Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Malcolm on Kosova

Some times, "real" life gets a bit overwhelming, and I get a bit behind on things, including this blog. Well, who should come to my rescue but ever-trusty Fran├žois, sending me this nifty post! Enjoy reading as eminent Balkans authority Noel Malcolm handily demolishes some poorly thought out critisism of his then-new book on Kosova.

Here is Noel Malcolm's text debunking Serbian myths about
Kosovo while showing to what extent Belgrade's propaganda
can influence Western historians:

Date: Mon, 10 May 1999 14:47:59 -0400

From: Noel Malcolm

To: "HABSBURG Reviews"

I am very grateful to Thomas Emmert for the appreciative remarks he makes
in his review of my book, "Kosovo: A Short History". However, since he
also makes a number of criticisms, I wonder whether I might be allowed to
reply to them.

His main criticism is that the book is "shaped by the author's
overriding determination to challenge Serbian myths"; he describes my
writing as "partisan" and complains that I make a "transparent attempt to
prove that the main Serbian myths are false". While it is indeed true that
I do try to prove the falsity of myths, this characterization of my book,
framed to a large extent in terms of allegations about my motives, is
misleading and curiously one-sided. My "overriding determination" was to
establish, so far as possible, the truth about the history of Kosovo. Only
once in his long review does Emmert mention -- in a passing phrase -- that
I also tackled "the exaggerated claims" of the Albanians. In fact, as he
must know, I have tried to dismantle all the key historical myths of the
Albanians relating to Kosovo. Let me just give two of the most important
examples. Albanians claim that there has always been an ethnic Albanian
majority population in Kosovo, even in the middle ages: I argue that the
evidence simply does not support this claim. Albanians portray the League
of Prizren as a socially progressive movement which fought, from the
outset, for independence: I argue that this is a romantic illusion, and
that the League was a socially conservative movement which, in its early
phase at least, was pro-Ottoman.

It is, however, a simple fact -- not of my making -- that there are
more Serbian historical myths about Kosovo than Albanian ones. Therefore
my book contains more dismantlings of Serbian claims than of Albanian
claims -- not because it is anti-Serb, but because it is anti-myth. It is
very misleading to make allegations about my motivation, as Emmert does,
in order to explain this apparent imbalance. Would he find my book more
"balanced", I wonder, if I had confined myself to a fixed quota of myths
on both sides, thus knowingly leaving a number of Serbian myths
unexamined? I do not think that any responsible historian could operate in
that way.

I don't want to speculate about Emmert's reasons for presenting such a
one-sided account of my book, but I think it is fair to point out that his
own work has been carried out largely within the framework of Serbian
historiography (to which he has made a very valuable contribution). Most
Western academics who deal in some way or other with the history of Kosovo
have also come to it from the perspective of the Serbo-Croat (and, in
practice, predominantly Serbian) historiography. I have carefully studied
the works in that tradition, but I have also studied a wide range of other
works (particularly, ones written in Albanian) which most Western
academics, such as Emmert, have never read. When they see that my account
differs in some ways from what they have traditionally assumed, they jump
to the conclusion that I must be "anti-Serb" and therefore "one-sided".
But I have looked carefully at both sides; it is their knowledge that is
heavily dependent on one side only. "Audietur et altera pars" is a good
maxim for historians, as well as for judges.

Let me just reply to the three specific points on which he dismisses my
analysis as "simply not convincing". He notes that I argue against the
Serbian claims that Kosovo is the "cradle of Serbian civilization"; his
reply is that "if modern Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of their
civilization, no hair-splitting argument about the matter will make any
difference to them." I find this a very strange response from a historian.
He seems to be saying that if people believe something to be true, then
there is no point in demonstrating that it is not true -- or even,
perhaps, to be saying that the arguments used to make that demonstration
are somehow less valid, just because some people will remain indifferent
to them. Surely there are two different issues here: (a) the historical
facts, and (b) the cultural fact of modern belief (or disbelief) about
those facts. My arguments, in my chapter on medieval Kosovo, are about
(a). Specifically, I point out that although many Serbs describe Kosovo as
the cradle of the Serbs, the chronological facts do not support this:
between the arrival of the Serbs in the Balkans and the final imposition
of Ottoman rule in the mid-15th century lies a period of roughly 800
years, and out of that period Kosovo was part of a Serb state for only the
last 250. Apparently Emmert is prepared to dismiss a difference of 550
years as "hair-splitting".

Also on this point, I have distinguished carefully between the
different ways in which Kosovo could be described as "central" to the
Nemjanid state. I explain that it was central both geographically and
economically (Emmert mistakenly writes that I "doubt" the latter of
these); but I point out that the political capital was outside Kosovo for
most of the time -- at Ras until the mid-13th century, and in Skopje under
Milutin and Dusan in the 14th century. I also point out that the
church-building programme of these rulers was not primarily focused on
Kosovo, that the seat of the Serbian Church was at Zica (outside Kosovo)
until the 1290s, and that when Zica was rebuilt several of the Serbian
Patriarchs resumed the practice of residing there. Emmert simply
announces: "Kosovo did become the center of the medieval state." And this
undifferentiated announcement is, apparently, sufficient (together with
his remark that Serbs will regard all my arguments as "hair-splitting"
anyway) to show that what I have written is "simply not convincing".

His second objection concerns my account of the mythology surrounding
the Battle of Kosovo of 1389. He writes: "Malcolm still argues that it was
only in the 19th century that the "strands of tradition" were transformed
into a national ideology. Certainly the advent of 19th century nationalism
encouraged a renewal of the Kosovo ethos and obvious embellishments to the
tradition, but the Serbs needed far less invention of tradition to
encourage a national consciousness. The Kosovo ethos was well established
in the epic tradition and in the narrative "Tale about the Battle of
Kosovo" long before Vuk Karadzic's day."

Once again, readers are just given an announcement of Emmert's opinion
that "the Kosovo ethos was well established...", without being offered
either any evidence, or any attention to the careful differentiation I
have tried to make between what I call the different "strands" of the
tradition. This essentializing notion of a timeless "Kosovo ethos" is
indeed subscribed to by Serb nationalist historiography; but I have tried
to show that it is question-begging, and not supported by the historical

His third objection concerns my account of the "Great Migration" of the
Serbs in 1690. He summarizes my conclusions quite accurately (though
omitting to mention, once again, that I also dismiss exaggerated claims on
the Albanian side), but then concludes: "Malcolm's analysis is not
overwhelmingly convincing. Too few sources make it difficult to accept the
broad conclusions he makes. In this long analysis he seems to relish the
historian's role of detective, pouncing upon a little known source, and
building from it an understanding of history that confounds what Serb
historians have argued for decades."

Note first of all that he says here only that my analysis is "not
overwhelmingly convincing"; when introducing this part of his review, he
summarized his argument in advance by saying that "the analysis itself is
simply not convincing". Those are two rather different verdicts. But, in
any case, what is his objection on this point? He does not try to counter
a single argument I have made; instead, he merely remarks that there are
"too few sources". In fact I have examined all the sources that have been
used by Serbian historians, plus a few more which they have not known
about or properly considered. The number of relevant sources in Austrian,
Venetian, Vatican, French and British archives is actually rather large --
notably so, for an event or sequence of events taking place in the middle
of the Balkans in the late 17th century. Emmert is apparently so wedded to
the traditional claims of those Serbian historians that he wishes to
dismiss my account as "not overwhelmingly convincing", or even as "simply
not convincing", on grounds of "too few sources," when the sources they
have used are in fact fewer than the ones I have used. The sources I have
used include, for example, a neglected manuscript in the French foreign
ministry archives which helps to solve the long-standing dispute over the
presence of the Serbian Patriarch in Prizren on November 6 1689. I have
also cited not one but two signed statements by the Serbian Patriarch
referring to the number of people who came with him to Hungary --
statements which utterly contradict the traditional claim, repeated by
many Serbian writers, of "37,000 families". If two such signed statements
by the Patriarch himself are to be dismissed as "too few sources", how
many more does Emmert require?

Also puzzling is his description of me as "pouncing upon a little known
source...". I can assure Prof. Emmert that I neither pounce on sources,
nor creep up on them slowly; I study them, with some care, and present my
findings accordingly. I have tried throughout my book to explain what the
evidence is, what differing degrees of trust can be placed in different
sources, which conclusions can be drawn with confidence, which are more
speculative, and so on. I had hoped to find, at least in the academic
world, critics who would respond, if they disagreed with my findings, by
challenging either my evidence or my logic, or by presenting valid
counter-evidence of their own. Instead, I have encountered objections
framed mainly in terms of my alleged motivation. I am sorry to see this
tendency continue even in the comments of a scholar such as Prof. Emmert;
I hope that his somewhat peremptory statements of his own opinions, and
one-sided characterizations of mine, will not prevent thoughtful readers
from studying the evidence and arguments presented in my book and drawing
their own conclusions.


Albiqete said...

great article. it shows one more time how fake is Serbian version of history
Check my new blog at

Fran├žois said...

Here is the French translation, for those who might have an occasion to send it around: