Book Review: The Past in Question
University of Maryland.
Brown, Keith. The Past in Question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
National histories frequently seize upon certain events or individuals to become symbols of the nation. In The Past in Question, Keith Brown examines not simply the way that the Ilinden Uprising of August 1903 in Krushevo became a national symbol for the Republic of Macedonia, but the ways in which the local histories of the inhabitants of Krushevo interacted with the national history. Even after Ilinden became a staple of Macedonian historiography, both during Socialism and after independence in 1991, local traditions interpreting the Uprising continue. Brown, an anthropologist, justly gives this interaction - the reconciliation of the past with the present - center stage in the book.
Bulgarian, Greek and Macedonian historiographical disputes over Macedonian history are reflected, perhaps, in the varied accounts of the uprising and in the mixed ethnicity of Krushevo (historically divided between Vlachs, Greeks, Turks, Albanians and Macedonians of both pro- and anti-Bulgarian orientation). In focusing on the interactions between official Macedonian national history and the local histories of the town's inhabitants, Brown wisely skirts debates that have largely become unprofitable. Although discussing in several chapters both the varied accounts of the uprising and life in the town in the first half of the twentieth century, the three chapters on the Socialist redefinition of Krushevo are the most crucial.
By the 1950s, the partisan struggle of the Second World War was being cast as a Second Ilinden of Macedonian national liberation and the new national history began to portray events in Krushevo as part of a paradigm of national liberation. Brown examines the way by which pensions for veterans of 1903 and, in the 1960s, the creation of a Krushevo Monument helped draw local inhabitants into a new official Socialist definition of events (as Brown characterizes it, Socialist and localist). The only fault in methodology might be that greater consideration to education policies could be given, particularly given the impetus in Macedonia to codify the new national history and foster it in the literacy and education campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s. In any case, Brown provides an excellent synthesis of the controversies facing writers of the new national history - for example, how to commemorate those who fought in Ilinden but professed a Bulgarian identity, or had served in the Bulgarian army. (A controversy which the inhabitants of the town faced as well, given individual legacies of collaboration with Bulgarian occupying forces in 1941-1944.)
Brown's most significant innovation, however, is in detailing how the use of Ilinden as a national myth meant that it was symbolic of Macedonia, and increasingly ignored local history. Chapter eight focuses on the reaction of inhabitants to the monument, and shows how local oral history traditions provided alternative accounts for events during the uprising. Thorny controversies that the national history sought to gloss over continued to be considered at the local level. This is suggestive, given the scope and number of historical controversies that arose within Macedonia in the 1990s: clearly, alternative historical traditions continued throughout Socialism when only one official account was published. This attention to coexisting, rival historical traditions is a welcome relief to the sometimes simplistic approach of some theories of nationalism.
In discussing how one locale has struggled to reconcile the past with the present, Brown uses the final chapter to discuss how historical events (e.g., the participation of Albanians in the uprising) continue to have a significantly different role in the local and the national discourses over the event. The Past in Question strongly challenges scholars of the region to look past national historiographies and consider questions of national identity, national history and nationalism at the living level.
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