Territorialism in the Balkans

Text by Andreas Faludi, Emeritus Professor, SPS

In ‘The Poverty of Territorialism’ (Faludi 2018) I show the territorial nation-state to be a modernist construct imposed on a more fluid and complex reality. Although critical of it, one must give the nation-state its due, also in the Balkans. Thanks to the role of an, often small, literate elite inspired by the same nationalistic fervour that had previously engulfed Europe (Loriaux 2008; Thiesse 1999), the nation-state in the Balkans was a moderniser. But its ascendancy did not simply amount to undoing the, allegedly moribund Ottoman Empire; it meant replacing one form of spatial organisation not based on ethnic lines with another one that was. For this purpose, nationalism had to first create the nations for which it was purporting to offer a home. To repeat, in their efforts to legitimate their rule, emergent Balkan states – or rather their proponents amongst the elites – had to create the very ethnicities which purportedly justified the creation of nation-states.

Take this example from the Balkan Wars immediately before – and functionally part of – the Great War. (See graphics) Under the Ottomans which were finally chased from almost the whole of their former European territory what had counted was religious affiliation: Whoever was not Muslim had to pay a special tax but was otherwise free to practice his or her faith, the latter a sufficient marker of identity it seems. Which is why nationalist journalists and teachers often coming from the diaspora were faced with indifference from their supposed compatriots: The latter apparently showed little interest in reviving supposedly ancient national traditions let alone in embracing modernist reforms. The masses were illiterate and bereft of national consciousness. Borodziej and Górny (2018) thus report on a Greek during the Balkan wars asking Macedonian peasants – Macedonia, north and south having been one of the bones of contention between the successor states of the Ottoman Empire – whether they felt more Greek or Bulgarian. His interlocutors made the sign of the cross saying that they were Christians. Rather than the language they spoke – most likely a local vernacular – this was what identified them. The abstract notion of nationhood which the elites were seeking to impose did not mean a thing to them. Their identity, Borodziej and Górny continue, needed to be replaced by another one defined by a language (which they did not speak), a history and culture (which they did not share) and by attachment to new territorial borders (which they could hardly have been aware of). The same authors report on members of the Polish Legion fighting on the side of Germany and Austria entering Russian Poland during the Great War. They were surprised and embarrasses by the indifference to their national identity of the Polish peasants whom they thought to be liberating from Czarist rule. Polish nationalism was of course modelled as much on (Western) European examples as that of the Balkan elites.

In parenthesis, the reader might note the irony of nationalism, now considered to be a defender of national identity against global elites, being itself the product of a global ideology being imposed on reluctant locals. But nationalism was indeed a global movement, with its proponents in various countries helping and inspiring each other. Anne-Marie Thiesse writes for instance about German and Czech nationalists happily supporting each other’s efforts to explore their ancient roots until, that was, the idea took root the each cultural and linguistic community also needed a homeland. ‘The universality of the national’, she writes, ‘passes by the particular, by the total restructuring of space into discrete and equivalent units. However, the novel organisation of the world and the international societies for adjudicating between nations are incapable of preventing bloody confrontations. Because no one definition of the nation carries within it an incontestable answer to a fundamental question: how to define the territory of the nation…’ (Thiesse 1999; translation AF)

It was for this reason that, having succeeded – just about – in creating new states, their advocates were convinced that those who suddenly found themselves minorities in the lands which they were occupying were a problem. The Ottomans had never even considered doing so. Minorities had been subjects of the Sublime Port ever since the conquest of Constantinople and the Balkans, which included most of present-day Hungary. But territorialism wanted the purification of the bodies of states; not a Balkan speciality by any means it should be added. On the contrary! In the Balkans population exchange, and also the more or less forceful reshaping of the identities of the population in place, simply started late and lasted – lasts? – longer. To focus on Albania, as the reader knows the immediate cause of my delving a little bit into Balkan history, established by the great powers, which at the time included the Austrian-Hungarian in 1912/13, the country was given lands to which Montenegro, Serbia and Greece had claims – in so doing demonstrating the futility of the idea of a territorially defined nation, not all areas in which Albanians lived. The inevitable consequence was that the country was occupied by several of the parties to the Great War, with its identity remaining, well fluid thereafter. The irony of history is that it took a Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha to really make Albania, including the unifying of the language and the creation of central institutions, but of course at the expense of its own, mainly Greek, minorities and of developing ties with Albanians abroad.


Borodziej, W., Górny, M. (2018) Der vergessene Weltkrieg: Imperien 1912–1916, wgb (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft), Darmstadt. (Aus dem polnischen von Bernhard Hartmann).

Faludi, A. (2018) The Poverty of Territorialism (Elgar Studies in Planning Theory, Policy and Practice), Edgar Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA.

Loriaux, M. (2008) European Union and the Deconstruction of the Rhineland Frontier, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thiesse, A.-M. (1999) La Création des identités nationales, Édition Seuil, Paris.


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