Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The false god of national unification


Review of Srdja Pavlovic, Balkan Anschluss: The Annexation of Montenegro and the Creation of the Common South Slav State, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana, 2008

Garibaldi has a lot to answer for. This is a conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from a survey of the train-wreck of contemporary Italian politics. Spectacular endemic corruption, rampant xenophobia, exceptionally brutal police, fascists at the centre of mainstream political life, moves to rehabilitate wartime fascists, state fingerprinting of gypsies, laws against ‘un-Italian’ food, an exceptionally vulgar populist prime minister with a burgeoning personality cult, boring football – all are characteristic of the country that was the model for ‘successful’ national unification in the nineteenth century. Nor is this an ephemeral phenomenon – Italy, the principal incubator of the fascist virus in the interwar period, simply has never worked very well as a country. Vast repression and bloodshed, claiming tens of thousands of lives, were required to impose Piedmontese rule on southern Italy in the 1860s. The unnatural imposition, in the 1860s and 70s, of a unitary national state on a peninsula that had experienced centuries of regional diversity in its forms of government, has produced a polity whose dysfunctionality appears incurable.

Italy merely exemplifies the dubious benefits brought to us by the nineteenth-century fad for joining smaller pieces of territory up to produce bigger states. After two world wars and one Holocaust, nobody should try to claim that the unification of Germany has been an unmixed blessing for humanity. After Italy and Germany, it was Romania that produced probably the most powerful indigenous fascist movement in interwar Europe, in the form of the Legion of Archangel Michael or Iron Guard- a Romania that was formed from the merger of diverse lands during the second half of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries: Wallachia, Moldavia, Northern Dobrudja, Southern Dobrudja, Transylvania, Bessarabia, Bukovina. Indeed, the rise of dictatorships across Central and Eastern Europe in the interwar period was not unrelated to the fact that many of the states of the region had been formed from mergers of diverse territories. Polities that had developed along organically distinct paths for centuries were suddenly ‘unified’ and forced to function as seamless wholes, despite having had no tradition of doing so. The resulting internal political fragmentation and instability provided fertile ground for dictators to impose ‘order’, while the need to create and staff new state bureaucracies meant the churning out of large numbers of impoverished university graduates who could be, as in the case of Romania, natural recruits for fascist movements.

The more closely one examines the record of ‘national unification’, the worse it appears. The union of Scotland with England to form a united kingdom of Great Britain worked fine, if one believed in the common Anglo-Scottish project of trampling the Irish, fighting the French, fighting Papists generally and conquering the lands of darker-skinned people. But many Scottish people understandably feel today that their country is marginalised in the union with England. As for the union of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom – the less said about that the better. The imposition of a centralised, uniform administrative system on France during the French Revolution, binding together a formerly diverse medley of traditional territorial entities, grew inexorably into the most aggressive programme of territorial expansionism that post-medieval Europe had ever seen, in which the French armies reached as far as Moscow.

More recently, the attempt by Croat fascists to incorporate the whole of overwhelmingly non-Croat Bosnia within a Great Croatia in World War II involved genocide against the Serb population of Bosnia, and has cast a shadow over the subsequent history of inter-ethnic relations in the country. Cyprus’s contemporary misfortunes stem from the suicidal efforts of extreme Greek nationalists, after Cypriot independence in 1960, to pursue union with Greece, which eventually provoked the Turkish invasion of the country. The history of Serbia in the 1990s needs no comment.

Conversely, countries that have escaped incorporation in greater nation-building projects have generally not suffered for it. The people of Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Austria are hardly suffering today from the fact that they are not part of Germany. Cyprus certainly benefits from being an independent state with its own UN seat, rather than a provincial backwater of a Greater Greece. Indeed, the most successful, stable democracies in Europe have generally been those with relatively small populations that have retained the same borders and continuity of administration for long periods: Switzerland, the Nordic and the Benelux countries.

Yet of all experiments at national unification in modern European history, few, if any, have been such an unmitigated disaster as the attempt to unify diverse South Slavic lands within a single, Yugoslav state. Whereas the territorial unifications of Italy and Germany have been successfully achieved at enormous bloodshed and dubious long-term benefit for the populations in question, in the case of Yugoslavia, the price in blood was paid, but territorial unification was merely transient, and at least one of the lands involved – Bosnia – appears to have been irredeemably ruined by the experience. This is partly, of course, because Yugoslavia was not merely an experiment in national unification, but in unifying different nations to form a supranational whole. It may nevertheless be fruitful to situate the Yugoslav case in a wider European context.

The story of Serbia and Croatia and their unhappy experience of shared statehood is a familiar one. Although there was more of an overlap in nationhood between the Serbs and the Croats than some Croat nationalists in particular like to admit – as exemplified by individuals such as the Bosnian Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, who belonged to both nations – the Serbs and Croats were already two distinct nations when Serbia and Croatia united with each other, and with other countries, to form the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ in 1918 – subsequently renamed ‘Yugoslavia’.

A less familiar story, but one that follows more closely the European pattern of national unification as outlined above, is the story of the unification of Montenegro with Serbia in 1918, which immediately preceded the establishment of the Yugoslav state. For the first time, we now have an excellent introduction to the topic for the English-language reader, in Srdja Pavlovic’s ‘Balkan Anschluss: The Annexation of Montenegro and the Creation of the Common South Slavic State’. Although Pavlovic does not discuss his use of the term ‘Anschluss’ to describe Serbia’s annexation of Montenegro in 1918, the reason becomes apparent as his account progresses; he is not comparing Serbia’s rulers with the Nazis, but rather drawing an informed analogy as to what ‘unification’ meant for Montenegro. For if at one level the annexation represented the fulfilment of the goal of Serb national unification as understood by one section of the Montenegrin political nation, yet it was also an act of usurpation carried out by radical nationalists, in violation of Montenegro’s constitutional system and state traditions; one that necessitated bloody repression against those Montenegrins who, though accepting union with Serbia, wanted it on terms more respectful of Montenegro’s individuality.

Montenegro before 1918 was in many ways to Serbia what Austria before 1938 was to Germany. Pavlovic presents the Serb national identification as being wholly dominant among Montenegro’s political and intellectual classes by 1918, yet as he explains, it did not follow from this that Serbia’s absorption of Montenegro on the Piedmontese model was universally desired. Contrary to what nationalists believe, a nation is not a seamless garment. As Pavlovic describes, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Montenegro’s own rulers – who bore the title of ‘vladika’ or ‘prince-bishop’ – themselves held different views of Montenegro’s national destiny, viewing it either as the attainment of Montenegro’s independence within enlarged borders, on the basis of Montenegrin state-right, or as submersion in a larger empire – either Christian, Slavic or Serbian. Montenegrin national discourse therefore possessed two traditions.

Montenegrins were bitterly divided over the question of union with Serbia in 1918. As Pavlovic explains, the tendency of existing historiography to present this division as being between unionists (‘Whites’) and separatists or reactionaries (‘Greens’) does not do justice to the latter’s case. For those Montenegrins who opposed unification as it was carried out by the Whites themselves accepted the need for Montenegro’s unification with Serbia in principle. However, they believed that this unification should be on the basis of Montenegro’s constitution and laws, with Montenegro becoming a constituent part of the new South Slavic union in its own right. They objected to the unconstitutional, arbitrary way in which the unification was carried out, and to the simple absorption of the country by Serbia, without any respect for its state tradition or individuality. They were, in sum, the more enlightened and far-seeing as well as moderate of the two camps.

Serbia, which controlled the Montenegrin army during World War I, pursued a strategy that ensured that neither this army, nor the Montenegrin state, would survive the war, so that they would prove no obstacle to the eventual annexation, or to the deposition of Montenegro’s King Nikola and his Petrovic-Njegos dynasty. The act of union was carried out while Montenegro was under Serbian military control; the elections to the ‘Great People’s Assembly’ that was to proclaim the union, and the proceedings of the assembly itself, were manipulated by the Serbian-backed unionists to ensure that the Greens would lose. In the run-up to the elections, possible opponents of union were prevented by the Serbian army from returning to the country, as was King Nikola himself. A prominent supporter of union, Janko Spasojevic, himself admitted before the Assembly that its declaration of union represented ‘a coup d’etat by peaceful means’.

The manner in which unification was engineered represented a violation of the rights of that section of the Montenegrin people that opposed it, and provoked a civil war that continued well into the 1920s, which the regime in Belgrade won only with much bloodshed and repression. The fissure that was created between Montenegrins was enormously damaging to the country, and ensured that when civil war erupted again, under Axis occupation during World War II, the loss of life would be enormous.

The brutal act of unification also represented a blow against the possibility that the new Yugoslav state itself might be established on a healthy basis. The Assembly’s resolution on unification made no mention of Yugoslavia or the wider South Slavic context. By annexing Montenegro outright, Serbia’s preponderance in relation to the other Yugoslav lands was made still greater, helping to ensure the domination of the Serbian political classes over the new state. The imposition of a centralist constitution, in violation of the national aspirations of most non-Serbs, was thereby facilitated – an act from which all Yugoslavia’s subsequent woes followed. Had Montenegro entered Yugoslavia as a distinct entity, the internal Yugoslav imbalance between Serbia and the western South Slav lands would have been that much less. Montenegro’s annexation was, therefore, a tragedy for the whole Yugoslav experiment.

Pavlovic’s book is a balanced work on a neglected topic that avoids polemical excesses and presents both the ‘White’ and the ‘Green’ points of view. He reminds us that nationhood is not black and white, and what it means to belong to a particular nation is frequently unclear or disputed among members of the nation themselves. His study is testimony to the damaging effect of attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all model of nationhood on diverse territories with their own particular traditions and nuanced identities. Damaging, among other things, for the goal of national unification itself – the attempt to unite Montenegro with Serbia, like the attempt to unite Austria with Germany, was ultimately unsuccessful, despite the enormous cost in blood.

Today, Montenegro and Serbia exist as independent states, wholly separate from one another, the unionist dream having ended in nothing. Both countries are likely to be happier for that.

Thursday, 21 May 2009 - Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Montenegro, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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