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Vedran Duančić: Geography and Nationalist Visions of Interwar Yugoslavia (= Modernity, Memory and Identity in South-East Europe), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2020, X + 286 S., E-BOOK, ISBN 978-3-030-50259-1, EUR 85,59
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Rezension von:
Maciej Górny
Institut für Geschichte der Polnischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Warschau
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Christoph Schutte
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Maciej Górny: Rezension von: Vedran Duančić: Geography and Nationalist Visions of Interwar Yugoslavia, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2020, in: sehepunkte 21 (2021), Nr. 11 [15.11.2021], URL:

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Vedran Duančić: Geography and Nationalist Visions of Interwar Yugoslavia

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This book by Vedran Duančić, a Croatian graduate of the Florentine European University Institute, deals with geographical concepts of Yugoslavia as developed by the interwar Croatian, Slovenian, and Serbian geographers, particularly Filip Lukas, the long-standing president of Matica hrvatska, a strongly right-wing cultural and educational organization. The first chapter provides an introduction that summarizes the present state of research and outlines the issues to be addressed in the six subsequent chapters that make up the bulk of the text. A bibliography and extensive index, as well as a few maps, round out the volume.

Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the institutional landscape of Yugoslav geography. It highlights both shared elements as well as the distinguishing characteristics of the main centers of the science, i.e., Belgrade, Zagreb, Skopje, and Ljubljana. Yugoslav geographers shared a similar academic socialization, and many of them had studied at Austrian universities in Vienna or Graz. The dominant father figure of Jovan Cvijić, frequently praised as the "patriarch of Yugoslav geography" (and a graduate of the Vienna university) was hanging over all of them. On the other hand, the splits within their milieu were rather complex in nature. Ethnic differences overlapped with tensions between scholars who focused on physical and political geography and those whose methods were more akin to ethnography. The individual traditions of the universities mattered as well. Scholars in Zagreb, even before the First World War, assumed a more universal geographical perspective, while those in other academic centers tended to produce more narrow descriptions of their respective home grounds.

Chapter 3 describes Cvijić's geographical views, focusing on the elements that have exerted the greatest impacts on mainstream Yugoslav geography. Chapter 4 analyzes the most important scientific statements that defined the newly-emerged state in spatial terms. The astonishingly low number of publications by Serbian authors, as compared to the synthetic geographical studies penned by their Croatian and Slovenian peers, paradoxically reflected the increasingly dominant role of Belgrade in the country in those interbellum years. Belgrade's dominance meant that opinions from other parts of Yugoslavia appeared all the more interesting. Anton Melik, a Slovene, skillfully merged Slovenian particularism with the idea of unity, presenting his small home country as a Yugoslavia in miniature, basically a mono-ethnic state. Both Melik and his Croatian colleague Lukas clearly pointed to the advantage of having a common state in the context of the impending border conflict with Italy and Austria. Yet, the conviction that Yugoslavia was a natural formation, one that served the interest of the entire country and its dwellers as well as the individual "tribes," faded with time, and Lukas was the most impressive example of this trend. Duančić explains how those same geographical arguments that the Croatian geographer used to justify the state's unity in the early 1920s later evolved turned into a rhetorical tool used to tear Croatia off Serbia, which Lukas viewed as alien to each other in civilizational and spiritual terms.

The subsequent chapter describes the local - i.e., Croatian and Slovenian - varieties of geopolitics, which gained strength in the 1930s. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the Yugoslav authors' criticism of the German geopolitical school (represented in the study by Svetozar Ilešić and Melik) also used instrumentation of this discipline. The sixth chapter analyzes Lukas's views as the leading exponent of Yugoslav geopolitics in detail, thereby justifying the prominent placement he enjoys in the previous sections. Duančić traces the geographer's transition from providing geopolitical grounds for the existence of Yugoslavia to a geopolitical denial of its raison d'être. The concise conclusion does not recapitulate the content but rather focuses on a few of the most interesting observations. The geographical determinism that is fundamental to the picture of the Balkans in Jovan Cvijić's studies appears in light of the publications the present volume analyzes as a common approach that is mostly independent of the influence of the predominant Yugoslav geographer. As is apparent from the case of Lukas (among other examples), the said determinism could moreover have had very different purports. The same instruments proved useful in the defense of Yugoslavia's territorial integrity and spiritual unity as in the service of Croatian irredentism. The ethnic conflict, however, was not the only field of dispute in which geographical arguments were wielded. Here and there, the author refers to tensions between geographers and ethnographers; political sympathies toward the peasant movement tended to appear among the latter.

In the final sections of this book, Duančić touches upon issues that many of the readers will have had in mind from the beginning. The end of Second World War meant a diminished political significance and meaning for geography. The socialist and federal Yugoslavia was no more a nutrient medium for the further spinning of geopolitical theories. Its most productive authors emigrated after the collapse of the Croatian satellite state. The war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s revived the old demons, evoking the earlier interwar maps and theories. Duančić aptly sees them not as manifestations of the strength of any particular nationalism but rather as evidence of the weakness and fears that propel politicians to be obsessively fascinated with a territory when they lack in self-assurance. As he emphatically observes, the content filling this discourse is by no means imposed on science from the outside. Duančić perceives it rather as an effect of the mechanisms inherent in professional reflection on space - particularly (though not only) in geopolitics. This is all about an interpretation of even the slightest facts that leads, apparently with no alternative, to great authoritative theories.

Altogether, Vedran Duančić's book is a deftly written elaboration of the subject matter that is based on extensive and penetrating analysis and a valuable contribution to a relatively recent current in the research into East Central European history. The examination of the opinions of politically involved Croatian, Slovene, and Serbian scholars shows how superseded theories, maps, and tables harbor considerable potential for mobilization, including in its destructive sense.

Maciej Górny