I think this has profound implications for Atheists and secularists in general. I think that we are seeing a religious resurgence throughout the world, not so much perhaps in the United States, but certainly in the countries of the former Soviet Union where Orthodoxy has once again started to thrive and become an organizing force. Along with militant Islam we have various Hindu and even Buddhist groups that in other “civilizations” are asserting themselves not only in the quest for political power, but in a wider battle which they perceive to be against the incursions of western enlightenment influence and modernity in general.
So, using this model of civilizations, we have in the Balkans an enormous fault line where Orthodoxy, western Christianity and Islam collide. This is something that has been taking place for nearly a thousand years. When you read the history of the area, of the invasions and retreats and the conflicts, you see why this particular part of the world is so tempestuous and unstable.
A second reason why I wanted to talk about the Balkan situation was because it is a geopolitical powder keg. This is the region where in 1908 the Catholic Hapsburgs formally annexed Bosnia, where a Serb assassin named Gavrillo Princip shot the Archduke Ferdinand thus kicking off the events leading to World War I. Here we are at the opposite end of the century, and some of the same cultural, ethnic and religious forces are at work, and the western powers are again involved.
So, let me make a series of observations about the Balkans and about the Balkan crisis which will hopefully convey to you some of the flavor of this “clash of civilizations,” and some of the religious and cultural factors which underlie what is taking place there now.
We cannot understand what is going on especially in Serbia without appreciating the role that ethnicity and Orthodox religious belief has played there over the past thousand or so years. Christianity divided in 1054 over the question of ecclesiastical authority and which church councils would be recognized, two centers of power emerged, one in Rome, the other in Constantinople. The term “Orthodox” is taken from the Greek, meaning “right-believing,” implying a claim of apostolic truth with doctrinal consistency.
Orthodoxy was taken to much of the Slavonic world by the Byzantine missionaries, St. Cyril and St. Methodius. The Bulgarians converted in 864, the Russians in 988 after the Russian Prince Vladimir journeyed to the Hagia Sophia or Church of the Holy Wisdom, that magnificent temple located in Constantinople.
The Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantium (or Constantinpole) in 1453, and they recognized the patriarch of that city as the spokesman for the entire Christian population under their control. Over the years, the different branches of Orthodoxy would break off their allegiances to a particular patriarchy, which was fine because unlike western Christianity, Orthodoxy relied on the authority of church councils, rather than have a unified center and papal figure, as the western church did.
In this part of the world, and I would say that this primarily applies to that group which we might label “Slavic,” Orthodoxy was fused with ethnic identity, later even national identity, language, customs, symbols and a particular view of history and the world and how this affected individuals. If you want to understand Russia for instance which is certainly one of the centers of Orthodoxy, you have to think of terms such as “nationality,” “Orthodoxy” and “autocracy.”
The first is this ethnic identification as Slavic, and in the literature and mythos of the slavophiles, there is this sense that God has saved a special mission for the Slavs, that after a period of suffering they will redeem the world. I recommend a book by Nicholas Berdyaev called THE ICON AND THE AXE if you want to understand this further. There is the sense of Orthodoxy, that the Slavs are united by faith, by its iconography and ritual. There is a yearning for autocracy, the strong man on horseback; strong leaders; stern leaders; ruthless leaders even ... and their job is to strengthen the Slavic fatherland, and guard it from the incursions of the corrupt west.
You have to remember that when the Enlightenment took place, I think that we can say that its impact in the east, in places like Russia, down in the Balkans, was minimal. All of the enlightenment ideas about the political rights of the individual, the primacy of reason over religious superstition, the notion of limiting autocracy in favor of some form of republicanism, the sense of looking at human history and trying to find a direction, a so-called philosophy of progress, a lot of these notions were simply alien to the Orthodox world. In the Orthodox world, especially the Balkans, a different mind set has prevailed, and it is one based on long-standing ethnic rivalries, ancestral feuds, religious ties and suffering.
Here’s what Robert Kaplan, an editor for the Atlantic Monthly magazine said about this in his thoughtful book from 1993 titled BALKAN GHOSTS, A JOURNEY THROUGH HISTORY. He’s talking about some of the differences between the Croats and the Serbs, and he writes:
“Religion in this case is no mean thing. Because Catholicism arose in the west and Orthodoxy in the East, the differences between them is greater than that between, say, Catholicism and Protestantism, or even Catholicism and Judaism.”
Let me give you a fairly recent historical example of these differences, and this involves what happened during and in the days leading up to World War II, and that was the establishment of an Independent Catholic State in the region we know as Croatia. This is directly north of Yugoslavia, Croatia is sandwiched between Romania to the east and Slovenia and the Adriatic to the west. Further north are Austria and Hungary, the old Catholic Hapsburg empire. To the south, you have the Orthodox areas like present day Serbia and Kosovo, which is a name we are getting to know all to well.
The Croats were a Slavic tribe, but they were also the first to free themselves from the domination of Byzantium in 924. The country was later occupied by the Ottomans. They also fell under the influence of the Catholic kingdom of Hungary, and it was really this long standing loathing and fear of the east which was manifested by either Orthodoxy or the Ottoman Empire that became part of the Croat consciousness. They willingly welcomed whatever influence and protection the Vatican could provide.
There arose in Croatia a movement known as the Ustashe (or “insurrectionists”) that had the goal of creating an authoritarian Catholic state and eliminating any Serbian and Orthodox influences. When the Nazis marched into Croatia in April of 1941, they installed the Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic... and at this point, accounts of what happened divide sharply. If you believe the Serbian accounts, and I suspect that there really is considerable evidence for this, somewhere around 600,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and other citizens of Yugoslavia were exterminated as part of a systematic campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing. At the center of this story is the controversial person of Roman Catholic Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, who was, at least in the early days a vehement supporter of the Ustashe. Stepinac led demonstrations in support of the Pavelic regime, he supported an extremely authoritarian social agenda (for instance, there were even demonstrations in the streets against mixed-sex bathing), there was legislation against public profanity, Stepinac became a chaplain to the Ustashe. We know that Roman Catholic priests took an oath on behalf of the “triumph of Christ and Croatia.”
Under the Ustashe a reign of terror ensued. Hundreds of Orthodox churches and seminaries were demolished, and the brutality and vigor with which pogroms and ethnic cleansing campaigns were carried out astonished even the Germans. People were thrown alive into burning pits, ears were cut off as part of an elaborate torture ritual. 22 extermination camps were establish, and the most notorious of these was at Jesenovac, and I want to read again from Robert Kaplan’s work, he writes:
An ethnic Serb I met on the train told me: “The Croatian fascists did not have gas chambers at Jesenovac. They had only knives and mallets with which to commit mass murder against the Serbs. The slaughter was chaotic, nobody bothered to keep count. So here we are, decades behind Poland. There, Jews and Catholics battle over significance. Here, Croats and Serbs still argue over numbers...”
The Catholic genocide against Jews, Orthodox and others was not confined to the Independent State of Croatia. In Romania, that country was nominally controlled by the fascist “Iron Guard” movement. Again, I want to read you an excerpt from Kaplan’s book, and in this I want you to appreciate one of the fault lines here, and that involves the struggle of either the Catholics or the Orthodox against the Turks, because the Ottomans, Islam, emerges as a common demon for both groups.
(Kaplan xxi -- not included)
Something else needs to be said about Archbishop Stepinac. Stepinac originally welcomed the Ustashe and its leader, Pavelic, he arranged for a private audience of Ustashi Youth to meet Pope Pius XII at the Vatican -- this took place on February 6, 2020. Stepinac had declared,
“All in all, Croats and Serbs are of two worlds, northpole(sic) and southpole(sic), never will they be able to get together unless by a miracle of God. The schism (Eastern Orthodoxy) is the greatest curse in Europe, almost greater than Protestantism. Here there is no moral (sic), no principles, no truth, no justice, no honesty...”
Stepinac’s role in history is a subject that continued to divide historians, there is considerable debate over his involvement in the Croat-Ustashi-Catholic genocide. But there is some evidence that as the “ethnic cleansing” and brutality intensified, it was even too much for Stepinac. In May, 1943 the Axis powers demanded that the Vatican remove him from his post. By then, of course, the whole direction of the war was beginning to shift in favor of the allies. After the collapse of the Reich, Stepinac was arrested by the new Yugoslav government, and put on trial, he was transmogrified into a liberatory figure in the battle against “godless communism,” and he died while under house arrest in 1960.
Last year during a visit to Croatia, Pope John Paul beatified Stepinac -- this is the step before canonization and sainthood.
Now, after all of this, we enter the very brief period known as Titoism when all of these bubbling ethnic and religious hatreds were not eliminated as much as they were driven underground. Josef Broz Tito who was a communist insurgent led much of the left resistance to the Nazis, and after the war he emerged as head of the Yugoslav government when it was declared in 1953. Tito’s unique brand of communism was dubbed “positive neutralism,” and during the Tito period most of the separatist ambitions of the different ethnic and religious movements were violently suppressed. He died in 1980, and by the time the Soviet Union began to disintegrate a process of -- what else? -- “Balkanization” took place. Out of the former Yugoslavia arose Slovenia (June, 1991), Bosnia-Herzegovina (March, 1992), Macedonia (November, 1991) and, again, Croatia in June, 1991. In Croatia, Franjo Tudman became president; Tudman had gone on record as denying that any holocaust against the Jews or Serbs had ever occurred, the Croat army and paramilitary units began another round of ethnic cleansing, 40,000 Serbs became refugees, as many as 15,000 may have been killed. And through it all, in January,1992 the Vatican became the first of the world’s governments to recognize the Catholic regime in Croatia.
Again, in this whole Balkan tragedy, what you believe in terms of numbers and events identifies, at least for the participants, which “side” you are on. But I think that the claims that upwards of 500,000 Serbs being evicted and driven from their homes may have a good basis in truth.
There is one more character in this drama I have to discuss before winding this up, and this is Slobodan Milosevic, and he is the key to understanding what is taking place now in Kosovo. He has been elevated to the status of a demonic figure in the west, and again, this may well have a basis in fact. But as I wrote last week in the AANEWS dispatch, “Milosevic is actually the articulation of profound Serbian fears, traditions and aspirations which resonate throughout Yugoslavia and, indeed, the wider community of Slavs and Orthodox adherents...”
Throughout most of his life, Milosovic was known as a doctrinaire communist who was at home in the party apparatus. He was the protege of Ivan Stambolic, the Serb minister who took over in the midst of the post-Tito fragmentation. And fate smiled on Milosovic when he sent to calm a popular uprising that was taking place in the Kosovo administrative capitol of Pristina in April, 1987.
This was an event that transformed Milosovic, probably as a person, but certainly as a symbol of revitalized Serbian nationalism and resistance.
Throughout the summer, he was on the road speaking to wildly enthusiastic crowds of Serbs who had seen the demographics of Kosovo shift profoundly as Muslim-Albanians poured into the area. There arose a whole subversion mythology in the Serb communities in and around Kosovo that Muslims were deliberately breeding large families so that they could take over. Kosovo had been granted considerable autonomy toward the end of Tito’s reign, Serb uprisings and protests were by some accounts violently put down by the Kosovo provincial government, and to the Serbs Slobodan Milosovic emerged as a nationalist hero who was going to keep Kosovo for the Serbs...
Now, I don’t think that Milosovic is an Orthodox, he’s probably not, his wife is a Marxist academic, he lives in Tito’s old palace so he fits the profile of a Balkan autocrats of sorts, but he obviously knows about the cultural collision that is taking place in that area, and how religious belief and history fit together. His father had wanted to study for the Orthodox priesthood, but growing up Slobodan Milosovic was raised by his mother who was an orthodox Communist.
In March, 1998, Milosovic orders the arrest of ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo, and on June 28, he travels to an important monument and symbol in this story, and that is the battlefield of Gazimestan, which is also Kossovo Polje, the Field of Black Birds... This was the place where the Ottoman Turks defeated the Serb armies on June 28, 2020,and it is a “sacred place,” a mythic power center if you will in the Serb consciousness. That battle basically closed one of the glorious chapters in Serbian history, this was the reign of Stefan Dushan, the name a form of the term “dusha” meaning “soul.” For his time, he was an enlightened ruler who sanctioned religious freedom and even trial by jury. The Serbian empire was at its peak, comprising present day Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, part of northern Greece and Bulgaria. Kaplan and other have noted that Dushan’s armies were strong enough to have possibly even marched in and seized Constantinople had it not been for a diversionary evasion of Catholic Hungarians. Dushan died suddenly in 1355, the Turks were already across the Bosphorus. This was the twilight of the so-called Nemanjic kings. The Turks were on the march for the next few decades, and in 1389 came that decisive battle which configured the Balkans for the next five centuries.
Another symbol of Serbian tradition and coherence, along with this location, the “field of black birds” of Kossovo Polje, are the monasteries of the Orthodox Church, most of which are several centuries old. There are five prominent monasteries in Kosovo, and as I noted in the AANEWS dispatch, “they serve as icons of this cultural resistance to the outside world.”
In the November 10, 2020 edition of the New York Times, Christopher Hedges wrote what I think is one of the most penetrating observations made about this part of the world and thus the Balkan crisis. He wrote: “The many attempts to eradicate the Serbian Orthodox Church have produced a theology that glorifies warrior priests, makes a cult of suffering and sees in nearly every outsider a heretic plotting to destroy the Serbian people.”
He quoted a monk who declared, “The Serbs must accept that they will always be hounded by their enemies... this is because Orthodox believers know the truth, because God forces all believers to suffer for the faith.
So let me wrap this up with a few points:
First, as I said two years ago, we are now in a “brave new world” where increasingly the ancient calls of ethnicity, language, religion and familial roots assert themselves in a multi-polar world. This is world not just of nation states and corporations, but of “civilizations.” And in the Balkans, we find one of the great fault lines in the collision and conflict of these civilizations -- western Christianity, Orthodoxy, and Islam.
Secondly, I think that Americans especially are an a-historical people in a sense. Our history is very young, writers like Frederick Turner observed that our national character has been shaped by the idea -- factual or not -- of a frontier, of the new, of the not-yet-built. That is why, in part, we simply have no comparable frame of reference. For us a building that is two or even three centuries old is a historical treasure. In the Balkans, that time frame is relatively young. We are driven by symbols associated with popular culture, by notions such as upward social mobility, the quest for material consumption (and I applaud this, I think this is far preferable to a lot of alternatives), but we loose sight of the fact that in much of the world, especially in the Balkans, there is an entirely different world view of weltanshauung. We fail to appreciate the fact that beneath the veneer of popular culture -- television, the internet, the global marketplace -- there are profound and deep cultural divides and historical differences, part of an “older world” that while dormant at times, often bubbles up or even explodes from beneath the surface of the social fabric.
Is there anything that we can do about this?
It behooves us as Atheists, secularists and especially as Americans to realize that what is happening in the Balkans today is the result of long-standing historical forces. We may not be able as a society to do much about these, at least in the short run. And I have to stand here today before you and tell you that I don’t have an answer to what is taking place over there. I can only have a hope, and that is that perhaps in our lifetime, the forces of globalization and secularism and what I like to think of as the “late wave of the European enlightenment” manage to reach the far shores of the Adriatic and wash over the Balkans. I can only place my hope in a generation of youth, who hopefully with enough education and enough exposure to the outside world -- and their neighbors -- can start the long overdue task of breaking free from the centuries of tradition, and mythic fantasy and religious hatred that threaten to divide them, and the rest of the world.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.