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Friday, 16 November 2018

Balkan Legacies of the Great War: Centenary re-launch

On Wednesday, 14 November 2018, in a year that marks the hundredth anniversary of the ending of the Great War, Othon Anastasakis, David Madden and Elizabeth Roberts, discussed how South East Europe, the region in which the initial spark of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited the War, was irrevocably altered by it. Drawing on the book Balkan Legacies of the Great War which they co-edited in 2016, the three presenters focused on the different ways in which WWI is remembered and framed in the various countries of the South East Europe, as well as on its various legacies that have left an abiding sense of a lack of finality and of closure for the region.

David Madden opened the session by explaining the history behind the book which came about as the result of a symposium at St Antony’s in 2014 to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. He provided a brief summary of the individual chapters and then explained why ‘the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict’, as Dominic Lieven has written. The region in fact suffered ten years of conflict which resulted in the fall and rise of states that ultimately shaped the region’s 20th century history. Madden highlighted four historical legacies: First, the Greece/Turkey relationship, which remains uneasy and has spilt over into lack of progress over Cyprus. Second, the whole swathe of issues involving population exchange, population expulsion and ethnic cleansing, and encompassing also such horrors as the Armenian Genocide. Third, diasporas, including the role they play in the thinking and lives of their homelands. And, fourth, the various South Slav questions over the relationships between the successor states and related communities living outside their borders (such as the Serbian, Croatian, Albanian, Bosniak questions), as well as the Macedonian question, which has effectively morphed into the Macedonia name issue.
Suggesting that history is a continuity, Othon Anastasakis noted that it is important to assess how memories of the Great War are remembered today, collectively and individually, in different areas of the region. First, with reference to historical periods and historical moments but also to important personalities, he clarified what constitutes a historical legacy. He then highlighted the need to define breaking points in history and delineate the boundaries of the periods discussed stressing the fact that legacies must persist through time and generations to qualify as such. This persistence can take place in the form of 1) survival legacies, i.e. phenomena that continue to be influential even after the conditions that originally produced them cease to exist, 2) as replications of events that occur because the underlying factors are still present and 3) as ruptures in history. According to Anastasakis, legacies exist both independently of the agents of history, thus potentially becoming structural, but at the same time they are amenable to manipulation by various actors. Having offered these conceptual clarifications, Anastasakis went on to substantiate them with reference to the Greek case and the impact that the legacies of the Great War have had on this country and on its relations to its neighbours over the years.

Elizabeth Roberts began her talk by recounting the controversy between France and Serbia which was triggered by the protocol arrangements at the ceremony in Paris to commemorate the centenary of the end of the War; President Vučić of Serbia had been placed in the third row and on the wrong side of the aisle while Hasim Thaci, President of Kosovo, was in the second row, directly behind Putin. The outrage of Serbia media about an event that had happened only a few days before the seminar, graphically illustrates how neuralgic memories of the Great War remain. Roberts then addressed the South Slav question in detail focusing on the two book chapters that address the legacy issue as it relates to the countries that emerged from the destruction of the former Yugoslavia: ‘The Black Hand and the Sarajevo Conspiracy’ by Ivor Roberts and ‘Balkan Legacies of the South Slav question’ by the Croat-American historian Ivo Banac. She concluded by highlighting that the way in which you remember your history moulds your understanding of the present, which in turn modulates the way in which you envision and construct your future; a reality that is clearly illustrated by Balkan Legacies of the Great War.

The speakers’ presentations sparked a lively debate that revolved around a range of topics such as historical memory, population exchanges and ethnic cleansing, the dominance of the mono-ethnic state paradigm, the role of the post WWI international organisations and the different periodizations of the “long” First World War. Last but not least, the presenters engaged in a productive dialogue with the seminar participants assessing what could be the lessons learned and the wisdom gained for the future. The need for recognition of alternative historical narratives was particularly stressed as a well as the significance of the teaching of history in and outside classrooms.

Manolis Pratsinakis (Onassis Fellow, University of Oxford)

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