Book Review: Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia

    Andrew Baruch Wachtel, Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

The basic premise of Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation is that “there was something to destroy in Yugoslavia.” (227) Claiming to reject the thesis that “Yugoslavism” was an artificial creation resisted by the majority of the population, the author examines the cultural ramifications of the making and gradual dissolution of a unified Yugoslav identity. Both the initial success and the bloody breakup of the country are premised on the influence of high culture.

The roots of Yugoslavism can be traced to the nineteenth century idea of pan-South Slavism (22) influenced by German Romanticism (6-7). After the Balkan states won their independence following World War I, the widely propagated ideas regarding the kinship of the South Slavic peoples (excluding Bulgarians) and the need for a big, unified state which can be defended from the incursions of its powerful neighbors fostered the creation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The interwar period was marked by a view of religious, linguistic and cultural differences as “surface phenomena” (69) to be overcome with time, but it was only after the atrocities of World War II that the need for a strong, centralized state cultural policy was recognized in order to forge this new identity. However, the periphery's resistance to central control from Belgrade caused the eventual rise of a laissez-faire attitude towards culture (173-4). What this effectively meant was that the “spontaneous” creation of a Yugoslav identity was hoped for but not actively attempted. With time, political competition caused the strengthening of particularist nationalist sentiments at the expense of the weakening Yugoslav identity, and resulted in the bloody wars of the early 1990s. In effect, what had been dismissed as “surface phenomena” after 1918 became the nucleus of the discourse after 1980 as Yugoslavism was relegated to the status of an irrelevant and artificial construct.

Wachtel's view of the downfall of Yugoslavia is fairly common in its description of the weakening of centralized institutions and the concomitant rise of separate nationalisms. What makes his thesis fresh and interesting is its emphasis on cultural phenomena, a side of the issue often overlooked in works that center on the political and economic issues which undermined Yugoslavia. Wachtel also raises the point of similarity between Yugoslav trends and current controversies surrounding cultural issues in the United States (239-44). Without prophesying doom for the USA, Wachtel does suggest that lack of flexibility coupled with adherence to rigid group identities could bring about a gradual crumbling of the unique American identity.

However, Wachtel's desire to stress the primary importance of cultural issues severely weakens his argument. For one thing, he acknowledges the importance of politics and economy (229), yet fails to engage these topics in relation to his central argument. In the sphere of cultural analysis, his interpretation of several works of fiction is tenuous as he fails to supply concrete evidence for these works' supposed importance on the promotion of either Yugoslavism (when discussing Ivo Andri_) or Serbian nationalism (Milorad Pavi_). Despite his avowed reservations, Wachtel seems to espouse the idea that Yugoslavia was “doomed” to go through the increasingly decadent process he describes, and interprets popular novels from various periods accordingly without examining the authors' professed intentions in writing these works. In essence, novels are interpreted only a posteriori, in view of the eventual breakup of the country.

Furthermore, Wachtel concentrates almost exclusively on the Serb-Croat dynamic, with some reference to Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia; the cultural policies in the ethnically mixed regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina are hardly mentioned. This narrows down the complex image the author is trying to convey, which becomes especially evident when he uses populist terms such as “intertribal fighting” (130) even as he attempts to debunk the popular view of the Balkans as a savage, aberrant region. What is more, as he examines the rapid disintegration of Yugoslav loyalties in the 1980s, his discourse centers exclusively on cultural developments in Serbia, with no reference to the reflections of budding nationalisms in any of the other republics or autonomous regions. This is not to say that Wachtel's analytical framework is wrong, but it is undermined by his selective use of sources and tendency to interpret the data of his choice in a way that strictly supports his thesis of Yugoslavia's rise and fall.