Balkanism, the European image of the Balkans

An analysis of the Balkanist mentality, which, in a way, we all take with us when we think about the Balkans.

A premise that is almost a spoiler: if you want to read something lighter, go immediately to the related article dedicated to Balkanology. And if you really want to read this one too, then I must immediately abuse your patience by proposing the distinction between Balkan and Balkanology. (in order to make the article somewhat lighter, some explanatory notes are given at the end and indicated with a circle °)

Balkanism as a dispositif of power

The Balkans is inspired by Edward W. Said’s classic book “Orientalism”. In it the Arab-American scholar has shown how the political and academic “discourse” on a territory and its inhabitants is always inscribed in an asymmetrical power relationship between those who write, study, describe, represent and the subjects represented by these activities. So we had the construction of Western stereotypes about the East (especially, in Said’s book, about the Near East) that justified the colonialism and then the neocolonialism of the Western powers. In the wake of Said’s studies, the reference text about the Balkans is Maria Todorova’s “Imagining the Balkans“, in which the Bulgarian scholar reconstructs the Balkanism of the major European countries towards this part of the continent, that is, the representation of the Balkans as a primordial environment from the physical and ancestral point of view to the social one, economically backward, with people as victims and heritage of the Ottoman rule and therefore with cultures that tend to be different from those forged by Catholic Latinity and Central European Enlightenment.

As in the case of orientalism, Balkanism starts from the observation of the local economic backwardness to the point of attributing it even to a delay in the anthropological evolution of the inhabitants (Said, pg. 204).

The different culture, that is different compared to the canon of Central Europe, is immediately declassified as inferior, in need of help and subtle understanding, as well as of social and cultural orthopedics, attitudes that hide nothing but a desire for neo-colonial domination, implemented in the last 150 years with direct or indirect military actions, supporting the local elite most willing to recite this subordinate relationship, making the geopolitical gravity of the most powerful European states weighing more or less surreptitiously, compared to the weakness of the Balkan states in order to make them stay in their condition of inferiority and dependence.

The Balkans are the only territory in Europe where the continental powers (Germany, France, England, Russia) have applied interpretative and intervention models typical of their colonial policies outside the continent. I do not think it is a coincidence that the only period of stability in the region in the contemporary age was during the Cold War, when a single state extended over almost all the Western Balkans with its own independent foreign policy.

Balkanism is not a racist attitude, as one might superficially conclude. Balkanism is an overall representation of the other that can develop a wide range of attitudes: from fear or contempt, then distance, to commiseration for such backwardness and sympathy for the more folkloristic social aspects. Furthermore, Balkanism is a dispositif of power and knowledge, which defines the way in which the territory is known and the way in which it relates to a people. Above all, this device also constitutes the ways in which the described subject represents himself, ending up introjecting the assumptions of the same power relationship.

As I explain in the text dedicated to it, Balkanology is instead a sentimental reaction to the Balkanism, which arises from a fascination with precisely those aspects that the Balkans holds as indices of backwardness, due to a sort of afflatus towards subjects considered, rightly or wrongly, primigens, irregular, anomic. An indulgent attitude that borders on mythology and creates another kind of unrealistic representation of a people.

Building the balkanist dispositif

 During the Ottoman rule, the old geographical names that divided the area disappeared from European maps. The generic Turkish term Balkan (mountain, originally referring to Mount Emo in Thrace, between the current Serbia and Bulgaria) is gradually extended to represent the regions of Thrace, Macedonia of Dacia, Moesia, and so on; an index of a generic indifference with respect to the territories and peoples that remained as hidden as behind Turkish expansionism. Between the 16th and 19th century the Balkans disappear from the priorities of the political agenda of many European countries, except for the Habsburgs, Venice and Russia.

The Balkan question, and almost the rediscovery of the European subjects of the Sublime Porta, re-emerges in the 19th century, with the progressive disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, promoted and directed by the European powers on the basis of the then pre-eminent political principles: colonialism and nation-state. Starting from the last decades of the 19th century, the still dominant Balkan device developed, which represented the peoples of the area as socially backward, humanly primordial and therefore in need of support from foreign powers in order to evolve and reach the level of civilization of the rest of Europe.

Here are just a few examples of representation of the Balkan peoples taken from the extensive analysis of Todorova::

a)The official from the British Relief Fund, H.N.Brailsford, which operated in the Balkans after the suppression of the uprising in Macedonia in 1903, said the following: “There is little to choose in bloody-mindedness between any of the Balkan races – they are all what centuries of Asiatic rule have made them

b) In 1909, the self-taught anthropologist Mary Edith Durham wrote that the Serbs were incapable of moderation and that a “referent” (a civil servant) had told her that the Balkan man (Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian, Christian or Muslim) “was only able to love or hate ”. For Durham the Balkan peoples did surpass primitive tribes in development:“Their raw, primitive ideas, which date from the world’s wellspring, its passionate strivings, its disastrous failures, grip the mind; its balze of colour, its wildly magnificient scenery hold the eye”. In the most indulgent passages, Durham recalls that the brutalities these people are capable of derive from the Middle Ages and extreme poverty.

Bosnian peasants in celebrative outfits in late XIX c.

c) Even beyond the Atlantic, John Gunther, in the book “Inside Europe”, published in 1938, cites the contempt for the problems that the Balkan peoples create that jeopardize peace in Europe and the world because of their hereditary defects and their backwardness: “It is intollerable affront to human and political nature that these wretched and unhappy little countries in the Balkan paeninsula can, and do, have quarrels that cause world wars. Some hundred and fifty thousand young Americans died because of an event in 1914 in a mud-caked primitive village, Sarajevo. Loathsome and almost obscene snarls in Balkan politics, hardly intelligible to the Western reader, are still vital for the peace of Europe, and perhaps the world”.

d) We also have to mention the first few pages of “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon” by Rebecca West, published in 1941: “Violence was indeed all I knew of the Balkans, all I knew of the South Slavs. And since there proceeds steadily from the southeastern corner of Europe a stream of events which are a danger to me, which indeed for years threatened my safety and deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.

e) In more recent times, there are those who have not hesitated to attribute almost all the evils of Europe, including the birth of Nazism to the Balkans, like Robert Kaplan in “Balkan Ghosts”: “Nazism, for instance, can claim Balkan origins. Among the flophouses of Vienna, a breeding ground of ethnic resentments close to the southern Slavic world, Hitler learned how to hate so infectiously”.

Did the Holocaust result from the hatred that spread from the Balkans to Vienna? Why not instead assume that Nazism was not a moment of imponderable madness in the history of the rational German people, but something that at least relied on Fichte’s elaborations on the original superiority of the German people over the others? But for the Balkanists, be they journalists, academics or diplomats, it is inconceivable to apply the principles of political rationality to territories where primitive irrationality would prevail. Thus all the conditions are created to define a race and define it as inferior, so as to open the way to a whole series of political and social options – from humanitarian cooperation to mass extermination. This is how Todorova summarizes it:

What is at stake is the specific character of the perpetrated violence. With all professed and sincerely felt aversion against the atrocities of World War II, especially the Holocaust, these are seen as extreme aberrations and not typical consequences of the otherwise rational, liberal, and predictable polity of the West. The present Yugoslav atrocities (Editor’s Note: Todorova wrote during the Nineties), and in general Balkan atrocities, on the contrary, are the expected natural outcomes of a warrior ethos, deeply ingrained in the psyche of Balkan populations. Balkan violence thus is more violent because it is archaic, born of clan societies, whose archaic forms reveal the disharmonic clash between prehistory and the modern age.”  This argument seemingly takes into account environmental factors (mountainous terrain), economy (sheep and horse raising), social arrangements (extended families, clans, tribes) to explain the creation of a cultural pattern (Todorova, pag. 137).

Similar forms of violence are interpreted in the light of extremely different interpretative schemes because, through innumerable functional stratifications, including explicit geopolitical interests, a Balkan interpretative model of the peoples of the area has been created, a frame, as Erving Goffman would say, an interpretative scheme that it becomes common sense, according to which reality ends up being modeled thanks to confirmatory bias functional to interests of power and control.

Balkanism acts at all levels of society: the uncultivated will say that in the Balkans they are all gypsies (or inferior beings); the political analyst will highlight the instability of the area and the delays of its democratic culture; the sociologist will have to remember that the problems that immigrants from this part of Europe create in her country are largely balanced by the jobs they accept to do; the entrepreneur will justify the low salaries and working conditions that he imposes with the inability of these people to work as those in his country of origin; the central European politician will explain that the (little) money that the Balkans requires is to maintain the continent’s stability.

In all these cases the problem is the “other”, judged on parameters that do not belong to his culture, which he does not know because they have often not been explained and therefore placed in an inferior position with respect to his interlocutor.

Balkanism defines a relationship of asymmetrical power from which it does not intend to bring out the weaker part, despite the fact that the Balkanists often profess exactly the opposite. The Balkan approach therefore tends to control and address, on the basis of the assumption, that these people and these people alone would not be able to choose the best option for themselves.

It is obvious that if the standards of judgment are applied in social, political and economic fields refined in other countries for decades or centuries of practice, the “other”, be it Middle Eastern, African or Balkan, will always be judged as insufficient or inadequate.

The criminalization of material poverty

The byzantine military regions in South East Europe in the sixth Century a.D.

Another typical case of a Balkan approach is the economic delay attributed to social and anthropological defects. But this delay does not derive from the supposed limits of a specific “race”. Since ancient times, the mountain chains have not facilitate the development of large communication axes north of Via Egnatia. Furthermore, the Pannonian plain, which extends to the northern part, allowed easy access to the area by all the peoples from the north and the east who came to settle there or raid it. As Branko Milanović pointed out in one of his posts, these geographical features have not favoured the development of large cities for hundreds of years. Those founded by the Romans and the Byzantines were foucused on development of military outposts, which explains why so many future emperors were born in this area between the 3rd and 4th century AD. Moreover, the Slavic peoples, who settled here in the Middle Ages, did not have an urban culture as in the West (their cultural centers were the monasteries and there were no universities or any other typically urban institutions). Finally, the Ottomans had no other interest than to get food, livestock, taxes and men, to be sent for military service, from this area.

Map of Belgrade in 1905.

In the mid-19th century, Belgrade and Sofia had the population of just over 20,000 which tripled at the beginning of the new century, when the Bucuresti metropolitan area grew to 280,000 inhabitants, while Rome had the population of 420,000, Naples over 600,000, Milan around 550,000, Berlin almost 2 million and Paris over 3 million.

Clearly, this was a multi-ethnic population and even more rural than in the rest of Europe with a limited urban civil society. The escape of these peoples from the Ottoman rule was supported by the European powers by promoting the then triumphant model of the nation-state, a model that presupposed an evolved urban civil society together with a high homogeneity of ethnicity, language, culture and religion: aspects far removed from the human landscape and culture that emerged after the Ottoman domination. At the time, a multi-ethnic state in the Balkans was out of the question because the antagonist was precisely the multi-ethnic Ottoman model and also because this would raise the question of the unification of the Slavic peoples with the Serbian predominance that was disturbing to the Habsburgs. So, as a result, small nationalist states were created, heavily influenced by the European powers of reference. On the other hand, at the time of the triumph of colonialism, why give any thought to real self-determination of peoples and why, in the era of nationalism, imagine multi-ethnic state entities?

Who balkanized the Balkans?

With the end of the Cold War, came the 1990s and the celebration of the triumph of Balkanism. The economic  and socio-political collapse, following the breakdown of the communist regimes in Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, but above all the war between Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, seemed to be the most obvious proof of the validity of the Balkan device. The Balkans is the big problem for “civilized” Europe, that is the European Community and the Scandinavian countries. And let’s not forget NATO’s interests.

It should not be the case nor is there space to retrace the events in a critical and non-trivial way, but one of the purposes of this text is precisely to reflect if civilized Europe has unknowingly promoted and foreseen the tragic consequences of its choices in order to proceed toward a process of decomposition and recomposition of the area according to the interests of its various states, often in strong conflict between them. In short, Balkanism has not been used as a racist culpability of the Balkan peoples to exempt European rulers and politicians from their strictly political responsibilities.

One of the standard bearers of Balkanism, such as Robert Kaplan, assessed the wars in the former Yugoslavia as an example of the collapse of the nation-state, when instead they were precisely the means to create nation-states on a highly ethnic basis in opposition to the federative, multi-ethnic and multireligious model of the Yugoslav Federation.

Does Balkanism still work?

And what about today? The Balkanist dispositiv is, undoubtedly, still dominant in the old continent: the rhetoric of “doing homework” is the most disciplinary and orthopedic thing that can be said about people, who could answer by questioning who decided which tasks must be done, when and if those homework tasks are the most adequate for the growth of the Balkan people or are no longer functional to the interests of those who assign them as oppose to those who must complete them. This does not diminish the aptitude to evaluate South Eastern Europe as the area that emanates instability that the rest of Europe is forced to face and contain that would be endogenously produced.

In a continent whose dominant political elites proudly claim their transnational and globalist dimension, the Balkans is still being linked to the nation-state dimension and the construction of new nation-states (Kosovo), the cantonalization on a religious basis (Bosnia, almost the return to cuius regio, eius religio), the divisions within the same religion (the recent break between the Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox Church), rather than promoting inter-ethnic and religious coexistence. This 19th-century Balkan model, that the European globalists advocate and still promote in the Balkans, has two enemies today: on the one hand, there are the new global stakeholders who do not require to do any “homework” to guarantee various types of investments, alliances and loyalty; while on the other, there is nationalism itself, which re-emerged today in the guise of souverainism, which, in turn, is naturally exalted by the nation-state.

It is clear how the European Balkanist dispositif today is less and less able to interpret and direct the Balkan countries in an international multipolar scenario where the actors interested in this part of Europe have multiplied.

Therefore, new approaches should be developed to overcome this dispositif that has brought to the area multiple ideas that have promoted or justified violence, wars or arbitration and have the political courage to treat peoples and states in the Balkans as equals, despite their obvious delays, while offering them not a mere perspective, but a reality of effective integration.

The alternative could soon be the one that has always been a favourite on these territories – nationalism – but heightened by the money and the modern propaganda of the international souverainists, and with the proliferation of new small nationalist states, thus “balkanizing” the Balkans further and this time, of course, not due the sloth of the Balkan peoples.

Biagio Carrano


° Said uses antitetic sources of analysis (from Foucaldt’s antiumanistic structuralism to Gramsci’s marxist storicism) to answer to some questions: which are the mental mechanisms we use to represent a territory or a culture different from ours? How we develop the “dispositivs” which justifies our attitude and make it inbred to our eyes?

°°”Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do). Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is— and does not simply represent— a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world. (Said, pag. 21)

°°°This is how the concept of dispositiv has been recently defined by Giorgio Agamben: : “a) it’s an eterogenous set, virtually including everything, linguistic and non-linguastic by the same stance: speeches, institutions, buildings, laws, police regulations, phylosophical prepositions, etc. The dispositiv per se is the network created by these elements. b) the dispositiv has always a substancial strategic function and is defined by a power relationship. c) As such, it is the result of power relationships and knowledge relationships”.

°°°°The reality is always framed, situated and precomposed, not in a static, definitive and univocal way but in a dynamic and complex way. Framing is not so much a structure in the traditional sense, but is a framework, that is, an organizational scheme that guides us in defining the situation and allows selection. The frame (frame) directs the understanding of the messages and indicates what kind of reasoning to use for the interpretation” (from the introduction by Bennett M. Berger to Frame Analysis by Erving Goffman).

Bibliographic notes

Edward W. Said, Orientalismo, Feltrinelli, 1999 (first English edition 1978)

Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, 2009 (first English edition 1999)

Giorgio Agamben, Che cos’è un dispositivo?, Nottetempo, 2006

Michael Foucauldt, Nascita della biopolitica – Corso al Collège de France 1978-1979, Feltrinelli, 2004

Eric J. Hobsbawn, Nazioni e nazionalismo dal 1780, Einaudi 2002 (first English edition 1983)

Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the organization of the experience, Nortwestern University, 1986 (prima edizione inglese 1972)

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Penguin Books, 2007 (first English edition 1941)

Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, Picador, 2005 (first English edition 1993)

Božidar Jezernik, Europa selvaggia. I Balcani nello sguardo dei viaggiatori occidentali, EDT, 2010

Branko Milanovic, Why the Balkas are underdeveloped? A geographical hypothesis, sul suo blog “Global Inequality”, maggio 2018,

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