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Miroslav Volf

How Can You Be Croatian?

Why national identities are worth preserving.

Dispatches from the Balkan War and Other Writings by Alain Finkielkraut, translated by Peter S. Rogers and Richard Golsan, University of Nebraska Press, 1999, 229 pp.; $30

The main body of Alain Finkielkraut's book was originally published in French under the title "How Can One Be Croatian?" I am a Croatian. During the war in the former Yugoslavia (1991-95) I was often faced with Finkielkraut's question, almost always only implicitly but nonetheless forcefully. It came in two versions, which together sum up the reaction of many Westerners to the war. The first version: "The whole of Europe is uniting" (my friends from Germany would urge on me), "but Yugoslavia is falling apart because (you) Croatians want to separate from the rest of Yugoslavia." The second version: "I just can't imagine how people can go after each other with so much hatred; they must be possessed by some inexplicable madness!" (which is what I was told by a stranger in a Jacuzzi at an American ski resort after I told him the land of my origin). Croatians are erecting boundaries. Croatians are involved in what amounts to a "pub brawl." How can you, a civilized person living at the end of the twentieth century, consider yourself a Croatian? The main thrust of Finkielkraut's book is to interrogate the questioner, to turn the criticism around. What kind of cultural sensibilities would make one read the struggle of a small people to gain political and economic independence and preserve its cultural identity as a fall into barbarity? Are the sensibilities of the self-satisfied cosmopolitans as humane as they suppose?

Though I continue to be critical of the way in which we Croatians engaged in our struggle for cultural identity and political independence, on the whole, I think that it is a good thing that Croatians and Croatia exist. So I was grateful that Finkielkraut took up our cause from the beginning of the war, long before the barbarity of Milosevic's regime be came patent to everyone. But a defense ...

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