Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.e-reviews 4 (2014), 4 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Maria Todorova


The Ambiguous Nation. Case Studies from Southeastern Europe in the 20th Century. Ed. by Ulf Brunnbauer and Hannes Grandits. München: Oldenbourg, 2013. 480 S., Abb. = Südosteuropäische Arbeiten, 151. ISBN: 978-3-486-72296-3.

Table contents:



The German-speaking space is the powerhouse of East European studies in Europe. There are several centers that produce remarkable scholarship, among them Leipzig/Halle, Munich/Regensburg, Berlin and Graz (Austria). The two editors of this volume, both with doctorates from Graz, are now among the leading academics in Germany: Grandits as professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Brunnbauer as director of the Institute of East and Southeast European Studies and professor at the University of Regensburg. The volume itself comes as a result of the felicitous funding of East European studies by the Volkswagen-Stiftung. The project is co-directed by the two editors and the doyen of Southeast European Studies in Germany, Holm Sundhaussen, emeritus at the Free University in Berlin. Entitled “New and Ambiguous Nation-Building in Southeastern Europe” it ran between 2006 and 2010, and focused on four case studies: Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Moldova.

If the choice of these four sites is unusual, it is well argued for. The main comparative criterion is that institutional nation-building came only after 1945 and is thus inflected by socialism and post-socialism. (It is refreshing that the editors are employing the self-description of the period from the region, rather than sticking to the English-language conventions of communism and post-communism). Montenegro presents an exception (as the project leaders are well aware), and in this sense it would be even more fruitful to have added Albania, which likewise was forged as a nation during the communist period, as a case study. This is not a criticism, but merely a wish that would have further enhanced the complexity and sophistication of the volume. Another common feature (and here Albania and Kosovo would not conform) is that the cases chosen come out as independent polities after the respective disintegration of Yugoslavia and the USSR, and active resistance to independence was notable in all four. All these countries are characterized by ethnic heterogeneity (as are practically all Balkan countries and most East European ones), but here the potential for violence and serious challenges to sovereignty are riper, Bosnia standing starkly out. One could also add that all these cases treat small, poor and weak states that were relative latecomers to the nation-building process in the region. Usually branded as artificial by their older neighbors, they are also more vulnerable. Sundhaussen’s introduction appropriately exposes the artificialness of the natural nations and the naturalness of the artificial ones.

Deeply informed by the theoretical literature on nationalism, the introduction by Grandits and Brunnbauer sets the theoretical framework of the project which informs the subsequent 17 contributions. To the delight of this reviewer, this framework stands firmly in the modernist camp without any gestures to perennialism, even as it is sensitive to the deep cultural layers that reach into the pre-national past. The central idea and motor of the volume is that ambiguity is inherent in nation-building; thus, the task is to illustrate the major areas of nation-building where ambiguity is located. These are identified as power politics, the role of intellectuals, the struggle over the control of the past, the nation in popular culture and the arts, and finally, the symbolic significations of the nation. Accordingly, the contributions are grouped around these rubrics, although they are clearly overlapping, and this review is not following the order in the volume.

Several chapters illustrate the importance of the economy in regional identity projects. Admir Mulaosmanović’s chapter on the activities of Agrokomerc reads like a detective story, and shows how the modernization process during socialism coupled with the charismatic figure of Fikret Abdić resulted in an identity opposed to the complete rupture from the previous Yugoslav texture. It is based on diverse materials, including interviews, and it is a pity that Abdić himself could not be interviewed as a witness (he was released from prison in 2012). Ala Şveţ, on the other hand, demonstrates that in Transdnistria, in the absence of historical and/or ethnic argumentation, the economic situation, even when characterized by modest success, can serve as a consolidating factor and forge a successful regional/quasi national identity. Interestingly, a similar trend is observable in Montenegro, where the political elite attempts to sever the symbolic links to the past. Spurred by economic interest, principally by supporting the tourist industry, it seeks to redefine Montenegro’s image both internally and abroad as corresponding to a wider Mediterranean world. This is convincingly illustrated in the very fine chapter by Lidija Vujačić who analyzes the evolution and meanings of two carnivals (fiestas) in Kotor that are meant to function both as national identification builders, as well as market-related advertisements.

Building her analysis on the notion of disemia, Čarna Brković analyzes state institutions and NGOs in present-day Montenegro, and concludes that the ambiguities in the meanings of Montenegrinhood did not necessarily pit official views against personal ones from below, but were inherent at all levels. Taking the analysis further back in time, in his excellent chapter on the debates around Njegoš’s mausoleum on Mount Lovćen in the second half of the 20th century, Vladimir Dulović masterfully reconstructs the longue durée of gestation and manipulation of a distinctive Montenegrin identity during the socialist period following the successive reconfigurations of the federal system. Saša Nedeljković zooms the lens back to the present by looking at the Montenegrin rural diaspora in one particular village in the Vojvodina. He concludes that the population displays a rather localized form of ethnic identification dependent not on material identifiers but on presumed cultural traits that link them to their place of origins. Still, political activism and the patronage of the Montenegrin state strengthens the tendency toward a more pronounced identification with Montenegro.

Both Husnija Kamberović and Dženita Rujanac look back at the period between the 1960s to the 1980s as the immediate predecessor of the future Bosnian identity. Kamberović’s contribution on the debates and ambiguities among political elites on the issue of a Muslim nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s is extremely valuable because of the long excerpts from unpublished archival documents. The explanation it gives about a generational shift, however, is not clearly elaborated: very often, political conflicts are couched in opposition between old and young. Equally, the opposition between progressive and backward seems to have been employed purely rhetorically by all conflicting views. Rujanac assesses the 1983 Sarajevo trial against Muslim intellectuals as a show trial inventing nationalist and fundamentalist enemies, in response to the federal pressure on the Bosnian communist elites. It is paradoxical, however, that this invention arose later like a Frankenstein, in that the suspected and sentenced intellectuals became subsequently the leaders of the Bošnjak nation. The very fine chapter of Iva Lučić gives a sophisticated and crystal clear account of the relationship between the categories Yugoslav and Muslim, and the logic behind policy-making decisions. As a result of the shift to decentralization the categories were redefined so as to conform to the new political frame. Accordingly, the census policy and especially the 1971 census, which are the focus of this contribution, reflected not self-identification patterns, but the new distribution of power aimed at affirming the status of the republic at the expense of the centralized federal state.

In his fascinating paper on the emblematic and contested figure of Krste Misirkov, Ermis Lafazanovski takes seriously the shifts and switches in Misirkov’s ethnic self-identification and analyzes them through the lens of his life circumstances, particularly during his stay in Bessarabia during the First World War. Creating a panoramic picture of the phases in the evolution of a distinct Macedonian identity, Irena Stefoska turns to historiography as a decisive identity builder after the Second World War. She ably deconstructs historical scholarship, especially works on the medieval period, providing an effective critique of the general Balkan obsession with ethnogenesis. Rozita Dimova, on her part, makes the interesting observation that while culture was an inseparable part of the nation-building process, during the socialist period the state served principally as its sponsor, while in the post-socialist period culture and the arts have become the most important field of political contestation, with the state actively creating its political representations for internal and international consumption. Calling this the etatization of the arts, she describes the transformations of two traditional major festivals, in Ohrid and Struga, to promote the antiquization and Christianization of the Macedonian image and identity in the first case, and in the other to accommodate the rising demands of the Albanian minority for inclusion and representation.

Several other chapters explore culture and national symbols. By telling the story of the contested national flags in Macedonia, Žarko Trajanoski’s witty chapter elucidates the burgeoning conflicts plaguing the country: between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians, between the political parties, and the battle with Greece over the state’s name which jeopardizes Macedonia’s place in the EU and NATO. Recognizing the power of folk culture for national identity building, Ivona Tatarchevska looks at a particular site of nation-building: folk dance. Through the story of the premier ensemble Tanec during the socialist period, she describes processes of institutionalization, professionalization, political manipulation, but also negotiation and contestation. Still within the realm of culture, a few chapters examine commemorative spaces and practices used for the purpose of nation-building. Gabriela Welch bases her multilayered analysis on the anthropological notion of symbolic appropriation in her quest to understand the transformative character of World War Two commemorations to foment a consensual Moldovan identity. By using the polysemy of naming, adding new visual symbols and transforming performances and rituals, the Moldovan government consciously encouraged conciliation and inclusiveness. While Ludmila Cojocaru supports these findings, she focuses on the tensions produced by the government efforts to promote a Moldovan identity based on the theory of “Moldovanism”, and alternative popular and local memories. Her three case studies of memorial complexes amply illustrate the idea that popular communicative memory is able to reinterpret, adapt and contest the official memories endorsed by the state. Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu provides a useful survey of the evolution of diverse narrative, mostly historiographical, representations of the territory between the rivers Prut and Dniester. The different hypostases of this compact space from historic Bessarabia to the present Republic of Moldova are marked by imperial and national contestations.

Inevitably, as behooves such a sizeable volume, some chapters are more sophisticated than others, but all are well informed theoretically, well written, and conforming to a commonly adopted clear structure that shapes the volume as an organic whole. In conclusion, “The Ambiguous Nation” is unambiguously a successful and valuable contribution to Southeast European scholarship.

Maria Todorova, Urbana, IL

Zitierweise: Maria Todorova über: The Ambiguous Nation. Case Studies from Southeastern Europe in the 20th Century. Ed. by Ulf Brunnbauer and Hannes Grandits. München: Oldenbourg, 2013. 480 S., Abb. = Südosteuropäische Arbeiten, 151. ISBN: 978-3-486-72296-3, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/erev/Todorova_Brunnbauer_The_Ambiguous_Nation.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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