Niels Reeh’s project – University of Copenhagen

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Niels Reeh’s project

Theories of Nationalism Applied to Modernization Processes in South-East Europe, relates to all three chronological units. A general feature of virtually all official national narratives is a memory of how the collective came into being. For example, if we look at the official Serbian holidays, they can be seen as reflecting how the Serbian state remembers its own birth with the Serbian Prince Lazar’s defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at Kosovo Field in 1389, the first Serbian revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1804, the first Serbian constitution from 1835, and the capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945. In this and the other national memories the relation to significant other state(s) is part of the establishment of one’s own national identity. The Serbian people was thus constructed as “us” distinct from and opposed to the Ottoman-Muslim “them”.

The theoretical basis of the study is that the four most important scholars of nationalism in the twentieth century – Anthony D. Smith, Ernst Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson – were all heavily inspired by Emile Durkheim, and they all regard nationalism as a secularized variant of religion, and as a construction that expressed special values and ideas in a particular society. A crucial feature of Durkheim’s theoretical outlook is that an individual society is considered as a self-contained system. These Durkheimian-inspired features are found in the dominant analyses of nationalism in South-East Europe, in that the greater part of the literature analyses the separate states as isolated units with a special cultural substance.

The aim of the study is to add a theoretical perspective on the construction of national identities in South-East Europe. In contrast to the predominant theories of nationalism, the study will not regard nationalism as an expression of a distinctive culture that can be described as an isolated phenomenon affecting only one particular society or state.

Inspired by John Searle, Norbert Elias and Thomas Højrup, the study tentatively suggests that it would be fruitful to describe the national identities as being embedded in a struggle for recognition, as people try to justify and legitimate their own existence internally, and try to assert their sovereignty externally, demanding recognition from significant other nationalities. This allows us to view nationalism and national identity as being conditioned by and embedded in a game played with other states and other national identities. This struggle for recognition and the historical/mythological memory of it is not confined to South-East Europe; on the contrary it will be viewed as a general feature of the relations between all states/nations and their construction of themselves and each other. The consequence of this approach is that there are many roads to modernity and that these different roads must be regarded as a result of the mutual struggle of states for recognition. Against the background of the other empirical studies and theoretical approaches in the project, this study will seek to develop a model that can describe the “social we” of which there are many examples in South-East Europe, and a model that is generalizable.

The results of the project will be published in three theoretically oriented articles which can add a new perspective to the study of the conflicts in the Balkans after the end of the Cold War, and try to develop a more general theory that can provide feedback to the theoretical discussion in research on nationalism.