bosnia report
New Series No: 39-40 April - July 2004
For and against the B-H state - I. We, the state builders
by Ivan Lovrenovic

The most frequent and important complaint addressed during the 1970s and 1980s to the Academy of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and to the relevant members of the University of Sarajevo’s faculty of philosophy, concerned their failure to move beyond an initial decision to implement (in line with the criteria prevailing at the time) two major projects: a history of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a history of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s literature. The complaint increasingly and ever more persistently took the form of a semi-conspiratorial rumour circulating widely in intellectual circles, as was typical at the time for all such gossip concerning established institutions. To gain a more nuanced and accurate picture of life at the time, it is worth noting here that the positions taken up did not follow any simple official/unofficial or party/non-party schema.

B-H as historico-political reality

For both ‘camps’ - those who criticized the above-mentioned institutions and those who approved their passivity - contained an equal number of ‘lone wolves’ and party men, even at the highest levels. At the time and even more so today, of course, this apparent anomaly was readily intelligible. The division rested on a deeper foundation than everyday politics: on the perception of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a historico-political and cultural reality. This realty, it was equally clear, somehow always came to include an ethno-national moment: most influential among those who rejected all approaches based on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s historical, social and cultural individuality were scientists, writers, intellectuals and politicians who strongly identified with Belgrade centralism. They included, it is true, some ethnic Bosniaks (as they are now officially called) and Croats, since this attitude did not necessarily conform with the present-day rigidly implemented ‘crystallization’ of ethno-confessional identities; but in their vast majority they were naturally Serb.

This tension was profound and permanent, and could not be overlooked by the political superstructure. So at the end of the 1970s the Socialist Alliance of Working People was given the task of organizing a series of major conferences, which would decide how history and literature should be taught in schools. However, at the very start of the preparations for this event, there clearly occurred an insuperable confrontation within the political and scientific team responsible for its organization. This led to a very telling compromise (a first timid, albeit enforced, sign perhaps of pluralism?): the standard practice that such conferences should work on the basis of a main single exposition providing their basic orientation was abandoned. Instead, there were two introductions by two strong authors ideologically and methodologically wholly opposed to one another: Alojz Benac and Milorad Ekmečić.

One history or three?

Benac proposed a coherent platform for studying the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina that took into account all manifestations of its plurality. Ekmečić, on the other hand, categorically denied the possibility of such an approach, and demanded adoption of the principle of separate ethno-national histories, reflecting his obsessive preoccupation with the distinction between ‘state-forming’ and ‘non-state-forming’ nations - the first category being reserved exclusively for the Serbs.

Why should this recollection be revived now? For at least two reasons. The first is, so to speak, historical in nature: every serious student of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s recent history should consult the materials of this meeting (hopefully they can still be found in some archive?!); its outcome too is important, in that nothing followed from it. This indeed suited the ‘camp’ led and represented by Ekmečić. The other, more important, reason is that Ekmečić’s ideas are still alive and kicking, even in quarters where lip service is paid to demolishing them.

It is possible that the well-known financial magnate Adil Zulfikarpašić will find it surprising that I should take a recent speech by him as a good example, mutatis mutandis, of the continued vitality of such ideas; but we do have an ideological resemblance here, regardless of what the two people in question may think of each other. Zulfikarpašić thus spoke about ‘the history of the Bogomils’ and ‘the history of the Bosniaks’, about Queen Catherine [the last Bosnian queen] as ‘our heroine, who is being made into a saint of some other religion’, about a history which is ‘falsified, mystified and stolen’ - all this in the context of the fifteenth anniversary of the foundation of his Bosniak Institute, established in order to correct and illuminate this ‘stolen history’. According to him, the main purpose of the Institute, and of the historical research it aims to stimulate, is to show: ‘that we are the ancient inhabitants of this land, that we have been its defenders, that we are the bearers of its statehood.’

Bosniak prism

Let us leave aside, for another occasion perhaps, the interesting evidence that would be turned up by an analysis of this collective identity manifestly imagined by Zulfikarpašić’s conceptual plural ‘we’. What strikes one is his ascription of an ethnic-political and state-bearing quality to the Bosniaks alone; one which, it should also be clear, has existed in continuity from the middle ages to this day. This, as before, serves an obvious pragmatic and political function applicable today and tomorrow. This is the old - and in its consequences fatal - understanding of history as the servant of politics, in which we know all that has happened and how it has happened; we need only find the documents to prove it. It was this position that Agnes Heller criticized when she wrote: ‘Investigation of the past does not supply in advance the answers to the questions it poses... It is possible for historiography to arrive at an answer that it has never considered, and also that it will reach no conclusions. Historiography, however, must induce the past to pose its own questions ... Historiography can be called episteme [true knowledge] and differ from mere opinion only if it separates knowledge of the past from pragmatic and immediate practical aims.’

If one takes the ‘duel’ between Ekmečić and Benac as a metaphor of lasting significance, and uses it as a prism through which to view our contemporary state of being, what can one, alas!, conclude? It is that the Benac perspective appears to have lost out, or at best has retired to the farthest margins, while the Ekmečić perspective has won in all three ethno-national discourses. If it remains true, however, that a country cannot exist without there being a coherent idea of it, then the last thing that will help Bosnia is the kind of historical investigation advocated by the Bosniak Institute, however grandiose the latter may be.

This article has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 17 October 2003



   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits