Charles Ingrao and 10 untaught lessons from Central Europe (1996)


This essay by Charles Ingrao is now more than one decade old.  And yet it remains to me one of the most thought-provoking and illuminating introductions how to think about Central and South Eastern Europe, its past, present and future.  It is a good way to begin a reflection on the most urgent challenges in the Balkans in 2008.  And since it is short it is also ideal for the busy poliy maker interested in the bigger context.    

The essay sets out the challenge for South Eastern Europe (in 1996): to find a way to restore – under modern conditions – a tradition of multiethnic coexistence burried and then discredited by different competing national building projects.  At the very end of his essay Ingrao permit himself a utopian vision (which he recognised as such even at the time): the proposal for some kind of restoration of some form of new multi-ethnic state in South East Europe.  However, fortunately many of his less utopian recommendations have actually been implemented: the return of property in Bosnia, for instance, or the policy – continuing until today – of war-crimes trails of “war-time heroes” and war-time leaders. 

The transformation of Bosnia in the past decade – see the latest ESI report on Doboj in Republika Srpska, as well as our forthcoming report on Central Bosnia – is a testimony to the earlier vision of this regional expert.  

The job in Bosnia and in the Balkans is not yet done: the only realistic multiethnic system of governance that can in fact stabilise the region in a lasting manner forthe 21st century – today’s European Union – remains distant due to European reluctance to become fully engaged.  Whether this will change is the fundamental policy question for the region and European foreign policy in 2008.     

Here, then, are a few excerpts from Ingrao’s essay.  I strongly recommend, however, reading the whole article, and if you have ideas please let me know. 

The 10 lessons by Charles lngrao are: 

This difference has to do with different traditions of state building in the modern era.  Ingrao contrasts the two halves of the continent and the centralising state building traditions of the West and the much looser state building in the Empires of the East: 

“The peoples of what we today call Spain, France and Great Britain spoke perhaps a dozen languages before the onslaught of government officials, edicts, road builders, universities and other agencies of statebuilding molded each of them into a single nation in which everyone could speak and understand Spanish, French, and English. Although “regional” languages like Catalan, Basque, Scotch and Welsh have survived, they could not prevent the evolution of a common language among the monarchs’ officials and other educated subjects that later served as a reference point for national identification.”

“The Ottomans refused altogether to consider adopting the innovations of their Christian adversaries, a decision that guaranteed that the inhospitable Balkan landscape would continue to incubate separate regional languages, customs and loyalties. By the eighteenth century the Austrian Habsburgs and Russian tsars did take the necessary step of adopting some of the statebuilding tactics of their western European counterparts, in order to compete in the rough and tumble world of European politics. Yet they remained relatively decentralized states that delegated considerable authority to local elites, which either encouraged or tolerated the survival of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Thus the process by which the Western peoples of Europe and North America adopted a single language or culture was arrested throughout the eastern half of Europe; even closely related dialects like Czech and Slovak, Serbian and Croatian, Bulgarian and Macedonian, or the various branches of Russian never merged, but rather survived long enough to develop as the distinctive written languages of today.”

“Centuries of warfare between the Turks and Habsburgs further enriched the complex mix of Balkan languages. The approach and retreat of opposing armies led to the first instances of what has come to be known as ethnic cleansing”

“Neither the Turks nor the Habsburgs made any effort to separate their colonists by ethnicity, with the result that some districts spoke a Balkan Babel of a dozen or more languages. The messy demographics still persist in many areas today, most notably in Croatia’s eastern arm of Slavonia, Rump Yugoslavia’s northern province of Voivodina, and the Banat of western Romania.”

“Even before the Protestant Reformation split the Christian West, its governments opposed religious diversity as a threat to the unity and stability of the state. Like their fellow monarchs in Spain, France and England, the Catholic Habsburgs enjoyed considerable success in convincing or coercing their religious minorities to adopt the state religion”

    “Under the so-called millet system the Ottomans organized their peoples by religious sect (Orthodox, Jewish, Islamic, etc.) — regardless of language or ethnicity and delegated to each group’s leaders the responsibility for governing and taxing itself. In the absence of a system of secular education, each millet‘s religious leadership provided the sole source for literacy and all forms of culture for the members of its community. This infinitely more humane approach to religious diversity promoted autonomous cultural development among the Balkan peoples, as well as remarkably relaxed relationships between neighbors belonging to different millets. One of the many virtues of Ivo Andric’s Nobel Prize-winning The Bridge on the Drina is the picture it paints of peaceful and mutually respectful coexistence between the Orthodox, Islamic and Jewish communities of the formerly multiethnic eastern Bosnian city of Visegrad.”

“However flawed it may be, our polyglot society has survived by attaining what Austrian Prime Minister Edward Taaffe once described as “a state of uniform, nicely tempered discontent,” whereby every competing ethnic group derives sufficient benefits to accept an admittedly imperfect overall settlement.

Taaffe’s formulation exposes the greatest paradox about achieving peaceful coexistence among ethnic groups. Whereas the presence of two ethnic groups represents a formidable challenge to peaceful existence, the task becomes much easier in polyglot societies. Whenever there exists a balance of power between three or more ethnic groups, where no single group enjoys an absolute majority, there is a much greater tendency to coexist in an atmosphere that is free of the fear of persecution by a single, dominant group.”

” … unfortunately we never hear about the generally positive ethnic interaction in regions like the Bukovina, Voivodina, Banat and Transylvania, or in such formerly diverse urban centers as Vienna, Bratislava, Salonika, and Istanbul for the very reason that their lesson of multiethnic toleration is a peaceful one that never seizes the headlines.”

“Within the Ottoman empire, Bosnia’s Muslims, Serbs, Croats and Jews invariably cooperated in fighting the sultan’s janissaries and even his belated attempts to eliminate the widespread corruption that had taken root within Bosnia’s ruling elite. Farther to the north, the Croats and Serbs of the Habsburg empire not only lived together in ethnic harmony, but almost always acted as one in their dealings with their more numerous Hungarian neighbors. But such ethnic coexistence was eventually undermined by the nation-state model that had emerged from the French Revolution.”

“The four decades of Austria-Hungary (1867-1918) were marked by frequent constitutional squabbles, punctuated by occasional strikes and riots. But there was very little bloodshed, largely because the government in Vienna combined a reluctance to embrace the forces of nationalism with a genuine willingness to afford equal treatment and patronage to their various peoples. Right up until its dissolution in 1918, the Habsburg empire counted Czechs, Italians, Hungarians, Croats, Poles and Jews among its most important civilian and military leaders. Nor was it all that atypical of other multinational states. For centuries the Ottomans had drawn their best soldiers and administrators from converted Christians, and depended more on Greeks, Jews, and Albanians than on their own Anatolian Turks.”

“To this day, laymen and scholars alike perceive their region’s history from a distinctly national perspective, while minimizing the achievements of other ethnic groups and the multinational societies to which they once belonged.

“Notwithstanding our focus on Versailles, the settlements with Austria (St. Germain), Hungary (Trianon), Bulgaria (Neuilly), and Turkey (S vres) were no less instrumental in fomenting the outbreak of World War II, the Holocaust and five decades of Soviet hegemony in eastern Europe. Moreover, it is the legacy of these “other” Paris treaties that informs Central Europe’s continuing instability.

“In the process France and its clients essentially created an unjust, but durable three-tiered hierarchy of peoples that has guaranteed 75 years of regional instability:

  1. At the top were the victorious Greeks, Italians, Romanians and Serbs, together with the Poles and Czechs whom the French readily identified as key allies on Germany’s immediate eastern flank; each acquired territory in which its own people were in a decided minority, so long as it could be justified by some historic claim or by a tangible strategic or economic need.
  2. The Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Ukrainians existed in a kind of limbo reserved for those peoples who were essentially unrepresented at the peace conference, either as winners of losers. Their interests were represented by the victorious allies, with decidedly mixed (but rarely catastrophic) results.
  3. At the bottom were the four nationalities that had lost the war. Having been denied the right of self-determination, the Germans, Magyars, Bulgars and Turks all yearned to revise the peace settlements. The Turks achieved many of their objectives four years later after a successful war with Greece and a new round of forced population exchanges. The others would have to wait two decades for their opportunity to revise the settlements.”

“Given the region’s complex ethnic demography, the decision to replace a multinational entity with nation-states actually worsened what had been reasonably tolerable interethnic tensions.”

“At the turn of the century, production levels and living standards within Austria-Hungary were actually rising faster than the European average. The Austrian lands were already comparable to western Europe, while even the economically less developed Hungarian lands were appreciably better off than their immediate neighbors to the north, east and south. Yet the data presented by economists show that the gap between the region and western Europe began to widen with the dissolution of the Habsburg “customs union of fifty million ….”

“Jews had been “the ultimate beneficiaries of multinational political systems like the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, where the regime appreciated the practical potential of human resources more than they did national consciousness. And they had responded by becoming a key force in the Balkan commercial economy, especially in major urban centers like Sarajevo or the great port of Salonika, where they not only constituted a majority of the city’s 160,000 people, but still spoke the Spanish dialect of their sixteenth-century forebears.  At the same time Jews were a powerful source of trained professionals within the Habsburg dominions. By 1918 they comprised roughly twenty percent of Austria-Hungary’s university students and civil servants, despite constituting only five percent of its population; they even held over fifteen percent of all military commissions (including two dozen generalships), which made Austria-Hungary the only country in the world with a disproportionately higher percentage of Jewish army officers.”


    “America’s entry into World War II presented us with a second chance to craft a more just — and thus durable — peace. The US Council on Foreign Relations did not miss the opportunity. By 1942 it had recommended the formation of a new Danubian confederation to take the place of the old Habsburg empire. Nor was it alone. Across the Atlantic, eminent British historians like Arnold Toynbee and Robert W. Seton-Watson, who had advocated partitioning Austria-Hungary in 1918, had since recognized their mistake years before the outbreak of World War II.”
    ” The Anglo-American capitulation was politically defensible, at least in the short term: Maintaining allied solidarity against the Axis Powers was of more immediate consequence than a potentially divisive revision of the region’s borders. Yet this third option was arguably the worst in the long run. By 1945, deference to our Soviet ally had led to the westward expulsion of fourteen million Germans, including nearly five million from the ethnically mixed lands of the former Habsburg empire. An estimated two million people died in this, the most massive expulsion of human beings in world history. Next came forty-five years of Soviet hegemony over the eastern half of Europe.”

“Though appalled by the slaughter, successive American presidents deferred to their allies for four years, until the enormity of our negligence was made clear by the Srebrenica massacres. Mercifully, American intervention in the summer of 1995 quickly put an end to the horror, marking the first time in this century that US diplomacy had taken the lead in resolving the problems of Central Europe. After nearly a century of missed opportunities, we have yet another opportunity to intervene decisively in Central Europe.”

“But is it too late to turn back the clock on Central Europe’s twentieth-century catastrophe? As late as 1962 the eminent British historian C.A. Macartney could claim that many observers were convinced that the region’s best interests required “the creation of some larger multi-national state or states with special institutions appropriate to the special conditions of the area.” Even three decades later, the BBC’s Misha Glenny ventured that the ideal, longterm solution to Yugoslavia’s problems might be the reformulation of new multiethnic confederations.”

” … it is not too late to launch a public dialogue throughout the region, daring (but not compelling) its people both to rediscover the forgotten benefits of their multinational past and to confront what nationalism has cost them in external security, economic prosperity, and domestic peace. At the very least, it would also reassure and reacquaint the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia with their long history of ethnic coexistence and collaboration. But such a discussion would also temper the misperceptions of past persecution that have so poisoned relations between the peoples of the entire region.”

“It remains to be seen, however, whether the US and NATO have the willpower to negate four years of ethnic cleansing by guaranteeing the right of refugees to return to their homes; failure to enforce this provision would ratify war crimes that have converted yet another of the region’s multiethnic societies into a nation-state with oppressed minorities. Indeed, more than half of the so-called Republika Srbska consists of land that formerly housed Muslim-Croat majorities. Even less clear is our determination to prevent the Serb Republic from seceding from Bosnia and merging with Greater Serbia. The British and French have yet to be persuaded of the efficacy of a multinational solution, especially one that does violence to their cozy relationship with their traditional Serb allies. Yet failure to prevent a Bosnian Serb secession would almost certainly doom Dayton’s remaining artifice — a Bosnian-Croatian Federation whose bi-national composition is a recipe for internal conflict and collapse. In short, Bosnia can survive only as it has in the past: as a multiethnic union of all three confessional groups.”

“War Crimes Trials constitute a realistic antidote to the psychosis that explains Rump Yugoslavia’s horrific actions in Bosnia and Croatia. With them we can hope to reacculturate the Serbs and others who reject international norms of behavior as an unjustified restraint on their thirst for retribution. There is a precedent for such confidence in the cathartic effects of such trials: We need only look to Germany, where the Nuremberg Trials, de-Nazification, and the diligent use of public media effected a far-reaching change in a people’s collective memory and political culture.”


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