Albert Hirschman Centre for Democracy
02 September 2022


Dragan Prole contributes to our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation.



Our premise is that Serbia lives in Europe as a stranger on the threshold, it is neither completely inside nor completely outside. There is no doubt that Serbia belongs to European soil in the geographical sense, it is also an integral part of its cultural and political history, but it is never completely, without exception. The consequence is reflected in the disharmony between Europe in general and the particularities of Serbia or the Balkans.

By its very definition, particularity is an immanent moment of the general. This means that in that particular, the general is not found as in some foreign body, but is found in oneself. The logic of the relationship between the general and the particular usually dictates concretization, a closer determination of the general by means of the particular. As such, Europe in itself does not mean much. The talk about Europe remains mere speculation until it is concretized, which means until it descends from the level of generality to particularity and individuality.

Europe is always something more than any individual nation. In order to say what Europe is, we must define it: either as an idea of philosophical and scientific rationality freed from the admixture of myth and religion, or as a political idea based on democratic participation, or as a legal idea of equality before the law, or as an economic idea that observes with specific sensitivity the relationship between politics and economics.

It remains open whether the idea of Europe has ever been at home in the Balkans and in Serbia. Can the Balkan uniqueness be taken as a medium of determination, concretization of the European and determination of its essence? According to Bogoljub Šijaković, the Balkan “proximity” represents an opportunity for European self-understanding, even if it is tied to the dark sides of history: “The Balkans today might provide a chance for Europe to perceive its own violence and destructiveness, its hidden, yet familiar face”[i]. The impression is that Europe has always been on its own doorstep in its Southeast: on the one hand, it recognized its culture, heritage, customs, and food. On the other hand, Europe saw its Ottoman other on that threshold. An unusually deep imprint of Eastern actions and thoughts, sometimes fictitious and sometimes real, is written into the collective experience of who we are. In everyday life, it is recognizable in relation to the state, law, tax, government. The secret of the successful Europeanization of Serbia also includes dealing with all the elements of indiscipline, arrogance, and corruption that, in accordance with the tradition of Eurocentrism, are usually attributed to oriental rule and are found in oriental origins: “a conscious differentiation from the Turks as imposed ‘others’ [...] created an internal conflict in tradition”. On the other hand, from Turkey's perspective, the Balkans is still synonymous with its European identity. Sometimes the same aspects of life, depending on the perspective, can be interpreted in opposite ways. What is oriental for modern Europeans is European for modern Turks.


Transitional status of the Balkans

Historically, peoples who were under centuries-old Ottoman occupation first had to emancipate themselves, as much as possible, from the imposed legacy, identified with far-reaching historical backwardness. To that extent, transition is not just a term that aptly names the processes after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Practically already with the beginnings of modern statehood, Serbs and their neighbors are permanently in the process of transition from backward to advanced, from premodern to modern. The split between the real and the desirable, the encountered and the intended, seems to constitute a metahistorical constant: “What practically all descriptions of the Balkans offer as its central characteristic was a transitionary status. The West and the Orient are usually presented as incompatible entities, anti-worlds, but complete anti-worlds”[ii]. At first, the transitional efforts had a cultural dynamic in which it was about the improvement of life orientation, about the modernization of all aspects of life. It was necessary to make up for the centuries and bring the housing culture, traffic, education and health system, production closer to the current European standards. To do this, former Ottoman subjects turned to Western Europe, but there they had to face the image of themselves as European “otherness”. This is where we come to the modern initiation of the Europe-Balkan contrast. It is no coincidence that the very concept of the Balkans was constructed in the middle of the First Serbian Uprising, and that its creator was a geographer (German Zeune 1809). The drama of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly also a geographical drama because, among other things, with the weakening of the Ottoman occupiers, the recomposition of borders in the European southeast was expected. During that process, the leading one was the dream of freedom and emancipation. The promise of freedom could not be the promise of equality, and the dialogue with Vienna, London or Paris also brought awareness of the lower value of one's own in the eyes of those same role models. The consequences were far-reaching: as a general thing, Europe never became the “soul” of the Balkan particularity. On the other hand, the European part of the Balkans could never be said to be undisturbed and equal to itself in its diversity. This slightly more extensive introduction was necessary for us to indicate that we interpret the Zenit project as the “most European” of all our artistic collective achievements, but at the same time as a far-reaching testimony of the European and Serbian/Balkan conflict.

The formation of the Balkan identity as otherness from the position of European power centers necessarily brought with it the attribution of undesirable qualities. This is particularly visible in the slang of contemporary guest workers of Serbian origin who reaffirm the disqualification of their own country by simply referring to their trip to their homeland as going “down there”. As if in fact they are usually in some ontologically higher order, in some better world, but they are sometimes forced to visit their homeland which is located somewhere lower, below, less valuable. As if there is a Western world and a lower, underground, cave world. The special feature of the lower one is unregulated. It is also dirty, because dirt is always a sign of the absence of regulation. This kind of peculiarity is actually a real Balkan peculiarity: “A polluting person is always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed some line which should not be crossed”[iii].

It is not possible to find a figure that better describes the dramaturgy of the simultaneous proximity and distance of Europe from the South Slavs than the concept of Ljubomir Micić's barbarogenius. One hundred years after the first publication of the magazine Zenit (1921), we will analyze the appearance of early avant-gardes in the constitutive imbalance between national and international. The generality and supranational character of the New Man most often failed to amortize national particularity, and even less to offer a solution for all national difficulties and challenges. The conflict between the general and the particular in the case of Europe and Serbia, that is, the whole “region” of the so-called We define the Western Balkans as unresolved, due to the specific position that Serbia and the Balkans traditionally occupy in the wider European horizon. After the post-war cry due to the destroyed bourgeois Europe, the massacred millions and the destroyed youth of the nations, the impression of nakedness was connected with the tendencies towards the elemental, primary, i.e. primitive. To illustrate the longing for the primordial human, we will refer to Zenith contributor and promoter of the term postmodern man, Rudolf Panwitz. In his letter to Gerhart Hauptmann dated June 16, 1926, this philosopher of culture announced an unheard-of move from the Germanic to the Slavic world at the time, which was not motivated by official, business reasons, but by a profound avant-garde aspiration towards the unity of art and life: “however close they are to me German values made it impossible for me to live with Germans. I have the closest relationship with German culture and the German individual, but it is easier and preferable for me to live among the Slavs than among the Germans”[iv]. For most of his life between 1921 and 1948, Panwitz resided on the Koločep island near Dubrovnik and on the neighboring island of Korčula. Zenitists, above all Micić and Gol, together with Panwitz, reckoned with the fact that the primary feeling is collective, not personal, and therefore close to man. If the new conceptual construct of barbarogenius was reserved for personal habituality, then the concept of the Balkans, i.e. “Balkanization of Europe”, was responsible for the collective moment. In Micić, these two terms rarely appear together, probably because they actually denote different perspectives, individual and collective.

That is why the interpretations that unite them and consider their mutual connection deserve special attention: “Barbarogenius [...] adapted for the Balkans, which provided him with equivalent civilizational counterpoints to Europe, namely in the images of hawkishness and Balkan primitivism, which can also be read as ironic boomerang to Western Orientalism”[v]. We are convinced that Micić would vigorously and vehemently oppose this interpretation of the concept of the Balkans. Namely, Micić was convinced that the colloquial notion of a “primitive” and a harsh and crude “hajduk” (guerrilla fighter) whose ethos knows neither morality nor shame, but only grabbing and snatching from others, represented a calculated strategy of Western European portrayal of South Slavic peoples.

Instead of accepting and appropriating epithets, which in the perspective necessarily lead to the formation of inferiority complex, Micić tries to “revalue” the Balkan one, and to enable it to become a promising creation instead of a burdensome ballast. It is by no means that the geopolitical calculations of the superpowers, European greed and aggressive imperialism can not be defeated or overcome by forcing the lowest characters of humanity. Instead, Micić proposes “a strong will and a strong personality beyond all traditions”[vi], which means that his vision of the “Balkan” has nothing to do with heritage, and especially has nothing in common with the indisputably present and rooted hajdučija, in terms of public action from the other side law and order.

It seems that the strong will of members of unaffirmed cultures that have just freed themselves from centuries-old occupiers and formed their own state is all the pledge that Micić's concept of the Balkans has. They are unencumbered by tradition, do not carry the heavy burden of cultural heritage, and have an intense desire to express themselves and present themselves on the international stage. If the balkanization of Europe could be connected with the project of “decivilization”, then this connection has nothing in common with some alleged spread of separatism, aggressiveness towards the neighbor, or emphasizing one's own at the expense of the other. This means that the suggestion of balkanization as decivilization is opposed by foreign words “in German Balkanisieren, in French balkaniser, in Italian balkanizzare and in English to balcanize”[vii], which means that it does not refer to divisions and mutual enmity. On the contrary, to decivilize Europe means to break with all elements of parasitic existence and outdated power relations, which have a particularly unfavorable effect on new actors, inexperienced on the European stage.

Thus, Micić observes two different concepts of “primitiveness”. On the one hand, there is the Western European, who does not see the paradoxical nature of his effort to achieve immediacy with the help of imitation, which is mediated by its very concept: “The West is consciously forcing primitiveness (new imitation). They in turn fall into the mistake of becoming modern naturalists. Differentiation: nature and human naivety stood behind the old unconscious primitiveness. Behind the new conscious primitiveness stands culture and human sophistication. Therefore, culture is used to refine primitiveness – regression”[viii].

It is impossible to be original, authentic and immediate, if you are not that by yourself, but only by others, in an effort to be like them or to create like them. Micić should be given the right to see the contradictory character of the Western trend of avant-garde "primitivism", but that is why he falls into naturalism himself. Convinced that he has around him an invisible but gifted community of unadulterated creatives who will achieve unprecedented success only if they are given the chance, Micić, it turned out, once again demonstrates his personal naivety.


The unresolved conflict between national and European

Avant-garde artists were in agreement with the originally romantic idea that creative truth is present only in the absolute freedom of subjectivity[ix]. However, unlike the romantics, they no longer saw this freedom in a beneficial contact with the past or with a foreign culture. Instead, a step beyond thought, an abandonment of rationality, were the only sources of legitimation. Where the origin of one's own vitality is established on the other side of consensually accessible ideas, the only remaining source of gathering is the medium of movement, displacement, revision of current poetics. This is precisely what Ljubomir Micić lacked. When he starts to repeat himself, the avant-gardist ceases to be an avant-gardist. His departure from tradition cannot become tradition itself, but he must also abandon and deny himself. On the declarative level, such self-denial exists in Micić, but it is not accompanied by a personal poetic transformation. When we remember the Dadaist imperative from Cafe Voltaire that there is no repetition of the same performances, no same program, no same evenings, we are faced with an artistic task that is extremely difficult to solve. However, the avant-garde hated art, convinced that it must cease to exist, and that it must become something else, namely life. At the same time, leaving art and entering life necessarily introduces moments that are heterogeneous, foreign to art.

For the sake of illustration, one of the first critical reactions to the appearance of Zenit stands out, according to which it is actually an artistic international mimicry, but surprisingly not Serbian, but German national interests. Ivan Gol's collaborative hand in writing the Manifesto of Zenitism, his poem Paris brennt written and published in German, as well as the unusual for the standards of the time, the presence of other collaborators from the German-speaking area did not go unnoticed. Admittedly, the magazine represented a novelty by publishing articles in the languages of their authors, so one could also talk about Russian, French or Italian interests. Be that as it may, the Croatian journal from Osijek on August 4, 1922 noted that “Zenitism carries within itself the symbiosis of German propaganda in the Balkans, under the guise of internationalism”. We did not single out this critical remark as an example of a successful insight, but rather as a diagnosis of a symptom that was missed in this particular case, but in its failure, it still hit something. In principle, the phenomenon of barbarogenius can be defined as an artistic expression of political critical awareness for the conflict between the national and the European in ourselves, which has not been resolved to this day. Since his name is associated with the power of starting over, we can only hope that this conflict will one day be resolved. Is the confluence of historical circumstances responsible for Micić's fate, for the permanent misunderstanding and conflict with both nationalist rightists and internationalist leftists? His concepts undoubtedly remain an extraordinary challenge for understanding historical changes, the awakening of early avant-gardes and attempts to communicate with the European West without an inferiority complex with the help of new conceptual creations. An important lesson that a country can learn from an individual is that you cannot change by staying the same.


Dragan Prole is Full Professor at Faculty of Philosophy, University of Novi Sad.


Read more about our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation HERE.




[i] Bogoljub Šijaković, A Critique of Balcanistic Discourse. Contribution ti the Phenomenology of Balkan „Otherness“, Serbian Literary Company, Toronto, 2004, p. 93.

[ii] Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, Oxford [et al.] 2009, p. 15.

[iii] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. An analisis of concept of pollution and taboo, Routledge, London/New York 2002, p. 164.

[iv] Thurit Kriener/Gabriella Rovagnoti, Dionysische Perspektiven. Gerhart Hauptmanns Novelle „Der Ketzer von Soana“ und sein Brifwechsel mit Rudolf Panwitz, Erich Schmidt, Berlin 2005, p. 123.

[v] Saša Ilić, „Ljubav i smrt posle avangarde“, Anuška Micić/Ljubomir Micić, Strašna komedija. Prepiska 1920-1960, Narodna biblioteka Srbije, Beograd 2021, prir. S. Ilić/D. Peruničić, p. 21

[vi] Ljubomir Micić, „Čovek  život“, Zenit 1921/10, Zagreb, p. 12.

[vii] Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania. The Imperialism of the Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven/London 1998, p. 5.

[viii] Ljubomir Micić, „Čovek + život“, Zenit 1921/10, Zagreb, p. 12.

[ix] Maurice Blanchot, „L’ Atheneum“, L’Entretien infini, Gallimard, Paris 1969, p. 525.