The ongoing political and cultural division within the United States exhibits historical parallels with similar divisions in the Balkans a century ago.
I want to tell you a two-part story: one of a war that lasted a year barely, but that was the result of decades of conflict and oppression, both real and perceived, and the other of two contested groups separated only by a political ideology that had turned racial.
The first part of our story takes place over 100 years ago. The Ottoman Empire, what we now call Turkey, was on its last legs and had been called the “sick man of Europe” for decades. It owned the entire region of Europe known as the Balkans, from Constantinople up to the Hungarian border. This imperial power was unique for its time because, similar to the newly-formed United States of America, it granted quite a bit of religious and ideological freedom to its citizens, though they were all subordinate to Turkic policies and Islamic dominance; similar enough to America’s Anglo-Saxon power brokers and Christian dominance, if only for this comparison. It was a peculiar set up, but it had been mostly effective at keeping the peace for centuries.
Now things were changing; the Ottoman Empire’s desperate attempts to modernise were failing, they kept getting sucked into wars with Russia and the other Great European Powers, and these “Balkan States” as they were beginning to be called, had gotten a taste of self-determination and, more importantly, nationalism. It began with the dispossessed Albanians who lacked a coherent identity compared to their Balkan brethren: no written language, no borders, intertribal divisions. Then followed the more concretely established ethnic and national groups within the region: the Serbs, the Croats, the Bulgarians, the Macedonians, the Montenegrins. None of them — even their Muslims — enjoyed being under the yoke of the Ottomans anymore. They now knew that they knew better. These groups had become “woke.”
An alliance was formed to rise against the Ottoman overlords, but ulterior motives between the different groups reigned supreme. The Montenegrins, for example, encouraged the Albanians to rise first against the Ottomans because they knew it would weaken both groups enough so they could take some Albanian territory down the line with greater ease. But battles were waged against the Turks with increasing ferocity, and it seemed that the Resistance was unstoppable, even though it was hardly doing much real damage; that had already been done thanks to the excess and imperial backwardness of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. It was because of this that more brutal tactics were used by the imperial masters to put it down. A Russian film director named Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko reported on what he discovered in a Bulgarian village he’d visited during the previous Russo-Turkish War a few decades before:
“What is that?” I ask our military guide.
“A Bulgarian village.”
“Yes, I know the village well.”
“What happened here?”
“The Turks came through yesterday.”
The closer we got, the more uneasy my guide and I became. Slaughtered cows. One mooing mournfully while trying to stand…We hear a ghastly scream. The guide clutches his rifle…It’s a little girl. About thirteen years old. The position of her body bares stark witness to what happened. And then cut up with a knife. Around her a puddle of blood…She’s alive! She screams again. I get down from my horse and peer at her face…I will be tortured by that terrible sight through many dreamless nights. Her eyes had been gouged out.
The dead inhabit every house I enter…The church is completely blackened by fire. On the path dead children, little girls with split skulls and legs spread apart. The criminals probably caught the crowd as they were fleeing for sanctuary. The inside of the church is a terrible stage…Once my eyes get used to the dark, I see the pile of burnt bodies of people desperate to break down the doors, locked from the outside, as the building went up in flames.”
After news of atrocities like the one in Karaj-Chiftlik spreads throughout the region, bloodlust takes over. Revenge is taken by the Resistance against Turks where they can find them, and against their Balkan Muslim brethren when they can’t. Turks begin to take out their rage on any Christians they can find and when they can’t they turn on their own people who also happen to be Christian. Anything to identify someone as an enemy is used against them. When the carnage is complete after nine months of fighting, nearly 250,000 people are dead. The Balkan League was victorious but as soon as they won, the alliance disappeared as quickly as it was created. The different nations and groups went back to their usual ways, with their dis-unified ambitions taking precedent. Some basked in victory, others continued the fight, depending on their political goals. And the Ottomans were more crippled than ever before and their entire government would completely dissolve in the coming years.
In the second part of our story, we’ll move north from the old Ottoman Empire to look at two groups still fighting the good fight for self-determination: the Serbs and the Croats. They both occupied a similar area of the Balkan peninsula and both ostensibly allied. The Serbs were further along in their national and military development than the Croats, who had a strong cultural definition, but lacked a real state to their name and were, in essence, oppressed by the Serb majority. But they shared several cultural aspects like religion and language and had appreciated and supported one another through their shared regional DNA.
The Serbs and Croats were allies. Or at least should’ve been. Both had a strong sense of racial identity, that superseded all the other qualifiers. They were the same and yet couldn’t have seen themselves as more different. Eventually, even though they’d thrown off the oppressive yoke of the conservative Ottoman imperialists, they developed diverging interests on the idea of their unified, national fate. This had turned violent faster than you could finish this sentence. But this was no shock to some of the astute observers decades before, like the future Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, Nikola Pašić, who said in the late 1880s about the problem facing Croats and Serbs:
“The Serbs strive for the unification of all Serb tribes on the basis of tradition, memory, and the historical past of the Serb race. They have been inspired primarily by the uprising of ordinary people in central Serbia against the Turks and the resulting establishment of the Serb kingdom…Croats on the other hand, wish to see their Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia at the center of unification…The road to unification of the Serbo-Croat people under the leadership of Serbia runs in a completely opposite direction to the road of unification under the leadership of the Triune Kingdom.”
The Serbs and the Croats both shared religions — Catholicism, Islam, and Orthodox — but the Serbs were largely Orthodox and the Croats were largely Catholic and Muslim. They both shared a common mother tongue, but they spoke different dialects. They both shared a genetic heritage, but as far as they were both concerned, they were different irreconcilable races. This tension, this division existed for years beyond count with the Serbs and Croats. They had overthrown the tyrant they saw in the Ottoman Empire, but the division had gone nowhere, and it was going nowhere.
This division would fester, beginning with increasingly nationalist and absolutist coverage. A Serb writer in Zagreb named Nikola Stojanovic wrote, “Croats don’t have their own language, or any collective customs…nor, most important of all, do they have a consciousness of belonging to one another without which people cannot claim a specific nationality.” A Croat newspaper responded with “Everything is absolutely clear! Our Serbs want to wipe us off the face of the earth as a people!” Stojanovic would then write, “This struggle will end with the extermination of either you or us. One side must go down. We Serbs may rest assured that the Croats will fall because they are the minority, by dint of their geographical position, by dint of the fact that they live everywhere mixed with Serbs and by dint of the evolutionary progress which ensures that the idea of Serbdom means progress.”
This would cause hysteria; violence would break out, subside and then break out again. There was a temporarily forced unification of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia until Hitler dissolved it, exploiting the division within the Serbo-Croat region of the Balkans with a puppet Croat regime who shared Hitler’s burning hatred for Jews and nomadic peoples, but which also had a burning hatred for Serbs. This regime only lasted for about four years and only held power thanks to Axis backing, but managed to be one of the vilest, most repugnant, and savage group of masculinity-worshipping combatants in the entire war, to the point that even German SS men were disgusted by what they saw these men do. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the leader of this movement, Ante Pavelic, took great pride in the casualties he inflicted upon the thousands and thousands of Serbs his men butchered. One can imagine when someone asked if these casualties were combatants or civilians, he would give them his trademark blank look that could only mean one thing:
Why must there be a difference?
Pure violence and chaos had been unleashed decades and decades earlier. After the war, it became subdued. The only reason this unleashed violence was even able to be subdued was communist terror and subjugation. You could feel the old hatreds always sitting, lying in wait, which is why when communism in Europe fell in 1989, it took all of two years before everything exploded again with yet more ethnic cleansing and mass displacement. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This lengthy story isn’t meant to be a 1:1 representation of America in 2018. But consider what IS similar and what people in this country don’t want to imagine: that the American public IS culturally and politically backward (is it any wonder that we have a president like Donald Trump when a democratic government is only as good as its people?). That America’s diversity of identity is its greatest strength and yet has always been its greatest potential weakness. That the litany of historical grievances present within all of us not only won’t be solved but can’t be solved. That our ideological zeal is borderline pathological. And that our greatest historical contribution is hatred and violence inflicted upon ourselves at rates unseen outside of the developing world.
If America is James Bond and the Balkans are Ernst Blofeld and his cat, this is the moment where Blofeld turns in his chair, stroking his feline friend, and says those chilling, cliched words:
“We’re very much alike, you and I.”
Epilogue: What comes after?
While not many commentators have suggested the real logical endpoint of the Great American Division of the 2010s, even fewer — none, as far as I can tell — have even considered the aftermath of such a conflagration. That’s because the conflagration itself is difficult enough for those of us living in such privilege to imagine, sure, but also because it’s tough for us to imagine what a normalized Balkanized States of America could look like; a B.S.A. fifty years on, a B.S.A. into which a new generation has been born.
I don’t know. I don’t even know that a Balkanized States of America is what’s going to happen. We could very well be in for more of the same. Or we might just be waiting in the wings for the rise of the Fourth Reich. I could easily be wrong in my prognostications. But if I’m right, I think we can expect to see a Balkanized States of America outlast the United one. I fear that a Balkanized set of states is far too in line with the nature of our species, especially when our civilisation is embracing personalisation at the level we are.
The good news — if you want to call it that — is that thanks to Balkan history, we have a good idea of what a normalised Balkanized anything would look like.
I’ve had this Balkanized future on my mind for several months now. And it finally reached that crystalline moment of clarity when I saw fireworks explode above me in Los Angeles’ Grand Park. As the heart-shaped explosions synced with the crooning of The Beatles telling us that all we need is love was replaced with the obligatory finale of red, white, and blue eruptions synced with “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, I couldn’t help but gag on my dinner that I’d eaten hours before. The words of Robert Kaplan’s recollections of his travels on a train speeding southward through the Balkans had lodged themselves in my brain as I tried, hopelessly, to stop thinking of the future.
“The train passed through a series of tunnels. Because the overhead light fixtures had no bulbs in them, some people lit candles inside the tunnels, which dramatically illuminated their black, liquid eyes. There was a solemn, almost devotional cynicism to these eyes, reflecting, as though by a genetic process, all of the horrors witnessed by a generation of forebears.
I now had to change trains.”
This article is the second of Alexander von Sternberg’s two-part series on the Balkanization of American society. The first part of the series, ‘A Myth For The Ages’ can be read here.