To the Editor:
As scholars of Bosnian and Balkan history, we find a number of characterizations in “World War I Conference in Sarajevo Triggers Ethnic Tensions” (The Chronicle, June 18) to be misleading.
First, the article uses one conference, which passed without a single incident, to suggest that cultural and academic life in Sarajevo is overwhelmingly riddled with ethnic disputes. The conference in question, “The Great War: Regional Approaches and Global Contexts,” was only one of dozens of events that took place in the Bosnian capital to mark the hundredth anniversary of 1914. Other events included museum exhibits, theater plays by Serbian, Bosnian, and French directors, a street performance with hundreds of dancers, and a bicycle race between Serbian and Muslim-Croat entities in Bosnia. This larger context of cultural production is unfortunately absent from The Chronicle’s report. The wide range of events presents a complex picture that cannot be reduced to the tired cliché of Sarajevo as an ethnically-divided city.
Second, the article misleadingly asserts that “rather than a respectful salutation of Europe’s triumph over parochial nationalism, the conference set off an ethnic firestorm in the Balkans that reached the highest political circles.” While we would like to believe that academic proceedings can trigger such incredibly passionate responses, the reality is quite different. The Sarajevo conference, which we attended, was no different from similar academic events elsewhere. There were speeches, disagreements, boredom, and lots of collegial networking. We did not see “an ethnic firestorm” among the historians, whatever that might look like.
In fact, it is not scholarly or popular opinions, but rather political campaigns—especially by Bosnian Serb and Muslim political actors—that have made the 1914 commemorations into staging grounds for ethno-national platforms. Indeed, at a time when about a million people in Bosnia remain devastated by the floods of May 2014, most citizens are anxiously awaiting government action, not the nuanced judgments of historians researching the First World War.
Nationalism and ethnic hatred remain crucial problems of our age. A better understanding of them will come from in-depth research and careful analysis—and not by retelling pre-scripted stories about supposed “ethnic firestorms” in the Balkans.
Assistant Professor of History
Loyola University Chicago
Professor of Genocide and Human Rights Studies