Slovenia is beautiful. It is clean. Motorists stop as pedestrians near the crosswalks. Roads are maintained. The exteriors of homes are maintained. Unemployment is low. One Brit ex-pat in his 80s said it all. As far as he was concerned, Great Britain could be dropped in the middle of the Atlantic and the world would be no worse off. He loved Slovenia for the health care, the food, the culture, the comfort, the beauty, the security, the peace.
Slovenia’s war of independence in 1991 lasted ten days. In those days, the joint Croat-Bosniak-Serb Yugoslavian Army had bigger fish to fry, when first Croatia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence. And, while at first the Yugoslav Army was multi-ethnic and eager to hold the nation together, it quickly degenerated into a largely Serb force eager to rid Bosnia and Herzegovina of the residual “Turk menace.”
“Turk menace” was also the phrase used in the official exhibit we watched at the Castle in Ljubljana. When I asked the college student docent about public hostility to Ottoman rule, she told me quite matter-of-factly that Slovenia was still a young nation and that it was still developing a shared national narrative. She was unaware that under Ottoman rule Jews, Muslims, and Christians had lived in relative harmony, and that rights were preserved for all ethnic and religious minorities. I suggested she visit the old town in Sarajevo, where the streets and neighborhoods acquired their names based on the ethnic groups who built and sold their wares there.
The docent was much more familiar with the propensity of Slovenians to white-wash the considerable collaboration by Slovenians with the Nazi occupation. Yes, there was also a small but fierce resistance, the history of which was celebrated during Slovenia’s forty-six year participation in post-war Yugoslavia. But in many regions partisans were few and far between. According to the docent, this history is not even taught at the University, a fact that she again explained by reference to the youth of the Slovenian nation and the need for all Slovenians to develop a shared national story.
Indeed, this story is featured wherever we go. Its inaugural event is the early eighteenth century “Spring of Nations,” itself provoked by Napoleon’s sweeping through central and eastern Europe. If the French have a nation and laws and a language and a literature, then surely we must too. But, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, it was chiefly the literate bourgeoisie, tired of their own servitude, that championed these new “imagined communities,” collecting and often inventing their national literatures, ethnographically isolating the “true” language from the “false” language, identifying national heroes extending far back into neolithic times.
Here, however, because of its position on the edge of the “shatterzone,” Slovenia holds a special place. It had to distinguish itself both from its southern slav (and mostly Muslim) neighbors and from its north and western (albeit Catholic) neighbors. Its natural ally, politically, were the Serbs and Hungarians, who like the Slovenians, wished to gain their independence first from their Ottoman and then from their Hapsburg overlords.
Thus the complexity of the story that the Slovenians have to construct. It is a multiethnic story in whose final chapter, the Slovenians cast off multi ethnicity. It is a multi religious story, at whose conclusion the Slovenians cast off the “Turkish menace.” And of course it is an economically successful history, in which Slovenians decide not to share their wealth with their erstwhile slavic brothers to the south.
All of which leaves me just a bit uneasy. Was the reduction of state identity to national identity really the solution we were looking for at the end of the cold war? Is this how we defeat the “Turkish” and “Orthodox” menace, in one blow, creating a clean, pure, uniform, identical nation? (Where have I heard this before?) Yes, I am aware of the role economics played in this decision, of the neoliberal revolution that set all of middle Europe free so to speak, and so also of the unprecedented selling off of public assets to private parties. And I am aware also of Slovenia’s cashing in on some of the most beautiful landscape anywhere in the world. Simply spectacular. But I am also aware that this drive towards surface particularism is counterbalanced by the embrace of and by the global economic system in which true particularism is explicitly forbidden.
Which brings us back to the actually existing multi ethnicity of, well, for example, Bosnia and Herzegovina, home not only of the “Turkish menace,” but also of my family. I will almost certainly return to Slovenia, where, among other things, I got my first real hike (four hours into the mountains to visit castle ruins) since coming to the Balkans. But I am also very happy to be returning to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where cars do not stop for pedestrians, where graffiti clutters buildings everywhere, where the crafts and trades are in disrepair because (apparently) no one can afford to repair their property, where the cuisine is fairly uniform and unemployment is unacceptably high, but where Catholic and Orthodox church bells are mixed with calls to prayer at the fourteen local mosques. Now that’s diversity!