- Between Two Motherlands: Nationality and Emigration among the Greeks of Bulgaria, 1900–1949 by Theodora Dragostinova
Forging homogenous nations is very much a European project, although political and academic discourse often make it sound as if Europe had nothing to do with it, and that nationalist resentments concentrated at its edges are the result of some deep, immanent flaws unknown to Europe “proper.” Demographic crises in the Balkans have historically been caused by this same homogenizing process, albeit owing more to the fact that the long Ottoman (and later Austro-Hungarian) colonization ended only in the wake of World War I, and due to the quintessential problem that small peoples everywhere are rarely able to define their policies without foreign pressures or interventions. Consequently, the issues of unstable state borders and ethno-religious minorities that were “awarded” to this or that nation state, depending on the peace treaty, happened in the Balkans later than in the rest of Europe and continue to inform political and social issues to this day.
Dragostinova’s investigation spans the first half of the twentieth century, from around Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire to the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949. It observes not only the official national and demographic policies of Bulgaria and Greece but also popular responses to nationalist projects. Drawing on diverse sources, the book opens with the ambition to “explain nationalistic outbursts of hatred in the area but [also] refute clichés of ‘primordial animosities’ ” (x), in contrast to the prevailing view of the Balkans as a site of incessant and inexplicable ethnic violence, cleansings, and forced relocations. The history is not new, but Dragostinova’s book demonstrates the human side and the human cost of many a historical catastrophe. Her focus on many individual histories and personal experiences serves as a counterbalance to authoritative histories that usually dismiss the kind of sources she digs into: memoirs, letters, interviews, and even some literary accounts.
Designated merely as Christian Ottoman subjects at the point of the rise in national consciousness and backed by their intellectual elite, Bulgarians and Greeks, just like other constituents of the Empire, began to claim a separate cultural, religious, and linguistic identity. Dragostinova notes the many difficulties Bulgarians experienced in their efforts to define themselves as independent from the Greek ecclesiastical and cultural domination within the Empire, a relative privilege the Greek Church and Greek elites were unwilling to lose. Many documents used in the book resonate with the tone of Bulgarian frustration at such treatment that, it is fair to say, to some degree informed not only inter-communal relationships after independence but even the state policies towards the Greek minority in Bulgaria.
Dragostinova’s book offers a wealth of documents pertaining to the modern state’s necropolitical “population management”: resettling, ethnic cleansing, “exchanges,” persecutions, and executions. It brings to view many personal stories and tragedies that uncover not only an entanglement of historic events and bureaucratic impenetrability but also deeply human fears and erratic decisions made in times of economic insecurity and political instability. The destinies of the Greek minority in Bulgaria and of the Bulgarians in Greece likewise emphasize the plea of minorities who find themselves trapped within a nation state, especially in times of commotion. Persistent [End Page 205] failures of state policies directed at achieving national consolidation under “one roof” by all means available, including voluntary and forced migration, attest to the problems of ethnic communities with diverse cultural backgrounds, in comparison with local communities of mixed ethno-religious background who are invested in and share cultural affinities and customs. An “exchange” of refugees in the early 1900s between Bulgaria and Greece acutely points to this discrepancy, with most of the voluntary Greek emigrants from Bulgaria either returning to their land or emigrating elsewhere after failing to accommodate themselves in their national “motherland.” Among those who tried to reverse their citizenship claims in order to remain in Bulgaria, many tested the labyrinthine bureaucracy firsthand, frequently being repatriated to their country...