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A Postcard From Salzburg

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Members of Golden Dawn break up a dictionary launch in Athens. Photograph by Victor Friedman.

Salzburg, Austria—Mozart’s beautiful city provided an ideal locale for the conference I am attending here, where Slavicists and Balkanists have been discussing the role of ideology in grammar. Salzburg is close enough to allow scholars from Croatia or Kosovo or Macedonia to attend easily, without being actually in the Balkan region itself.

Matters relating to the great Balkan laboratory for sociolinguistics and politics can be discussed more freely here than in the somewhat tense atmosphere that prevails in regions to the south and east. I have sensed chilling shadows of buried hatreds on more than one occasion during casual social interactions in both Banja Luka and Dubrovnik.

Mere expression of scholarly opinion on a macrosociolinguistic topic, or even just publication of a grammar or dictionary, can put you in physical danger in some southeastern European countries. A fellow invited speaker here learned that the hard way.

Victor Friedman is a world expert on the Balkan politico-linguistic situation. He wrote the first American book about Macedonian, a Slavic language spoken in the Republic of Macedonia and parts of adjoining states. He has been awarded honorary doctorates or elected to national academies or learned societies in Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia. In June 2009 he was speaking at the launch in Athens of the first Macedonian/Greek bilingual dictionary to be published in Greece, when the proceedings were violently invaded by bull-necked Greek skinheads.

Like every scandalous incident in the modern world, the event is documented on YouTube. (In the video, Victor is second from the right on the podium, from which he risked taking the photo above.)

The thugs, some wearing heavy police-style riot-protection helmets, were from Chrysi Avgi, the far-right party known in English as Golden Dawn, which had been holding a rally nearby. They stormed in and blocked the doors; they ripped the banner off the podium; they screamed “This is Greece!” at the audience and called them prodhotes (traitors); one of them aimed a swing at Victor with a helmet (but an associate held him back); they ripped the cables out of the TV equipment; and they took the display copy of the dictionary away.

Such is the behavior of the neofascist right, with its passionate commitment to Hellenist fantasy. Golden Dawn members maintain that the Slavic language known as Macedonian simply does not exist. They see it as treason to even hint at its existence.

Why treason? Because, among other reasons they would give, Greek honor and territorial integrity must be defended. (For more than you ever want to read on the counterposed arguments of the Greeks and Macedonians, see the interminable Wikipedia article on the weird Macedonia naming dispute.)

Of course, the mere existence of a minor South Slavic language could not possibly carry geopolitical implications for Greece’s boundaries, even if there is a bilingual dictionary for it. There are Macedonian speakers living within northern Greece, but their presence could only have such implications if we were to accept a strange and radical new principle of international relations: that wherever a significant population of speakers of the main language of country X live within region Y of country Z, country X has the right to take over the Y territory, simply on the grounds that X speakers live there.

That principle would perhaps license the Republic of Macedonia to annex parts of the region of northern Greece that (unfortunately) bears the same time-honored name, Macedonia. But the Republic of Macedonia has never given a hint of support for any such principle.

And surely everyone with any sense repudiates it. The principle would justify absurdities like—oh, let me just make one up at random—that Russia would be justified in seizing Crimea or Kharkiv or Donetz from Ukraine. No one would buy that. Would they?

Don’t answer that. My question was merely rhetorical. The last thing I want to do is upset you-know-who (that is John Kerry’s job). Soon I will leave Eastern Europe and its territorial tussles far behind, to give talks at the University of California at Berkeley (April 21) and at Stanford (April 24). No buried hatreds there, unless you’re stupid enough to wear a red shirt, which I’m not.

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