Balkan Legacies: A Q&A with Balázs Apor and John Paul Newman

We talked to Balázs Apor and John Paul Newman, the editors of Balkan Legacies: The Long Shadow of Conflict and Ideological Experiment in Southeastern Europe.

Balkan Legacies is a study of the aftermath of war and state socialism in the contemporary Balkans. The authors look at the inescapable inheritances of the recent past and those that the present has to deal with.

Q: What was your main motivation for starting this project as editors?

Balázs Apor: The book was the product of a conference in Dublin that addressed the broad themes of memory and identity in Central and Eastern Europe. The conference had several excellent papers that focused on Southeastern Europe and reflected on very similar themes: the legacies of war and communism in the region. It seemed to us like an obvious decision to bring those papers together in a volume in which these issues are analyzed more systematically. We also wanted to offer a comprehensive coverage of the region, so we invited additional experts to contribute. We felt that academic publications on historical legacies in the Balkans either focus on the legacy of wars or the legacy of the communist dictatorship, but they rarely address the two jointly. The primary motivation behind the volume is to offer a joint discussion of the two formative legacies of the 20th Century in the Balkans and explore how they interact with each other.

John Paul Newman: It is exactly as Balazs says – we had organized this large conference in Dublin, and in the aftermath sat down together in a pub and discussed what impressed us about the many papers that we had heard. It was clear that there was some excellent work by established and early career scholars on the many aftermaths of conflict and socialism in the region. It was also clear to us that there existed a kind of Gordian memory knot: that people had certain ideas and attitudes about war, and the Second World War especially, and that people also had a set of ideas and attitudes about socialism – that these attitudes were often entangled, conflicting, and that if we addressed these together we might learn something about the contemporary history of the region. That is what we have set out to do in the book.


Q: This volume is titled Balkan Legacies, and you make effort in the introduction of the book to talk about the concept of “legacy” and why you’re exploring it, could you explain that some here?

Apor: The concept of “legacy” is an elusive one. It is used very often in academic discussions, but its meaning is often left vague. There are very few attempts to define what “historical legacy” actually means and how can scholars study them. Our goal with the book was to tap into the literature on historical legacies and offer a contribution to academic debates on the term. In our interpretation, legacies denote structures, ideas, trends, themes, and so on, that revive or endure after radical breaks in history. We also argue for the importance of studying different legacies jointly in order to be able to appreciate the myriad of ways in which they interact with each other. The recent history of Southeastern Europe – or the Balkans – is probably the best case to illustrate this point. The legacies of wars and dictatorships (communist or otherwise) fundamentally shaped social and political developments in the Balkans in the past century and they continue to exert an influence on contemporary societies.

Newman: I suppose we liked the way the idea of ‘legacies’ suggested deeper historical and institutional inheritances. Deeper, that is, than the usual ideas about the past that are articulated in the public sphere in Southeastern Europe. Here, war and socialism are of course extremely important topics, hot button issues in politics, culture, the media, as many of our contributors point out. But often what is said in public is at odds with the historical reality: present-day politicians, for example, are quick to disavow the socialist period in toto, to claim that the period was a parenthetical departure from the true course of the nation, or to claim that if there are still vestiges, this has to do with an ‘unfinished revolution’ that they and they alone can bring to completion. This is a far too common and far too superficial way of interpreting the past, and part of the choice behind the legacies concept was to show another way of thinking about these important issues.


BALKAN LEGACIES is available June 15, 2021.


Q: You also mention the effects of both long-lasting legacies (institutions, policies, behaviors, and attitudes) and short-term events (revolutions, wars, and violent coups d’état) on societies and legacies. What makes this volume’s take on this somewhat novel?

Apor: In the literature on historical legacies there is a tendency to focus on structures, institutions and long-term developments or phenomena. We argue that short-term events, including revolutions and wars may produce equally significant and enduring legacies. The book contains a healthy balance of case studies focusing on the legacies of short-terms events (wars) and chapters discussing the legacies of enduring structures (dictatorships). The collection of essays should provide the reader with an insight into how different types of legacies function and how they interact with each other.

Newman: Braudel and the doyens of the Annales School would be turning in their grave! But it is true: so many studies of Southeastern Europe have thought in terms of long-term economic, social, and cultural development, and related many of these to the legacies of the Ottoman empire. Of course the Ottoman empire is central to the history of the region, just as it is central to Europe more generally (and to North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia). But we also wanted to show that the complex legacies of more recent conflict and political projects were also central to the way Southeast European societies have taken shape in the 21st century. One of our points of departure was Tony Judt’s opus of European history since the end of the Second World War ‘Postwar’, in which he argues that the shadow of that conflict remained over Europe throughout the Cold War and beyond. We wanted to try to push that premise further in Southeastern Europe, asking that, if this was true, how would it manifest in a region that experienced civil conflict, invasion, occupation, revolution, in the course of these years.


Q: How is this volume organized and what are some of the specific subjects covered?

Apor: The volume consists of five thematic parts. The first part contains chapters reflecting on the legacies of wars with an emphasis on the legacy of World War II in Croatian nation-building, the use of the hajduk tradition in Serbian politics at the time of the Yugoslav succession wars, and the Civil War in Greece. The second and third parts of the book collect chapters addressing the legacies of communism. Part 2 focuses primarily on the political sphere in Romania, Albania and Bulgaria whereas the emphasis in Part 3 is on everyday practices and objects (holidays, song contests and Tito memorabilia) that often evoke nostalgic sentiments in present-day societies. Part 4 highlights the role of non-communist legacies in the Balkans with case studies reflecting on monarchical legacies in Bulgaria, the antiquisation campaign in Macedonia, and the importance of (purged) books in attempts to create a usable past in Croatia. The last part of the book focuses on the legacies of war and communism in minority groups, such as diaspora and ethnic minority communities, and disabled people.

Newman: I remember that this was one of the hardest parts of editing this book. We had such an amazing range of scholars, approaching our central questions from such a range of disciplines, and with such a range of topics, too. It was on us as editors to craft this into a thematically coherent book. I hope we have achieved this!


Q: What do you want someone reading of to leave with a better understanding of, or, what is the main goal of this project?

Apor: The main goal of this project is to highlight the complexity of historical legacies in the Balkans. Legacies may be short-term or longer-term, they may be invisible and un-reflected and they often interact with each other in a multiplicity of ways.

Newman: Obviously I hope the reader will understand that war and socialism have left important and enduring legacies on the region! But I hope they will understand that this has not happened monolithically, that societies are experiencing these legacies in very different ways, depending on a range of intersectional variables, geography, age, gender, race, religion, and so on. I hope too that, if they didn’t know this plain fact before, they will understand something of the social and cultural vibrancy of the region. Perhaps the reader will be introduced to the ideas and the work of scholars they had not known about before.

Thank you to Balázs Apor and John Paul Newman! If you would like to know more about this book you can order your own copy or request it from your local library.

You can get 30% off this title and any other order by entering the code PURDUE30 when ordering from our website.