike hegemonic powers or empires of the past, it does not distribute benefits such as citizen rights, security guarantees, or protectorate status to friendly states or peoples. At the same time it undermines transgovernmental institutions that act as mediators or distribute benefits to the downtrodden.
The policies of the US and Russia are interventionist abroad and parochial domestically. It is in fact the domestic scene that largely determined the international posture of the Bush and Putin administrations. One hundred and seventy or so years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw that the unitary American society would embrace “a virtuous materialism”; such a perspective would regard “new theories as perils and innovations as irksome toils” (Tocqueville 1840). The US has since exhibited considerable political homogeneity and little tolerance for ideological diversity at home or abroad. The current United States is neither generous any longer nor tolerant. If the American constitution embodies the enlightenment, the parlance of the former American President George W. Bush and his constituency were closer to the apocalyptic element in Jacksonian democracy that decries the congenital flaws of human nature and seeks redemption from the original sin. This resurgent parochialism cannot be reconciled with the spirit of the founding fathers nor with European secular democracy.
Russia has retreated from its route to democratization to assume, under Putin, its old hegemonic position in the near abroad and a more authoritarian stance domestically. Its growing prosperity, thanks to American intervention in the Middle East, its influence in Europe (not least due to the energy dimension), and its military relationship with China have reintroduced Russia as an important international factor.
The true division, however, is not between the West and the rest, but rather a division across the global board between transnational rationalism and transnational fundamentalism, between institutional democracy and a plethora of populist views that find an eager public among the disappointed. And there is ample reason for disappointment.
Transnational European liberals, who carry the torch of enlightenment and rationalism, viewed the Evangelical populism of the Bush administration with bewilderment. Sixty years ago, a Greek scholar and statesman, Panayotes Kanellopoulos, alerted the coming generations to the impending threat of irrationalism, rather than the cold war threat of Marxism, whose founding father was, according to Kanellopoulos, a wayward disciple of the Enlightenment. He could not have imagined in 1955 a worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism and termed the threat “Nietzschean,” celebrating man’s irrational faculties and impulses (Kanellopoulos 1951).
How simple the cold war world used to be. Nationalism versus internationalism, national middle classes against transnational proletariats, the nation-state a creation of the dominant class, according to Marxists, the communists a transnational conspiracy to destroy democracy and loot the haves, according to the liberals. Now some proletarians seek refuge in nation-state protection, refute globalism, and discard the supranationalism of the European Constitutional Treaty.
Nationalism that was responsible for the creation of Balkan nation states in the nineteenth century became an important factor in the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and Yugoslavia and even the velvet break-up of Czechoslovakia. Europe is still gravitating between a supranational EU and the national priorities of its larger members. Yugoslavia was torn apart by aggressive nationalisms of its federated units, while the rest of the Balkan states will retain their unity only as multicultural entities. The homogeneous, unitary nation-states of the nineteenth century are already things of the past.


Cowan, J. K. 2008. “Fixing National Subjects in 1920’s Southern Balkans etc.” In Balkan Border Crossings, ed. V. Nitsiakos et al., 45–59. New Brunswick.
Gellner, E. 1994. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals. London.
Hastings, A. 1999. The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism. Cambridge.
Hobsbawm, E. 1990. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge.
Hroch, M. 1998. “Real and Constructed: The Nature of a Nation.” In The State of the Nation: Ernest Gellner and the Theory of Nationalism, ed. J. A. Hall, 91–106. Cambridge.
Kanellopoulos, P. 1951. O Eikostos Aionas. Athens.
Kitromilides, P. 2003. “Noeres Koinotites kai oi aparches tou Ethnikou Zitimatos sta Valkania.” In Ethnikismos & Ethnotita sti Neoteri Ellada, ed. Th.Veremis, 53–131. Athens.
Mann, M. 1995. “A Political Theory of Nationalism and its Excess.” In Nations and Nationalism, ed. S. Periwal, 44–64. Budapest.
Nye, J., and R. O. Keohane. 1972. Transnational Relations and World Politics. Cambridge, MA.
Schöpflin, G. 2000. Nations, Identity, Power: The New Politics of Europe. London.
Sugar, P. F., and I. J. Lederer, eds. 1969. Nationalism in Eastern Europe. Seattle.
Toqueville, A. 1840. On Democracy in America. Vol. II. London.
Viroli, M. 1997. For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism. Oxford.


[ back ] 1. Cowan (2008:45) deals with undetermined ethnic identities with great perceptivity: “Through them, we can discern the traces of a pre-national, situationist logic of categories that were not mutually exclusive, where a man could be Greek when he traded, Albanian when he married, and even Muslim when he prayed…”
[ back ] 2. See also Schöpflin’s views on the nationalism of the Yugoslavs (2000:343-77). Schöpflin adds to the argument the view that logic and national identity, far from being in conflict—as alleged—complement each other. Logic, according to Schöpflin offers the explanation and the comprehension of action while national identity offers the individual the security of belonging to a community and of shared meanings with its members.
[ back ] 3. Also see Charles King, “Bring the Phantom Republics in from the Cold.” International Herald Tribune, 5 September 2006.