Professor Edin Hajdarpasic Publishes New Book
The Loyola History Department offers its congratulations to Associate Professor Edin Hajdarpasic, PhD, on the recent publication of his book, Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840–1914. Professor Hajdarpasic’s work examines the politics of nation-formation in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the course of the long nineteenth century, a crucial period that witnessed the rise of several converging and competing national movements in the Ottoman and Habsburg Balkan provinces. By analyzing how Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim activists discovered and fostered identification with their co-nationals in Bosnia, who appeared simultaneously as their “brothers” and their “enemies,” his study is a contribution to historiography of the modern Balkans and an engagement with larger methodological questions about the complex workings of nationalism. In addition to authoring Whose Bosnia?, Professor Hajdarpasic has published extensively on Balkan history, conflict and memory, religious and ethnic relations, nationalism, and the Ottoman legacy in Southeastern Europe.
PhD student Hope Shannon spoke to Professor Hajdarpasic about his experience writing Whose Bosnia?
HS: How did you become interested in this topic?
EH: For a long time, I avoided writing about nationalism. I suppose this is a common sentiment among many who experienced the surge of nationalism in Yugoslavia since the late 1980s. With the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and with so much political life saturated with divisive nationalist claims, many scholars across Eastern Europe have sought to highlight non-national phenomena or explore issues that challenge nationalist divisions. In my doctoral work, I worked along similar lines, trying to unearth different local political debates in late Ottoman Bosnia that did not fit the dominant mold of the nation-state. I still think this is an exciting and valuable research direction. Yet after finishing my doctorate, I began to realize that we as historians needed to face the problem of nationalism more directly and with a fresh pair of eyes, so to speak. I also realized that I had been rethinking histories of nationalism even while I was avoiding writing about them! Since the nineteenth century was the “age of nationalism” in the Balkans and worldwide, I decided to focus on this fascinating period, more precisely on the rise of nationalist movements in and around Bosnia before the First World War. This project then took me to some interesting places along the way.
HS: What challenges did you face while researching and writing the book?
EH: As a province ruled by both the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires in the nineteenth century—Ottoman until 1878, Habsburg from 1878 to 1914—Bosnia presents a fascinating case of transnational competition and mutual influence. Researching this book thus took me to Vienna as well as Istanbul, and to many regional centers like Zagreb and Belgrade. Many essential collections are, of course, in Bosnia. Archival research in Bosnia and other post-Yugoslav states has been very challenging since the 1990s. The 1992-1995 war destroyed an enormous amount of historical artifacts and repositories, including academic institutions that were deliberately targeted, as was the case with the infamous burning of the National Library in Sarajevo in 1992. After the war, there was minimal state support for such institutions, meaning that already damaged archives, universities, libraries, and museums never really recovered, leading to loss of basic services, further loss of collections, and even long-term closures of some institutions. Digitization has preserved some collections, but overall, it takes great diligence, patience, and skill to carry out in-depth historical research in this region.
HS: What was the most interesting aspect of the project for you?
EH: Writing is always a process of discovery, and in this project, writing about nationalism opened a number of surprising questions for me. During my research and writing—the two go together—I found that my approach departed from the usual textbook accounts of nation-formation, which tend to focus on the supposedly final outcome of nation-building: namely the consolidation of national identities and the establishment of strong state institutions. To take the now-proverbial title of Eugen Weber’s classic, nation-formation was about turning “peasants into Frenchmen” or into other nationals. The story usually ends there, with Frenchmen, Germans, Serbs, and other nationals clearly established, or with failures like Yugoslavia plainly apparent to us today.
My research made me rethink the assumptions behind such approaches. Can the process that Weber called the “internal colonialism” of nation-building ever be truly complete? When South Slavic activists urged that national consciousness must be “foisted directly and forcefully” on “our own people,” what kind of relations did this activism entail? How and when does one come to know who are—and who are not—one’s “own people”? In taking up such questions, I came to argue that the project of nationalizing one’s “own people” is not a passing stage, but the basic structural condition on which national projects are founded and continually renewed.
Writing about nationalism in this way led me to explore the recurring questions of nation-formation since the nineteenth century. I found myself assembling something like a formative repertoire of nationalist concerns, which stand as the core subjects of the book: the idea of “the people;” suffering; activism; youth; and imperial rivalry. Developing a new approach, structure, and voice of the book was one of the most enjoyable aspects of this project.
HS: How does your book relate to contemporary issues?
EH: There are a number of ways to explore this question, but I’ll focus on just one here. There is a popular notion that when it comes to ethnically “mixed” places like Bosnia, nationalist disputes can be ultimately resolved only by some kind of ethnic separation, usually through territorial partitions or similar schemes. Politicians and scholars are quick to add that such partitions are regrettable and tragic, but “ultimately” necessary. This notion, which pervades popular and scholarly debates, assumes that nation-building has a finite end. Disputes over national allegiances or identities may be complex and bitter—so the thinking goes—but they can be “ultimately” settled, admittedly at a steep human cost; the underlying idea is that nationalism has some kind of point where nation-formation is complete. History shows us that is not the case—that is one argument of my book. If we look at the dynamics of national movements historically, we discover that nationalist projects are driven precisely by their inherent and unavoidable incompleteablity. My book explores these incomplete, open-ended qualities in different ways, but to come back to your question—one implication is that we need to step outside what I call the “completist” paradigm of nationalism, and instead we need to better understand the compulsions and proliferation of nationalist projects since the nineteenth century. This also means that we need to move away from thinking that territorial partitions, or changes in borders, or categorizations along ethnic lines are allegedly “necessary” to help finish the work of nation-formation.
HS: What’s next?
EH: A couple of projects are in the works. For one, I’d like to explore how the discipline of history specifically has emerged as such a crucial subject in contested lands like Bosnia, particularly by looking at how different twentieth-century regimes—from nationalist to Communist to democratic ones—have relied on history for particular political aims, including interethnic reconciliation and peace-keeping. I also have several projects in progress, including a piece on the history of Bosnian Franciscans since the late Ottoman period, and another piece on the history of Muslim education in Bosnia also since the late Ottoman era. Lots to look forward to!
Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840–1914 is available from Cornell University Press.