Wednesday, August 23, 2006

After Europe

Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, was emblematically Balkan—politically radical, culturally passionate, intensely nationalistic. Perhaps more importantly, though, he was classically European, for many of the same reasons. As the Balkans finally begin the process of integration into the European project, it might be worth looking back at the man, the curious nature of 20th century Balkan politics, and why they are more European than anyone in the West cares to admit.

Arguably, the 20th century as a period in western history begins and ends in Sarajevo. The assassination of the Archduke, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, triggered World War I, and in turn provided the catalyst for a second Great War, the Cold War, the division of Europe, the creation of the European Union, and the existence of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. It is among the defining facts of modern western history. 70-odd years later, the siege of Sarajevo in turn signaled the end of this period. It was the central event of the first major post-Cold War European conflict, and was emblematic of an ever-more-complex global order after the fall of the fall of the Soviet Union.

The siege represented everything European reconstruction was supposed to exclude—radical nationalism, political violence, irrational destruction, genocide. Nationalism was perhaps the central fact of pre-1914 European politics. The post-1945 (and post-1989) European order is arranged to efface nationalism. The EU is, in effect, a retirement community for states: a place where populations can enjoy a comfortable standard of living and an easy, relaxed internationalism, without much in the way of nationalist politics and without much concern for outside politics coming in. It imagines itself as a sort of post-historical world order, where radical politics no longer occur. Europe’s failure to intervene in the Bosnia represents this—as long as the conflict was outside, the poison of nationalism and the scourge of war belong to other peoples and other places.

Bosnia is, haltingly, becoming a nation. Reconstruction has been slow and faltering, but progress has been real. Brussels has acknowledges that eventually it and its neighbors will have to be admitted to the EU. Bosnia will recover from its violent role in the last century, and perhaps be permitted to live the new century for itself rather than in the historical service of bloodshed. A better question might be what will become of Europe itself, where radical far-right politicians still beg at the door of mainstream politics, and no one seems to quite know what they want the EU to do for them or for itself. The real European crisis has not occurred on the margins but at the centre. Europe has tried, since the last War, to retire from history. This has been a dangerous mistake, abandoning global geopolitics to American unipolarity, and setting Europe itself back from more concerted political change internally. If the EU institutions are to find a place for themselves in both Europe and the world, then the implicit fiction that a post-national Europe must be post-historical and post-political needs to die. Europe, which learned the lessons of war all too well, must learn to better articulate them to the rest of the world, especially to its partners across the Atlantic, who seem so forgetful of history.

Princip represents the worst not only of the Balkans but of Europe itself: an idealism that knows no peace. He is reflected today in the Tamil Tigers, in Chechen separatism and Russian ethnic oppression, in Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms. He is the neurosis not only of the Balkans, or even of Europe, but of the world. A retired Europe, one that fails to share its lessons with the rest of us, hasn’t learned them properly at all.

Princip monument in Sarajevo, on the site of Franz Ferdinand's assassination.

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