Courtesy Reuters

The Balkans' Lethal Nationalisms


The war in Kosovo has reinforced the Balkans' image as a cauldron of ethnic hatred. Many commentators argue that the region has always been wracked by ancient hatreds. Others argue that today's strains are artificial, manufactured by cynical postcommunist demagogues looking to legitimate their rule. Neither school has it right. Balkan ethnic strains are neither as ancient as time nor as recent as the rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic; rather, they are about as old as the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nationalism. To a historian, today's Balkan crises are rooted in, above all, the crippling dependence of all Balkan peoples on the ideology and psychology of expansionist nationalism. With the West now drawn deeper than ever into the struggle between Serbs and Albanians, we must better understand the roots of their passions.

Today's tensions are the result of the region's absorption into the Ottoman Empire, which led to the extraordinary dispersion and intermixture of ethnic groups in Balkan and Danubian Europe. Premodern state-formation in the Balkans was short-circuited by the Ottoman Turkish conquest of the region during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. As elsewhere in the world -- India and imperial Russia are good examples -- empire went hand in hand with great ethnic-cultural diversity and, at the local level, political autonomy. Under the Ottomans, the subject populations were organized above all by religion. Such a schema did not require that the adherents of any particular faith live in any compact area. From the viewpoint both of the Ottoman Empire and the various religious hierarchies, personal identity was, so to speak, extraterritorial. In some cases, as with the Serbian Orthodox Church, religion fostered national cultural identity. But religion also fractured groups speaking the same language, like the Albanians -- some three-quarters of whom until 1945 were Muslims, either of the Sunni or Bektashi orientation, while the remainder were followers of Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism (as exemplified by the

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