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Miroslav Hroch

Note: this text was written some years ago,

before the publication of Maria Todorova's Imagining the Balkans.



           general circumstances

           specific factors

The comparison of the nation-forming process in Central and South-Eastern Europe could be treated as an important example of uneven development. This contribution wishes merely to outline some key elements of modernity and socio-cultural transformation in these two European macro-regions. Both regions are in some degree by "pars pro toto": Central Europe being represented by the Habsbourg monarchy (which however controlled only a part, albeit an important one, of Central Europe) and the South-East by the Ottoman Empire (of which, however, it was only a part).

             Even though differences between these regions are usually stressed (and they are evident), to compare them means that we suppose also some essential common features. Crucial among them is the fact that in both regions, the transformations from traditional, premodern into modern societies were established also as a nation-forming process, i.e. modern nations emerged in both regions as a result of successful national movements. In both Empires, national movements started as an answer to their economic, political and cultural crisis.

             In both cases, as in other parts of Europe, national movements could be defined as organized efforts to achieve all the attributes of a fully-formed nation. Their goals covered three main groups of demands, which corresponded to felt deficits of a full national existence:

1.          the development of a national culture based on the local language;

2.          the achievement of political self-administration and of some degree of civil rights;

3.          the creation or extension of a complete social structure from out of the own ethnic group (including educated elites, an entrepreneunial class, middle classes etc.).

These demands were presented in different national movements in different order and with uneven relevance.

             These national movements proceeded in both regions through three analogous structural phases. During the initial period (Phase A), the energies of the activists were above all devoted to scholarly enguiry into an awareness of the linguistic, social and historical attributes of the non-dominant ethnic group. In the second period (Phase B), a new range of activists emerged, who now sought to win over as many of their ethnic group as possible to the project of creating a fully-fledged nation, by patriotic agitation to "awaken" national consciousnes among them.

             Habsburg/Ottoman differences begin at the point where we consider the relevance and mutual relationship among different elements of national programs and where we compare the method used by different national movements during the Phase B and C in order to achieve their goals. From this point of view, two most widely known and usally stressed differences are:

1. the political program (formulated as the demand for independence) became rather soon, just during the Phase B, the central cocnern of national movements in the territory of the Ottoman Empire, while those in the territory of the Habsburg Empire limited themselves for a rather long time to cultural and social demands and - except the Magyar national movement - did not demand national independence untill 1914.

2. National movements under Ottoman rule were strongly in favour of using armed force, fighting for their political goals (as their forfathers had in previous centuries), while the use of arms only occurred in Habsburg lands during the revolution of 1848-49.

             These two dissimilarities are, however, only an outer expression of other differencies and specifities, which are of greater relevance. My analysis will – like all comparative proceedures – focus on some criteria. The first group of these considers the general, objective circumstances, the second concerns the role of the specific factors and conditions which facilitated and enabled the success of national movements.

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Under general circumstances of the nation-building process, we understand above all the historical development previous to the commencement of national movements and its impact on state administration and political structure. Into this category belongs also the difference in economic and social development and the difference of cultural ambience and traditions.

1.          The objective difference of the nation-building process in both Empires was based above all on how Ottoman or Habsburg rule had been established. Habsburg rule had expanded since the late Middle Ages by combining dynastic claims, diplomatic treaties, and the threat of power. Their rule in almost all of their territories was based on contracts and conventions. Historical lands retained their specificity and could keep some relicts of self-administration and taxation. The non-dominant ethnic group could be identified with some of these territories, could formulate their goals in terms of historical rights and custom, eventually accusing Habsburg central rule of having violated or misinterpreted old conventions and constitutions. The basic form of the national movement was a dispute, debate, later combined with and supported by mass demonstrations. The use of armed force in the revolution of 1848 aimed primarily at abolishing the old regime and establishing civil rights.

Some examples: the (successful) Magyar and (less successful) Czech and Croatian call for historical rights of "their" Kingdom of Hungary (Bohemia, Croatia). New Czech, Slovak, Slovenian etc. institutions and schools were always a matter of debate and dispute with the ruling elites. Significantly, four compromises were proposed as a solution of the "Czech problem": 1848, 1871, 1890 and 1897 (all of them failed).

The Ottoman Empire was based on conquest and force and the new rulers demonstrated their military supremacy also during the following centuries. They destroyed the formal state institutions and territorial units of the conquered territory, they destroyed the local nobility, especially in Serbia and Bulgaria. They created a new centralized state-administration, where the members of subjugated Christian population could achieve only a very marginal influence in local administration. A new law and order was created, allowing no debate on old rights. If the members of the non-dominant ethnic group tried to improve their situation, they could only do so as petitioners dependent on the decisions of the ruling Ottoman elites. The rule of law - even the Ottoman one - remained rather imperfect and could be violated by force and corruption. It is no wonder that under these conditions, the national leaders regarded the use of armed force as the only effective means of satisfying their collective demands.

2.          Another important difference in objective conditions concerned the role of religion. The Ottoman conquerors accentuated their superiority by emphasizing the supremacy of Islam over Christianity. Their aim was not a general homogenity: they maintained religious differences to act as social and political barriers dividing them from the non-privileged strata of the population. At the same time, this strict division enabled to the Christian population to create some kind of closed society. The Ottoman administration accepted the Church as the only speaker and representative of this population. Nevertheless, the dominating role among these representatives kept the Greek hierarchy. Only one part of the Ottoman territory enjoyed temporarily (1557-1766) some degree of autonomy without the Greek domination: the Serbian patriarchate in Pec, where not only the Church-Slavonic language was used, but also some memory of the glorious past conserved. Hence the importance of the Orthodox Church and clergy in the Phase B of national movements.

Under these conditions, the struggle for national emancipation had to be directed usually both against Ottoman rule, as the main enemy, and against the dominance of the Greek hierarchy.

Even though the Reformation created religious differences also in the Habsburg monarchy, the state policy aimed successfully a religious, i.e. Catholic homogenization: it was culturally inclusive, not exclusive and the result was that the difference between ethnic groups was based in almost all cases on linguistic differences. The Catholic Church was organized usually in relation to historical lands and this circumstance admitted the combination of religious loyalty and national engagement of the clergy. At the same time, the Catholic hierarchy represented a part of the ruling classes and was - except during the rule of Emperor Joseph II - closely joined both with the state and with the nobility. In other words: the ruling elites belonged in the Habsbourg monarchy to the same religious denomination as the majority of the population, without regard for their different ethnicity. When national movements emerged, there was thus no real difference of religious affiliation between the ruling elites and the non-dominant ethnic groups, and no religious difference could serve as a national argument. Only in Czech arguments from history did the memory of the negative role of the Catholic Church play some role.

3.          As a result of such circumstances, national movements under Ottoman rule developed a distinct picture of "the enemy": the Ottoman elites (interpreted as "Turks") could be regarded both as a religious enemy, and as the privileged political oppressor, different not only in its way of life, but also in its ethno-linguistic charasteristics. Therefore, the dividing line between us and them was more visible in the Ottoman Empire than under the Habsburg rule, even if the notion of the "Turk" was significantly distortive: the ruling elites in the Empire were the Ottomans, not ethnic Turks, and defined themselves in terms of religion and customs rather than modern-style national identity.

Another aspect of the relation between the rulers and the non-dominant ethnic groups must be mentioned. The development of national attributes among the rulers proceeded at different rates in the two empires. While the ruling elites in the Habsburg monarchy defined their identity in terms of the emerging modern nation (German in the Western, Magyar in the Eastern part of the Empire) quite early (around 1848), the Ottoman elite remained just that, Ottoman, until the end of the 19th century; a modern Turkish identity emerged with the Young Turks, later than national identifications among all other ethnic groups in the Balkans (except, perhaps the Albanians). National movements under Habsburg rule faced an option between two or more national identities, which emerged as a result of an analogous process of modernization: the difference was defined by social and ethnic differences, not by any difference in degree of civilization. National movements in the Balkans, however, faced as the main enemy an elite defined by premodern concept of Ottomanism: the difference was defined by religion and civilization and gave only very little space to national alternatives and options.

4.          Expressed in general terms of economic history, the key difference between the two regions resulted from the fact that capitalism and industrialization emerged much earlier in the Habsburg Empire. Even though the Eastern part (Hungary) experienced industrialization half a century later than its Western part (Vienna, Bohemia, Moravia, Lower Austria), the general impact of intensified market relations and of capitalist entrepreneurship, which penetrated also into the agrarian sector and intensified social mobility and communication, played an important role during the nation-forming process throughout the Habsburg monarchy.

In the territory under Ottoman rule, all political and national activities well into the 19th century faced an extreme localism of isolated communities, resulting from geographic and economic fragmentation in almost all parts of the Balkans. Nevertheless, this backwardness of the Balkan peninsula does not mean a total absence of economic growth. During the 18th century, rich strata of merchants and craftsmen - both Christian and Moslem - emerged in the towns, and analogously to it, prosperity and assertiveness among Christian landowners and heads of rural communities grew. Naturally, ethnic Greeks were strongly represented among these middle-classes, but the number of Serbian and Bulgarian merchants and Serbian and Romanian landed aristocracy also increased.

It is one of the ironies of Balkan history that these social groups - even though they were subordinated to the Ottoman ruling class - could play the role of a "national elite" in the Greek, Serbian, Romanian and later Bulgarian national movements, together with the Orthodox clergy. The explanation could be found in the strong segregation of the Christian communities: since the moment, where the segregation changed to separation, local merchants, landowners, craftsmen etc. could play the role of the ruling class. This is the reason why the less developed non-dominant ethnic groups in the Balkans could start their national movement at the stage of an almost "completed" social structure. In other words, while the national movements (except the Magyar one) in the Habsburg monarchy only completed their social structure after having achieved their Phase C, national movements in the Balkans entered their Phase B under conditions of a comparatively full social structure.

5.          All these differences could be resumed into a typological one, which is based on the relationship between the timing of the starting point of the Phase B and Phase C, on the one hand, and the transition to a constitutional system and capitalism, on the other hand. Combining these two series of changes, we can distinguish different types of national movements. National movements in the Habsburg Empire belonged to those, which started their national agitation under conditions of the old feudal regime, but achieved the Phase C (mass movement) only under conditions of constitutionalism (or bourgeois revolution of 1848) and industrialization. The national movements under Ottoman rule started also the national agitation under the old regime, but aquired a mass character already before the establishment of a civil society .

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Specific factors favouring the success of national movements in almost all parts of Europe can be briefly summarized as follows:

1.          an effective Phase A;

2.          a basic volume of vertical social mobility, open to members of the non-dominant ethnic group;

3.          a fairly high level of social communication, including literacy, market relations, social mobility etc.,

4.          nationally relevant conflicts of interests;

5.          favourable external conditions.

1.          While the national movements in Central Europe used the results of scientific research, which had been undertalken during their Phase A (by philologists, historians, geographers etc.), this phase of enlightened activities was under-represented in southeastern Europe. The explanation can be easilly formulated in very general terms: there did not exist any secular higher or university education in the Otoman Empire, as it did in the Habsburg Empire, above all since from the days of enlightened absolutism onwards. Naturally, among Greeks, Serbs and later among Bulgarians, some scholars were educated outside of the Ottoman Empire, but their activity in most cases occurred under conditions of phase B, i.e., as part of more widespread national agitation. In other words, phase A was in the Ottoman Empire subsumed by learned activities during phase B. This was not only a matter of education, but above all of general cultural and intellectual isolation. Consequently, the definition of the nation-to-be and its common features, including its difference from other ethnic groups, was not based on scholarly research and as a result lacked convincing power. As a result, different constructs of national identity, based more on power politics than on scientific argument, often competed in South-Eastern Europe (Illyrism versus Croatian or Serbian identity, the overlapping Great-Serbian and Great-Croatian concepts, later Macedonians or Muslims in Bosnia). Only one comparable case can be observed in Central Europe: the case of Czechoslovakism and Slovak national identity.

Important consequences of the "neglected" phase A cocnern the sphere of historical consciousness. Compared with the Habsburg Empire, where history was an integral part of Czech, Magyar, Croatian and Slovenian phase A, and then transferred into phase B, the opressed ethnic groups in Ottoman Empire based their historical consciousnes, their collective memory (e.g. the remembrance of their medieval statehood) above all on oral tradition, such as historical songs. This offered advantageous conditions for the invention of national myths, but, at the same time, enabled a more effective penetration of collective memory among the illiterate population.

There survived a strange contradiction among this population until phase C: on one hand, they had a very clear idea as to their "enemy"; on the other hand, they were unable to develop a consensus concerning criteria for their own identity.

2.          National agitation could not start effectively until some members of the non-dominant ethnic group got the opportunity of social advancement through education or through property. The advancement through education was more common in Central Europe, while in the Ottoman Empire advancement was facilitated rather by wealth. National agitation started among a partly emancipated wealthy class from ethnic minorities (in the first plane, Greek and Romanian landowners, Greek Phanariots, but also Serbian and Bulgarian merchants and "knezi" etc.). This difference was not without importance for the structure of national demands.

One side-effect must be mentioned. All national movements in the Balkans encountered difficulties after having achieved their autonomy (or independence), searching for qualified educated elites in administration, the education system etc. This need had to be satisfied from outside: the Serb state invited Serbs from the Hungarian Voivodina and those who had studied in Austria or in Russia. The Romanian state used the sons of local landlords educated abroad, above all in France. The Bulgarian state used compatriots, who were educated in Central Europe and in Russia.

3.          Increasing social communication, an integrating and nationally mobilizing factor, achieved uneven intensity and different structure in Central and South-Eastern Europe, and was transmitted along different lines. In the Habsburg Empire, social communication was evidently higher and was above all based on growing literacy, schools, book-print (including journals) and the Church. From these factors, only the last played an important role under Ottoman rule. Even though some other media of communication exited in the Ottoman millet system, which strengthened contacts among the Christian population, this form of social communication subsisted at a very low intellectual level – compared to developments in Central Europe, above all in the Western part of the Habsburg monarchy.

4.          Nationally relevant conflicts of interests were more apparent in the Ottoman territory, because the demarcation between the oppressor and the oppressed was obvious and sometimes even stressed by the ruling elites. Under Habsburg rule, the national relevance of conflicts and tensions was less obvious: the transposition or "translation" of cedrtain conflicts of interests into national terms was sometimes difficult.

There were also differences in the social coordinates of these conflicts and tensions. In Central Europe, they were in most cases a consequence of the advancing process of modernization: craftsmen endangered by industrialization, small merchants endangered by developing long-distance trade, educated members of the non-dominant ethnic group failing to get better positions in state-administration, workers and ethnically different factory-owners etc. In South-Eastern Europe, most of the conflicts of interest corresponded to pre-modern social and political structures. For this reason also, the armed fight against the Ottoman rule included strong elements of premodern social conflicts, of "primitive" and archaic forms of protest and of peasant wars, such as we know them from Central Europe during the 15th - 17th centuries.

5.          External conditions involve foreign policy and conditions created through international relations. In the Habsborg Empire such conditions were, if anything, suppressive, whilst in the Ottoman Empire they tended to stimulate national agitation. National movements were always supported by at least one of the European Powers (in the Greek case, there were three Powers involved - Great Britain, France and Russia, even though Mettternich personally disapproved of the Greek insurrection).

While the (partial) dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was a calculated element of the "European concert" created by Metternich during the Congress of Vienna, no government supported the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire. Austria obtained military suppport from Russia against the Hungarian rising of 1848-49, and through the Compromise of 1867, both Austria and Hungary mutually guaranteed their territorial integrity against all kinds of national movements. No wonder that only the breakdown of Russia in 1917 and of Germany in 1918 opened the way to the emergence of independent states in Central Europe.

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