Nationalist copyright on World War One

As we are entering the anniversary of the centenary with the outbreak of World War One, controversies over how to commemorate the past are heating up. A few day ago, I published comment  in the Austrian daily Die Presse on debates and controversies over the commemoration of World War One. As unfortunately these debates are mostly published in German (and Serbian) only. Thus, some key points and links here.

Anti-Serb propaganda postcard from Austria-Hungary

German anti-Serb propaganda postcard from WWI

In my comment, particularly focus on how in Serbia and in the Republika Srpska there is a fear that the established national narrative is challenged in the context of the centenary. This is also an aspect Norbert-Mappes Niediek and others have recently commented on. The most recent example was  dramatic press conference in Andrićgrad–the newly built ethnocity as a tribute to Andrić close to Višegrad–by Miroslav Perišić, the director of the Archive of Serbia and Emir Kustrica, director of the Andrić Institute and part-time movie director (the RS, the main founder of Andrićgrad also boycotts of the EU-France-led commemorations in Sarajevo in June 2014). At the press conference Perišić presented a letter by the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia 13 months before the war urging-preparing war against Serbia. The supposed “smoking gun” turned out not to be one. First, the Serbian translation did not match the German original and second, scholars were long aware that there were hawks in Austria-Hungary (as elsewhere) lobbying for war. In the case of Austria-Hungary, it was not only the author of the letter, Oskar Potiorek, but also the chief of staff of the army, Conrad von Hötzendorf, as explored in a recent excellent biography of Hötzendorf by Wolfgang Dornik, who lobbied for a “preventive war” against Serbia.  This does not mean that they were unopposed.

Le Petit Journal. July 12, 1914

Le Petit Journal. July 12, 1914

The fear of national(ist) historians is that new historiography will might shift the blame to Serbia for the outbreak of the war and the figure of Princip. Indeed, recent books on World War One move away from the long dominant thesis of Fritz Fischer that German’s quest for global power was the prime cause of the war. The bestseller Sleepwalkers by Christoper Clark  in particular locates the responsibility in all the major European capitals were key actors openly heading towards war (thus the title of the book is a bit misleading). However, the book also too easily links Serb nationalism in 1914 to the 1990s, as Andreas Ernst recently noted in the NZZ and thus also is careless in linking the interpretation of World War One to the recent past. This is exactly the implicit and explicit concern in Serbia, namely that the responsibility of Serbian nationalism for World War One also established guilt for the wars of the 1990s. However, interpreting the two events have to be kept apart to not fall into the trap of an ahistorical analysis of actors and specific circumstances.

The question over the monopoly of interpreting the war also effects the effort to have a scholarly debate over the war. The main academic conference on the war, “The Great War: Regional Approaches and Global Contexts”, to be held from 19-21.6.2014 in Sarajevo (disclaimer: I am a member of the organizing committee) was attacked for seeking to reinterpret the past. The former Bosnian ambassador to France and Egypt Slobodan Šoja, for example complained that the conference only brings together the losers of the war (the organizing committee includes research institutions from Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Hungary) and would not give sufficient honor to Gavrilo Princip, whom he had described in a hagiography of Princip in Slobodna Bosna as the “purest source of national power and its consciousness.” Of course, historiography should be neither concerned with determining whether Princip is a hero (or a terrorist for that matter). These controversies suggest that much of the discussion during the upcoming commemorations will not be shaped by reflecting on the past, but making use of the past for the present. As such, the present is catching up with the past.


Commemorating Gavrilo Princip in Socialist Yugoslavia:
“From this place on 28.6.1914 Gavrilo Princip through his shots expressed the people’s protest against tyranny and centuries-long aspiration of our peoples for freedom.”

Balkan Lego Challenge

Here is an end of year Balkan Lego Challenge. While Lego might have its own architecture series, it is much more interesting to do the same with some standard bricks. Here are four challenges from the Balkans: two cities, one historical event and one architectural style. The results of much construction during the holidays.

Enjoy guessing (in the level of difficulty)!

1st Challenge: Guess the city!

P1140147 P1140148







2nd challenge: Guess the historical event!

P1140155 P1140157







3rd challenge: Guess the architectural style!

P1140173 P1140174







4th challenge: Guess the city!

P1140166 P1140167

Why the Belgrade-Prishtina Agreement is Likely to Succeed


Here are some reflections on the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo I shared with the Bulgarian publication Capital a few days ago.

The EU-brokered agreement between Serbia and Kosovo was a great news. But do you think that it could work in practice?

The agreement does not drastically change the status quo, so from that point of view it can work in practice. It preserves much of the structures and instutions that exist in Northern Kosovo, but just switches the formal authority from Serbia to Kosovo. However, the problem is that the agreement also rests on the idea of  elected institutions in the North and here the main challenge is a potential boycott by Serbs of such elections. As a result, there would be no legitimate institutions to carry out the agreement there. It is thus no surprise that the Serbian government has been lobbying hard in the north to convince Serbs to accept the arrangement. If the Serbian Orthodox Church supports the arrangement and some leaders might be put under pressure for their criminal activities there will be not much opposition and Serbs might vote to ensure that they are not ignored, especially if they feel they cannot derail the process.

What is the stimulus for the deal to work? Is the EU membership enough stimulus for both sides?

Surprisingly, EU membership is more powerful than what we sometimes expect. It is often thought that EU accession is too distant for governments to stake their reputation on sensitive issues. However, we see a differen dynamic here. Both the Serbian and the Kosovo government

How could Belgrade persuade the Kosovo Serbs to accept the deal?

Belgrade first needs to frame this agreement as being the best deal possible and also point out that the status quo cannot continue indefinitely. The second strategy the government has used is to offer a referendum (if it does not seem realistic at the moment) to show that it is confident of popular opinion in Serbia. A popular vote in favor of the agreement would not leave Serbs in North Kosovo much space to oppose the agreement. Finally, the argument that the government is making is that after all there is no possibility of the Serb leadership in the North to oppose both Serbia and Kosovo, their numbers are too small and the letter calling on support from Russia a few days ago rather betrays their weakness. They also lack a strong ally in Belgrade, be it in the opposition. Most are aligned to Vojislav Kostunica, whose support is marginal. In parliament, some 173 of 250 MPs voted in favor, a strong majority, and protests against the agreement had a small turn-out.


Why the critics are right and the EU still deserves the Nobel Prize


There is a monument in Sarajevo to honor the international community hiding behind the now closed Bosnian museum. It is a giant can of beef with the ironic “thank you to the International Community”. The EU flag leaves little doubt who is the main addressee of the ironic monument.

The decision of the Nobel committee to award this years peace prize to the EU has been probably nowhere as controversial as in the Balkans. The suggestion that the EU “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” rings hollow. After the ill-fated claim of Luxembourg FM Jacques Poos that this was the “hour of Europe”, the EC and later the EU failed miserably in the first half of the 1990s not only in preventing the dissolution of Yugoslavia and its ensuing violence, but also in ending the massive human rights violations (see the new excellent book in the topic by Josip Glaurdic). A comment in The Atlantic suggests that its failure in the Balkans during the 1990s makes it undeserving of the prize (this is more substantial criticism than others which suggest that continents shouldn’t win it–after all the EU isn’t a continent or opposing organizations winning it–plenty organizations including international organizations have won the prize in the past, i.e. the UN in 2001)

Tim Judah argued that it is in the Balkans that the EU has actually deserved its prize for transforming the region in the past decade through accession. It is easy to remind of the failings of the EU in the 1990s and to take a cynical view of the EU’s policies towards the Balkans in the past ten or so years. However, the prize is deserved for two reasons.

First, the prize is not just awarded to those who have worked for peace in the past, but also for those that hold promise to do so in the future. Winner like Jassir Arafat and Itzhak Rabin or Mohamed Sadat and  Menachem Begin. It is thus not only the past that matters but also the future. The prize has been used by the Nobel Committee to nudge those who had taken steps towards promoting peace. As such, the prize is not a reward, but an encouragement.

Second, the prize is also a reminder: It comes at the right time for the institutions and the governments of the member states to reflect on the fact that the at the core of EU integration lay its aim to secure peace, or as Robert Schuman notes in the 1950 declaration “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.” The EU has found a  gradualist approach, often against the will of key actors who became unwittingly builders of the Union, to bring this about. This gradual movement, not build on a single plan or blueprint can be frustrating to those who want a federal Europe now and infuriating to skeptics who miss the agency of the process. However, no other way could the EU have been built. The prize is a recognition for what the EU is, not what it did or does. Its policy to bring peace and prosperity is admirable, but often flawed and ineffective. As such, the prize should remind the EU and its political leaders to not just talk about the peace project EU on Sunday speeches, but fill it with meaning.

In order to become deserving of the prize, the EU should own up to past mistakes—an appology for its flawed role in the 1990s would be appropriate and make sure that its raison d’etre is not forgotten.




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