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Violent Highlanders (Dinarics) and Peaceful Lowlanders

November 1 2005 at 11:11 AM
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Violent Highlanders and Peaceful Lowlanders
Uses and Abuses of Ethno-Geography in the Balkans from Versailles to Dayton

Marko Živkoviæ
University of Chicago

In a process both cumulative and interactive, people make indications to one another about who they are and what other kinds of people are in their habitat,” writes Ulf Hannerz (Hannerz 1992: 15). People make these indications in part by ascribing more or less stable clusters of traits to their own and other groups at levels that range from families to nations. In concrete cases the traits used will correspond to what the concrete groups consider important and will bear the mark of their concrete historical experiences. In this paper I want to explore one particular type of idiom used in mutual characterizations of various groups within what used to be Yugoslavia – the ethnogeographical idiom whereby people are classified as Highlanders or Lowlanders.

In his Instructions for the Investigation of Origins and Psychological Characteristics (published in Novi Sad in 1922), the eminent Serbian ethnogeographer Jovan Cvijic (1865–1927) advised researchers to go from house to house in the villages they are studying and ask about the origins of every family – are they old settlers or newcomers? Where did they come from, when, and why? What are the differences between settlers from different regions in language, dress, and customs? (Cvijic 1987b: 280). And most importantly, what are “the different psychological characteristics of the old settlers and the newcomers?” After that come the differences between villages and regions: The peasants of a village or a region have well known opinion established by long experience about the peasants of surrounding villages and regions and know what these [inhabitants of surrounding villages] think of them. … On the basis of the above opinions that he will himself test, and on the basis of anecdotes, stories and sayings, the investigator should ascertain the specific psychological characteristics of the village or region … by which that village or region differs from the surrounding ones. … Some investigators might be able to explain where these psychological differences came from (Cvijic 1987b: 283). According to Cvijic, these differences were mostly traceable to the character traits of settlers from other Balkan regions. In many parts, he wrote, “the overwhelming majority are the families of immigrants and they know what regions they came from” (Cvijic 1987a: 127). Thus he concluded that the intra and inter-village as well as inter-regional differences were in large part due to character traits that immigrants had brought with them from their original regions. Cvijic was by no means a geographical determinist. He divided geographical influences into three types: direct and indirect influences, as well as those characteristics of the terrain which influence the movements of human groups. The direct influences of terrain, climate, landscape etc. on human physiology and psychology, Cvijic believed, are undeniable but extremely hard to specify and distinguish from a host of other non-geographical factors. Much easier to grasp are the indirect influences of environment – natural resources determine the material forms of human life: types of dwellings, forms of economy, food and clothing habits, etc., and these in turn affect “a great number of psychological phenomena,” yet their influence is intertwined with social factors and hard to distinguish from them. Most interesting for Cvijic, however, was the third group of geographical factors – those which influence the movements of human groups. Features of terrain facilitate or obstruct movements of people and contacts between civilizations. They tend to channel the advances and retreats of conquering empires, and in the long run they tend to shape the zones of their civilizational influences. This is why ethnopsychological profiles largely coincide with cultural zones which in their turn tend to follow the geomorphology of the terrain. Since it is mountains and valleys (as opposed to, say, coast and hinterland, or jungle and arid highlands) that constitute the main features of the terrain in the Balkans, Cvijic’s ethnopsychological distinctions came to revolve around the clusters of traits associated with Highlanders and Lowlanders. I dwelt in some length on Cvijic’s Instructions in order to point to the empirical foundation of the ethnopsychological types he formulated. For decades he and his followers went literally from house to house collecting, among other things, minute inter-group perceptions, attitudes, and characterizations. It is partly from these folk distinctions that Cvijic arrived at his pan-Balkan synoptic map1 of ethnopsychological types. Once formulated, they percolated back to the popular level, if not directly through Cvijic’s writings, then from his numerous popularizers, and became firmly entrenched as basic terms in the genre of popular ethnopsychological theory. In this paper, I want to analyze how these popular ethnopsychological characterizations came to be used in the last few years that witnessed the break-up and war in the former Yugoslavia at levels extending from everyday conversations with ‘ordinary’ people in Belgrade, through local intellectual polemics carried out in Belgrade newspapers and magazines, to scholarly literature and international journalism. My first concern is to show how certain abiding clusters of traits associated with Highlanders and Lowlanders in internal Yugoslav inter-ethnic characterizations were transmitted to the international arena to serve as an explanation for the war and violence in the former Yugoslavia. Second, I want to question the facile cultural essentialism and determinism that underline what might at first glance seem as old-fashioned geographical determinism of this idiom. I will try to do that in part by showing how the characterization of whole national groups as bearers of either Highlander or Lowlander mentality involves a fallacy that Fernandez calls metonymic misrepresentation, where “one place, which is simply a part of a much larger place – whether a province, a region, or a nation – comes to stand for a whole place, its particular problems coming to be perceived as the problems of the whole place” (Fernandez 1986a: 22).2 I will further question the claim of this type of cultural essentialism by showing how in rhetorical uses quite different groups3 came to be labeled by a Highlander or a Lowlander mentality and how the valuations of these mentalities shift drastically according to who addresses whom, for what purpose, and in what context. Finally, the demonstration of rhetorical uses to which these anthropogeographical terms have been put opens the question of their epistemological status – are we to see them as arbitrary ethnic stereotypes, notions of discredited scholarly disciplines, or as characterizations that in some way correspond to “reality”? I see this question as of growing importance to anthropologists who are increasingly grappling with signifying practices that go well beyond the level of everyday face-to-face communication which has been their traditional hunting ground. We now have to take into account the arenas of literature, media production, domestic social science and political rhetoric in the societies we study – commonly preserves of other disciplines – and integrate them with our ethnographic perspective. What are ethnographers to do with notions that perhaps originated in how peasants of one region in Serbia saw peasants from another; that then came to be formulated by a Serbian anthropogeographer (who shared a number of intellectual ancestors with Franz Boas) as a classification of ethnopsychological profiles; and which then percolated down from scientific discourse (in part through literature of such writers as the Nobel Prize laureate Ivo Andric) to become emblems of national identity for some, and terms of abuse for others; and which finally find their way into Western media coverage of the war in Bosnia?

SERBIAN EPICS
In a 1992 BBC documentary entitled Serbian Epics, images of forbidding limestone peaks of the Bosnian Dinaric Alps are juxtaposed with images of Bosnian Serbs listening to their epics performed on gusle,4 and their guns firing into besieged Sarajevo. In his 1992 New York Times article, John Kifner draws our attention to “the rocky spine of the Dinaric Alps, for it is these mountains that have nurtured and shaped the most extreme, combative elements of each community: the western Herzegovinian Croats, the Sandzak Muslims, and, above all, the secessionist Serbs. Like mountaineer communities around the world, Kifner goes on, “these were wild, warlike, frequently lawless societies whose feuds and folklore, have been passed on to the present day like the potent home-brewed plum brandy that the mountain men begin knocking back in the morning” (Kifner 1994). Journalists work with striking images and sound-bites: mountains-folklore-brandy-guns. The argument works by juxtraposition and association – the link between mountains and violence is left unexplained. However, that link, I would argue, is not that of direct geographical causation. The insertion of epic poetry into the chain of associations between mountains and violence points to underlying cultural determinism of this argument of images: there is something in the culture of Dinaric mountaineer that explains the violence of the war. The image of the Dinaric Highlander that Kifner and other journalists use, however, are not conjured out of thin air. A middle-aged bank clerk from Belgrade I met on a train in the summer of 1996 told me what he would do if he were the president of Serbia. In order to topple Miloševic, he said half-jokingly, “I’ll call upon my Bosnians [meaning Bosnian Serbs]. Who else would do it? They are crazy – hat dearer than head. They have only one hat,” he explained, “and no money to buy another, as for the head, they don’t care much if they lose it – this is the violent Dinaric mentality,” he concluded.

MOUNTAINS, HARDNESS AND STATE-BUILDING CAPACITY
The Dinaric mountaineer is a category long used by the Yugoslavs themselves as a tool of self-understanding or self-criticism, and, particularly in times of conflict, as a rhetorical weapon in inter-ethnic conflicts. A recent example of its propagandistic uses is a book written by Croatian-American sociologist Stjepan Meštrovic, Habits of the Balkan Heart: Social Character and the Fall of Communism (Meštrovic 1993).5 However, since the book is actually little more than revamping of a study by another Croatian-American sociologist, Dinko Tomašic, it is more profitable to turn to the ‘original’ which, in addition to providing a history of the adversarial use of this idiom, will also lead us to its intellectual genealogy. Dinko Tomašic was a Croatian sociologist who emigrated to the United States and taught sociology at Indiana University. His Personality and Culture in Eastern European Politics was published in 1948. Despite his efforts to generalize to the whole of Eastern Europe, his argument is best seen as derived from and pertinent mostly to the region that was once Yugoslavia. His basic argument is that the bellicose and conspirative character of Eastern Europe, its “upheavals, convulsions and warfare” are to a large extent traceable to the clash between what Tomašic calls the zadruga and the Dinaric cultures. According to Tomašic, the mountaineers of the Dinaric region exhibit an emotionally unstable, violent, and power-seeking personality. He argues that the Dinaric social and family structure is “sufficient to explain the ambivalent drives and the emotional instability of the Dinaric people” (Tomašic 1948: 32). “The Dinaric child is born and reared in an atmosphere of rivalry and antagonism,” says Tomašic. “Deep feelings of insecurity in such a family environment create a strong need for self-assertion, with the resultant overcompensation in boastfulness and illusions of grandeur” (Tomašic 1948: 32–33). It is interesting to note that he relies quite heavily on the work of Jovan Cvijic whom he obviously respects as the foremost authority on the Dinaric mentality, but whom he casts as a geographical determinist6 in contrast to his own ‘Culture and Personality School’ emphasis on the family upbringing. The Dinarics show a “ceaseless concern with their own importance and reputation,” says Tomašic quoting Cvijic. They “can hate with a consuming passion and a violence that reaches a white heat.” In the Dinaric regions, again quoting Cvijic, one can find “excessively fierce, wild and narrow-minded men who are goaded beyond endurance by the smallest insult” (Tomašic 1948: 35). In a word, Tomašic concludes, the Dinarics are characterized by a malevolent, deceitful and disorderly view of the universe, and an emotionally unbalanced, violent, rebellious and power-seeking personality, together with tense interpersonal and cultural relationships, and extreme political instability. This herdsman-brigand-warrior-police ideal furnished a program for the conquerors of urban centers and of the surrounding peasantry (Tomašic 1948: 12). Opposed to the Dinarics stand the peaceful, stable and tolerant peasants from the regions between the Drava and Sava rivers who, at least in the past, have been organized in large communal households called zadruga. “Exposure to happy family life and a mild, but reasonable family discipline, favored among the Zadruga peasants,” says Tomašic, results in an optimistic, peaceful, just and well-ordered conception of the world, an emotionally well-balanced, non-violent and power-indifferent personality, and smooth and harmonious interpersonal and intellectual relations (Tomašic 1948: 12). The main conflict in Yugoslavia, according to Tomašic, “was essentially a struggle of the Zadruga peasantry against the Dinaric warriors who had imposed themselves upon Croatia as Serbian military” (Tomašic 1948: 204). What is important to note here is that, with minor exceptions, the equivalence is established between the zadruga society and Croats on the one hand, and Dinaric society and Serbs on the other. However, the zadruga type of socio-economic organization was wide-spread among both Croats and Serbs. The same holds for the patriarchal Dinaric social organization. Both Croats and Serbs have their own internal Highlanders and Lowlanders, and this master dichotomy tends to get reproduced on ever smaller scales on both sides7 whereby supposedly homogeneous Highlander and Lowlander communities further divide themselves into internal high and lowlanders, and so on even to the level of a single person. But before I pursue this recursiveness on the Serbian side, which is the main purpose of this paper, I want to show yet another feature of this type of dichotomizing discourse – the way that valences of the opposite poles get reversed. When he discusses Dinarics, Tomašic is relying on Jovan Cvijic who, in his view, was “the outstanding theorist of Serbian imperialism” and thus his direct political enemy. Whatever the case might be, there is no doubt that by and large, Cvijic’s valuation of Dinaric character was the opposite of Tomašic’s. Tomašic’s somewhat biased account of Cvijic’s position will put this valence reversal in the sharpest possible relief. Tomašic writes that, according to Cvijic, there are “four main types of man among the southern Slavs: the Dinaric, the Central, the East-Balkan, and the Pannonian (see the map). Each of these is subdivided into a few subtypes. Superior to all types is Dinaric man, and of his five subtypes the Šumadija variety is the best” (Tomašic 1941: 54). Šumadija is the heartland of Serbia, the cradle of the Serbian uprisings against the Turks at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the core from which the modern Serbian state expanded. If the Šumadians were the best type for Cvijic, Tomašic writes, “the most inferior of all seems to have been the Pannonian type to which the majority of Croatian and some Serbs of the Pannonian plains belong” (Tomašic 1941: 55). I would argue, however, that for Cvijic, the main contrast is between the pride and heroism of those who retreated into the Dinaric ‘mountain fortress’ before the Turkish invaders, on the one hand, and the rayah8 mentality and moral mimicry of the groups who remained in close proximity of Turks in valleys and alongside main communications – that is to say the Central and the East-Balkan Types, on the other. The qualities of Dinaric man as defined by Cvijic, continues Tomašic, “are live spirit, sharp intelligence, deep feelings, rich fantasy, impulsiveness provoked by nonmaterial motives, national pride, and the ideas of honor, justice and freedom. Dinaric man is a born statesman, and his main urge is to create a powerful state …” (Tomašic 1941: 54–55). If for Tomašic, Highlanders are negative and Lowlanders positive, for Cvijic, to put it somewhat schematically, it is exactly the opposite – the higher the altitude, the nobler the character. One of the keys to understanding these valuations lies in the phrase “a born statesman.” State-building capacity was a matter of great importance at the time Cvijic was doing his major research. As one of six senior experts at the Paris Peace Conference, Cvijic was closely involved in the formal creation of Yugoslavia. It is certainly not a matter of chance, Halpern and Hammel note, “that his monumental work, The Balkan Peninsula, was published first in French in 1918, and only later in Serbo-Croatian” (Halpern and Hammel 1969: 20). Cvijic was obviously concerned about presenting a little known population to “civilized” Europe in the most favorable light, and the most important thing was to present it as inherently capable of state-building.9 To understand this concern one has to bear in mind the prevalent characterizations of Slavs in the ‘civilized’ Europe at the time as being of “the dovish disposition” – peaceful, passive, and “non-statebuilding” (nedrzavotvorni), as Dvornikovic, a very important but neglected student of Cvijic, notes in his Characterology of Yugoslavs (Dvornikovic 1939: 141). According to the famous Slavicist Alexander Brückner, Dvornikovic reports, Slavs are:

good-natured and hospitable, carefree and joyful … without initiative and energy, indolent and superficial … they retreat before every attack, avoid all authority. … In addition they are inordinately humble, seek after nothing, and that’s why despite their courage, large numbers, and physical endurance, they were not made for conquerors or founders of states” (Dvornikovic 1939: 141–142). Dvornikovic’s Characterology can be read as an incredibly detailed refutation of the above view. “Modern Slavic nationalism – particularly the Yugoslav one!” he writes – “feels bad about the old Slavic peacefulness and sees in it a sort of inferiority. Triumphantly the discoveries are shown that even those pre-Slavs were sometimes brutal warriors and that they did what other peoples of their age did” (Dvornikovic 1939: 272–273). Tomašic relates zadruga culture, and by extension, Croats, to the culture which existed among the Slav farming folk in the marshy plains of Polesia at the beginning of the Christian era. For Tomašic, this ancestry is something positive, especially as contrasted with the Ural-Altaic or even Tartar origins he ascribes to Dinarics. For Dvornikovic, however, that same ancestral Slav population is tainted by its passivity and inability to build states. He is at great pains to establish at least some high altitude pedigree10 for that portion of Slavdom who migrated to the Balkans and thus differentiate them from their passive, amorphous Slavic brothers. For Dvornikovic, even more than for Cvijic, the state-building capacity is related to higher altitudes which breed the necessary backbone, initiative, and hardness. This is perhaps why so much of his thick volume is devoted to various plays on the hard-soft and active-passive continuum. On a larger scale, the mountain-hardened South Slavs are contrasted to the soft Russians and Poles with their “lack of highland energy,” “soft languages,” and love of diminutives (Dvornikovic 1939: 283). The same dichotomy is then refracted recursively among the South Slavs themselves, and could be seen, for instance, reflected in the dialects of Serbo-Croatian. “Štokavian is a ‘hardened’ Slavic speech,” Dvornikovic writes, “Kajkavian is, like Russian, a soft language of the lowlanders … Particularly sharp is the opposition between the masculine što and feminine kaj, … which was not without influence on the tribal-political relationships between Serbs and Croats, between the Štokavian Belgrade and mostly Kajkavian Zagreb” (Dvornikovic 1939: 635, 642). Hardness is evident in the montagnard physiognomy as well. Their faces are “sharp, angular, accented: [This is] the type that does not bend, does not retreat before the clash, ready for the thrust and response. No, this is not the old Slav of Prokopios and Herder … who retreats before every pressure!” (Dvornikovic 1939: 197). For Tomašic, mountains correlate with violence and the syndromes of amoral familism, factionalism, and power-seeking. While he realizes that the bearers of that syndrome played an important role in the state formation, even more important is the instability they bring to the whole region. Opposed to turmoil caused by the Highlander element and its congenitally undemocratic personality, zadruga mentality, Tomašic argues, offers a factor of stability and democracy. We have thus seen how the opposite poles of the same high-lowland dichotomy can reverse valence depending on who is talking to whom and for what purpose. I have also mentioned how this dichotomy gets reproduced within one of its poles – namely, how Croats, supposedly on the Lowlander side of the scale, divide themselves further into internal Lowlanders and Highlanders. The purpose of this paper, however, is to see how this dichotomy plays out at the supposedly Highlander end of the scale – among the Serbs themselves.

 
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