Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Miroslav Volf

How Can You Be Croatian?

Why national identities are worth preserving.

Dispatches from the Balkan War

Dispatches from the Balkan War

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 of Croatia's right to be born is not the primary purpose of these occasional pieces written about various stages of the "Balkan war." By taking up the cause of a small nation, Finkielkraut's aim is to question a dominant form of contemporary cosmopolitanism and the discourse about otherness that accompanies it.

In The Real American Dream (1999) Andrew Delbanco traces the diminution of hope in America from God to nation and finally to the naked self concerned primarily with the gratification of its own desires. Something analogous, argues Finkielkraut, has happened to freedom. The freedom of a citizen with ties to a particular place and time is being replaced by the freedom of a "consumer without qualities," floating with the help of networks of communication above all concrete places and "equally situated in relation to everything." A longer quote from the central chapter entitled "Indifferent Memory" captures well both the nature of "global cosmopolitanism" and its peculiar prejudices:

Modern man is thus a man of the entire world, but this does not mean he has no prejudices. The global village is his village. The videosphere is his fatherland. Detached, at the outset, from his natural surroundings, he tends to naturalize the environment without borders that progress has fashioned for him. Far from opening up his mind, his wings obsess him. Hardwired today as he was rooted, he cannot conceive that one can humanly live outside the networks of communication and consumerism in which he evolves. This is why he looks at the autochthon as a peasant and at this peasant as the bizarre and disturbing reminder of a prehuman species. Since everything, in his view, exists here and now, and since all identities are, under the name of difference, exchangeable, available, and offered for consumerism, people from some other place, the wogs, the 'unhealthy,' are, for him, those who do not play the game of exchange and who claim to be attached to a history, a land, and a community.

Finkielkraut is not the first to note that a shift is under way from the rootedness of persons in given places and times to their ever-changing connectivity across times and spaces. In The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx already foresaw such a shift and praised it as an achievement of capitalism. Much more recently, in Modernity and Self-Identity (1991), Anthony Giddens, for instance, analyzed this severing of human beings from the particularities of time and place under the category of the "disembedding tendencies of late modernity." But Finkielkraut is not content merely to analyze this shift, and even less is he inclined to praise it. Instead, he feels obliged to raise his voice against it. The consequences of these disembedding tendencies and of their cultural mirroring are pernicious, he believes.

It would take some detective work to reconstruct out of his "dispatches from the Balkan War" both Finkielkraut's critique of contemporary Western societies and his alternative vision. His own thought seems to have undergone development. Whereas in the eighties (The Defeat of Mind [1987; tr. 1995]) he opposed the ethnic concept of the nation as well as its echoes in the contemporary politics of identity ("la pensee ethnologique") in the name of the voluntarist concept of the nation as a free association of individuals on the basis of universal values, in the nineties he began to oppose economic globalization in the name of language, tradition, place, and nation ("We are all Quebecois"). Hence in the Dispatches he addresses a cluster of important themes at whose heart lies the problem of identity. His targets are not only the prophets of globalization but also the post-structuralists who, like Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx, think of community, the nation state, sovereignty, borders, and native soil as "primitive conceptual phantasms" and instead yearn for a "postgeographical meta-country" (William Gibson).

"Anachronistic Croatians! … They have effectively decided to live with borders, while … all that is good in our day [does] not or should not have any borders," writes Finkielkraut sarcastically. To espouse the erasure of boundaries is in effect to claim that "inscription into time and place is no longer a modality of our finitude." It is to replace a situated human being with an interchangeable "other"—a creature constructed by overlaying an ever-changing hybrid identity upon a biologically defined abstract humanity. Without boundaries, however, all the culturally rich textures of human lives (including particular languages) would eventually be lost, and the result would be not an increase in humanity but its diminishment. For Finkielkraut, particular identity is an intrinsic category of the human condition, not a pathology.

Not only anthropological and culturological reasons drive Finkielkraut, a Jew, to reject the deconstruction of cultural, ethnic, and political identities. Political reasons do so as well. "Vigilant people who meditate on the Jewish experience of history only to make a crime out of identity: could the fascism of our day hope for anything better?"

What is so bad about the erasure of boundaries, one might wonder? Consider just a few of its consequences.

First, when particular identities are vilified, moral and political judgment about the encounter between persons and peoples often gives way to psychologizing explanation. On this account, in wanting to separate themselves out, Croatians were not struggling for a humanly important and therefore morally legitimate good, but were merely manifesting their inability to live with the "other." Since nothing was at stake, the war that followed upon their proclamation of independence was simply the consequence of their intolerance of the other.

Second, in the absence of any moral reading of the situation, one can no longer speak of the "aggressor" and the "victim of aggression." Instead, one speaks of "parties in a conflict." To which Finkielkraut responds wryly: "We might just as well describe the up rising of the Warsaw Ghetto as a conflict between Jewish and German communities."

Third, if nothing is morally at stake in a war and it is impossible to locate the real aggressor (war as an "outburst of irrational violence"), the engagement of third parties tends to devolve into humanitarian aid. Though not denying that such aid does some good, Finkiel kraut perceptively unmasks the mercilessness of its mercy. For such attempts to alleviate suffering are predicated on stripping people of "their identities, their being, their raison d'etre," and therefore on "disdain for everything in life that is not reduced to Life in the biological sense of the term." Put differently, to feed and clothe people while passively observing how their culture, ethnicity, religion, and political sovereignty are being destroyed is to reduce them to pure animality.

Some of Finkielkraut's most insightful comments concern the ambiguity of memory. The "inscription of truth upon collective memory" and the "clear analysis of the past" are sometimes difficult to achieve, he believes, but must always be pursued. We can rest content neither with "partial memory" nor with letting historical traumas "cover each other up" (as when the memory of suffering under communism is used to cover up the memory of crimes perpetrated during fascism). But in addition to the problem of memory's decline and of its ideological perversion, Finkielkraut is troubled by a peculiar inability of memory to deliver the lessons we (maybe wrongly) expect from it.

The question that haunts him is this: "How do we explain that a memory so obsessed with barbarity can be, at the same time, so fallacious?" The barbarity is the Holocaust. The memory is its remembrance driven by the commitment, "Never that again!" But how can such memory be fallacious? Finkielkraut writes, "In the name of 'Never that again!' we have leaned for support on one catastrophe [the Holocaust] in order to authorize another [Serbian atrocities]." The process by which this happened is a fascinating one, even if the problem which underlies it is as old as the difficulty of subsuming a case under a rule. Even with a genuine commitment in place for "that" never to happen again, one still has to identify what "that" is in a different situation. How does one assess who are the "Nazis" and who are the "Jews" in a particular story?

As long as Milosevic's propaganda machinery worked well, Croatians, who had a puppet regime which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and who were now separating from Yugoslavia in the name of their cultural identity and political independence, seemed good candidates for the "Nazis." But that judgment itself was predicated on the belief that the protection of boundaries and the assertion of particular identities is problematic rather than salutary. And so again a consumerist cosmopolitanism and post-structuralist disdain for belonging has muddled moral and political judgments and robbed memory of its ability to teach rightly.

It is a pity that, having identified this failure of memory, Finkielkraut offers very little by the way of resolving the problem. The sheer fact of commitment to truth, of the kind that one finds in Elie Wiesel's work, will not suffice, because the problem consists not simply in not remembering the past but in not knowing how to apply the remembered past to the present. Between the lines one can read that the cultivation of memory should take place in the context of a social vision that includes democracy and respect for particular identities. But will even that suffice?

Maybe some help could be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which the injunction to remember that one was a slave in Egypt is coupled with the command not to treat the alien the way one was treated by the Egyptians. Or in the New Testament, in which Christ's passion with victims and for perpetrators—and we all are both!—is remembered in the context of the hope for his return to complete his work of reconciling us with God and one another.

Finkielkraut's concern for boundary maintenance in a world without borders is important. And yet, while rightly stressing that particular identities are a salutary form of human existence, should he not also have taken more into account that identities can be a source of violence? Granted, violence does not simply arise from be longing as such. But why is it that self-perceived pure Aryans do violence against Jews, pure Serbs against Croatians, pure Croatians against Bosnian Muslims, pure Hutus against Tutsis? If appeals to identity are regularly made to underwrite aggression, then a rethinking of identity seems essential for the creation of peaceful social environments. But Finkielkraut does not venture in this direction. From a critique of the obsession with "cultural identity" he has moved toward its affirmation but has yet to reach the stage of rethinking the nature of identity itself.

Finkielkraut vacillates between de fending "small nations" (political entities with democratic constitutions) and defending "particular cultural identities." Both matter to him, and, under the conditions of economic globalization—which tend to undermine both—each can serve as protection against the dissolution of the other. And yet it does not seem that he is taking particular cultural identities seriously enough. He is defending them less in their own right than as carriers of democratic sentiments and concern for universal human rights. As he put it in a recent interview entitled "The Meaning of Heritage" (1999), he wants to protect the "extremely subtle interplay of the particular and the universal" on which "our Western civilization was based."

What was that interplay? "Europe was at once this universal demand marked by the rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was the basis of modern democracy, and at the same time the rooting of this demand in individual nations, which permitted these universal aspirations to see the light of day. The nation was then a political player which cared about the world."

I am not so sure that it was. I do not think it will do simply to retrieve a spatially, temporally, and culturally specific communal carrier of universal human rights. If small (and large) nations are not to suppress internal cultural differences or, conversely, themselves be come entangled in identity wars, then the nature of identity will have to be thematized. We need to transcend the polarity between the undermining (hybridity) and the defense (purity) of identities. We must develop a notion and a practice of identity which is situated somewhere between a formless hybridity and a rigid purity—a notion and a practice both strong enough not to be dissolved and porous and complex enough to be hospitable to "impurities" and "differences."

Since history, tradition, and community matter to Finkielkraut, one would have expected him to pay attention to the role of religion in the war in the former Yugoslavia. But his analysis stands in sharp contrast to the accounts of observers like Paul Mojzes (Yugoslav Inferno) and Michael Sells (The Bridge Betrayed), for whom religion was a major factor, possibly even the major one. Finkielkraut hardly mentions it.

From one angle, this is refreshing in a contemporary climate in which religions—particularly Christianity and Islam, which dominate the religious landscape of the former Yugoslavia—are often seen either as inherently violent (because, say, they are monotheistic, or because they have at their core the theme of a cosmic battle) or prone to fundamentalisms whose "violence is sweeping over us" (so John Caputo, for instance, in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida).

And yet Finkielkraut's failure to mention the role of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam in the war in the former Yugoslavia is peculiar, especially given his rediscovery of the importance of identity. Serb, Croatian, and Bosnian cultures were constituted historically for the most part by religions—Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam—and religions figured prominently in the war, though less as living faiths than as cultural resources (targeted for symbolic purposes, for example, in the destruction of churches and mosques).

It could be that Finkielkraut disregards the role of religions because he is less interested in the dynamics of the war in the former Yugoslavia than in a critique of the contemporary Western tendency to erase boundaries. Given his atheism, it is more likely that he considers religion to be merely epiphenomenal to economic and political factors. After all, he ends the book with reflections on justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is here, if anywhere, that the role of Christianity—both positive and negative—could have been thematized. The only thing we get, however, is the famous quote from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition about Jesus of Nazareth as "the discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs."

Finkielkraut starts the last chapter on reconciliation—an interview first published in Politique Internationale—on the wrong foot. "What other means, in effect, [are there] than justice to get out of the infernal cycle of revenge?" he asks rhetorically. Well, there are other means—such as forgiveness and reconciliation—and the rest of the text is in fact devoted to exploring them. But he never clarifies the relation between justice on the one side and forgiveness and reconciliation on the other. He seems to believe in the power of justice—but perhaps not in our ability, given the state of international relations, to implement it. So reconciliation becomes little more than a concession to our inability to realize justice; it rests not so much on moral engagement as on political shrewdness (in some situations "it's better to chose the path of history rather than that of a trial").

Finkielkraut does offer some wise warnings about reconciliation: for example, (1) that reconciliation presupposes the existence of discrete identities and is therefore compatible with the initial separation of parties; and (2) that reconciliation takes time and cannot be pursued effectively immediately after a war in which atrocities have been perpetrated. But missing from his account are some deeper insights into the relation between reconciliation and justice, insights on which the proper practice of reconciliation is predicated: (1) that justice can never be fully done in human affairs, and indeed that justice fully done would be disastrous, so that humane life depends on the tacit or explicit grace of forgiveness; and (2) that reconciliation and forgiveness are contingent not on the abrogation of justice but on not letting the claims of affirmed justice have full sway. Without justice as a structural element, reconciliation will always be attended by the whiff of a dirty compromise at the expense of those who suffered. With justice as a structural element, reconciliation becomes a way of affirming the humanity of both victims and perpetrators and of healing their relationships.

Finkielkraut ends his book by affirming the need to punish those who have committed "crimes that are so terrible and radical that no one has the power to pardon them." In such cases punishment is indispensable. Well, yes—depending on what one means by punishment. Informed as I am by Christian sensibilities about forgiveness, I think that the role of the courts is to identify the crime, establish the extent of culpability, and impose punishment, but only for the sake of prevention and restoration, not for the sake of retribution. Finkielkraut thinks differently, and appeals to Simone Weil. The following quote from Weil comprises the very last words of the book:

Punishment is a vital need of the human soul. … Just as the only means of showing respect to someone who suffers from hunger is to give him something to eat, so the only way to show respect to someone who has placed himself outside of the reach of the law is to reintegrate him into the law by submitting him to the punishment it prescribes.

Judging from this quote, Finkielkraut advocates punishment as retribution. But though retribution may reintegrate the offender "into the law," it will not integrate him or her back into the community. For that, forgiveness and reconciliation are needed.

Should the advocates of forgiveness and reconciliation pardon persons who have committed atrocities and have publicly been found guilty but in whose case we are sure that they would not repeat their crimes? Simply letting them go would certainly be wrong; it would be a form of cheap grace and therefore in the end no grace at all. But as the literature on restorative justice suggests, "retribution" and "simply letting go" are not the only options.

In the first place, for reconciliation to happen, repentance would need to happen. True, in the Protestant tradition repentance is not so much a prerequisite of forgiveness as, more profoundly, its possible result. Yet repentance is the kind of result of forgiveness whose absence would amount to a refusal to see oneself as guilty and therefore a refusal to receive forgiveness as forgiveness. Second, forgiveness is appropriately received only if in addition to repentance there takes place some form of restitution (provided the wrongdoer is capable of rendering it and the wronged is in need of receiving it). If the wrongdoer refuses to restore something of what he or she has taken away in the act of wrongdoing, how can the repentance be genuine? Such a refusal would not only take the relation between the wrongdoer and the wronged outside the scope of justice but would in a sense constitute a repetition of the original crime.

Finkielkraut's critique of Western societies' moral failure in relation to the Balkan war is compelling in part because it rests on a correct basic persuasion about the nature of human beings. To be properly human you must be Croatian—or Xosa, or Tamil, or Russian, or American; in other words, you must be inscribed into a particular time, place, and culture. Of course, you must also transcend your culture and not be captive to it; you must espouse universal human values. But you should not flatter yourself that you thereby float above all cultures.

It is for this deeply human reason, along with important political reasons, argues Finkielkraut rightly, that cultural diversity should be maintained. He is on less certain ground, I think, when he suggests that to be properly human, you must also seek to punish the wrongdoer. Justice as desert may be indispensable to the proper functioning of human societies, but it is in practicing the grace of hospitality and of forgiveness that we are at our human best because we participate in the love toward creation of the God in whose image we were created.

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University. He is the author of Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon). He contributes regularly to the "Faith Matters" column in The Christian Century.

NOTE: For your convenience, the following product, which was mentioned above, is available for purchase:

Dispatches from the Balkan War and Other Writings, by Alain Finkielkraut, translated by Peter S. Rogers and Richard Golsan

Most ReadMost Shared