Do the Balkans Begin in Vienna? The Geopolitical and Imaginary Borders between the Balkans and Europe

The Geopolitical and imaginary borders between the balkans and Europe

by Ana Foteva (Author)
©2014 Monographs XII, 332 Pages
Series: Austrian Culture, Volume 47


Do the Balkans Begin in Vienna? takes up one of the most fraught areas of Europe, the Balkans. Variously part of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Byzantine empires, this region has always been considered Europe’s border between the Orient and the Occident. Aiming to clarify the politics of drawing cultural borders in this region, the book examines the relations between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Balkans as an intermediate space between West and East. It demonstrates that the dichotomy Orient versus Occident is insufficient to explain the complexity of the region. Therefore, cultural multi-belonging, historical disruption, and recurrence of identities and conflicts are proposed to be «the essence» of the Balkans.
Do the Balkans Begin in Vienna? depicts the fictional imagination of the Balkans as a «utopian dystopia». This oxymoron encompasses the utopian projections of the Austrian/ Habsburg writers onto the Balkans as a place of intact nature and archaic communities; the dystopian presentations of the Balkans by local authors as an abnormal no-place (ou-topia) onto which the historical tensions of empires have been projected; and, finally, the depictions of the Balkans in the Western media as an eternal or recurring dystopia.
There is at present no other study that distinguishes these particular geographical reference points. Thus, this book contributes to the research on Europe’s historical memory and to scholarship on postcolonial and/or post-imperial identities in European states. The volume is recommended for courses on Austrian, German, Balkan, and European studies, as well as comparative literature, theater, media, Slavic literatures, history, and political science.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Do the Balkans Begin in Vienna?
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • I. Introduction: The Balkans’ Postmodern Geography
  • Traditions Constituting European Identity
  • Geographical, Geopolitical, and Cultural Borders of the Balkans
  • Colonial/Imperial Legacies and Postcolonial Struggles
  • Notes
  • II. Travelogues of War and Peace
  • Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: The Balkans as Europe’s Twin “Br/Other”
  • Milo Dor’s Larger Homeland: Paradigm for an Inclusive Europe
  • Peter Handke’s Once Again for Thucydides: Narrative Islands of Peace amidst of War
  • Notes
  • III. Serbia: Between East and West
  • Serbian Identity between Conflicting Ottoman, Habsburg, and Slavic Orthodox Influences
  • The Role of the Theater in the Construction of National Identity
  • Vojvodina in the Age of Linguistic Misunderstanding
  • Modernizing Western Influences Threaten to Change Ottoman Serbia
  • Creating the Nation in the Revolutionary Turmoil of 1848
  • Notes
  • IV. Bosnia-Herzegovina: Where Orient and Occident Meet
  • Colonialism and Imperialism in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina’s “Uncanny” Geography: The Sense of National Identity
  • The Conflict between Habsburg Supranational and Local National Identity Politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Habsburg Resonances in the Former Yugoslavia and Present Day Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Badger in Court: Dialogue of Misunderstanding between the Subaltern and the Colonizer
  • Ivo Andrić and the Habsburg Language Politics for Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • The Bridge on the Drina: A Narrative of Consolidation or Disintegration?
  • The Literary Reception and Political Interpretations of Andrić’s Fiction
  • Not a Clash of Civilizations, but a War between Nations
  • Notes
  • V. Slovenia and Croatia: Between the Balkans and Europe
  • The Slovenian and Croatian National Paradigms in the Habsburg Period
  • Habsburg versus National Identity
  • Hofmannsthal’s Arabella: Nineteenth Century Slavonia as a Utopian Chronotopos of an Ideal Future Society
  • The Radetzky March: Habsburg Identity between Irony and Utopia
  • Notes
  • VI. The Balkans between Utopia and Dystopia
  • The Beginning of Hostilities between Serbia and Austria-Hungary
  • Roda’s Serbian Diary: War between a Nation of Engineers, Painters, and Poets and a Nation of Peasants
  • The Last Days of Mankind: Drama as a High Court of Justice
  • Austrian Spectators Become Actors in the Theater of World War I
  • Handke’s Voyage by Dugout: The Balkans as a Dystopian Utopia
  • The Balkans and Europe in the Axis of Utopia and Dystopia
  • Notes
  • VII. Myth and Memory in the Habsburg Monarchy and the Balkans
  • Joseph Roth’s Ambivalent Reminiscence of the Habsburg Myth
  • Tito and Me: A Late Example of Poetic Resistance to Idolatry
  • From Habsburg to Tito and Beyond
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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I would like to express my gratitude to all the people who helped me with this book. I have been very fortunate to work with Professor Katherine Arens, who helped me selflessly with her superb knowledge of the matter in question and her enormous pedagogical commitment. I am likewise grateful to Professor Charles Ingrao for his invaluable insights into the historical relations between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Balkans. I am deeply indebted to Professor Herbert Rowland for his thorough proofreading and extremely helpful suggestions for the content. Any remaining errors are mine. Last but not least, I would like to thank Professor Beate Allert and Professor Jennifer William for their long-lasting scholarly support and encouragement to publish my research.

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I. Introduction: The Balkans’ Postmodern Geography

This study takes up one of the most politically fraught areas of Europe, the Balkans, in the contexts of its various modern political affiliations. At times variously part of the Austro-Hungarian (k.u.k., i.e., imperial and royal), Ottoman, Byzantine, and Roman Empires, and now often viewed as part of Central Europe, this region has always been considered Europe’s border between the Orient and the Occident, Christian Europe and the Moslem East, that is, between European and various non-European populations. Although Metternich famously declared that “The Balkans begin at the Rennweg1 (a street near the historical center of Vienna), the countries, languages, ethnicities, and cultures actually in that region have allowed the landscape to appear in Europe’s political and cultural imagination in many forms, most often as the border beyond which “the other,” variously defined, threatens Europe.

Central Europe and the Balkans are the two liminal European regions that help Europe define what it is, and what it is not.2 Egon Schwarz defines Central Europe as a cultural, rather than geographical concept and postulates a utopian Central Europe (Schöpflin and Wood 143–56). I, on the other hand, examine the fictional imagination of the Balkans as a “utopian dystopia” (my terms), as an imaginary space (Todorova) and ab-normal no-place (ou-topia) onto which the historical tensions of empires have been projected. While examining the cultural and political contours of the Balkans and the different approaches to drawing borders between them and Europe, I pay close attention to the impact of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires on the cultural formation of the region, particularly on the liminal, in-between-zones of these empires. An analysis of the historical and political discourses and the fictional imagination of these zones unveils the historical negotiations of identity and cultural boundaries within a region whose borders have always been fluid, arbitrary, and particularly challenging of Europe’s most cherished self-images.

Traditions Constituting European Identity

Central Europe is shaped by a plurality of imperial legacies (the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, Hitler’s and Stalin’s conquests) that superimposed historical metanarratives on the numerous local marginal nations (Petković 21–23). However, despite representations of the imperial ← 1 | 2 → discourses to the contrary, the small nations of Central Europe do share a historical and cultural continuum and a common, even though fluid identity. It is a different case with the Balkans. My approach to “reading” the Balkans does not aim at discovering or postulating a unified identity. Quite the contrary, in accord with Bhabha’s concept of cultural difference that is in opposition to cultural diversity (The Third Space 208-09), I propose that cultural multi-belonging, historical disruption, and recurrence of conflicting identities are the ongoing processes which replace the concept of a common identity for the Balkans and require a plurality of mobile and adjustable perspectives as interpretative strategies for viewing this region considered as a cultural and geopolitical space.3 Moreover, owing to their changing boundaries, the Balkans also possess the capacity to “radiate” ambiguity onto the bordering region of Habsburg Central Europe thus placing the essentialist definitions about culture and identity generally in question. Therefore, this study examines the relations between the Habsburg Monarchy (Austria-Hungary)—an empire whose identity was from the beginning constructed on the basis of Catholic Christianity and which thus represented the Western European legacy in the Balkans as pars pro toto—and the Balkans as an intermediate space between East and West.

The Balkans themselves were shaped by the Byzantine and Ottoman imperial legacies, i.e., by both Christian and Islamic influences. Todorova (181) argues for a common cultural heritage of the Balkan peoples, but admits the difficulty involved in deciding to what degree each of the empires and their cultures respectively shaped the common Balkan identity. The questions we must raise here are: where does the Byzantine tradition belong in the general division between East and West, and how does the succeeding Ottoman legacy relate to it? If we follow historians who claim that the history and cultural identity of Modern Europe is entirely continuous with Christianity,4 then we must conclude that the Byzantine Empire clearly belongs to the European legacy.

Jenö Szücs and George Schöpflin (Schöpflin and Wood 8–29) give similar criteria for a differentiation between Western and Eastern Europe (Szücs) or between Europe and Russia (Schöpflin). Szücs focuses first on the historical and political processes which shaped the three regions that, according to him, comprise Europe. In 800 C.E. Western Europe was identical with Carolingian Europe (the realm of Charlemagne). Its borderline followed the lower reaches of the Elbe and the Saale in the South and the Leitha in the East. It was opposed to the eastern successor of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, and after the Arabic invasion its purported center was moved further to the North. Western Europe usurped the name “Europe” after the death of Charlemagne ← 2 | 3 → in 814, thus ignoring the other pole of Europe—the Byzantine Empire (13–14).

The schism between Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054 moved the border between Western and Eastern Christianity further to the East: it separated, roughly, the Polish from Russian lands, and reached into the Baltic region in the thirteenth century. These two regions were shaped by the competing influences of Rome and Constantinople. The political demarcation line was at the same time a cultural one. Western Europe was culturally shaped by the Romanesque and Gothic periods, the Renaissance and the Reformation, but also by the development of autonomous cities with corporative structure and liberties, among other things. These phenomena did not reach further than the Polish and Hungarian Kingdoms (13–14).

According to Szücs, following a not entirely perfect, yet acceptable consensus, the region between the demarcation lines of the former Carolingian Europe and Eastern Europe, which culturally still belonged to the West, was given the name Ostmitteleuropa (East-Central or Central Europe) (16). Everything beyond Central Europe was known as the East, a region that never took part in the medieval cultural development of Western Europe. In the sixteenth century the Russian state was founded between the White, the Black, and the Caspian Seas, in the territory between Poland and the Ural. In time, Russia and Eastern Europe became one and the same (16–17).

At the end of the medieval period the Seljuk Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire and renamed its Asian region Anatolia and the Southeastern European parts Rumelia—referring to the lands inherited from the Roman Empire.5 Since the Ottoman conquests stopped in Hungary, Szücs assigns it the role of the new border region from which Central Europe had just been liberated. He also decides to leave Southeastern Europe out of consideration because it was excluded from the European structures for a half a millennium (17–18). After “dividing” Europe into three parts, Szücs elaborates on the basic characteristics of the West (19). The main principle is the division between society and state (20) that sets in motion a development essentially different from any other in the world, most importantly from that of Eastern and, of course, of Southeastern Europe.

Schöpflin discusses all the basic elements of Western society (which logically originate in the initial separation of state and society that Szücs stressed). The division of power brought about an attendant separation of secular from religious power, the founding of church universities independent of the state, and an autonomous development of the sciences and a spread of literacy that eventually undermined the role of the Church. The independent cities played a crucial role in promoting the market, the money economy, and technologies (Schöpflin and Wood 10–11). ← 3 | 4 →

Schöpflin compares the Russian model to the Western situation and concludes that it is inherently different. The ruler not only of Russia, but also of the Byzantine state was able to integrate the Church into the framework of secular power and thereby exercise control over the religious domain. In the Byzantine Empire, where the political tradition was reinforced by the influence of Islam, the ruler used religion to strengthen the myth of legitimacy, according to which the Empire was divinely ordained, so that religion could never emerge as an autonomous, competitive value in the way that it did in Europe (13).

The Byzantine Empire, with its traditional urban civilization and centralized bureaucratic state structure, was the opposite of the West-European division of power, and Islam combined elements of Persian-Byzantine structures with its own military-theocratic autocracy. The cities in both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires were therefore dependent on the centralized state and, although they were administrative, military and economic centers, they did not develop in the zone of interaction between sovereignty and power which gave Western cities the possibility of building up an independent communal existence (Szücs 22–23).

Therefore, Szücs’ conclusion is that the Byzantine Empire did not partake in the Western European or, according to Schöpflin, in the European model of development. Central Europe, on the other hand, notwithstanding the intermediate and liminal, pervious nature of the area between Latin and Orthodox lands, emerged as a part of Western Christianity and thus firmly associated with the West (Schöpflin and Wood 19–20).

Huntington mentions the possibility of differentiating between Orthodox Russian, Orthodox Byzantine, and Western Christian civilizations (45). He also argues that civilizations outlive empires (43), which brings us to the question of the Byzantine legacy after the demise of the Byzantine and the birth of the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to the previous mainstream in historiography, according to which “Ottoman rule […] sundered the Balkans from the rest of the continent and ushered in new dark ages for the region” (xl), both Todorova (162) and Mazower suggest that the Ottoman Empire did not destroy the Byzantine heritage, but much to the contrary regarded itself as a “successor to the ‘universal state’ of Byzantine Orthodoxy” (xl) and included Byzantine elements in its state structure.

The Ottoman historian Brown goes a step further and includes the Ottoman Empire among the three Mediterranean empires, together with the Roman and Byzantine Empires. He further points out that although the Roman Empire was, for a short period, more extensive, it did not last as long as the Ottoman, whereas the Byzantine Empire lasted longer but could not match the diversity of the peoples ruled by the Ottomans (1). ← 4 | 5 →

Brown’s categorization is important for this study because all the aforementioned empires—from the Roman, which embodies the Western imperial tradition, to the Ottoman, which is considered foreign, even hostile to the European/Western civilization—included the Balkans, which were also part of the empire of Alexander the Great. Due to these imperial legacies the Balkans are seen alternately as the “cradle of the European civilization,” a perception focusing on the ancient Greek legacy on the one hand, and, on the other, as a non-European, “other” space due to five centuries of Ottoman rule since the beginning of the Modern Age.

The reasons for including the Western Catholic Habsburg Monarchy in the discussions on the Balkans in this study are the Monarchy’s own cultural ambiguity and its political influence on the history of the Balkan countries. Not only was this empire considered to be the border to the Orient, it also invited Orthodox inhabitants from the Ottoman Empire to serve as mercenary troops to defend the border areas against the Ottomans as early as 1522 (Rothenberg 8–15); with the occupation of Bosnia formalized at the Berlin Conference in 1878, it incorporated Ottoman territories populated by Slavic Moslems, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats living next to each other, and it was a coveted destination for many different peoples from the Ottoman Empire who aspired towards both education and economic prosperity.

Considering the above facts, Metternich’s famous declaration that the Balkans begin in Vienna, or more precisely at the Rennweg6 could be interpreted in three ways: as an expression of his frustration over the inevitable political and cultural intermingling of Austria with the uncanny space; as an acknowledgment of the similarity between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires in regard to the complexity of nationalities and cultures in these two supranational states; and finally, from a postmodern point of view, as a dismissal of essentialist notions about what is West or Europe and where the borderline between the Orient and the Occident should be drawn.

Geographical, Geopolitical, and Cultural Borders of the Balkans

A perfect example of the Balkans’ ambiguity is that not only their cultural bases, but also their geographical names could well be disputed. The geographical name “Balkans” was based on the erroneous ancient Greek belief that the Haemus (the ancient Greek name for the Balkans) was a mountain chain linking the Adriatic and Black Seas, with a dominant position in the peninsula (Todorova 25), that it ran all throughout the peninsula, similar to the Pyrenees of the Iberian Peninsula (Mazower xxvi), i.e., it stretched from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. In fact, it ends in eastern Serbia (Glenny xxii). Therefore, even the geographical boundaries have been and still are being renegotiated. Todorova draws the geographical borders of the Balkans as follows: ← 5 | 6 →

The standard approach of geographers distinguishes between a stricto sensu physico geographical definition, and one employed for more practical purposes. The first accepts as the undisputed eastern, southern, and western borders the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, Mediterranean, Ionian, and Adriatic Seas. (30)

It is significant that the northern geographical border of the Balkans is the most disputed one. According to Todorova (30), geographically “it is most often considered” to begin at the mouth of the river Idria in the gulf of Trieste and to coincide with the Sava and the Danube rivers. It is disputed because here the geographical and the cultural definitions of the region based on historical metanarratives collide, and every attempt to determine the border opens a Pandora’s box of historical and cultural argumentation. Since the above definition includes both Slovenia (or part of the Habsburg Monarchy) and the European part of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, it automatically questions not only the border between the Balkans and Europe, but also the border between the Orient and the Occident. Mazower gives a concise, but ambiguous definition of the Balkans as a part of Europe, but “not of it” (xxviii), alluding to its oriental heritage, and Glenny abandons the attempts for definition altogether, because “[a] serious consideration of the Balkan peninsula runs up against the unanswerable question of borders” (xxii).

The disagreements and difficulties in naming and mapping the Balkans show the crisis of geography as “a concept, a sign system and an order of knowledge established at the centers of power” (Rogoff 20). Rogoff therefore proposes introducing critical epistemology, subjectivity, and spectatorship into the area of geography, which will “shift the interrogation from the center to the margins, to the site at which new and multi-dimensional knowledge and identities are constantly in the process of being formed” (20).

Abandoning the “sequentially unfolding narrative” and historical thinking (1), Soja introduces the concept of postmodern human geography and proposes spatialization of the historical narrative that would emphasize “the combination of time and space, history and geography, period and region, sequence and simultaneity” (2). The postmodern and critical human geography provides us with a new vision that allows us to see in different ways “the interplay of history and geography, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of being in the world […]” (11). Like Rogoff, Soja points to the “relations of power and discipline […] inscribed into the apparently innocent spatiality” and the interference of politics and ideology with human geographies (6).

Drawing on the “spatial turn” paradigm proposed by Soja, Blažević suggests the use of the term “Balkan” “as a flexible, dynamic, and relational heuristic concept […] [that] enables and promotes a critical, multi-perspective ← 6 | 7 → and self-reflexive thinking about space,” rather than as a criterion for symbolic inclusion/exclusion (1), i.e., belonging or not belonging to Europe. Precisely postmodern geography opens the possibility of conceptualizing “space as a dynamic network,” in which “heterogeneous historical trajectories […] [are] densely interwoven with the asymmetrical relations of power” (Blažević 1). The Balkans should therefore be reconceptualized as “a space of permeation and overlapping, where individual and collective identities have constantly been (re)created in the game of attraction and rejection” (2).


XII, 332
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
complexity politics dystopia
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. XII, 332 pp.

Biographical notes

Ana Foteva (Author)

Ana Foteva received her PhD in German literature at Purdue University. Currently she holds the position of Visiting Assistant Professor in German Studies at St. Lawrence University. She is the recipient of several grants and awards. Foteva has published in both European and American journals on a variety of topics, including Austrian literature of the fin de siècle, literatures of Southeastern Europe, German Classicism and theater, and contrastive analysis.


Title: Do the Balkans Begin in Vienna? The Geopolitical and Imaginary Borders between the Balkans and Europe
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