About the centre - The Many Roads in Modernity

The Transformation of South-East Europe and the Ottoman Heritage from 1870 to the Twenty-first Century

The centre is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation
and hosted by the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Europe was filled not only with hope of reunification and a new beginning, but also with conflicts of a kind that ran counter to the visions of peace and democracy. The break-up of Yugoslavia, war, ethnic cleansing and national chauvinism now gave nourishment to the idea that unending hatred and ancient ethnic antagonisms were driving forces in the development of South-East Europe, which only the iron hand of communism had been able to keep in check. At the same time, this gave rise to a perception, both in the media and in political rhetoric, of the entire region as a special category of countries still stuck in a malignant, unchanging culture. This perception leads to the postulation that the area, for that reason alone, must be defined as Europe’s backwater and its past history as an obstacle to modernization processes. This perspective has also affected the outlook on surrounding countries such as Greece, Romania and Turkey.

The present project has arisen out of seminars in the research network “The Many Roads to Modernity” at the Centre for Modern European Studies (Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen). The premise of the project is that the national narratives of the nineteenth century still dominate the view of the past and the visions of progress in South-East Europe, despite the major changes in the twentieth century. Through seven studies and two international conferences, the project seeks to explore regional and transnational perspectives in past and present. This is particularly important because the modernization of South-East Europe took place in interaction between the same new factors as in the rest of Europe (e.g. Enlightenment philosophy, nationalism, mass education and early economic globalization) and tenacious local structures. The guiding hypothesis of the project is that the historical development of modernity need not necessarily follow that of Western Europe; there are many other roads to modernity.

The recent past of South-East Europe has been dominated by three empires: Russian, Habsburg and especially Ottoman. These have continued to live in the ideas of the significant Other that were developed in the nineteenth century to establish coherent identities in the burgeoning national movements and states. The radical changes in living conditions that characterize modernity (social mobility, urbanization, the liberation of the individual, and increased economic prosperity), were impelled by political ideologies that did not renounce national narratives in which the past was used as a guarantee of cultural authenticity. In contrast to the conventional image of Europe, it is necessary to use an open context for the analysis, to enable a discussion of the significance of the Ottoman experience for an understanding of the political and cultural development of the region.


The project aims to study the relationship between the modern history of South-East Europe and the long imperial past of the region, and to use this approach as an alternative to the prevailing models which are based on oppositions: Europe versus the Balkans and the West versus Islam. Through this we expect to arrive at a nuanced understanding of the many roads in modernity in Europe. The focus is on the changes of identity, self-representation and affiliation in the light of the huge systemic pressure triggered by the interaction between external influences and local and regional practice from the latter part of the nineteenth century to the present day. This will be studied on different levels from the state to the local community, along with changes in art, literature and religious practice.

The project is divided into the following chronological units:

  1. Empire and Nation States in Post-Ottoman Times 1870–1950 focuses on the significance of the Ottoman heritage for attempts by elites and minorities to modernize institutions, social practice and culture in the late Ottoman state and the subsequent nation states until war and occupation in the 1940s radically changed conditions for the development of politics and society.

  2. Authoritarian Modernization 1950–1989 focuses on the challenge from “the long Second World War”, that is, the struggle for the state and the memory of the years of war and occupation between, on the one hand, the official modernistic history and, on the other hand, collective and individual memories of an Ottoman past. There is also a focus on authoritarian forms of government and the interplay with external factors, especially the new role of the region as front states in the Cold War and direct Soviet dominance of internal affairs in some of the states.

  3. The Return of the Local and Globalization since 1989 focuses on the use of history and idyllic ideas about ethnic and religious particularism in attempts to develop new visions of society. This applies especially to the adaptation of nationalism so that it can contain both the romantic notion of a nexus between people and territory and new global circumstances. It is crucial to analyse how people handle the conflicting ideas about the Ottoman past, which can be linked to the conviction about distinctive local character and to the homage to ideal multicultural empires.

The centre is directed by professor Catharina Raudvere.

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