Account for the origins of "Balkan" stereotypes
Posted by Jan Romanowski on 2023-09-11
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This article was written by Jan Romanowski, a first year History, Politics, and Economics Student at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Account for the origins of “Balkan” stereotypes
Many historians argue that the Balkans, apart from being a geographical location, are associated ‘with negative connotations of violence, savagery, primitivism.’ With the emergence of these negative connotations, presenting the Balkans as uncivilised, as ‘the other’, surfaced stereotypes of what the region and its people are like. Three key things must be identified to analyse the origins of “Balkan” stereotypes: which states make up the Balkans, what Balkan stereotypes are, and which agents are involved in constructing them. I will use Barbara Jelavich’s defintion of the Balkans: ‘Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia’ (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia). Since many stereotypes about the Balkans exist, I will focus on the overreaching ones which influence other stereotypes – backwardness and being uncivilised. I argue that most “Balkan” stereotypes came from the opinions of travellers and diplomats from “Western”, mainly English-speaking countries, and the perspective they conveyed onto their audiences was the main factor in establishing these stereotypes. The notion that “Western” elites created and enforced stereotypes about the Balkans will be examined by looking at the presentation of the region and its people, the economic situation in the region and how perspectives changed based on the political situation of individual Balkan states.
Friedrich Nietzsche argued that ‘the reputation, name, and appearance’ of an entity is ‘almost always [originally] something mistaken and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress […]’, and through the belief in it, a stereotype becomes the core association of an entity. This was largely the case for the Balkans. Western travellers described what was foreign to them as uncivilised and exotic, resulting in stereotypes about the region being formed in Western Europe.
Barbarism and primitiveness
The effect described by Nietzsche is seen when Mazower describes the perspective of “Western” visitors to the Balkans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who ‘looking at the peasants dressed in their picturesque costumes, […] were struck by the persistence of what they regarded as an antiquated life form.’ Similarly, two British writers studying Macedonia wrote that its ‘most marked feature’ was ‘the primitiveness of the native peasantry’. These ideas were ‘shared implicitly by travel writers, post-war modernisation theorists and social anthropologists.’ In 1812, Henry Holland described the people of the Balkans as ‘a new species of beings, with all those gaudy appendages of oriental character’, calling them ‘Turk[s]’. Moreover, as seen in Holland’s description, generalisations were already made, and the customs and outer appearance of the people were not described as culturally distinct between the region’s nations. Instead, people were generalised as Turks, which, because of the geopolitical situation of the day, was viewed as a derogatory term. This reinforces the idea that western travellers characterised the Balkans as a place not fitting the western perspective of what a functioning state and society should be.
The implicit link of the Balkans as ‘the other’, not of the ‘modern European civilisation’, can be seen in the region’s description as the border between Europe and Asia. Arthur Evans wrote that even ‘the Bosniacs themselves speak of the other side of the Save [sic] as “Europe” and they are right; for to all intents and purposes a five minutes’ voyage transports you into Asia.’ On the one hand, this recollection quoting Bosniacs perceiving their land as a geographical and perhaps cultural border between Europe and Asia may lead to the conclusion that the stereotype of “the other” is grounded in reality: that some Balkan people see themselves as an intermediary between European and Asian cultures. However, he is describing a nation not representative of the entirety of the Balkans, and arguably one which could be characterised as having similarities to Asian and North African cultures due to its significant Muslim population. By comparing the culture, he observed in the Balkans what was then perceived by Europeans as savage, exotic and unmodern; he also establishes the stereotype that the Balkans are different and uncivilised.
However, the Western perspective of the Balkans was linked to more than the observations and conclusions made based on the outer appearance of the Balkan people. From the beginning of their Macedonian study, the authors Goff and Hugh argue that the country was possibly ‘about to resume its pristine state of semi-barbarism.’ They later claim that this is the case despite the improvement of roads and railways during the allied operation. They explicitly name Macedonia as barbaric, thus implying it being uncivilised and establishing that as the first impression their readers have of the nation. However, neither the claim of Macedonian barbarism nor about allied help are backed up by evidence. The stereotype is again established and reinforced based on the subjective perspective gained during a short period of Goff's and Hugh's travels.
Barbarism and its moral inferiority
The use of words with strongly negative connotations by Goff and Hugh, as well as other authors mentioned throughout this article, can be seen as portraying the Balkans and the Western worlds as a ‘clash of civilisations.’ This would suggest that the region is not only culturally, but also morally distinct. Boletsi argues that the figure of the barbarian creates an image of ‘moral inferiority and irreconcilable cultural difference’. These connotations, the historical imagery of moral inferiority and cultural, and thus also humanitarian, clashes can be seen in the use of the words ‘barbaric’ in the aforementioned piece, but further in the stereotypes and description of the region as of ‘backward’ or ‘uncivilised’. All these words refer to a people less technologically, culturally and socially advanced, emphasising the view of the authors that there is a social and cultural gap between ‘the West’ and the Balkans. Such use of vocabulary – demeaning to the region and its people – formed the discourse of negativity towards the Balkans, simultaneously presenting the situation in the West as comfortable and morally virtuous compared to the south-east of Europe.
Mary Edith Durham – defender of the Balkans?
The notion of the unfriendly, uncivilised Balkans not fit for the civilised, liberal man was explored by Mary Edith Durham, who wrote, ‘a Balkan legation is to an Englishman a spot which he hopes soon to quit for a more congenial atmosphere in another part of Europe. As for a Consul, he often found it wiser not to learn the local language, lest knowledge of it should cause him to be kept for a lengthy period in some intolerable hole.’ This recollection given by Durham is peculiar as it serves both sides of the argument. On the one hand, because of the economic hardships and underdevelopment of the Balkans, they could be described as uncivilised, especially from the point of view of a middle-class British family. Conversely, the emotive language, describing the Balkans as a ‘hole’, implying it is an uncivilised place, reemphasises my point that the stereotypes originated from well-off Westerners, who expected a certain living standard not found in the Balkans.
However, in contrast to the previously mentioned figures, Durham was aware of the situation in the Balkans as she spent a significant amount of time in different countries of the region. In 1903 she joined the Macedonian relief fund and, between 1911 and 1913, ‘helped Albanian refugees in Montenegro, raising funds for food and medicine.’ She also recognised that Balkan nations were culturally distinct from one another. Thus, her perspective of the situation in the Balkans – the hardships but also cultural richness – and her sympathy for the region, may be valid in assessing that economic hardships are the true origins of Balkan stereotypes and actual experiences of the problems of the region. Then again, based on her argument, one could argue that her understanding of the British perspective allowed her to imply that these stereotypes originated from her compatriots, thus showing the true origins of prevalent stereotypes towards the Balkan.
Changing role of Stereotypes
As stereotypes of the Balkans were dependent on Western travellers, some faded away depending on the historical context present in certain countries. One such example is Greece, which by becoming a tourist hotspot after not falling into the Eastern bloc, arguably got rid of the negative connotations of the term “Balkan” and instead is viewed as a culturally rich holiday destination in which ‘the worst problems [...] were poor roads and unfamiliar toilets.’ Similarly, during the rule of the Nazi-collaborating Ustaše party in Croatia, the stereotype of the country changed with it being associated not with the brutality and backwardness of the Balkans but that of the fascists. We could also point to the ‘short-term history’ argument presented by Eugene Michail, that the presence of the stereotypes depends on the social and political context. He names the Serbo-British Alliance during World War I as such example, where the stereotypes were dropped when Serbia became an ally of Britain. Again, this reinforces the idea that stereotypes change based on the Western perspective, which has control over their presence, thereby leading to the conclusion that that is where they originated from.
Economics of the Region
Undeniably ‘[Eastern] Europe was lagging behind’ the West in economic performance and was identified with ‘industrial backwardness, lack of advanced social relations and institutions typical for the developed capitalist West’. Industrialisation in the Balkans was not as quick as in Western Europe and ‘Balkan farms were small and inefficient’ The GDP in the Balkans was severely lower than Western Europe, with the GDP per capita of the Ottoman Empire in 1870 being $850, whilst it was $3623 in Britain. For this reason, the region’s economics also have significance in assessing the origins of “Balkan” stereotypes, giving ground to the idea of the region’s backwardness. Nonetheless, this was also connected to the quality of life expected by the post-industrial travellers; the economics themselves are not responsible for the origin of other stereotypes. As such, it had a partial role in the origin of a single stereotype. Ultimately, this stereotype was inflated by Western travellers, expecting the quality of life they were used to.
In conclusion, the “Balkan” stereotypes mainly originated from the writings of Western travellers who, due to their status, identified the situation in the economically underdeveloped Balkans as backward and uncivilised. Their lack of understanding of a different culture resulted in the stigmatisation of the Balkan people - presenting them as “the Other” and the popularisation of such views resulted, in the words of Nietzsche, with these stereotypes becoming ‘the body’ of what the Balkans are. Certain historical contexts resulted in the reinforcement of some stereotypes and their justification; however, the fact that Western Europeans essentially decided when such contexts were deployed supports that it was where the stereotypes originated from, and that it is where they are upheld today.
 Mark Mazower, The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day (London: Phoenix, 2002), p.4.
 Bozidar Jezernik, ‘Europe and its Other (i.e. The Balkans)’ Periferia, 6 (2007), 1-17.
 Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Ninetheenth Centuries. Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. ix
 Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche: The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. by Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro, ed. by Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Book 2, p.58.
 Mazower, The Balkans, p.29.
 A. Goff and Hugh A. Fawcett, Macedonia: a Plea for the Primitive (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1921), p.8.
 Mazower, The Balkans, p.29.
 Ibid., p.10.
 Rok Zupančič and Jana Arbeiter, “Primitive, cruel and blood-thirsty savages’: Stereotypes in and about the Western Balkans’. Teorija in Praksa, 53.5 (2016), 1051–1063.
 Arthur Evans, Through Bosnia and the Hercegovina on Foot ( London: Longmans Green and Co., 1877).
 Popis Stanovništva U Bosni I Hercegovini 1879 in Scribd < www.scribd.com/document/24776630/Popis-stanovni%C5%A1tva-u-Bosni-i-Hercegovini-1879 > [accessed March 16, 2023]
 Goff and Hugh, Macedonia, p. v-vi.
 Maria Boletsi. (2010, September 1). Barbarism, otherwise : Studies in literature, art, and theory. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/1887/15925
 Mary Edith Durham, The Sarajevo Crime (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1925) p.11. Quoted in Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) p.16.
 ‘Edith Durham’ in Calderdale Museums <https://museums.calderdale.gov.uk/edith-durham> [accessed March 15, 2023]
 Mazower, The Balkans, p.5.
 Biondich, The Balkans.
 Eugene Michail, The British and the Balkans – Forming Images of Foreign Lands, 1900-50 (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011).
 Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, pp. 11-12.
 Steven Sowards. Lecture 9: Economic and social changes in Balkan life (Michigan: Michigan State University, 1996).
 Şevket Pamuk, ‘The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1870.’ The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World (2021),169–92.
 Nicholas Crafts, ‘Forging Ahead and Falling behind: The Rise and Relative Decline of the First Industrial Nation’. The Journal of Economic Perspectives. 12.2 (1998), 193–210.
Maria Boletsi. Barbarism, otherwise: Studies in literature, art, and theory. (Leiden, University of Leiden, 2010).
Nicholas Crafts, ‘Forging Ahead and Falling behind: The Rise and Relative Decline of the First Industrial Nation’. The Journal of Economic Perspectives. 12.2 (1998), 193–210.
Mary Edith Durham, The Sarajevo Crime (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1925) p.11. Quoted in Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) p.16.
‘Edith Durham’ in Calderdale Museums <https://museums.calderdale.gov.uk/edith-durham> [accessed March 15, 2023]
Goff and Hugh A. Fawcett, Macedonia: a Plea for the Primitive (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1921).
Arthur Evans, Through Bosnia and the Hercegovina on Foot ( London: Longmans Green and Co., 1877).
Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Ninetheenth Centuries. Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Bozidar Jezernik, ‘Europe and its Other (i.e. The Balkans)’ Periferia, 6 (2007), 1-17.
Mark Mazower, The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day (London: Phoenix, 2002).
Eugene Michail, The British and the Balkans – Forming Images of Foreign Lands, 1900-50 (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011).
Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche: The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. by Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro, ed. by Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Şevket Pamuk, ‘The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1870.’ The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World (2021),169–92.
Steven Sowards. Lecture 9: Economic and social changes in Balkan life (Michigan: Michigan State University, 1996).
Popis Stanovništva U Bosni I Hercegovini 1879 in Scribd
< www.scribd.com/document/24776630/Popis-stanovni%C5%A1tva-u-Bosni-i-Hercegovini-1879 > [accessed March 16, 2023]
Rok Zupančič and Jana Arbeiter, “Primitive, cruel and blood-thirsty savages’: Stereotypes in and about the Western Balkans’. Teorija in Praksa, 53.5 (2016), 1051–1063.