The Trouble with National History: the case of North Macedonia’s EU accession10 min read
The problem of neighbourhood – or the problem of people living next to each other – in the sense of what anthropologist Frederik Barth calls the ‘construction of ethnic groups, and the nature of boundaries between them’ is one that has stalked the Balkans over the past two centuries and it is the cause of the current dispute between two Balkan neighbours – Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
Bulgaria, from the position of an EU member state, blocked the EU membership process of North Macedonia in November 2020, conditioning North Macedonia to admit the ‘historical truth’ about the Bulgarian roots of the country’s nation-building, language, and identity. The blockade presided on the argument that only countries that have gone through a nation-building process earlier in history, can be considered legitimate nations today. The debate has downright turned towards issues of historical heritage and questions of the identity of ethnic Macedonians. Macedonians finalized the nation-building process after World War Two, with socialist and anti-fascist forces as leaders of statehood, and are deemed by the argument as a ‘constructed nation’ that has eventually strayed away from its ‘true’ mother-nation. But isn’t this argument bringing out the promotion of assimilation politics through the tools of EU bureaucracy, and at long last, the end of the European idea itself?
As a historian, I understand the notion of ‘historical truth’ as rather dogmatic. It almost represents a monopoly of understanding and interpreting historical events and personalities connected to the territory of Macedonia, beyond the state’s history. Disputes over historical heritage are spanning from the medieval times, for example, by tracing ethnic and national characteristics of medieval rulers claimed by both sides; to the topics of modern history, and events concerning Bulgarian claim and gain of Ottoman territory (locally known as ‘Pirin Macedonia’) after the Balkan Wars in 1913, and then again, occupying and losing the same territory after the World War One. During World War Two, Bulgaria as an ally of Nazi Germany, occupied parts of the territory of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, locally known as ‘Vardar Macedonia’; after the autumn of 1944 and the internal regime change in Bulgaria towards communism, Bulgarian partisans participated in liberating the same territory from Nazi Germany. According to this brief history of close encounters, every professional historian can understand that both sides should work more on understanding national myths, rather than imposing notions of ‘historical truth’.
Through the course of EU processes in the Balkans, it is not uncommon that old stereotypes and national or ideological caricatures from the 19th and the 20th century are awakened and allowed to flourish. I believe that in cases like this, enquiring the problem from the aspect of neighbourhood can tell us more about the principles of the issue, beyond the jaws of nationalist identity politics.
The narcissism of small differences
There is a memorable scene in the film Inglourious Basterds (2009) by Quentin Tarantino, that can be used to explain the function of the complex grammar of national and cultural stereotypes between close groups of nationalities. As the story goes, Lieutenant Archibald Hicox is a British Army officer with strong knowledge of German cinema, who joins a diversant group, in order to wipe out the German High Command.
During a meeting in a dark pub, Lt. Hicox is posing as Hauptsturmbannführer and attracts the attention of the Gestapo Major Hellstrom with his strange German accent. Eventually, his foreign accent is not the cause of his disclosure, but when Hicox asks for three glasses of whisky, Hellstrom notices that Hicox is indicating the number, using the wrong fingers. Hicox’s lack of knowledge of German culture outside of its cinema plays a fatal part in his eventual demise. Soon after Hicox is recognised as British, the bloodbath begins.
The described scene is reminiscent of an old thesis by Freud about the ‘narcissism of small differences’ according to which communities with adjoining territories or close cultural and historical relationships are especially likely to engage in feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation.
This thesis was frequently used by the playwright Goran Stefanovski, especially when addressing the stereotypes between Balkan countries and those held by ex-Balkan Europe towards the region. Similarly, this can also function in a larger context, in stereotypical construction between nationalities, like the ‘othering’ of the Balkan by Europe: culturologist Mitja Velikonja uses the apt term ‘Europe’s negative exceptionalism’ towards the Balkans and historian Maria Todorova has coined the term Balkanism.
With no shortage of irony, I would argue that precisely this ‘narcissism of small differences’ is why multiethnic societies, for example in the Balkans, can be more stable and cohesive in contrast to situations when we have similar cultural groups on one territory. The multiethnic structure in society strives towards stability because the different ethnic groups don’t compete with each other in the deeper identitarian sense. Instead, they compete in the sense of the political contract on the surface.
Let’s take some examples from the Balkans: the multiethnic communities of Albanians, Bosniaks, Serbs, and Macedonians, and their traditional cohabitation beyond the ethnic or religious distance, were historically a bright example way before the modern multicultural policies. Contrary to that, the inter-Slavic competition, especially after the birth of the nation-state idea, opened space for more complex clashes. Take the ironic tragedy of the Balkan Wars, also known as the fratricidal wars, because of the many cases of close relatives fighting on different sides of the warring (Slavic) parties. Or the monstrous wars and conflicts during the Yugoslavian dissolution, when the Yugoslav socialist idea of ‘brotherhood and unity’ dissolved into a nationalistic swamp that caused serious ethnic conflicts.
There is a greater chance of conflict because of the confusion of similar ethnonational structures in the roots of identity and thus, the non-recognition of the culturally close identity as particular and different. In the last case, a politically, economically or military stronger national entity can appear flexing its desires to swallow or absorb the more vulnerable national entity when in a position of power. I argue that we can follow that pattern in the case of the Bulgarian blockade of the Macedonian EU accession.
The philosopher Stanimir Panayotov made an original contribution to this debate when he introduced the theoretical concept ‘petit-colonialism’ to explain the performative practices of the Bulgarian political elites that were managing the blockade. Petit-colonialism, according to Panayotov, represents an ideological position of a group that once was in the position of supremacy over another group, and they can’t comprehend the current emancipation of the group that they have ruled before, thus the lost power relation is played once again in the historical frames of the past.
National histories as a complex grammar of stereotypes
Freud’s thesis about the narcissism of small differences miss the important and far-reaching mechanisms that can explain the described conflicts on a collective level. What I miss is insight regarding the far-reaching mechanisms that help in the creation of what historian Stefan Berger calls the ‘complex grammar of stereotypes about the ‘other’’.
According to Berger, national history has developed a complex grammar of stereotypes, both of the self and the other, which contribute to the self-definition of a nation through the alleged ‘others’, often constructed as external enemies of the nation. Many of these stereotypes have proven resilient over the decades.
In the context of Western Europe, one thinks of the construction of the French as a “hereditary enemy” by the German national narratives. Or of the efficient, almost machine-like, but also violent, aggressive, and expansionist national character of Germans by a variety of national narratives, underpinning the national histories of the immediate neighbours of Germany.
Another prime example can be found in the current and ongoing developments of North Macedonia’s EU membership process, where “history is a major stumbling block evoked by the Bulgarian government”, as historian Florian Bieber nicely summarizes it.
In October 2020, media leaked a Bulgarian memorandum prepared to be sent to Brussels, by leading figures from the political elite and the academic elite, with allegations of “state-sponsored anti-Bulgarian ideology” in North Macedonia, together with conditions concerning the EU-integration process of the country.
Soon after, a group of Bulgarian intellectuals rejected the memorandum stating that they “don’t see how Europe can understand the positions of some influential Bulgarian scholars [the ones that are in line with the views in the memorandum] who do not speak the language of contemporary historiography or the modern humanitarian and liberal arts”. Of course that, as Berger states, “national history writing has been serving national politics everywhere, and as long as the nation-state remains an important political reference point, national histories will continue to loom large in historical writing”. But this is all the more reason to throw out the use of dogmatic notions like ‘absolute historical truth’ and to seek dialectical totality in history teaching and writing.
It is common to claim that the Second World War and the Holocaust marked the most fundamental rupture of national paradigms in most parts of Europe. This was a delayed rupture, as the immediate post-war years saw, above all else, attempts to re-stabilize and reconnect to the traditional national narratives and either replace them with other national ‘master narratives’, or, in a few cases, to move beyond the national paradigm altogether.
According to Berger, the belief in stable and homogeneous national narratives is undermined in the present almost everywhere by the methodological challenges of cultural history, memory history, poststructuralist and postcolonial history. Yet national histories are far from being spent in the wider world. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the new successor states perceive them as crucial to construct their own national identities. Minority nationalism in Western Europe from Scotland to Catalonia, are also busy constructing their own national pasts against the national narratives of Spain and Britain. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 21st Century, scholars are looking for more open, more playful national identities, which can accept fracture, hybridity and actively celebrate diversity.
Looking for remedies for epistemic injustice
During symbolic conflicts like the current one between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, the one mistake that should be totally avoided in public discourse is the cancelling of history and humanities as failed projects of modernity that should be thrown out of the debate.
On that note, I would like to end with a beautiful anecdote about historians and their social purpose. It is believed that when Hegel read Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”, he thought that the eponymous war happened solely so that Thucydides could write so brilliantly about it.
One should never forget that the emancipatory potential of historical knowledge about the development of nations, far exceeds the pursuit of ruling elites to mobilize different publics. For that, historians in the Balkans must embrace theory, and also create their own theoretical concepts. Nevertheless, looking at this problem, there seems little hope that current academic (senior) elites will learn any personal or collective lesson, they are too deep in their own trench.
There are small sparkles of hope in the generations born in the Balkan in the new Millennium. This is most evident in those willing to take the (economic) risk and study humanities, because of their ability to enquire about reality in totally different ways.
Their work and research often also includes – without glamorizing – travel, that increases regional and transregional connectivity, expanding personal and professional networks across borders. This helps in turning this generation towards different forms of organizing. They may not be able to solve the problem alone, but I think that this generation can redefine the problem and imagine a new kind of political institution, and more importantly, a new kind of neighbourhood.