- When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans: A Study of Identity in Pre-Nationalist Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods
Disenchanted with the way in which nationalists have manipulated and mythologized history to serve their contemporary political aims, Fine uses his expertise as a Balkan medievalist to tackle the modern question of how people conceived of identity and belonging before the invention of the nation. His premise—that elites co-opted and politicized ethnic consciousness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to construct national identities—is one that most scholars now take for granted. But his approach is refreshingly new. Using an impressive array of sources in various languages and dialects from the medieval era to the eighteenth-century, he draws an intricate picture of how people who lived in the present-day country of Croatia identified themselves and their neighbors. By analyzing the gradual shifts in local identity that occurred throughout the centuries, he reveals the process of identity formation and transformation in the western Balkans that eventually led to the construction of the Croatian nation.
One of the book's great strengths is Fine's analysis of premodern "ethnic" identity, which he convincingly demonstrates to have existed, though in different forms, as it does today (165–170, 272–273). His focus is not on religious or familial ties but on the various forms of secular identity that served as the predecessors of the national unit, such as tribal, civic, regional, and city bonds. Fine contends that few of his subjects felt part of a "Croat" collective. Instead, most of them viewed themselves as members of a smaller, often more fluid, unit based loosely on their Slavic roots and a regional connection. Moreover, the meanings of the terms that they used to describe themselves varied by region and period. "Serb" and "Vlach" sometimes differentiated class or occupation rather than ethnicity. "Croat" and "Dalmatian" acquired legal, territorial, and political meanings when new rulers came to power. Fine persuasively argues that today's "Croats" could have formed part of a larger national body (South Slavs) or divided themselves into even smaller ethno- national units (for instance, Dalmatians and Slavonians).
Fine is aware that his argument will provoke controversy in the western Balkans, but he is content to let his documents speak for themselves. In an almost encyclopedic style, he systematically reviews sources region by region and century by century, revealing the protracted intellectual battle about identity labels. Some readers will find his style tedious and wish for a more cohesive historical narrative. Others, especially those with a deep interest in the region (as opposed to the theme of ethnicity), will appreciate Fine's exhaustive footnotes and descriptive summaries. Especially valuable to the contemporary social scientist is Fine's compelling analysis of the character and durability of [End Page 616] regional identities. His work offers new insight into modern political dynamics, such as why Dalmatians became major advocates of Yugoslavism at the turn of the twentieth century and why Istrians repeatedly rejected the agenda of nationalist Croat president Franjo Tudjman in the 1990s.
Like many foreigners who fell in love with Yugoslavia, Fine is overtly disappointed and angry that radical nationalists rose to power there and that Yugoslavia—both the country and the idea—collapsed amid a bloody conflict in the 1990s. However, if he had investigated how other groups living in the region (Orthodox Serbs, Latins/Italians, and Muslims) conceived of themselves, and engaged more with the literature about nationalism, instead of ranting at contemporary nationalists, he might have broadened his argument and reached a larger audience. His blatant hostility toward Croat nationalists seriously detracts from the book's laudable empirical contribution. Nonetheless, readers who focus on Fine's descriptions of the evolution of ethnic consciousness will be rewarded with an innovative glimpse into the study of identity before ethnicity mattered.