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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


Myths and Boundaries in South-Eastern Europe
Pal Kolsto (ed)

(Hurst & Co., London, 2005) 250 pp, PB, £17.95
ISBN 978-1850657729


The mythological delimitation of the boundaries along which real wars are fought forms the focus of Kolsto?s compilation. Many of this work?s contributors note the irony that, while we are clearly capable of learning from the past, the past which we choose to heed is a mythologised version. Indeed so mediated, marred even, by present imperatives is this representation that it not only negates any positive lessons which could be drawn but frequently emphasises group distinctiveness and grievance, thereby exacerbating conflict.

A clear theme of this work is the context-sensitive nature of myth. Contemporary and predominantly political requirements dictate the interpretation, and often require the complete re-interpretation of ethno-national myths. While this assertion is hardly innovative - indeed, it features prominently in nationalism studies - the primary distinction of the work is the sheer wealth of regional sources drawn upon, few of which are accessible in the English language. Indeed the only comparative work of recent note is Ivo Zanic?s Flag on the Mountain (2007, SAQI), and so it comes as no surprise that Zanic is one of the contributors along with fellow old-timers Ivo Goldstein and Vjekoslav Perica and some note-worthy newcomers such as Ana Antic..

Structural coherence is provided by reference to a loose typology of the myth-types most prominent in the region: ante murale, antiquity, sui generis, and martyr-based of which all ten authors make use. While the central focus is upon the dynamics of Bosniak, Croat and Serb mythologisation, there are quality discussions of both Bulgaria and Macedonia that offer comparative value for anyone in danger of developing tunnel vision with regard to the region. The volume?s only weak point is the chapter focussing on the contribution of art to myth-construction. While this rightly highlights the responsibility of artists and other culture-weavers in creating national identity myths, it is a not entirely coherent addition and would have been best omitted.

KolstÝ?s collection is further notable for its sober analysis, perhaps since all the contributors (predominantly historians) display awareness of their profession?s frequent complicity in myth-production and endeavour to provide a countervailing influence. This alone places the collection above works that, although similar, are more emotive and polemical in tone, like Branimir Anzulovic?s Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide, or Michael Sell?s The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. This is not to say the work is in any way morally equivocal; in fact its condemnation of those who construct the mythological support-strata of nationalist war-mongers is all the more powerful for its scrupulously-researched and restrained interpretation.

As regards theory building, this book complements the extant literature on the construction and maintenance of us/them boundaries but offers no great innovation. Several chapters, however, (notably Antic?s and Aleksov?s) examine how events since 9/11 have invigorated the ante murale discourse of Balkan ultra-nationalists and we would do well to heed the implication that if our actions betray the same perspective as this group, perhaps we should review them.

From a conflict-management perspective the central conclusion that must be drawn from this work is that, inherently fluid and contextual, hostile myths have the potential to be re-oriented to a more manageable dynamic should the incentive to do so exist. Although, as to what that incentive might be, I suspect we will have to abandon myth in favour of reality for an answer.


Emma J. Plant, PhD Candidate, Politics and International Relations Department, Lancaster University



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