Serbia: The History behind the Name
by stevan k. pavlowitch
London, C. Hurst and Company, 2002. 256 pages
Hardback: £45. Paperback: £14.95
The late Fred Singleton used to describe his regular task of writing the entry on Yugoslavia for the Annual Register of World Events as being rather like writing a very long telegram. In the volume under review here, Stevan Pavlowitch has written a very long telegram indeed! The achievement of producing a book of historical essays on Serbia within 252 pages is a remarkable feat of compression, but one in which for the most part the condensed nature of the narrative is not earned at the cost of intelligibility.
There can be few historical enterprises which are more daunting in this respect. As Pavlowitch points out, it is difficult to write a history of “Serbia”. The state bearing this title was destroyed by the advancing Ottoman Empire during the fourteenth century, and revived only during the nineteenth century. It was subsumed after the First World War in a unified South Slav state, but then underwent a brief but ignominious restoration as a Nazi puppet between 1941 and 1945. With the return of peace, the title was awarded to one of the six republics of the former Yugoslav federation, but its identity was thoroughly confused by the creation of two constitutional anomalies in the form of Serbia’s “autonomous provinces”—Vojvodina and Kosovo. Even with the collapse of communist Yugoslavia, “Serbia” remained a kind of historical scarecrow, dressed in the rags of federation, and at the time of writing its future as a state is clouded by the unresolved questions of its continuing relationship to both Montenegro and Kosovo. How can one write a history of Serbia when one is compelled to address at every stage such a fleeting ghost?
Similarly, the historian is embarrassed by the alternative prospect of attempting a history of “Serbs”. Although the name has been recorded in the pages of European history since the seventh century, it is by no means easy to identify a “people” who have all laid claim to that name in the same sense. Orthodox Christian speakers of Serbo-Croat found themselves divided after the Ottoman conquest between the Ottoman, Venetian and Habsburg spheres of influence. Whereas it is possible at one level to see them all as subjects of European history, once the focus of the historian’s attention is narrowed, the diversity of political, economic and cultural experience between different “Serbs” becomes problematic. The matter is complicated further by the belief of many that “Montenegrins” are merely one branch of the Serb family, although separated from their kin by history. As the process of Montenegrin ethnogenesis has gathered momentum during the past decade, it is hard to accept this view without heavy qualification.
Pavlowitch attempts to steer between Scylla and Charybdis:
This is not a history of Serbia; I would not know how to define Serbia through the ages. There has been no continuous polity or territory with that name. Serbias have come and gone, and they have moved about.
Nor is this a history of the Serbs; I would not know how to find them before the time when they stated what they believed they were in the “nationality” box of their identity cards. (P. vii)
What he does claim to have provided for the reader, therefore, is “an historical essay on the subject of ‘Serbia’ … This is no more than a personal sketch”. This claim is both a modest understatement and disingenuous.
Pavlowitch’s description of his own project is an understatement, first of all, because he manages to provide for the reader a historical survey both of “Serbia” (in all its manifestations, concrete and ethereal) and of “Serbs” (in their variety of guises). His ten chapters do provide a connected historical narrative which weaves together material relating to both of these putative entities. Pavlowitch is clearly deeply familiar with the raw material of his subject matter, and manages with the flair of the best historical writers to combine precision in his use of detail with a sense of the shape and movement of the flow of events. Only rarely does the need for compression result in a failure to contain the account of the historical sequence within a framework of causal explanation.
The most illuminating section of Pavlowitch’s book is that discussing the disintegration of the Habsburg state and the emergence of a unified South Slav polity at the end of the First World War. With Pavlowitch’s narrative on the table, further repetition is inexcusable of the old canard about the first Yugoslavia being no more than a “creature of Versailles”—a historical trick played on the Balkans by the Great Powers. Probably the least successful chapter is his treatment of the Milosevic years, although this is hardly surprising given that the significance of events emerges only in relation to their consequences, and we are far from being in full possession of these. However, this section does achieve an emphatic demolition of the reputation of the Serbian leader. That task would have been accomplished more completely, though, had greater attention been given to his legacy of criminalising the Serbian economy and political life.
Whether in search of a historical survey of “Serbia” or of “Serbs”, the reader unfamiliar with the region and its peoples will find this to be an excellent introduction, just as the historical aficionado will be surprised and intrigued by nuggets of detail which hitherto have not found their way into standard accounts.
Pavlowitch’s diffident comments about his limited aims are disingenuous, however, because I believe that he not only does set out to provide a history of “Serbia” and “Serbs”, but he probably also believes that these are intimately and necessarily linked to each other. The reader will probably come to this book in search of some means of reconciling the contradictory character of both Serbia and Serb identity. Why on earth should it be the case that the break-up of the Yugoslav federation was so unlike the peaceful separation of the Czech and the Slovak republics? Or for that matter, why was it possible for Slovenia to leave Yugoslavia with relatively little pain, but not possible for its sister republics to go their separate ways without agonising conflict? There can be little progress towards an answer to these questions unless some attempt has been made to understand the Serbs.
Pavlowitch rightly has no time for simple-minded explanations—sadly still prevalent in so much media coverage of the region—which look no further than a Serb propensity to aggression against their neighbours, as in the notorious “Great Serbia” project, whose latest avatar Milosevic is misrepresented as being. The answer does have to do with the problematic character of the relationship between “Serbs” (however they define themselves) and any possible state in which they might be united in a self-determining polity. Serbs cannot be united in a single state which is solely a Serb state, and which at the same time is not founded upon the equal partnership between Serbs and others. Moreover, any state which has brought or could bring all Serbs together in a political union will be compelled to confront the diversity of Serbs themselves as much as the differences between them and others.
Pavlowitch describes his book as an “essay”, and the essay form is usually defined in relation to a specifically analytical purpose. I would be hard-pressed to give an account of the author’s purpose here other than in terms of the analysis of the central contradictions of Serb identity and statehood. It is to his great credit that Pavlowitch grasps and communicates so clearly these probably irreconcilable dilemmas.
It is the privilege of the reviewer to carp—and my admiration for Pavlowitch’s achievement here does need to be balanced with one cause for carping. Despite his attempts to expose for what they are a succession of historical myths, one manages to survive his scrutiny, and that is the account of the demographic dynamics of Kosovo.
Nobody disputes that in the post-1945 period (and probably for much longer) there has been a steady relative decline in the Slav population of this province, and that the demographic balance has moved decisively in favour of Albanians, almost certainly to the point where Kosovo is no longer recoverable as part of a Serbian state. It needs to be said clearly and emphatically, however, that the primary, long-term cause of this development has not been the harassment of Serbs by their neighbours. (To the extent that this has been a factor, it has been a significant one only in the most recent period.)
Kosovo has been the source of a massive out-migration of both Serbs and Albanians, and indeed many more of the latter than the former now live outside the province, although before the most recent catastrophe the absolute number of Serbs as well as Albanians continued to grow. The first stimulus to emigration has been the contrast between the poverty of the region and economic opportunity elsewhere. Its dramatic effects have been highlighted, however, by the differential rates of reproduction of the two populations. In short, there are available social-scientific explanations of what has happened in Kosovo which undermine effectively claims that there occurred a “cultural genocide” of the Serbs. In exposing pernicious historical myths, Pavlowitch could have done us all a service by putting paid more emphatically to this one.
That said, Stevan K. Pavlowitch’s book deserves a warm welcome for the light it throws on events that have figured so tragically in recent history.